Archive for November, 2017

04/11/2017

Reynolds the Radical

Mystery and detective fiction as we now understand it emerged via a one hundred years long literary journey, during which the Gothic novel – itself a backlash against the repressive tenets of the Age of Reason – gave rise to the Newgate novel and “domestic-Gothic” fiction, such as Jane Eyre, which in turn inspired the rise of sensation fiction, best exemplified by the works of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon in England, and in America, those of E. D. E. N. Southworth. From such melodramatic fiction emerged the detective story proper: a final turn of the evolutionary wheel not without irony, inasmuch as, instead of dwelling upon transgression and challenges to the “natural” order of things, the detective story was very much about the restoration of that order. It offered, in effect, the tenets of the Age of Reason in an entertaining package, being in general all about the intellect, and often comprising cautionary tales of the dangers of the passions.

An important stepping-stone, which appeared almost exactly midway through this evolutionary process, was the French feuilletons and their English equivalents, the penny-dreadfuls: both of which began to offer readers long, tortuously complicated narratives built around a central mystery, the unravelling of which gave at least some semblance of structure to an often mindbogglingly discursive plot.

This subgenre had its birth with Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, which initially appeared in Le Journal des Débats between June 1842 and October 1843, and went on to achieve immense popularity all over the world. In the nature of things, it was not long before others tried to copy Sue’s formula. The first to do so was Paul Féval, whose Les Mystères de Londres was published in Le Courrier Français during 1844—almost coincident with the appearance of the first English attempt at such fiction, also called The Mysteries Of London, by George William Macarthur Reynolds.

Reynolds was an intriguing individual, one of Victorian England’s great anomalies. He was born into a naval family, but not only rejected this tradition (or it rejected him: there was some early trouble), he left England for France when only sixteen to immerse himself in the excitements of the July Revolution. Reynolds remained an unabashed Francophile all his life, openly celebrating the revolutions of 1830 and 1848; yet (despite what his enemies said) always advocated political change in England via constant but non-violent agitation. He was a Chartist and a socialist who dabbled in politics, but ultimately focused upon pushing his radical agenda in his own newspapers and magazines, and in his fiction. He was in favour of universal male suffrage, and fought for it throughout his life. (It is not clear to me if he was against votes for women, or if he simply felt that he already had a big enough battle on his hands.) He championed the cause of the working-classes, and made it his business to inform the workers of their legal rights, and how those rights were being violated by their employers.  He was an anti-imperialist and an anti-colonialist who despised the upper classes, the aristocracy, the monarchy and the military, and attacked these institutions at every opportunity; and while he generally avoided being too critical of Victoria, he made up for it up by absolutely pummelling Albert. He wrote melodramatic fiction aimed chiefly at the newly literate, in which he wove radical social criticism into tales full of crime, violence and sex; becoming notorious for his blunt treatment of such things as rape, prostitution and incest, and his open hostility towards the British class system.

It is, therefore, not altogether surprising that in most sections of Victorian England, Reynolds was persona non grata.

Indeed, it was not long after Reynolds’ The Mysteries Of London starting appearing in weekly penny issues that it began, in spite of – or because of – its enormous contemporary popularity, to be held up as the exemplar of everything that was vicious and vile about “lower-class” literature; and it took little more time for it to enter the vernacular as a yardstick of criticism. Mainstream authors went out of their way to say how much they hated it, or at least – since they didn’t want it thought they had read it – what it represented. (We may feel inclined to question whether Charles Dickens’ open animus had its roots in Reynolds’ politics, the nature of his writing, or in the fact that Reynolds outsold him.) By the end of the century, Reynolds having died in 1879, The Mysteries Of London, along with most of the author’s other fiction, had been buried under a torrent of middle-class scorn.

And so things remained for quite some time. The first hints of a Reynolds revival happened in the 1930s, but it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that a real effort was made to resurrect his reputation—as a politician, as a journalist, and as an author. Fast forward a few decades more, and we find Reynolds and his world an accepted and fruitful area of academic study.

It will be obvious even from this brief overview that the subject of George Reynolds is a very big one—too big for this blog. However, in my efforts to get my head as least some of the way around the facts, I read G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, And The Press, a series of essays edited by Anne Humpherys and Louis James published in 2008, from which the above was extracted.

Meanwhile, my intention here is to focus upon that part of Reynolds’ career most relevant to us, his fiction: not in detail – even THAT would be too big a subject – but noting his fecundity, and highlighting some works we might want to return to.

In addition to his non-fiction and short stories, Reynolds wrote approximately forty novels (as always with these habitual serialisers, they were sometimes issued and reissued under different titles, so it isn’t easy to be sure), dealing with a wide range of subject matter, but generally pushing his political agenda—the blending of that with more conventional novel aspects such as a romance-plot not always having a happy result.

It was, however, his historical fiction that first leapt out at me; and while the last thing I want to do is plunge myself back into the Restoration (although, mind you, Chronobibliography has its own ideas about that), I am finding myself drawn to The Rye House Plot; or, Ruth, The Conspirator’s Daughter: Reynolds loathed the Stuarts (Charles even more than James), and uses this novel to put the boot into them. However – proving that he was an equal-opportunity loather – Reynolds also wrote The Massacre Of Glencoe, in which he not only supports the Scots against the English (no great surprise), but offers an enthusiastically nasty of portrait of William III, who turns out to be the story’s villain. Nor did Reynolds confine himself to the male of the species: in Canonbury House; or, The Queen’s Prophecy, it is Elizabeth who takes a beating. On the other hand, Reynolds’ pro-French, pro-Scottish attitude led him to attempt a just portrait in Mary Stuart, Queen Of Scotland—which is evidently one of his few dull novels.

In the context of this blog, I feel I must mention that Reynolds not only followed Catharine Crowe in writing novels with servant heroes, Mary Price; or, The Memoirs Of A Servant-Maid and Joseph Wilmot; or, The Memoirs Of A Man Servant, in addition to an exposé of the abuses committed against working-class girls, The Seamstress: A Domestic Tale, he also wrote a rare British temperance novel, The Drunkard’s Tale.

However— I suspect that most of you might be more interested in the fact that Reynolds was the author of what is, perhaps, the third most famous penny-dreadful of all time: Wagner The Wehr-Wolf.

(Third most, that is, after A String Of Pearls, aka Sweeney Todd, and Varney The Vampire, both probably but not definitely by either or both of Thomas Peckett Prest and James Malcolm Rymer. And yes, I am fighting desperately right now against the temptation to add yet another section to this blog…)

But what we’re really here for, of course, is The Mysteries Of London and its even more massively long follow-up, The Mysteries Of The Court Of London.

Reynolds himself considered these two works as part of a single text, wrapping up the latter with a reference to their collective “six hundred and twenty-four weekly Numbers”, but their publication history works against this claim. The Mysteries Of London was published in weekly penny issues from October 1844 until September 1846; this “first series” comprised Volumes I and II when it was released in book form. The “second series”, later Volumes III and IV, ran from October 1846 until September 1848.

At this point Reynolds had a falling out with his publisher, George Vickers, and refused to write any more of his serial for him. Vickers responded by hiring two other authors, Thomas Miller and E. L. Blanchard, and having them continue it on under the same title. Reynolds, in turn, went into partnership with his assistant, John Dicks (who rose to become an important publisher of low-cost literature), and began writing The Mysteries Of The Court Of London—which eventually ran to four “series” between September 1848 and December 1855. Together, the two works comprise twelve volumes, a total of some nine million words.

It is impossible to estimate just how many people read Reynolds’ penny-dreadfuls (even taking into account the ones who felt obliged to deny that they did), since – as with much literature aimed predominantly at the working-classes – they were often purchased by clubs and societies, with each single issue being read by numerous individuals. Reynolds himself, in one of his newspapers, boasted about weekly sales of 30,000 copies, and studies suggest that if this was an exaggeration, it wasn’t much of one. In any event, it was enough people for The Mysteries Of London and its successor to become the focus of an early moral panic about the “corrupting effects” of this “cheap sensational literature”.

I don’t know about you, but I’m salivating in anticipation…

Now, obviously – very obviously – tackling these works will be no light undertaking. And indeed, until very recently it was one that was difficult to undertake at all. In 1996, Trefor Thomas, through the Keele University Press, published the first modern edition of The Mysteries Of London. It’s a good, well-intentioned, respectful book, prefaced by lots of interesting information about Reynolds and his works—but it’s also abridged. Fortunately, in 2012, the wonderful, wonderful people at Valancourt Books bit the bullet and put out unabridged, annotated editions of The Mysteries Of London, which are now also available in (rather more manageable) ebook form. As for The Mysteries Of The Court Of London, it seems to be available through the Internet Archive and other such online sources…but I’m not going to start worrying about that just yet…

 

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