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.

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