The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 1)

 

    Amongst these cities there is one in which contrasts of a strange nature exist. The most unbounded wealth is the neighbour of the most hideous poverty; the most gorgeous pomp is placed in strong relief by the most deplorable squalor; the most seducing luxury is only separated by a narrow wall from the most appalling misery.
    The crumbs which fall from the tables of the rich would appear delicious viands to starving millions; and yet those millions obtain them not!
    In that city there are in all districts five prominent buildings: the church, in which the pious pray; the gin-palace, to which the wretched poor resort to drown their sorrows; the pawn-broker’s, where miserable creatures pledge their raiment, and their children’s raiment, even unto the last rag, to obtain the means of purchasing food, and – alas! too often – intoxicating drink; the prison, where the victims of a vitiated condition of society expiate the crimes to which they have been driven by starvation and despair; and the workhouse, to which the destitute, the aged, and the friendless hasten to lay down their aching heads—and die!

 

 

 

 

It is hard to know where to begin with George Reynolds’ monumental penny-dreadful, The Mysteries Of London—which is one reason why, after introducing Reynolds at this blog, it’s taken me so long to get around to actually considering his writing.

Even a consideration of Volume I alone is daunting—not least because it runs some 1200 pages. Furthermore, it ends, not with any attempt to wrap up any of its numerous co-plots, but a simple promise of more of the same: a promise that Reynolds kept. Volume I is a compilation of the first 52 weekly installments of his serial, which ran from 1844 into 1845; and, having drawn a line at that point, Reynolds did it all over again from 1845 into 1846.

Consequently, a standard review is impossible (even a ‘standard review’ as long as mine usually are). Instead, what I am going to try and do is just give an overview of this first volume of The Mysteries Of London: to take a look, in this first part, at Reynolds’ approach to his writing and what he was trying to achieve—and in particular how this work stands apart from the literature of its time. (Some lengthy quotes to follow—perhaps over-lengthy, but I think it does Reynolds the best justice to let him speak for himself.) A second part will consider his characters and plot.

It can be difficult today to conceptualise the contemporary popularity of The Mysteries Of London—which was in all likelihood the best-selling book of its time. The sales figures for the weekly numbers were always high, but we must think in multiples when trying to estimate how many people were actually following the story. Many copies were bought by mechanics’ institutes, and other such communal organisations, where a single issue would be read by multiple individuals. Other single copies were read out loud in a variety of gathering places—both to save costs, and because in spite of rising literacy levels among the working-class, many among Reynolds’ potential audience could not read.

But we would be very wrong to assume that only the working-classes enjoyed Reynolds—whether or not some of the people reading his books admitted it to anyone else. When Reynolds’ publisher, George Vickers, reissued The Mysteries Of London in book form, it sold over a million copies; and while Vickers sensibly kept most of his editions at accessible prices, he also released high-quality, leather-bound sets that were very definitely not aimed at working-class readers.

However, Reynolds’ subject matter, his approach to his material, and his personal unpopularity with “the establishment” for his political agitation, saw his work buried after his death in 1879. The critical condemnation of his books as “vile” and “dangerous” was allowed to prevail; and it is only very recently that Reynolds’ reputation has been revived—and, more importantly, his books reissued.

One the things that struck me immediately about The Mysteries Of London was the extent of Reynolds’ influence upon Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose own penny-dreadfuls began appearing some fifteen years later. Braddon is certainly the superior writer of the two, displaying better control of her material, much more lightness of touch, and a more subtle sense of humour—but we must remember that, despite her pointed social criticisms, Braddon was writing chiefly to entertain and to earn a living; whereas Reynolds was a committed social agitator using his works as an overt attack upon the numerous injustices prevailing in contemporary England. Not surprisingly, then, he favours a declamatory, tub-thumping style, with copious use of exclamation marks; while his humour tends more to the overtly sarcastic than the ironic.

Humour is not a dominant factor in The Mysteries Of London, however. More typical is a tone of outrage—for example, in this passage dealing with working-class wages:

    “Madam,” said Ellen, bursting into tears, “I have worked nearly seventeen hours at that shawl—”
    She could say no more: her voice was lost in sobs.
    “Come, come,” cried the shopwoman harshly,—“no whimpering here! Take up your money, if you like it—and if you don’t, leave it. Only decide one way or another, and make haste!”
    Ellen took up the sixpence, wiped her eyes, and hastily turned to leave the shop.
    “Do you not want any more work?” demanded the shopwoman abruptly.
    The fact was that the poor girl worked well, and did not “shirk” labour; and the woman knew that it was the interest of her master to retain that young creature’s services.
    Those words, “Do you not want any more work?” reminded Ellen that she and her father must live—that they could not starve! She accordingly turned towards that uncouth female once more, and received another shawl, to embroider in the same     manner, and at the same price!
    Eighty blossoms for sixpence!
    Sixteen hours’ work for sixpence!
    A farthing and a half per hour!!!

In fact—you could justly describe The Mysteries Of London as an attack upon “the 1%”. From its earliest passages, Reynolds draws graphic and repeated contrasts between the obscene wealth of the upper classes, and the even more obscene poverty of the lowest—and the indifference of the one to the other. He makes his agenda perfectly clear at the outset, in a passage striking when put in the context of mid-Victorian literature:

    For in this city the daughter of the peer is nursed in enjoyments, and passes through an uninterrupted avenue of felicity from the cradle to the tomb; while the daughter of poverty opens her eyes at her birth upon destitution in all its most appalling shapes, and at length sells her virtue for a loaf of bread.
    There are but two words known in the moral alphabet of this great city; for all virtues are summed up in the one, and all vices in the other: and those words are:

    WEALTH. | POVERTY.

In 1845 the German philosopher, Fredric Engels, published (translated) The Condition of the Working Class in England, which in turn was a significant influence on Benjamin Disraeli’s “social condition” novel of the same year, Sybil; or, The Two Nations. Disraeli’s subtitle entered the vernacular, while a certain passage in the novel was much quoted in public debate:

    “Well, society may be in its infancy,” said Egremont slightly smiling; “but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.”
    “Which nation?” asked the younger stranger, “for she reigns over two.”
    The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.
    “Yes,” resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”
    “You speak of—” said Egremont, hesitatingly.
    “THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

Reynolds was there before him, however. And frankly, the idea that future Prime Minister Disraeli was plagiarising despised radical George Reynolds delights me quite as much as it infuriates me.

Reynolds’ overarching mantra in The Mysteries Of London is that the main cause of crime is poverty. Even his very worst and most unrepentant criminals are generally given the chance to tell their life-stories, which almost invariably begin with that individual’s attempts to live honestly, and to earn an honest living—and how that proved impossible, usually thanks to the “nice” people. And while the narrative itself expresses a conventional religious view, there is a constant, sneering depiction of religious hypocrisy, and of the actual behaviour of those who preen themselves upon being Christians in a Christian nation. The brutal treatment of those who have strayed from the path, whether criminally or sexually, by those in comfortable circumstances – the practical uselessness of repentance, once a false step has been taken – is one of Reynolds’ recurrent themes.

Another is the unavoidable impact of squalor and deprivation upon the physical, mental and moral wellbeing of those forced by poverty to live under such conditions:

    The wealthy classes of society are far too ready to reproach the miserable poor for things which are really misfortunes and not faults. The habit of whole families sleeping together in one room destroys all sense of shame in the daughters: and what guardian then remains for their virtue? But, alas! a horrible—an odious crime often results from that poverty which thus huddles brothers and sisters, aunts and nephews, all together in one narrow room—the crime of incest!
    When a disease – such as the small-pox or scarlatina – breaks out in one of those crowded houses, and in a densely populated neighbourhood; the consequences are frightful: the mortality is as rapid as that which follows the footsteps of the plague!
    These are the fearful mysteries of that hideous district which exists in the very heart of this great metropolis. From St. John-street to Saffron Hill—from West-street to Clerkenwell Green, is a maze of’ narrow lanes, choked up with dirt, pestiferous with nauseous odours, and swarming with a population that is born, lives, and dies, amidst squalor, penury, wretchedness, and crime…

Many passages in The Mysteries Of London either mock at or rail against government institutions, which are shown as corrupt and venal, run by the rich for the rich. In particular Reynolds attacks the Poor Laws, and the horrors of the workhouse—highlighting the starvation conditions and the brutal separation of husbands and wives, parents and children. All this was done intentionally, of course, to dissuade the poor from seeking this dubious refuge; but instead of “getting a job”, as the architects of the system smugly asserted they would, countless thousands, unable to find either work or relief, died in miserable poverty:

    Alas! that New Year’s Day was one of strange contrasts in the social sphere of London.
    And as London is the heart of this empire, the disease which prevails in the core is conveyed through every vein and artery over the entire national frame.
    The country that contains the greatest wealth of all the territories of the universe, is that which also knows the greatest amount of hideous, revolting, heart-rending misery.
    In England men and women die of starvation in the streets
    In England women murder their children to save them from a lingering death by famine.
    In England the poor commit crimes to obtain an asylum in a gaol.
    In England aged females die by their own hands, in order to avoid the workhouse…

Another significant subplot involves what Reynolds calls “the Black Chamber of the General Post-Office”, a secret department whose job is to open any letters that look like they might be important, extract any information, political or financial, that might be of use to the government, and then close the letters so that the invasion of privacy might not be detected:

    Oh! vile—despicable occupation,—performed, too, by men who went forth, with heads erect and confident demeanour, from their atrocious employment—after having violated those secrets which are deemed most sacred, and broken the seals which merchants, lovers, parents, relations, and friends had placed upon their thoughts!
    Base and diabolical outrage—perpetrated by the commands of the Ministers of the Sovereign!

(This subplot is an exaggerated version of a real scandal, in which it was revealed that correspondence directed to an Italian refugee in London had been opened under a government warrant, and the contents transmitted to the Court of Naples—resulting in summary killing of several would-be revolutionaries. The incident ruined the career of then-Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, who to that point had been responsible for several important reforms, but afterwards, as he put it himself, was only, “Remembered as the man who opened the letters of the Italians.”)

Likewise, Reynolds constantly ridicules the idea that everyone is equal under the law. The text is peppered with incidents involving corrupt and/or incompetent policemen, and magistrates and judges going out of their way to exonerate the rich and brutalise the poor. These scenes are not exactly subtle, but they have their effect. On one hand—

    The harmony was disturbed by the entrance of a constable dragging in a poor ragged, half-starved, and emaciated lad, without shoes or stockings.
    “What’s the charge?” demanded the inspector.
    “A rogue and vagabond,” answered the constable.
    “Oh! very well: put that down, Crisp. How do you know?”
    “Because he’s wandering about and hasn’t nowhere to go to, and no friends to refer to; and I saw him begging.”
    “Very good; put that down, Crisp. And I suppose he’s without food and hungry?”
    “I have not tasted food—” began the poor wretch who stood shivering at the bar.
    “Come, no lies,” ejaculated the inspector. “No lies!” echoed the constable, giving the poor wretch a tremendous shake.
    “Have you put it all down, Crisp?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Well, let him have a bit of bread, and lock him up. He’ll get three months of it on the stepper to-morrow.”
    The poor creature was supplied with a cubic inch of stale bread, and then thrust into a filthy cell.
    “What do you think that unfortunate creature will be done to?” enquired Markham
    “Three months on the stepper—the treadmill, to be sure.”
    “But what for?”
    “Why, for a rogue and vagabond.”
    “A vagabond he may be,” said Markham, “because he has no home to go to; but how do you know he is a rogue?”
    “Why—he was found begging, wasn’t he?”
    “And does that make a man a rogue?”
    “Certainly it do—in the eye of the law.”

And on the other—

    A constable then stood forward, and stated the charge. The prisoner at the bar had turned out of a flash tavern in the Haymarket at one in the morning, and commenced crowing like a cock, and ringing at front-door bells, and playing all imaginable kinds of antics. When the constable interfered, the gentleman knocked him down; and had not another policeman come up to the spot at the moment, the said gentleman never would have been taken into custody.
    The Magistrate cross-questioned the policeman who gave evidence in this case, with great severity; and then, turning with a bland smile to the prisoner, who was surveying the clerk through his eye glass in as independent a manner as if he were lounging over the front of his box at the opera, the worthy functionary said in a tone of gentle entreaty, “Now really we have reason to suspect that John Jenkins is not your name. In fact, my lord, we know you.”
    “Well, then,” exclaimed the prisoner, turning his eye-glass from the clerk upon the magistrate, “chalk me up as Lord Plymouth, since you are down upon me in this way.”
    “My lord—my lord,” said the Magistrate, with parental urbanity of manner, “these little freaks of yours are really not creditable: upon my honour they are not. I sit here to administer justice to the rich as well as to the poor—”
    “Oh! you do, do you ?” cried the nobleman. “Now I tell you what it is—if you dare talk any of your nonsense about prisons and houses of correction to me. I’ll not stand it. You know as well as I do that whenever a barrister is to be appointed magistrate, the Home Secretary sends for him and tells him to mind his P’s and Q’s towards the aristocracy. So none of your nonsense; but be quick and let me off with the usual fine.”
    “My lord,” ejaculated the Magistrate, glancing with consternation from the prisoner to the clerk, and from the clerk to the prisoner; “did I not say that I sate here to administer equal justice to the rich and the poor? The fine for drunkenness is five shillings, my lord—and in that sum I fine you. As for the assault upon the policeman, I give you leave to speak to him outside.”
    The nobleman demanded change for a ten pound note, and threw the five shillings in a contemptuous and insolent manner towards the clerk, who thanked his lordship as if he had just received an especial favour. The assault was easily settled outside…

But whatever Reynolds’ views upon the causes of crime, his narrative positively wallows in its effects. Much of The Mysteries Of London is set amongst the lowest of the low, and in the worst and most dangerous corners of London. Crimes of all sorts are plotted and committed—and described to the reader in detail. Professional criminals rank amongst the novel’s most prominent characters—one in particular:

    “And, in return,” he added, after a moment’s pause, “if I can ever do you a service, outside or in, you may reckon upon the Resurrection Man.”
    “The Resurrection Man!” ejaculated Richard, appalled, in spite of himself, at this ominous title.
    “Yes—that’s my name and profession,” said the man. “My godfathers and godmothers called me Anthony, and my parents had previously blessed me with the honourable appellation of Tidkins: so you may know me as Anthony Tidkins, the Resurrection Man.”
    “And are you really—” began Richard, with a partial shudder; “are you really a—”
    “A body-snatcher ?” cried Anthony; “of course I am—when there’s any work to be done; and when there isn’t, then I do a little in another line…”

The relationship between Richard Markham and the Resurrection Man is something I will return to in Part 2; here I will merely note that, though Richard is effectively the hero of The Mysteries Of London, and the Resurrection Man one of its main villains, this does not prevent Reynolds on occasion from—not siding with the latter, but doing him sufficient justice. Typical is this pointed exchange, when Richard finds the Resurrection Man in the vicinity of the house of the girl he loves. His unguarded protest is something he will later be made to regret:

    “Wretch! what do you mean to do?” ejaculated Richard, hurrying after him and detaining him by the arm: “you do not know that that abode is sacred—that it is the residence of probity, innocence, and honour—that if you were to breathe a hint who and what you are, you would be spurned from the door?”
    “Ah! I am accustomed to that in this Christian land—in this land of Bibles and Missionary Societies,” said the Resurrection Man, bitterly…

And this emphasis upon life amongst the lowest and most despised of society leads me to highlight what eventually struck me as the single most remarkable thing about The Mysteries Of London: the near absence of the middle-class.

So much of Victorian literature is for and about the middle-classes that this gulf in The Mysteries Of London is startling. This in itself is a commentary upon the nature of contemporary society: middle-class people might have been allured by tales of upward mobility through socially acceptable behaviour, but the poor knew very well that such aspirations were not for the likes of them; and Reynolds knew it, too—as he knew that his readers were more interested in (or at least, titillated by) tales of misbehaviour amongst the aristocracy. So while there is a scattering of middle-class characters in the story – among them Richard Markham – they all suffer either personal or financial ruin, and so end up excluded from their natural social sphere.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the narrative is split between the very highest and the very lowest levels of English society; and rather than bothering with the usual end-of-novel rewards, such as marriage and domesticity, Reynolds instead indulges his readers with a series of absurd wish-fulfillment fantasies, in which the most unlikely people are elevated to the most improbable heights.

Another really striking aspect of The Mysteries Of London is Reynolds’ relentless insistence upon smell. This is something that was completely anathema in polite society at the time, an attitude reflected in mainstream literature. Yet this was a convention that ran counter to the ugly reality of the mid-19th century. Even in the “nice” sections of London, there was no proper closed sewage system until the 1860s—and no real thought of one until the means of transmission of cholera was determined in the 1850s. Even then the government didn’t want to pay for the necessary work—not until what became known as “The Great Stink” of 1858, when a combination of an unusually hot summer and the untreated waste that clogged the Thames persuaded the powers-that-be of its necessity.

Nevertheless, you’ll look in vain in the literature of the time for any reference to, or even just acknowledgement of, the Stink. Literally—It Just Wasn’t Done; and this taboo persisted into the 20th century. It has been suggested that, as late as 1890, part of the virulent critical reaction to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray stemmed from the text’s emphasis upon odours—even though these, for the most part, are pleasant ones.

There’s nothing pleasant about the equivalent descriptions in The Mysteries Of London, however. On the contrary, Reynolds provides a series of revoltingly graphic descriptions of rubbish rotting in the streets, open sewers, slaughterhouses, and other such delights—reminding us over and over that countless people were forced to live and work in such conditions.

Most shocking of all, however, are the numerous scenes describing bodily decomposition. No doubt most of what Reynolds describes here was another sickening reality of life amongst the London poor—for instance, those forced to live near an overcrowded cemetery:

    The soil was damp; and a nauseous odour, emanating from it, impregnated the air. When the sun lay for several days upon the place, even in the depth of winter,—and invariably throughout the summer,—the stench was so intolerable that not a dwelling in the neighbourhood was seen with a window open. Nevertheless, that sickly, fetid odour penetrated into every house, and every room, and every inhabited nook or corner, in that vicinity; and the clothes of the poor inmates smelt, and their food tasted, of the damp grave!
    The cemetery was crowded with the remains of mortality. The proprietors of the ground had only one aim in view—namely, to crowd the greatest possible quantity of corpses into the smallest space. But even this economy of room did not prevent the place from being so filled with the dead, that in a given quantity of the soil it was difficult to say whether earth or decayed human remains predominated. Still the cemetery was kept open for interments; and when there was no room for a newcomer, some recently-buried tenant of a grave was exhumed to afford the required space.

—but nevertheless there is a definite sense of gratuitousness in the way he dwells upon the subject, in the body-snatching scenes in particular, but also in the way he continues his description of the operation of the cemetery:

    Baring his brawny arms to the very shoulders, he now set himself vigorously to work to dig the grave which was to receive a new-comer that after-noon.
    Throwing the earth up on either side, he had digged to a depth of about two feet, when his spade encountered a coffin. He immediately took his pickaxe, broke the coffin to pieces, and then separated with his shovel the pieces of wood and the human bones from the damp earth. The coffin was already so soft with decay that the iron rod had penetrated through it without much difficulty; and it therefore required but little exertion to break it up altogether.
    But the odour which came from the grave was now of the most nauseating kind – fetid, sickly, pestiferous – making the atmosphere heavy, and the human breath thick and clammy, as it were – and causing even that experienced grave-digger to retch as if he were about to vomit.
    Leaping from the grave, he began to busy himself in conveying the pieces of the broken coffin and the putrid remains of mortality into the Bone-House. where he heaped them pell-mell upon the fire.
    The flesh had not completely decayed all away from the bones; a thick, black, fatty-looking substance still covered those human relics; and the fire was thus fed with a material which made the flames roar and play half up the chimney.
    And from the summit of that chimney came a smoke-thick, dense, and dark, like the smoke of a gasometer or a manufactory, but bearing on its sable wing the odour of a pestilence…

And the third really shocking aspect of The Mysteries Of London is – surprise! – its attitude to sex.

It is difficult to describe Reynolds’ approach to this touchy topic. Overtly, his narrative plays out within a framework of conventional religion and morality, and this applies to his female characters: at one extreme his heroine is a perfect angel, and at the other his women criminals are much more depraved and vicious than his men. So far, so familiar.

Almost at once, however, we get a sense of a split-vision; of lip-service. There are “fallen women” aplenty in The Mysteries Of London, and although Reynolds classes a few of them amongst his “depraved criminals”, most of them are presented as victims and treated with sympathy—and sometimes more than that.

There are many passing references to young women being forced to sell themselves to stay alive, or being seduced and abandoned. That too is in its way familiar. Where Reynolds surprises us is giving us not one, but several, such women among his main characters—each one with different circumstances and motivations, but all – or almost all – treated with dignity and an almost matter-of-fact acceptance of their situation, at least once you wave away the smokescreen of, “Tut, tut!” One of them, indeed, can almost be considered this novel’s heroine!

I will deal with Ellen Monroe’s subplot in detail in Part 2, rather than here (ETA: Or as it turned out, Part 3); but two other of Reynolds’ transgressing women are worth considering in this context. One is Diana Arlington, known as “Mrs Arlington”, though she has never been married. She is originally the victim of the man to whom she thought she was to be married, but after her father is financially ruined (by him, as it turns out), he stops meaning marriage. When her father dies and she is left destitute, she has little choice but to become her once-fiancé’s mistress. In time he gets bored with the arrangement, and hands Diana off to an acquaintance of his, a Sir Rupert Harborough. She doesn’t care for him at all, but tries to feel grateful for his generosity. However, her progressive discovery of Sir Rupert’s dishonesty and, finally, criminal behaviour disgusts her, and she decides to separate from him and – accepting that while she’d like to be “an honest woman” again, there’s really no way back – find another keeper.

She has no shortage of men to choose from—and her doing so is presented to us with extraordinary facetiousness:

    Diana hastened to unlock an elegant rosewood writing-desk, edged with silver; and from a secret drawer she took several letters – or rather notes – written upon paper of different colours. Upon the various envelopes were seals impressed with armorial bearings, some of which were surrounded by coronets. She glanced over each in a cursory manner, which showed she was already tolerably familiar with their contents. The greater portion she tossed contemptuously into the fire;—a few she placed one upon the other, quite in a business-like way, upon the table.
    When she had gone through the entire file, she again directed her attention to those which she had reserved; and as she perused them one after the other, she mused in the following manner:—
    “Count de Lestranges is brilliant in his offers, and immensely rich—no doubt; but he is detestably conceited, and would think more of himself than of his mistress. His appeal must be rejected;” and she threw the French nobleman’s perfumed epistle into the fire.
    “This,” she continued, taking up another, “is from Lord Templeton. Five thousand a-year is certainly handsome; but then he himself is so old and ugly! Away with this suitor at once.” The English Peer’s billet-doux followed that of the French Count.
    “Here is a beautiful specimen of calligraphy,” resumed Diana, taking up a third letter; “but all the sentiments are copied, word for word, out of the love-scenes in Anne Radcliffe’s romances. Never was such gross plagiarism! He merits the punishment I thus inflict upon him;—and her plump white hand crushed the epistle ere she threw it into the fire.
    “But what have we here? Oh! the German baron’s killing address—interspersed with remarks upon the philosophy of love. Ah! my lord, love was not made for philosophers—and philosophers are incapable of love; so we will have none of you.”
    Another offering to the fire.
    “Here is the burning address of the Greek attaché with a hard name. It is prettily written;—but who could possibly enter upon terms with an individual of the name of Thesaurochrysonichochrysides?”
    To the flames went the Greek lover’s note also.
    “Ah! this seems as if it were to be the successful candidate,” said Diana, carefully perusing the last remaining letter. “It is written upon a plain sheet of white paper, and without scent. But then the style—how manly! Yes—decidedly, the Earl of Warrington has gained the prize. He is rich—unmarried—handsome—and still in the prime of life! There is no room for hesitation.”

So she doesn’t: she writes, offering herself; he accepts, and sets her up in a luxurious house. And perhaps most extraordinary of all, their subsequent connection is presented almost as a quasi-marriage—two people comfortable together and glad of each other’s company—though Reynolds daringly insists that neither is in love with the other.

Eventually the relationship comes to grief, due to the Earl’s thin-skin and pride; and Diana meets a grim fate that, in another context, would certainly be a case of cosmic punishment—but which here just doesn’t read like that. Before this, Diana is one of the characters who is indisputably on the side of right, waging an anonymous battle against the ongoing depredations of her original seducer, and becoming bosom friends with another of the novel’s prominent female characters, Eliza Sydney, who despite knowing all about Diana, begs to be allowed to call her “sister”—something, by the way, that our hero, Richard Markham, also insists upon.

But Reynolds’ greatest daring is in the character of Lady Cecilia Harborough—a serial adultress because she likes sex.

She REALLY likes sex.

The fact that such a character was conceived and written in 1844 is mind-boggling. There were other serial adultresses in Victorian literature, sure, but it was always about the money; here, Reynolds makes it hilariously clear that, while Cecilia certainly likes money, there’s something else she likes even more. In an era in which some men were desperately trying to convince society at large that women lacked the capacity to enjoy sex, Lady Cecilia is not only unprecedented, but would remain unparalleled for many decades to follow.

Amusingly in retrospect, when we first meet her, Cecilia is presented as one of the novel’s “victims”: she is seduced by Sir Rupert Harborough and impregnated, and marries him after her parents agree to pay Sir Rupert’s outrageous demands. The marriage is miserable, of course, chiefly because the money dries up. Sir Rupert embarks upon a series of criminal enterprises to retrieve his fortune, while Cecilia becomes the mistress of one George Greenwood—in exchange for his retrieval of her diamonds, which Sir Rupert stole and pawned. When Greenwood gets bored and moves on, Cecilia finds a rich, handsome Guardsman to replace him—and Reynolds has the audacity to write an overt sex-farce scene, in which both Sir Rupert and Cecilia try to sneak their respective lovers out of the house at the same time, all four bumping into one another in the vestibule.

But it is what comes next that takes the reader’s breath away, as Cecilia sets her sights on a minister, who is celebrated for his eloquence, his devotion—and his chastity. In (literally) Cecilia’s experienced hands, Reginald Tracy has no chance. Afterwards, wracked with guilt and religious terror, he tries to tear himself away from her, but Cecilia isn’t having any of that; and when he won’t approach her voluntarily, she finds a way of bringing him back to her.

An old woman approaches Tracy with a story of a poor sculptor and a remarkable stature, for which he wishes to find a purchaser. Tracy agrees to see it—and finds it somewhat…familiar:

    In somewhat bold relief, against the dark wall, stood the object of his interest,—seeming a beautiful model of a female form, the colouring of which was that of life. It was naked to the middle; the arms were gracefully rounded; and one hand sustained the falling drapery which, being also coloured, produced upon the mind of the beholder the effect of real garments.
    Lost in wonder at the success with which the sculptor had performed his work,—and experiencing feelings of a soft and voluptuous nature,—Reginald drew closer to the statue. At that moment the light of the fire played upon its countenance; and it seemed to him as if the lips moved with a faint smile. Then, how was his surprise increased, when the conviction flashed to his mind that the face he was gazing upon was well known to him!
    “O Cecilia, Cecilia!” he ejaculated aloud: “hast thou sent thy statue hither to compel me to fall at its feet and worship the senseless stone, while thou—the sweet original—art elsewhere, speculating perhaps upon the emotions which this phantasmagorian sport was calculated to conjure up within me! Ah! Cecilia, if thou wast resolved to subdue me once more—if thou couldst not rest until I became thy slave again,—oh! why not have invited me to meet thine own sweet self, instead of this speechless, motionless, passionless image,—a counterpart of thee only in external loveliness! Yes—there it is perfect:—the hair—the brow—the eyes—the mouth— Heavens! those lips seem to smile once more; those eyes sparkle with real fire! Cecilia—Cecilia—”
    And Reginald Tracy was afraid—he scarcely knew wherefore: the entire adventure of the evening appeared to be a dream.
    “Yes—yes!” he suddenly exclaimed, after having steadfastly contemplated the form before him for some moments,—standing at a distance of only three or four paces,—afraid to advance nearer, unwilling to retreat altogether,—“yes!” he exclaimed, “there is something more than mere senseless marble here! The eyes shoot fire—the lips smile—the bosom heaves— Oh! Cecilia—Cecilia, it is yourself!”
    As he spoke he rushed forward: the statue burst from chill marble into warmth and life;—it was indeed the beauteous but wily Cecilia—who returned his embrace and hung around his neck;—and the rector was again subdued—again enslaved!

And afterwards—

    The barrier was now completely broken down; and the rector gave way to the violence of the passion which hurried him along.
    That man, so full of vigour, and in the prime at his physical strength, abandoned himself without restraint to the fury of those desires which burnt the more madly—the more wildly, from having been so long pent-up.
    Day after day did he meet his guilty paramour; and on each occasion did he reflect less upon the necessity of caution. He passed hours and hours together with her at her abode; and at length he ventured to receive her at his own residence, when his housekeeper bad retired to rest.
    But he did not neglect his professional duties on the Sabbath;—and he now became an accomplished hypocrite. He ascended the pulpit as usual, and charmed thousands with his discourse as heretofore. Indeed his eloquence improved, for the simulated earnestness which displaced the tone of heart-felt conviction that he had once experienced, seemed more impassioned, and was more impressive than the natural ebullition of his feelings.
    Thus as be progressed in the ways of vice, his reputation increased in sanctity…

But while he’s busy exposing everyone else’s sexual peccadilloes, Reynolds also gives away a couple of fetishes of his own. First of all, he clearly had a thing about women in drag—and finds several excuses for cross-dressing scenes. Most significantly, the novel opens with a young man getting lost in the wilds of London during a violent storm, and undergoing a terrifying, near-fatal adventure after accidentally taking refuge in a thieves’ den. This “young man” is later revealed as the aforementioned Eliza Sydney, who (for complicated reasons I won’t go into here) is carrying out an extended impersonation of her own dead brother, Walter. Meanwhile, when Ellen Monroe becomes convinced that Richard Markham is walking into a trap set for him by the Resurrection Man, she disguises herself in men’s clothes and arms herself with pistols, in order to go to his aid.

But above all else—George Reynolds was a breast-man: he proves quite incapable of describing an attractive woman without telling us everything we might have wanted to know about the size and shape of her breasts. On several occasions this is entirely inappropriate—for instance, even when the point is that an unmarried woman has borne an illegitimate baby, Reynolds can’t help commenting on how much bigger her breasts are as a consequence. This, meanwhile, is a description of what Ellen Monroe conceals under her men’s clothes:

Those swelling globes of snow, each adorned as with a delicate rose-bud, needed no support to maintain them in their full and natural rotundity…

Even Queen Victoria is not exempt!—

At that time Victoria was yet a virgin-queen. If not strictly beautiful, her countenance was very pleasing. Her light brown hair was worn quite plain; her blue eyes were animated with intellect; and when she smiled, her lips revealed a set of teeth white as Oriental pearls. Her bust was magnificent…

And speaking of Victoria— Though the monarchy was one of the infinite number of British institutions of which Reynolds disapproved, he mostly* lays off it in The Mysteries Of London (unlike some of his later works, as we shall see)—putting it to a most unexpected alternative use.

(*Mostly: there is still a suggestion that George III’s mental illness was hereditary and transmitted to his descendants, another that George’s alleged morganatic marriage to Hannah Lightfoot meant that the entire royal family was illegitimate, and a third that the marriage produced “issue”. And yes: for Reynolds, that is “laying off”.)

I have said that Reynolds resorts to absurd wish-fulfillment fantasies in this novel: the most interesting of these involves a plot concocted by the Resurrection Man, his colleague, Tom the Cracksman, and an urchin called Henry Holford, to rob Buckingham Palace. The boy is sent in as a scout and, penetrating security with embarrassing ease, spends several days concealed within the palace—gorging on stolen food, gawping at its various luxuries, and above all spying and eavesdropping from his favourite vantage point of beneath the Royal Sofa. As it happens, Henry’s unofficial visit coincides with the official one of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, so there is much for him to spy upon. Long passages describing the glories of the palace and the (visual) splendour of the nobility follow.

Reynolds, as we have seen, could be vicious in his attacks, but in this case – to mix a metaphor – he sheathes his sword and keeps his tongue in his cheek—offering an outrageous moment in which Henry not only sits on Victoria’s sofa, but dares to occupy the same space as the Royal Buttocks:

Holford emerged from beneath the sofa, and seated himself upon it. He was proud to think that he now occupied the place where royalty had so lately been…now in a palace, and seated upon the very cushion which a few hours previously had been pressed by royalty…

Reynolds follows this up with a typical bit of nose-thumbing—having his scruffy urchin, a mere “pot-boy”, invade the throne-room itself:

    At length he reached the Throne Room. The imperial seat itself was covered over with a velvet cloth, to protect it against the dust. Holford removed the cloth; and the splendours of the throne were revealed to him.
    He hesitated for a moment: he felt as if he were committing a species of sacrilege;—then triumphing over this feeling – a feeling which had appeared like a remorse – he ascended the steps of the throne;—he placed himself in the seat of England’s monarch.
    Had the sceptre been there he would have grasped it;—had the crown been within his reach, he would have placed it upon his head!

 

[To be continued…]

 

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4 Comments to “The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 1)”

  1. Checking some dates:

    First three volumes of London Labour and the London Poor – 1851, but the articles were being published individually during the 1840s. So it might have had an influence on this.

    Le Lys Rouge (that bit about “the law, in its majestic equality”) – 1894!

    • Other way around, I gather: the reading habits of the working classes was something Mayhew looked into, and he quotes a group of costermongers waxing enthusiastic about this. (Or most likely, they influenced each other.)

      Anatole France put it best but that form of equality was recognised long before.

  2. Wow, that lingering over the ladies’ gazongas makes this sound like mid twentieth century pulp. I guess he could be considered a progenitor of it.

    • I’ll give him this, though: his women are never *just* their breasts, as often is the case in the pulps.

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