The Mysteries Of London: Volume II (Part 1)


 
    The dwellers in the country, and even the inhabitants of the great provincial cities and manufacturing towns, can form no just estimate of the wondrous features of the sovereign metropolis by the local scenes with which they are familiar.
    Who can judge of the splendour of the West End of London by even the most fashionable quarters of Edinburgh or Dublin?
    Who can conceive the amount of revolting squalor and hideous penury existing in the poor districts of London, by a knowledge of the worst portions of Liverpool or Manchester? Who can form a conjecture of the dreadful immorality and shocking vice…?
    No:—for all that is most gorgeous and beautiful, as well as all that is most filty and revolting,—all that is best of talent, or most degraded of ignorance,—all that is most admirable for virtue, or most detestable for crime,—all that is most refined in elegance, or most strange in barbarism,—all, all these wondrous phases are to be found, greatest in glory, or lowest in infamy, in the imperial city of the British Isles!
    And shall we be charged with vanity, if we declare that never until now has the veil been so rudely torn aside, nor the corruptions of London so boldly laid bare?

 

 

Ah-hmm.

Sorry.

In my own defence, my failure to update isn’t just about my slackness and disorganisation: it’s also because I spent so long tearing my hair over how to address the second volume of George Reynolds’ The Mysteries Of London, I ended up forgetting the specifics of what I wanted (somehow) to say and had to read it over again; all 1,146 pages of it.

But I think I can now see a way of tackling it, and hopefully within the confines of two posts (one ain’t gunna cut it).

Further in my defence, part of the problem is the nature of Volume II. There’s more of a sense of strain here, of Reynolds seeking ways to fill his pages and stretch his story out to the full 52 weekly parts. Thus, while this volume does finally resolve its central, anti-parallel plots involving Richard Markham and George Montague Greenwood, both of its main characters are off-stage for significant sections of the novel, while much time is spent on subplots that don’t have much to do with the central narrative, and (even more of a giveaway) on interpolated narratives. There are also rather too many songs from our criminal characters, all supplemented with lengthy glossaries of thieves’ cant.

The best that Reynolds can do to link up the increasingly disparate threads of his story is to write into most of them the sinister figure of Anthony Tidkins, aka “the Resurrection Man”, who – surprise! – did not in fact die at the end of Volume I in spite of the best efforts of his mortal enemy, James Cuffin, aka “Crankey Jem”. Other characters pop in and out as required, but not always in a convincing manner.

That last paragraph highlights an attendant problem of dealing with Volume II of The Mysteries Of London: trying to remember what happened in Volume I, and who everyone is.

Consequently I’ve coined an acronym – IYCCYMBTF – “If You Can Cast Your Minds Back That Far” – to indicate material that was touched upon in my previous posts, should any of you find it necessary to go back for a refresher.

So—to try and convey some sense of Volume II in something approaching a coherent manner, I’m going to devote this first post to the material surrounding the main plots, some of which resolves threads left hanging at the end of Volume I, and some of which introduces new characters (because we just didn’t have enough already).

Most divorced from the main plot(s) of Volume II of The Mysteries Of London is the interpolated narrative of Major Anderson, a former army officer who has ruined his life with compulsive gambling. Rescued from destitution by Richard Markham, the Major gives a circumstantial account of his fall from grace and the miseries suffered by his wife and children (who have all died of deprivation). The anti-gambling subplot is commonplace in 18th and 19th century literature, chiefly because what happens to the Andersons here very often did happen; although it is more common to find this sort of thing in novels by women, usually from the perspective of the gambler’s suffering dependents. The only two really interesting points in this material, both of which will echo throughout this volume’s other plots, are that Reynolds takes it for granted that (i) doing someone a favour will in most cases end in resentment and enmity; and (ii) a desire for revenge is a pretty normal human response to an injury. Only Reynolds’ “immaculate” characters like Richard Markham escape these two taints.

Certainly these assumptions reappear in the subplot concerning the increasingly vicious rivalry between Lydia Hutchinson and Adeline Enfield (later Lady Ravensworth). Lydia is introduced on the cold streets of London, crying out to her former friend as she is helped into her luxurious carriage by her much older husband. The Ravensworths shun the poor, wretched, shivering woman, however, who is knocked down by their carriage as they drive away, and injured. Hurriedly, Adeline explains to her husband that the woman was once – she vaguely remembers – one of her teachers; but as it is obvious what she is now, they needn’t soil their hands by having anything to do with her.

Lydia is rescued by Viola Chichester, the estranged wife of Arthur Chichester who (IYCCYMBTF) was one of those responsible for landing Richard Markham in prison for passing counterfeit notes. Viola’s own sufferings we did not touch upon in detail, however she was imprisoned by the Resurrection Man in an underground dungeon in one of his London bolt-holes until she signed her fortune over to her husband (that being what he had, after all, married her for). Her experiences have made Viola sympathetic to others in trouble and now she goes out of her way to assist and redeem people like Lydia, who she takes in, cares for, and helps to start a new life.

Lydia gives us another of the novel’s lengthy interpolated narratives, this one also a bit too familiar in most respects to be interesting, as we hear how the daughter of a poor but honest curate ends up walking the streets of London. Here, however, Reynolds is more on his game—so the familiar material is periodically broken up with scenes like this:

“I locked the door cautiously, and returned to the bed-side. And there—in a miserable garret, and in the depth of a cold winter’s night,—with a nipping frost upon the window, and the bright moon high in the heavens,—there, attended only by myself, did the delicately nurtured Adeline Enfield give birth to a male child. But the little infant’s eyes never opened even for a moment upon this world: it was born dead!”

The exigency of their circumstances forces Lydia to hide the dead baby in her trunk until the girls can figure out what to do with it. Unfortunately, this act coincides with the discovery downstairs that several silver spoons have been stolen, which prompts a school-wide search of the property of those suspected—i.e. the servants and the junior teachers. The searchers get rather more than they bargained for when they force their way into Lydia’s tiny garret: no spoons, but…

“And now the school-mistress approached my trunk: she raised the lid—I leant against the wall for support. My clothes were tumbled out on the floor: at the bottom of the box was a small bundle, wrapped round with linen articles. The school-mistress drew it forth—a terrific scream escaped my lips—the corpse of the infant rolled upon the floor!”

Mrs Lambkin turns out to be more worried about the reputation of her school than anything else (even her spoons). She therefore encourages Lydia to, um, get some exercise:

“When the house was quiet, I put on my bonnet and cloak, concealing beneath the latter the corpse of Miss Enfield’s child. I then slipped out by the back way, and striking into the bye-lanes leading towards Brompton, at length reached a pond, into which a muddy ditch emptied itself. The moon was bright, and thus enabled me to discover a spot fitted for my purpose. I placed two or three large stones in the bundle containing the body of the child: then I threw the whole into the pond. The dark water splashed and gurgled; and in a few moments all was still once more…”

(There is no suggestion in the narrative that Lydia has done anything particularly untoward here—and of course the fact is that, in addition to a naturally appallingly high infant mortality rate, it was common practice at this time for unwanted babies simply to be left on the streets to die of exposure; another of those little details of Victorian life that didn’t make it into mainstream literature.)

Adeline starts out full of passionate protestations of lifetime friendship for Lydia, but the very fact that Lydia (i) knows her secret, and (ii) succeeded in keeping it eventually finds Adeline doing her best to shake the dirt of the incident off her skirts—which involves declining to have anything more to do with her erstwhile BFF. And as the unsuspected Miss Enfield makes a spectacular marriage, Lydia falls further and further, becoming first a mistress, then a brothel-inhabitant, then a street-walker. Along the way, her curate-father dies of a broken heart and her brother gets shot dead after challenging Lydia’s seducer (or more accurately, rapist, since she was drugged first) to a duel.

Eventually, assisted by Viola Chichester, Lydia secures a position as maid to the newly-married Lady Bounce; but she is delayed on her journey to join her new mistress, who therefore departs on her honeymoon with the maid of her aunt-by-marriage instead: the latter agreeing to accept the services of the newcomer while her real mistress is away:

    “One moment, William. Did this young woman mention her name—for as yet I am really ignorant of it?”
    “Yes, my lady,” answered the domestic: “her name is Lydia Hutchinson.”
    And the servant withdrew.
    “Lydia Hutchinson!” murmured Lady Ravensworth, turning deadly pale, and tottering to a seat…

Lydia at first assumes that Adeline has hired her as a form of expiation for her previous neglect and cruelty and is more than willing to forgive and forget. When Adeline impulsively spurns her, however, Lydia reacts with violent rage and contempt, throwing their mutual secrets in the other’s face. Adeline is at first cowed, but becomes scornful and defiant as she considers that any attempt by Lydia to punish her will come down to the word of a noblewoman against that of a former prostitute:

    “Enough!” cried Adeline, now almost purple with rage, and every vein on her forehead swollen almost to bursting. “I accept your challenge—for I well know that I can rely upon the honour of Lord Dunstable and Colonel Cholmondeley. Yes—yes: they would sooner perjure themselves than attaint the honour of a peeress!”
    “There is one other consideration, then,” said Lydia, still completely unruffled: “and perhaps the ingenuity of your ladyship will devise a means of frustrating that test also.”
    “To what do you allude?” demanded Adeline.
    “I mean that when you summon your domestics to drag me to gaol on a charge of extortion,” replied Lydia, contemptuously, “that moment do I proclaim the history of the past! Then will medical expertise speedily prove whether Lady Ravensworth now bears her first child in her bosom!”

The scene between the two women is partly overheard by Lord Ravensworth who, already in poor health, is almost overcome by learning of his wife’s early transgressions. Bent now on revenge, Lydia insists on remaining in the Ravensworth household, a permanent thorn in Adeline’s side. Her plan is to stay a year, at the end of which time she will depart with a glowing reference that will secure her whatever other position she desires. In the meantime, though in public she will perform her functions as Adeline’s maidservant, behind close doors it will be Adeline who is the menial; Adeline who will wait upon Lydia…

Reynolds’ handling of this material is peculiar. He does not merely treat Lydia’s desire for revenge as a natural response (as touched upon above), but finds a general warning in her worm-turns behaviour which he swiftly extrapolates into a State Of The Nation speech:

    Yes! Most solemnly do I proclaim to you, O suffering millions of these islands, that ye shall not always languish beneath the yoke of your oppressors! Individually ye shall each see the day when your tyrant shall crouch at your feet; and as a mass ye shall triumph over that proud oligarchy which now grinds you into the dust!
    That day—that great day cannot be far distant; and then ye shall rise—not to wreak a savage vengeance on those who have so long coerced you, but to prove to them that ye know how to exercise a mercy which they never manifested towards you;—ye shall rise, not to convulse the State with a disastrous civil war, nor to hurry the nation on to the deplorable catastrophe of social anarchy, confusion and bloodshed;—but ye shall rise to vindicate usurped rights, and to recover delegated and misused power, that ye may triumphantly assert the aristocracy of mind, and the aristocracy of virtue!

While we may not consider this subplot the best vehicle for Reynolds’ social theories, this passage underscores that despite what his enemies said of him, he was a radical but no revolutionary. He even goes on to illustrate the dangers of “savage vengeance” bereft of “mercy” by having Lydia go too far in her tormenting and humiliation of Adeline, who responds with what Reynolds also treats as a natural desire for revenge—even when it takes the form of Adeline hiring a hitman.

Escaping into the grounds one evening, Adeline overhears a strange conversation between two men. The point of it (to which we will return) is lost upon her, but she quickly grasps that one of the two is a criminal for hire with no scruples about his work, as long as he is well-paid. When the second man drops the first’s scribbled address, Adeline seizes the opportunity. Taking every precaution to disguise her identity and the scene of the proposed crime, she organises for the professional criminal – who is of course the Resurrection Man – to take care of her little problem:

“My enemy is certain to come hither shortly,” whispered Adeline: “it may be directly—or it may be in an hour;—still she is sure to come. I shall conceal you behind a curtain—in case the wrong person might happen to enter the room by accident. But when any one comes in, and you hear me close the door and say ‘WRETCH!” rush upon her—seize her by the throat—and strangle her. Are you strong enough to do this?—for no blood must be shed.”

In one of the most shocking passages in The Mysteries Of London, the murder of Lydia Hutchinson occurs as planned. The Resurrection Man then – oh, irony! – disposes of her body by weighting it down in a pond, staging the scene to make it look as if she has robbed Adeline of her jewel casket and fled.

Adeline manages the dark – literally dark – business so cleverly that, at the time, the Resurrection Man does not discover her identity or that of his victim; nor does she know what he looks like. He comes later to that knowledge, as part of the plot overheard and misunderstood by Adeline—which was nothing less than the murder of Lord Ravensworth by his younger brother, Gilbert Vernon, and the subsequent murder of Adeline’s baby, should it prove to be a boy…and it does.

Lord Ravensworth is disposed of without the Resurrection Man’s intervention, via poisoned tobacco sent as a gift from Vernon who is supposedly in the Middle East. Vernon “comes home” upon his brother’s death, feigning grief, infiltrating the household, and waiting for the right time to dispose of his nephew with the connivance of his “valet”…

But Reynolds has no intention of letting wicked aristocracy flourish to that extent; and the plot against the infant lord is thwarted by the separate but determined efforts of Morcar the gypsy and Eliza Sydney, aka the Grand Duchess Eliza of Castelcicala.

(And what is the Grand Duchess doing back in England? We’ll get to that in Part 2.)

The third interpolated narrative in The Mysteries Of London gives us the life-history of Crankey Jem—who (IYCCYMBTF) almost stabbed the Resurrection Man to death at the end of Volume I. Later learning that he has failed, Jem devotes himself to tracking down and finishing off his mortal enemy, a business which unfolds over several years (and almost the entirety of Volume II). IYCCYMBTF, Jem was once convicted and transported on the testimony of his one-time partner in crime, who got off in exchange for his testimony. Reynolds – whose disgust with a legal system that punishes without any intention of, or room for, reformation we have seen many times before (and will again) – uses this subplot to condemn numerous aspects of the transportation of convicts…and you will forgive me if I dwell at some length upon Crankey Jem’s experiences and observations:

“Sydney is beautifully situated. It possesses a fine ascent from a noble harbour; and its bays, its coves, its gardens, its gentlemen’s seats, form a pleasing spectacle. Then its forests of masts—the Government-house, with its beautiful domain—the numerous wharfs—the thousands of boats upon the glassy water—and Wooloomooloo, with its charming villas and its windmills,—all these combine to enhance the interest of the scene. The town itself is far more handsome than I had expected to find it…”

I must make Crankey Jem my compliments. I don’t think transported convicts were often in a frame of mind to appreciate their surroundings, let alone discourse upon them in fluent travelogue…

Reynolds, via Jem, indulges in a two-point program here—on one hand, scaring his readers straight with a graphic account of the horrors of convict life; on the other, denouncing those horrors and the authorities that devised them:

“What with the humid climate, the want of fresh meat, and the severity of the labour, no man who fell ill ever entertained a hope of recovery. Talk of the civilised notions of the English—talk of the humane principles of her penal laws—why, the Inquisition itself could not have been more horrible than the doom of the convict at Macquarie Harbour! Again I say, it was true that we were great criminals; but surely some adequate mode of punishment—some mode involving the means of reformation—might have been devised without the application of so much real physical torture!… In the penal colony of Port Macquarie those tortures were renewed daily—and they killed the miserable sufferers by inches!”

A small group of convicts finally devise a plan of escape—knowing as they do so that even if they succeed, the country itself will probably kill them. Still, they consider this preferable to the alternative. Among this group are to be found, by the way, Robert Stephens and the lawyer, MacChizzle, who (IYCCYMBTF) were the prime movers in the complicated plot that saw Eliza Sydney masquerading as her own dead brother, Walter.

The escape succeeds. For a time the convicts survive on kangaroo and possum brought down by one of their number, but in time the game dries up and the men are faced with starvation—with just one possible way of averting it:

“On the fifth night we made a fire, and sate round it at considerable distances from each other. We all endeavoured to remain awake: we trembled at the approach of drowsiness—for we knew the consequences of sleep in our desperate condition. There we sate—none uttering a word,—with cracked and bloody lips—parched throats—eyes glowing with cannibal fires…”

At length MacChizzle is unfortunate enough to fall asleep and, well…

    “Oh! the horrors of that night! I was starving—and food was near. But what food?… Presently the hissing of the flesh upon the embers, and the odour of the awful cookery, convinced me that the meal would soon be served up. Then how did I wrestle with my inclinations! And Stephens, I could well perceive, was also engaged in a terrific warfare with the promptings of hunger. But we resisted the temptation: yes—we resisted it;—and our companions did not trouble themselves to invite us to their repast.
    “At length the morning dawned upon that awful and never-to-be-forgotten night. The fire was now extinguished; but near the ashes lay the entrails and the head of the murdered man. The cannibals had completely anatomised the corpse, and had wrapped up in their shirts (which they took off for the purpose) all that they chose to carry away with them…”

The fate of another of the group, who met a grim end venturing into the bush to cut a club with which to kill the unfortunate MacChizzle in the first place, is then discovered:

“An enormous snake was coiled around the wretch’s corpse—licking it with its long tongue, to cover it with saliva for the purpose of deglutition… Its huge coils had actually squeezed our unfortunate comrade to death!”

Our pythons don’t actually get that big…but thank you for the thought.

Jem and Stephens separate themselves from the rest and go their own way. Eventually they separate from each other—and Jem is recaptured and banished to Norfolk Island. Another amusing burst of travelogue-cum-horror follows, as Jem’s description of the island’s beauties gives way to his opinion of his new place of punishment:

    “Between Macquarie Harbour and Norfolk Island I can only draw this distinction—that the former is Purgatory, and the latter Hell!
    “There is no attempt to reform the prisoners in Norfolk Island, beyond prayer-reading—and this is scarcely any benefit. The convicts are too depraved to be amended by mere moral lessons: they want education; they require to be treated like human beings, instead of brute beasts, criminal though they are; they need a sufficiency of wholesome food, to enable them to toil with something approaching a good will; they ought to be protected against the tyranny of overseers
    “Let punishment be terrible—not horrible… The tortures of semi-starvation and overwhelming toil, and the system of retaining men’s minds in a state of moral abasement and degradation in their own eyes, will never lead to reform…”

And so on.

Another escape follows. This time Jem and his fellows have almost reached New Zealand when they are shipwrecked in a storm. Jem is (at length) the only survivor, losing his companions by various means along the way, including one to another face of the local fauna:

“The vessel went down and, small as it was, it formed a vortex which for a few moments sucked us under, spar and all. But we rose again to the surface, clinging desperately to the boom. Suddenly one of my comrades uttered a fearful cry—a cry of such wild agony that it rings in my ears every time I think of that horrible incident. I glanced towards him: the water was for an instant tinged with blood—a shark had bitten off one of the wretched man’s legs!”

(“Tinged”?)

Long story short—Jem is picked by by a passing vessel and ends up in Hobart; enabling him to again inform us of both its natural beauties and the terrible things that go on there, including a lengthy rumination upon the treatment of, and behaviour of, female convicts. However, since Jem has secured civilian clothing, and there is no-one to contradict his story, he is accepted as a freeman and eventually makes his way back to England.

Jem tells his story to young Henry Holford: he who (IYCCYMBTF) used to infiltrate Buckingham Palace and spy on Victoria. He’s still doing it, we now learn; and we follow him for another lengthy session that encompasses another discussion between the two noblewomen—one of whom insists she has proof that (i) the marriage of George III to Amy Lightfoot was legal, and that all of his royal descendants are therefore illegitimate; and (ii) George’s “madness” was a hereditary condition…which explains Victoria’s “fits of depression”…

However, this time Reynolds is mostly intent upon satirising the ignorance of the royal couple about their subjects and general conditions. Thus Henry’s spying session makes him privy to a breakfast-table conversation between Victoria and Albert:

    “The very first article on which my eyes rested when I took up this newspaper ere now, is headed ‘Dreadful Suicide through Extreme Destitution.’ Beneath, in the same column, is an article entitled ‘Infanticide, and Suicide of the Murderess, through Literal Starvation.’ The next column contains a long narrative which I have not had time to read, but which is headed ‘Suicide through Dread of the Workhouse.’ On this page,” continued the Queen, turning the paper upon the table, “there is an article entitled ‘Death from Starvation;’ another headed ‘Dreadful Condition of the Spitalfields’ Weavers;’ a third called ‘Starving State of the Paisley Mechanics;’ a fourth entitled ‘Awful Distress in the Manufacturing Districts;’ and I perceive numerous short paragraphs all announcing similar calamities.”
    “The English papers are always full of such accounts,” observed the Prince.
    “And yet I would have you know that England is the richest, most prosperous, and happiest country on the face of the earth,” returned the Queen, somewhat impatiently. “You must not take these accounts literally as you read them. My Ministers assure me that they are greatly exaggerated… I spoke to the Secretary of State a few days ago upon the subject of workhouses; and he assures me that they are very comfortable places. He declared that the people do not know when they are well off, and that they require to be managed like refractory children. He quite convinced me that all he said was perfectly correct; and I really begin to think that the people are very obstinate, dissatisfied, and insolent.”
    “They are very enthusiastic in their demonstrations towards their sovereign,” remarked the Prince.
    “And naturally so,” exclaimed Victoria. “Am I not their Queen? are they not my subjects? do I not rule over them? All the happiness, prosperity, and enjoyments which they possess emanate from the throne. They would be very ungrateful if they did not reverence—nay, adore their sovereign.”

It is after Victoria has left the room that Albert discovers the hidden Henry. In the interests of hushing up the security breach, he does not expose him or have him arrested, but rather – as the disgruntled Henry later puts it to himself – has him “turned out like a dog.” So end the palace adventures.

Brooding upon the enormous gulf between the luxuries taken for granted by the royals and his own miserable life as a pot-boy, Henry sense of bitter injustice grows until conceives the idea of making himself famous in perpetuity, by becoming a regicide…

Meanwhile—various other subplots of The Mysteries Of London are winding down and opening up in closer proximity to our main narratives.

One of these concerns the Reverend Reginald Tracy who (IYCCYMBTF), while being lauded publicly as a model churchman, was secretly carrying on a torrid sexual affair with the Lady Cecilia Harborough. The affair is still going on—but now that the Reverend’s hound-dog has been let off its leash, he’s seeing desirable women pretty much everywhere he looks, and not worrying too much about the means that get him to the end.

And the next woman who catches his roving eye is Ellen Monroe.

I’m going to jump the gun here a bit and reveal that, much to my delight, George Reynolds does not bow to one of the strongest of all prevailing conventions and punish the erring Ellen by killing her off in Volume II. That said, she is far less prominent in the narrative of this volume, with the role of “heroine” rather occupied by Eliza Sydney.

(Active heroine, that is: the immaculate Princess Isabella of Castelcicala is still sitting around and twiddling her thumbs and waiting for Providence to reward her.)

However, Ellen gets her moments. She becomes, as I say, the object of Reginald Tracy’s lust, kindled the first time he lays eyes on her. Matters now carry him to Markham Place, where he accidentally learns about Ellen’s illegitimate son—and of course promptly concludes that such a “frail vessel” is his for the taking.

Tracy’s growing obsession leads him to spy upon Ellen through the key-hole as she is taking her early morning bath:

    While thus occupied, she was partly turned towards the door; and all the treasures of her bosom were revealed to the ardent gaze of the rector.
    His desires were now inflamed to that pitch when they almost become ungovernable. He felt that could he possess that charming creature, he would care not for the result—even though he forced her to compliance with his wishes, and murder and suicide followed,—the murder of her, and the suicide of himself!
    He was about to grasp the handle of the door, when he remembered that he had heard to key turn in the lock immediately after she had entered the room.
    He gnashed his teeth with rage.
    And now the drapery had fallen from her shoulders, and the whole of her voluptuous form, naked to the waist, was exposed to his view… He literally trembled under the influence of his fierce desires.
    How he envied—Oh! how he envied the innocent babe which the fond mother pressed to that bosom—swelling, warm, and glowing!

Ahem.

Nothing happens at this juncture, but Tracy decides he must have Ellen. He hasn’t quite the effrontery to approach her himself, however, and so employs a go-between: the same old hag who (IYCCYMBTF) brokered the sale of Ellen’s virginity; and who also assisted Lady Cecilia to re-seduce Tracy, after he escaped her clutches the first time. Like the Resurrection Man, the old hag (who never gets a name) is one of the threads that tie this unwieldy narrative together, as she pops up in most of the criminal subplots.

While the hag is still in the negotiation phase, Ellen correctly deduces the identity of her employer. Concealing her true feelings, she tells the hag that she will meet with her would-be lover at a disreputable public masquerade – where he is to dress as a monk – to discuss the matter; but she has done so only to expose Tracy to himself and give more power to her rejection:

“By what right do you presume that I will compromise my fair fame for your sake, if you tremble to sacrifice your reputation for mine?” asked Ellen. “Is every compromise to be effected by poor women, and shall man make no sacrifice for her? Are you vile, or base, or cowardly enough to ask me to desert home and friends to gratify your selfish passion, while you carefully shroud your weakness beneath the hypocritical cloak of reputed sanctity? Was it to hear such language as this that I agreed to meet you? But know, sir, that you have greatly—oh! greatly mistaken me!… You cherish the idea that because I have been frail once, I am fair game for a licentious sportsman like you. You are wrong, sir—you are wrong…”

All this, too, Reynolds chalks up to “reasonable revenge”:

“It struck me that if I could induce you—you, the man of sanctity—to clothe yourself in the mummery of a mask and meet me at a scene which you and your fellow-ecclesiastics denounce as one worthy of Satan, I should hurl back with tenfold effect that deep, deep humiliation which you visited upon me… My intention was to seize an opportunity to tear your disguise from you, and allow all present to behold amongst them the immaculate rector of St. David’s. But I will be more merciful to you than you were to me…”

Humiliated indeed, Tracy slinks off—back to Lady Cecilia. He’s already bored with her, and disgusted by her ready availability; as well as blaming all his transgressions upon her, for leading him astray in the first place; but hey, she’s better than nothing:

The remainder of the night was passed by them in the intoxicating joys of illicit love…

In fact, so much “better” is she that the two of them grow careless—and are caught together by Tracy’s elderly and loyal housekeeper, Mrs Kenrick, while Tracy is smuggling Lady Cecilia out of his rectory in the early dawn.

Mrs Kenrick, a simple, profoundly devout old woman who is devoted to Tracy, is shocked to the very depths of her being. Nevertheless, her very devotion to Tracy makes her think only of his repentance and redemption; she would never dream of exposing him. But Tracy, in his now-corrupted state, sees her only as a danger to his reputation—and takes steps accordingly…

The Reginald Tracy subplot in The Mysteries Of London interweaves with another that introduces a new group of characters. The second volume opens with a different perspective on the events that closed Volume I, where (IYCCYMBYF) the Resurrection Man took refuge in a gypsy stronghold, discovered there his common-law wife who had robbed him of his accumulated gold, and (among other things) ended up getting stabbed by Crankey Jem. Volume II begins with the chase that preceded all this, with Richard Markham hunting his enemy through the streets of London in company with two or three excited but dubious police officers—dubious because (IYCCYMBTF) the Resurrection Man had supposedly been killed in an explosion that did take the lives of several officers. The possibility that the person responsible is still alive inspires the others to join the chase, but ultimately their quarry is lost.

The night’s activities leave Richard in company with an intelligent young policeman named Morris Benstead. Typical of Reynolds, though he spends much of the book decrying police methods and the privileging of the rich over the poor in all aspects of the law, here he gives us one exception to his rule: Benstead is honest, hard-working and dedicated. He also becomes one of the by-now almost endless list of Richard Markham’s acolytes.

Richard and Benstead are wending their way back when they hears screams and cries for help from a building. They force their way in and find a strange and terrible scene: man is beating a young woman, in a room fitted up – we can hardly say “decorated” – with every aspect of death by hanging, including an unnervingly realistic puppet-figure dangling from a noose.

Given his constant tub-thumping about the state of the legal system in England, the injustice of the law as applied, conditions in prison, the punishment-without-reform stance of The Authorities, and (a particular bug-bear) the punitive use of solitary confinement, we are hardly surprised to find Reynolds taking an anti-capital punishment stance. Though couched in his usual rhetoric, his arguments are cogent enough: that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent; and that the process of execution degrades and brutalises everyone associated with it. (That public executions had precisely opposite of their theoretical effect was dealt with in Volume I: The Authorities finally conceded this point, although not for another twenty years.)

The man responsible for this unique style of interior design turns out to be the public executioner, one Jacob Smithers: an individual who takes great pride in his work and devotes all his spare time to improving his technique. However, to his fury and dismay, his only son, who he intends shall first assist him and then succeed to the family business, has an eradicable horror of the whole thing and defies his father to the limits of his poor strength.

The boy – christened “John”, but whose father has since changed his name to the more professionally appropriate “Gibbet” – is something curiously rare in the pages of George Reynolds: a character we’re inclined to call “Dickens-esque”; although that said, I suspect that his direct inspiration lay rather in the recent publication of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. Here is how the boy is described:

The hump-backed lad…was about seventeen or eighteen years of age, and so hideously ugly that he scarcely seemed to belong to the human species. His hair was fiery red, and covered with coarse and matted curls a huge head that would not have been unsuitable for the most colossal form. His face was one mass of freckles; his eyes were of a pinkish hue; his eyebrows and lashes were white; and his large teeth glittered like dominoes between his thick and blueish lips. His arms were long like those of a baboon, but his legs were short; and he was not more than four feet and a half high…

(We’re later told that Gibbet’s deformities are the result of being thrown violently downstairs by his father as a small boy, when he tried to intervene in a drunken brawl between his parents. I’m not altogether sure how falling down the stairs leads to this collection of attributes…particularly not the red hair!)

But of course Gibbet’s exterior conceals a heart of gold, as partly evidenced by his horror at his father’s way of life:

    “What are you snivelling at now? I’d wager a crown to a brass farthin’ that there’s many a young nobleman who’d give fifty pounds to be able to do it. Look how they hire the winders opposite Newgate! Lord bless their souls, it does me good to think that the aristocracy and gentry patronises hanging as well as the other fine arts. What would becomes of the executioners if they didn’t? Why—the legislature would abolish capital punishment at once.”
    Gibbet clasped his hands together, and raised his eyes in an imploring manner, as much to say, “Oh, how I wish they would!”
    “I’ll tell you who are the patrons of my business—profession, I mean,” continued the executioner: “and if you had a grain of feeling for  your father, you’d go down on your knees night and morning and pray for them. The old Tories and the Clergy are my friends; and, thank God! I’m a stanch Tory, too. I hate changes. What have changes done? Why, swept away the good old laws that used to hang a man for stealing anything above forty shillings. Ah! George the Third was the best king we ever had! He used to tuck ’em up—three, four, five, six—aye, seven at once! Folks may well talk of the good old times—when an executioner could make his twenty or thirty guineas of a morning!”

Gibbet’s beautiful inner nature is also displayed in his devotion to his cousin, Katherine Wilmot, who is the one person who loves and cares for him, and whose intervention on his behalf was the cause of the beating interrupted by Richard and Benstead. We learn at once that there is some doubt about Katherine’s blood relationship to Smithers, yet this does her little good as she is shunned by the neighbourhood as “the executioner’s niece”, even as she gives most of her spare time and her little money to acts of kindness and charity.

This and more Richard learns from Benstead, and of course begins to seek a way of helping Katherine. He is not the only one: Reginald Tracy also knows and feels for the girl, with what at least used to be disinterested compassion; although these days he’s also noticing how very attractive Katherine is… It is Tracy whom Richard consults about Katherine: the clergyman agrees to help secure her a domestic post that will remove her from her uncle’s household, but – having had time to think about it – concludes that no post could be better for her than one under his own roof…

In fact Katherine has long known and loved Mrs Kenrick, and she is delighted with her new position…and deeply dismayed when, one day, a strangely altered Mrs Kenrick abruptly announces her intention of sending Katherine away to her own sister in the country. But this never happens, because one evening Katherine returns from an errand to find the housekeeper dead at the kitchen table. The summoned doctor diagnoses poison—and all eyes turn to Katherine, who was on the verge of being sent away, and who just the day before purchased laudanum…she says, on the orders of the Reverend Mr Tracy, though he denies giving her any such command…

Katherine is arrested and tried for the murder of Mrs Kenrick; but she has powerful, active friends who believe in her innocence. Richard Markham knows from bitter experience how deceiving circumstantial evidence can be; and he finances a race against time by Morris Benstead to collect information in Katherine’s favour. One piece of this is a letter written by Mrs Kenrick to her sister, which reveals that she was sending Katherine away not for any fault, but to protect her; and that the person she needed to be protected from was the Reverend Reginald Tracy…

Benstead also brings the Smithers, father and son, back from Ireland—and it is Gibbet who becomes the key witness. He explains to the court that after losing his cousin’s company at home, he fell into the habit of watching her of an evening from a dark corner of the rectory yard, merely to see her. And he was at his post when strange events took place in the kitchen:

“[Mrs Kenrick] filled two cups, and then turned towards the shelves to fetch a small jug, which I thought contained milk. But while her back was turned, I saw Mr Tracy hastily put his hand into his waistcoat pocket, and then as rapidly advance his hand to Mrs Kenrick’s cup…”

Katherine is triumphantly acquitted, and Reginald Tracy arrested in her stead. As the scandal breaks, Tracy finds that he cannot face the inevitable trial, conviction and execution – even less the attendant exposure and humiliation – and takes steps to avoid both. Summoning Lady Cecilia (who he now blames for everything, and hates with a bitter passion), he persuades her to secure poison for him—in exchange for which, he promises to will her his entire fortune. Between her own terror of exposure and her love of money, Cecilia finally agrees when Tracy further promises to conceal her part in the business:

    The moment the journal was placed on the table by her side, Cecilia took it up with trembling hands, and cast a hasty glance over its contents.
    In another instant all suspense relative to the rector’s fate ceased. The following words settled that point beyond a doubt:—
    “SUICIDE OF THE REV. REGINALD TRACY.
    “Shortly after eight o’clock last evening a rumour was in circulation, to the effect that the above-named individual, whose name has so recently been brought before the public in connection with the murder of Matilda Kenrick, had put a period to his existence by means of poison…”

The weight of the world off her shoulders, Cecilia sets out immediately for the office of Reginald’s lawyer, to claim her fortune—only to discover that, not only did the rector deceive her about the money, he has revealed to his lawyer the whole story…

Facing in essence the same choice that Reginald did only the night before, Cecilia is trying desperately to think to whom she might turn for help when she runs into the one person who, for her, represents the final straw:

    “I must conceal myself—at least for the present,” resumed Cecilia. “Will you grant me an asylum?”
    “I! My dear lady!” ejaculated the hag, shaking her head ominously: “I am in danger myself—I am in danger myself! Did I not procure you the poison?”
    “True. But I would not betray you.”
    “No—we must each shift for ourselves, as best we can,” replied the old hag flatly. “Indeed, I may as well remind you, Lady Cecilia, that your day is gone—you are ruined—and, if you had any spirit, you would not survive it!”
    “My God! what do you mean?” faltered Cecilia, in a faint tone.
    “The river is deep, or the Monument is high,” answered the hag, in a significant tone; “and both are near!”

Cecilia chooses the latter:

    Down she fell!
    Her head dashed against the pavement, at a distance of three yards from the base of the Monument.
    Her brains were scattered upon the stones.
    She never moved from the moment she touched the ground;—the once gay, sprightly, beautiful patrician lady was no more!
    A crowd instantaneously collected around her; and horror was depicted on every countenance, save one, that gazed upon the sad spectacle.
    And that one wretch who showed no feeling, was the old hag of Golden Lane.
    “She cannot now betray me for procuring the poison,” thought the vile harridan, as she calmly contemplated the mangled corpse at her feet…

 
[To be continued…]
 
Footnote: While working on Part 2 of this, I came across a source of the original illustrations…and of course couldn’t resist adding this:

 

5 Comments to “The Mysteries Of London: Volume II (Part 1)”

  1. I wish I could cast my mind back half that far.

    Thanks for not abandoning us.

  2. Funny how national stereotypes change. Now the Australian hazard would be “one tiny drop of poison, which so enflamed his system that” etc.

    There’s a bit more exploitation than I (dimly) remember from last time – the bathing scene, and a nice bit of gore…

    • Likewise I’m sure!

      BTW I’ve added something to the foot of this post: you might want to scroll up a bit 😀

      There were boobs a-plenty in the first volume, including Queen Victoria’s. Rather than gore, though, there were gross-out scenes involving decomposing bodies and suchlike.

  3. And our old friend cannibalism is back!
    I just saw a Monty Python show with 5 men on a boat in the middle of the ocean. They start to discuss who will be eaten first. A slight twist – apparently nobody minds being eaten, but some of them have preferences on who they want to eat, so the discussion ends up on who ‘gets’ to be eaten. Several of them are quite offended at the others not wanting to eat them.
    The funniest reason not to eat someone – “I don’t think he’s kosher”. Not what you think a cannibal would worry about.

    • 😀

      I would have imagined that a Scotch lawyer would be a bit tough and stringy, but of course I’m no expert.

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