Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: Victorian Villains

Like most mystery writers, I came to the genre as a mystery reader. I particularly have a fascination for Victorian Era mysteries. Loveday Brooke, Sherlock Holmes, and Auguste Dupin held fascinating insights into the human character. In particular, they held knowledge of the criminal classes that made me look sideways at my junior-high classmates. Which of them held villainy in their heart?

So, aside from telling you that I was a weird child, what does this have to do with Victorian Villains?

The Victorians not only gave us the detective genre, they passed down their fears in the form of villains. It is not Holmes that gives us insight into what his society feared, it is the bad guys that show us the shape of evil in the minds of readers in his time. Today I thought I would talk a little about what the Victorians feared most in their society and the six basic types of villains I gleaned from reading them.

1. The Visual Villain - character showed in this villain's appearance. You could tell by looking at the physical deformities, the nervous twitches or speech problems, harsh features or scarred flesh gave this bad boy away. The Victorians not only feared deformity, they carried it to the extreme of studying bumps on the head and facial construction as a way of determining criminal behavior.

2. The Working Class Villain - yes the butler did it, or the coachman, even the upstairs maid might harbor reasons to take the master's possessions away from him. If they killed the master, so much the more affirming of the black-hearted working class mindset. If they were good people, they would be rich too.

3. The Upper Class Other - this guy is dark, foreign, elusive, and often mysterious in origin. He may be of the upper class, but he's NOT one of us. The British were particularly good at this typecasting of other races and cultures.

4. The Mysterious Woman - sometimes this is portrayed as the fallen woman. She is exotic, mysterious, and/or erotic. A woman on her own is suspect. An attractive woman of independent means is exponentially more suspect. If she shows signs of being well read, educated, and able to hold her own in a conversation... watch out.

5. The Supernatural Villain - one of the most feared. The Victorians consulted the mediums, created Hellfire Clubs, brought mystery objects from Egypt, drugs from the orient, and picked up superstitions from dozens of conquered cultures. Detectives might explain the phenomenon as a fraud, but the bad guys frequently resorted to supernatural threats to prey on the upper crust.

6. The Domestic Villain - this is the friendly villain that can hide in plain sight. He blends in: a college chum you would never suspect of holding a grudge, the professor in gold-rimmed glasses you met on the train to London. He blends in, he is one of us, but behind the smile, evil lurks.

That's my take on Victorian Villainy. What do you think? Are there more ways the nineteenth century writers shaped their bad guys? The more interesting thoughts to me is how often these types of villains show up in our today and how often our own fears color our writing.

No comments: