Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century England

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In 1883 the editor of a penny newspaper stood trial three times for the "obsolete" crime of blasphemy. The editor was G. W. Foote, the paper was the Freethinker, and the trial was the defining event of the decade. Foote's "martyrdom" completed blasphemy's nineteenth-century transformation from a religious offense to a class and cultural crime.

From extensive archival and literary research, Joss Marsh reconstructs a unified and particular account of blasphemy in Victorian England. Rewriting English history from the bottom up, she tells the forgotten stories of more than two hundred working-class "blasphemers," like Foote, whose stubborn refusal to silence their "hooligan" voices helped secure our rights to speak and write freely today. The new standards of criminality used to judge their "word crimes" rewrote the terms of literary judgment, demoting the Bible to literary masterpiece and raising Literature as the primary standard of Victorian cultural value.

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Editorial Reviews

Adam Newey
It's hard for those of us raised in an age of ever-receding taboos to remember that, until fairly recently, controversy was so tightly bounded that swathes of what we now count as the public sphere were shrouded in unspeakability. Such a period is examined in Joss Marsh's excellent book on the uses and abuses of blasphemy law in Victorian England. -- New Statesman and Society
Library Journal
Blasphemy was a crime in England during the 19th century. In this fascinating study, Marsh explores the blasphemy trials that served to change ideas about free speech. The key trial came in 1883 when G.W. Foote, editor of the penny newspaper Freethinker, was prosecuted three times. Foote, and others detailed in the book, refused to be silenced and eventually secured the right to write and speak freely. The court ruled that blasphemy was not a criminal offense -- and simultaneously elevated literature's authority. In addition to the blasphemy trials, Marsh examines how Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, published in 1895, ignited a fury of debate and criticism. This scholarly yet thoroughly engaging study of these important historical moments makes a splendid contribution to free speech literature.--Ronald Ray Ratliff, Chapman High School Library, Kansas
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226506906
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 362
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Ch. 1: Blasphemy, 1817-30
1: "You know me now, the Arch Blasphemer": The Three Trials of William Hone
2: Three Epilogues
3: Carlile, the Volunteers, and the Age of Reason Struggle
Ch. 2: Trials of the 1840s
1: "Knowledge is Power," or, the Cheap Press as Blasphemy
2: The Moxon Case and the Growth of the Poet's Income
3: Jacob Holyoake and other "Priests" of the Oracle
Ch. 3: England, 1883
1: The "Celebrated Case" of G. W. Foote and the Freethinker
2: Two Codas
Ch. 4: Literature and Dogma
1: "Bibliolatry" and "Bible-Smashing"
2: The Heretic Trope of the Book
3: Literary Law and the Authority of Literature
4: When "Literary Difference" Became a "Criminal Offence"
Ch. 5: Words, Words, Words
1: Mr. Foote's Trial for Obscenity
2: Victorian Euphemism and the Fear of Language
3: The Systematization of Silence
4: Jacob Holyoake, "Master of Sentences"
5: The Victorian Crisis of Language
Ch. 6: Hardy's Crime
1: Committing Literary Blasphemy
2: "Get It Done and Let Them Howl"
3: Hardy the Degenerate, Pooley the Obscure
4: Modern Words, Modern Crimes
Abbreviations and Archival Collections
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