Anna Gasperini

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Anna Gasperini builds on existing scholarship by examining how Victorian ‘penny blood’ literature depicted working-class readers’ anxieties concerning medical dissection following the 1832 Anatomy Act. Within the historical context of Britain, a dearth of cadavers spurred the rise of various crimes, including body-snatching, graverobbing, and murder. While the families of the middle- and upper-class dead could finance a funeral and secure a place of safe rest, such as in an ancestral vault or tomb, the poor were often buried in shallow or mass graves. These burial sites were often unearthed, and the bodies were sold to (knowing and unknowing) medical men for anatomical examination. To quell these crimes, government authorities instated the 1832 Anatomy Act, which was “a law that allowed anatomists to source dissection material from the pauper” (xii). More specifically, Gasperini explains, “[w]hen it was passed, the Anatomy Act imposed that the bodies of those who were too poor, or whose families were too poor, to afford a funeral were to be handed over to the anatomy schools for dissection” (xii). The Anatomy Act, disregarding pauper consent and personal wishes, effectively targeted impoverished people who relied on workhouse support and alms, exploiting poor bodies to supply medical schools and advance research. The fear and disgust for the law were widespread: “. . . for them [working-class penny blood readers] dissection, bodysnatching, and forfeiture of one’s body to the anatomists after 48 hours under the Anatomy Act were a terrifying reality” (xiii). This fear oddly presaged Count Dracula’s remark in Tod Browning’s 1931 film: “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.” In other words, the finality of death may be incomprehensible, but posthumous desecration of the body through dissection provokes a deeper sense of horror.

Exacerbating the act’s legal conditions was the fact that “semi-literate” working-class people, although vaguely aware of the law’s significance, could not fully interpret the dense legal argot that described the new regulations—an example of cruel political skullduggery—which obscured what would happen to their bodies following death (12–13). Far from being a benevolent political gesture, the act “. . . was an exercise in rhetoric, against which the pauper—semi-literate, socially powerless, and politically underrepresented—could not possibly win” (15). Popular fears that predated and intensified following the act concretized suspicion and anger directed at physicians, the medical sciences, and mortuary practices.

These apprehensions, Gasperini argues, found vivid expression in the pages of the penny blood, a genre “churned out by underpaid hack-writers” and obsessed with storylines “involving murder, betrayal, gender-shifting, and the occasional supernatural event (not to mention scantily clad damsels in distress)” (4). While the penny blood’s serialized melodramas were derided as tawdry sensationalism by middle- and upper-class readers, the genre reflected working-class preoccupations about the Anatomy Act and how the bodies of the impoverished dead were subject to the posthumous medical gaze (4). The penny blood embraced a “generally more violent and graphic concept of entertainment that was popular among lower class individuals. . . .” (4) and constructed plots that directly tapped into long-entrenched suspicions about medical cruelty and physical dismemberment. While the era’s educated readership disdained the recognizable tropes of the penny blood—murderous graverobbers, devious surgeons, vampires, eldritch cemeteries, and cadavers—the narratives in which they figured elucidated the virulent classism and exploitation perpetuated by the Anatomy Act. 

Gasperini provides close readings of a range of penny blood texts, including Manuscripts from the Diary of a Physician (1840s), Varney the Vampyre; or: the Feast of Blood (1840s), The String of Pearls (1840s, popularly referred to as Sweeny Todd, The Demon-Barber of Fleet Street), and The Mysteries of London (1840s). Not all narratives have explicitly medical themes or characters who are physicians or anatomists, nor do the stories make overt reference to the Anatomy Act. Instead, as Gasperini’s analyses demonstrate, they all confront larger working-class anxieties concerning mortality and what might be regarded as the social afterlife of a human corpse, whether that be posthumous dissection, cannibalism, necrophagy, or some other horrific desecration of the body. Fundamentally, while the stories vary, they share a general preoccupation with the corpse’s “bodily integrity” (16), asking what forces act upon the body (or have the authority to) following death and expressing fear over the individuals and institutions that presume to disturb the repose of the dead. Indeed, for all the penny blood’s grotesquery, there is a tacit insistence on the sanctity of the corpse; however, as Gasperini illustrates, the genre does not flinch from revealing the grim consequences of disturbing this repose in the interests of greed and medical progress.

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