Nineteenth Century Popular Fiction, Medicine and Anatomy: The Victorian Penny Blood and the 1832 Anatomy Act

Gasperini, Anna

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

  • Date of entry: Jan-10-2023


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.


Gasperini’s monograph examines the complex clash of class, politics, gender, medical ethics, and death, bringing to light often-neglected literary texts. The study works on a few important levels. First, Gasperini builds on existing scholarship that elevates the importance of the penny blood genre, demonstrating how it may fall short of, as she acknowledges, the literary criteria of canonized Victorian novels and poetry, but offers insight into how lower-class readers discussed and understood the era’s broader medical debates. Second, Gasperini uses different theoretical frameworks to support her close readings of various primary sources and literary texts. Drawing on Foucault’s notion of power-knowledge (the concept that those who possess knowledge—medical, legal, or otherwise— wield power) is also useful for framing how Victorian elites drafted the Anatomy Act. For example, as Gasperini explains, the act’s rarefied legal language kept working-class readers largely unaware of its ramifications. That the law was not fully intelligible to the average working-class reader reveals the entwined nature of legal-medical knowledge and the extent to which it exercised power over poor communities.

Also integral to the analysis is Barbara Piatti’s notion of “geospace,” or “the ‘real’ space as opposed to the ‘imaginary’ space represented in the literary text. . . .” (21). This focus on space enables Gasperini to show how penny bloods’ characters traversed the aboveground (the realm of respectability and bodily wholeness) and the underground (the realm where bodily desecration occurs) spaces, as well as penny blood tropes such as trap doors and urban subterranean environments that tapped into class-related “concerns about the criminal underworld, poverty, and, ultimately, death” (21). Some placenames and locations featured in the penny bloods were familiar; others were fabricated. The real space/imaginary space dualism produced a tension that led readers to recognize their own everyday environments within the context of the penny blood, inducing a sense of immediacy and proximity to the horrors explored in the stories. Importantly, Gasperini argues, this spatial framework illustrates that authors were not simply exercising a macabre imagination but, instead, working on merging fictional and existing spaces to show that the fears described in the narrative extended into reality and shaped working-class experiences.

Nineteenth Century Popular Fiction, Medicine and Anatomy underscores compelling connections between literature and the far-reaching consequences of the Anatomy Act. Aside from the literary analysis, Gasperini’s book chips away at the hagiographic shrines erected in honor of the nineteenth-century British anatomists, indicating that these men’s achievements and celebrated careers hinged on their access to the bodies of paupers.


Palgrave Macmillan

Place Published

Cham, Switzerland



Page Count