Author(s): Cécile Bertrand (Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7)
This article explores the creation of criminal identities in early nineteenth-century England, and more precisely examines the law’s construction of the subject in the light of the competing constructions of the criminal subject in popular discourse. This article focuses on the ambivalent discourse of the popular broadside ballads and execution sheets, and their early evolution into the police news. Particular attention will be devoted to the popular construction of a criminal subject from ‘direct’ experience, namely through the whole legal process leading from crime to sentence: the investigation and the trial, and, in some cases, the execution. The broadside will be seen to constitute a first step in the creation of a distinctive aesthetic of the criminal subject. But that process was not without its contradictions: the popular narrative often reinforced dominant attitudes towards the law, but at times also reflected alternative discourses, with its portrayal of the heroic criminal rebel. Indeed, the popular discourse is competing with other constructions of the crime, news reporting and the legal discourse itself, through the trial. Those narratives influence the broadside greatly, and we shall see how legal changes together with shifts in the circulation of criminal news later in the century transformed both the criminal subject and popular discourses and practices.
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