“In 1883 the editor of a penny newspaper stood trial three times for the “obsolete” crime of blasphemy. The editor was G. W. Foote, the paper was the Freethinker, and the trial was the defining event of the decade. Foote’s “martyrdom” completed blasphemy’s nineteenth-century transformation from a religious offense to a class and cultural crime.
From extensive archival and literary research, Joss Marsh reconstructs a unified and particular account of blasphemy in Victorian England. Rewriting English history from the bottom up, she tells the forgotten stories of more than two hundred working-class “blasphemers,” like Foote, whose stubborn refusal to silence their “hooligan” voices helped secure our rights to speak and write freely today. The new standards of criminality used to judge their “word crimes” rewrote the terms of literary judgment, demoting the Bible to literary masterpiece and raising Literature as the primary standard of Victorian cultural value.”