A useful savagery: The invention of violence in nineteenth-century England

Wood, J. Carter (2004). A useful savagery: The invention of violence in nineteenth-century England. Journal of Victorian Culture, 9(1) pp. 22–42.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.3366/jvc.2004.9.1.22


‘A Useful Savagery: The Invention of Violence in Nineteenth-Century England’ considers a particular configuration of attitudes toward violence that emerged in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As part of a longer-term process of emerging ‘sensibilities,’ violence was, seemingly paradoxically, ‘invented’ as a social issue while concurrently relocated in the ‘civilised’ imagination as an anti-social feature mainly of ‘savage’ working-class life. The dominant way this discourse evolved was through the creation of a narrative that defined ‘civilisation’ in opposition to the presumed ‘savagery’ of the working classes. Although the refined classes were often distanced from the physical experience of violence, concern with violence and brutality became significant parts of social commentary aimed at a middle-class readership. While stridently redefining themselves in opposition to ‘brutality,’ one of the purposes of this literature was to create a new middle class and justify the expansion of state power. By the closing decades of the nineteenth century, as the working classes adopted tenets of Victorian respectability, a proliferating number of social and psychological ‘others’ were identified against which ‘civilised’ thought could define itself.

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