One of the most striking pages on the nostalgic website Retronaut.com is ‘Smiling Victorians’. The capsule, which has been favorited over 1,500 times and was well received enough to warrant a sequel, features pictures of 19th and early 20th century people captured in happy, human moments. A pair of women laugh as they tumble on the beach, a small boy grins delightedly with his toy rocking horse, a couple pose semi-seriously before collapsing into a smiling, loving hug in a strip of four consecutive pictures. They look like boyfriend and girlfriend on a date, marking the occasion in a photo booth.
The effect is to pull them out of their own time and bring them closer to our own. The secret of the appeal of these images is the unexpectedness reflected in the title. We are so used to seeing Victorians in a dour, austere light, as unamused as their monarch, that it comes as a surprise to see them as real people, as capable of spontaneous joy as we are.
Why so strange? For much of the 20th century, the influence of Lytton Strachey’s bitterly satirical Eminent Victorians cast a pall over the popular conception of 19th century Britain. Strachey, a pacifist in wartime, railed against the hypocrisy of Victorian pretensions to moral authority and helped mold the image of stiff-backed Victorians; of cold, distant fathers, emotionally constrained mothers and dutiful dull children.
Victorians were mocked as an overserious people, desperate to protect innocent eyes from the scandalizing shapeliness of piano legs, while content to send ten year old boys to frozen deaths in mineshafts. The era was a moral anomaly, its people bitter and astringent reactionaries to the fulsome and indulgent Georgians and a temporary aberration before the vivid, populist twentieth century.
There has been a counterrevolution. Recent fiction, among it the BBC dramas Tipping the Velvet and The Crimson Petal and the White has traced another Victoriana, one full of crime and seediness, sex and exoticism. Modern interpretations of Sherlock Holmes have resurrected the detective’s skill in combat, his interest in solving crimes of powerful hypocrisy and his cocaine habit. These other Victorians, denizens of the demimonde alluded to in Dorian Gray’s excursions to the East End and the sexual adventurism of the pseudonymous ‘Walter’, author of the priapic autobiography My Secret Life have become the mainstream.
It can all be traced to a small group of people, five whose names we know and a sixth that we don’t. The five are Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth ‘Long Liz’ Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, the ‘canonical’ victims of Jack the Ripper.
The first body was discovered in the early hours of 31 August 1888, the fifth a little over two months later on 9 November. Whoever Jack the Ripper was, he completed his gruesome project in 70 days and disappeared, unapprehended, into the East London fog. Perhaps ‘disappeared’ is the wrong word. His legacy rose in inverse proportion to his visibility and he remains at the head of a vast industry, ‘Ripperology’, the inspiration for guided tours of Whitechapel, of amateur sleuths and conspiracy theorists who ascribe his crimes to a dark intrigue involving the Royal Family, the Freemasons, esoteric Judaism or a combination of them all.
Indeed, the Ripper murders have colored the popular idea of the Victorian city, exchanging the focus on god-fearing progress for one in which sex, intrigue and criminality are the defining features. In some ways, the mysterious Jack the Ripper remains the most eminent Victorian of them all. His pull is so great that the era cannot escape it.
A compelling drama recently canceled by the BBC, following online appeals by fans, Ripper Street has been resurrected by Amazon Prime in a similar way to how Arrested Development and The Killing were rescued by Netflix, would appear, on a cursory examination, to be just another example. The terrible title alone suggests a spurious and exploitative connection to the Victorians. It’s set in the same police district in which most of the murders took place and features Fred Abberline, the Metropolitan Police Inspector who led the Ripper investigation, as a recurring character.
Such categorisation is unfair. Ripper Street is a smart, witty and humane drama that addresses the Ripper killings as they should be addressed; a collection of appalling crimes that shattered the local community and haunted the lives of everyone who survived their involvement with them. For the police, the murders were an embarrassing and painful failure; their inability to solve them a constant reminder of their limitations. The show’s greatest strength is to avoid direct reference to the killings as an investigative project and to treat them as traumatic events from which its characters are trying to recover. If these Victorians are unsmiling it is not because they are stiff and unfeeling. Quite the contrary.
The show follows the work of Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew McFadyen), a real-life figure, fictionalised for convenience, and his confederates, Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, bringing some of the earthy hard-man qualities he so successfully deploys as Bronn in Game of Thrones) and Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), an American surgeon with a storied past, transplanted into what was then the world’s metropolis. Their casework sees them pursue the usual criminal roster of murderers, kidnappers and blackmailers, aid a set of hapless victims and dodge multiple red herrings before reaching a satisfying conclusion at the end of each hour.
Structurally, then, it is a standard police procedural that just happens to take place in the Whitechapel of the late 1880s, but it is the way that it uses that framework that makes it successful. The show’s writers explore the era with a detective’s eye but an artist’s heart. Ripper Street is appalled by some of the horrific elements of the era (in much the same way that any modern police thriller is), but it never loses respect for the period or its people. The result is one of the most authentic presentations of the period.
The set design is superbly realised; late 19th century London is presented as a living entity, a hubbub of noise and dirt, life and color. Viewers accustomed to a sepia-toned version of Victorian London (in both literal and figurative senses) will be dazzled by the variety of hues on display, the greens and purples of the female characters’ dresses, the muted tartan of the men’s trousers, the vivid newness of everything. It is to be reminded that the Victorian age was as young as ours, once.
That youthful exuberance was driven by the possibility of discovery. The 19th century was a time of unprecedented scientific and technological advance. The work of Charles Darwin showed us where we’d come from, while the ideas of his inheritors suggested where we might be going, for good or ill. The then new proposal of eugenics is presented as it was understood then; a source of excitement at the possibilities of human potential and as the fount of fear at its misapplication.
Captain Jackson, not a member of the force, is deputized by Reid because of his skill in forensics and detailed examinations of cadavers and crime scenes form a central part of each investigation. It’s a modern cop drama sensibility, something we take for granted but performed in an almost clandestine fashion here. Reid and his men are as much scientific pioneers as the Fellows of the Royal Society who appear in passing.
Authenticity spreads. The language, while not Deadwood-poetic, is a workable re-creation of Victorian speech; the elevated coyness, that insistent present tense. Reid doesn’t ask his men to complete tasks so much as he ‘would have them do so’. It’s clever feature that renders the dialog at once foreign and familiar. It allows us to recognise these people as different to us, while understanding that they are the same.
There are occasional intentional jars. Reid, a generally progressively-minded character by our standards, describes the prostitutes he encounters as ‘tarts’. He does so neutrally, his word descriptor rather than judgement. He may be our protagonist-companion through the 1880s but he is still of that era. To varnish him further would be do him, and his fellow Victorians a disservice.
Some liberties are taken, but always respectfully of the core facts. Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’ appears in a key role. His portrayal by actor Joseph Drake (underneath heavy prosthetics) is sensitive in its accuracy of both his physical monstrousness and his temperamental gentility. His death, properly timed, is fictional in its circumstances but truthful in its cause. This respect isn’t limited either; every case is given texture by the real events and concerns of the period, from the activities of the Chinese community in Limehouse to the impact of the Barings Bank crisis, from the Matchgirls Strike to the expansion and rebirth of the city.
Great care has been taken over the details, albeit not at the expense of the narrative. The effect is a fictional history that even professional historians can enjoy without making too many dismissive shakes of the head. That respect for the texture of Victorian life is the foundation of Ripper Street’s success. The show has been compared to the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films and the modern day ITV drama Whitechapel but the comparison is unfair. Of the three, Ripper Street is by far the superior work.
Its advantage is the fruit of its richly written and well performed cast of characters, its masterful blending of the historical and the fictional and, above all, its understanding of Victorians as people; creatures of desire, of fear, of love, of hate. People who committed crimes and people who solved them. People who, whatever their descendants might have said, were capable of surprising us with a smile.