Posts tagged ‘penny dreadful’

03/11/2018

The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 3)

 

    “Be your resolve as it may,” added Ellen, hastily, “nothing shall induce me to turn back. Desert me—abandon me if you will, Filippo; but, in the name of every thing sacred, lend me the weapons which you carry with you.”
    The Italian made no reply for some moments, but continued to walk rapidly along by the side of the disguised lady. “I will believe, Miss Monroe,” he said, at length, “that your motives are excellent; but are you well advised?”
    “Listen,” exclaimed Ellen. “The individual, whose life we may perhaps this night save, is Richard Markham—the generous young man who has been a son to my father, and a brother to myself.”
    “I have heard Mr Greenwood mention his name many times,” observed Filippo.
    “He believes that he is to meet his brother, from whom he has been for many years separated, this night on the banks of the canal,” continued Ellen. “For certain reasons I know most positively that the idea of such an appointment can only be a plot on the part of some enemies of Richard Markham. And yet I dared not communicate those reasons to him—Oh! no,” added Ellen, with a shudder, “that was impossible—impossible!”

 

 

 

 
So far we would have to say that The Mysteries Of London is rather vindicating the personal philosophy of George Montague Greenwood. Certainly Richard Markham’s high principles and impeccable personal honour do him very little good in the practical sense; while all around him, criminals both high and low are flourishing.

This was one of the reasons that The Mysteries Of London was so loudly condemned; and it is true that for most of its length, Reynolds’ crooks are much more successful than his good people and, at the higher levels of society, live much more comfortably. (I imagine there’s a flourish of comeuppances at the end, though…but that’s a thousand pages or more away.) Moreover, Reynolds presents a staggering variety of crimes in minute detail—from burglary to fraud to counterfeiting to kidnapping for ransom to attempted rape to body-snatching to attempted murder…and to murder, of course.

Greenwood might be the most successful of the upper-society criminals, but he is not alone. Richard’s initial troubles stem from the efforts of Sir Rupert Harborough (husband to the oversexed Lady Cecilia) and Arthur Chichester, who likes to pass himself off as a gentleman of good standing, but is actually the son of a notorious pawnbroker. When the wealthy but naive Richard first goes out into the world, he falls into the clutches of these two. Their first thought is to fleece him at the gambling-tables – Chichester is an experienced sharper, and he teaches Sir Rupert the tricks of his trade – but not only is Richard opposed to gambling on principle, even when they succeed in luring him unknowingly into a den, the immediate consequence is that he witnesses a young man ruining himself and then blowing his own brains out.

Giving up that scheme, perforce, Sir Rupert and Chichester instead use Richard to pass some of the counterfeit banknotes they have been involved in producing. The notes are not as convincing as they might be, and Richard is arrested and examined by a magistrate. He is confused but not worried, certain that of course Chichester will be able to clear him:

    “I really am not aware,” said Mr Chichester, caressing his chin in a very nonchalant manner, “that I can throw any light upon this subject.”
    “All I require is the truth,” ejaculated Richard, surprised at the tone and manner of his late friend. “Did you not give me that note for five hundred pounds to change for you? and did I not receive the second note from you in exchange for fifty sovereigns?”
    Mr Chichester replied in an indignant negative.
    The magistrate shook his head: the prosecuting solicitor took snuff significantly;—MacChizzle made a memorandum;—and Whittingham murmured, “Ah! that mitigated villain Axminster.”
    “What do I hear!” exclaimed Richard: “Mr Chichester, your memory must fail you sadly. I suppose you recollect the occasion upon which Mr Talbot gave you the five hundred pound note?”
    “Mr. Talbot never gave me any note at all,” answered Chichester, in a measured and determined manner.
    “It is false—false as hell!” cried Markham, more enraged than alarmed; and he forthwith detailed to the magistrate the manner in which he had been induced to change the one note, and had become possessed of the other.
    “This is a very lame story, indeed,” said the magistrate; “and you must try and see if you can get a jury to believe it. You stand committed.”

Having dodged that bullet, Chichester and Sir Rupert go back to conspiring with Greenwood; although they can’t understand why he gets so agitated when he hears what they did to Richard Markham…

But most of the novel’s criminals are found amongst the poor and underprivileged—and were, as they one after the other reveal, driven into a life of crime by injustice and distinctly un-Christian conduct on the part of their “betters”. Thus we spend much time following the activities of Tom the Cracksman, Dick Flairer, the Buffer (who gets his nickname from his habit of stripping his victims), and of course the Resurrection Man:

    “You are certain that this is the place?” said the Resurrection Man.
    “As certain as one can be who stood by the grave for a quarter of an hour in day-light, and who has to recognise it again in total darkness,” answered the surgeon. “Besides, the mortar was soft—”
    “There might have been another burial close by,” interrupted the Resurrection Man; “but we will soon find out whether you are right or not, sir. Was the coffin a wooden one?”
    “Yes! an elm coffin, covered with black cloth,” replied the surgeon. “I gave the instructions for the funeral myself, being the oldest friend of the family.”
    The Resurrection Man took one of the long flexible rods which we have before noticed, and thrust it down into the vault. The point penetrated into the lid of a coffin. He drew it back, put the point to his tongue, and tasted it.
    “Yes,” he said, smacking his lips, “the coffin in this vault is an elm one, and is covered with black cloth.”
    “I thought I could not be wrong,” observed the surgeon.
    The body-snatchers then proceeded to raise the coffin, by means of ropes passed underneath it. This was a comparatively easy portion of their task; and in a few moments it was placed upon the flag-stones of the church.
    The Resurrection Man took a chisel and opened the lid with considerable care. He then lighted his candle a second time; and the glare fell upon the pale features of the corpse in its narrow shell.
    “This is the right one,” said the surgeon, casting a hasty glance upon the face of the dead body, which was that of a young girl of about sixteen.
    The Resurrection Man extinguished the light; and he and his companions proceeded to lift the corpse out of the coffin.
    The polished marble limbs of the deceased were rudely grasped by the sacrilegious hands of the body-snatchers; and, having stripped the corpse stark naked, they tied its neck and heels together by means of a strong cord. They then thrust it into a large sack made for the purpose…

—who in addition to his main source of income works as a burglar, as well as hiring himself out for any sort of villainy, as long as the price is right.

Though Greenwood remains the novel’s main villain, over the course of The Mysteries Of London the Resurrection Man emerges as Richard’s particular evil genius—persecuting him, as we have seen, and eventually trying to take his life.

Richard, for his part, is determined to put an end to the Resurrection Man’s career. An escalating battle takes place between the two, after their initial encounter in Newgate. When they meet again near the Alteronis’ villa, Richard unthinkingly insults the Resurrection Man, who retaliates with blackmail—threatening to reveal Richard’s past to the Count. Richard is cowed into promising to pay, though he has trouble convincing his adversary that he is no longer a rich man, and can only scrape together a few hundred pounds.

However, while waiting to meet the Resurrection Man and make the payoff, Richard encounters Mr Talbot, aka Pocock, the engraver who was responsible for the counterfeit banknotes. In the meantime he has had a falling out with Chichester and Harborough, and is only too glad to write out a declaration of their plot, and Richard’s innocence.

When Richard next meets the Resurrection Man (it not having crossed his mind that his innocence won’t make any practical difference to Count Alteroni), his attitude towards him is much changed:

    “Come now,” ejaculated the Resurrection Man, considerably crest-fallen; “assist an old companion in difficulties: lend me a hundred or so.”
    “No,” returned Richard in a resolute manner; “had you asked me in the first instance to assist you, I would have done so willingly;—but you have endeavoured to extort a considerable sum of money from me—much more than I could spare; and I should not now be justified in yielding to the prayers of a man who has found that his base menaces have failed.”
    “You do not think I would have done what I said?” cried the Resurrection Man.
    “I believe you to be capable of any villainy. But we have already conversed too long. I was anxious to show you how a virtuous resolution would enable me to triumph over your base designs;—and I have now nothing more to say to you. Our ways lie in different directions, both at present and in future. Farewell.”
    With these words Markham continued his way up Brick Lane; but the Resurrection Man was again by his side in a moment.
    “You refuse to assist me?” he muttered in a hoarse and savage tone.
    “I do. Molest me no further.”
    “You refuse to assist me?” repeated the villain, grinding his teeth with rage: “then you may mind the consequences! I will very soon show you that you will bitterly—bitterly repent your determination. By God, I will be revenged!”

His theoretical repentance begins almost immediately: the Resurrection Man follows Richard through the dark streets of London, and strikes him down when he gets the chance. He thinks he has killed him; and Richard, when he regains consciousness in his enemy’s house, has the sense to feign dead. The surroundings in which he finds himself nearly are the death of him:

    Markham was about to start from his prostrate position when the interior of that room was thus abruptly revealed to him; but for a few moments the spectacle which met his sight paralysed every limb, and rendered him breathless, speechless, and motionless with horror.
    Stretched upon a shutter, which three chairs supported, was a corpse—naked, and of that blueish or livid colour which denotes the beginning of decomposition!
    Near this loathsome object was a large tub full of water; and to that part of the ceiling immediately above it were affixed two large hooks, to each of which hung thick cords. In one corner of the room were long flexible iron rods, spades, pickaxes, wooden levers, coils of thick rope, trowels, saws, hammers, huge chisels, skeleton-keys, &c…

If he was in any doubt about the purpose of these objects, his ignorance is soon enlightened:

    “Anythink by vay of a change; partikler as when we want a stiff ‘un by a certain day, and don’t know in which churchyard to dive for one, we hit upon the plan of catching ’em alive in the street.”
    “It was my idea, though,” exclaimed the Buffer. “Don’t you remember when we wanted a stiff ‘un for the wery same Sawbones which we’ve got to meet presently, we waited for near two hours at this house-door, and at last we caught hold of a feller that was walking so comfortable along, looking up at the moon?”
    “And then I thought of holding him with his head downwards in a tub of water,” added the Cracksman, “till he was drownded. That way don’t tell no tales;—no wound on the skin—no pison in the stomach; and there ain’t too much water inside neither, cos the poor devils don’t swaller with their heads downwards.”
    “Ah! it was a good idea,” said the Buffer; “and now we’ve reduced it to a reg’lar system. Tub of water all ready on the floor—hooks and cords to hold the chaps’ feet up to the ceiling; and then, my eye! there they hangs, head downwards, jest for all the world like the carcasses in the butchers’ shops, if they hadn’t got their clothes on…”

The Resurrection Man is called away by his colleagues (to dig up the girl’s body, described above), and Richard has the opportunity to escape—although not before being embarrassingly trapped, albeit temporarily, by “the Mummy”, a hideous old crone with whom the Resurrection Man shares his residence…and who actually is his mother. When the Mummy must report that “the fresh ‘un” came back to life and escaped, her loving son is thoroughly enraged.

Richard, for his part, leads the police to the churchyard, but they are just too late to prevent the girl’s body being stolen; and he is subsequently unable to find the house again. It is in the wake of this that the Resurrection Man ruins Richard with the Alteronis. Richard strikes the next blow, when information obtained from Henry Holford (pint-sized invader of Buckingham Palace) does allow him to find the house again. He organises a police-raid:

    Already were two of the officers half-way up the staircase,—already was the door of the back room on the ground floor yielding to the strength of a constable,—already were Richard Markham and several officers hurrying down the street towards the spot, obedient to the signal conveyed by the springing of the rattles,—when a terrific explosion took place.
    “Good God!” ejaculated Markham: “what can that mean?”
    “There—there!” cried a policeman near him: “it is all over with the serjeant and my poor comrades!”
Immediately after the explosion, and while Markham and the officer were yet speaking, a bright column of fire shot up into the air:—millions and millions of sparks, glistening vividly, showered down upon the scene of havoc;—for a moment—a single moment—the very heavens seemed on fire;—then all was black—and silent—and doubly sombre.
    The den of the assassins had ceased to exist: it had been destroyed by gunpowder.
    The blackened remains and dismembered relics of mortality were discovered on the following morning amongst the ruins, or in the immediate neighbourhood;—but it was impossible to ascertain how many persons had perished on this dread occasion…

Richard allows himself to believe, or hope, that the Resurrection Man is among the casualties; but his enemy, ahem, resurrects himself when he sees a chance to wreck Richard’s life again. Just as Richard seems to have begun a promising new career as a playwright under the name “Edward Preston”, his bow to the audience is interrupted by a voice from “the gods” of the theatre that reveals his true identity and his criminal – or at least, prison – past, and ruins everything.

However—even as the Resurrection Man is tracking Richard, someone else is tracking him. When we first meet him, the Resurrection Man is being held, like Richard, awaiting his trial on a charge of burglary. He escapes imprisonment by “nosing” on his partner, Crankey Jem, who is convicted and transported—but doesn’t stay transported; and if he was cranky before—

    Meantime, the Resurrection Man had precipitated himself down stairs, and had already begun to unbolt the front door, when lights appeared, and in another moment he was surrounded by the gipsy chiefs, and pinioned by them.
    “Villain!” cried Morcar, tearing the bag of gold from his grasp: “is this the reward of our hospitality?”
    “It’s mine—and I can prove it,” thundered the Resurrection Man. “But let me go—I don’t want to hurt any of you—and you needn’t hurt me.”
    “Ah! that voice!” ejaculated the Traveller, who had just reached the bottom of the stairs as Tidkins uttered those words: then, before a single arm could even be stretched out to restrain him, he rushed with the fury of a demon upon the Resurrection Man, and planted his long dagger in the miscreant’s breast.
    Tidkins fell: a cry of horror broke from the gipsies; and the Traveller was instantly secured.
    “He is not dead—but he is dying,” exclaimed Morcar, raising the Resurrection Man in his arms.
    “Tell him, then,” cried the Traveller, in a tone of mingled triumph and joy,—“tell him that the man who was transported four years ago by his infernal treachery has at length been avenged,—tell him that he dies by the hand of Crankey Jem!”
    These words seemed to animate the Resurrection Man for a few moments: he made an effort to speak—but his tongue refused to articulate the curses which his imagination prompted; and, turning a glance of the most diabolical hatred upon the avenger, he sank back insensible in the arms of Morcar…

(Only “insensible” at this stage, we note…)

Between this post and the previous one, I think I’ve given you a good idea of what The Mysteries Of London is all about. But while there are many more things I could talk about, what I want to focus upon in the rest of this post is what I consider the single most fascinating aspect of this novel so far: the character of Ellen Monroe.

Ellen is the daughter of Richard’s agent, Mr Monroe—who has at least the grace to ruin himself as well as Richard, through “investing” with George Montague. This, you may recall, takes place while Richard is in prison. The Monroes are left in penury, forced to scratch a precarious living: Mr Monroe does piece-meal law-copying for a pittance, while Ellen does needlework for even less. It is she being exploited in that quote in Part 1, being paid a farthing and a half per hour (!!!) for her efforts.

Of course this is not enough to ward off starvation, let alone pay for a decent lodging. Ellen, with her beauty, has already attracted the attention of a nasty but shrewd old woman (the same one who arranged the Reverend Reginald Tracy’s viewing of the “statue” of Cecilia Harborough); and finally Ellen is desperate enough to ask the woman’s help. Of course the old woman has only one thing on her mind—but she sees well enough that Ellen isn’t ready to take the plunge, and has to be eased into it. She first arranges for her to lend her face to a statuary; then to model – clothed – for an artist; then to pose topless for a sculptor (and you better believe we hear about her breasts, despite the tut-tut tone); then fully nude for a photographer:

We shall not proceed to any details connected with this new avocation to which that lovely maiden lent herself. Suffice it to say, that having sold her countenance to the statuary, her likeness to the artist, and her bust to the sculptor, she disposed of her whole body to the photographer. Thus her head embellished images white and bronzed; her features and her figure were perpetuated in divers paintings; her bust was immortalised in a splendid statue; and her entire form is preserved, in all attitudes, and on many plates, in the private cabinet of a photographer at one of the metropolitan Galleries of Practical Science.

Though Ellen is still physically chaste, she is progressively losing that “chastity of the mind” so beloved of the 19th century male. She is also, though she is earning much more than for her needlework when she does work, earning it irregularly: having her income cease after she has become accustomed to having money again gets more difficult each time. And when the photographer is done, the old woman insists she has nothing more to suggest; but she is only biding her time…

At last, seeing her father starving, and his health failing, Ellen is driven back to the old woman one more time. She pleads for her help, any kind of help—and the old woman finally makes her the proposition she’s been intending to make all along.

But it’s all in the timing: these events coincide with Richard’s release from prison; and although he was forced to confront him once, to confess his loss of his fortune, Mr Monroe has not faced him since. Now, quite as desperate as Ellen, Mr Monroe takes on the shameful task of begging for help from the young man he has ruined.

And it is this that drives Ellen to the old woman. Though she has known Richard all her life – in fact, both the Markham boys – in her misery Ellen is unable to imagine him doing anything but spurning his former agent. Her anticipation of this final, crushing blow to her father is too much for her—and she agrees to sell the only thing of value that she still has in her possession: her virginity.

And then, of course—Richard does help—just a little too late.

He does more than help: he insists upon the Monroes coming to live with him and sharing his scanty bounty. For Ellen, this is almost killing with kindness…particularly in light of who it was the old woman brokered the deal with…and the fact that she, Ellen, is now pregnant…

As I said at the outset, the handling of the true identity of “George Montague Greenwood” is one of the novel’s oddest touches. Reynolds doesn’t even get into it squarely at this stage; although going forward, as Ellen gets to know Richard intimately, and benefits from his unselfishness and generosity, every aspect of her situation takes on a new kind of horror for her. However, she makes up her mind that the one thing she can do to requite Richard for all that he has done for her father and herself is to keep the truth from him at all cost.

When she realises that she is pregnant, Ellen goes to Greenwood and begs him to marry her for the child’s sake. When he counters with the offer of a life of luxury for herself and the child – but no marriage – she tells him to shove it. She subsequently manages to hide her condition from her father and Richard with the help of the housekeeper (not quite so blind as the men); and is fortunate to go into labour when they are both away from home. The baby, a boy, is smuggled out to the house of a poor young doctor, who agrees to care for it in exchange for a stipend. (Greenwood does pay for the baby’s support, which is his one semi-decent act in the entire novel.) Ellen must sneak visits the child, grieving when she sees that he does not really know her. Reynolds make it clear that, despite her circumstances, she is a loving and devoted mother, suffering by being parted from her baby—and never really suggests that she deserves it.

Once she has recovered her health and strength, Ellen goes back to thinking about earning her own living, to give Richard some relief. First she gets a job as assistant to a mesmerist and “mind-reader”; but that last only until she is guilty of an ill-timed giggling fit, mid-act. She then decides to train as a dancer, and turns out to be a quick study and a genuine talent, apart from her striking physical beauty. She quickly earns a glowing reputation, as well as a satisfactory income, as a ballerina. The main downside is that she must keep her occupation secret from her father (she performs under an assumed name); although it is also necessary for her ongoingly to evade the many men who haunt the theatre.

But she cannot evade one visitor:

    One evening, a short time before she was to appear in the ballet, the manager informed her that a gentleman desired to speak with her alone in the green-room. To that apartment did Ellen immediately repair, and, to her surprise, the found herself in the presence of Mr Greenwood.
    “Ah! I am not then mistaken,” exclaimed that gentleman, with one of his blandest smiles. “I saw you last night for the first time; and the moment you appeared upon the stage I knew you—that is, I felt almost convinced that it was you. But how happened this strange event in your life?”
    “My benefactor, Richard Markham,” answered Ellen, with singular and mysterious emphasis upon the name, “is not wealthy—you best know why; my father is irretrievably ruined—you also know how:—and, with all my faults, I could not endure the idea of eating the bread of dependence and idleness.”

    “But why did you not apply to me?” demanded Greenwood. “I would have placed you above want.”
    “No—I would not for worlds be dependent upon you,” replied Ellen warmly. “I appealed to you to support my child—our child; and you did so. There was only one way in which you could have manifested a real generosity towards me—and you refused. The service I asked you once upon my knees—with tears and prayers—you rejected:—I implored you to give a father’s honourable name to your child—I besought you to save the reputation of her whose father was ruined through you, and who herself became your victim by a strange combination of circumstances. You refused! What less could I accept at your hands? Do you think that I have not my little sentiments of pride as well as you?”

Greenwood nevertheless insists that he does care for her – in his way – and renews his offers of a life of luxury as his mistress, which the disgusted Ellen unhesitatingly throws back in his face. As we already know, Greenwood does not take rejection well; and he retaliates by setting in motion a plot to abduct her. It succeeds, up to a point—but thanks to the efficiency of Filippo, the household spy, she is enabled to escape.

Later on we get an amusing early example of “stunt-casting”: Richard learns that his first play, of which the theatre-manager has high hopes, is to include in its cast that celebrated ballerina, “Miss Selina Fitzherbert”, who has decided to try her hand at acting—at which she likewise proves brilliant. (Even as he did not know about her dancing, she did not know about his writing.) But that opening-night proves a first and last for Ellen as well as for Richard: she quits when he is driven out by the Resurrection Man’s verbal assault.

Meanwhile, Ellen maintains her vigilance over Richard’s safety and piece of mind. At one point, becoming convinced that Richard is walking into a trap set for him by the Resurrection Man – she of all people knows that the message supposedly sent to Richard by Eugene is a fake – she dons men’s clothes, arms herself with pistols, and (in a chapter titled “Female Courage”) sallies forth into the night to save his life…

Reynolds’ handling of Ellen is deeply peculiar. He obviously felt that he couldn’t go without some editorialisation on her behaviour; but while she is busy committing, in 19th century terms, the most heinous transgressions imaginable, he spends most of his time criticising her not for that, but for venial sins like her vanity. And despite those transgressions – despite, too, the sop thrown to conventionality via the boringly perfect Isabella – it is impossible to get away from the fact that Ellen Monroe is this novel’s heroine.

I tell you this—if Reynolds gets cold feet here—if he feels obliged to kill Ellen off, as per Victorian tradition—I am going to be royally pissed.

I’m hopeful that he won’t, though, judging from the fact that he grants his own open-minded tendencies to his “good” male characters. Ellen’s situation is eventually discovered when the baby becomes gravely ill. She rushes off, thoughtlessly dropping the letter sent to inform her—which is found by her father. When Ellen comes back, having been reassured that the baby has recovered and is no longer in danger, she is confronted by a man in the throes of a thoroughly Victorian emotional and physical collapse.

At this, Ellen confesses everything to him—everything. And Mr Monroe, having time to ponder her words as he lies upon what he fully expects to be his death-bed, finally concludes that (i) she did what she did for him, and (ii) dying of shame would therefore be the height of ingratitude.

So he gets better.

And as for Richard—

    The father and daughter were at length restored to partial tranquillity by each other’s endeavours at reciprocal consolation, and were commingling their tears together, when the door opened.
    Markham, followed by Marian, entered the room.
    But what was the surprise of Mr Monroe—what was the joy of Ellen, when Marian advanced towards the bed, and presented the child to his mother!
    “A parent must not be separated from her offspring,” said Richard; “henceforth, Ellen, that infant must be nurtured by thee…”

The Mysteries Of London – Volume I, at least – closes with an epilogue in which Reynolds addresses the reader directly, reiterating his overarching theme of WEALTH. | POVERTY., and expanding upon his intentions in writing this serial in the first place—all of them above reproach, of course:

    We have constituted ourselves the scourge of the oppressor, and the champion of the oppressed: we have taken virtue by the hand to raise it, and we have seized upon vice to expose it; we have no fear of those who sit in high places; but we dwell as emphatically upon the failings of the educated and rich, as on the immorality of the ignorant and poor.
    We invite all those who have been deceived to come around us, and we will unmask the deceiver;—we seek the company of them that drag the chains of tyranny along the rough thoroughfares of the world, that we may put the tyrant to shame;—we gather around us all those who suffer from vicious institutions, that we may expose the rottenness of the social heart.
    Crime, oppression, and injustice prosper for a time; but, with nations as with individuals, the day of retribution must come. Such is the lesson which we have yet to teach.
    And let those who have perused what we have already written, pause ere they deduce therefrom a general moral;—for as yet they cannot anticipate our design, nor read our end.
    No:—for we have yet more to write, and they have more to learn, of THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON.

And sure enough, across 1845 – 1846, another 52 weekly numbers of The Mysteries Of London appeared. I’m not so sure, though, that Reynolds can’t justly be accused of slacking off—because in contrast to Volume I, which in its unabridged Valancourt Books reissue is 1,176 pages long, Volume II runs a mere 1,146 pages…

 

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02/11/2018

The Mysteries Of London: Volume I (Part 2)

 

    “My mind is made up,” said Eugene, “and no persuasion shall alter its decision. I am my own master—my father’s conduct has emancipated me from all deference to parental authority. Richard, you have brought my things?”
    “My dearest brother—whither are you going?”
    “I am on the road to fame and fortune!”
    “Alas!” said Richard mournfully, “you may perhaps find that this world is not so fruitful in resources as you now imagine.”
    “All remonstrances—all objections are vain,” interrupted Eugene impatiently. “We must say adieu! But one word more,” he added, after an instant’s pause, as a sudden thought seemed to strike him; “you doubt the possibility of my success in life, and I feel confident of it. Do you pursue your career under the auspices of that parent in whose wisdom you so blindly repose: I will follow mine, dependent only on mine own resources. This is the 10th of July, 1831; twelve years hence, on the 10th of July, 1843, we will meet again on this very spot, between the two trees, if they still be standing. Remember the appointment: we will then compare notes relative to our success in life!”

 

 

 

Having addressed George Reynolds’ themes and style in The Mysteries Of London in the first part of this post, here I will try to give an overview of his characters and plots—though obviously, I will have to be representative rather than thorough, or this will be a thousand pages long, too.

(ETA: It still turned out quite long enough, thanks to the necessary illustrative quotes; so I’ll divide this piece into two.)

At its simplest, The Mysteries Of London is a tale of two brothers, Eugene and Richard Markham. They are raised in wealth and comfort by a generous yet autocratic father. Eugene, the elder, is sent to Sandhurst Military Academy—and there, out in the world by himself for the first time, and thrown amongst reckless, spendthrift young men – who, as Eugene puts it, “Enlisted me in their pleasures and debaucheries” – he falls seriously into debt. Offended both by the debt and the nature of it, Mr Markham chooses this moment to teach his eldest son a severe lesson. Since some of Eugene’s debts are from his gambling – debts of honour, in other words – his inability to pay has disastrous consequences: he is shunned by his fellow officers, and forced to sell his commission and resign.

Upon his return to the parental roof, a violent confrontation ends in Eugene taking his angry father at his word and leaving home, determined to make his own fortune in his own way.

The Markham brothers have always been close – Richard, indeed, is devoted to Eugene, though they are so different in temperament – and one of their joint projects as boys was the planting of two ash trees on a hill overlooking their home, where they frequently sat as they were growing up, to talk over the present and the future. Before setting out, Eugene makes a proposal: he and Richard will each follow their own path in the world, Richard guided by their father’s precepts, Eugene living by his wits; and in twelve years’ time, they will meet again at their ash trees to see which of them has prospered more.

And that is the last that Richard sees of his brother (at least to the end of Volume I, which takes us from 1831 to 1839). Once, he has a particularly vivid dream in which he thinks he sees Eugene standing by his bed; and on various occasions, he discovers that Eugene has carved his initials and the date into the bark of his particular ash; but no meeting between the brothers occurs, nor does Richard receive any word of Eugene.

Following Eugene’s departure, the narrative stays with Richard, who is the hero of The Mysteries Of London. He is also its chew-toy—losing his entire fortune (his portion and Eugene’s, after the latter is disinherited); being wrongly imprisoned for passing counterfeit banknotes; falling in love with a young woman whose circumstances are absurdly superior to his own; having his hopes and prospects crushed every time he starts to believe he has found a way of re-establishing himself in the world; and making an extremely dangerous enemy…

Meanwhile, we also hear of a conscienceless opportunist called George Montague—who later changes his name to George M. Greenwood, overtly as a term of an inheritance, in reality because he has made one particular corner of London too hot to hold him. (The fact that certain people do not know that “Montague” and “Greenwood” are the same person causes much difficulty and grief.) Greenwood is a skilled con-man, throwing up a smokescreen of seeming prosperity and successful financial ventures, and ruining those unwise enough to trust him to invest their money. One of those whose fortune he drains away is a certain Mr Monroe—only it isn’t actually Mr Monroe’s money: he was entrusted with the management of Richard Markham’s fortune while Richard was in prison; so that when the latter gets out, he finds himself reduced from many thousands to a few hundreds of pounds a year. When Greenwood belatedly learns what he has done, for once he is strangely disturbed…

Greenwood is also a complete scoundrel when it comes to women. It was he who seduced Diana Arlington, after she was thrown upon his tender mercies when her father was ruined—by Greenwood, of course. He also buys the virginity of another of our characters (a subplot I shall return to at more length presently). He does do something that you could call “falling in love” with Eliza Sydney – she who spends the first part of the novel masquerading as her own dead brother – and gets engaged to her. Even so, he hopes to avoid actually marrying her. Eliza’s principles are too much for him, however; and when he lets passion overcome him and ventures into her bedroom one night, she holds him off with the dagger she keeps under her pillow, and drives him away and out of her life with scorn and insults. Greenwood’s wounded ego leads him to plan a vicious act of revenge, in which Eliza will be drugged, raped while unconscious, and then – what other choice would she have? – become his willing mistress; but fortunately the plot is forestalled.

But Eliza’s escape is one of Greenwood’s few failure: for the most part he flourishes like the proverbial green bay tree.

And having shown him to the reader in all his vicious, destructive and unprincipled anti-glory, Reynolds finds the perfect place for Greenwood: he goes into politics:

    “You deserved success, after that brilliant speech;” said Chichester, laughing heartily at this narrative.
    “The polling was continued briskly until four o’clock, when the mayor closed the books and announced that George Greenwood, Esquire, Gentleman, was duly returned to serve in Parliament as the representative of Rottenborough.”
    “When shall you ‘take your oaths and your seat,’ as the papers say?” demanded Chichester.
    “This evening,” answered Greenwood.
    “And of course you will range yourself amongst the Liberals?”
    “How can you fancy that I shall be guilty of such egregious folly?” cried the new Member of Parliament. “The reign of the Liberals is drawing to a close: a Tory administration within a year or eighteen months is inevitable.”
    “But you stood forward as a Liberal, and were returned as such.”
    “Very true—very true, my dear fellow. But do you imagine that I became a Member of Parliament to meet the interests and wishes of a pack of strangers, or to suit my own?”
    “And at the next election—”
    “I shall be returned again. Mark my word for that. A politician is not worth a fig who has not a dozen excuses ready for the most flagrant tergiversation; and money—money will purchase all the free and independent electors of Rottenborough.”

One of the most intriguing things about The Mysteries Of London is that, although it is perfectly obvious to the reader who George Montague Greenwood actually is, the narrative never acknowledges it. There is only one other character who knows that unwelcome truth—and for a variety of reasons, she goes to extraordinary lengths to keep it hidden.

Eliza Sydney is another of Reynolds’ characters who masquerades under a false identity—also for financial reasons. Another con-artist persuades her to participate in an elaborate fraud, by convincing her that she herself is a victim of fraud, and that the masquerade is the only way she can redress her wrongs. In truth, under the terms of the will of the late Earl of Warrington (uncle to the present Earl, the “keeper” of Diana Arlington), whose illegitimate daughter was the mother of Walter and Eliza Sydney, Walter was to inherit a fortune if he lived to come of age; if not, the money was to revert to the original family. A certain Mr Stephens, the confidante of the late Mrs Sydney, convinces Eliza that Lord Warrington intends to withhold the money illegally, and that by pretending to be her lookalike brother (who did, inconveniently, die young), she can thwart him.

Eliza and Mr Stephens take some pains to establish her identity as “Walter”, which allows Reynolds to indulge to the full his fetish for women in drag:

    Then followed the mysterious toilet.
    Stays, curiously contrived, gave to that exquisitely modelled form as much as possible the appearance of the figure of a man. The swell of the bosom, slightly compressed, was rendered scarcely apparent by padding skilfully placed, so as to fill up and flatten the undulating bust. The position of the waist was lowered; and all this was effected without causing the subject of so strange a transformation any pain or uneasiness.
    The semi-military blue frock coat, buttoned up to the throat, completed the disguise; and as this species of garment is invariably somewhat prominent about the chest, the very fashion of its make materially aided an effectual concealment, by averting surprise at the gentle protuberance of the breast, in the present instance.
    Louisa arranged the luxuriant and flowing hair with particular attention, bestowing as much as possible a masculine appearance upon that which would have been a covering worthy of a queen.
    The toilet being thus completed, this strange being to whom we have introduced our readers, descended to a parlour on the ground floor…

He also likes emphasising the contrast between Eliza’s ultra-feminine tastes, shown in the decoration of her bedroom and the dresses she isn’t allowed to wear, and her masculine attire.

However, at the very last moment, the conspirators are exposed (a letter between Stephens and his brother falls into the hands of The Black Chamber of the General Post-Office). Eliza is so appalled to discover that she has been party to a criminal conspiracy, she reveals the entire plot, pleads guilty to the subsequent charges, and goes to prison (she and Richard are convicted on the same day, and get out on the same day: two years for both of them).

Eliza’s frankness and contrition win her the admiration of Diana Arlington and the Earl of Warrington. Diana visits her in prison, and becomes her best friend when she gets out; the Earl contributes to her support, but won’t see or talk to her: in his youth he was in love with her mother, his illegitimate cousin, whom she very much resembles; however, she rejected him to marry a farmer’s son, which is the kind of thing that happens all the time in George Reynolds’ world.

While exchanging girl-talk, Diana and Eliza discover that they have something in common:

    “Forgive me, my dearest friend,” said Eliza, taking the hand of Mrs Arlington and pressing it between her own;—“forgive me if I have kept back one secret of my life from your knowledge. That George Montague—I once loved him!”
    “You!” exclaimed Mrs Arlington in surprise.
    “Yes, Diana—I once loved that man—before the fatal exposure which led to my imprisonment;—but he behaved like a villain—he endeavoured to take advantage of my affection;—and I smothered the feeling in my bosom!”
    “Oh! you did well—you did well thus to triumph over a passion which would have been fatal to your happiness;—for never would your hopes have been fulfilled—with honour to yourself,” added Mrs Arlington, sinking her voice almost to a whisper…

But the two women don’t just commiserate with each other: they join forces, and take action to ensure that at least some of Greenwood’s dastardly schemes will be thwarted, by planting a mole in his household…

In the wake of Greenwood’s attempted rape, Eliza decides that she can only truly be safe from him by leaving England. She departs for Italy, and the Grand Duchy of Castelcicala, where the Earl owns a property.

Castelcicala is necessarily fictional – hilariously, its capital city is “Montoni”, after the villain in The Mysteries Of Udolpho – because it is the site of the most extravagant of Reynolds’ wish-fulfillment fantasies. How extravagant do they get? Let’s put it this way: he manages to elevate Eliza Sydney, ex-con, offspring of a farmer’s son and an Earl’s bastard, to the throne of Castelcicala—when the elderly and rather tyrannical Grand Duke Angelo falls in love with her. Various horrified statesmen try to prevent the intended marriage by revealing Eliza’s past to the Grand Duke, but it turns out she has told him all about herself already, and he doesn’t care. So in rapid succession, Eliza Sydney is created Marchioness of Ziani, and then becomes the Grand Duchess Eliza of Castelcicala…

…which is the kind of thing that happens all the time in George Reynolds’ world…

The marriage of Eliza to the Grand Duke has significant implications—not least the possibility of an heir to the throne. Castelcicala has been in turmoil for years, with tensions between the faction supporting the Grand Duke and his traditional, iron-fisted rule, and that supporting his nephew and heir, Prince Alberto, who wants to introduce more liberal ways. To prevent civil war, Alberto has voluntarily banished himself from his country, along with some of his followers.

One of the latter is the Count Alteroni, who settles with his wife and daughter in a villa outside of London. The Count’s own liberal ideas have led him to seek acquaintance with Thomas Armstrong, a radical writer, who in turn introduces Richard to the Count and his family—after the two of them become friends in prison:

    “I am a person accused of a political offence—a libel on the government, in a journal of considerable influence which I conduct. I shall be tried next session; my sentence will not be severe, perhaps; but it will not be the less unjust. I am the friend of my fellow-countrymen, and my fellow-creatures: the upright and the enlightened denominate me a philanthropist: my enemies denounce me as a disturber of the public peace, a seditious agitator, and a visionary. You have undoubtedly heard of Thomas Armstrong?”
    “I have not only heard of you, sir,” said Richard, surveying the great Repulican writer with profound admiration and respect, “but I have read your works and your essays with pleasure and interest.”
    “In certain quarters,” continued Armstrong, “I am represented as a character who ought to be loathed and shunned by all virtuous and honest people,—that I am a moral pestilence,—a social plague; and that my writings are only deserving of being burnt by the hands of the common hangman. The organs of the rich and aristocratic classes, level every species of coarse invective against me. And yet, O God!” he added enthusiastically, “I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and aristocracy!”

Armstrong is clearly – very clearly – intended as a self-portrait; so it is curious that Reynolds kills him off quite quickly, albeit for plot-purposes. (And no, he’s not martyred for his cause.)

Richard and the Alteronis take a strong liking to each other, and the inevitable happens: Richard and the beautiful young daughter, Isabella, fall in love. Richard is nevertheless painfully conscious of his own circumstances, but cannot quite bring himself to tell the truth to Count Alteroni. However, the choice is taken out of his hands when he offends the Resurrection Man (as quoted in Part 1). The latter tries to burgle the Alteronis’ villa and, when caught, does Richard as much harm as he can—which as it turns out is a lot:

    “Silence, my dear friend,” said the count authoritatively: “I will hear the man, let him be who or what he may!”
    “And you will do well to hear me, sir,” continued the Resurrection Man. “You harbour a villain in your house; and that villain is now before you. He boasts of having secured the affections of your daughter, and hopes to gull you into allowing him to marry her.”
    “Miscreant—murderer!” exclaimed Markham, no longer able to contain his indignation: “pollute not innocence itself by these allusions to a lady whose spotless mind—”
    “Hush!” said the count. “Let us hear patiently all this man has to say. I can soon judge whether he be speaking the truth; and if he deceives me, I will show him no mercy.”
    “But, count—allow me one word—I myself will unfold—”
    “Excuse me, Markham,” interrupted the Italian noble, with dignified firmness: “I will hear this man first. Proceed!”
    “The villain I allude to is of course that Markham,” continued the Resurrection Man. “It was him, too, that induced me and my pals, the Cracksman and the Buffer, to make this attempt upon your house to-night… This is all I have to say—unless it is that me and your friend Markham first got acquainted in Newgate—”
    “Newgate!” ejaculated the count, with a thrill of horror.
    “Yes—Newgate; where he was waiting to be tried for forgery, for which he got two years in the Compter. And that’s all. Let him deny it if he can.”

Richard is promptly exiled from his earthly paradise and, though he manages later to convince the Count and Countess of his innocence (Isabella never doubted him), it does him to good: to the Alteronis, he is “tainted” by his time in prison, be he never so innocent.

But then circumstances intervene, with the Count becoming another of the victims of a certain enterprising financier…

In fact, things run so far in the opposite direction that the Count ends up in a debtors’ prison. Richard, who has managed to consolidate the poor remains of his fortune, pays to free him. He does it anonymously, but Isabella has no doubt about who was responsible, and convinces her parents of their debt to him. As a result, Richard is summoned back into the fold—but his happiness is short-lived, as Isabella’s devotion to him leads her to tell him the truth; the whole truth:

    “Beloved girl—this moment is the happiest of my life!” exclaimed Markham; and tears of joy filled his eyes, as he pressed the maiden once more to his heart.
    “Yes, Richard,” continued Isabella, after a long pause; and now her splendid countenance was lighted up with an expression of dignity and generous pride, and the timid, bashful maiden seemed changed into a lady whose brow was encircled with a diadem; “yes, Richard, if ever I felt that no deed nor act of mine shall separate us eternally—if ever I rejoiced in the prospect of possessing wealth, and receiving lustre from my father’s princely rank—”
    “Isabella!” exclaimed Richard, dropping the arm on which the Italian lady was leaning, and stepping back in the most profound astonishment: “Isabella, what mean you?”
    “I mean,” continued the signora, casting upon him a glance of deep tenderness and noble pride; “I mean that henceforth, Richard, I can have no secret from you,—that I must now disclose what has often before trembled upon my tongue; a secret which my father would not, however, as yet, have revealed to the English public generally,—the secret of his rank; for he whom the world knows as the Count Alteroni, is Alberto, Prince of Castelcicala!”
    Strange was the effect that this revelation produced upon the young man. He felt, as if, when in a burning heat, a mighty volume of icy water had suddenly been dashed over him: his head appeared to swim round—his sight grew dim—he staggered, and would have fallen had not Isabella rushed towards him, exclaiming, “Richard—dear Richard—do you not believe how much I love you?”
    Those words produced an instantaneous change within him: those sweet syllables, uttered in the silvery tones of lovely woman’s tenderness—recalled him to himself.
    “Ah! Isabella,” he exclaimed, mournfully, “how insuperable is the barrier which divides us now!”

Of course…Richard doesn’t know that he’s living in George Reynolds’ world…

 

[To be continued…]

 

22/10/2018

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…]

 

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…

 

23/10/2015

The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight

BlackBand1    In the lanes and alleys of the city, in the dismal rookeries where destitution and crime herd together in dismal companionship, the thief plies his dangerous trade, and the thief-catcher watches for his victim. In the gayer streets of the Western world of rank and fashion, the wretched daughters of sin, with silken garments and aching hearts, wait upon the miscalled pleasures of the wealthy and dissipated. Guilt and degradation are abroad beneath the midnight sky. Crime stalks beneath the quiet stars, and fears not to show its hideous face, hidden from the broader light of day…
    Oh wondrous mysteries of midnight! The felon doomed to die on the early morrow waits the coming of his executioner, with parched and burning lips which refuse to pray; with listening ears that count the strokes of the last hours left for his guilty soul; with dazzled eyes that see strange sights in the dim obscurity of his narrow cell; visions of horror and departed peace; of his victim’s death struggle, and of the happy home of his childhood. Oh, who shall tell of the tortures of the murderer’s last midnight? Far away in foreign lands, the soldier watches in his tent, on the eve of some decisive battle. He may never again hear the hour of twelve strike from distant turrets. There are prayers to be hastily murmured—prayers whose sincerity none can doubt, whose acceptance who shall fear? There are letters to be written to the grey-haired mother, tender words to the fair young wife waiting and hoping in the distant English home; while far away the clashing of arms, the galloping of horses’ hoofs, tell of preparations for the coming morn.
    No, midnight is not the hour of rest and silence we are so apt to deem it. The mighty wheel of Life and Time still rolls on. The ceaseless waves of the ocean still bent on the troubled shore; and that which is more restless than the ocean wave, or hurrying cloud, the heart of man, still fights the terrible battle—still suffers and still sins…

One of the remarkable things – one of the many remarkable things – about Mary Elizabeth Braddon is that while she was pursuing a successful public career as the author of “real” albeit rather shocking novels meant for middle- and upper-class readers, she was simultaneously toiling away at penny dreadfuls published in magazines aimed at the working-classes. Most of Braddon’s work in this area was conducted anonymously, and it is only recently that her activities have been brought to light.

Braddon’s first attempt at a penny dreadful was The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight, which ran in The Halfpenny Journal between July 1861 – June 1862 at an average of two chapters per week. In 1877, the tale was reissued in book form by the publisher George Vickers, but it was heavily abridged; there was likewise a pirated American edition which was even more altered from the original. The Black Band was not reissued unabridged until 1998, when The Sensation Press released a limited edition.

It is easy enough to see the connection between The Black Band and Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris; in fact, imitations of Sue’s work were popular for many years, with authors all around the world offering to reveal “The Mysteries Of—” this, that or the other city to their wide-eyed readers. The difference is that Sue used his sprawling serial as a forum in which to raise and debate various social issues, whereas his copyists were, for the most part, content to shock and entertain. The latter is mostly true of Braddon’s work, although – typically, as we have already seen – she does also voice a number of social criticisms when her plot allows.

Another connection between The Black Band and Les Mystères de Paris is that its constantly multiplying storylines* make it impossible to review; all we can really do is offer an outline of its dizzyingly complicated tangle of subplots, and then highlight some of its more interesting features.

(*In the Sensation Press edition, The Black Band runs 612 pages; Braddon is still introducing new characters and subplots at page 505.)

Rather than “a plot”, as such, The Black Band has a central premise, one which allows Braddon to pile incident upon incident upon incident for one hundred and one breathless – not say exhausting – chapters, most of which end upon a cliff-hanger. Along the way, the reader is edified with murder, attempted murder, adult abduction, baby abduction, death-faking, imprisonment, attempted rape, forgery, bigamy, arson, robbery, a mock marriage, illegitimacy, insanity, suicide, a variety of betrayal and treachery, and some extremely bloody vengeance.

It can be fairly said, I think, that the readers of The Halfpenny Journal got rather more than their money’s worth.

So: at the centre of this story is Colonel Oscar Bertrand, an Austrian soldier of high social standing, but who is also the head of a secret criminal organisation called “The Black Band”, otherwise known as “The Companions Of Midnight”:

“I am the centre of a system so vast in its operations, that it extends over the greatest part of civilised Europe. I am the captain of a company so large that there are men in it upon whose faces I have never looked, and never expect to look. It is a company which, though continually at war with society, can yet – secure in its internal strength and the unfailing prudence of its operations – afford to defy society year after year. Recall to your recollection some of those gigantic robberies which have startled the wealthiest cities of Europe – robberies in which a skill has been displayed partaking almost of the supernatural – robberies which have defied the determination and the perseverance of the cleverest police in Europe, and which have remained undiscovered until this hour. Remember these, and you may form some idea of the resources of the mysterious company of which I speak.”

We eventually learn that Bertrand’s ultimate personal goal is to establish himself himself with the Austrian government by bringing about the destruction of those who have devoted themselves to freeing Venice from Austrian rule.

Braddon became aware of Italy’s struggle for independence when she was commissioned to write the epic poem Garibaldi in 1860, and she put her researches to effective if somewhat cynical use in The Black Band. Although she positions her Venetians amongst her “good” characters and shows herself sympathetic with their cause, ultimately their role is to step up at the end of the story, when it’s time for gruesome retribution to be dished out to her bad characters; thus leaving her good English characters with clean hands.

We note with amusement that most of those good characters have something in common: The Black Band is full to overflowing with poor and/or working-class people who are happy because they are virtuous; whereas all the rich people are miserable, and most of them criminal. While obviously this is Braddon catering to her target audience, it is not mere pandering: we must remember that Braddon herself knew what it was to be poor, and to struggle to earn a living wage. Her family was left in an extremely precarious situation after her irresponsible father finally did a bunk (not coincidentally, I’m sure, The Black Band is full of terrible fathers; the one or two good ones are adoptive, not biological), which led to Braddon going on the stage when she was only a teenager. When she speaks bitterly of starvation wages and the battle simply to survive from day to day, we can feel that she is drawing upon her own early experiences.

While he keeps a company of professional burglars at his disposal, most of what we see of Oscar Bertrand’s recruitment to his criminal society is done amongst the upper-classes—where there is no shortage of secrets to be exploited. Bertrand will help cover up a crime, if that is what is needed, or he will help in the commission of one. He particularly excels in helping people to come into possession of, or to keep, a fortune—for a price, of course.

Bertrand is one of these super-criminals who never seems to sleep. He spends his time flying from one end of England to the other, and from England to Italy and back again, seeking out dirty secrets he can use to bind new members of the Black Band to him, and others from which he can profit. Bertrand is a master manipulator, who uses the weakness and greed of others to his own ends. Recruits to the Black Band are tied to the society under threat of death, should they try to leave or betray the society in any way.

The Black Band opens with scenes of Oscar Bertrand’s recruitment of Lionel Mountford:

    The face of the young nobleman grew ghastly white at the Colonel’s last words. “And you ask me to join a band of robbers?” he said.
    “I ask you to do what better men have done before you,” said Colonel Bertrand, coldly. “Members of the company have been the inhabitants of palaces before today. From the highest to the lowest—the strength of the band lies in that. Wherever there is genius, courage, endurance, and patience; a hand that can strike, or withhold from striking; a tongue that can be silent, and a head that can think,—wherever there are these, there is a worthy member. High or low, let him enter the band. He will never leave it.”
    “Your words appal me,” said Lord Lionel, gloomily.
    “Will you join us – yes or no?” said the Colonel.
    “What do you promise me if I do join you?”
    “The wealth you desire, and the hand of Lady Edith Vandeleur before the next year is out.”

And on these terms Lionel recklessly throws in his lot with the Black Band. He is blindfolded and carried off to a strange rendezvous with an assembly of masked men:

    “You hear, brother,” said the Colonel, “you are accepted by the Companions of Midnight. Is it not so, brothers?”
    The masked company raised their hands simultaneously. Lord Lionel noticed that while many of the hands were coarse and large, others were small, white, and delicate, and adorned with costly rings.
    “Executioners of the Order, advance!” said the Colonel.
    Two men rose, and advanced from the opposite sides of the amphitheatre. They were both dressed in black from head to foot, and Lord Lionel perceived that they each wore a long slender knife, fastened to a belt which went round their waists.
Each of them silently took one of Lord Lionel’s hands, which he held while the Colonel uttered the following words,—
    “Executioners of the Order of the Companions of Midnight, the brother whose hand you now clasp will never be harmed by you, while faithful to the society which he this night swears to serve. If unfaithful to that society, he will become yours to strike when you can, and how you can. Mercy is unknown to you – you are the blind and pitiless instruments of the order to which you belong. If the new brother is too weak to take the oath of the Order, let him release your hands as I speak these words. If he holds your hands after these words, he is supposed to have taken the oath. If he refuses to join, let him drop the hands of the executioners.”
    A deadly shiver agitated the frame of the young nobleman, but his hands tightened upon the hands of the executioners, which he grasped with convulsive strength…

The woman for whom Lionel takes this drastic step is one of The Black Band‘s wickedest pleasures, with Braddon showing what she could do when her hands weren’t tied by tenets of middle-class morality. Lady Edith Vandeleur loves Lionel Mountford (albeit that her feelings are repeatedly qualified with remarks like, “As far as a woman of her nature could love—“), but she will not marry a penniless younger son. She wants fortune and splendour, and a title if she can get it. It is her cold-blooded spurning of Lionel that drives him into Oscar Bertrand’s clutches.

However, not knowing that the Colonel is keeping his word to Lionel by disposing of his elder brother, a wealthy Marquis, Edith lures into marriage Robert Merton, “the millionaire-merchant”. Driven frantic by her subsequent discovery that, had she bided her time just a little longer, she really could have had it all, Edith herself becomes Colonel Bertrand’s next recruit—and she, the daughter of an earl, raised in luxury and privilege, takes to a life of crime like a duck to water.

Braddon has a lot of evil fun with Lady Edith, having her move from one shocking piece of behaviour to the next, and dwelling in mock-horror upon her transgressions, each one worse than the last, even while she punctuates her narrative with tut-tut passages like this one:

    “Goodness, virtue, truth!” she cried, with a sneer; “will those win me admiration or respect? No! I must be able to outdo them all in pomp and splendour, and then, though they may hate me, they will bow to me, and lick the dust under my feet.”
    If anybody who beheld this lovely creature (crowned with snow-white flowers, emblems of the purity which was a stranger to her guilty soul), could have known the secrets of her wicked heart, how loathsome would her grandeur and beauty have appeared!
    How far before her the poorest cottage girl, walking barefoot over her native heath, whose heart could glow with a sincere affection, and whose soul could scorn a falsehood!

And of course, Braddon serves up several poor-but-virtuous young women to act as a direct foil for Edith, the most prominent of whom is Clara Melville who, interestingly enough, works as a dancer to help support her father and younger siblings. And Clara is not the only one of Braddon’s good characters who is “on the stage”: Clara is befriended by a prima ballerina called Lolota Vizzini, who is a foreigner as well as a professional performer, but who is warm-hearted, generous and thoroughly honest. We also have an actor called Antony Verner, who is a quiet, well-behaved, high-principled young man.

At one point, Clara is hired to perform in a Christmas pantomime. As she prepares to make her debut, we get a sudden interjection from Braddon:

Merry children with bright and joyous faces were assembled in the boxes; happy tradespeople, dressed in their best, filled the crowded benches in the pit; stalwart mechanics, in tier after tier, looked down from the immense and noisy gallery. All was noise, bustle, and enjoyment. It was altogether a pleasant sight to see; and the austere teachers, who cavil at the harmless amusements afforded by a well-conducted theatre, might have learned a lesson thgat night. Husbands were there, surrounded by their wives and children; brothers with their sisters. Surely this was better than the gin palaces…

Braddon’s personal exasperation with the automatic damning of the stage as “immoral” is very evident through these subplots. She goes out of her way to show how performing is just a job like any other and that, if young women on “the stage” do go wrong, it is not because of any inherent immorality, but because of greedy employers who pay wages their performers cannot live on—particularly if they are working to support dependents. And because she is talking to a working-class readership, Braddon can speak frankly about the sheer necessity that drives young girls to supplement their incomes by immoral means; and while she does not condone this choice, neither does she condemn the girls who make it, keeping her anger for the men who prey, one way or another, upon the vulnerable.

(In pursuit of her argument, Braddon introduces a theatre manager called Rupert de Lancey, who pays his young women as little as he can get away with, among other wrongs. There is so much venom in Braddon’s sketch, and she kills de Lancey off so horribly, that we can only conclude he was based on someone she knew in her theatre days.)

Daringly, Braddon makes Clara Melville, who we must call the heroine of The Black Band, a ballet-dancer attached to the Opera House: these young women had the worst reputation of all those in the various stage professions, with many a young man treating the environs of their theatre as their hunting-ground. Clara, however, wants only to do her work, earn her wage, and go home. Her beauty attracts attention, but she is scrupulous in avoiding the men who hang around the stage doors—until she encounters one who will not take no for an answer, in the form of the old roué, Sir Frederick Beaumorris. Enraged by the scorn with which Clara spurns him, Sir Frederick has her abducted and carried off to a property in France that he keeps for these situations. He doesn’t believe that Clara really means what she said to him, mind you; he assumes she’s merely trying to drive up her price; but if she did mean it, well, that’s just too bad…

Clara avoids A Fate Worse Than Death by the unexpected intervention of Oscar Bertrand, who forestalls that, at least, by revealing to Sir Frederick that she is actually his own niece, the daughter of the younger brother whom he defrauded and left destitute by means of a forged will. This knowledge does not make Sir Frederick any less eager to destroy Clara; he just alters his approach. He joins the Black Band in exchange for assistance in keeping his crime concealed; which, since it turns out that the original will was not destroyed after all (one of the conspirators getting cold feet), may require the permanent removal of Jasper Melville, aka Arthur Beaumorris, and of his daughter, Clara.

One of the most outrageous characters in The Black Band is Dr Montague Valery, a West End physician who maintains a successful practice despite the astonishingly high death-rate amongst his patients; or rather, because of the astonishingly high death-rate amongst his patients:

    It was strange that, clever as the physician was, he rarely went into a house whose threshold was not speedily crossed by the dark visitant, Death.
    The wife, whose husband Montague Valery attended, wore weeds soon after the coming of the physician. The heir, who summoned Valery to attend his father, rarely waited long for his heritage. Behind the doctor stalked the invisible form of Death; and, go where he would, the undertaker was apt to follow.
    He was at home when Sir Frederick Beaumorris called…

The will that should have enriched Arthur Beaumorris is eventually unearthed in the rackety old house which Antony Verner shares with his mother, and which in time also becomes the home of Clara and her younger siblings. The house previously belonged to Antony’s uncle, who was one of Sir Frederick’s co-conspirators, and who said just enough on his deathbed to let his nephew know there was a mystery. On Clara’s behalf, Antony hires a lawyer to instigate proceedings against Sir Frederick Beaumorris in the Court of Chancery, and that lawyer, Weldon Hawdley, comes accessorised by a shabby-looking, middle-aged clerk. It is, however, soon evident who the brains of the outfit is, and that whatever professional success Hawdley has had, it has been on the back of the efforts of Joshua Slythe, who progressively emerges as the unlikely hero of The Black Band.

As with Lady Edith, Braddon has a lot of fun with this improbable but entertaining character; though we sense she’s not kidding with her contention that real heroes do sometimes come in very unexpected forms:

Again Joshua heard the key turned in the door. He wondered what was meant by this proceeding on the part of the agent. A coward would have trembled. Alone, in a strange house, in a strange corner of town, and completely in the power of a wretch, whose character he knew to be infamous, Joshua Slythe was certainly in no pleasant situation; but the old clerk was not an ordinary man; fear to him was utterly unknown. Many a stalwart giant, upwards of six feet high, might have envied the brave spirit of the lawyer’s confidential clerk.

We have seen already, in our examination of The Trail Of The Serpent, that Braddon was an important figure in the development of English crime fiction, and she takes another step in that role here. Slythe is not really a detective, but he is an investigator; he is also the honest (and of course, working-class) counterpart of Oscar Bertrand, in that he has a profound understanding of human nature in its blackest forms, and an unerring instinct for a secret. His hard-earned knowledge has left Slythe with a cynical patina, but he is unshakeably on the side of the angels. Late in the book he forms a couple of interesting working partnerships, the first with a pugnacious farmer, John Atkinson, the second with Antony. Both men are initially bewildered by Slythe’s manoeuvring; both, however, quickly learn to follow his orders without question.

It is Slythe, then, who tracks down Arthur Beaumorris after he is abducted and imprisoned in a private lunatic asylum; it is Slythe who recognises Montague Valery’s evil designs upon Arthur and Clara, and takes steps to circumvent them; and it is Slythe who breaks up the burglary arm of the Black Band’s English branch (although amusingly, most of the criminals succeed in escaping the law; still, their activities are put a stop to).

Meanwhile—

We left Lady Edith furiously and disgustedly married to Robert Merton. To cut a very long story short, she tries to murder her husband, fails and is caught, is incarcerated (privately, under the guise of “madness”, to avoid shaming her family), escapes and flees, all at the prompting, and with the connivance, of Oscar Bertrand (well, except for the failure), who subsequently reunites Edith with Lionel and packs the pair of them off to Venice, where Lionel’s job is to infiltrate and betray an important anti-Austrian secret society.

While separated from Edith due to the events above summarised, Lionel made the acquaintance of Lolota Vizzini, who fell in love with him. At that time, Lionel was still fixated upon Edith, but he was clear-sighted enough to recognise the vast difference between the two women (that is, between the foreign ballerina and the earl’s daughter), and likewise the very different quality of Lolota’s love. However, even had Lionel then been able to cure himself of his love for Edith, it could not have been—because Lolota is a married woman.

At seventeen, Lolota married a man she did not love to escape her brutal father, only to discover that she had merely gone from frying-pan to fire. She eventually separated from Antonio Vecchi and struck out on her own, finding success and fame as a dancer; however, her achievements bring her no happiness because of her situation, with Vecchi turning up periodically to demand large sums of money as the price of staying away.

Vecchi is a member of the Black Band (no big surprise, there) and he is tasked with carrying the information gained by Lionel back to London. Vecchi is a serial betrayer, with a history of joining political societies, learning their secrets, and selling them to the highest bidder; he decides to circumvent Bertrand and carry his information directly to Austria, to reap all the benefits himself. It is, of course, a fatal mistake:

    Colonel Bertrand took a key from his pocket, and deliberately unlocked the grated door of the cell. He stood aside as he opened this door, and, with a howl of fury, an enormous tiger bounded from its den and leapt upon the Italian traitor. It seemed as if the animal had power to divine the purpose of its master.
    The dagger dropped from the hand of Antonio Vecchi. He fell to the ground beneath the weight of the powerful animal. The atmosphere was filled with blood. He was helpless—suffocated. The weight of the monster’s paws upon his breast stifled him, a jerk, and the spinal cord was dislocated, the traitor expired…

Yes, that’s right: Oscar Bertrand keeps a tiger around, just in case.

Although this dramatic execution is intended both to fulfil the conditions of the warning contained in the oath that all members take to the Society, and to act as a grim warning to those watching, it naturally has the side-effect of widowing Lolota Vizzini; so that when she and Lionel meet again, she is no longer a married woman…

In Venice, Lionel and Edith pose as brother and sister, she furthermore as the widow of a French nobleman. Lionel at this time is as miserable as he can be, worn down by guilt and self-hatred, and by something else:

    For years Lady Edith had been the lodestar of his existence—the bright and wandering meteor leading him through seas of guilt, indifferent whither he went in pursuit of her he loved.
    But, during those past years he had only seen her at intervals. He had beheld her the queen of a ball-room, the idol of a crowd—he had seen only her beauty and fascination, and for these he had alone worshipped her.
    Within the last few weeks he had learnt to know her!

Such is Lionel’s state of mind when he discovers that Lolota is appearing in Venice; Lolota, whom he has learned to appreciate and to love. In their moment of reunion, neither can conceal their emotion—Edith sees it clearly enough, and is overwhelmed with jealous rage. Even as Lionel and Lolota make secret – they think – plans to flee, from Edith and the Black Band alike, Edith begins making plans of revenge. The lovers intend to slip away to Naples in the first instance, travelling separately to avoid attracting attention. This gives Edith her chance: working with a conspirator from the Black Band, she succeeds in decoying Lolota into a fever-ridden corner of the city, gloating at the thought that even if Lionel manages to find her, he will only find a corpse…

That taken care of, Edith makes plans for her own future:

    Within a fortnight of Lord Willoughby’s departure from Venice, the marriage of the Marquis and Constance de Grancy (it was thus that Edith called herself) was solemnised with great pomp and splendour in the church of St Mark.
    Lady Edith had declared herself a Roman Catholic. What mattered the difference of creed to this fiend in human form—this worshipper of Satan, who could scarcely have believed in the existence of an all-seeing and avenging Deity.
    The vows were spoken which united Constance de Grancy and Lorenzo de Montebello in the holy bonds of matrimony. The would-be-murderess added the guilt of bigamy to her list of crimes.

Throughout her time in Venice, Edith has lived in dread of meeting someone who knows her as Lady Edith Vandeleur or, worse, as Lady Edith Merton. Should this happen, her plan is simply to deny her identity and brazen it out; but this doesn’t work when it is Oscar Bertrand who confronts her. The information gathered by Lionel had no long-term effect upon the conspirators, and the Black Band needs to try again. Edith’s husband knows when and where the next meeting of the anti-Austrian society is to be held: Bertrand gives her a week to get the information out of him; if she fails, she will be exposed.

Edith succeeds, but only just; in the extreme urgency of the matter, she and Bertrand are just a little careless: their conversation is overheard…

Braddon concludes The Black Band by dealing out happiness and retribution with a liberal hand—in a few cases, we are surprised at who is deemed worthy to warrant the former, or at least to avoid the latter. However, there’s never any question of what’s coming for Lady Edith and Oscar Bertrand, after their plot against the Venetians is discovered.

On one hand:

    The niche, or recess, measured about three feet and a half in breadth, and six feet in height… As Lady Edith looked at these things a stalwart figure emerged from the opening in the rock, and Black Carlo appeared before the masked leader.
    “We have done our work, Captain,” he said.
    “Ay,” answered the mask, “and you have done it quickly and well. The niche is neatly made, and we have brought the statue.”
    One of the masked guards laughed.
    “Come, Signora,” said the Captain, “can you guess now why we have brought you here?”
    “To murder me!” exclaimed Lady Edith.
    “No,” answered the mask, with horrible deliberation; “to bury you alive!

…while on the other, Oscar Bertrand is lured into drinking some “wine” prepared by a scientifically inclined member of the Venetian society:

The handsome face of the Austrian was now a ghastly and revolting spectacle. Every spark of intelligence had fled from his once brilliant eyes. His chin fell forward upon his breast, and his under lip hung powerless upon his chin, while a white foam oozed slowly from his open mouth. His head, which, four-and-twenty hours before, had been carried with the haughty grace of an emperor, now trembled like the head of some wretched being in the last stage of decay. His hands hung loosely from his wrists, as if every sinew had been withered and every nerve destroyed. He stared straight before him—his dull meaningless laughed the discordant gibbering laugh of an idiot…

This is our last glimpse of Colonel Oscar Bertrand in The Black Band:

The wretched creature burst into a loud peal of shrill laughter, and tottered away, gibbering and mouthing as he went…

Note, however, that Braddon does not explicitly kill him off. Even at this early stage of her writing career, she knew better than to do THAT to her master-criminal…

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