Friday, 31 January 2014

Arthur, the Historic Hero

Stephen Knight

This paper was initially written for the early 2013 medieval section of the Australasian Universities Literature and Languages conference, and then revised, and somewhat more Celticised, for the mid 2013 Celtic Studies conference at the University of Sydney. I had long felt, through teaching his text, that Geoffrey of Monmouth was not read sufficiently in terms of popular native traditions, and felt that a formal comparison with early heroic literature would be of value. It turns out in fact to emphasise the originality of Geoffrey’s approach and his intellectual modernity in his period, while also showing he did have earlier connections, positive as well as negative. The other surprise was how many of these major early texts appear to be contemporary. in the form in which we have them, with Geoffrey. Not only he, it seems, was re-realising the past at that time. There appears to have been a form of medievalism with which medieval literature started.


We have a fair amount of material surviving from the six hundred years or so between the period of post-Roman decay and the c.1100 re-establishment of a post-conquest Europe-facing world in Britain, but the historic material tends to have specifically focussed interests and the secular heroic material appears quite unconnected with it. It seems the two traditions, historic and heroic are inherently separate, until they are finally condensed in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth and in the person of Arthur, and I will argue that it is this generic condensation that provides a major dynamic driving the medieval myth of Arthur and is a major reason for both the cultural weight –historic –and the cultural appeal – heroic – of the Arthur myth..

There is very little genuinely comparative analysis both across the genres of history and heroic literature and more strikingly across the languages -- Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and Welsh and Irish. However, we can definitely rule out of such criticism Nora Chadwick, the great Cambridge-based early British and Irish scholar. She has a tangible presence in my thoughts today because it was after Sydney University’s Fisher library bought the bulk of her library in 1971 that we were able to extend our teaching and research seriously in the early British period, especially its Celtic aspects. In saying we I refer especially to my friend and outstanding Sydney colleague the late Professor Bernard Martin.

The richness and also the separation of the genres of history and heroic is often strong. It is well-known that the riches of early Irish culture quite outrank those of parallel European traditions, and so it is hardly surprising that in both heroic and historic literature it has major instances, and here I will mention the prose epic with verse inserts, the Tain Bo Cuailgne, `The Cattle Raid of Cooley’, and the  massive and very rich Lebor Gabala Erenn, `The Book of the Taking of Ireland’. Copied down by Christian monks, and with some traces of Christian commentary now and then, The Tain relates to ancient events. Connaught attacks Ulster at a time when, for explained reasons, the warriors of Ulster are as weak as women in childbirth, so it is fortunate that their great hero Cuchulainn is not in fact an Ulsterman and can defend the province single-handed – though at one stage his father Lugh, often in the past called the Celtic Apollo, stands in for him to provide a rest. The heroic element can be startling. When Cuchulainn winds up for battle he undergoes his heroic distortions: a pillar of blood rises from the middle of his head; one eye grows as large as a dinner plate; the other eye is so small a crane could not pluck it from his head.

Yet this amazing hero story is not entirely without some historical aspects. It tells overall a stark account of how Connaught and Ulster almost destroy each other  in their exercise of heroic values; there is also a full gathering of the names of heroes, their genealogy, the meanings of place names, and a linking-in of earlier stories like `The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu’, the tragic story of Queen Deirdriu: the effect is powerful quasi-history. Some scholars have even suggested that as the cattle-raid is caused by the powerful desires of the regnant Queen Medb of Connaught, the story’s full meaning is to validate the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy in the Irish past. The heroic can approach the historic, even when generically very different.

But it is clear that a different sort of historical account is behind the various stories, many in verse, that are gathered together in the Lebor Gabala Erenn, which is a good deal more than a mere account of the `Taking ‘ of Ireland by the Irish. Appearing to stem in this full version from the later eleventh century, it is both a history of Ireland and also a  powerfully Christian text, with the first volume in the classic edition dealing with the Old Testament period of the movement of peoples. There is some overlap of names, mostly kings, with secular traditions (but almost none with the Tain), and there is still a good deal of detailed scholarship still to be done: the processes of assembly of the text are still far from understood – which do not only involve Ireland. One of the surprises is that the earliest appearance of Lebor Gabala Erenn material is in fact in a text written in Latin in Wales by the year 800, in a context which I will come to later. But in general it is possible to see the Tain and the Lebor as representing the genres of heroic and historic which have usually been taken separately and thought to be basically antithetical, but may well approach each other more than has been recognised.

This seems the case in early Britain as well, at least at first. and indeed there seems a separation into sub-genres of history, Christian and secular. Firmly in the first category is Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae (`Concerning the Ruin of Britain’), written by the mid sixth century -- c. 540 is the usual date, though the late fifth century has been suggested -- and surviving in a manuscript from the later eleventh century. Gildas’s mission is not simple history: it is very strongly Christian history. Hanning calls it `a historical imagination used for moral purposes’ (45-6). The first twenty-seven fairly short chapters tell a broad historical story of how the sins of the Britons have led to their downfall – and there is little value given to Celtic British resistance to the Romans, who are seen as Christian colonisers. Boudicca herself is called `a treacherous lioness’ (18) and in general the British are `cowardly in war and faithless in peace’ (18). Though the Christian Britons do have moments of value – they are enabled to cross the Thames like Israelites negotiating the Red Sea – this book is in the tradition of the much-followed Eusebius, whose third century Ecclesiastical History saw sin and punishment as the basis for historical disaster.

Very few figures are named who are not also lambasted for villainy: Gildas speaks of five contemporary Welsh leaders of his own day as  anti-church, violent and sinful, like Maelgwn Gwynedd, much honoured in other Welsh tradition. There is however one recent positive memory. At what is for him some length, Gildas speaks of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a leader of clear Roman origin, as conducting a successful defence against the invading Germanic tribes which climaxed at the battle of `Mons Badonicus’ and lasted for some half a century. This was about forty-three years ago and things have turned very bad again, a justified providential response to the sins of the British.

This battle of `Mons Badonicus’, or Baddon, is of course the battle at which Gildas does not mention Arthur whereas in a couple of hundred years another text will link them. A reason often given is that Gildas mentions few names, especially not favourably-seen ones. However, a recent  argument is that if the chapter divisions are not present – as they are not in the earliest manuscript -- Baddon, as `the last defeat of the villains’ (Gildas, p. 28) may well simply have been the last of Aurelius’s victories. So this is a brief, if high impact, heroic presence, called up by history

After the historical opening Gildas provides over eighty chapters of exhortation about the sins that surround him, and how attention to Christian duty is the only thing that could lead to a better situation – it is a providential history on which he is relying, and he never imagines the British, with their burden of sin, can defeat the Anglo-Saxons however much he dislike the invaders. The briefly mentioned Roman hero has passed: there is no sign of a native heroic world and no real interest in secular history either.


The same genre of heavily Christian history, pointing in a different direction, and without any trace of the heroic, was produced by Bede by 731, named in a strong Christian tradition an Ecclesiastical History – but this time of  `the English people’: the Celts, especially the Welsh, are largely written out of recent British history. The early historic chapters are  drawn from the De Excidio, including in Chapter 16 the story of Aurelius Ambrosius, who is justifiably against the Anglo-Saxons because they were then still `heathen conquerors’ (63). Just like Gildas, Bede’s mission is to defend and strengthen the Christian church, but his method is not to excoriate sin but to praise the organisers of the church and its systems. As typified by the material on the date of Easter, Bede stands for organised international stable Christianity, and has no need of secular heroic traditions. In fact he tends to underplay civil and court violence, no doubt in part because tucked away in Jarrow it did not come to his notice very much – his world is very different from the busy urban world of Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks. But this is also a preference: for Bede real action is ecclesiastical not heroic, which is very much the point of the story about Caedmon switching his poetic genre.

So though Gildas and Bede are great combiners of material, they separate historic and heroic, apart from Aurelius. Distinctly different was the author of the Historia Brittonum, put together by about 800, and surviving earliest in a manuscript of around 1100. In the past the author was called `Nennius’, though that name could only be attached to a later redaction: yet when this named person says he has assembled all he could find, he seems to describe the Historia process very well. The word used is coacervavi and for some reason translators have said `I have made a heap’, presumably because they think little of the quality of the assemblage. But coacervo means `I assemble’, `I compile’: compiled is better than piled.. What was assembled was Gildas-linked material on the origin of the Britons, a fair amount of data from a northern history, Christian material such as an account of St Patrick, seen as a new Moses for the Irish. There are usually several hundred years of the Annales Cambriae, and, most interesting here, the Historia also includes some material from secular and specifically heroic Welsh tradition.

In general the Historia seems to be at times knowingly mixing the historic and the heroic. Nora Chadwick located the text in early ninth century Gwynedd (North Wales) when, in part because of `a relaxation of Viking pressure’ but also through the power of the local kings of Gwynedd Merfyn Frych and Rhodri Mawr, both intellectual activity and a sense of nationalism develop in the Celtic countries. This is where and when the earliest manuscript survives – the contacts with Ireland were quit rich. The heroic, in such a context, may have a para-historical value, and Chadwick’s argument indicates that the church and the secular apparat are here close, which seems to facilitate the historic-heroic link as we will later see.

Classical and historic detail does not in the Historia preclude a Christian viewpoint. St Germanus is the opponent and eventually, mediating divine power, the destroyer of Vortigern, the pro-Germanic British prince. The eventual British resistance is itself seen in Christian terms. But as well as chapters on Germanus and Patrick, secular material provides those on Emrys and Arthur. Emrys is the Welsh form of Ambrosius Aurelianus. He is the marvellous boy who is found in order to be sacrificed to save Vortigern’s tumbling tower, but he plumbs the mystery that there are fighting dragons beneath the tower. We will know him later as Merlin, but here he is not a figure of wisdom, but primarily heroic, the true British prince who builds his own castle and rules. And we have for the first time the story of Arthur and his twelve successful battles, some recognisable – as well as four in Lincolnshire, there is one in southern Scotland, one at `urbs legionis’, presumably Chester, and of course the important one at Baddon. Arthur is presented as a formidable hero, killing 960 in one day (a triune Celtic-style number, though 990 might be more traditional). He is capable of battle-fury as at Baddon, but he is also a Christian leader, bearing the image of Mary into battle.

Presumably this, like the Cambrian Annals references to Baddon and Camlann, Arthur’s battles, is material coming from secular heroic traditions enlisted in a form of historical nationalism, beyond or beside church interests. There are similar native instances. In chapter 39 Vortigern has had a son by his daughter, and St Germanus is kind to the boy. Razor and scissors are brought, and the boy asks his father `of the flesh’ to cut his hair, but Vortigern angrily refuses: this is a reverse of Arthur fondly cutting the hair of his nephew Culhwch. Towards the end, the Historia goes on a tour of the wonders of Britain. We see a stone marked by the great paw of Arthur’s hound Cafal as the king chased the mighty boar Twrch Trwyth: this chase also occurs in Culhwch ac Olwen.

The Historia Brittonum is overall a text striking in its rich mix of genres, information and comment. But its richest quality, never properly identified and certainly not respected, is that here for the first time British history is to some degree hybridised with British secular heroic tradition. The historic and the heroic are at least side by side. We will see how they can interrelate more fully in a while in Geoffrey of Monmouth. But first it will be useful to look at the secular heroic traditions, elements of which have entered the Historia, to see what happens in them, and what does not.


The hero stories that we have from this period are dark: in the Táin, Ulster and Connaught slaughter each other; Beowulf’s grand career and splendid kingship comes to a stark if honourable end. In a more overt example of heroic self-consumption, Roland dies in a paroxysm of martial glory. For Arthur, Camlann will always follow Baddon. We know that epic does not end with a song and dance of happiness, but these narratives seem to be doing more than just letting time and human life pass as they do: they seem to be taking a stand beyond the collapse of a grand order and reflecting back on its values and its inherent weakness – that is, you can see a distinct element of history, even moralised history, in the structure of these noble but sombre heroic narratives.

The other striking feature is that they are filled with detail that itself speaks to the historical without making the connection overt. It is not only the Táin which is full of genealogies and explained place-names. The references in Beowulf make up a whole study and reclaim a whole social culture of the Germanic past now seen and remembered from England. The Song of Roland in the same way weaves the history of families, wars and political manoeuvring into the events that focus on one day at Roncesvalles in August 778. The absence of a formally understood classical or Christian historic genre does not prevent these texts from speaking about the past of  social, even national, culture, if only referentially. In Culhwch ac Olwen there is a sequence almost six pages long in the translation which lists the names of Arthur’s warriors, with an encyclopedic quality.


It is Geoffrey of Monmouth who brings together fully the historic and the heroic, fulfilling the promise and it seems the intention of the Historia Brittonum, and as he does this primarily, as least as far as his readers and his influence are concerned, through the figure of Arthur, it is appropriate to discuss and speculate briefly about the possible existence of a separate and early heroic Arthur story like those of Cuchulainn, Beowulf and Roland.

As has been noted, the first link between Arthur and the Anglo-Saxons is in the Historia Brittonum, datable to about the year 800. Welsh tradition has other early references to Arthur, but none is certainly earlier than the Historia, and, more strikingly, none of them identifies Arthur as a defender of the British against Germanic invaders, just as a major warrior figure. Two battle-poems mention him: in the Gododdin, a powerful memorial to warriors from the Edinburgh region who fought the Anglo-Saxons at Catraeth in about 600, he is once mentioned as a even greater warrior than the hero being lamented in that stanza. The link may well be just that their names rhyme, Gwawrddur and Arthur, and equally casual is the fact that this stanza cannot surely be traced to the poem’s earliest layer. Another elegiac poem speaks of a battle probably in Somerset, where the hero Geraint fought and died. The narrator says he saw Arthur there as `guider of toil’, meaning battle, and uses the word `amherawdyr’ of Arthur, implying `general’ – the Latin imperator behind the Welsh does not though  make him a Roman general. It is often said, with some reason, that Arthur does not appear in the early Welsh genealogies nor its pagan mythology. But two other very different early poems place him in a semi-mythic world. In Preiddeu Annwfn he and his men go in his ship Prydwen (`Beautiful’) on a very costly raid on the otherworld; then a poem called simply after its opening words Pa Gwr lists the feats of Arthur and especially Kai  in fighting battles – these include one which may well be the same as one of those listed in the Historia Brittonum, but also includes tussles with witches and other monsters.

Geoffrey of Monmouth states that he was using an ancient British book as his source, given to him by Walter the Archdeacon. He says this book had a `consecutive and orderly narrative’ (51) and set out all the deeds of all his British kings, and he has translated it from Welsh or British as he calls it. While the Historia Brittonum does have the range he specifically mentions, from Brutus to Cadwallader, it quite lacks both the detail and the order. When he speaks of the end of Arthur he again refers to Walter, but here only says Walter told him about this. Maybe he suggest this knowledge was in part oral, though he obviously had the Historia Brittonum (and suppressed all reference to it), and also Welsh genealogies, as well as a good classical library. Did he also have access to an early heroic Arthur epic poem ?

As a way of thinking about an ur-Arthur text that Geoffrey might have read, I went through the heroic texts and identified characteristics as Lord Raglan does for the international hero in his book The Hero. I found a few features shared by Beowulf and Roland, and a couple of contacts between Culhwch and Roland. Between Arthur and Roland I could only see in-family treason and the disastrous final battle being shared. The surprise was that I found about eight features common to Arthur and Beowulf: indirect access to kingship; defeating monsters; military achievement overseas; ruling in glory; final battle; lasting honour; warrior fame; emblem of past glory. Between Arthur and Cuchullain I found perhaps five shared features: mysterious double-fathered birth; absence from domain in childhood and youth; access to power when young; warrior leadership; elusive marriage. Perhaps more puzzlingly, it has long been noticed that Arthur shares a lot of heroic characteristics with Finn McCool. Finn has some 11 heroic attributes and Arthur shares 8 of them, but Finn’s story is entirely heroic, not at all historic. The most telling statistic is that in Geoffrey’s account, of the 22 `international hero’ motifs listed by Raglan, Arthur scores some 16 – and through all the later development gains at most 2 more. This makes him score very highly in international terms. Almost none of these heroic events pre-exist Geoffrey: it is his version that makes Arthur the international hero.

I do not mean to suggest that Arthur’s story is constructed as a combination of influence from Cuchulainn and Beowulf: the contacts are hero-generic. So when did Arthur become an international hero?  It is conceivable that a lost text from say the ninth century assembled this Arthur material, a post Historia Brittonum venture in Welsh, but where is it, or where are the references to it ? The figure was of such interest the story would surely have survived in some form, and be shadowed in Culhwch ac Olwen. I think it is far more likely that Arthur’s hero-story was put together by what we know to have been the brilliant, imaginative and structurally assured hands of Geoffrey of Monmouth, as part of his being the only full combiner of historic and heroic in this early period. This would be a parallel to his handling of the Merlin story.

Yet this imaginative power may not have been as unusual as we might think. In preparing this paper I wanted to get the dates of production of texts reasonably accurate, so checked up on what scholars thought. In terms of the histories, the material is fairly securely datable – to the life of Gildas and Bede, for example, or to a set of records being produced, as with the Annales Cambriae that are used in the Historia. Only the Historia Brittonum, which has a heroic loading, has a puzzling even, multiple dating. Yet this is the case with all the hero stories and, most interesting of all, in almost all cases around the year 1100 seems to be the earliest when scholars are confident that the text we have took its shape. While there is a strong tendency to feel and argue that these are ancient materials rehandled in literary mode – and early commentators seemed to yearn for real antiquity in these materials -- a case can and has been be made for the contrary, for an eleventh-century Beowulf or Roland, for example or even a twelfth-century Culhwch or Cuchulainn: a medieval creation of the Tain has been argued for. The recording and it may be at least some of the structuring of the hero stories may be a retrospective part of the moment of  medieval innovation. The early medieval heroes may be a high medieval retrospective construction.

Though most people remember Geoffrey’s work for Arthur, his Historia is a large, well-planned whole reaching from the founding of Britain to the founding of Celtic British rule. It has many functions: a major one, which has been well-discussed by scholars, is to shape a mythic past for the new Norman rulers. But
Norman as its main subliminal direction may be, Geoffrey’s Historia maintains a recurrent interest in the British position. I leave these two themes, Geoffrey’s British and Norman connections, unamplified here.

But sustaining and subtending  this ultimately para-Norman and recurrently pro-British meaning in the text, there is another structure that may facilitate condensing the heroic and thehistoric. Hanning has written at some length about what he calls a new twelfth-century historiography. In some detail he describes Ordericus Vitalis, Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury moving away from the absolute providentiality of earlier Christian-based history. He sees them as, in classical mode, developing a narrative with `a larger role for human causation’ and `a lively interest in psychological motivation’ (126).

Geoffrey is very much in key with this new position, and it connects with his own classical traditionality as he mimes classical hero-history at times. Within the flow of Geoffrey’s detailed account of kings and royal families and their triumphs and conflicts, there are three major sequences focused on individuals in this new world of Britain. First we have Brutus, no longer seen through a quasi-scholarly set of overlapping accounts as in the Historia Brittonum, but given a potent active biography. Later comes the story of the great Celtic leader Belinus, with his somewhat difficult brother Brennius, how they ruled and squabbled in Britain, combined to defeat and then destroy Rome, and how Belinus returned to prolong a benign rule over Britain and found the city that became Caerleon. Then of course appears Arthur, the main focus, Geoffrey’s gift to succeeding ages and artists. Little follows him: Bede’s northern Anglo-Saxon kings are only briefly mentioned through the medium of the Historia Brittonum: never considered  is the undoubtedly great Alfred or the decidedly holy Edward the Confessor. Geoffrey’s model is to set in history the heroic post-Roman British leaders, and then to invent a divine message to Cadwallader to tell him the time of the Britons is over – at least until Merlin’s prophecy comes true -- so Cadwallader leaves for Rome and plague sweeps Britain. It is a striking final return to providential Christian history in order to exculpate the British from losing their land. The text says that `those few Saxons who remained alive’ (282) send for new settler stock to Germany: Anglo-Saxon England is reduced to a few hundred years only, before power passes to the Normans.

Thorpe, in his Introduction (21-2), asks why Arthur became the stand-out success, not Belinus. Maybe people had heard of Arthur ? But not the Normans, surely. The real reason is structural, Geoffrey’s use of the full-blown heroic and international-hero model for Arthur’s formation, while Brutus and Belinus are just classical fragments. Geoffrey developed the approach of the Historia Brittonum, using with real imaginative power the secular heroic materials it yoked awkwardly to history. In a brilliant sequence borrowed from the earlier Historia, Emrys, Vortigern and Arthur are all redeveloped, Arthur most of all. Emrys is turned into the wise cross-temporal figure of knowledge, Merlin; Vortigern into the enemy whose defeat by true Britons is ideologised by secular Celtic Merlin, not the saintly continental Germanus; and then Arthur is given the full Cuchullain/Beowulf/Roland treatment -- in fact goes beyond them, augmented to full international epic hero status ranging from his mysterious birth to equally mysterious passing.

With his splendid buildings like those then going up across England, his tight hold on the church (his uncle St David has taken over as archbishop, in a fully Norman-style if also ahistoric operation), with his capacity to lead from the front in furious battle, Arthur is every inch a Norman-style monarch, meshing heroic warrior achievement with historic political status. That immediate credibility was driven by the underlying and overwhelming power of the epic hero which Geoffrey had the power – and the place and the time – to interweave with the model of a dedicated history. Augustinian canon that he was, not a monk or priest (though he very late became a priest to become a bishop), Geoffrey held back the Christian providential force of the earlier historical narratives—though he had things to say ironically about the church, as Valerie Flint showed in Speculum in 1979. As a secular scholar, closely involved with the new Norman state, Geoffrey’s position is more like that of the Gwynedd writer who shaped the Historia Brittonum, except that Geoffrey has the confidence and power to condense the historic and the heroic, rather than intercalate them.

Though it is generally agreed there was an early shorter version of the Historia Regum Britanniae, from Geoffrey’s hand, I find it very improbable that there was anything like a previous substantive source as Geoffrey suggested in a familiar medieval authority-seeking manoeuvre. The previous version is, it seems to me almost certainly, the Historia Brittonum, to which we can add Geoffrey’s wide knowledge in Latin and Welsh traditions, and no doubt many conversations of the kind he implies with his learned friends at Oxford like Walter the Archdeacon.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, the saying goes, and here there were two men. One was Arthur, to represent the new force of European monarchy, including its fears and dangers – the international hero set in a version of  history; and the other man was Geoffrey, scholar, wit and creative writer, in the best combined tradition of all three, but mostly the imaginative creator  and bringer to fruition of a long Britain-related tradition of writing,  both historic and heroic, that, through his genius, still exerts its power over creative accounts of the heroic and the historic to this day.



1. Early British historic material


After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions, as eagerly as the bees to a beehive when a storm threatens, and begged whole-heartedly, `burdening heaven with unnumbered prayers’ that they should not be altogether destroyed, Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of all the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm: certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him our people regained their strength and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented and the battle went their way.

From then on victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in his people the Lord would make trial (as he tends to) of his latter-day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted right up till the year of the siege of Mount Badon, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth: as I know, one month of the forty fourth year since then has already passed.

Historia Brittonum

Vortigern and Germanus

39. Then, on top of all his misdeeds, Vortigern took his daughter to wife, and begot a son upon her. When this was made known to saint Germanus, he came with all the clergy of Britain to accuse him. When the great Synod of the clergy and laity met together in a single council, the king told his daughter beforehand to come to the meeting, and put her son in the lap of Germanus, and say that he was the child’s father. The woman did as she was told, but Germanus took the child kindly, and addressed him `I will be you father, and will not send you away, unless a razor and scissors and comb are given me, and you are permitted to give them to your father after the flesh.’ The boy heard him, and turned to his grandfather Vortigern, his father after the flesh, and said to him, `You are my father. Crop the hair of my head.’ But he was silent, and said nothing, and refused to answer the boy. He got up in great anger, and fled from the face of saint Germanus, and was accursed, and was condemned by saint Germanus and the whole council of the British.

Arthur’s battles

56. At that time the English increased their numbers and grew in Britain. On Hengest’s death, his son Octha came down from the north of Britain to the kingdom of the Kentishmen, and  from him are sprung the kings of the Kentishmen. Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their leader in battle.

The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth, were on another river, called the Dubglas, which is in the country of Lindsey. The sixth battle was on the river called Basas. The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is the battle of Coed Celyddon. The eighth battle was in Castle Guinnion, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his  shoulders, and the heathens were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The tenth battle was fought in the bank of the river called Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns.

2. Welsh heroic Arthur material

 The Gododdin

He glutted the black ravens on the wall
Of the fort, though he was not Arthur


In Llongborth I saw Arthur,
Brave men struck with steel,
Emperor, guider of toil.

Pa Gwr
Before Emrys’s lords
I saw Cai on the move,
Spoils he carried off,
The tall man was in anger,
Heavy was his vengeance,
Bitter was his anger.
When he drank from a buffalo horn
He drank for four men;
In battle when he came,
For a hundred he would kill;
If god did not cause it,
Impossible would be Cai’s death

Preiddeu Annwfn

I am famous, splendid if the song is heard:
In the fortress, four-cornered, four-sided,
In poetry from the cauldron it was spoken,
By the breath of nine maidens it was set ablaze.

HERO FUNCTIONS (as in Raglan, The Hero)

1. Mother is a royal virgin

2. Father is a king and

3. Often a near-relative of his mother

4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual

5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god

6. At birth an attempt is made to kill him

7. But he is spirited away

8. And reared by foster-parents in a far region

9. Nothing is known of his childhood

10. On reaching adolescence he enters his future Kingdom

11. After a victory

12. He marries a princess

13. And becomes king

14. He rules uneventfully

15. And prescribes laws

16. Later he loses favour with the gods and/or his subjects/his family

17. Is driven from the throne or city

18. He meets with a mysterious death

19. Often in a high place

20. His children, if he has any, do not succeed him

21. His body is buried, but there is some doubt about his death

22. He has one or more holy sepulchres

Arthur:  2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22    (close 17, 19 )

REFERENCES (In order of occurrence)


Táin Bó Cúailnge, `The Cattle Raid of Cooley’, trans. Thomas Kinsella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970)

Lebor Gabala Erenn, `The Book of the Taking of Ireland’, ed. R. A. S. MacAlister, Irish Texts Society, vols xxxiv-viii, new edition with Introduction by John Carey (London, Irish Texts Society, 1993)

Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae`, `Of the Destruction of Britain’, ed. and trans, Michael Winterbottom (London, Phillimore, 1978)

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica de Populo Anglice, `Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, with Introduction  by D. H. Farmer, revised ed. (London, Penguin, 1990)

Gregory of Tours Historia Francorum, `The History of the Franks’, trans and with Introduction by Lewis Thorpe (London, Penguin, 1974)

[Nennius], Historia Brittonum, `History of the Britons’, ed. and trans. John Morris (London, Phillimore, 1980)

Le Chanson de Roland, `The Song of  Roland’, trans and with Introduction by Michael A. H. Newth (New York, Italica, 2011)

Beowulf, trans Kevin Crossley-Holland, with Introduction by Heather Donoghue (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999)

Culhwch ac Olwen, in The Mabinogion, trans G. and T. Jones (London, Everyman, 1966).

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, `The History of the Kings of Britain’, trans. and with Introduction by  Lewis Thorpe (London, Penguin, 1966)


Robert Hanning, The Vision of History in Early Britain (New York, Columbia University Press, 1966)
N. K. Chadwick, `Early Culture and Learning in North Wales’, in Studies in the Early British Church, ed. N. K. Chadwick (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1958).
Christopher Brooke, The Saxon and the Norman Kings (London, Collins, 1967)
J. S. P. Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1950)
V. I. J. Flint, `The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth: Parody and Its Purpose, A Suggestion’,  Speculum 54 (1979), 447-68.

Friday, 24 January 2014

`For the Best’: the Multiple Identities of Paul Féval

Stephen Knight

This paper was written for a 2013 conference on global crime fiction and I here wanted to develop some thoughts about interconnections of theme and influence between England and France in the early period, here focussing on the work of Féval and taking my account of his writing beyond the chapter in my book The Mysteries of the Cities which looked only at his Les Mystères de Londres. As this was the only paper on an early topic, I decided not to include it in the special issue of Clues which Stewart King and I are editing from the conference – I have substituted a piece on Vikram Chandra’s ultra-modern cities novel Sacred Games.

In the early to mid nineteenth century there appears to have been more cultural contact between Paris and London  than is usually recognised – far more than in the twentieth century. Crime fiction shows this clearly. The Mémoires de Vidocq were translated into English book and theatre form in 1828 almost as soon as they appeared in Paris, and translation seems not always to have been needed: the novels of Mrs Trollope were well-known in Paris though very few were translated, and this was true in London as late as about 1870 with Gaboriau’s work. In a chapter called `The Language of Auguste Dupin’ Maurizio Ascari has shown in his book a Counter-History of Crime Fiction how many interchanges there were: for example, Hawkshaw the Detective, much admired in mid-century England and America, had a French origin in Le Retour de Melun. Though Maurizio sadly cannot be here at this conference, at least some of his learning is present.

We know especially abut Mrs Trollope because her name was used in a major Paris/ London link. In 1842-3, Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris was doing very well as a feuilleton on the front page of Le Journal des Debats, Anténor Joly looked for something to match it for Le Courrier français. He turned to a young writer, the Breton lawyer turned novelist Paul Féval, who had just done well with Le Club des Phoques, `The Seals’ Club’. By December 1843 the paper was printing Les Mystères de Londres, under the by-line Sir Francis Trolopp, a change of gender and spelling from Frances Trollope, well-known as travel writer and novelist, not yet as mother of Anthony Trollope.

The serial did well and Féval went on to many successes, specialising in criminal melodramas,  under his own name. But the hijacked name was not the only form of multiple identity. In his early plots Féval would write some distinctly international mysteries, and inside them he would deal almost obsessively with issues of multiple identity of characters – maybe they had some origin in his life as a Breton lawyer turned Parisian writer, but also they seem to speak of movements towards the formation of something like  a European identity, if primarily a threatened and even a threatening one.

It is true that the central figure of Les Mystères de Paris is international: Prince Rodolphe comes from a small German principality, but he spends all his effort countering crime in Paris, and his displacement is based on Sue’s liberal reaction to the conservatism of the French aristocracy. Feval’s internationalism in Les Mystères de Londres is much wider-ranging, though it is ultimately focused on a hostility to England that is quite in keeping with French attitudes post-Waterloo.

This time the interest of the outsider aristocrat is simply to destroy English society. The Marquis of Rio Tinto plans to rob the  Bank of England (via a tunnel), blow up the Houses of Parliament, execute the King (William IV),  and with an army of one hundred thousand Irishmen completely take over London. Where Rodolphe battled against the professional criminals of Paris, the Marquis has enlisted `the gentlemen of the night’, and allows them little liberty for personal criminality.

But who is this Marquis ? He is not a blue-blooded liberal, like Prince Rodolphe. In a plot that deliberately slowly unravels – a feature of Féval’s techniques – he turns out to be Fergus O’Brian, whose parents were native Connaught gentry ruined by an English landlord. They moved to the Irish slum at St Giles in London, and died. He became friends with a Scottish family, but was framed for crime by an English lord who also loved the family daughter, and was transported to Australia.

As is surprisingly common in these grand melodramas he escapes, and grandly. He captains an eighteen-gun sloop that becomes a world-wide pirate ship, and he assembles a massive international set of allies that enables him to set up in London as the Marquis, with international supporters, like the Russian ambassador Prince Tolstoy, and with a set of corrupt British professionals and dedicated London criminals. There is the beautiful Susannah, thought wrongly to be the daughter of a Jewish master criminal, and the wicked false Duchesse de Grèves, and a double-identity lieutenant who is both the blind criminal Tyrrel and the robust gentleman Sir Edmund Mackenzie.

Féval uses a basically tourist version of London – he visited for the first time half way through the novel’s serialisation and was pleased with his relative accuracy—and there are some fine elaborate scenes, notably on the river and at the opera. The Marquis’s great plot fails on the day it is launched, but that it is because of personal betrayals being avenged, not because the novel shows the plot is illegal or even unwise. It is brought down by a mix of Scottish and English aristocrats and gentry: Féval was no social radical, just a French ultra-patriot. The novel did quite well in France, and quite well in the USA – there has never been an England-based translation. The novel combines a deeply anti-English plot with a range of wry and sometimes snide comments: wife-selling is described as `a barbarous and cowardly custom, only known in England’.

The novel was part of the spirit of the international times: His city was Londres, not London,. As it was finishing there appeared the English version of Sue, George Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London, starting in August 1844 as a weekly eight-page serial. This was rich with English radicalism – Reynolds was a Chartist and decidedly on the left, but it too had an international element, but not through Féval’s influence, Reynolds had lived in Paris for nearly ten years and had written well on French fiction. His hero, the son of a London banker, gets into trouble and then into jail through no fault of his own, but meets an Italian liberal count, loves his daughter and will soon command his army as the Count takes back his principality: Richard will himself become a European liberal prince just like Rodolphe, but one by his own efforts not birth – and here too there is an escape from Australian transportation story, but of a rather admirable criminal who turns to good when back in London.

If Reynolds follows an international path not entirely unlike Féval’s for contextually parallel reasons, in his next novels Féval worked along a richer and more positive version of the same themes. After Les Mystères de Londres he published regularly – Le Bossu (1857) was the most successful, a Europe-wide disguise-based melodrama, but he also dealt with England and Ireland at times, and turned back to international themes in Jean Diable appearing in 1862-3. Brian Stableford, its translator and a serious Féval scholar, has claimed it is the first police detective novel: that view is over-excitable: but the novel is still interesting for its internationality.

It starts in Paris 1863, its year of publication, but looks back to London, in 1817 – watch this date. Gregory Temple is Scotland Yard’s leading detective – some 24 years before they existed and he has been there since 1790, a revolutionary date there as well. He has written a major book on the art of detection entitled The Art of Discovering the Guilty, stressing – well ahead of Sherlock Holmes -- that apparent impossibility is the way in to solutions. He has an assistant, James Davy. The big current case is the murder of Constance Bartolozzi, in London. It may involve the mysterious and polymorphous master criminal Jean Diable, John Devil. There are sudden problems: Gregory drafts his resignation and stalks out. James Davy remains behind. He goes through the files and destroys some. Have you noticed his initials ?

The story relocates to France where it will stay, though it makes a range of international adventures, mostly in back stories. Central, if also multiple in identity is Henri de Belcamp, son of the Marquis de Belcamp, and so he is Comte de Belcamp. The father lives in a castle in a peaceful part of the Oise valley – Féval likes these rural settings not far from Paris. But Henri has been away for a long time. His mother was an English beauty called Helen Brown, the daughter of a rich brewer. Both his partners became the fiancé of Constance Bartolozzi, recently murdered, who also came from Miremont-sur-l’Oise. There is too much riotous elaboration of plot to bother with, either here or in general, but what we do need to know is that the Marquise Helen moved on, and started drinking and stealing, but she also supported Henri when he studied. And did he study? He started at Edinburgh, and by now, 1817, has gathered five doctorates, from Edinburgh, Cambridge Tubingen, Prague and Jena. He returns home to the castle and seems to like the local beauty Jeanne, inheritor of nine million francs. Money floats around Féval novels in huge amounts, sometimes as forged banknotes, but not here.

Henri has friends who look like him, don’t sound like him, but seem to cross his tracks. One is the English Percy Balcombe (note the resemblance to Belcamp). Another is Henri’s mother Helen Brown’s other son Tom who is apparently the same age as Henri. Then there is John Davy. By the end it is  pretty clear that Henri and Percy are the same and it is hard to believe that Jeanne, to marry Percy but saved from death by Henri,  does not know this. The plot seems to make it clear that Henry and  John Davy are the same as well, and that he or they are probably also John Devil. The Tom Brown issue remains a puzzle: after Henri dies at the end, by his own hand, Tom Brown is said to be executed in London. Perhaps Féval meant that: or perhaps he ran out of time or room to explain how Henri arranged a substitute, which is what he does a lot of the time. Even more than in the Mystères de Londres the characters assume identities and cross nationalities as part of their criminal or indeed anti-criminal identities. Reynolds did that too. Only Prince Rodolphe is always the same: the possibly criminal characters are as multiple as modernity makes possible.

There are some other familiar events. One is the Australian adventure. Helen and Tom were, it seems, transported. Percy was also in jail in Newcastle Penitentiary, whatever that was. But Henri was also out there (to make money in mining, proleptically). He helped Percy out of jail and they took off across the country, towards Adelaide, got bailed up by fierce aborigines near the Lachlan River, and narrowly escaped, to find some German missionaries, one of them very beautiful as you might expect. Henri looks very like her fiancé, but he turns up.

If that excitement reminds us of the Marquis of Rio Tinto, we are also locked into his politics. There is throughout not only a criminal class led by John Devil, whoever he may be at any given time. There is also `The Knights of Deliverance,’ who are like a freemasonry with the code word `For the Best’. With many high and also low confederates, their role is to plan the escape and re-establishment of the emperor. But not just that. Led by Henri, they are planning to deploy the new steam-driven ships which are being built by an Englishman named Perkins. Henri met him in Australia. With them they will make the restored Emperor invincible and in particular establish a French international empire based on what the English currently call India. It’s a positive reflex of Fergus O’Brian’s plan to destroy England.

Like Fergus’s plans, it all goes  fine until very late on, when one ship is destroyed in a riot in an African dock and the other just sinks, full of conspirators. Féval often gets out of dead ends by just jumping the wall. Henri shoots himself after his long-lost mother turns up and dies, and his father is fatally hurt. They all seem to just fade away, but that happens in Féval: it is all plot not morality. If the international and the multi-personal are imagined, it is mostly on the criminal side – except that Gregory Temple, who is pretty off-stage through the story, is nearly as multiform as Henri. The detective matches the criminal, as in Poe and man others after. The only positive uniformity is the lost identity of France, but that itself is not aristocratic or bourgeois, and certainly not rural – there is lively satire of village idiocy throughout. Multiplicity is envisaged, across nations and identities, but that innovative possibility is only a threat or at best a counter-threat.

After this Féval tended to restrain his efflorescent plotting to France. In 1863 he launched  the long series of Les Habit Noirs: they are the criminal organisation that runs France high and low. The first novel is The Parisian Jungle (the French is `forêt’), and central to it is M. Lecoq, the arch-villain. Féval’s editorial assistant at the time was Emile Gaboriau and he would famously redeem this name for his detective in 1869, and indeed Féval’s wicked Lecoq does a lot of detective-like things, not unlike Gregory Temple. And the Habits Noirs have international force. Both the wicked head of the Habits Noirs, the Colonel, and the enduring victim turned avenger Andre Maynotte, have Italian identity – and André and his beautiful and enduring wife Julie are Corsicans, but without any evident Napoleonic connection – it is the 1830s now. Multiple identity still flourishes: André comes back from prison and alleged death and masquerades both as a brisk Norman and a seriously crippled man called Trois Pattes, without the use of his legs who crawls up and down stairs and through the streets, and will eventually behead Lecoq with the sharp edged door of the safe he is trying to rob.

This is grand melodrama: but identity is also grandly melodramatic, and potentially international. Féval takes the urban fluidity that is the first context of self-aware crime fiction and lets it rip in terms of  both its human and its national powers of re-formation. Where Balzac and Dickens stuck to humanist morality and class separation, where Reynolds and Sue had overriding if differing political accounts of their world, Féval is just letting urban European modernity run riot. His plots have the same vertiginous characteristics: we are looking at a type of writing so close to the street it is uncensored and unconstrained, and also strangely veridical. Féval is indeed the emperor of crime.


Paul Féval, as `Sir Francis Trolopp’, Les Mystères de Londres,  Paris, Imprimeurs Unis, 1844, serialised in Courrier français, 1843-4, translated  Henry Champion Deming as The Mysteries of London, New York, Judd and Taylor, 1845

 Paul Féval, Jean Diable, Paris, Dentu, 1863, serialised in Jean Diable, 1862-3, translated Brian Stableford as John Devil Encino, CA, Black Coat Press, 2005

 Paul Féval, Les Habit Noirs: le Forêt Parisien , Paris, Dentu, 1863, serialised in Le Constitutionnel, 1863, translated Brian Stableford as The Blackcoats: The Parisian Jungle, Encino, CA, Black Coat Press, 2008

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Man Who Outsold Dickens

Stephen Knight

This paper was written for the Melbourne bi-monthly magazine Arena as a start on a new project.
I have long been aware of Reynolds and in my book on the Mysteries of the Cities I wrote a chapter on the linked first two volumes of his The Mysteries of London to bring him and the other city-mystery writers into the purview of crime fiction criticism. But I have also had other connections with G W M R. He started the newspaper Reynolds’ News which became the unofficial organ of the British trade union movement, and it appeared every Sunday in our house – it turned into the Sunday Citizen in 1962, and then faded away in 1967.. After the Mysteries book connection I kept reading and acquiring Reynolds material as I was increasingly struck by two things: the major importance of his early radical voice, and the extraordinary lack of knowledge about him. Many friends, quite learned people, had never heard of him. Louis James, at the University of Kent, co-edited a book of essays on Reynolds, which included some good leads, and I worked on acquiring Reynolds material in addition to the two-volume original text I had bought in about 2007. With surprising ease I obtained the original eight-volume Mysteries of the Court of London, and have found a few reprints of novels like Mary Price and the elusive volumes 3 and 4 of the original Mysteries of London series.
This interest turned into a whole project to give an account of Reynolds’ work, probably in the old-fashioned form of a literary biography. That is what I am now working on in 2014. In this short paper I wanted to sketch the ground and stake my public interest in the topic – and start the process of raising awareness of Reynolds reverse the strange way in which he has been elided from the history of English literature, and literary politics.

In July 1879 The Bookseller, the magazine of the London publishing profession, carried an obituary for the person it called ‘the most popular writer of our time’. It was not Dickens, or Thackeray, or any of the swarm of Victorian pot-boiler specialists from Bulwer Lytton to Charles Reade. The writer being remembered was George William MacArthur Reynolds, author of plagiaristic Pickwick Abroad, melodramatic Wagner the Wehr-Wolf and sensationalist The Loves of the Harem.

Those titles sound as if Reynolds reprocessed the lower orders of vulgar fiction. But populism was in fact a chosen weapon in his mission to educate the masses, resist the forces of oppressive authority—and along the way make a living. If anyone was the voice of the people in nineteenth-century Britain it was not Dickens, always tending towards sentimental bourgeois morality, but Reynolds: in 1851 Mayhew’s ground-breaking London Labour and the London Poor reported of the people on the streets ‘Reynolds is the most popular man among them’.

This was in part as a politician. Mayhew’s quotation continues ‘They stuck to him in Trafalgar Square, and would again’. In March 1848 thousands gathered in the square to support the Paris uprising against restored royalty. When the promised speaker was warned off by the authorities, Reynolds addressed them, then the crowd followed him home down the Strand and demanded another speech. A Chartist leader was created, but he was already well-known for The Mysteries of London, a penny-a-week serial that from 1844–8 charted criminality across the biggest city in the world, with villains ranging from the east-end Resurrection Man through safe-breakers, pimps and muggers to lawyers, businessmen and bankers. From the start selling at least 40,000 a week (for a penny), and read aloud to the semi-literate poor (as well as appearing annually in bound volumes for the better-off), The Mysteries of London was the first publication to chart the sprawling experiences, aspirations and anxieties of the largest megalopolis the world had seen.

As with the Trafalgar Square event, the instigation was French. In 1842–3 Eugène Sue turned away from writing maritime adventures and semi-serious romances and produced Les Mystères de Paris, mixing the range of Hugo’s medieval Paris survey with Balzac’s modern social tension. There were to be many imitations of this new urban self-analysis, through The Quaker City (1844) by George Lippard, Philadelphia radical and friend of Poe, and The Mysteries of New York by ‘Ned Buntline’ (real name E. Z. C. Judson, 1848), better known for Buffalo Bill, to the lively, if forgotten, 1873 The Mysteries of Melbourne Life by Donald Cameron: the genre is discussed in my book The Mysteries of the Cities (2012).

Reynolds was Sue’s first pursuer. He could read French, having lived and published in Paris during the 1830s, and when earning a living with his pen in London he had deployed the connection—he relocated Dickens’ Pickwick to France and the French trickster-criminal Robert Macaire to London. He was also, before his Chartism, committed to social and journalistic politics, being involved with the Teetotal movement around 1840, and from 1838 editing The Monthly Magazine of Letters, Politics and Belle-Lettres. New mass journalism was crucial in this fictional development. Sue’s Mystères appeared daily in Le Journal des Débats, a serious liberal paper shaping contemporary French self-consciousness. Reynolds was familiar with publishing magazine serial fiction, but to develop Sue’s model he used a weekly pamphlet, with eight pages and one illustration all for a penny: the new mode of urban analysis was presented in the most modern form of mercantile literature.

Commentators describe Reynolds as plagiarising Sue, but they no doubt have only heard of his Pickwickian adaptation, and are not too familiar with the very long Mysteries. In fact he substantially varies from the Parisian version, especially in social themes. The Mysteries of London more than doubles Sue’s characters and action, and explores a much wider range of classes and conflicts. Paris has one evil banker-cum-lawyer villain, but Reynolds offers a whole suite of suspect professionals; against a few weak but charming French aristocratesses, London contains a group of mistreated, brave and enduring middle-class women; where Sue’s criminals are quasi-demonic, Reynolds’ are all too human in terms of the reasons given for their errancy.

The main variation is the central character. Sue proffers revisionist conservatism in the investigator of the Parisian labyrinth, Prince Rodolphe—at least not a French noble, more innocently deriving from the invented German state of Gerolstein. He distributes praise and blame throughout, turns the cruel Chourineur (the ‘Stabber’) towards good deeds, and personally arranges the punitive blinding of the evil ‘Schoolmaster’. Rodolphe is also familiar with suffering: the key figure of the plot, his long-lost daughter Fleur de Marie, has died according to her dubious (and Scottish) mother, but was in fact sold into prostitution. The opening scene, in a central Paris dive, sees Rodolphe saving Fleur from violence and sex, and in the final pages she dies as a nun back in Gerolstein. We feel for the nobility throughout: they have all left troubled Paris by the end, while the Skeleton, the worst of the criminals, and the youthful demon Tortillard still rule there among the mob.

Reynolds has no noble aristocrats—his Earl of Warrington is a gruff bully, who does at least stand up to the Home Office’s letter-censorship (a real contemporary malpractice: the letters of the Italian liberationist Mazzini were notoriously intercepted in 1843), and he is rewarded with a fine middle-class wife. The central figure, Richard Markham, the son of an untitled gentleman, is impoverished through banker’s fraud, sucked by quasi-aristocrats into uttering forged notes, and does two years in jail. Honest and generous, he deserves his good fortune, passing from tutor and playwright to meeting an exiled Italian count and his lovely daughter Isabella. Richard develops amazing military skills and eventually, as General Markham, helps the Count, now Prince, regain his country (this, remarkably, was before Garibaldi), and marries the princess. Later, Prince Richard will rule as a European liberal leader—the equal, it would seem, of Prince Rodolphe himself, though Reynolds’ hero, with radical nobility, will abdicate to form a republic.

This upwards-mobile romantic figure has a dark other. Richard’s older brother Eugene (surely a cheeky reference to Sue) leaves home at the start, in debt and under a cloud. Throughout the long story he operates, under various names, as city banker, lawyer, MP, crooked entrepreneur, and sexual exploiter. He manipulates broker’s bills—the first villain in English literature to do so; he fathers a child with a family friend; he avoids his brother throughout via tricky plot turns—Reynolds had mastered the techniques of stage melodrama as well as the serial novel. Finally, Eugene dies in a traffic accident on the way to meet Richard: the city he has defrauded takes its vengeance. The brother-double is a common formation in nineteenth-century fiction, to realise the plus and minus of modernity, and through this structure and many geographic locations and social conflicts, Reynolds tells a more elaborate and veridical story of the modern city than does Sue’s lordly romance of the gutters.

There are other adventurous features of The Mysteries of London. Little in English literature used Europe as a site of value like the Count’s liberal Italian state, and Reynolds is multicultural. Where George Borrow romanticised, and also infantilised, the Romany world, Reynolds sees ‘gypsies’ as a strong, generous, well-organised people—Richard’s first Italian battle features an elite corps of four hundred Romany warriors. Reynolds was also unusual as being known in his time as a ‘philo-semite’: the early Mysteries include a few ordinary London businessmen and women who just happen to be Jewish, but the second series, vols 3-4, specifically attacks anti-semitism.

Equally radically in its time, the Mysteries speaks up for the poor, how they are exploited by aristocrats and parliamentarians: Richard’s brother’s career as an MP is a classic of radical satire. Reynolds launches direct attacks on the law—Richard is treated much better in the system when he is found to employ a servant; the Home Secretary manipulates magistrates; the inhumanity of the prisons is a recurrent theme and several characters serve cruel sentences, including on the treadmill. There are fine muck-raking sequences: meat is sold in disgusting and dangerous form, publicans adulterate drink (with vitriol and molasses in the gin), and young women are employed as seamstresses in conditions and with pay that drive them into prostitution.

Seeing it within the structure of English Literature—where it has never yet in courses or textbooks been located—The Mysteries of London has unusual richness in theme and technique. In theme it assembles an extensive critique of the modern city, both capital and capitalist, and the structures and distortions of urban social life are the dominating topic. Industrialism is mostly off stage, though coal mines are fiercely exposed at one stage: little is international or imperial, though minor characters vanish to America and criminals to Australia (the latter sometimes, improbably, escaping back to London). The crucial technical feature, even less interesting to most critics than the radical politics, is Reynolds’ expertise in handling a multiple plot—his transitions are faster and his connections fuller than Sue. The American scholar E. F. Bleiler, a rare voice in paying serious attention to Reynolds, said he had ‘one of the most remarkable structural abilities in English letters’: he could shape a varied and exciting story that threaded through it the political themes, with diversions to alleviate them. One example is the middle of the story sequence where the lovely, manipulative Lady Cecelia seduces the talented but vain Reverend Tracy, and brings them both to tragedy: the whole sequence lets the reader breathe—if a little heavily at times.

The Reynolds urban focus and interwoven structure had substantial but unrecognised impact on Dickens himself. It seems fair to note the big change that occurs after 1843–4, when The Mysteries of London appeared: suddenly the great novelist’s work develops weight and strength. He had begun with chatty series-stories like Sketches by Boz and Pickwick Papers, then adopted old-fashioned models like the lost-heir story Oliver Twist and the historical novel Barnaby Rudge. Dickens then thematically progressed into rich but under-organised social documentaries, Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit, and the miscellany-like The Old Curiosity Shop. But post The Mysteries of London, he immediately mastered the multi-strand plot, set mostly in London, and inter-relating different social levels and human evaluations (though for him they are moral rather than political). In 1846–8 the elaborate but well-focused Dombey and Son pointed ahead to the state-of-the-nation masterpiece Bleak House, 1852–3. It would appear Dickens had studied how Reynolds could make a very long and very saleable novel into something that is also a brilliantly united but varied structure, and then enriched the mix with his own verbal and imaginative power.

Dickens was certainly aware of Reynolds, but not favourably, from both the early plagiarism and the radical politics. In the ‘Preliminary Word’ to his magazine Household Words in March 1850 he indicated him as one of the ‘Bastards of the Mountain, draggled fringe on the Red Cap, Panders to the basest passions of the lowest natures—whose existence is a national reproach. And these, we should consider it our highest service to displace’. By ‘the Mountain’ he meant the French radical party of 1848, and Ian Haywood suggests the whole new magazine was mounted to dislodge Reynolds’ public impact. In reply, in July 1851 in Reynolds’ Weekly News, he called Dickens ‘that lickspittle hanger-on to the skirts of Aristocracy’s robe’. In 1845 he had started The London Journal (to be the model for The Australian Journal in the 1860s) and the following year Reynolds’ Miscellany, a magazine which lasted till 1869, and then in 1850 he began Reynolds’ Weekly News which ran as a labour and trade union paper right until 1962 when it transmuted into the Sunday Citizen and then faded away in 1967.

These early magazines and papers carried a mix of educational and radical stories, both crime reportage and crime fiction, and serialised novels, especially Gothic and romance. Reynolds wrote much for them, as did his wife Susannah, purveying with energy that mix of the sensational and the political that, as the Australian historian Iain McCalman has shown, was at the heart of British leftism from the late eighteenth century onwards, and now in the age of emergent mass literacy had become a major industry, rather than simply the domain of pamphlets.

Editing so much did not slow Reynolds’ fictional output, though his interests could vary, including for personal reasons. One of his habits was regularly falling out with people—he left the Teetotallers through irritation with them, and could not tolerate the Chartist management, though he was friendly enough with real leaders like Bronterre O’Brien and Feargus O’Connor. Louis James and Anne Humpherys call him ‘obstinate in his opinions and quick to take offence’, perhaps hardly surprising in a dedicated radical, and during the fourth volume of London mysteries in 1848 he disagreed with his publisher George Vickers, of the mostly scurrilous Holywell Street publishing precinct (now beneath the respectable weight of the Aldwych and Australia House). Vickers kept The Mysteries of London going for four more years, written by the Chartist Thomas Miller and the playwright E. L. Blanchard, but Reynolds with John Dicks started what would be a massive project, a weekly serial story set in and around the city, entitled The Mysteries of the Court of London. It would run till 1855, and is an amazing three million words long.

This was more popular in America than The Mysteries of London, partly because it begins back in the 1790s, often refers to newly independent America as a place of freedom (apart from slavery), but mostly because it consistently asserts the vile nature of the Prince Regent: ‘Leviathan of scoundrelism’ is one of the many assaults on his future majesty. The Mysteries of London story had been moderately polite about the Queen and Prince Albert, though it offered a sympathetic account of Victoria’s failed assassin Edward Oxford (who ended up respectably in Australia), but King George III and the Prince are savaged here: their treatment of Princess, later Queen, Caroline is shown as particularly brutal. The prince’s bedroom activities are emphasised, and the tone is more sexually explicit than before. Even so, as Victorianism develops, the illustrations are less revealing than in The Mysteries of London—there Ellen Monroe as an artist’s model gave some fine semi-nudes, and the illustrator saw the possibilities of the Earl of Holmesford among his harem.

Along with the enhanced misdeeds of royalty and aristocrats, there is less class conflict and city chicanery in The Mysteries of the Court of London and when they appear, it is usually linked to gender and the gentry. A gang of criminals lurk down by the Thames, but much of their time is spent thieving documents about lordly land-holdings, murdering the occasional heir, and even protecting a few girls under threat from lordly predators, not only the Prince. Lord Florimel, who likes dressing up as a pretty girl to meet vulnerable ladies, is eventually brought low by a sixteen-year-old he has ravished: she escapes the Bow Street Runners, those early police, by diving from a window into the Thames, where the criminals rescue her. The Runners have only a few successes—two of them die at the hands of the redoubtable figure of Mrs Brace, glamorous milliner and brothel-keeper, hostess to the Prince’s nocturnal adventures, and secret wife to the thieves’ leader, Joe the Magsman.

With these excitements presented through hectic but assured plotting, Reynolds drives The Mysteries of the Court of London on, its prime political concern being the oppressions of lords and royalty against the people in general and nubile girls in particular. Later in the long sequence, internationalism re-emerges as the story loses interest in the Prince once he has become King—Reynolds perhaps showing for once some caution. The story wanders off to continental Europe at times, and finally to India, but still never forgets English politics—as Haywood notes, direct future reference is made to 1848, year of the European risings and the high tide of British Chartism.

Never reprinted, not even in condensed form like The Mysteries of London, The Mysteries of the Court of London is a huge source of what contemporary readers found interesting, and how ideas and issues were folded into a popular text—the operations of the workhouses, the prisons, the wrongs suffered by servants and workers are mixed in with the sensationalism, while the main thrust exposes the wicked selfishness of the rich and powerful, with many memorable stories. A good match for Lord Florimel is Lady Fernanda Aylmer: impregnated by a young gentleman, she starts to poison him in revenge, then marries a tame old fellow to cover her tracks, gets involved in a nasty heir murder, and stabs two servants who can bear witness to her crimes. The story likes to describe her as ‘the snake with a satin skin’, but in the end she and her baffled husband drink poison just as the Runners arrive to arrest them both.

Reynolds’ fictional energy did not only pour into narratives of London and its people. In 1846–7 he became the first author of an English were-wolf story in the melodramatic, Europe-wide Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, reprinted in 1975 with a fine introduction by Bleiler. He had already offered a vivid popular version of Faust (1846), and went on to eastern sensation with The Loves of the Harem (1855), and Leila, or the Star of Mingrella (1856). There was a set of historical fictions, the Walter Scott linked Kenneth, A Romance of the Highlands (1851), and The Massacre of Glencoe (1852); and he produced female historicals in Pope Joan (1850–1), Margaret, or the Discarded Queen (1856–7), Mary Stuart (1859), and, related,  the modern French The Empress Eugenie’s Boudoir (1857–8). Parallel to the Mysteries were a series of realistic exposés of women’s mistreatment, like the powerful The Seamstress, or The White Slaves of England (1850), but also Mary Price, or the Memoirs of a Servant Girl (1851–2), The Soldier’s Wife (1853) and, with intensified titillation, Rosa Lambert, or The Memoirs of an Unfortunate Woman, (1853–4).

The extent of Reynolds’ output was enormous—Bleiler estimates he wrote nearly forty million words in just over twenty years—and the energy was intense. An afterword to The Mysteries of the Court of London reports he wrote an 8000 word episode in seven hours, leaving the rest of the week for other writing and publishing activities. For him fiction and radicalism were a thriving business, a contradiction that annoyed his London-based observer Karl Marx, who described Reynolds, in a letter to Engels, as a ‘scoundrel’ and ‘a rich and able speculator’—curiously, Marx was also in Paris when Sue published his Mystères, and attacked them in The Holy Family as a shrine to bourgeois ideology.

After 1858, when his wife died, Reynolds worked on for twenty years with his paper and magazines, but wrote almost no fiction: Mary Stuart appeared the following year and a fantasy, The Young Fisherman, in 1861. Susannah Reynolds wrote the popular romance Gretna Green (1848), and in the same year the rather serious novel Wealth and Poverty, as well as an amount of magazine material: Reynolds was evidently devoted to her and their nine children, and was very likely the model for his embattled but enduring and attractive heroines. It appears she worked closely on his fiction. Perhaps at times she actually drafted it, but surely at least edited and re-copied it for the press as did so many authors’ wives and sisters in the period. It seems he had no heart, even no capacity, to continue that work after her death.

Reynolds’ busy and historically important life leaves two enduring puzzles. One is there are apparently no Reynolds papers anywhere. It would be very unusual for a man so engaged with writing and business to leave no diaries, letters or archives, and finding them would be a melodrama worthy of himself. Then there is the strange, even disgraceful, silence about his achievement. Dickens, it seems, had his way and the country did regard Reynolds as ‘a national reproach’, did accept Dickens’ plan to ‘displace’ him, and forgot him completely.

They had many other differences. Born to a naval officer family, with both parents dead Reynolds left military training at Sandhurst when 16, and headed to France to discover a wife, a profession, and a mission. Caring little for the respectability Dickens always sought because he was so embarrassed about his humble origins, Reynolds was also never ashamed to write about – but not live -- the sexual dramas that racked Dickens and his life—and seriously distressed his wife. Further, Reynolds consistently argued for Britain to become a country that would treat properly all the common people, not just the few who might meet a kindly Dickensian philanthropist.

Their reputations could not be further apart. Official views of Reynolds in the period were hostile. The Bookseller obituary that recorded his excellent sales went on to say, under the title ‘Mischievous Literature’, that he ‘pandered to his readers’ morbid love of excitement’. Accepting that inherently class-based view, no history of English Literature, no study of Victorian publishing, has so far made Reynolds central, or even marginal, and it has only been the work of a few independent-minded scholars, led by Louis James and Anne Humpherys, that has put him back on the scholarly radar with their collection of essays about this extraordinary phenomenon of English fiction and, even more importantly, English radicalism.

Reynolds was enormously popular in India, and was published and pirated throughout America; he was read everywhere in England, by the humble and the grand. It looks as though Marcus Clarke in His Natural Life took notice of his convict escape sequence, though Cyril Pearl is the only Australian critic to have known about Reynolds. The world is just as ignorant. There is—as yet—no biography, and no literary history of this remarkable man whose life resisted, and whose afterlife exemplified, the oppressive authority of the respectable classes in England.


E. F. Bleiler, ‘Introduction’ to G. W. M. Reynolds, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf: A Romance, New York, Dover, 1975

I. Haywood, The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics and the People, 1790–1860, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

A. Humpherys and L. James (eds), G. W. M. Reynolds, Nineteenth Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008.

S. Knight, ‘The Voice of the People, George Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London’, chapter 3 of The Mysteries of the Cities: Urban Crime Fiction of the Nineteenth Century, Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 2012.

I. McCalman, Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London 1795–1840, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993.