Q&A with Emelyne Godfrey, author of “Masculinity, Crime and Self Defence in Victorian Literature”

Masculinity, Crime and Self Defence in Victorian Literature is Bartitsu Society associate Emelyne Godfrey’s new book, which is now available via the Macmillan website, Amazon and other booksellers.

Ms. Godfrey’s previous antagonistics-related projects have included entries in the Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland, the two-volume Martial Arts of the World encyclopedia set and the article Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Bartitsu for History Today magazine. She has also lectured on the subjects of crime and self defence in the Victorian era and is among the interviewees for our forthcoming documentary, Bartitsu: the Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes.

Q – Can you describe how you first became interested in the subject of
self defence in the Victorian period?

A – This historical adventure was inspired by a women’s self-defence class that I took when I was an undergraduate student in London. Although we learnt some defensive manoeuvres, the emphasis was on planning ahead and avoiding dangerous situations.

At that time, I was researching the topic of the gentleman-villain for my MA Victorian Studies dissertation. Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty, was one of my subjects. He’s arguably one of the most famous villains in Victorian literature whose evil nature has a riveting superhuman aspect: even after Moriarty’s death, Holmes hears his screams at the Reichenbach Falls. What was also curious was the sheer number of acts of violence in the Holmes stories as well as weapons, from the weird “life-preserver” to the vicious expanding bullet.

I was using a Wordsworth facsimile edition original Strand Magazine Holmes stories, obtained for a mere £3.75. It’s my favourite edition and has friends’ witty alternative captions to the pictures! Whilst reading it, I circled the word “baritsu”, adding a few exclamation marks next to it (I’m sure this is a familiar feeling to Bartitsu Society members).

At that time, I happened upon the EJMAS website, and was fascinated by Tony’s articles and reprints of Barton-Wright’s monographs. A subject and a bunch of questions started to form: How did Victorian men and women respond to threat? What kinds of crimes scared them the most? How popular were alternatives to boxing? And what on earth was a ‘life-preserver’?

Q – What happened next?

A – I was awarded a PhD in English Research on self-defence in Victorian literature. The night before submitting it, there was an earthquake in the UK. They don’t happen here very often but it’s a surreal experience seeing your thesis skimming across the table! Then came the dreaded VIVA interview exam. Fortunately, I had two lovely examiners who asked me lots of questions on Barton-Wright, which was rather good. It was over in a flash and I was very pleased.

Shortly after graduating in 2008, I gave a paper at a Conan Doyle conference at the University of Hull. The experience was somewhat interesting as my glasses had gone astray and to give the talk in a darkened room, wearing blue prescription sunglasses which was all very Ozzy Osbourne. There I met Clive Bloom, the Crime Files series editor for Palgrave and the book took off.

Writing the book wasn’t just a case of rewriting the PhD. Looking back over both, they are very different beasts. Writing a book, you can bring in all kinds of contemporary references and explore the people and events behind the literature.

Q – You’ve broken some new ground in this book …

A – There’s already a lot of information on crime (from poisoning to burglary) and there are books on sports, duelling and boxing during the ‘long nineteenth century’. This book brings together these themes and explores well-established and exciting new work on Victorian masculinity and self-defence in a wider perspective, from the use of weaponry to the employment of the science of physiognomy to read character.

It also draws in little-known topics. For instance, while many Victorian crime specialists have heard of the mid-Victorian garotting (strangling) panics, I have not seen this famous topic discussed with reference to Victorian theatre and it was thrilling to explore this avenue, using hitherto neglected plays from the British Library Manuscript Collection.

Q – Do you have any favourite anecdotes from the process of writing the book?

A – I loved working on it and have many happy memories. I really enjoyed the London launch of the Bartitsu Compendium (2005) where Tony and others gave demonstrations and we all went for a drink afterwards. When I visited the Royal Armouries in Leeds, Rob Temple and Keith Ducklin put on a sensational performance of Bartitsu for me and let me try on one of the helmets they wore during a jousting demonstration. The bizarre garotting plays were treasures and it was equally exciting to find examples of the weapons featured in these works. Some of these are kept at the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection, which is now a small museum, located in West London. It was exciting to meet police historians, and hunt through boxes of artefacts, encountering old helmets, torches and truncheons. The historians and staff are always very welcoming and you have the impression that something intriguing turns up every day. The last time I visited, we were drinking tea and looking through police diaries written during the time of the Whitechapel Murders.

Q – What is your next project?

A – As well as my freelance work, I’m Guest Editing a special edition of the H.G. Wells Society journal on Wells’s controversial 1909 novel, Ann Veronica. I’m also working on a sister book on Victorian women and self-defence so it’s all action-packed!