Thursday, April 15, 2010

Detectives Around the World - William Monk's Victorian England

As part of Detectives Around the World week, we've been asked to not just review a book featuring one of our favorite detectives, but to also write about the setting. I reviewed the second book in Anne Perry's William Monk series on Tuesday (A Dangerous Mourning), which is set in Victorian era London. During the 1850s, London was the largest city in the Western world, surpassing both Paris and New York. To explain the way London looked to observers of the day, I'd like to quote Geoffrey Best's Mid-Victorian Britain, 1851-1875:
The scale of London by itself could make it seem frightening to the newcomer and the unattached, but it was not size alone that drew from so many observers, British and foreign alike, one or both of two standard reactions: astonishment at the scale and starkness of the contrasts it presented, and a half-fascinated, half-terrified, loving-hating recognition that, while remorseless, it was irresistible. The contrasts presented themselves in as many forms as there were sensibilities to observe them: to the sociological moralist, London was 'at once the emporium of crime and the palladium of Christianity'; to the French or American visitor, the city where the worst poverty and the wealthiest magnificence of the world could be seen almost side by side... (pgs 25-27).
It is in this setting that the William Monk series is set, and Anne Perry really illustrates the poverty and the wealth side-by-side (along with everything in-between) and the friction that this close proximity causes in London's society, especially with regards to law enforcement.

The class system of Victorian England is one of the themes that Perry often weaves into her historical mysteries. The social hierarchy consisted basically of an upper class, which consisted of people who did not work and whose income came from inheritance and investment, a middle class of men who performed clean work and earned over 150 pounds per year, and a working class that performed manual labor for daily or weekly wages (1). Where does William Monk fit in to this hierarchy? Monk is an inspector for London's "new" Metropolitan Police Force (established in 1829). An inspector was a higher position than a constable or sergeant, who made about 3 shillings per day. Inspectors in the new Metropolitan Police force made about 100 pounds per year (2). So, Monk doesn't quite make it into the middle class--he would be considered a member of the skilled working class.

To most upper class Londoners, Monk's position in the police force basically puts him on the same level as servants and laborers. He rankles at his social position. When he is on investigations in which he must interact with the upper class, he feels slighted when expected to use the servants' entrance. He dresses expensively, which he observes makes people give him a second thought as to whether he is a gentleman or not. But he does not live extravagantly. He does not own his home, and he has no servants.

It is also interesting to look at the way that the members of the upper class respond to Monk. They generally have a distasteful opinion of the police--probably based on their distasteful opinion of the lower classes and the fact that the more numerous constables (aka "Peelers") were paid less than railway workmen and many tradesmen (3). In the two books I have read in the series so far, the upper class patriarchs who are involved in the investigations order Monk around and expect him to follow their directions. They generally believe they know better than Monk and the Metropolitan Police, and that his lines of questioning are inconsequential. It is quite a different attitude toward police than I am used to in this day and age, where inspectors and detectives are considered to be skilled and highly trained to do their jobs. I cannot imagine rebuking an inspector's line of questioning in the superior and smug ways that the upper class gentlemen in this series do.

Another interesting point of view on this comes through Monk's supervisor, Superintendent Runcorn. Superintendents made about double what Inspectors made per year (placing them in the lower-middle class). Runcorn tends to be much more worried about insulting the aristocracy and pressures Monk to arrest lower-class suspects and bother the upper class as little as possible in investigations. In fact, when the investigation in A Dangerous Mourning takes too long to arrest the murderer of an upper-class woman, people in high places contact Runcorn and demand to know why no one has been arrested yet. Even though Monk was not positive of the suspect's guilt, he is ordered to arrest him because the evidence is good enough for Runcorn (and will appease the press and the politicians who are breathing down Runcorn's neck).

William Monk's Victorian England is a fascinating setting, and the class conflicts that Perry has managed to weave into her storylines are rather interesting and unlike anything I have personally experienced in my modern world. She definitely provides a provocative look at Victorian England and its class system. In researching this topic for DATW, I am impressed by her ability to so skillfully depict the class tensions that must have existed in Victorian London.

**Want to learn more about Victorian Britain? I found a great bibliography of books on Victorian England (compiled by Alan Heesom, Senior Lecturer in History at University of Durham), which includes the book that I found most useful for this post, Mid-Victorian Britain, 1851-75 by Geoffrey Best. The books listed don't seem to be traditional textbooks persay, but more like scholarly histories written by professional historians. Good stuff.

(1) Christine Roth, "Victorian England: An Introduction," University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.
(2) "Metropolitan Police 175 Years Ago," Metropolitan Police
(3) Geoffrey Best, Mid-Victorian Britain, 1851-75 (London: Fontana Press, 1987): 115-117.


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