Newgate fiction is a term applied to certain famous English novels of the 1830s that are based on legends of 18th-century highwaymen and other notorious criminals as recorded in the Newgate Calendar (c.1773). It has been called ‘crime fiction’ and is, perhaps, an early form of faction.
The so-called Newgate novelists based their stories on actual criminal cases. At the time there was an increasing interest in violent crime and in criminal motives, and some of the novelists aroused moral indignation and adverse criticism for presenting criminals and their deeds in a sympathetic light.
The two novelists who are particularly associated with this type of fiction are Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-73) and William Harrison Ainsworth (1805–82). Lytton wrote Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832), and Ainsworth
wrote Rookwood (1834) and Jack Sheppard (1839), which considerably glamorized the famous highwayman and these were the principal examples of Newgate fiction.
In fact, this sort of fiction was by no means new. Long before, Henry Fielding had dealt with criminal life in detail in Jonathan Wild (1743), based on the life of the notorious thief-taker of that name about whom Defoe had already written a biographical account; while in Caleb Williams (1794), an early example of the propaganda or thesis novel concerned with crime and its detection, William Godwin had depicted the ruthless and arrogant criminal Falkland.
In the 1830s Charles Dickens published Oliver Twist (1837–8) and William Makepeace Thackeray published Catherine (1839-40), and their view of criminal life constituted something of a reaction against the attitudes expressed in Newgate fiction. A few years later Edgar Allan Poe was to publish his remarkable stories about crime and murder, thus becoming one of the main progenitors of the detective story.