The Civilization Process in late 19th century London

The 19th century ushered in a wave of dramatic social changes that would forever impact the nature of popular culture in London.  Over the years, Londoners had become increasingly fascinated with criminal behavior, especially all of the grisly details.  This fascination gradually transformed itself into the genre of detective fiction, made popular by detective characters such as Sherlock Holmes.  This transformation signaled a sort of “civilizing process” in London society.  No longer was society only concerned with the blood and gore of crime; readers wanted to understand human motive behind committing crime, methods of detection, and mannerisms of the detective.  Although detective fiction was concerned with the facts, it also provided readers with an “escape from reality.”  This new literary genre encouraged reason and scientific rationalism, while embracing the individual.

By 1870, the entertainment business recognized that it needed to appeal to larger, more diverse audiences to maintain profits.  As a result, violence was cast aside because it no longer provided full satisfaction for readers (Crone 260).  As the lifestyles and living conditions of the working classes gradually improved, they became no longer viewed as “a dangerous class, where crime, violence and sedition fermented indiscriminately” (Crone 261).  Violence became more confined to the large criminal underclass that existed between the respectable working class and the unrespectable poor.  While people divulged in media scandals about the dark and violent East End and kept up with the daily reports on the pursuit of Jack the Ripper, the entertainment factor had taken on a new look (Crone 263).  The violent entertainments that existed in popular culture before 1870 did not disappear but were simply remolded to fit society’s changing views of crime.  According to Crone, “Social and economic change […] not only encouraged the substitution of violent entertainments for actual violence; the narratives which accompanied these representations also reflected the people’s experience of that change, from the pressures of urbanization, to the challenges of new social relations and everyday interactions” (267).  Violent representations, as opposed to actual violence ultimately served to preserve the social hierarchy rather than threatening it (267).

So, while society still engaged in violent entertainments, the focus had shifted from actual violence to a form of expression across the social spectrum.  Violence as entertainment was “able to sit comfortably alongside other social discourses, including respectability and civilization” (Crone 268).  All social classes actively participated in these entertainments, from “slumming”  to reading about crime spectacles.  However, because fewer citizens were engaging in actual violent behavior, society was viewed as undergoing a “civilizing” process.

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