Penny Dreadfuls

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Penny Dreadfuls


Victorian era literature for juveniles that sparked controversy surrounding suitable cultural influences for children.


Named for a combination of its cover price of a penny an issue as well as the macabre nature of its contents, the Victorian penny dreadful—short, graphic, often serialized stories targeted at juvenile audiences—caused near-hysteria towards the end of the nineteenth century when outraged parties accused the violent books of subverting the natures of its generally poor readership towards indecent behavior. Cheaply produced, often poorly written, and readily available, the books became a source for cultural vitriol when it became apparent the widespread devotion they inspired among a broadly unpopular segment of the restless juvenile male population of the era. Despite their appeal at large, penny dreadfuls were commonly associated with "the wild boy" population who earned a reputation as violent, directionless thugs prone to dangerous encounters and presenting a threat to the general citizenry. In a series of well-publicized trials, lawyers attempted to link penny dreadfuls to the criminal actions of children accused of offenses ranging from burglary to assault. Within a short period of time, the contention that children were being influenced to act criminally by the poor examples found in penny dreadful stories became sensationalized in both political rhetoric and newspaper editorials. Conservative fears that penny dreadfuls would drive a rise in delinquent behavior among the children of the working-class, who it was believed were particularly vulnerable, were never statistically founded, but for an extended period, the march against the penny dreadful became a cause célèbre in Victorian England.

The so-called penny dreadful, none of which ever willingly adopted that title, traces its origins back to the short chapbooks, broadsides, and primitive serialized gothic novels of early nineteenth-century England. Moody and brooding, these dark books were often based upon legends and folktales about figures of general ill intent. While relatively haphazard in quality and style, these primal pulp works helped create a nascent audience for inexpensive and easily read books. However, it was the intersection of growing literacy among the general populace combined with the rise of the Industrial Age in England that enabled increased efficiencies in the printing process as well as faster methods of shipping. These, in turn, would prove to be the strongest building blocks for the rise of the penny dreadful. At their peak during the 1860s and 1870s, they sold in the hundreds of thousands weekly under a variety of publishers such as Edward Lloyd's Salisbury Square, W. L. Emmett's Temple Publishing, and Edwin J. Brett's Harkaway House and Newsagents' Publishing House. In their early forms, the dreadfuls were published as short books, such as William Harrison Ainsworth's tale of highwaymen in Rookwood (1834), evolving over time into the serialized format for which they are best remembered. The content in penny dreadfuls varied dramatically, with popularity and sales dictating which styles dominated. They ranged from gothic stories of vampires and monsters to the high drama of sea tales, soldiers, and highwaymen. Some penny dreadfuls even included melodramas about scullery maids for their small female audience. Highly derivative of one another, as well as other popular-selling novels of the day, penny dreadful adaptations of major literary works were common, such as one 1840s publication titled Oliver Twiss. But the most famous penny dreadfuls involved the daring and often surprisingly violent adventures such well-known cult villains as Spring-Heeled Jack, Dick Turpin, Jack Sheppard, and Sweeney Todd.

By today's standards, penny dreadfuls are perhaps best described as illustrated magazines that are roughly comparable to mainstream comic books. Typically, they contained few words, ranging from a line or two at the bottom of each page to a few paragraphs in some of the more ambitious titles. Penny dreadfuls were meant to capitalize on the needs of the poorly educated, though one suspects they were also read as a guilty pleasure for people of all backgrounds and educations, given their incredible sales figures at the time. Each page would contain a picture of the described action written at the bottom. The illustrations depicted the exciting daring-dos of the serials' most popular characters as they enacted wild scenes of treachery, thievery, and romance—popular escapist fun for individuals trapped in the dark, oppressive life of poverty. Initially written for an adult audience, these early magazines—originally called "penny parts" as they were not yet published in regular intervals—were sold at various way stations across England. Gradually, as the publishers of these penny novels began to realize their illicitly burgeoning popularity among boys, they began to market their materials to cater to a younger audience.

The protagonists of the penny dreadfuls were often written so as to appeal to the adolescent psyche, and to that end, the focal characters of these first efforts were not the social reprobates they would later depict, but rather youths victimized by either circumstance or miscarriages of justice, a style epitomized by the works of William Harrison Ainsworth. After a period, penny dreadfuls grew to include more titillating material as they expanded to a broader public. Released as penny parts, these early serial models were first mass-marketed in the 1840s by Edward Lloyd and featured such original-sounding titles as The Maniac Father or the Victim of Seduction (1842) or The Calendar of Horrors (c. 1840). By the 1860s, publisher Edwin J. Brett capitalized on the growing trends in this arena by depicting even more outrageous and violent fare, released primarily under his successful printing firm, Newsagents' Publishing House. In the rush to outsell one another, Brett and his rivals would attempt to undercut each other by sinking to more and more outrageous levels of raciness. Eventually, with public outrage mounting, police began to take action against the novels, even going so far as to raid the offices of some penny dreadful publishers in the early 1870s seeking to end re-runs of certain of the more controversial titles, such as the The Wild Boys of London series (c. 1864), which featured bare-breasted women being flogged as well as scores of deaths and depictions of mutinous youths. However, the more effective route towards reducing the influence of these dark stories was discovered by certain religious groups who attempted to counter-act the negative forces of penny dreadfuls by creating their own serialized titles. These publications related lighter and more positive tales, particularly in magazines like Reverend J. Erskine Clarke's The Boy's Own Paper (1879-1967) and Lord Northcliffe's popular self-proclaimed anti-penny dreadful, the Halfpenny Marvel (1893-1967). The latter title was priced, as the name suggests, even lower than the lurid penny dreadfuls and helped drive some of the last few remnants of the dwindling competition out of business. As sales continued to slide downward, the field was left to publishers of adventure titles, such as Edward Stratemeyer who published the serialized sagas of the heroic The Rover Boys (1899-1926) and Tom Swift (1910-1941).

The penny dreadful is often credited with helping spur the rise of many forms of pulp literature such as the American dime-novel and other serial forms of broad-level entertainment. While the critical reception to such forms of commercially produced, mass-market literature is often negative, many critics respect such publications in terms of both their historical impact as well as their ability to provide insight into certain Victorian social elements. But by no means can the endless variations of penny dreadfuls be said to be either classic literature or properly representative of the realities of the Victorian working-class. None of even the most famous editions of these widely produced titles have ascended to the point where they are still read today; their individual fates and critical value are now mostly in the hands of collectors and experts. But then, penny dreadfuls were never originally intended to have a shelf life that endured longer than the time it took to read them. Due to the tight budgetary costs involved in their rushed production, penny dreadfuls were often sloppily produced, with few of their writers ever coming into contact with either their readers or the subjects that they so lavishly depicted. As such, penny dreadfuls are primarily remembered for two reasons—for the societal debate they inspired and for their lasting stylistic influence. Critics have focused on the penny dreadful controversy as one of the first society-wide debates over the personal freedoms of juveniles and whether attempts to stifle offending materials constitute censorship in some form. But more than just providing avenues of constructive debate, the legacy of the penny dreadful extends perhaps most importantly to the stylistic heritage it has imparted upon its ancestors. In its immediate wake, many young readers of the penny dreadful who would go on to their own literary careers—including such notables as Peter Pan's J. M. Barrie and Treasure Island's Robert Louis Stevenson—positively credit the penny dreadful with having a strong effect upon their own writings.


William Harrison Ainsworth
Rookwood (penny dreadful) 1834
Jack Sheppard (penny dreadful) 1839
Dick Turpin, the Highwayman (penny dreadful) 1877

Samuel O. Beeton
Boy's Own Magazine (periodical) 1855-1866

John Bennett
Life and Career of a London Errand Boy (juvenile serial) c. 1865

Edwin J. Brett
The Wild Boys of London; or, The Children of the Night. A Story of the Present Day (penny dreadful) 1864-1866
The Boys of England (penny dreadful) 1866-1899

Reverend J. Erskine Clarke
Chatterbox (periodical) 1866
The Boy's Own Paper (periodical) 1879-1967

Pierce Egan
Life in London: or The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq., and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian in their Rambles and Sprees through Metropolis (penny dreadful) 1820-1821

Edward Ellis
The Boy Detective or, The Crimes of London. A Romance of Modern Times (penny dreadful) 1865-1866

George Emmett
Charity Joe: or, From Street Boy to Lord Mayor (juvenile serial) c. 1865

W. L. Emmett
The Poor Boys of London, or Driven to Crime. A Life Story for the People (juvenile serial) 1866

Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe)
Halfpenny Marvel (periodical) 1893-1967

Edward Harrison
Boy's Miscellany, or Boy's Own Weekly Paper (periodical) 1863-1864

Harry Hazleton
Charley Wag, the New Jack Sheppard (penny dreadful) 1860-1861

Thomas Peckett Prest
Mary Bateman the Yorkshire Witch (penny dreadful) 1840
The String of Pearls (penny dreadful) 1840
The Maniac Father or the Victim of Seduction (penny dreadful) 1842
Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood (penny dreadful) 1847

G. W. M. Reynolds
The Mysteries of London (penny dreadful) 1845-1848
The Mysteries of the Court of London (penny dreadful) 1848-1856

Edward Stratemeyer
The Rover Boys (juvenile serial) 1899-1926
Tom Swift (juvenile serial) 1910-1941

Ernest Sackville Turner
Boys Will Be Boys: The Story of Sweeney Todd, Deadwood Dick, Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter, Dick Barton, et al. (criticism) 1948

George Vickers
The Women of London (penny dreadful) 1863

Edward Vile
Black Bess, or The Knight of the Road (penny dreadful) 1863-1868

Percival Wolfe
Red Ralph; or The Daughter of the Night. A Romance of the Road in the Days of Dick Turpin (penny dreadful) c. 1865-1866


A. T. Quiller-Couch (essay date 1896)

SOURCE: Quiller-Couch, A. T. "The Poor Little Penny Dreadful." In Adventures in Criticism, pp. 276-82. New York, N.Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1896.

[In the following essay, Quiller-Couch attempts to defend the penny dreadful genre against the attacks of its detractors, arguing that their contentions are poorly founded.]

The poor little Penny Dreadful has been catching it once more. Once more the British Press has stripped to its massive waist and solemnly squared up to this hardened young offender. It calls this remarkable performance a "Crusade."

I like these Crusades. They remind one of that merry passage in Pickwick (p. 254 in the first edition):—

Whether Mr. Winkle was seized with a temporary attack of that species of insanity which originates in a sense of injury, or animated by this display of Mr. Weller's valour, is uncertain; but certain it is, that he no sooner saw Mr. Grummer fall, than he made a terrific onslaught on a small boy who stood next to him; whereupon Mr. Snodgrass—

[Pay attention to Mr. Snodgrass, if you please, and cast your memories back a year or two, to the utterances of a famous Church Congress on the National Vice of Gambling.]

—whereupon Mr. Snodgrass, in a truly Christian spirit, and in order that he might take no one unawares, announced in a very loud tone that he was going to begin, and proceeded to take off his coat with the utmost deliberation. He was immediately surrounded and secured; and it is but common justice both to him and to Mr. Winkle to say that they did not make the slightest attempt to rescue either themselves or Mr. Weller, who, after a most vigorous resistance, was overpowered by numbers and taken prisoner. The procession then reformed, the chairmen resumed their stations, and the march was re-commenced.

"The chairmen resumed their stations, and the march was re-commenced." Is it any wonder that Dickens and Labiche have found no fit successors? One can imagine the latter laying down his pen and confessing himself beaten at his own game; for really this periodical "crusade" upon the Penny Dreadful has all the qualities of the very best vaudeville—the same bland exhibition of bourgeois logic, the same wanton appreciation of evidence, the same sententious alacrity in seizing the immediate explanation—the more trivial the better—the same inability to reach the remote cause, the same profound unconsciousness of absurdity.

You remember La Grammaire? Caboussat's cow has eaten a piece of broken glass, with fatal results. Machut, the veterinary, comes:—


Un morceau de verre … est-ce drole? Une vache de quatre ans.


Ah! monsieur, les vaches … ça avale du verre à tout âge. J'en ai connu une qui a mangé une éponge à laver les cabriolets … à sept ans! Elle en est morte.


Ce que c'est que notre pauvre humanité!

Our friends have been occupied with the case of a half-witted boy who consumed Penny Dreadfuls and afterwards went and killed his mother. They infer that he killed his mother because he had read Penny Dreadfuls (post hoc ergo propter hoc) and they conclude very naturally that Penny Dreadfuls should be suppressed. But before roundly pronouncing the doom of this—to me unattractive—branch of fiction, would it not be well to inquire a trifle more deeply into cause and effect? In the first place matricide is so utterly unnatural a crime that there must be something abominably peculiar in a form of literature that persuades to it. But a year or two back, on the occasion of a former crusade, I took the pains to study a considerable number of Penny Dreadfuls. My reading embraced all those—I believe I am right in saying all—which were reviewed, a few days back, in the Daily Chronicle; and some others. I give you my word I could find nothing peculiar about them. They were even rather ostentatiously on the side of virtue. As for the bloodshed in them, it would not compare with that in many of the five-shilling adventure stories at that time read so eagerly by boys of the middle and upper classes. The style was ridiculous, of course: but a bad style excites nobody but a reviewer, and does not even excite him to deeds of the kind we are now trying to account for. The reviewer in the Daily Chronicle thinks worse of these books than I do. But he certainly failed to quote anything from them that by the wildest fancy could be interpreted as sanctioning such a crime as matricide.

Let us for a moment turn our attention from the Penny Dreadful to the boy—from the éponge á laver les cabriolets to notre pauvre humanité. Now—to speak quite seriously—it is well known to every doctor and every schoolmaster (and should be known, if it is not, to every parent), that all boys sooner or later pass through a crisis in growth during which absolutely nothing can be predicted of their behavior. At such times honest boys have given way to lying and theft, gentle boys have developed an unexpected savagery, ordinary boys—"the small apple-eating urchins whom we know"—have fallen into morbid brooding upon unhealthy subjects. In the immense majority of cases the crisis is soon over and the boy is himself again; but while it lasts, the disease will draw its sustenance from all manner of things—things, it may be, in themselves quite innocent. I avoid particularizing for many reasons; but any observant doctor will confirm what I have said. Now the moderately affluent boy who reads five-shilling stories of adventure has many advantages at this period over the poor boy who reads Penny Dreadfuls. To begin with, the crisis has a tendency to attack him later. Secondly, he meets it fortified by a better training and more definite ideas of the difference between right and wrong, virtue and vice. Thirdly (and this is very important), he is probably under school discipline at the time—which means, that he is to some extent watched and shielded. When I think of these advantages, I frankly confess that the difference in the literature these two boys read seems to me to count for very little. I myself have written "adventure-stories" before now: stories which, I suppose—or, at any rate, hope—would come into the class of "Pure Literature," as the term is understood by those who have been writing on this subject in the newspapers. They were, I hope, better written than the run of Penny Dreadfuls, and perhaps with more discrimination of taste in the choice of adventures. But I certainly do not feel able to claim that their effect upon a perverted mind would be innocuous.

For indeed it is not possible to name any book out of which a perverted mind will not draw food for its disease. The whole fallacy lies in supposing literature the cause of the disease. Evil men are not evil because they read bad books: they read bad books because they are evil: and being evil, or diseased, they are quickly able to extract evil or disease even from very good books. There is talk of disseminating the works of our best authors, at a cheap rate, in the hope that they will drive the Penny Dreadful out of the market. But has good literature at the cheapest driven the middle classes from their false gods? And let it be remembered, to the credit of these poor boys, that they do buy their books. The middle classes take their poison on hire or exchange.

But perhaps the full enormity of the cant about Penny Dreadfuls can best be perceived by travelling to and fro for a week between London and Paris and observing the books read by those who travel with first-class tickets. I think a fond belief in Ivanhoe-within-the-reach-of-all would not long survive that experiment.

Ernest Sackville Turner (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: Turner, Ernest Sackville. "Rogues and Vagabonds." In Boys Will Be Boys: The Story of Sweeney Todd, Deadwood Dick, Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter, Dick Barton, et. al., pp. 48-70. London, England: Michael Joseph, 1948.

[In the following essay, Turner examines the content of penny dreadfuls at their height of popularity, giving particular attention to the less scandalous stories of such roguish heroes as Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard.]

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Patrick A. Dunae (essay date winter 1979)

SOURCE: Dunae, Patrick A. "Penny Dreadfuls: Late Nineteenth-Century Boys' Literature and Crime." Victorian Studies 22, no. 2 (winter 1979): 133-50.

[In the following essay, Dunae charts the contentious debate over the Victorian belief that penny dreadfuls sparked a rise in criminal activities among teenaged boys, noting that the "penny dreadful controversy was marred by a great deal of 'exaggeration and misconception.'"]

The last quarter of the Nineteenth Century saw a dramatic growth in British juvenile literature. The period was also marked by a general interest in youth and by a growing preoccupation with juvenile delinquency. Those concerns, plus others arising from the proliferation of the penny press, underlay the furor which attended the publication and sale of certain boys' periodicals. Known as "penny dreadfuls," the periodicals were alleged to have encouraged anti-social attitudes and criminal behavior in the young. These charges emanated for the most part from clergymen, journalists, and magistrates—individuals who not only chronicled but arbitrated the mores and activities of Victorian society. It is their criticisms which will be considered in the pages that follow for their response reveals much about middle-class attitudes towards youth, crime, and popular literature. Moreover, by focusing on the critical reaction to the penny dreadfuls, rather than on the literature itself, we shall see how a number of those attitudes developed and changed during the closing years of the Victorian period.

Before considering the controversy, though, it is necessary to have some understanding of the literature which inspired it. The term penny dreadful (or "blood," as the publications were sometimes later known) came into popular usage about 1840. The early Victorian dreadfuls, many of which were published by Edward Lloyd, were based on the traditions of the Newgate Calendar and the Gothic novel: they often featured bizarre, supernatural figures such as Varney the Vampire and Spring-Heeled Jack or heinous characters such as the well-remembered Sweeney Todd.1 By the latter decades of the century, however, the connotations of the term had changed; instead of referring to long-running serial publications which had been read by both sexes and all ages, the term came to be applied almost exclusively to boys' periodicals of the lowest stratum.

As a rule, the boys' dreadfuls were not as crude or as macabre as their predecessors; nevertheless, they were still rather primitive and lacked both substance and sophistication. The stories which appeared in most of them were, as the Bookseller noted, "all of one character—mere strings of incidents … inter-mingled with inconsequent conversations and weak descriptions." As the other trade journal, Publishers' Circular, later reported, the plots and principals in most of the dreadfuls were similarly basic: "The model hero, it seems, throws up his clerkship, his post in the grocery or tailoring establishment, or his office of errand boy, and goes off on some impossible expedition and returns rich, radiant, triumphant, and scornful of common ways and occupations."2

But it was the nature of the "impossible expeditions" and the characters of the "model heroes" that accounted for the literature's opprobrium. The boys' periodicals often offered sensationalized accounts of historical criminals, such as Jack Sheppard, Claude Duval, or Dick Turpin. Tucked between the illustrated covers of the dreadfuls were also roisterous tales of contemporary, though fictitious, young heroes—heroes who, having quarrelled violently with their employers or schoolmasters, ran off to become pirates or highwaymen. Tales of this description, critics argued, were psychologically harmful in that they provided readers with excessive stimulation and a distorted view of the world. The tales were also considered to be a threat to society, not only because they glorified physical aggression, but because they seemed to encourage disrespect for authority.


The fears which Victorian middle-class critics entertained were not new, for throughout history adult authorities have sought to ensure that certain attitudes and values, thought necessary for a well-ordered society, were instilled in the young. There were, however, a number of considerations and circumstances which gave the penny dreadful controversy a particular intensity. One of these was the Victorians' concern for the moral and material condition of the young—a concern evident in the educational commissions of the period, in parliamentary investigations into child labor, and in the many philanthropic efforts to rescue destitute children.3 The Victorians' concern for youth, a concern unmatched by previous generations, was also evident in the way in which they viewed juvenile literature. They recognized that they could not keep their sons away from entertaining fiction for, as the author of a parents' manual put it in 1880, "the love of romance and adventure is so strong in the boyish nature that it cannot be repressed and will have vent."4 Nevertheless, the Victorians—particularly the mid-Victorians—were very cautious in what they provided for their sons. Above all else, suitable fiction was to be edifying; it might be spirited—in the manner of Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857)—but it was not to be in any way sensational. Since the unabashedly sensational penny dreadfuls contravened those standards many critics were convinced that the literature would have a deleterious effect on the rising generation.

The sensational tone of the periodicals was bad enough, but worse, in the minds of the critics, were the criminal adventure tales featured in many of the dreadfuls. Yet the critics' concern was not so much for the middle-class boy who occasionally and surreptitiously read the dreadful but more for the working-class boy. A simple and relatively undemanding form of entertainment, the penny dreadful was associated primarily with lower-class youths—youths who, it was believed, were most often responsible for juvenile crimes. Indeed, because of their upbringing and environment, the working-class boys were thought to exhibit a propensity for delinquency that was entirely lacking in their better educated, more affluent contemporaries.5 Thus the seeds sown by the penny dreadful were considered all the more dangerous since they fell on the fertile imaginations of a class of youths who were, apparently, already inclined to criminal activities.

The campaign against the dreadfuls was also colored by conservative middle-class reactions to educational reforms. Some conservative groups, notably churchmen, had of course always been wary of popular education; they had also distrusted the street literature which accompanied the growth of mass literacy.6 Conservative fears and criticisms became noticeably more widespread and rose to new heights following the passage of Forster's Education Act of 1870. Specifically, it was feared that millions of youths educated in the new Board Schools would become readers and ultimately victims of sensational literature. As a result of such thinking, sensational literature—which had previously been regarded as a fairly limited threat—assumed in the minds of some observers a threat of immense proportions.

While the critics' fears proved to be unfounded, the Elementary Education Act did, nevertheless, have a considerable impact on the field of popular juvenile literature. The years which immediately followed the act were characterized by an unprecedented growth in the juvenile market—a growth which was most evident on the newsstands. In the middle decades of the century there had been relatively few periodicals for the young, but by the 1870s juvenile magazines—most of which were directed to adolescent boys—could be counted in scores.7 To be sure, not all of the periodicals were of the penny dreadful variety; in fact, given the large number of boys' papers then available, only a small percentage could be classified as being unduly sensational. It was those periodicals, however, which received the most attention and, correspondingly, it was a relatively small number of publishers who were so heatedly denounced.

George and William Emmett, brothers who published half-a-dozen weekly magazines for boys, were among those regularly assailed by guardians and critics. So also were Charles Perry Brown, owner of the Aldine Publishing Company, and Samuel Dacre Clark (pseudonym "Guy Raynor"), editor of the Bad Boys' Paper. Other notable bêtes noires were Charles Fox, proprietor of the Hogarth House Publishing Company, and two independent publishers, John W. Allingham (pseudonym "Ralph Rollington") and Edwin J. Brett. In 1881 Francis Hitchman expressed his objections to the sensational tone of the Boy's Standard and the Boy's World (published by Fox and Allingham respectively), while Our Boys' Paper, published by Brett, was described as being "unlike anything that a prudent father would care to place in the hands of a boy."8

The forty-two year old Hitchman, known primarily for his biographical studies, was not actively engaged in the juvenile trade; he was nevertheless, interested in eighteenth-century children's literature. Compared to the pious Georgian publications, the rumbustious Victorian periodicals which he examined must have seemed dreadful indeed. The magazines seemed just as dreadful, though, to Edward G. Salmon, a twenty-one year old journalist who was also to enjoy a considerable reputation as a biographer and critic. Like Hitchman, Salmon was concerned with the effects of popular literature, and in a series of essays he identified and discussed periodicals which were particularly popular with urban working-class readers. His essays appeared in a number of prestigious literary reviews, and in each he argued that literature should be carefully screened so that the masses might be exposed only to wholesome, edifying material.9 While the magazines and newspapers of the laborer, his wife, and his daughter all came under the young critic's scrutiny, it was boys' literature that caused the most concern.

In February 1886—in an article authoritatively entitled "What Boys Read"—Salmon informed subscribers to the Fortnightly Review that "the majority of the periodicals which are supplied to the children of the working classes are devoid of every element of sweetness and light. They are filled with blood and revenge, of passion and cruelty, as improbable and almost impossible in plot as they are contemptible in literary execution." Hundreds of thousands of the penny papers were sold weekly, he reported, adding that their effect on impressionable working-class boys was nothing short of disastrous: "Some time ago, a youth was so maddened by reading one of the tales provided for his entertainment that he shot dead his father and brother." Another youthful reader was apprehended on a charge of unlawfully keeping firearms in his room, while a third was arrested in south London for dangerously riding a horse at night. In yet another case, a young clerk "who had devoted his leisure to a study of Harrison Ainsworth's novels" was arrested for attempting to rob his employer; that clerk, it later transpired, had lured his master from a bedroom by mewing like a cat and had then attacked the man with a chloroform-charged handkerchief.10 Those, and numerous other cases, Salmon had culled from the newspapers. In spite of the daily reports, Salmon feared that the general public was still not sufficiently aware of the moral and material ruin going on "in the centre of the English working population." "Even clergymen," he complained, "do not appear to be cognisant of the extent of the evil" ("What Boys Read," p. 257).

If the public and the prelates were seemingly oblivious to the danger, the editors of Britain's best known satirical magazine were not. Punch had long been an opponent of sensational literature, particularly of juvenile literature which dignified notorious criminals. Salmon's essay, which it praised highly, provided Punch with an opportunity to renew its campaign: "It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the nauseous quality of the trash that is prepared [for the young] in the shape of penny numbers." Penny dreadfuls, the editors argued, romanticized the unsavory activities of highwaymen, housebreakers, and murderers in such a way that immature youths were readily encouraged to undertake crimes of their own. "If proof of the widespread character of the evil is demanded there are the daily records of the nearest Police Courts with the answer," the article declared. "The Boy Pirate and The Boy Brigand of fiction soon becomes the boy burglar and the boy thief of fact."

In concluding its attack Punch called on philanthropists to assist in combatting the objectionable juvenile papers: "Philanthropy is continually actively engaged busying itself about the education of the young—here is something practical for it to do—let it look to the quality of its magazine literature."11 Salmon issued a similar appeal later in 1886. There was scarcely a magazine for the young "which it would not be a moral benefit to have swept off the face of the earth," he said. "It would be well for philanthropists to bear this fact in mind" ("What Girls Read," p. 523).

One philanthropist who certainly did bear the fact in mind was the seventh earl of Shaftesbury—industrial reformer, friend to climbing boys, and patron of the Pure Literature Society. Unlike most of the moral crusaders, though, Lord Shaftesbury saw penny literature as a threat to boys at all levels of British society. In 1878 he told a meeting of the Religious Tract Society: "It is creeping not only into the houses of the poor, neglected, and untaught, but into the largest mansions; penetrating into religious families and astounding careful parents by its frightful issues."12 The Evangelical members of the society shared the peer's concern. "These illustrated papers," a society spokesman declared the following year, "are eminently fitted to train up a race of reckless, daredevil, lying, cruel, and generally contemptible characters." The official based his charges partly on "evidence" supplied by an unidentified college professor who had personally examined a large selection of some of the more popular boys' papers. The periodicals in question, the professor told his audience at Exeter Hall, inculcated a number of ideas, including: "The first thing which a boy ought to acquire is physical strength for fighting purposes; and every boy who aspires to manliness ought to carry a revolver." For some reason, the don also concluded that the magazines encouraged boys to blackmail their fathers.13

The Religious Tract Society was generally selective in the papers it criticized; it was not, for instance, overly concerned with tales of vampires, ghosts, and similar characters that frequently graced the pages of some of the papers in circulation. What did offend the society—and most other critics, for that matter—were dreadfuls which depicted apparently realistic heroes. Realistic heroes, in this case, were characters such as those described by Publishers' Circular—disgruntled young clerks, errand boys, grocery assistants, etc. Penny dreadfuls which featured heroes of that description, Public Opinion noted in 1884, were the most dangerous strain of the virus, since youthful readers (who were assumed to be clerks, errand boys, etc.) were likely to emulate malefactors with whom they could identify.14 This was also Hitchman's argument when in 1890 he accused certain juvenile periodicals of instilling in young minds the belief that "all officers of the law [were] 'tyrants' and 'oppressors' whom it [was] the duty of 'spirited' lads to resist to the utmost." Such literature, he suggested, had done more than almost anything else to people Britain's prisons, reformatories, and colonies, with "scapegraces and ne'er-do-wells."15

To lend weight to his charges, Hitchman, like Salmon and Mr. Punch, drew attention to the cases of boys who, by their own admission, had been led to crime through their reading:

An errand boy or an office lad is caught in the act of robbing his master—"frisking the till," embezzlement, or forgery. In his desk are found sundry numbers of these romances of the road, a cheap revolver, a small stock of cartridges, and a black mask. A little pressure brings out the confession that those "properties" have been bought by the youthful culprit with the intention of emulating the "knights of the road," the tale of whose exploits has fascinated him.

("Penny Fiction," p. 154)

In fact, producing statements from hapless inmates who had been incarcerated for what was often called "literary debauchery" was a favourite weapon of those who sought to suppress the penny dreadfuls. In 1879, for instance, the anonymous author of Five Years Penal Servitude, by One Who Has Endured It (1878) reported conversations that he had had with boys in Newgate Prison: "I found from a few questions I asked that their heads had been stuffed with the rubbish they had read of gentlemen pirates, highwaymen, and bandit captains."16 His reports were supported in 1880 by the chaplain at Newgate who discovered from personal interviews that the interned boys "without exception, had been in the habit of reading … cheap periodicals."17 Reports concerning Holloway Prison, the following year, suggested that the same periodicals had also accounted for a high proportion of the young inmates there (Hitchman, "The Penny Press," p. 398).

Not everyone, admittedly, accepted the claims and confessions at face value. Thomas Wright (pseudonym "The Journeyman Engineer")—a perceptive artisan and author of The Great Unwashed (1868), a chronicle of working-class life—held dissenting opinions. Although he lamented the hold which the penny dreadfuls seemed to have on working-class youths, Wright disagreed with those who tended to attribute every juvenile crime to the literature: "It often happens, we are aware, that some juvenile till-robber is found to be a reader of penny dreadfuls. Nevertheless, we cannot agree with the conclusion usually taken in these cases, that the reading and the robbery stand in the relation of cause and effect. Young gentlemen 'in trouble' are ready enough to avail themselves of this plea when it is put into their mouths."18 Similarly, James Greenwood, also no friend of the penny dreadfuls, was skeptical when he heard young felons loudly lamenting the fact that they had ever learned to read: "Cos then," as one lad told a prison officer, "I shouldn't have read none of them highwaymen's books, sir; it was them as was the beginning of it."19 Both Greenwood and Wright were probably correct in suspecting that youthful offenders were all too adept at claiming extenuating circumstances which they believed would elicit sympathy from magistrates and police officers, but few of their contemporaries seemed to share their suspicions. Instead, most agreed with Sir Thomas Chambers, the recorder of the City of London, who in 1885 categorically stated that "there is not a boy or a young lad tried at our Courts of Justice whose position there is not more or less due to the effect of unwholesome literature upon his mind."20


The constant barrage of criticism was rarely answered by those involved with the offending literature. Occasionally, though, the authors and editors of the dreadfuls would acknowledge the furor and, in an oblique fashion, would attempt to justify their wares. On those occasions they usually claimed that their tales were intended not to romanticize crime but to reveal the inequities of contemporary society. Such was the alleged intention of a tale entitled "A Poor Boy's Trials; or, the Victim of a Vitiated Society," which appeared in the Boy's Halfpenny Journal of 1878. In introducing the first installment, the author wrote: "Not all the fault is it of the criminal that he commits crimes. He, who, as a boy, thieves, robs, lies, cheats, has much to answer for. However, in the suffering he undergoes he atones for all, while no persons are so miserable as habitual criminals. But society is not free from blame. If the boy were saved, the man could protect himself. If society ill-uses the wretched, let it not complain when crime is the result."21 The opponents of the literature, however, simply countercharged that such statements merely served to justify sensationalized accounts of juvenile delinquency. Indeed, the critics were not wrong in so retorting, for the (usually anonymous) penny dreadful writers of the 1870s were scarcely committed to popularizing radical ideas or raising social consciousness. Rather, as "Ralph Rollington" made clear in his recollections, the works of most of the authors were intended as entertainment, pure and simple.22

While the critics agreed that penny dreadful fiction was simple, they certainly did not regard it as pure. Yet that was how Edwin J. Brett—one of the most active and one of the most criticized publishers in the field—regarded the literature which he provided for adolescent boys. Brett had entered the juvenile market in 1860 when he joined the Newsagents Publishing Company.23 The firm published penny novelettes, such as The Boy Detective and The Boy Captain (c. 1865), but was also responsible for issuing the notorious "Wild Boys" serials.24 Brett left the company in 1868 (though not, one suspects, for reasons of conscience) and opened his own office, whence he published and edited a number of juvenile papers, including Our Boys' Journal (1876-??), the Boy's Comic Journal (1883-98), and Boys of the Empire (1888-89). His most successful venture, however, was Boys of England (1866-99), a weekly journal which often featured the adventures of Jack Harkaway, a young maverick who thrilled at least two generations of readers. The paper in which Harkaway appeared was not as sensational as some of its rivals, but it still caused many parents concern. Within its pages, youths like Harkaway waylaid travellers at gunpoint, led insurrections in the schoolhouse, and were not above forming questionable attachments with attractive and rather lusty older women. Small wonder, then, that Boys of England was also included in Hitchman's lists of objectionable periodicals.

Brett complained, nevertheless, that the boys' magazines which emanated from his offices were unfairly regarded by guardians and critics. His Young Men of Great Britain (1868-72)—a periodical almost entirely comprised of tales of highwaymen, pirates, and kindred swashbucklers—was actually launched to combat the "morbid and unwholesome literature of the day," he said.25 This, according to the publisher, was also the intention of the much maligned Boys of England. "Our aim is to enthrall you by wild and wonderful, but healthy fiction," readers were told, while doubtful parents were assured that "a moral and healthy tone may be maintained in conjunction with [even] the boldest fiction."26 Moreover, in an advertisement for yet another of his weekly journals, Brett charged in 1879 that "much of what is written for boys in the present day is unpalatable to them." Periodicals which met with critics' approval, he said, contained thinly disguised sermons that properly high-spirited youths found distasteful. In contrast, Brett promised lively papers featuring heroes whom boys could safely emulate—heroes he described as "manly boys, uttering manly thoughts, and performing manly actions."27

Brett must have been correct in his estimation of what boys liked and disliked since the weekly circulation of at least one of his periodicals (Boys of England) reached an impressive 250,000 by the early 1870s (James, "Tom Brown," p. 92). But the defense he offered in 1879 made no impact on his detractors; in fact, the reported sales of his papers caused them all the more concern.

Most of the critics, as we have seen, held unscrupulous writers and publishers responsible for the literature and its alleged effects. Others, like Talbot Baines Reed, the author of popular and approved public school stories, were more lenient towards the producers, although they were no less critical of the literature itself. Writing in the Leeds Mercury in 1884, Reed drew the sad conclusion that the dreadfuls survived because "a taste, more or less disguised, for the terrible, is inborn in most of us." He declined to accept the view that publishers and serial hacks deliberately sat down to produce a story which was calculated to corrupt youthful readers; rather, he suggested, they simply pandered to the public's tastes and wrote such material as would appeal to it: "It is melancholy to have to admit it, in these days of School Boards and Kyrle Societies, but it is nevertheless a fact that the popular literature of the streets is still the Penny Dreadful."28

The question of education and taste was central to the school of critics who attempted to probe other areas for the sources of noxious literature. Their investigations led them to the Education Act of 1870. These critics claimed that Forster's Act had merely provided the young masses with the ability to read but had not educated them to discriminate in what they read. As suggested earlier theirs was a very old argument; but with the advance of compulsory elementary education, it became much more common. It was an argument, too, that took a variety of forms, some of which were quite amusing. In its attack on penny dreadfuls in 1886, for instance, Punch provided the "diary" of a "boy burglar." Significantly, the young housebreaker had recently been enrolled in one of the new Board Schools, and the diary opens with him pawning his new slate and satchel so that he might "lay in two-penn'orth of brandy" and purchase a revolver. Having done so, the youth eagerly prepares for the night's activities: "Feel like what Jack Sheppard felt, in that jolly book young Bill Sikes lent me" (20 February 1886, p. 94).

Usually, though, criticisms of the act were expressed with much more invective. "The Education Act of 1870, which was looked upon as the Abolition of Ignorance, has failed to achieve its object," the Reverend Freeman Wills thundered a few months after the boy burglar's "diary" had appeared. "It has left darkness grosser by the revolt of those educated under compulsion. The education it has enforced is worthless … a mere capacity to read which leaves its possessor brutal and uncultured." The literature which attracted the uncultured working-class students, Wills contended, was equally brutal: it "depraved" youthful minds and caused them to long for "highly-spiced criminal excitements."29

B. G. Johns, a journalist and critic, expressed a similar argument in the Edinburgh Review the following year. "Surely," he said in a widely noticed essay, "it is not to be for a moment tolerated that the poor children of our great towns and cities should be trained into a course of crime, or be driven to find their only amusement in the exploits of thieves and assassins, and in the lying chronicles of scoundrelism at sea or on shore." Yet, Johns suggested, the School Boards were allowing this to happen by failing to educate their pupils in such a way that youths would learn to recognize and reject worthless literature. If appropriate steps were not taken, the author warned, the "future fathers … of the next generation" would continue to turn to the penny dreadfuls; and the penny dreadfuls, in turn, would continue to poison the very "springs of the nation's life."30

Since government legislation had introduced a national system of elementary education, could the government not enact legislation to suppress the offensive literature? The question was often asked, and Lord Shaftesbury voiced the exasperation of many when, in 1879, he challenged anyone to "draw up a clause in an Act of Parliament" that would lead to the banning of the periodicals.31 Salmon later suggested that publishers and retailers might be prosecuted under existing legislation—notably under Lord Campbell's Obscene Publications Act of 1857—and on a number of occasions this was attempted. In 1871 the police temporarily closed the Newsagents Publishing Company, and in 1877 police constables, acting at the direction of the Society for the Prevention of Vice, visited eleven newsagents and seized copies of the Wild Boys of London.32 But successful prosecutions under the Campbell Act were very rare, and unless the offending material was definably obscene (and under the law the term was as relative then as it is today) it seemed that there was very little action that the authorities could take.

Appreciating this, a number of concerned parties turned to publishing their own literature for boys. It was an inspired, but often ruinous, exercise, for the juvenile periodical market was notoriously capricious. The Reverend J. Erskine Clarke, nevertheless, was so dismayed at seeing errand boys in Derby reading tales of "blood and thunder" that he decided in 1867 to ignore the financial risks and launch an inexpensive magazine which he entitled Chatterbox. His long-running periodical made some impact on the market, but because it appealed to the parents of middle-class children rather than to working-class juveniles (who doubtless found Clarke's sermonizing painful), the magazine did not have its intended effect (Darton, p. 277).

The Union Jack—founded in 1880 by W. H. G. Kingston and afterwards conducted by G. A. Henty—struck closer to the mark. "Employers of Labour in Shops and Factories," advertisements declared, "by helping its circulation amongst their young assistants will do much towards keeping them honest and upright, inasmuch as where the Union Jack is read the poisonous Penny Dreadful will not be patronised."33 To Henty's great disappointment, though, the Union Jack was but a temporary success, and by 1883 young shop assistants and factory hands had deserted it in favor of rival publications.

For a time, Henry Mayhew was also determined to confront the dreadfuls on the newsstands. His survey of working-class life in London had convinced him that there was a great need for inexpensive but elevating juvenile literature; accordingly, he drew up a prospectus for an edifying paper for boys which he circulated among the leading literary men of the metropolis. "The object of the Journal is to supply a higher class of literature for youths than the present pernicious trash now provided for them," he told Frederick Locker in 1872:

Thirty years ago I projected Punch as a means of putting an end to the vile satirical papers … that then formed the staple of light-literature of the weekly press….

The proposed Journal for Boys has been devised with the same earnestness. I, for one, believe that the present state of the juvenile literary market is a disgrace to our common profession, and I am convinced that I have only to appeal to the foremost minds of the country, to find them as willing as I found the old Punch writers to assist me to provide a more healthy and refined form of mental food—even though it be for the young Gentlemen of Great Britain.34

Like so many of Mayhew's schemes, though, the journal never materialized. W. T. Stead, ever ready to join a moral crusade, was not so easily distracted. Like the founders of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge before him, Stead believed that if great works of literature were made freely available, pernicious literature would cease to exert any attraction. Acting on this belief, Stead launched a series of "penny healthfuls" in 1895. The series, which was part of Stead's "Masterpiece Library," offered poetry, prose, and fairy tales which had been specially selected and edited for young readers. But, like the Reverend Clarke's magazine, Stead's library proved more popular with the parents of young children than it did with independently minded adolescent boys. Moreover, by repeatedly boasting of his campaign and by indiscriminately denouncing rival juvenile publications, Stead soon lost many erstwhile supporters. The ebullient journalist was accused of attempting to dictate the reading tastes of the young, and it was not long before some critics were complaining as much about "Penny Steadfuls" as they had been about penny dreadfuls.35

A more successful attempt to replace "noxious" literature with "wholesome" literature came from the Religious Tract Society. The R.T.S. had long been fearful of the penny press, but in the 1870s an increase in the number of juvenile periodicals, plus a rise in the number of boys enrolled in the Board Schools, caused the directors of the society to take a "new and urgent" look at the situation: "Schools are multiplied everywhere, but what are boys to read out of school hours?" In an effort to provide a satisfactory answer to the question, the society decided to launch its own periodical—the Boy's Own Paper—which appeared on the newsstands in January 1879. "The Boy's Own Paper," inaugural notices declared, "is intended not only to provide the lads of our families and schools with wholesome and elevating reading, but to supplant, if possible, some of the literature the injurious effects of which all so sincerely deplore."36 The magazine was immediately hailed by critics as a welcome step towards that end, and the "war" which the B.O.P. carried on against the "degrading and debilitating dreadful" was cheered for many years after.37

The penny weekly Boy's Own took a very different course from some of the other well-intentioned, but less successful, publications of the day. Basically, it addressed itself to youths, instead of to parents, and, as a result, by the last decade of the century it enjoyed the largest circulation of any boys' periodical in Britain. Despite its popularity, though the B.O.P. did not single-handedly drive the dreadful from the newsstands; as much credit was due to Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) and the Amalgamated Press.

Harmsworth first entered the juvenile market in 1890, but his presence there was not greatly felt until 1894 when he launched the Union Jack (not to be confused with the Kingston-Henty journal of the same name). "You Need Not Be Ashamed To Be Seen Reading This!" proclaimed the first issue of the paper. Over the next few years Harmsworth took it upon himself (or so he said) to rid the nation once and for all of periodicals which made "thieves of the coming generation" (Turner, p. 111). This he sought to do by flooding the market with "healthy" papers such as the Halfpenny Marvel, Comic Cuts, and the Boys' Friend, to name just a few. The directors of the R.T.S. considered such papers to be "low class" and, compared to the Boy's Own, Harmsworth's periodicals were that.38 But his inexpensive, topical, well-illustrated publications had their desired effect, and by 1900 the old penny dreadful was an endangered species.

Harmsworth's papers were not, however, appreciably less violent than those they succeeded. Nor, for that matter, were the Boy's Own Paper or the other approved juvenile magazines which became prominent in the nineties. On examining those magazines, one finds that many of their serialized stories were also of the "blood and thunder" variety, and within the pages of the "respectable" papers there still lurked a fair number of boy captains and boy detectives—characters which, not long before, had so offended conservative critics. How, then, did those magazines manage to avoid the criticisms which had been heaped upon the old penny dreadfuls? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the penny press itself had ceased to be an object of intense suspicion: by the 1890s it had become an unquestioned part of modern society. Similarly, popular education was no longer as controversial. Although the Education Acts of 1891 and 1902 were subject to considerable debate, neither aroused the same fears or reactions that had attended Forster's Act; in turn, the juvenile periodical press, which developed largely because of the Board Schools, also ceased to be as controversial.

The change in critical reactions may also be explained by noting the social and political climate of the nineties—a climate which was quite different from that which had prevailed twenty years earlier when the penny dreadful controversy was at its height. The last decade of the nineteenth century was marked by a growing preoccupation with empire, by a greater military awareness, and, generally, by an admiration for all things muscular. The respected periodicals of the day reflected and reinforced those interests in the many rumbustious adventure tales which they featured. In papers like the Boy's Own and the Boys' Friend, however, the model heroes pitted themselves not against bumbling headmasters, corrupt excise officers, or brutal policemen—staple villains in the old dreadfuls—but against savage tribesmen, the Kaiser, or other of the Queen's enemies. Consequently, although the newer periodicals co-opted the aggressive spirit which had characterized the penny dreadfuls, the aggression was redirected into outlets which a new generation of conservative critics found acceptable.

The public outcry against the Victorian penny dreadful was arguably one of the most emotionally charged social campaigns of the period; but, as G. K. Chesterton noted early in the present century, the penny dreadful controversy was marred by a great deal of "exaggeration and misconception."39 Despite the cases and confessions reported by the Victorians critics, it is unlikely that the dreadfuls were principally responsible for juvenile delinquencies; in fact, the literature may even have had a cathartic effect, since most evidence—recent and contemporary—actually points to a decrease in juvenile crime during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.40 Nevertheless, middle-class impressions of working-class youths, conservative reactions to educational reforms, and a general distrust of the penny press do emerge clearly during the course of the debate; the penny dreadful question, therefore, is important more for the attitudes and concerns it illuminates than for what it says about the dimensions of juvenile crime.

The attenuation of the campaign and the reputation enjoyed by certain boys' papers at the end of the century shows, however, that middle-class attitudes and concerns were subject to change; indeed, the fact that late Victorian critics could accept the exuberance, violence, and nonconformity of the Boy's Own and the Harmsworth papers indicates that social values, with which conservative critics had been concerned, had changed considerably. Of course the boys' press had also changed, and themes expressed in the old dreadfuls had been tamed, politicized, and redirected to serve the needs of empire. Overall, though, the spirit of boys' literature changed less between 1870 and 1900 than did conservative attitudes. As a result, juvenile fiction which one generation of critics had denounced as "blood and thunder" came, in a slightly altered form, to be regarded by the next generation as wholesome and patriotic.


  1. For a discussion of the early Victorian dreadfuls, see E. S. Turner, Boys Will Be Boys (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1976) and Louis James, Fiction for the Working Man, 1830-1850 (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), chap. 9.
  2. Bookseller, 1 July 1868, p. 446; Publishers' Circular, 5 October 1895, p. 383.
  3. See Ivy Pinchbeck and Margaret Hewitt, Children in English Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), vol. II.
  4. Boys and Their Ways, by One Who Knows Them (London: John Hogg, 1880), pp. 221-222.
  5. For contemporary views of juvenile delinquency, see Margaret May, "Innocence and Experience: The Evolution of the Concept of Juvenile Delinquency in the Mid-Nineteenth Century," Victorian Studies, 17 (1973), 7-30, and John R. Gillis, Youth and History (New York: Academic Press, 1974), esp. chap. 3. Gillis's article, "The Evolution of Juvenile Delinquency in England: 1890-1914," Past and Present, 67 (1975), 96-126, is also valuable; however, the concepts of delinquency discussed in Gillis's article relate more to the Edwardian period than to the period with which we are concerned.
  6. Conservative reactions to elementary education and the popular press are to be found in Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957).
  7. See Sheila A. Egoff, Children's Periodicals of the Nineteenth Century: A Survey and Bibliography (London: Library Association, 1951).
  8. Francis Hitchman, "The Penny Press," Macmillan's Magazine, 43 (April 1881), 397.
  9. See Edward Salmon, "What the Working Classes Read," Nineteenth Century, 20 (July 1886), 108-117, and "What Girls Read," Nineteenth Century, 20 (October 1886), 515-529.
  10. Edward Salmon, "What Boys Read," Fort-nightly Review, 45 (1 February 1886), 255-256. Harrison Ainsworth's novel Jack Sheppard (1839) was published in a number of penny editions throughout the century. So also was Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834), which featured the exploits of the eighteenth-century highwayman Dick Turpin.
  11. Punch, 20 February 1886, p. 96.
  12. Edwin Hodder, The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, K. G. (London: Cassell, 1886), III, 469.
  13. Religious Tract Society Record, no. 10 (March 1879), 2.
  14. Public Opinion, 22 August 1884, p. 238.
  15. Francis Hitchman, "Penny Fiction," Quarterly Review, 171 (July 1890), 152.
  16. Religious Tract Society, Annual Report (London, 1880), p. 286.
  17. Boy's Own Paper, 7 (5 September 1885), 783.
  18. Thomas Wright, "On a Possible Popular Culture," Contemporary Review, 40 (July 1881), 35.
  19. James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London (London: Stanley Rivers, 1869), pp. 179, 181.
  20. Boy's Own Paper, 7 (5 September 1885), 783.
  21. "A Poor Boy's Trials; or, the Victim of a Vitiated Society," Boy's Halfpenny Journal, 1 (19 October 1878), p. 2.
  22. Ralph Rollington, A Brief History of Boys' Journals (Leicester: H. Simpson, 1913).
  23. See Louis James, "Tom Brown's Imperialistic Sons," Victorian Studies, 17 (1973), 89-99.
  24. The Wild Boys tales were considered to be among the most violent serials of the day. Published from about 1866, the series included The Wild Boys of London; or, The Children of the Night, The Wild Boys of Paris; or, The Vaults of Death, The Poor Boys of London; or, A Life Story for the People, and later The Boys of London and New York. See Turner, pp. 66-68.
  25. Young Men of Great Britain, 1 (Editor's Preface) and (21 July 1868), 388.
  26. Boys of England, 1 (1866), quoted in F. J. Harvey Darton, Children's Books in England, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), pp. 276-277.
  27. Boys of England, 25 (11 January 1879), 143. The advertisement was for the Boys' Sunday Reader, a journal which, in 1881, was more aptly rechristened the Boys' Weekly Reader Novelette. Among the titles included in the Reader and Novelette series were: Back from Death (no. 40), Killed by Mistake (no. 57), Jaspar Jordan's Crimes (no. 120), Dynamite Dick (no. 122), and Tracked to Death (no. 126). Such were the stories wherein Edwin Brett's manly boys uttered manly thoughts and performed their manly actions!
  28. Leeds Mercury, 16 August 1884; quoted in Stanley Morison, Talbot Baines Reed: Author, Bibliographer, Typefounder (Cambridge: Privately printed, 1960), p. 24. Anthony Trollope provided an amusing, though imaginary (?), profile of a penny dreadful writer. Trollope's hack was a tippling, decayed Cambridge graduate who, for forty-five shillings a week, wrote "blood and nastiness" to order for a backstreet publisher (see "An Editor's Tales: The Spotted Dog," St. Paul's Magazine, 5 (March 1870), 669-688).
  29. Freeman Wills, "Recreative Evening Schools," Nineteenth Century, 20 (July 1886), 133.
  30. [B. G. Johns], "The Literature of the Streets," Edinburgh Review, 165 (January 1887), 61.
  31. Religious Tract Society Record, no. 11 (March 1879), 37.
  32. James, "Tom Brown's Imperialist Sons," 90. In the 1877 case, the magistrate declared that while the seized copies of the Wild Boys of London did elicit "disgust," they were not "so openly obscene as books generally brought under Lord Campbell's Act." Nevertheless, most of the defendants (i.e. the newsvendors) agreed with the magistrate that the serials should be destroyed (The Times 13 December 1877, p. 11).
  33. Publishers' Circular, 43 (17 January 1880), 21.
  34. Henry Mayhew to Frederick Locker, 19 October 1872, Locker-Lampson Papers, East Sussex Record Office, Pelham House, Lewes, Sussex.
  35. Joseph O. Baylen, "Stead's Penny 'Masterpiece Library,'" Journal of Popular Culture, 9 (1975), 715.
  36. Patrick Dunae, "The Boy's Own Paper: Origins and Editorial Policies," The Private Library, 9 (Winter 1976), 126, 132.
  37. Edward Salmon, Juvenile Literature as It Is (London: H. J. Drane, 1888), p. 186; "What Boys Read," p. 256.
  38. In 1895 Alfred Harmsworth asked the Religious Tract Society if he might purchase electroplates from back numbers of the B.O.P. He planned to use these to illustrate his own juvenile magazines, but because the directors of the society considered his publications to be "low class" his request was refused (Dunae, p. 158).
  39. G. K. Chesterton, The Defendant (London: R. Brimley Johnson, 1901), pp. 8-9.
  40. Parliamentary Papers, Report of the Reformatory and Industrial Schools Commission, (1884), XXXIII, Appendix 8, pp. 216-217; Parliamentary Papers, Report of the Departmental Committee on Reformatory and Industrial Schools (I), (1896) XLV, Appendix 9, p. 249; J. J. Tobias, Urban Crime in Victorian England (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), pp. 41-42, 127-128.

John Springhall (essay date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Springhall, John. "A Life Story for the People? Edwin J. Brett and the London 'Low-Life.'" Victorian Studies 33, no. 2 (winter 1990): 223-46.

[In the following essay, Springhall presents an examination of the role of publisher Edwin J. Brett in the controversy surrounding penny dreadfuls, ultimately concluding that Brett and his fellow printers had little interest or regard for the working-class culture that consumed their product.]

It is now over forty years since Jack Harkaway, Sweeney Todd, Spring-Heeled Jack, and Charley Wag were first extolled in E. S. Turner's classic Boys Will Be Boys (1948), a breezy popular history of generations of English penny dreadfuls and boys' papers. It is also over twenty-five years since the first appearance of Louis James's Fiction for the Working Man, a pioneering study of the literature produced for the English working classes from 1830 to 1850.1 Until Kirsten Drotner's recent English Children and Their Magazines (see review this issue), there has been no full history of juvenile magazines in England to replace Turner's: in 1973 James did publish an important article in Victorian Studies that alerts readers to the boys' periodical publications of Edwin Brett and Charles Fox and emphasizes their contributions as editors to late Victorian racism and imperialism. Six years later and also in this journal, Patrick Dunae published "Penny Dreadfuls: Late Nineteenth-Century Boys' Literature and Crime," focusing on the adverse critical reaction to penny dreadfuls rather than on the actual works themselves.2 Thus, though at least some attention has been given to how far penny dreadful publications merited their contemporary reputation for seducing youth into crime, more has been given to the role that boys' weeklies played in inciting chauvinism in a juvenile audience.3

One issue scholars have not yet addressed is how far post-1850 cheap serialized fiction genuinely reproduced the "mechanic accents" of nineteenth-century English working-class life or, perhaps less romantically, served only to reinforce the dominant middle-class culture. Happily, the London "low-life" penny dreadfuls produced by the Newsagents' Publishing Company (NPC) in the 1860s—under Edwin J. Brett's shrewd management—provide us with a privileged insight into what can be for the historian of popular culture, a perplexing and difficult question of intentionality.

"'I wish I know'd as much as you, Dick. How did you manage to pick it up?'" one of the eponymous Wild Boys of London asks the well-mannered young hero of a renowned NPC low-life serial. "'Mother taught me most, and I read all the books I can get,'" he replies. "'So do I; sich rattling tales, too,'" interjects the street waif. "'The Black Phantom; or the White Spectre of the Pink Rock. It's fine, it is; somebody's killed every week, and it's only a penny.' 'That is not the sort of book I mean,'" says the snooty hero. "'Mother does not like me to read them.' 'Why?' 'She says they have a bad influence.' 'Who's he?'" asks the puzzled Wild Boy.4 This dialogue, taken from The Wild Boys of London; or, The Children of Night. A Story of the Present Day (1864-66), not only suggests an element of beguiling self-parody but also indicates the arrival of a new commercial popular culture of "rattling tales," aimed from mid-century onwards at working-class youth in London and the expanding industrial cities. Yet the serial's average reader was probably closer to the well-spoken protagonist than to the Wild Boys themselves; this average reader perhaps vicariously enjoyed the adventures of the latter for that very reason. Whether in the school, the office, the warehouse, or the workshop, youngsters could participate in the criminal yet exciting escapades of homeless orphans without having their own life-styles radically altered in the process. Penny dreadfuls thus provided a romantic escape from the uneventfulness of their readers' everyday lives. Assisted by steam-driven printing presses, cheap paper, improved transport, and rising literacy, commercial entrepreneurs set out to supply the popular imagination with what it craved: Gothic horror stories, tales of struggle and warfare, domestic romances, stories of highwaymen and the underworld. Young wage slaves "had no intention of spending their scanty leisure reading about wage slaves" (Turner, p. 52). Popular entertainment also sometimes overlapped with, or directly influenced, more respectable forms of literature, as in the case of the "Newgate novels" of the 1830s or the "sensation fiction" of the 1860s.5 For the large majority of English middle-class readers and critics, however, popular or penny dreadful fiction remained part of an unmapped, extensive, and rather threatening terrain; it has not been properly investigated even to this day.

Assessment of the output of a commercial syndicate like the NPC runs into an intractable antinomy. Are products of the mass culture industry instruments of mass deception and manipulation, signs of cultural degeneration, or are they a genuine people's culture, opposing and resisting the dominant elite culture—the basis for cultural renaissance? In other words, does commercial entertainment present us with socially conservative fables, thus acting as an agency of social control by the dominant culture, or do penny dreadfuls represent "a symbolic form of class conflict," subverting authority and challenging middle-class norms? In his penetrating analysis of dime novels, the nineteenth-century American equivalent to penny dreadfuls, Michael Denning poses these questions and argues that popular stories are best seen as "a contested terrain, a field of cultural conflict where signs with wide appeal and resonance take on contradictory disguises and are spoken in contrary accents." The American dime novel, therefore, becomes caught up in the ideological class struggle between middle-class moralism and the "mechanic accents" of popular sensationalism. According to this interpretation, the narrative formulas of American cheap fiction "gain their resonance largely from their closeness to working-class ideologies, from the mechanic accents of the producer culture to which its readers, writers, and earliest publishers belonged."6

On the basis of the sample of London low-life serials I will examine, English penny dreadfuls do not reproduce the same supposedly "mechanic accents" of the American dime novel. On the contrary, the narrative formulas of penny dreadfuls reinforce rather than subvert existing social and political structures. This reinforcement includes frequent recourse to the antiquated figure of the corrupt and dissolute aristocrat. Cheap sensation fiction in England operated within primarily middle-class ideological constraints. The majority of mid-Victorian penny serials were aimed at working-class juveniles, but they were put out by déclassé publishers whose origins were not infrequently upper-middle class—remote except in youthful radical sympathies from the "producer culture." They were written anonymously by down-at-heel penny-a-liners who generally came from provincial middle-class families. As in Edwin Brett's case, the proprietors responsible for the stories clearly hoped to achieve status and recognition within the existing social order. Consequently, the principals of low-life dreadfuls are not themselves wage slaves but temporarily impoverished yet "respectable" young men or women, denied their rightful patrimony through the machinations of sinister upper-class figures, with reader identification commonly achieved by the device of placing the hero or heroine unrecognised in an ordinary working-class family. Thus Poor Jack (of Poor Jack, the London Street Boy, c. 1880), discovering he has been adopted, leaves home to find his genuine parents among the nobility and embarks on an exemplary career as a crossing-sweeper. "'There has been many a bright man raised from the gutter, and if I should be one of the fortunate boys who become great I shall have no one to thank but myself,'" Poor Jack says, congratulating himself in advance of his metamorphosis.7 Smilesian self-help virtues are also positively endorsed in George Emmett's Charity Joe: or, From Street Boy to Lord Mayor (c. 1875), as well as in John Bennett's Life and Career of a London Errand Boy (c. 1865), in which poor but honest Tom Brown is sent to work for a firm of venal rag merchants in Smithfield.8 Hence, decent, faintly priggish central characters in low-life serials are invariably compelled by the vagaries of melodramatic plotting to associate themselves with colourful characters in the lower and criminal reaches of London society. Perhaps this reflects the careers of their downwardly mobile "hack" creators, who all too often finished up in cheap lodgings dying of excessive alcohol consumption.

The generic term "penny dreadful," applied indiscriminately to a whole range of popular Victorian and Edwardian literature, no longer has much historical precision.9 An adequate definition is made difficult because there are at least six different meanings that can be distinguished from its usage in popular discourse. First, it is used as a general term of abuse for cheap papers or fiction of any description written throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Second, it is used to describe highly coloured, criminal, or Gothic penny-issue novels of the 1830s and '40s, such as those issued by publisher Edward Lloyd (1815-90) from Salisbury Square in weekly or monthly parts. Third, a more appropriate application of the term is to the successors of these novels—directed, from the 1850s onwards, toward a more specifically juvenile market—culminating in the publications of the NPC of the 1860s. Fourth, "penny dreadful" is just as often used as a label for penny magazines or the cheaper weekly boys' papers appearing from the mid-1860s onwards, mostly associated with Edwin Brett or the Emmett brothers. And a fifth usage applies the term not only to the boys' journals themselves, but also to the long-running weekly serials they contained. These serials, if successful, were then published in separate weekly parts and later in collected shilling volumes, the latter of which provides us with a sixth definition. While recognizing that "dreadfuls" can embrace all these contingent forms of publication, "penny blood" is better applied to the earlier serials for adults associated with Lloyd and "penny dreadful" reserved for their later counterparts addressed chiefly to a more youthful clientele.10


The NPC initiated, according to one hostile critic, an "era of the greatest general depravity, as well as literary wretchedness, in the history of periodical fiction."11 In addition James Greenwood (1832-1929), the investigative journalist, labelled the NPC a "delectable company" which was "the foremost of the gang whose profit is the dissemination of impure literature."12 This much-censured Fleet Street concern churned out cheap serials, many in the London low-life genre, aimed primarily at the new juvenile audience which had superseded that for the Lloyd-style penny "blood." The company was masterminded by Edwin John Brett (1828-95), who dominated the field of cheap juvenile fiction and boys' papers from the mid-1860s until the early 1890s—an achievement sadly unacknowledged in most histories of English-language children's literature.

Brett was born in Canterbury into comfortable circumstances. His father, Thomas Brett, was a retired British Army officer who had served through the Peninsular War (1808-13), and his mother, Mary Brett, was distantly related to the aristocracy—a cousin of the celebrated Lady Mary Small. The Bretts claimed that they "came over with [William] the Conqueror" and the family name was supposedly on the battle roll at Hastings.13 Thus Edwin Brett liked to present himself as coming from an established upper-middle-class background, as did his friend and fellow journalist, popular author, and republican, George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-79). In contrast, Edward Lloyd, the son of a Surrey farmer, left school early to become a London bookseller and studied journalism at the Mechanics' Institute in Chancery Lane. In 1881 another upper-class Fleet Street figure, George Emmett, ex-cavalry man and Brett's fierce publishing rival, satirised the latter's misplaced pride in his ancestry through the unusual medium of a school story. This featured a parental figure of fun called "Eugene Julius Wiggles" (note the first two initials), who has made his money from some unspecified but clearly unsavoury source, while fondly imagining that he has a remote ancestor who came over with Julius Caesar and "was the first of the whole lot to land."14 Little is known about Brett's actual childhood or schooling, except that his mother was keen on theatricals, to the point that at eight years of age he had a walk-on part at Covent Garden. At fourteen, Edwin was apprenticed at his father's wish to an old watchmaker, but restlessness soon gained the young man release from his indentures. It is curious that a boy from such a well-connected and apparently well-off family should have been sent away for training as a craftsman. On the inactive list himself, Brett's military father may have recognised in his son a boy of a practical rather than a scholastic bent, a tendency well demonstrated by Edwin's early career.

Brett moved to London in his mid-teens to work as an artist-engraver and joined a politically radical circle which included fellow Kent expatriate G. W. M. Reynolds, one of the most controversial figures in late Chartism; Charles Cochrane, a middle-class, anti-income-tax demagogue; and the famous Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor, proprietor of the Northern Star, whose mental derangement was becoming apparent. As a Chartist sympathiser, Brett was present at the famous 10 April 1848 Kennington Common demonstration addressed by both O'Connor and Reynolds. On the same day, the future "prince of correspondents," George Augustus Sala (1828-95), who much later chaired a banquet in Brett's honour, enrolled as a special constable to protect middle-class property.15 In retrospect, this anti-climactic Chartist event convinced Brett of "how easily the people can be led by a few unprincipled men who have more eloquence than the people they address."16 It is clear that, unlike Reynolds, Brett either genuinely lost his youthful radicalism, or perhaps as a newly married man found it expedient to conceal his Chartist past in order to succeed as a publisher. In any case, it was as an engraver that he began his career in publishing, working at age sixteen on Henry Vizetelly's Pictorial Times (1844-48), a competitor to the Illustrated London News (1842-). Subsequently, Brett set up in a quasi-partnership with Ebenezer Landells (1808-60), the great Newcastle-born wood engraver/artist and small publisher. Brett was later to recall visiting his associate in a debtors' prison, the last resting place of many struggling journalists. Landells was also one of the moving forces behind the satirical magazine Punch, or the London Charivari (1841-), which was to print an amusing parody, many years later, of the Brett-style boys' story paper.17

In the 1850s and early '60s, Brett left his radical friends behind, moving instead on the fringes of London bohemianism with a group of young men who were less talented followers of Dickens and Thackeray. G. A. Sala was the most famous member of the Fleet Street bohemian set, which also included Edmund Yates, Mortimer Collins, Henry Mayhew, Percy B. St. John, and Henry Vizetelly. The future proprietor of the NPC was particularly close to the Punch circle, embracing besides Mayhew the paper's editor Mark Lemon, playwright Douglas Jerrold, and Brett's former pupil Charles Bennett, a comic artist. He also knew other important figures in theatrical and literary circles, such as Alfred Bunn, the manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and publisher Herbert Ingram, a former printer, later Liberal Member of Parliament. Disappointingly, Brett does not figure in the autobiographical memoirs of any of his more famous contemporaries. On 8 September 1860, Brett's planned take-over of The Illustrated Inventor (1857-60) was cut short when Ingram, its publisher, and his eldest son drowned when their excursion-ship collided with another in Lake Michigan. But for someone with Brett's engraving skills, energy, and business acumen, London offered a wide variety of opportunities for work on weekly publications, among them numerous imitations of Punch. In 1864, together with publisher William Laurence Emmett, Brett took over Edward Harrison's English Girls' Journal and Ladies' Magazine (1863-65), but it proved less than successful and lasted only another year. The ill-feeling engendered by the collapse of this partnership probably contributed to the savage competition in boys' papers between Brett and the four Emmett brothers in later years. Brett next experimented with two small-format, weekly magazines: The Boys' Companion and British Traveller (1865), which was absorbed by the equally short-lived The Boys' Own Reader (1866), both using the successful Lloyd-Reynolds newspaper formula of a miscellany of fiction and factual items, here aimed exclusively at the fastgrowing juvenile market.18

Together with the recent deaths of his two mentors Landells and Ingram, these business miscalculations may have led Brett, now in his late thirties, to move, possibly as manager, to the NPC at 147 Fleet Street. His ensuing success was phenomenal. The firm's penny dreadfuls sold like wildfire in small newsagents' and stationers' shops. They were also lent out in volume form for twopence a week from circulating libraries carried on at the same premises, "and passed through the hands of countless juvenile readers from the [London] regions of Bermondsey and Whitechapel, to Bell-street and the Edgware-road" (Waite, p. 66). It became a standing complaint among employers that to get work out of office boys and errand runners, once penny dreadfuls became their favourite reading matter, was next to impossible.

The fate reserved for obsolete penny "bloods," whose sales among adults declined with the advent of popular Sunday newspapers and mass circulation story papers, was to become the juvenile reading of the next generation. At the 1861 census, over forty-five per cent of the population of England and Wales were under twenty years of age.19 By the 1860s, when the penny dreadful was at its peak and before the advent of state elementary education, it is quite possible that at least two-thirds of working-class children in England had some schooling. The combined efforts of dame and private day schools, Sunday schools and denominational day school systems, factory and workhouse schools, and schools sponsored by working-class organizations had ensured that the great majority of working-class children either received some education or, as David Vincent puts it, were "at least in a position to form some estimation of what they were missing."20 Between 1841 and 1885 the illiteracy rate at marriage for England and Wales fell from forty-one to twelve percent, and even in the early Victorian period more than half the younger generation could at least sign their names and probably had even a minimal reading ability.21

With a growing mass readership to draw upon, the cheap serials of the 1860s and '70s deliberately targeted younger readers. "The romantic love-element disappears and is replaced by lurid crime and violence, by heroes who are highwaymen or thieves, by settings of Newgate or the lowest slums of the cities," claims one brief survey of the field.22 Edwin Brett was prominent among those entrepreneurs who seized upon an opportunity to market a consumer product which this particular audience at this particular moment in time demanded. As a result, he helped to unleash a middle-class "cycle of outrage" which will be all too familiar to the student of mass-culture innovations directed at the young in this century.23

By 1867 the company imprint suggests that Brett had become the sole proprietor and managing editor of the NPC which, in effect, inherited the dubious mantle of Edward Lloyd's Salisbury Square publishing house. His early efforts for the company were penny-number reprints of serials such as "Mazeppa; or the Dwarf's Revenge" and "Sixteen-String Jack, the Daring Highwayman," serials that had appeared earlier in the notorious Edward Harrison's Boys' Miscellany, or Boys' Own Weekly Paper (1863-64). The NPC eventually started publishing its own "gallows literature" penny serials about highwaymen, pirates, and crime. One clear indication of the shift to a juvenile audience for the penny dreadful was the sudden upsurge in NPC stories featuring boy heroes with whom the readers could clearly identify, like the hero in Edward Ellis's lurid The Boy Detective or, The Crimes of London. A Romance of Modern Times (1865-66). Brett also put out in weekly instalments such titles as Captain Irving Lyons's Black Rollo, the Pirate; or, The Dark Woman of the Deep. A Graphic Tale of the American War (1864-65); Percival Wolfe's Red Ralph; or, The Daughter of the Night. A Romance of the Road in the Days of Dick Turpin (1865-66?); the anonymous Dance of Death; or, The Hangman's Plot. A Thrilling Romance of Two Cities (1865-66); and the fanciful Restoration tale of The Skeleton Horseman; or, The Shadow of Death (1865?-66). These were all convoluted serials sold in penny weekly parts, each part consisting of eight pages of octavo-sized text, printed in double columns of eyestraining type, minion or brevier, and embellished with a lurid front-cover engraving. In order to economise on costs, Brett was his own engraver and the artist was generally a beginner. Some bibliophiles have conjectured that Brett himself wrote a number of the NPC's weekly serials, but while he may on occasion have provided an illustration, contemporary testimony points to the contrary.24

According to one account, the NPC's healthy profits helped Brett to launch Boys of England (1866-99), his most successful and long-running boys' weekly. Another source claims that Brett had no money at all in 1866 and had to ask some publishers' agents to advance him the £300 sufficient to float the new paper.25 Unfortunately, it was not Brett's custom to keep account books; he was satisfied so long as he found a good balance in the bank at the end of the year. The actual profit margins of penny dreadful publishing must remain speculative at best, but some attempt to reconstruct the NPC's overheads and costs of production can be made from surviving, albeit contradictory, fragments of evidence. Machine made paper, for example, was reducing the costs of printing; in 1861 the paper duty was repealed and, simultaneously, a strong North African grass, esparto, had been introduced as a cheap substitute for rags in British paper-making. Thus the average cost for a ream of paper (with a maximum of 500 sheets) fell from £1 4s. taxed in the 1840s to 10s. in the mid-1860s—a reduction by more than half.26 Several sources state that, at the most generous, an NPC author was paid £2 10s. per number, which cost another £2 10s. to set up in type and 5s. per thousand to print, while the wholesale price to the retail trade was another £2 10s. per thousand. These rounded cost figures have a certain suspicious symmetry and in 1866 James Greenwood claimed, probably with more accuracy than other contemporary sources, that copies of the NPC's "penny packets of poison" were sold wholesale at the rate of fivepence for a dozen copies—nearer to £1 15s. per thousand and thus quite a generous trade discount (pp. 159-160). One week's unsold copies were exchanged on a sale or return basis for a similar number of the current issue. Unless sales were high, this practice cut into the publisher's profits but, ipso facto, made dreadfuls an attractive proposition to the newsagent.

A shrewd businessman, Brett used promotional schemes to assist sales. When a new serial began, for example, two numbers in a yellow wrapper were sold for the price of one, and with the collusion of wholesalers free samples were inserted into copies of rival cheap periodicals. Posters and handbills at newsvendors helped spread the message, as did advertisements on the wrappers and margins of other NPC serials.27 At a maximum print run of 30,000 copies, using two sheets each, Brett would pay about £60 for 120 reams of paper, plus £12 10s. for author and printer costs, or a combined total of £72 10s. This meant that even on the most generous estimate of wholesale prices, it would be necessary to sell the entire print run to newsvendors, principally in London, if Brett were to clear his initial costs. The NPC did not divulge its circulation figures, but only the most popular penny dreadful titles would sell 30,000 or more weekly copies.28 If Brett's maximum print run for a single title were sold to the trade, he would net about £75 a week but, deducting costs, this gave him a clear gross profit of just £2 10s. per title per week. Even with a dozen different and successful titles in print, fetching £30 weekly or £1,560 per annum, profits came nowhere near the over £8,000 per annum which was James Greenwood's generous estimate for the rewards of penny dreadful publishing (p. 160). The lower estimate for company profit margins still contrasts sharply, of course, with that of an author's annual income measured in hundreds of pounds.

The NPC was raided and closed by the police around 1870, by which time it was only issuing reprints. Edwin Brett had already moved on, transferring his publishing business to 173 Fleet Street, which overlooked St. Bride's churchyard, and giving it a new name: The Boys of England Office. This change was necessary to cope with the success of his path-breaking boys' paper of the same name which ultimately established the once shady Brett as a respectable figure in the London publishing and theatrical worlds in which he moved. As G. A. Sala disingenuously claimed at Brett's 1892 complimentary banquet, "we have reason to know that many of the publications, which he has conducted with almost unprecedented success, have done much to stamp out and destroy low and debasing publications, of which we cannot speak without contempt and abhorrence."29 Although continuing to farm out reprint rights, Brett thus managed to downplay his embarrassing association with the NPC penny dreadful, and he became well-known in his fifties and sixties as the owner-editor of several of the more successful mass circulation story papers of the late-nineteenth century. Among Brett's later adult weeklies, which were backed by a firm of paper merchants, are Wedding Bells (1870-79) and then Something to Read (1881-99), whose romantic stories made a deliberate appeal to railway-travelling women as well as to the "single and married everywhere." When, after a painful illness, he died on 15 December 1895 at age sixty-seven, Brett left to be divided among his nine children an estate worth £76,500—a large sum by late Victorian standards. Not long after, his beloved armoury collection was put up for auction at Christies and fetched £11,773.30

Even after Brett's death, six boys' papers—consisting mostly of profitable reprints—appeared under the family's Harkaway House imprint, published by a limited liability company which had as its manager his eldest son, Edwin Charles Brett. A generous offer for the business from Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe—who from 1893 onwards published cheaper halfpenny boys' papers which undercut Brett's titles—was ill-advisedly turned down by the Board of Directors; then in 1909 the debenture holders stepped in and the company collapsed.31 Not only had Brett been one of the most successful and wealthy publishers of boys' papers from the mid-1860s to the early 1890s, but his Boys of England firmly established the pattern of weekly serialised and sensational fiction which was followed, even after the advent of the more up-market Boy's Own Paper (1879-1967), by nearly all of his competitors for the pennies of children, schoolboys, and adolescents.


One category of the NPC's total output in the 1860s was the fascinating low-life cycle which utilised highly melodramatic and often incongruous plots situated among sordid and criminal London milieus. "If you are interested in the darker side of London's history, its ghosts, murderers, mystery and misery, then join us in our trip through London," entices a modern souvenir guide for those pondering whether to take the Tragical History Tours' "Bus Trip to Murder."32 The perennial attraction which "the sinister side" of London exerts over the law-abiding may, in part, explain why the sensational low-life story, exposing corruption in high places and crime in low places, was among the most popular genres of cheap serialised fiction from the 1840s onwards. "In this Work, upon which the Author has been employed almost night and day for the last two years collecting the necessary information, will be found the most graphic and reliable pictures of hitherto unknown phases of the DARK SIDE OF LONDON LIFE. Not exaggerated and distorted by the wild imaginings of the Novelist's brain, but rendered in stern, truthful language, by one who has studied, in all its blackest enormity, the doings of secret crime," a typically exaggerated advertisement claimed on the wrapper of Charley Wag: The New Jack Sheppard (c. 1860-61).33 Published under the imprint of George Vickers, this particular dreadful scandalised middle-class opinion by daring to have a successful boy-thief as its central character. What sort of model did this provide for an impressionable young working-class audience?

Low-life fiction was popularised, if not invented, by Pierce Egan's colourful Life in London: or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq., and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis (1820-21). First published in expensive shilling numbers, the numerous stage adaptations and cheap reproductions of the original coloured illustrations by the Cruikshank brothers ensured the long-term popularity of Tom and Jerry's peregrinations among the capital's sporting low life. In 1828 Egan's sequel, The Finish to the Adventures of Tom, Jerry and Logic, in their Pursuits through Life In and Out of London, was published in monthly parts.34 Fourteen years later, Eugène Sue appears to have been prompted by Egan to publish in serial form his far more sensational Les Mystères de Paris (1842-43), which in turn evoked a flood of Mysteries contrasting upper-class decadence against life in sordid urban surroundings in France and elsewhere.35 The penny dreadful publications of the 1860s that took the London low-life theme and adapted it extensively for a largely juvenile audience were chiefly inspired by a best-selling anglicised version of Sue's melodramatic bestseller. G. W. M. Reynolds's interminable The Mysteries of London (1845-48) was one of the most successful penny-issue works of its time, and after the author's break with his first publisher, was followed by an even lengthier serial, The Mysteries of the Court of London (1848-56). Like Sue, Reynolds attempted to show that city life, with all of its multitudinous activities and stratified classes, was in essence an organic social whole. The narrative of the first series, for example, follows alternately the careers of a good and a bad brother both able to move at ease among the different social orders and to give some coherence to a politically radical yet highly sensational, multilayered story-line.36

The NPC was responsible for the publication of one of the most infamous low-life serials of the age, The Wild Boys of London; or, The Children of Night (1864-66), which depicts with some grasp of urban vernacular, the lurid, often violent adventures of a gang of street urchins who hatch their mischief "round a fire in their haunt beneath the sewers of London" (p. 24), from whence they sally forth to fight off ruffians, salvage corpses, and traffic in stolen goods. Above ground, they come to grips with thieves, murderers, kidnappers, incompetent policemen, grave-robbers, and even child-stealers. "At times," E. S. Turner declared, "the scene shifted to a mutinous convict ship, or to the Australian bush, but sooner or later the writer would return, nostalgically, to the sewers of London."37 The first edition in the mid-1860s was published in 103 weekly parts of 8 double-columned pages each, making a combined total of about 800,000 words, or ten times the length of the average modern thriller. The interest for potential juvenile working-class readers, such as errand boys and street sellers, was considerable, because The Wild Boys of London effectively glamorised adolescent, working-class experience. The hero, Dick Lane, is the son of a previously sober and industrious Lambeth bricklayer who has taken to drink after being led astray when his union calls an unnecessary strike. Dick's alter ego, Arthur Grattan, has been brought up by a poor schoolmaster but is in reality the kidnapped son of Lord Wintermerle. It is also made clear that Dick, although befriended by the Wild Boys, is better educated than his companions and only driven by circumstances, "the effect of strikes and drinking," to make a living on the streets (p. 18).

The introduction to this serial's first penny issue, with its free pantomime sheet, made some significant promises to its readers which epitomise the almost ludicrous contrast in many dreadfuls between the pious, declared intentions of the worthy author and the melodramatic excitements of the actual narrative:

The adventures of the poor outcast children of society are in themselves of a nature strange enough to satisfy the keenest appetite of those who love sensation. But it is not the wild sensation of sanguinary improbability…. Boys themselves, the young of every community and class, will read our book and [it] will tell them all they have to do, and what can be done by honesty, steadfast purpose, industry, and truth. The adventures of our hero are only such as they themselves may know, and the proud position now occupied by many gentlemen, whose early lives are depicted here, is the best and most simple proof that there is hope for those who are born in the lowest depths of degradation, and proves also that many of the world's future heroes—the great in honour, and the rich in fame—have yet to rise from the ranks of "The Wild Boys of London."

(pp. 1-2)

Readers are not only invited to identify with the well brought-up, yet poverty-stricken, young hero ("the adventures of our hero are only such as they themselves may know"), but also to relish a sensationalism that does not have to resort to the Gothic or to "sanguinary improbability" for its appeal. Even less convincing is the pious Victorian moral sentiment upholding honesty, hard work, and truth, whereas the Wild Boys in fact pursue sordid careers of crime and deceit. Of course, that the Wild Boys do not always behave according to the strict tenets of mid-Victorian morality merely follows a tradition: Brett and his stable of writers were not the first popular entertainers to set in motion a sensationalized approach to crime that subverted the premises of their own class origins and ambitions. In this light, the final Smilesian appeal to self-help and upward social mobility appears to be merely a spurious afterthought. Equally, the obligatory radical sentiment occasionally inserted into The Wild Boys of London jostles uneasily alongside random abuse of trade unionism ("a crew of interested idle harpies who fattened on the artizan's starvation"), caricatures of Irish Fenianism, and general anti-semitism which permeate the uneven picaresque narrative. So great was the popular reception accorded the Wild Boys that an alluringly titled NPC sequel soon followed, The Wild Boys of Paris or, The Mysteries of the Vaults of Death (1866), an improbable tale set in the heart of Eugène Sue territory, complete with murders in nearly every weekly issue.38

Early in December 1877, several police constables, acting at the direction of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, visited eleven newsagents and seized copies of a reprint of The Wild Boys of London put out by one George Farrah twelve years or so after its first publication. A suggestion that the serial's confiscation in mid-issue might have been due to episodes in which the Wild Boys fight with the police is not credible, given what we know of the Society's prudish involvement.39 The Bow Street magistrate, Mr. Flowers, declared that while the offending items were not "so openly obscene as the books generally brought to this court under Lord Campbell's Obscene Publications Act of 1857, still, perhaps, they were even worse in their effect, for they were sufficiently well-written not to excite the same disgust the other books did." Most of the newsvendor defendants summonsed agreed with the magistrate that the serials should be destroyed, declaring with suspicious rectitude that had they had time to read them and find out the nature of their contents, they would never have sold them in the first place. Only one of the defendants, a newsvendor named Wells from the Theobalds Road, took issue with the police over this infringement of his trueborn English liberties. Indignantly refusing to have the penny serial destroyed, Wells declared "that he was not going to be treated like a child; that worse books were sold every day; and that he was a respectable man, which Mr. Flowers said he could not be if he sold indecent books."40 The tautological nature of the magistrate's response presumably left this newsvendor unmoved. One might speculate as to why such a prosecution under the 1857 Act was only attempted in 1877 and not at the time of first publication in the mid-1860s: had Victorian society become that much more repressive and puritanical in the interval?

At about the same time as The Wild Boys of Paris, a series with another parallel title, The Poor Boys of London, or Driven to Crime. A Life Story for the People (c. 1866), was brought out in twelve parts by, in all probability, Brett's ex-partner W. L. Emmett, who was by that time with the rival Temple Publishing Company.41 This well-written dreadful is an altogether exceptional source for the scholar who seeks to understand how young vagrants managed to survive from day to day on the streets of Victorian London. Coincidently, Dr. Thomas John Barnardo's first refuge for homeless waifs and orphans, arising out of his work as a Ragged School teacher, was opened in Stepney, East London, in 1866. The opening chapters of The Poor Boys of London offer a vivid description of youngsters bedding down in the casual ward of a workhouse. The provincial hero, Gilbert, waiting outside with the other casuals, is disconcerted by his close proximity to gin-bloated, foul-tongued women, much unlike "'the gentle women we have at home.'" Once inside, his street-wise companion, Chimbley Joe, remarks: "'this is snug, this is … Licks Lime'ouse into fits. I went there once, and got a piece of wood for a doss [bed] and the ceiling for a blanket. Got a bit o' bacca, Boozer, old son?'" (p. 5).

The unknown author also reveals an intimate acquaintance with cockney slang excelling that of many a mid-Victorian novelist: "'Met Ikey Belsea, the sheeny, and tossed him for browns, and he got the whole blessed lot. I got a tanner out on him, though, and went to the gaff'" (p. 6). A whole range of sub-Dickensian characters who make their living on the streets are introduced, among them Whitechapel Dick, a cheap-jack who gathers a large crowd by selling "wonder cures" or patent medicines, and Shakespeare Dick, or Richard the Third, who gains "a precarious livelihood by reciting stirring passages from the immortal bard's works, which he mixes up according to his fancy. Shakespeare Dick was never without a wooden sword which he flourished about during every performance—'A 'orse, a 'orse; my kingdom for a 'orse'" (pp. 42-43). A drunken labourer encountered by the Poor Boys in a public house orders a pint of dog's nose, a mixture of gin and beer; "in a word he was the kind of man who could drink lots of beer and sing 'Rule Britannia!' at a free-and-easy, and go comfortably home with a black eye" (p. 41). Francis Hitchman, a critic known primarily for his biographical studies and interest in a more pious eighteenth-century children's literature, believed that this was a "tale of slightly loftier pretensions [than other dreadfuls], in the course of which the author displays his acquaintance with casual wards, thieves' kitchens, and criminal resorts generally, and uses such descriptive and dramatic powers as he possesses to extenuate the offences of the 'poor boys' who, in his own phrase, are 'driven to crime. '"42

Earlier, the NPC had met the challenge of a more titillating adult branch of low-life fiction, famously represented by The Women of London (c. 1863), rival publisher George Vickers's scandalous penny serial. The Young Ladies of London; or, The Mysteries of Midnight (1867-68) is an unusual NPC weekly, credited to a mysterious "Lieutenant Parker, S.U.S.," who also authored The Boy Rover; or, The Smuggler of the South Seas (c. 1865).43 The former serial's frontispiece clearly illustrates the Haymarket district of London, notorious for its prostitution.44 Here the sinister Count Lewiski, man about town, entraps rich gentlemen visitors to the wicked metropolis, using as bait his mistress, the beautiful Emma Langton, once a happy farmer's daughter. "The healthful cheeks of the village beauty had faded under the contaminating poison of London air and London life," the author declares, "and colour was now brought to her face by art not by nature" (The Young Ladies, p. 10). The striking contrast in this story between rich and poor, West End and East End of London, is symbolised in heavy-handed fashion by the count's assuming an entirely different persona once he moves "away from the fashionable West to the dirty, smoke-covered East—from the neighbourhood of St. James's to the purlieus of Whitechapel and Bethnal Green—from the balconied mansion to the pigeon-housed roof—from the abodes of comfort and health to poverty and sin" (p. 13). Once near Petticoat Lane, Lewiski is transformed into Edward Lewis, "the keeper of several lodging-houses and brothels in the east-end of London; a shrewd fellow, who had amassed a considerable sum of money by his dishonest and filthy calling" (pp. 6-7). Great play is made of the exploited seamstresses in the area as a means of sketching in local colour: poor, pale, weak girls with half a dozen shirts to finish, paid only ninepence for eighteen hours of toil to support children or a dying mother. Any radical sentiment is, once again, both subordinated to and subverted by the melodramatic plot, in which the villain employs one Ghastly Gaskill to drug then kidnap unsuspecting girls who are put to work in his Haymarket seraglio—"'another poor wretch doomed to fall a victim to your accursed toils,'" cries Emma unavailingly (p. 3).

A further low-life tale of vice frustrated and virtue assailed published under the NPC banner was The Work Girls of London, Their Trials and Temptations (1865).45 It borrowed freely from the popular melodramatic formula which has been characterised as hinging on the violent collision between the opposing realms of romance and domesticity, bringing them together chiefly through the seduction or violation of the humble heroine at the hands of the aristocratic villain (Hughes, p. 9). The chief figures of reader identification in this penny serial, however, do not start out as working girls at all. They are instead the daughters of a rich city gentleman, into the bosom of whose family a diabolical villain, the Honourable Arthur Pellew, has inveigled himself, "with the subtlety of the serpent and the wickedness of the fiend" (p. 5). Subsequently, he kills his benefactor in a railway carriage, aided by his simian associate, the brutal Kangaroo, while in search of a typically melodramatic device, incriminating "acceptances" or promissory notes: "'Curses, our task is accomplished in vain: the deeds are gone: if they are discovered suspicion of this motive may bring the murder home to me!'" (p. 14). Made penniless by the villain, the orphaned heroines find themselves having to earn a living as needleworkers in the East End of London. "The poor work-girls of London! How many thousands are there of these, who work from morning till far into the night; rising each morning jaded with the work of yesterday, and wishing, as they sit calmly at their work, that they were dead before another day?" asked The Work Girls, in a commercial style that, like G. W. M. Reynolds's work, juxtaposed the radical with the sensational. "Every sordid rascal who has the power of monopolising employment, can reduce the wages of those whom he employs till they have to subsist on the fruits of needlework, paid for at the rate of fourpence-halfpenny a day" (p. 2). By the mid-1860s, victimised East End seamstresses, "unhappy, ill-paid, brutally used creatures, who labour for the Jewish dealers of the neighbourhood" (p. 11), had become part of a sentimental and safe iconology, their usage evident since the radical journalism of the 1830s. The real conditions of East London's huge casualized and small-workshop labour force, characterised by low wage rates, irregular employment, and foreign immigration, are never directly confronted in popular fiction.46

The stereotype of the wicked aristocratic villain common to penny dreadfuls is well-illustrated by Lord Dundreary in The Work Girls, who declares: "'do you think I have nothing to do but to marry every girl who wishes to father a child on me? I tell you all I will do for you is to give you some money, but I never want to see you again: as for the brat, never let me hear of it!'" (p. 38). Similarly, in George Vickers's part-publication Fanny White and Her Friend Jack Rawlings: A Romance of a Young Lady Thief and a Boy Burglar (c. 1865), author Harry Hazleton makes great play with the attempted seduction of the drugged heroine, Fanny, by an old roué, Lord Crokerton, in his isolated house at Fulham.47 Parallels can also be drawn with a Henry Lea publication, The Outsiders of Society; or, The Wild Beauties of London (c. 1863). This over-heated tale suffers from hyperbole and Thackerayesque padding, but Louis James argues that its relative sophistication indicates a malign development in the art of exploiting sex and violence for commercial gain. The opening chapters are devoted to unscrupulous and licentious Lord Vineyard ("a proud name in 'Burke's Peerage' sounded well in the eyes of the world; but if people only knew the infamy attached to it!"), who adopts the tragically orphaned, "well-proportioned" Lydia Wilson and lavishes money upon her in order to satisfy his evil designs, leading the poor girl to attempt suicide by throwing herself off Westminster Bridge.48The Work Girls of London makes it clear that such a seduction could transform an ordinary "work girl" into the kind of "street-girl" to be found in Rosemary Lane or the Ratcliffe Highway, where "hundreds of showily-dressed street-girls, painted and tricked out in false trinkets, were parading the streets on the look out for victims … living on the fruits of their vicious life; drinking, plundering, and even murdering in their brief and foul career" (p. 11). It is always the rich aristocrat—never the grasping capitalist—who sets out to assail the virtue of the modest heroine, "as though temptation and immorality were only to be found in wealthy neighbourhoods," commented the Bookseller in 1867, "and lewd thoughts were the special and particular property of noblemen and 'swells', with rent rolls of ten thousand a year."49 Assumptions like the one exposed here were, of course, as much part of the ideological baggage of the thrusting, upwardly mobile, middle-class businessman, with his Manchester-bred intolerance for aristocratic privilege and unearned wealth, as of the downwardly mobile, middle-class penny novelist.


These cheap serials of metropolitan low life clearly merit study, dealing as they do so vividly with the "residuum" of London's poor and homeless. Their formula plots are interspersed with passages which, bearing in mind their sensationalism, can sometimes provide useful information about the life and leisure of mid-Victorian London's street people. One of the least condescending descriptions of a working-class penny theatre or "gaff," for instance, can be found in Edwin Harcourt Burrage's lively Rags and Riches: A Story of Three Poor Boys (c. 1875).50 Low-life fiction also has much to tell us about the sordid subculture of crime and violence: "those who have not been behind the scenes little know the inner workings of systematic crime in this great city of London" (The Wild Boys of London, p. 46). The fictions depict in some detail the seedy gaiety of London's pleasure haunts such as Chelsea's Cremorne Gardens, the Haymarket, and Highbury Barn. Penny dreadfuls may contain anachronisms, frequently rely upon attenuated one-sentence paragraphs to meet their requisite column inches, and rarely reach beyond melodrama for their literary effects, but they can be deconstructed to illuminate "the shock of actuality."51 In other words, they are full of recognisable scenes and characters in contemporary guise, in contrast to the less plausible Gothic or historical "romance" serial which usually involved a distant time and place.

The melodramatic form which these stories invariably adopted arose because melodrama had become the prevailing ethos of Victorian popular entertainment, which exemplified a kind of romantic and sensational diathesis—invariably crude, sentimental, conventional—with strict attention to Manichaean opposites, poetic justice, and happy endings. Melodrama was also the dominant modality of much of nineteenth-century British life and thought, pervading even the language of political and social discourse. Rapidly industrializing and expanding cities that saw the emergence of a new kind of capitalist mass entertainment were fractured along polarised class lines, and melodrama was very often the only common meeting place of middle-class and working-class cultural trajectories, an intersection contributing to the institutional and aesthetic formation of "the popular."52

Yet Marxist cultural historians have taught us that if "the popular" is claimed as a point of social cohesion, it is also contested, fraught with tension, struggles, and negotiations. Thus bourgeois ideology as reflected in cheap literature is encountered only in the compromised forms of popular culture it had to adopt in order to provide some accommodation for opposing working-class values. There are also areas of space between different class cultures where values such as self-help become part of a negotiated version of ruling-class culture and ideology.53 The assumption that cultural influences start only from high up on the social scale and are diffused downwards is contradicted by evidence from the 1860s that popular fiction read by the working classes could overlap with, or even directly influence, more respectable middle-class reading material. It is not simply coincidence that the "sensation novels" of Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Henry Wood, James Payn, and Charles Reade were fashionable among middle-class readers at this time.54

The consensual values recommended by low-life texts were, nonetheless, always those of orthodox Victorian morality as reinterpreted through the conventions of melodrama. The history of English penny dreadfuls signifies the continuous but necessarily uneven and unequal struggle by the dominant culture to disorganise and incorporate popular culture in its own image: constantly to enclose and confine its definitions and forms within a more inclusive range of dominant forms. Hence that culture constructed a notion of the "demoralization" of East London's working class in the 1860s and then fed it back to the working-class readers of the penny dreadful (Jones, pp. 241-261). Hence, too, the most common feature of the NPC's low-life stories is the triumph of a bourgeois or petit-bourgeois victim over an aristocratic villain. With roots in a real vernacular, some "mechanic accents" of popular sensationalism are preserved in the penny dreadfuls of the 1860s, yet offer little real challenge to middle-class norms. The author of the most popular highwayman serial of all time, Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road (1863-68), claimed in defence of his creation's moral probity that "in no place will vice be found commended and virtue sneered at; nor will any pandering to sensuality, suggestions of impure thoughts, or direct encouragement to crime be discovered; neither are there details of seduction, bigamy, adultery, and domestic poisonings, such as are indispensable ingredients of our popular three-volume novels."55

In the final analysis, low-life stories were written for the people, but they were not of or by the people. Their "point of view" was consistently aligned with that of hegemonic middle-class cultural values. Little real attempt was made to explore the realities of working-class life before the descent into a stylised and melodramatic escapism that employed all the stereotyped characters and hyperbole familiar to the working-class audiences of the East End theatres. If Victorian critics and moralists had taken the trouble to examine the publications of the NPC and many of its rivals, they would have discovered that, as Wilkie Collins wrote of the serials found in penny journals, far from recommending the values of a criminal or oppositional subculture, lowlife penny dreadfuls managed somehow to combine "fierce melodrama and meek domestic sentiment."56


The phrase in the title comes from The Poor Boys of London, or Driven to Crime. A Life Story for the People (London: Temple Publishing Company, c. 1866-67). The penny dreadfuls cited here I have examined in the following collections: the Barry Ono Collection, British Library, London; the Renier Collection of Children's Books, Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, London; the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Library, Oxford; and the Hess Collection, Walter Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. I am grateful to Dr. Kevin Carpenter of the University of Oldenburg, West Germany, for encouraging me to pursue the elusive figure of Edwin J. Brett.

  1. E. S. Turner, Boys Will Be Boys: The Story of Sweeney Todd, Deadwood Dick, Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter, Dick Barton, et al., 3d ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976); Louis James, Fiction for the Working Man, 1830-1850: A Study of the Literature Produced for the Working Classes in Early Victorian Urban England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).
  2. Kirsten Drotner, English Children and Their Magazines, 1751-1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); Louis James, "Tom Brown's Imperialist Sons," Victorian Studies 17 (1973), 89-99; Patrick Dunae, "Penny Dreadfuls: Late Nineteenth-Century Boys' Literature and Crime," Victorian Studies 22 (1979), 133-150.
  3. See Jeffrey Richards, ed., Imperialism and Juvenile Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989); Patrick Dunae, "Boys' Literature and the Idea of Race, 1870-1900," Wascana Review 12 (1977), 84-107; Jake W. Spidle, "Victorian Juvenilia and the Image of the Black African," Journal of Popular Culture 9 (1975-76), 51-65.
  4. The Wild Boys of London, or The Children of Night. A Story of the Present Day (London: NPC, 1866), pp. 6-7.
  5. Keith Hollingsworth, The Newgate Novel, 1830-1847: Bulwer, Ainsworth, Dickens and Thackeray (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963); Winifred Hughes, The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).
  6. Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (London: Verso, 1987), pp. 3, 207, and "Cheap Stories: Notes on Popular Fiction and Working Class Culture in Nineteenth-Century America," History Workshop 22 (1986), 2.
  7. Poor Jack, the London Street Boy (London: St. George's Publishing Office, c. 1880), p. 14.
  8. George Emmett, Charity Joe: or, from Street Boy to Lord Mayor (London: Hogarth House, c. 1875). [John Bennett], The Life and Career of a London Errand Boy (London: H. Vickers, c. 1865).
  9. The term "penny dreadful" was not widely used until the 1870s. For an early definition which describes it as an expressive term for those penny publications which depend more upon sensationalism than upon literary or artistic merit for their success, see John Camden Hotten, The Slang Dictionary, 2d ed. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1874), p. 185.
  10. Michael Anglo, Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors (London: Jupiter Books, 1977), pp. 11-12; Peter Haining, ed., The Penny Dreadful, or Strange, Horrid & Sensational Tales! (London: Gollancz, 1975), pp. 16-17; M. Willson Disher, "Penny Dreadfuls," Pilot Papers 2 (1947), 44-50; Kevin Carpenter, comp., Penny Dreadfuls and Comics: English Periodicals for Children from Victorian Times to the Present Day (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983), pp. 11-25; Laura Quinn, Victorian Popular Fiction: Penny Dreadfuls, Boys' Weeklies, and Halfpenny Parts (Minneapolis: Hess Collection, 1974).
  11. Arthur E. Waite, "By-ways of Periodical Literature," Walford's Antiquarian 12 (1887), 66.
  12. James Greenwood, The Wilds of London (London: Stanley Rivers, 1874), p. 160.
  13. Arthur J. Willis, Canterbury Marriage Licenses, 1810-1837 (Chichester: Marshall, 1971), p. 76; Tom Hopperton, "Victorian King-Pin," The Story Paper Collector 4 (1962), 31-37; Frank Jay, "Peeps into the Past," The London Journal, 22 March 1919.
  14. Wiggles "was not of an imposing appearance. He was a sparely-built man, his face thin and not improved—rather the reverse—by the whitey-brown colour of his thin whiskers" (George Emmett, "Wiggles!" The Boy's World, 8 January 1881, p. 738).
  15. Louis James and John Saville, "G. W. M. Reynolds: Journalist and Radical," in Joyce Bellamy and John Saville, eds., Dictionary of Labour Biography, 8 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1976), III, 146-151; G. A. Sala, The Life and Adventures of George Augustus Sala, 2 vols. (London: Cassell, 1895), I, 219.
  16. "Edwin J. Brett," The Biograph and Review 4 (1880), 457.
  17. Henry Vizetelly, Glances Back through Seventy Years: Autobiographical and Other Reminiscences, 2 vols. (London: Kegan Paul, 1893), I, 225-333; "Our Boys' Novelist," Punch, or The London Charivari, 22 March 1882, p. 191, and 3 June 1882, p. 263.
  18. Nigel Cross, The Common Writer: Life in Nineteenth-Century Grub Street (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 93-114; G. M[addick], "A Day in the Country: A Visit to Mr. Edwin J. Brett," Sala's Journal, 21 February 1894, pp. 184-186. Brett probably first made the acquaintance of Jerrold and Lemon in their capacity as contributors to Vizetelly's Pictorial Times.
  19. B. R. Mitchell and P. Deane, Abstract of British Historical Statistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), p. 12. Penny dreadfuls were "read, as a rule, by ignorant shop and office-boys, young apprentices and factory hands, and by, perhaps, a small number of school lads," (J. P. Harrison, "Cheap Literature—Past and Present" in Companion to the [British] Almanac of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge or Year Book of General Information for 1873 [London: S. D. U. K., 1872], p. 70).
  20. David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 104.
  21. W. B. Stephens, Education, Literacy and Society, 1830-70 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), p. 16.
  22. Patricia Mary Barnett, "English Boys' Weeklies, 1866-1899" (Ph.D. diss., 1974, University of Minnesota), p. 35.
  23. See James Gilbert, A Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Martin Barker, A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign (London: Pluto Press, 1984); Martin Barker, ed., The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media (London: Pluto Press, 1984).
  24. "He is not, and never was, either author or editor, sub or otherwise," claimed Brett's rival W. L. Emmett in The Young Englishman's Journal, 22 June 1867, p. 160; "Brett himself never wrote a serial … nor was he capable of writing a penny dreadful," argues Ralph Adimari in "A Partial History of the Brett publications," Dime Novel Roundup 31 (1963), 44. Brett supplied the, at best, mediocre illustrations for the original version of Percy B. St. John's popular Dick Turpin serial The Blue Dwarf (London: Edward Harrison, 1860-61).
  25. Frank Jay, "Peeps into the Past," The London Journal, 18 January 1919, p. 49; W. M. [pseud.], "Town Notes," Kent Coast Times, 19 December 1895, p. 8. The last NPC returns, in which Brett appears as a £3 shareholder, were made to Companies House in 1869 (Return of Allotments, Articles of Association, BT31/631/2644, News Agents' Newspaper Publishing Company, Companies House, Public Record Office, Kew, London).
  26. Marjorie Plant, The English Book Trade: An Economic History of the Making and Sale of Books, 2d ed. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1974), pp. 339-340; D. C. Coleman, The British Paper Industry, 1496-1860: A Study in Industrial Growth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), p. 203; Hopperton, p. 32.
  27. Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 202-203; "The Literature of Vice," The Bookseller, 28 February 1867, p. 122.
  28. One contemporary estimate for eight penny dreadfuls, with every incentive to minimise sales, gave an aggregate issue of 195,000 weekly, or roughly 24,000 to 25,000 each (The Publisher's Circular, 16 May 1864, pp. 268-269).
  29. "Mr. Edwin John Brett," Boys of England, 29 January 1892, p. 140.
  30. "Obituary," Illustrated London News, 8 February 1896, p. 186; Ralph Rollington [John Allingham], A Brief History of Boys' Journals (Leicester: Harold Simpson, 1913), p. 21. Brett is buried in a family vault on the west side of gothic-revival-style Highgate Cemetery in North London.
  31. T. Murray Ford, Memoirs of a Poor Devil (London: A. M. Philpot, 1926), pp. 97-101. I owe this reference to Kevin Carpenter.
  32. Steve Jones, London … The Sinister Side (Chislehurst: Tragical History Tours, 1986), back cover.
  33. [Harry Hazleton], Charley Wag, the New Jack Sheppard (London: George Vickers, c. 1860-61), endpaper. Montague Summers's A Gothic Bibliography (London: Fortune Press, 1940) credited G. A. Sala with Charley Wag but the British Library endorses Hazleton who, under the pseudonym "George Savage," specialized in cheap fiction serials.
  34. Victor E. Neuberg, Popular Literature: A History and Guide: From the Beginning of Printing to the Year 1897 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), pp. 144-148; John J. Wilson, "Old Penny Number Weekly Romances," Bootle Times, 18 February 1916, p. 2; J. C. Reid, Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency England (London: Routledge, 1971), pp. 52-69.
  35. Eugène Sue, Les Mystères de Paris, 10 vols. (Paris: Charles Gosselin, 1843). See James, Fiction for the Working Man, pp. 161-165; Umberto Eco, "Rhetoric and Ideology in Sue's Les Mystères de Paris," International Social Sciences Journal 19 (1967), 86-92; Volker Klotz, Abenteuer-Romane: Sue, Dumas, Ferry, Retcliffe, May, Verne (Munich: Verlag, 1979), pp. 32-58.
  36. G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 4 vols. (London: George Vickers, 1845-48): the series was continued for Vickers until 1850 by Thomas Miller and E. L. Blanchard; G. W. M. Reynolds, 8 vols., The Mysteries of the Court of London (London: John Dicks, 1848-56). See Neuberg, pp. 156-162; Daniel S. Burt, "A Victorian Gothic: G. W. M. Reynolds's Mysteries of London," New York Literary Forum 7 (1980), 141-158; Richard C. Maxwell, Jr., "G. W. M. Reynolds, Dickens, and The Mysteries of London," Nineteenth Century Fiction 32 (1977), 188-213.
  37. E. S. Turner, Boys Will Be Boys, 3d ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 66.
  38. The Wild Boys of Paris or, The Mysteries of the Vaults of Death (London: NPC, 1866). An NPC serial of more adult appeal, The Jolly Dogs of London; or, The Two Roads of Life (London: NPC, c. 1866), also opens with a sanctimonious prologue which bears little relation to the actual narrative content of "fast living," revenge, and murder.
  39. W. O. G. Lofts and Derek Adley, "A History of 'Penny Bloods,'" Book and Magazine Collector 32 (1986), 52; M. J. D. Roberts, "The Society for the Suppression of Vice and Its Early Critics, 1802-1812," The Historical Journal 26 (1983), 159-176.
  40. "Police Reports," The Times, 13 December 1877, p. 11.
  41. The Poor Boys of London, or Driven to Crime. A Life Story for the People (London: Temple Publishing Company, c. 1866).
  42. [Francis Hitchman], "Penny Fiction," The Quarterly Review 171 (1890), 153-154; Lionel Rose, "Rogues and Vagabonds": Vagrant Underworld in Britain, 1815-1985 (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 37-44, 130-137. There were an estimated 30,000 homeless youngsters in London during the 1860s, the sum total of the city's homeless of all ages in the late 1980s.
  43. [Bracebridge Hemyng], The Women of London: Disclosing the Trials and Temptations of a Woman's Life in London with Occasional Glimpses of a Fast Career (London: George Vickers, c. 1863); Lieut. Parker, S.U.S. [pseud.], The Young Ladies of London; or, The Mysteries of Midnight (London: NPC, c. 1868); Lieut. Parker, S.U.S. [pseud.], The Boy Rover; or, The Smuggler of the South Seas (London: Henry Lea, c. 1865). "Lieut. Parker" was probably always improvident Vane Ireton St. John, editor of Brett's Young Men of Great Britain (1868-89).
  44. See Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 4 vols., (1851-64; rpt. London: Frank Cass, 1967), IV, 356-359.
  45. The Work Girls of London: Their Trials and Temptations. A Novel (London: NPC, 1865). Colin Henry Hazlewood (1823-75), resident dramatist at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, East London, translated The Work Girls of London to the stage. By May 1866 it had reached the New Theatre Royal in West Hartlepool (Robert Wood, Victorian Delights [London: Studio Vista, 1967], p. 40).
  46. Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society (Harmondsworth: Peregrine Books, 1984), pp. 67-126.
  47. [Harry Hazleton], Fanny White and Her Friend Jack Rawlings: A Romance of a Young Lady Thief and a Boy Burglar (London: George Vickers, c. 1865), pp. 51-55.
  48. The Outsiders of Society; or, The Wild Beauties of London (London: Henry Lea, c. 1863), p. 6.
  49. "The Literature of Vice," Bookseller, 28 February 1867, p. 122.
  50. E. H. Burrage, Rags and Riches: A Story of Three Poor Boys (London: Hogarth House, c. 1875), pp. 8-15. See John Springhall, "Leisure and Victorian Youth: The Penny Theatre in Victorian London, 1830-1890" in John Hurt, ed. Childhood, Youth and Education in the Late Nineteenth Century (Leicester: History of Education Society, 1981), pp. 101-124.
  51. Richard D. Altick, Evil Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations (London: John Murray, 1987), p. 145. See also Thomas Boyle, Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990).
  52. Louis James, "Was Jerrold's Black Ey'd Susan More Popular Than Wordsworth's Lucy?" in David Bradby, Louis James, and Bernard Sharratt, eds., Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800-1976 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 3-16; see also Christine Gledhill, "The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation" in Christine Gledhill, ed., Home Is Where The Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film (London: British Film Institute, 1987), pp. 5-39.
  53. Stuart Hall, "Notes on Deconstructing 'The Popular'" in Raphael Samuel, ed., People's History and Socialist Theory (London: Routledge, 1981), pp. 227-239; Tony Bennett, "Introduction: Popular Culture and 'The Turn to Gramsci'" in Tony Bennett, Colin Mercer, and Janet Woollacott, eds., Popular Culture and Social Relations (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986), pp. xiv-xv.
  54. See Audrey Peterson, Victorian Masters of Mystery: From Wilkie Collins to Conan Doyle (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984), pp. 155-196; Altick, p. 153. Penny dreadfuls "have spread as an epidemic spreads from the hovel to the mansion. The current demand for 'sensation novels,' to be provided for the Circulating Libraries at half a guinea a volume, has been absolutely generated by the [penny] weekly sheets" (Charles Knight, Passages of a Working Life During Half a Century, 3 vols. [London: Sampson Low, 1865], III, 180).
  55. Edward Viles [J. F. Smith], Preface, Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road. A Tale of the Good Old Times (London: Edward Harrison, 1863-68). This Dick Turpin serial ran for five years in 254 parts of 2,028 double-columned pages which, at their peak, sold around 30,000 weekly copies.
  56. Wilkie Collins, "The Unknown Public" in My Miscellanies, 2 vols. (London: Sampson Low, 1863), I, 186.

Denis Gifford (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Gifford, Denis. "Popular Literature: Comics, Dime Novels, Pulps and Penny Dreadfuls." In International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, edited by Peter Hunt, pp. 263-66. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 1996.

[In the following essay, Gifford outlines a critical history of the penny dreadful, listing several of the major publications which would go on to define the genre.]

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Further Reading

Crawford, H. (1978) Crawford's Encyclopedia of Comic Books, New York: World.

Daniels, L. (1991) Marvel, London: Virgin.

Gifford, D. (1971) Discovering Comics, rev. 1991, Princes Risborough: Shire.

——. (1975) Happy Days: 100 Years of Comics, London: Jupiter.

——. (1975) The British Comic Catalogue, 1874-1974, London: Mansell.

——. (1976) Victorian Comics, London: George Allen and Unwin.

——. (1984) The International Book of Comics, rev. 1990, London: Dean/Hamlyn.

——. (1985) The Complete Catalogue of British Comics, London: Webb and Bower.

——. (1987) Encyclopedia of Comic Characters, London: Longman.

——. (1988) Comics at War, London: Hawk.

——. (1990) The American Comic Book Catalogue, 1884-1939, London: Mansell.

——. (1991) Christmas Comic Posters, London: Blossom.

——. (1992) Space Aces, London: Green Wood.

——. (1992) Super Duper Supermen, London: Green Wood.

Godstone, T. (1970) The Pulps, New Rochelle: Chelsea House.

Goulart, R. (1972) Cheap Thrills, London: Arlington House.

——. (1975) The Adventurous Decade, New Rochelle: Arlington House.

Haining, P. (1974) The Penny Dreadful, London: Gollancz.

Horn, M. (ed.) (1976) The World Encyclopedia of Comics, New York: Chelsea House.

James, L. (1963). Fiction for the Working Man, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kurtzman, H. (1991) From 'Aaargh' to 'Zap', New York: Prentice-Hall.

Lupoff, D. and Thompson, D. (1970) All in Color for a Dime, New Rochelle: Arlington House.

——. (1973) The Comic-Book Book, New Rochelle: Arlington House.

Pumphrey, G. (1955) Children's Comics, London: Epworth.

Reynolds, Q. (1965) The Fiction Factory, New York: Random House.

Robinson, J. (1974) The Comics, New York: Putnam.

Rollington, R. (1913) The Old Boy's Books, London: Simpson.

Rovin, J. (1985) The Encyclopedia of Super Heroes, New York: Facts on File.

Server, L. (1993) Danger Is My Business, New York: Chronicle.

Simon, J. and Simon, J. (1990) The Comic Book Makers, New York: Crestwood.

Summers, M. (1940) A Gothic Bibliography, London: Fortune.

Turner, E. S. (1948) Boys Will Be Boys, London: Joseph.

Waugh, C. (1947) The Comics, New York: Macmillan.

Wertham, F. (1955) Seduction of the Innocent, London: Museum Press.


Matthew Buckley (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Buckley, Matthew. "Sensations of Celebrity: Jack Sheppard and the Mass Audience." Victorian Studies 44, no. 3 (spring 2002): 423-63.

[In the following essay, Buckley critically assesses the Victorian fascination with the penny dreadful character Jack Sheppard. Buckley additionally describes how Sheppard's tales helped inspire the sensationalist mania surrounding the theory that penny dreadfuls were instilling criminal tendencies in their readers.]

Introduction: Melodrama, Modernity, and the 1830s

Literary scholarship has recently begun to recognize the intimate relations between melodrama and modernity. Almost negligent critical dismissal of melodrama, a commonplace of literary scholarship of the last two centuries, has been replaced in recent decades by a strong consensus that this most dominant and ubiquitous form of nineteenth-century drama played a significant role in shaping, articulating, and contesting changes in social and political relations, as well as in reshaping popular consciousness on the individual level.

Most recently, melodramatic form has been interrogated for its formative contribution to modernity's unique modes of perceptual apprehension: sensations of suspense and of continual change, the thrill—and the threat—of shock, and the more complex formations of urban spectatorship and the cinematic gaze have all been productively linked to melodramatic pre-formations. In the recent work of Tom Gunning, Elaine Hadley, Vanessa Schwartz, Ben Singer, and other scholars, melodrama, as much as the feuilleton or the detective story, has emerged as an exemplary literary mode of Benjaminian modernity.

However, a closer look at much of this work reveals two very different, and in fact discontinuous, constructions of melodrama. On the one hand, a strong body of recent scholarship has explored early melodrama's relationship to what might be described as political modernity. Focusing primarily upon the century's opening three decades, such work investigates the manner in which melodrama articulates the anxieties and emergent class relations of the post-revolutionary world. Derived largely from Peter Brooks's foundational study of the "melodramatic imagination," such scholarship conceives of modernity in terms of the historical relation—articulated in the decades after 1789—between radical institutional upheavals (such as the revolutionary unseating of church and monarchy) and a new form of collective consciousness, both political and epistemological. Popular drama is approached as a contested field of collective political engagement, in which the theater's new, popular audiences challenged and found almost prophylactic relief from the unsettling dislocations, and increasing disciplinary regulation, of industrial society.1

On the other hand, a smaller number of recent scholars have linked melodrama to modernity through its precedent relation to film, tracing into sensational melodrama—as far back as 1850—the first expressions of what Singer has recently (if rather clinically) termed a "neurological conception of modernity." Within this critical framework, derived from the social theories of Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel, and Siegfried Kracauer, late-Victorian melodrama is shown to reflect a "fundamentally different register of subjective experience, characterized by the physical and perceptual shocks of the modern urban environment" (Singer, "Modernity" 72).2 Modernity, it is assumed here, describes primarily a relation between technological change and individual consciousness, and the drama is approached in these terms as one among the many industrialized media through which one can examine the formation of the modern mass subject. Rather than foregrounding issues of class politics or topical concerns, then, such critics tend to focus on melodrama's relation to what Jonathan Crary has referred to as "perceptual modalities" (Suspensions 3) or what Martin Meisel earlier described as changing "modes of apprehension" (248).

The relation between these "modernities" is more than a mere difference in heuristic frameworks; it describes as well, and with some precision, a radical, fairly rapid historical shift. Between the second and fourth decades of the century, in the major metropolitan centers of London and Paris, the practice of everyday life, and not the lived memory of revolutionary change, begins to define modernity.

Explanations for this shift are not difficult to locate. In part, it marks a generational change: by the 1830s, the disruption of the Napoleonic era was still recalled by many, but the epistemological shocks of the first French Revolution had, as living memory, faded and decomposed. Even by the 1820s, the international press—born with the upheavals of the French Revolution—had begun to tick off a political history of merely serial variation. The expansion of the press itself reinforced a growing sense of the continuity and the daily incrementalism of historical change, binding even heroic action to the passage and tenor of the everyday. Revolution became revolutions; politics, as Karl Marx recognized, could no longer be tragic.

In the thirties, the teeming daily activity of the metropolis, rather than political revolution, moves to the foreground as the condition and defining context of modern life. At the same moment, crime stories sweep into the public imagination with remarkable swiftness, all over Europe. Social dislocation, in the wake of nearly a half century of continual war, has become ubiquitous among all classes. Cities cease quite suddenly to appear as great stages of collective action, unless in sentimental form, and begin instead—in Dickens and Poe, for example—to appear as labyrinths of crowded solitude and threatening anonymity. The cognitive experience of apprehensional flux and uncertain temporality which the century's various modernities share begins to be embedded not in revolutionary historical change but in the uncertain texture of momentary experience. In the city especially, the epistemological crises of revolution yield to the daily shocks of modern life. There is, in short, an evident, surprisingly rapid shift from political to perceptual modernity.

That shift remains poorly articulated in literary history, not least because the same brief period is distinguished by an exceptionally rapid and complicated set of changes in print technology, literary media, reading practices, and audience composition. Generic shifts intensify and proliferate; high and low cultural forms become increasingly imbricated in an emergent mass press; novel forms of media entertainment—like the print culture of George Cruikshank's work—impinge upon the practice of reading and alter the cultural position of literature.

On one hand, literary scholarship has plucked from such complex situations early examples of much later modernisms. Charles Baudelaire, Georg Büchner, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, and Edgar Allan Poe, for example, have been read almost as vatic texts, articulating with startling anticipation the modernities of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Romanticism, situated on the thither side of this crucial decade, pulls from the 1830s a few colossal figures, like Victor Hugo, Thomas Carlyle, and Honoré de Balzac, who look out over the romantic past like sentinels and embodiments of revolutionary memory: they are heroic, sentimental, but their monumentality is marked as well by a definite, if defiant, anachronism. The consequent picture is that of a Janus-faced decade—from the late 1820s to 1840 or so—with lines of coherence that incline outward and pull apart, obscuring the decade's rapid, complicated development.

W. H. Ainsworth and Cruikshank's Jack Sheppard (1839) occupies a scarcely recognized position of great significance within this development. It registers a powerful moment of reconfiguration in what Pierre Bourdieu terms the "field of cultural production" (115), for Ainsworth and Cruikshank here work out, with a comprehension well beyond Dickens's early collaborations with Cruikshank, the complicated formal, institutional, and aesthetic problems posed by the period's rapid changes in media, audience, and politics. However, the book's larger significance is, I think, more profound, for Jack Sheppard also functioned, I would argue, as an exceptional mechanism of the period's rapid shift in collective consciousness—driving, and not simply describing or reflecting, the crucial shift from political to perceptual modernity. The following pages explore that mechanism.

I. "An Evil Book"

On 5 May 1840, a London valet, B. F. Courvoisier, murdered his employer, Lord William Russell, aged seventy-two. On the face of it, the crime seemed simple enough, for London's class divisions had been deep and unusually hostile for several years. This murder, however, caused an exceptional outburst of public distress and anxiety, for Courvoisier—though known to be unstable—seemed to have no substantive motive or conscious inclination to commit such a bloody crime. Even more distressing for contemporaries was one significant, highly publicized detail of the crime: Courvoisier claimed, in his second of several confessions, that the idea "had come to him upon reading Jack Sheppard" (Hollingsworth 145).3

From the very start of its serial publication in the summer of 1839, Jack Sheppard had enjoyed extraordinary, seemingly inexplicable popularity; by autumn, Ainsworth and Cruikshank's fictionalized tale

of the famous criminal's life was outselling even Dickens's Oliver Twist (1837-38), marking a new height in England's growing appetite for crime stories. Within just weeks of its first installments, in Bentley's Miscellany, the novel had given rise to a full-blown mania, generating a great wave of pamphlets and abridgements, plays and street shows, prints and cartoons, and related baubles and souvenirs.4 William Makepeace Thackeray, describing London at the height of the fad that December, noted that in some theaters one could even buy "Shepherd [sic] bags—a bag containing a few picklocks that is, a screw driver, and iron lever" (qtd. in Hollingsworth 140).

Press responses to the mania were negative and even fearful, many clearly mystified by its strength and pervasiveness. Initial literary reviews were exceptionally violent: the Athenaeum, taking the lead, issued a lengthy indictment of both the book and the "bad public" that had developed an unseemly appetite for such fare (qtd. in Hollingsworth 142). Yet critical vitriol seems to have had no governing effect on the craze, which intensified as theatrical adaptations brought the narrative to a much larger audience. By the spring of 1840, "Nix My Dolly, Pals, Fake Away," the flash song introduced in J. B. Buckstone's hugely successful adaptation, "deafened us in the streets," according to one contemporary observer. The tune was "whistled by every dirty guttersnipe; and chanted in drawing rooms by fair lips, little knowing the meaning of the words they sang" (qtd. in Hollingsworth 139-40). Jack Sheppard was everywhere. Yet the intensity of the mania was only part of the problem.

In a glance, the pervasiveness of the Sheppard craze is evident—the moonlit city street is dominated by a barrage of playbills—and so too is its particular demographic. While Sheppard's popularity spanned a broad working-class audience, his most numerous and fanatic devotees were, as one would expect, the young, "masterless" men who constituted much of the city's growing industrial labor force. Yet the accompanying text is even more explicit, and suggests something of the problem as it was perceived by contemporaries:

Fourth Juv.—Ar; shouldn't I like to be among 'em in real arnest. Wot jovial lives they seem to lead! and wot's the odds, so long as you ar' happy? Only see how such coves are handled down to posterity, I thinks it's call'd, by means of books, and plays, and pictures!

Fifth Juv.—Blow'd if I shouldn't just like to be another Jack Sheppard—it only wants a little pluck to begin with.—All Five.—That's all.

The wave of "books, plays, and pictures" seemed to produce not mere enthusiasm or admiration for Sheppard, but a specific, defining impulse among the city's most dislocated, volatile population to "be another Jack Sheppard," to mime his actions "in real arnest" and, in a distinctly modern sense, take on his identity as the model of one's own.

The sensational force of Courvoisier's crime lay precisely in its striking confirmation of this disturbing effect. Acting on what seemed to be uncontrollable impulses, the valet had carried out perhaps the first "copycat" murder. The Examiner noted on 28 June that the valet's laconic confession of the act, just hours after the crime, included a near quotation from Ainsworth's text, and the Morning Chronicle "reported Courvoisier as saying he wished he had never seen the book about Jack Sheppard" (Hollingsworth 146). Rather than committing his own crime, Courvoisier seemed to have instantiated, without volition, an idea that "had come to him" upon looking over a briefly lent book.

If the novel's initial popularity earned for Ainsworth critical disfavor, the Courvoisier murder made him a pariah. The press now stated explicitly what had only been implied in earlier reviews: the book was "calculated to familiarize the mind with cruelties," it was a "cutthroat's manual," a "midnight assassin's vademecum" (qtd. in Hollingsworth 147). Not merely a "bad book" for a "bad public," then, but a mechanism of murder.

The British government acted immediately to stop the growth of the Sheppard phenomenon: although already-licensed stage adaptations of Jack Sheppard were allowed to continue, permission for any further productions was refused (147; for a subsequent history of Jack Sheppard in the theater, see Stephens). By the fall of 1840, the craze had begun to lessen, though less by suppression than because its novelty had worn to ubiquity. There would be no comparable cultural mania, no such evident, multiform saturation of the popular consciousness by a single book, for more than half a century, until George Du Maurier's Trilby (1895) prompted a comparably pervasive rage.

II. Genre, Press, and Politics

In order to understand the forces that drove the Jack Sheppard mania, it is helpful to know first what was not new about Ainsworth's creation. As Hollingsworth explains, Ainsworth drew his hero from history and from a still vital, well-developed popular myth. The real Sheppard, a daring housebreaker, had been executed in 1724 at the age of twenty-one, before a massive crowd of 30,000 spectators. An apprentice turned petty thief, Sheppard had gained almost immediate criminal celebrity not for his heists but for his prison breaks. His last, an escape from the very depths of Newgate, was an astonishing feat of sustained ingenuity, instrumental skill, and gymnastic capability. Sheppard had squeezed his wrists from their irons, twisted and snapped the fetters from his legs, scraped loose the bricks covering his cell's barred flue, worked loose the iron bar blocking ascent, and climbed up the narrow chimney passage to the prison's "Red Room," a cell long reserved for aristocratic prisoners and long empty. Once there, he broke—with the help of the heavy flue bar—the massive lock of its ironbound door, gaining entrance to the prison chapel just off the prison's rooftop court. After several more hours of grueling effort, he broke through the seemingly impenetrable exterior door of the prison, climbed the courtyard's sheer wall to the highest leads of Newgate, and vaulted off over the rooftops of the City. Sheppard was recaptured shortly thereafter, but this, the third, most sustained and challenging of his prison breaks, earned even the admiration of Newgate's astonished warden.

The young man became an immediate sensation in the press. Before execution he was visited in prison by William Hogarth and James Thornhill, who produced well-known portraits of him, and by John Gay, who may have had him in mind when writing The Beggar's Opera (1728). Narratives of Sheppard's exploits and life were extraordinarily popular at the time of his death, and remained in popular consciousness long after. Hogarth played upon such familiarity by using Sheppard as the obvious model for the idle apprentice of his most popular moral progress, Industry and Idleness (1747). Even in the 1770s, Sheppard remained perhaps the best-known figure in The Newgate Calendar (Hollingsworth 132-34).

Ainsworth's appropriation of these precedents is substantial and complex. Most obviously, he borrows Hogarth's strategy of setting Sheppard's life within a double-plotted moral progress, altering the criminal's story so as to accommodate a second, wholly fictional hero, Thames Darrell. Darrell partially recapitulates the character and function of the industrious apprentice of Hogarth's progress. Where Jack is knowing, scheming, lying, lustful, covetous, audacious, violent, dissolute, and finally destroyed, Thames is innocent, forthright, truthful, chaste, generous, restrained, gentlemanly, virtuous, and finally married. Yet Ainsworth's treatment, here as in his other books, offered as its distinguishing feature a careful attempt at historical verisimilitude and biographical accuracy. The novel's political, social, and architectural topography, even its criminal dialect, are recognizably those of the early-eighteenth century. Details of Sheppard's career and the people populating it are similarly faithful.

Ainsworth could be assured of the appeal of such a work. Since the early part of the decade, reform in criminal law, and marked disruption of traditional structures of working-class community, had created a large, enthusiastic audience for tales of heroic criminals. Even in the late twenties, the historical figures of The Newgate Calendar had gained a renewed popularity, and the Newgate or "Old Bailey" novel, often based upon such figures and events, had become, by 1835, a well-established and often explicitly political sub-genre—if a largely disreputable one. In the second half of the decade, large-scale dislocation of the poorest members of this class (by the New Poor Law of 1834) heightened social and political tensions, and the Newgate novel, evolving from adventure tales into a more substantive literature of social critique, found a broader popular audience. By 1839, as the consecutive successes of Oliver Twist and Jack Sheppard suggest, the form had become a primary platform for the articulation of recent social experiences of poverty, solitude, and loss of family.5 Sheppard's combined appeals, as dislocated apprentice, petty thief, and, ultimately, defiant escape artist, were admirably suited to such a context.

However, for all its calculated appeal, Ainsworth's novel is not a domesticated fable of criminality. That distinction belongs to Oliver Twist, which had celebrated Oliver's traditional virtue rather than his criminal associations and which appealed explicitly (as Hadley has shown) to liberal, bourgeois opposition to the New Poor Law. Dickens had been chastised for offering his impressionable audience an illconsidered instruction in pickpocketing, but his novel was recognizably on the side of the law. Following just upon Oliver's heels, Jack Sheppard offered sharply graphic descriptions of brutal violence, assault, house-breaking, and whoring, all while celebrating a rogue hero noteworthy for his lack of criminal remorse.

In the summer of 1839, the working-class population had reason to be angered, and the Jack Sheppard mania offered a wonderful set of gestures and signs, attitudes and postures through which a servant, a beggar, or a petty laborer could make that anger evident. To the established organs of public order, and particularly those who recalled the not-so-distant and similarly disenfranchised mobs of Chartism and the Revolution, the Sheppard phenomenon appeared in that sense as a half-worn mask of insurrection—a theatrical pose, but one accompanied by a look in the eye that says one is not acting entirely in jest.6 For Hollingsworth, it is this radical political stance that constitutes the primary distinction of Ainsworth's novel, and which explains, for the most part, its enthusiastic reception.7

Yet such a political reading doesn't quite fit the peculiarities of the mania, for, as we have seen, what distressed contemporaries about Courvoisier's winter crime was not merely that it transgressed the unstable border between imitation and act, between "playing" Jack Sheppard and becoming a real, politicized version of him. It was, rather, the fact that Courvoisier's imitation of Sheppard was not a deliberate "act" at all: the suspect claimed no larger cause or reason for his actions, attached no symbolic value, social justification, or even conscious motive to his oddly mimetic violence. He had merely looked at a book, and the crime came upon him. Rather than providing a motive, Ainsworth's book seems to have prompted, in Courvoisier as in its many enthusiasts, a kind of impulsive, unreflective mimicry, as if its solicitations were functioning not at the political level at all, but at the levels of sensation and of apprehension. And to understand such a mass audience effect—to recognize the perceptual quality of the Sheppard mania and not simply its political bases—we must look more closely at the complex strategies of representation through which Ainsworth's tale reached its audience.

III. Recognizing Pictures

Courvoisier spoke not of having read Ainsworth's novel but of having "seen" the book, and in this he seems to have been typical, for the mania for Jack Sheppard was not only, or arguably even primarily, a literary enthusiasm. As The Penny Satirist's reference to "books, and plays, and pictures" makes explicit, Ainsworth's novel was only one element in a much larger, though not incoherent, multimedia production, and the primary mode of that production, from the start, was pictorial illustration. Indeed, as Meisel points out, the phenomenon prompted debate over whether creative priority for Jack Sheppard should be assigned to Ainsworth or to Cruikshank, whose illustrations proved far more popular than the novel itself. "[I]t seems to us that Mr Cruikshank really created the tale," Thackeray observed, "and that Mr Ainsworth, as it were, only put words to it" (qtd. in Meisel 247-48).8

In the late 1830s, Thackeray's claim could be taken quite seriously. It was in just those years that the economies of scale provided by the new process of stereotyping created something like a mass print audience. While serial novels used the new opportunities to reach a much larger readership, the primary expansion of the print audience—and indeed the creation of an audience for illustrated serial novels—was driven by the sudden availability of, and enthusiasm for, inexpensive images. Print shops, whose audiences had been expanding continually over the preceding century, boomed.

A good deal of this new stereotype production was devoted to the reproduction and large-scale recirculation of the best-known print images of the preceding century. As Patricia Anderson has shown, such reproductions were often incorporated into the new, inexpensive serials of the burgeoning mass press: Hogarth's Industry and Idleness, for example, first

reached a wide, working-class market through its publication in Knight's Penny Magazine, the first great venture of the Victorian penny press. Popular press texts of the eighteenth century, such as the Newgate Calendar, also were revived in this decade, as earlier, often contemporary portraits of celebrated popular figures were now inexpensively available in separate form. Indeed, Ainsworth's choice of subjects for his first two Newgate novels, Rookwood (1834), which related Dick Turpin's famous ride to York, and Jack Sheppard, five years later, were deliberate responses to the particular popularity of these two criminals in London's burgeoning print culture (P. Anderson 164). By 1839, Sheppard's image was once again deeply embedded in the minds of Ainsworth's audience, both in the guise of Hogarth's fictionalized apprentice and in the swell of reissued contemporary print portraits of Sheppard himself.

As Meisel has described (267-79), Cruikshank makes elaborate use of such widely known images, and particularly of Hogarth's series, borrowing compositionally and iconographically from Industry and Idleness. In a central illustration of the book, "The Portrait", Cruikshank makes this homage explicit, copying both Hogarth's well-known life portrait of the condemned criminal and restaging, around that citational figure, the famous sitting itself. However, as Meisel points out, Cruikshank reiterates an earlier and more popular source as well, gaining a rather different effect than the ironic pleasures of Hogarthian citation. In his drawing of Sheppard's escape from the condemned hold at Newgate, the second of the criminal's famous breaks, Cruikshank reproduces with near fidelity "the frontispiece of Sheppard's Narrative, purportedly 'written by himself during his Confinement'" (Meisel 269).9

Gesturing toward a source less widely known than Hogarth's series, this borrowing gains much of its effect simply from its striking compositional texture: in contrast to the dense, Brueghelesque language of Hogarth, in which gesture, objects, and composition articulate a full-bodied, densely rendered moral narrative, this bare, geometric depiction is plain and diagrammatic. Rather than situating its hero in a densely textured iconography, it renders in clear detail the architectural constraints and defining physical action of Sheppard's escape. While Cruikshank's reproduction adopts a lower, closer, more intimate vantage (and so gains the opportunity for stronger characterization), it preserves with care the earlier print's careful depiction of instrumental action.

In so doing, it appeals not only to the renewed popularity of earlier prints, but, more significantly, to a second distinguishing feature of new visual culture in the 1830s: a nearly obsessive fascination, among a greatly expanded audience, with the realistic representation of its own urban experience and milieu. The economics of the penny press had suddenly offered a much larger palette to contemporary journalists. Profitable pages were to be filled, and writers of the late twenties and thirties turned for material, much like Benjamin's flaneurial pressmen, to the multitudinous scenes and events of urban life. As Schwartz points out of the later newspaper faits divers of France, but in terms that apply accurately to the print revolution of the 1830s, this new journalism did more than bring the everyday onto the page: it fostered, more specifically, the powerfully modern feeling "that the everyday might be transformed into the shocking and sensational," that "ordinary people" might be "lifted from the anonymity of urban life and into the world of spectacle" (36). If, as George Steiner observed, the French Revolution had "swept ordinary man into the stream of history" (13), the press revolution of the 1830s lent ordinary life—with its very different scale and context of action—the possibility of similar significance. And few acts managed so well to enact this kind of existential transformation as sensational crime, in which the extraordinary emerged horrifically from the fabric of the mundane. Sheppard's escape scenes, all of which were depicted in similarly clinical graphic form by Cruikshank, were more than historical citation: they gained force from their evident, everyday possibility, appealing in a non-citational way to a broader enthusiasm for authenticity itself (Meisel 249-50).

Such heightened interest in the authentic depiction of sensational reality marks one of the fundamental elements of the decade's shift from political to perceptual modernity, and it prompted profound changes in the fictional imagination. Meisel points out, for example, that enthusiasm for the "romantic brigand" yielded rapidly in the thirties to a fascination with "the 'real' outlaw and his underworld milieu, native, urban, and familiar" (250). By no coincidence, it is at just this time that Poe's "Man of the Crowd" suddenly imposes himself upon our view, and Büchner's Woyzeck, too, a character pulled from the newspaper, iconographically almost anonymous. More than merely lifting everyday events into "the world of spectacle," sensational crime offered the real possibility that anonymity might suddenly become celebrity, that solitude would be replaced by fame, and that everyday life might at any moment become the world of popular fiction.

Part of Meisel's contribution to our understanding of the Jack Sheppard phenomenon, then, is his identification of the book's complex appeal to contemporary trends in print culture. Cruikshank's illustrations produced, in addition to the political and narrative appeals of Ainsworth's novel, pleasures that were less conscious and more sensational, more calculated to produce effect than to solicit sentiment, and in that quality they bring us a step closer to the compulsory force of the mania as a whole. Yet Meisel, like Jonathan Hill, focuses more intently upon an additional mode of pictorial representation that proves even more significant to the Jack Sheppard craze: the contemporary taste, most marked from 1837-41, for the immediate dramatic realization of the new pictorial novels.

IV. Solicitations of the Tableau

As Hill points out, "ever since the works of Sir Walter Scott had set unprecedented sales for the popular novel, the form had been quarried as never before by dramatists and adaptors in search of dramatic raw material." With the advent of the illustrated serial novel in the mid-thirties, Hill notes, "dramatists were provided with an additional bonus: visual guides to staging, scenic design, costume, and character appearance" (441-43). More important, they were also provided with the means for a new theatrical effect: the direct realization, on stage and as tableaux vivant, of well-known illustrations from the novels. Like that precedent theatrical mode, dramatic realization hinges upon the pleasurable sensation of pictorial recognition—however, its audience was considerably different. Tableau vivant, a theatrical practice embedded in the painterly court culture of pre-revolutionary Europe, played to small audiences familiar with the high-art objects being delineated. Cruikshank's images, by contrast, were more widely known even than the popular novels they illustrated, for they were most frequently displayed and sold individually by booksellers and printshops. Moreover, such illustrations gained that broader audience among the lower classes rather than the elite, for such illustrations, unbound, appealed most to those lacking either the ability, the money, or the inclination to obtain and read the novels (Hill 441; see also P. Anderson). Dramatic realization of such images as tableaux allowed a theatrical audience unfamiliar with the book, but possessed of some acquaintance with its illustrations, to assign a narrative to the visual skeleton offered by Cruikshank's prints. Dramatic realization, however, in its achievement of a familiar illustration in living form, also elicited the complex, sensational pleasures of pictorial recognition. And it is the innovative creation and careful management of these dramatic effects that most marked the novelty of Jack Sheppard.

Although the vogue for dramatic realization developed quickly, it wasn't until 1837, with Edward Stirling's dramatization of Dickens's The Pickwick Papers (1836), that we find dramatic realizations of a novel's illustrations, and those are often imperfect. As Meisel observes, Stirling's "tendency through much of the play is to use the plates for setting and costume, and to render them as action, with at most some passing point of rough realization" (252). The problem, as is evident to both Meisel and Hill, is that the moments depicted in the novel's precedent illustration are in many instances unsuited to the static, punctuating aesthetic of tableau and its referential cousin, tableau vivant.

Dickens's work adapted to this problem rapidly. By 1840 and 1841, with The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, Dickens and his collaborators had begun to incorporate the logic of theatrical realization into the novel's initial presentation, placing illustrations with care at certain moments in the text (rather than printing them as plates)—and suggesting more precisely the dramatic moments of opening, mid-scene, or closing tableaux. However, in these instances Dickens was already imitating the "exemplary climax" of "the pictorial novel dramatized pictorially," Ainsworth's collaborative effort with Cruikshank on Jack Sheppard (Meisel 265). As we have seen, the choice of Sheppard as the novel's hero and the close integration of Hogarth's prints (many of which had already received their own pictorial staging) suggest the collaborators' adaptation to contemporary trends in print culture and their citational appeal to earlier images. However, as both Meisel and Hill point out, that collaboration is distinguished as well by the fact that the project appears to have been shaped from its outset by a specific desire for effective dramatic realization (Meisel 247-51; Hill 446-47).

Even before the novel's publication, both collaborators engaged in sustained, unabashed efforts to promote and assist its theatrical adaptation, efforts explicitly linked to the novel's dramatic logic. However, as Hill has noted, a more radical element of the project's dramatic realization is Cruikshank's adoption of an unprecedented pictorial aesthetic for his initial illustrations—an aesthetic, Hill rightly asserts, derived not from Hogarth and print aesthetics but from contemporary dramaturgy. Such derivation is, in some of its more marked characteristics, evident at a glance: the scenes emphasize clear melodramatic gesture, with a clarity of line and a careful finish that stand in striking, immediately recognizable contrast to the more ephemeral, vignette composition of Cruikshank's Regency work (Hill 429-30). Although the celebrated illustrator's hand is still quite legible, these scenes struck contemporary observers as wholly novel in their pictorial qualities. For the first time, Cruikshank composed scenes with the poise and stillness of neoclassical tableau illustration: his typically centripetal energies yield to centrally divided spaces of equipoise and tension, his backgrounds become more sparse and less busy. Perhaps most important, his heroes appear in firm profile, clearly delineated, as is most evident in the central, highly accomplished engraving of "The Audacity of Jack Sheppard".

Such compositional choices, as even this single image suggests, have implications that extend well beyond pictorial aesthetics. Most immediately, this new pictorial language changes the highly characteristic atmosphere of Cruikshank's milieux. As J. Hillis Miller points out, Cruikshank typically depicts a world of extreme confinement and almost solopsistic isolation (50); his figures are characteristically caricatures, figures captured in a grotesque moment of uncontrolled, self-revealing emotiveness (51, 57-59). His interior spaces are typically chaotically dense or close and dark (55), lacking even the broad symbolic apertures that characteristically penetrate Hogarth's interior scenes, and producing, in combination with Cruikshank's distorted figural style, scenes that are almost nightmare images. If there is a stable perspective within the frame, it is most often that of a figure situated clearly outside the threatening instability and centripetal confinement of such action, a surrogate for the author or illustrator. Cruikshank's audience, like that of Dickens, is customarily positioned as an onlooker rather than a participant in the scene's principal action (61-62).

While Jack Sheppard situates us in Cruikshank's characteristically closed, claustrophobic world, the centripetal force that organizes the illustrator's earlier work is often replaced by strong lines of opposition and outward movement. If these milieux are closed spaces, they are almost invariably broken by a potential exit. In the spare, coldly rational prison frames, those scenes which most distinguish Cruikshank's work here, Sheppard's escapes literally enact such visual liberation.

Cruikshank's new pictorial language invites, as well, a new location of perspective. Unlike the churning, unstable vignettes that characterize his Regency work, these tableaux regularly offer the viewer a stable, balanced, often immobile position within the action of the scene, drawing the viewer's eye repeatedly to the strongly delineated figure and defiant, composed profile of Sheppard himself. The hero's typically calm, resolved gaze, the center of control within the narrative's hostile world, offers Cruikshank's habitually unsettled, distanced viewer an unexpectedly comfortable position and moment of repose. In a manner that his viewers had never experienced, Cruikshank thus draws his audience into the frame of the action itself.

Cruikshank's aesthetics produce as well as unaccustomed sense of agency within that scene, for Sheppard's power within his fictional world—as the prison scenes made evident—is intimately bound up with his unusual ability to see. Ainsworth and Cruikshank's Sheppard sees through disguises both sentimental and nefarious; he notes similarities and resemblances that others miss; he sizes up hostile situations in "a rapid glance"; and he excels at nothing so much as locating the improbable avenue of escape (147). Having had our gaze repeatedly drawn to Sheppard's profile, we are thus encouraged as well to follow his gaze from it: to read Cruikshank's illustrations well, in this regard, is to see the scene through Sheppard's eyes.

It is suitable in this regard as well that the book's most carefully imitative illustration—Cruikshank's near copy of the scene of the second prison break—is taken from "the frontispiece of Sheppard's Narrative, purportedly 'written by himself during his Confinement'" (Meisel 269). The third, final escape series, in which Cruikshank adopts again the strikingly spare, rectilinear perspectives and coldly rational representational stance of Sheppard's "original," can be read in this sense as Cruikshank's extension of his hero's rationalist perspective over the dramatic milieu itself—a fugitive's instrumental gaze become absolute, solipsistic. Thackeray cites these illustrations as the most remarkable of the book, noting their isolation and "extreme loneliness" (qtd. in Meisel 268). They are in an important way dream scenes—projections and instantiations of Sheppard's peculiar way of viewing, and moving through, the world around him. If the audience is invited, in earlier images, to adopt the increasingly isolated hero's instrumental gaze, these scenes place us within a space—and a dramatic situation—that appear to be constructed by that gaze.

Such apprehensional effects must have played some part in creating the peculiarly imitative quality of the Jack Sheppard mania. More than merely depicting the exploits of a defiant criminal through the visual language of dramatic tableau, the visual language of Cruikshank's illustrations invited his popular audience, in an unprecedented fashion, to adopt that criminal's position and perspective: not only to mime his posture and attitude, but to read the world, both inside the book and, by implication, outside it, through his alienated but efficacious gaze.

For both Meisel and Hill, it is precisely Cruikshank's novel pictorial effects that most strongly support contemporary claims for the illustrator's "creative priority" (Meisel 248). However, as both critics are concerned with larger trends in pictoriality, neither explores the narrative implications of such effects. For if Cruikshank borrows the language of tableau to compose his illustrations, he also implies, in so doing, an entire structure of dramatic action and conflict. Unsurprisingly, given the collaborative nature of the project, it is precisely these generic implications that Ainsworth takes up in his fictional reworking of Sheppard's life.

More subtly, if Ainsworth uses that language to place his audience in Sheppard's position, he makes evident as well the potential thematic importance, within Sheppard's world, of distinct modes and ideologies of vision and visuality. And it is through this narrative response to Cruikshank's pictorial creation—in the translation of this new mode of perception into experience and action—that Ainsworth articulates a sudden evolution in melodramatic form. Moreover, it is also through such narrative translation that the collaborators construct the sensational mechanism of a new, perceptual modernity, and, in the end, it is that peculiar mechanism, more than any political or pictorial solicitations, in which we can locate the particular mimetic forces that prompted Courvoisier's copycat murder.

V. Hogarth Melodramatized

Once again we must begin by gaining some sense of what was not new about Ainsworth's narrative innovation, for just as he had appealed to powerful trends in popular fiction and print culture, he appealed as well—and with exaggerated emphasis—to the deeply ingrained conventions of melodrama. Such appeals are most evident in his treatment of Thames Darrell, his updated version of Hogarth's "industrious" apprentice. Hogarth's counterpoint figure rises with steady assurance to become Lord Mayor of London, recapitulating traditional apprenticeship narratives that extend back through George Lillo's "London Merchant" (1731) to the Elizabethans' many versions of Simon Eyre and Dick Whittington. But Ainsworth's virtuous apprentice is by contrast a fairly conventional and highly romantic melodramatic hero: Darrell is an aristocratic heir, swept from family and threatened—through the evil schemes of his corrupted uncle—with unjust disinheritance and cruel death. In keeping with melodrama's already well-established pattern of events, Darrell is a foundling, tragically lost by his murdered father in the midst of a terrible storm and pulled from the river that gives him his name. As a boy, Thames Darrell discovers his rightful identity, and struggles nobly against his persecutors to regain his true place and proper recognition. In the end, he succeeds to his dukedom in a world again made right: his evil uncle is, quite literally, cast into a dark pit to die.

It is only in the midst of this larger, melodramatic struggle that Thames plays the part of Hogarth's industrious apprentice, and such subsumption converts the civic trajectory traced in Hogarth's bourgeois allegory into the sort of temporary social masquerade that marks much earlier London comedies. As in Thomas Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday (1599), the city workplace becomes for Thames ironically pastoral, offering the "masked" noble a temporary realm of natural relations and social simplicity, and one in which he finds, as his audience would expect, not fortune but love. Thames's marriage to Winnifred, the daughter of his master carpenter Wood, replays in sentimental fashion the harmonic joining of nobility and craft in the city, thus melding this small comedy into the larger trajectory of Darrell's heroic, melodramatic drama.

As is appropriate, Thames seems never to act as anything other than the notable he turns out to be. His generosity of character, personal dignity, bearing and appearance all signify to those around him an inherent nobility. Although he is not at first aware of his aristocratic status, his body and character bear its truth quite legibly. And—in keeping with melodramatic convention—it is just such physiognomic "legibility" that establishes his true identity: Thames's uncanny resemblance to a portrait miniature of his lost father first makes evident his aristocratic lineage, and it is an intimate sketch of his visage by the young Winnifred that serves as Darrell's noble token of return to the Wood household to claim his bride. Winnie's sketch and the portrait miniature of his father are tokens of Darrell's heroic identity in part because they are all but inimitable—the sketch because of its unique hand and the intricate portrait miniature, "set in brilliants" (89), as a result of its spectacular value. Such singularity endows Thames's tokens of identity with the auratic value that assures their truth, and, in the absence of the lost father, they secure his proper recognition and rights. Rather than tracing the developmental course of the bildungs-roman, Thames's life is all about securing, through recognition, an identity that he carries in his face from the start.

Ainsworth's rigorous adoption of this early melodramatic template makes the Thames Darrell subplot a powerful articulation of the genre's often conservative social ideology; in fact, Thames is a character carefully drawn to invoke an earlier generation's anxieties, fantasies, and modes of truth. As if to make such anachronism unmistakable, Ainsworth makes Darrell not merely noble but a Jacobite as well, aligning his hero with England's pre-revolutionary, Catholic monarchy and thereby linking his legitimacy to pre-Reformation structures of divine authority. As the political conditions of Sheppard's historical context make literal restoration of this divine sort a narrative impossibility, Darrell's first public assumption of noble status takes place in France, still conveniently pre-revolutionary, where he is made an officer of the king. Upon his return to England, and for his restoration of family and seat, he thus appears as a slightly anachronistic figure, dressed in ancien régime pomp, a French aristocrat among the plain folk. Indeed, Wood's only comic address to his erstwhile industrious apprentice is to remark—at the moment of Thames's dramatic reunion with Winnifred—upon the doubtful taste of Darrell's elaborate wig. If his implied critique had not been evident earlier, Ainsworth here tips his hand deliberately, asking his audience to recognize the Darrell plot's exaggerated imitation of first-generation melodrama—and to sense, as well, the outmoded anachronism of his noble hero.

It is against this carefully conventional, noticeably rickety template that Ainsworth sets his second heroic plot. Here he is of course more constrained by fact—and motivated, too, by the imperatives of verisimilitude: Sheppard's celebrated escapes, at least, cannot be reshaped by the exigencies of narrative form. Moreover, Ainsworth's Sheppard remains recognizable as Hogarth's idle apprentice. Rather than a comic hiatus, Jack's servitude is real, and his eventual fate unfolds in fairly strict accord with that of his eighteenth-century model: like the idle apprentice, he betrays his master's trust, takes up a life of crime, and ends upon the Tyburn gallows. However, rather than suggesting Ainsworth's adoption of Hogarth as a fictional structure, these parallels serve instead to remind us of Hogarth's own use of Sheppard as an inspiration for his cautionary moral progress: the idle apprentice, after all, was himself a version of the historical Sheppard.

Nonetheless, Ainsworth's reworking of his hero is substantial and indicates quite clearly the manner in which he adapts his hero's narrative to the complex symmetric, even chiastic structure of relations borrowed from Hogarth's dual progress and reinforced in Cruikshank's tableau aesthetic. First, Sheppard becomes a remarkably melodramatic figure: like Darrell, he is made a symbolic foundling, a second lost babe carried successfully across the Thames in the same boat from which Darrell's father falls. Also like Darrell, Sheppard is pursued by the narrative's melodramatic villains in a larger movement (though this one the arc of his criminal life) that encloses the secondary story of his apprenticeship. Jack turns out even to possess a claim to aristocratic status, for his mother, we eventually discover, is Trenchard's sister (and Darrell's natural aunt). Though she dropped into obscurity with her ill-considered marriage to a poor young carpenter—an apprentice to Wood—her nobility, like that of Thames, seems legible to all who encounter her. Unfortunately for both mother and child, Jack, like Thames, is the spitting image not of his mother but of his father, a common carpenter who had been arrested and executed for stealing from his master. And the same physiognomic determinism that secures Darrell's rights functions here to doom Jack. His likeness to his father, Mrs. Sheppard laments, "is the chief cause of my misery" (4), for it suggests all too clearly her son's inherited criminality, as well as making apparent the impossibility that Jack might, one day, lay claim to being of her family. The Wood household, which would seem to offer the redemptive opportunity to regain his "lost" inheritance as an honest workman, becomes instead a community from which Jack is alienated. Like Hogarth's idle apprentice, his struggles leave him in the end isolated, bereft of family, and executed—the very antithesis of Thames Darrell.

Set against the Darrell plot in this way, Ainsworth's reworking of Hogarth's "idleness" narrative appears less a cautionary tale than a failed melodrama, the narrative of a hero placed in similar circumstance, and faced by identical challenges, but lacking the appearance, demeanor, and tokens of proper recognition—the very keys to agency in a dramatic genre then obsessed with the recovery of lost identity. Perhaps most significantly, the two plots are not merely made parallel; they are carefully intertwined. Their actions double and cross each other, drawing our attention, as if in a series of object lessons (the high-point of each captured in Cruikshank's tableaux), to the problem that melodrama's logic of identity poses from the very outset of the narrative for Ainsworth's criminal hero.

Ainsworth introduces conflict between the apprentices, for example, in two closely linked scenes: first, when he has Jack jealously snatch Winnie's intimate sketch from a smitten Thames, and, immediately after, when Jack returns to the shop with a stolen portrait miniature (the portrait miniature, of course), struggles over it with honest Thames, and then accuses Darrell of the theft in the climactic scene in Sir Rowland Trenchard's library. These two moments, the highlights of the book's apprenticeship cycle, not only introduce the primary auratic tokens of Darrell's recognition; they also dramatize Sheppard's own jealous lack of any such tokens—and of the means, consequently, to realize his familial identity. Within the frame of melodrama's visual economy, he is anonymous, and to be anonymous is to be lost.

Yet it is in just these scenes that Ainsworth and Cruikshank begin to put the visual economy of earlier melodramatic convention into play with the new modes and modalities of visual culture, for the collaborators repeatedly, and systematically, set the sensational "recognition" effect of tableau realization itself in careful counterpoint to the auratic, and arguably obsolete, mode of pictorial recognition that establishes Darrell's identity. And in so doing, the authors obtain a peculiar dual effect: if the book's illustrations employ the pictorial and sensational logic of realization to induce their audience to adopt Sheppard's own perspective, to see the world through his eyes, they do so at precisely those narrative moments when melodrama's conventional modes of apprehension and recognition are most strongly asserted against him.

VI. Escaping Melodrama

This sort of modal conjunction is emphatic in "The Vindictiveness of Jack Sheppard", the book's first tableau announcement of an oppositional relation between the two heroes. Jack and Thames are both captured in vignette, in the midst of action and with an emotive uncertainty that reinforces the narrative sense of their as-yet-unformed characters. Nonetheless, the lines of their conflict and its stakes are delineated with clear melodramatic polarity: the struggle is between protectiveness and violence, restraint and aggressive confrontation. As will be the case throughout the narrative, Jack is placed in opposition to other characters, typically paired to a tool or weapon, his isolated figure confronting and disrupting the scene's composition of familial or social order. Strewn in the foreground are the tokens of what is at stake: the sketch and the portrait miniature, those privileged icons of Thames's place in household and society. As tableau, the scene depicts eloquently Jack's poverty in the play's visual economy. However, as illustration, and as dramatic realization, the tableau becomes a moment of pictorial recognition, invoking the competing visual economy of the new mass press.

How these two systems of pictorial identity are related begins to emerge in the ensuing tableau of the two boys—the confrontational scene at Sir Rowland Trenchard's house in which Jack falsely accuses Thames of the miniature's theft. Here Thames is situated just along the margin of the broad, opposing field of aristocratic visage and portraiture that dominates the rear wall, a visual expression of the hazy and corrupt hereditary power that Trenchard represents—and a background against which the virtuous Thames now appears with less graphic or moral clarity, standing in openmouthed astonishment. Hauled before Trenchard just prior to Jack's arrival, Thames has been recognized by his treacherous uncle—as the foregrounded presence of the miniature in Jonathan Wild's hand reminds us. While such recognition reestablishes Darrell's noble identity, it has also earned the unsuspecting boy a death sentence. Melodrama's tools of recognition seem here a fatal trap.

Appropriately, it is in this scene that Jack first publicly declares his own identity, and in a manner that makes plain—particularly in Buckstone's condensed dramatic adaptation—his challenge to the pictorial system that governs Trenchard's realm and Darrell's fate:

Jack Sheppard is brought on in the custody of Abraham Mendez.

The servants look in at the door.




Yesh, sar.


Get your ruffles ready. (To Jack) Well, sir, what's your name?


(staring about him, and looking at the pictures) Jack Sheppard. (Pointing to a picture of the Earl of Mar, against the wall) Who's that queer cove in the full-bottomed wig?


Attend to me, sirrah!—do you know this picture? (Pointing to the miniature on table)


I do.

(Buckstone 37)

Sheppard's self-declaration, accompanied by a wry reference to the portrait of the Earl of Mar, a leading Scottish Jacobite, is set in evident conflict with the auratic, patriarchal logic of "the pictures." However, Cruikshank's illustration solicits at the same time a complex, alternative system, and community, of recognition. Sheppard stands out in sharp profile against a bright, uncluttered background, joined in his oppositional field by the crowd of curious servants peeking in at the door, with a pose and visage that dominate the entire composition. Within the narrative, Jack literally makes a name for himself at this moment: to the onlooking audience in the rear doorway, his easy, balanced defiance of Trenchard and Wild causes evident shock—and in Ainsworth's reworking of history this scene marks the beginning, in the gossip among servants, of the boy's criminal celebrity.

To this narrative moment of recognition Cruikshank adds another. This profile, which he henceforth repeats with relentless determination, first appears here as the unerring portrait of Sheppard's character and heroism. In contrast to the ephemeral vignette of the first tableau, Cruikshank here delineates with uncharacteristic firmness the strong features of his criminal hero—a profile iconographically simple (and thus easily found in any print-shop post-up) and obviously symbolic. Just as Thames's elaborate French wig has just announced his almost anachronistic nobility, Jack's close-cropped, "bullet-shaped" (54) head signifies his rejection of such pretension and suggests as well his contrasting contemporaneity. Cruikshank's audience, like the servants in the door, is given its first identifying view of the new criminal hero.

And Cruikshank goes further, linking that pictorial sensation of recognition to a powerful visual and narrative solicitation of identification with his hero. Unlike Thames, Sheppard is poised, commanding in his melodramatic posture the space and situation around him. To the shock of everyone present, he has just falsely accused Thames of the miniature's theft—not to avoid arrest, but to force the arrest and confinement of Thames as well. Once in the Clerkenwell Roundhouse, Jack surmises, escape will be easy, and the impending murder of his naive friend thus averted. Unlike Thames, Jack has—as Ainsworth's narrative makes explicit—"cast a rapid glance around him" and "instantly divined" the situation (137); he sees clearly, in the few silent seconds upon entering, both the threat posed by the scene and the most effective way for Thames, and himself, to escape. Jack's visage, then, is not merely a recognizable icon. His gaze also controls the scene, registering the power of Sheppard's visual capabilities, and the powerlessness of Thames's innocent virtue, over the outmoded melodramatic world in which they are seemingly trapped. Within the narrative and without, Cruikshank and Ainsworth offer that perspective as a clear challenge to the conventional modes of visual and moral recognition that so strongly marked early heroic melodrama, reinforcing its narrative occurrence in each instance with the sensational effect and apprehensional modality of dramatic realization.

It is within this sequential structure of pictorial and dramatic counterpoint—a structure that serves, I think, as the deliberate underpinning of Ainsworth's "romance"—that the third such tableau, "The Audacity of Jack Sheppard," gains its full resonance. Certainly, as Hill points out, the visual rhetoric of this central engraving is emphatic, setting Sheppard and Darrell in an almost neoclassically composed confrontation. In terms of its pictorial aesthetic, the image is closer in spirit—and politics—to Jacques-Louis David than to Constantin Guys, Baudelaire's "painter of modern life" (1). The figures are drawn in clear profile and momentous pose, their gazes locked across an unobstructed field that suggests monumental relief. Darrell and Sheppard assume heroic stature, and their confrontation takes on commensurate weight, setting Jack's cool criminal modernity against the agitated aristocratic outrage of his foppish counterpart.

Yet there is more going on here, for this moment—that of Jack's audacious return to a family he has robbed and betrayed—follows immediately upon the epic return of Darrell himself, and the narrative carefully sets these two scenes of reunion in exaggerated symmetry. Thames's precedent entrance—again offering the template of convention—follows well-established patterns of epic recognition. Like Odysseus returning to Ithaca, and like, too, the foundling Figaro discovering his parentage, Darrell returns as a hero closing his own cycle of action, recovering a clear identity in order that he might claim his proper place in household and world. And like those precedent figures, he has gained readmittance through the presentation of his privileged tokens of identity, those intimate markers of physiognomic resemblance legible only to those already familiar with and to him. Unlike Cruikshank's first Sheppard-Darrell tableau, then, which is concerned with the characters' competing efforts to gain identity within the household, or his second, which marks their respective recognition within a hostile world, this third tableau captures their competing declarations of heroic return and familial reunion.

It is as such—as an attempt to claim such recognition in the Wood household—that Jack's entrance is specifically an act of "Audacity." Not only has he gained entry without suitable tokens of recognizance (indeed, he has done so through his "false" assumption of fine clothes), but he is at this moment held responsible—albeit wrongly—for the death of Mrs. Wood, whose portrait is noticeably absent in the empty space just above his head. In a tableau that is legible as a contest for familiar recognition, it is evident that Jack is responsible for a familial loss—a loss signified emphatically by the absence of both the person and the image of Mrs. Wood.

Yet, if Jack cannot claim reunion with the narrative's familial community, his effort to do so is accompanied, in careful coincidence, by Cruikshank's single most emphatic solicitation of pictorial recognition—for the audience is now confronted with the defiant figure of the mature criminal hero, carrying in his pocket the broadsheet reward notice that marks his identity with the notorious historic figure on whom he is modeled. In a specific sense, Sheppard too claims recognition and reunion in this tableau, but the "family" to which he appeals is that of his recognizing public. And the efficacy of such claims is signaled quite clearly, for this moment of audacity is accompanied by two noteworthy reactions: that of the maid, recoiling in terrified, sudden recognizance of the personage who stands before her, and that of Thames Darrell himself, who now—in a neat reversal of "Vindictiveness"—reaches for his sword in a gestural recapitulation of Jack's own helpless, boyish efforts to contest his rival's status.

If the narrative here suggests Jack's asserveration from melodramatic community, everything about the scene's pictorial and dramatic logic signifies instead his ascendancy within a new culture of pictorial apprehension and identity. More than offering their audience a new sort of hero, Cruikshank and Ainsworth here assert a new way of viewing and organizing the world—one radically opposed to the formal, pictorial, and political epistemology of conventional melodrama. It is with the implications of that novel perspective—both visual and social—that I will now be concerned.

VII. Recognizing the Mass Audience

Both within the narrative and without, the recognition that Jack Sheppard solicits and attains distances itself emphatically from melodrama's conventionally privileged space of familial relations. Instead, it invokes the ambiguous familiarity of celebrity, a mode of social identity enabled by the advent of the mass press and recognized within what Benedict Anderson—discussing the advent of the newspaper—has described as an imagined community of readers and viewers. As Anderson points out, the constitution of such community takes place largely "in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull," for the sensation of pictorial and narrative recognition enabled by dramatic realization, like that of reading the newspaper, is an essentially private one, with each participant "well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion" (25). Celebrity functions dialectically in this community, offering a surrogate form of familiar recognition even as it reaffirms in practice the anonymity and isolation of its authorizing community. Unlike melodrama's earlier model of familial relation, in which (as Denis Diderot attempted to show) all members are intimately related, the imagined community of Jack Sheppard enthusiasts is a community of individuals whose relations to each other are mediated, on a mass scale, through the celebrity figure of Sheppard himself.

That such relations are oppositional to familial identity is made evident throughout the novel, and Sheppard's own status within familial community is consistently eroded and denied over the course of his rise to fame. However, it is in dramatic adaptation, in which the constitution of that viewing audience becomes physical, that this antithetical relation became most emphatic. In J. B. Buckstone's adaptation for the Adelphi Theater, for example, the exigencies of dramatic compression become an additional means of enforcing such antitheses. Most evidently, Buckstone excises from his stage narrative Sheppard's complex relations to his mother, removing the several scenes in which the hero returns, remorseful but unrepentant, to his increasingly impoverished, eventually mad parent. Rather than staging a realization of Jack's tortured visit to his mother in Bedlam—the single illustration that most strenuously evokes emotions of maternal love—Buckstone merely has his villains refer to her situation in passing during a scene in which Sheppard is hidden in the background. Yet, crucially, the playwright has the obscured hero emerge momentarily, so that he "is seen to clasp his hands in agony" (49), recapitulating the very posture that Cruikshank assigns him in the Bedlam scene.

In so doing, Buckstone offers perhaps the most subtle, intimately recognizable moment of pictorial recognition to his audience even as he excises the harrowing familial tableau from which it is derived. By retaining and even heightening the pleasurable sensation of pictorial recognition even as he removes the competing, painful realization of Mrs. Sheppard's madness, Buckstone subtly reinforces the claims of the imagined community over those of the family. Suitably, Jack's reaction, too, is thus rendered as a private, isolated moment of introspective emotion, "legible" only to those who recognize its derivation from the book and binding Sheppard's private perspective more closely to that of his knowing audience.

Buckstone's reorganization of the realization sequence of Sheppard's final and greatest escape performs a similar operation. Rather than presenting the elaborate sequence in a single scene (which would require a multiple box set too large for the Adelphi stage), the playwright splits the escape into two scenes, and he situates between these—as a simultaneous action—the brief episode in which Darrell proposes to, and is accepted by, Winnifred Wood. By this point in the play, as the "Audacity" tableau has suggested, Sheppard's identity within the imagined community of recognizing viewers has already been set against that of Darrell within the Wood household, and his extreme isolation in these scenes is set in precise contrast to Darrell's exaggerated familial reunion. To an audience absorbed in the spectacular excitement of the Newgate escape, Darrell's betrothal to Winnie is thus set up as a momentary intrusion of conventional domesticity, reinforcing more than contesting the audience's immersion in Sheppard's narrative and rendering all the more urgent the final escape scene's perspectival solicitations of identification. It is a structure that asks us not only to see contrast but to take sides, and Buckstone's imposed betrothal might well have elicited hoots of impatient dismissal, appearing now as a cloying interruption in the suspenseful struggles of the now perfectly isolated hero, whose solitary gaze controls, and even constructs, the carceral space of his own action. In contrast to his previous escapes, Sheppard's most epic break from Newgate is unimpeded by either accomplices or human opposition, and unmotivated, as well, by any imperative outside Jack's own liberation.

The "extreme loneliness" that Thackeray identified as the most striking quality of these scenes here takes on additional significance, for it is precisely that quality which now enables the exclusive union of Sheppard's perspective—now projected onto the environment itself—with that of his sole onlookers, the audience. At the moment of his greatest instrumental agency, both Sheppard and his viewers are relieved of all competing claims of social attachment and obligation and endowed with an isolated gaze that commands its surroundings. The iron bar itself becomes for Sheppard his only "faithful friend" (Buckstone 77), the sole attachment enabling freedom in a now wholly depopulated urban landscape. Pictorially as well as dramatically, the climactic Newgate escape binds liberation to alienation and links the sensation of community to the accomplishment of social isolation.

Conclusion: Celebrity and Solitude

As a combined pictorial, narrative, and theatrical phenomenon, then, Ainsworth and Cruikshank's fictionalized Jack Sheppard offered a critique and even a repudiation of the model of community and the associated modes of perception articulated in conventional melodrama. It asserted instead a mode of identity now more accurately suited to the lived experience of its audience—that of the alienated spectator, isolated in practice and perspective, but bonded imaginatively to all fellow enthusiasts. While such imagined community reinforced rather than alleviated the dislocated social isolation of its members, the phenomenon of Jack Sheppard, in all of its maniacal force, implied the rejection of an entire system of authority through the adoption of a radically different way of seeing the world and redrawing it within one's mind. In the context of early industrialism's wrenching, explicit reorganization and imposition of social identity, the idea of "becoming Jack Sheppard" offered not only an alternative to identities imposed from above and recognized in anachronistic or unavailable structures of community, but an alternative that found its imprimatur in the isolation of spectator and celebrity, and in the assumption of Sheppard's own, alienated gaze. When Courvoisier coolly informed police that he "drew the knife" across the throat of his master, it seems possible that, at some level, he was making a fair bid to reshape and declare his identity within this new visual culture of the mass print audience—and by any reasonable estimate, he succeeded.

Yet Cruikshank adds a final wrinkle to his narrative, one that lends the play additional significance. If we look back, not at the several stark, isolating scenes of prison escape, but at the domestic spaces of Jack Sheppard, it becomes evident that they trace their own emergent space of confinement. Not a carceral space in the literal sense, but a space in which identity itself becomes increasingly contained, and confined, by print culture. Mrs. Sheppard's poor Marshalsea room is adorned most markedly with scribbled graffiti and a grotesque, scatalogical sketch of a king, both intrusive marks of earlier residents, of individual passage through, and habitation of, the ragged space. The opening scene of Cruikshank's apprenticeship series, which situates us in the working space of Wood's house, copies and intensifies Hogarth's own allegorical inclusion of prints. If Ainsworth's characterization of Darrell is self-consciously outdated, this reworking of Hogarth is, by contrast, self-consciously modern, refiguring the shop as one of Sheppard's adulthood rather than his youth, marked already by the popularization of Newgate criminals such as himself. By the time we are shown the apprentice's private spaces, in the loft above, the novel's characters inhabit a media culture much closer to that of 1839 than of 1747, their walls papered almost entirely by popular print images.10 And the determinism suggested by these walls is striking, for the images massed on each side of the tableau delineate, with almost absurd emphasis, the precise character of their consumers. In a manner no less artificial than Hogarth's, but reflecting a sociological condition of far greater print saturation, Cruikshank suggests an almost existential imprisonment within the mediated perceptual world of mass-produced images.

It is wholly fitting in this regard that Buckstone's adaptation of Sheppard's final escape ends with his tragic recognition not by an acquaintance or relation, but by a penny press hawker. The boy is standing just outside the door of Jack's boyhood home, the fugitive's last refuge, crying out "advance" copies of "the last dying speech and confession—birth, parentage, education—character, and behavior of the notorious housebreaker, Jack Sheppard!" (79). Momentarily struck aghast, in a moment of peripety that echoes Oedipus rather than Figaro, Sheppard bludgeons the boy to the ground with his heavy iron bar, but he cannot prevent recognition. "There he is! I know him! Jack Sheppard!" cries the boy, and the escape is over (80). In a neat reversal, Sheppard is ultimately trapped within a prison constructed of the print mania for his own image, recognized and claimed, just steps from the safety of the cellars, by the alienated, imagined community of the penny press. In the end, then, Cruikshank imagines celebrity not as a liberation from anonymity, but as its binding dialectical pair, the sign and engine of a world rapidly confined within the disciplinary apparatus of the mass culture gaze.

Sheppard's final escape becomes in this sense a nightmarish perceptual passage, and not simply a moment of physical liberation. From the psychomachia of the Newgate scenes, a world generated and governed by his solitary gaze, Sheppard emerges into a world in which his social identity is inescapable, imposed by the gaze of all who recognize in him the figure of his criminal celebrity. The mechanism of that recognition, associated throughout the play with the popular audience, with class resistance and radical political opposition, is here unveiled as a mechanism of surveillance, a nightmarish extension of the gaze of the law.

And it is, finally, in this nightmarish unveiling of a changed world that Jack Sheppard most powerfully articulates a transformation of consciousness, from that epistemological community of political modernity to the sensational community of perceptual modernity. Sheppard's audience, severed by the displacements of preceding decades from the community identities that informed earlier, political action and change, appears here in its modern mass form: a collection of isolated individuals, their performance of community mediated rather than direct, articulated not in collective action but through shared moments of apprehension, sensation, and recognition. That shift, driven perhaps most powerfully by the decade's sudden explosion of cheap print, undoubtedly informs Marx's cool observation that the tragic revolution of 1789 could now appear only as farce. Yet, as Georg Lukács observed, in the mediated milieu of perceptual modernity, the conflicts that form identity do not disappear altogether; they are instead moved within, to the realm of personality and of individual consciousness (149-51). Such alienation is powerfully registered in Büchner's near-contemporary Woyzeck (1837), in subsequent shifts to psychological melodrama, and, I think, in the discontinuities of form, audience, and cultural position of the novel during these decades. Undoubtedly, it informs the shift from the characteristically epistolary novel of the eighteenth century, which (like early melodrama) invoked a community of sympathy, to the quintessentially journalistic novel of Dickens's mass public, which, like the penny press, appealed instead to a community of spectators, its types and characters seemingly legible amid the anonymous crowd. However, none of these developments in literary history carry the particular force of the Jack Sheppard mania, that hybrid "book" which served as a primary mechanism, and not simply a literary articulation, of the modernity it describes.


  1. In addition to Brooks, see, for example, Booth, English Melodrama, "Melodrama and the Working Class," and "Soldiers of the Queen"; Clark; Cox; Duffy; Fietz; Gaines; Gerould; Hadley; Hyslop; Ilsemann; McConachie, Melodramatic Formations and "Pixerecourt's Early Melodramas and the Political Inducements of Neoplatonism"; and Mulien.
  2. Work of this orientation includes Bratton, "The Contending Discourses of Melodrama"; Brewster and Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema; Charney and Schwartz; Gunning; Howarth; McWilliam; Schwartz; Singer, Melodrama and Modernity. Also of note, though it does not focus specifically upon melodrama, is Crary's work on the formation of visual modernity, Techniques of the Observer and Suspensions of Perception.
  3. Hollingsworth's detailed look at the event (145-48) far exceeds my discussion here; as will become evident, however, I am taking a slightly different tack through the rich material he gathers.
  4. Patricia Anderson (159-66) gives a good description of the variety and abundance of these many versions, in some form or another, of Jack Sheppard's career.
  5. Hollingsworth's study offers the definitive history of the genre; however, Meisel offers a better sense of the complex, multiform evolution of the Newgate novel within the emerging social and media context of the 1830s (see especially 47-82). Stephens offers some information on legal contexts for the phenomenon's theatrical manifestations. The best treatment of the political context in which Jack Sheppard appeared, though it does not devote significant attention to this work, is Hadley's "Storming the 'Bastile': Oliver Twist and the New Poor Law," in her Melodramatic Tactics.
  6. As Meisel notes, "For the alarmed, if the Jack Sheppard craze was not directly Chartist or republican, it responded to the same social distempers that generated those radical movements" (265).
  7. Hadley demonstrates persuasively the critical importance of social dislocations brought on by the New Poor Law, which eliminated the city's traditionally parochial institutions of poor relief and instituted instead the Victorian system of the workhouse. In addition to severing poor relief from local neighborhood systems of recognition and community, the new laws systematically destroyed poor families, separating their members by age and gender and incarcerating them, as solitary moral subjects, in disciplinary workhouses.
  8. This question of priority serves as the starting point for Meisel's discussion of Jack Sheppard in Realizations, his magisterial study of the evolution of theatrical realization and pictorial aesthetics in nineteenth-century theater.
  9. From Sheppard's Narrative. As Meisel notes, the Narrative is sometimes attributed to Defoe. He notes as well that "Ainsworth quotes phrases from this document" (269n39).
  10. Patricia Anderson dates this sudden proliferation of decoration from about 1832, when "inexpensive printed imagery of all kinds and from several sources became widely affordable and available" (173).

Works Cited

Ainsworth, William Harrison. Jack Sheppard: A Romance. London, 1840.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. 2nd ed. London: Verso, 1991.

Anderson, Patricia. The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, 1790-1860. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Trans. Jonathan Mayne. New York: DaCapo, 1986.

Booth, Michael. English Melodrama. London: H. Jenkins, 1965.

——. "Melodrama and the Working Class." Dramatic Dickens. Ed. Carol Hanbery MacKay. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 96-109.

——. "Soldiers of the Queen: Drury Lane Imperialism." Hays and Nikolopoulou 3-20.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Bratton, Jacky. "The Contending Discourses of Melodrama." Bratton, Cook, and Gledhill 38-49.

Bratton, Jacky, Jim Cook, and Christine Gledhill, eds. Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen. London: British Film Institute, 1994.

Brewster, Ben, and Lea Jacobs. Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Film. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Buckstone, J. B. Jack Sheppard, Trilby and Other Plays: Four Plays for Victorian Star Actors. Ed. George Taylor. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. 1-83.

Charney, Leo, and Vanessa Schwartz, eds. Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Clark, Anna. "The Politics of Seduction in English Popular Culture, 1748-1848." The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge, 1986. 47-70.

Cox, Jeffrey. "Melodrama, Monodrama, and the Forms of Romantic Tragic Drama." Within the Dramatic Spectrum. Ed. Karelisa Hartigan. Lanham: UP of America, 1986. 20-34.

Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge: Zone, 1999.

——. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Zone, 1990.

Duffy, Daniel. "Heroic Mothers and Militant Lovers: Representations of Lower-Class Women in Melodrama of the 1830s and 1840s." Nineteenth Century Theatre 27.1 (1999): 41-65.

Fietz, Lothar. "On the Origins of the English Melodrama in the Tradition of Bourgeois Tragedy and Sentimental Drama: Lillo, Schroder, Kotzebue, Sheridan, Thompson, Jerrold." Hays and Nikolopoulou 83-101.

Gaines, Jane. "Revolutionary Theory/Prerevolutionary Melodrama." Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 17.3 (1995): 101-18.

Gerould, Daniel. "Melodrama and Revolution." Bratton, Cook, and Gledhill 185-98.

Gunning, Tom. "The Horror of Opacity: The Melodrama of Sensation in the Plays of Andre de Lorde." Bratton, Cook, and Gledhill 50-61.

Hadley, Elaine. Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1885. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995.

Hays, Michael, and Anastasia Nikolopoulou, eds. Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.

Hill, Jonathan E. "Cruikshank, Ainsworth, and Tableau Illustration." Victorian Studies 23 (1980): 429-59.

Hollingsworth, Keith. The Newgate Novel, 1830-1847: Bulwer, Ainsworth, Dickens & Thackeray. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1963.

Howarth, W. D. "Word and Image in Pixerecourt's Melodramas: The Dramaturgy of the Strip-Cartoon." Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film, and Television 1800-1976. Ed. David Bradby, James Louis, and Bernard Sharratt. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980. 17-32.

Hyslop, Gabrielle. "Pixerecourt and the French Melodrama Debate: Instructing Boulevard Theatre Audiences." Redmond 61-85.

Ilsemann, Hartmut. "Radicalism in the Melodrama of the Early Nineteenth Century." Bratton, Cook, and Gledhill 191-207.

Jenkins, Emily. "Trilby: Fads, Photographers, and 'Over-Perfect Feet.'" Book History. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1998. 221-67.

Lukács, Georg. "The Sociology of Modern Drama." Trans. Lee Baxandall. Tulane Drama Review 9 (1965): 146-70.

McConachie, Bruce. Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820-1870. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992.

——. "Pixerecourt's Early Melodramas and the Political Inducements of Neoplatonism." Redmond 87-103.

McWilliam, Rohan. "The Licensed Stare: Melodrama and the Culture of Spectacle." Nineteenth Century Studies 13 (1999): 153-75.

Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

Miller, J. Hillis. "The Fiction of Realism: Sketches by Boz, Oliver Twist, and Cruikshank's Illustrations." Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank; Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar on May 9, 1970, By J. Hillis Miller and David Borowitz. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1971. 1-69.

Mullen, Mark. "Making an Exception: Antebellum Melodrama and National Identity." Pacific Coast Philology 32.1 (1997): 32-53.

Redmond, James, ed. Melodrama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Schwartz, Vanessa R. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998.

Sheppard, Jack. A Narrative of All the Robberies, Escapes, & c. of John Sheppard. 8th ed. London, 1724.

Singer, Ben. Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts. New York: Columbia UP, 2001.

——. "Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism." Charney and Schwartz 72-99.

Steiner, George. Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes towards the Redefinition of Culture. New Haven: Yale UP, 1971.

Stephens, J. R. "Jack Sheppard and the Licensers: The Case against Newgate Plays." Nineteenth Century Theatre Research 1 (1973): 1-13.


Louis James (essay date September 1973)

SOURCE: James, Louis. "Tom Brown's Imperialistic Sons." Victorian Studies 17, no. 1 (September 1973): 89-99.

[In the following essay, James discusses how the publishers and authors of penny dreadfuls instilled a strong undercurrent of nationalism and overt racism in their works.]

Helen Martin has suggested that there is a positive relation between periods of intense nationalism and the children's literature popular at the time.1 The late Victorian imperialist expansion coincided with the appearance of a large number of boys' periodicals intensely nationalistic in tone and subject, which both reflected and reinforced the prevailing attitudes. They range from crude "penny dreadfuls" to the energetically respectable Boy's Own Paper (1879-1967), published by the Religious Tract Society. As most attention has been paid to the upper section of this spectrum, I wish here to consider some of those periodicals from the lower section. In this brief essay I shall be particularly concerned with the penny publications of Edwin J. Brett and Charles Fox, since these were the pioneers in the field, succeeding where such excellent boys' papers as S. O. Beeton's Boy's Own Magazine (1855-66) had failed.

Edwin J. Brett (1828-95) introduced the "new and original style"2 of boys' papers that was to influence every boys' journal that followed. Brett was born in Canterbury of upper middle-class stock. His first interests were dramatic—at eight he had a minor speaking part at Covent Garden—and Radical. In the late eighteen-forties he associated himself with the left-wing Chartism of Feargus O'Connor and G. W. M. Reynolds. It was as an engraver, however, that he began life, working on Vizetelli's Pictorial Times (1844-48) and maintaining a partnership with Ebenezer Landells until 1860. That year he moved, perhaps as manager, to The Newsagent's Company, 147 Fleet Street, notorious publishers of crudely violent penny serials whose typical titles were The Wild Boys of London; or the Children of the Night (c. 1864) and The Skeleton Horseman; or, the Shadow of Death (1866). When the police finally raided and closed the premises in 1871, it was only issuing reprints, and Brett had moved to 173 Fleet Street to cope with the success of Boys of England; A Young Gentleman's Journal of Sport, Travel, Fun and Instruction (first number, 27 May 1866). Aided by competitions for prizes ranging from two Shetland ponies to 100 concertinas, its success was immediate, and according to Ralph Rollington, the demands of the newsagents for a while outstripped supply (Brief History, p. 28).

The journal's style is crude, with strong middle-class aspirations. It probably had a wide range of readers, including, Brett claimed, H.R.H. Prince Arthur and Count Bernstorff, son of the German Ambassador to England, who assured him it had taught him more English "than he was ever able to learn under his English tutor."3 It fell into the hands of middle-class boys such as Havelock Ellis, whose mother promptly forbade it, but he continued to read it nevertheless.4 In the second volume Brett acknowledged the "many letters" received from "the Ladies of England,"5 and hoped their "refined tastes will go far to counteract the more masculine ideas of our male readers," though there is little evidence that they did.

The main readership, however, was the same as that which George Newnes was to provide for as young adults with Tit-Bits (founded 1881)—the upwardly mobile lower middle classes.6 "BOYS OF ENGLAND," said the editor in his opening "Address," "in these days of cheap education, cheap standard literature, of cadet volunteer corps, cricket-clubs, and gymnasia; in these days when even with unaided self-help you may achieve such wonders, it is your own fault if you do not grow up wise and strong men." Readers are reminded that Bunyan, Telford, Ferguson, Burns, Stephenson, Captain Cook, Milton, and Columbus were all of humble birth—"with these bright examples before you, brave boys, let your motto ever be 'Excelsior!' onwards and upwards!"7 Upward mobility also involved continual activity. There were columns for "The Young Artist," "The Young Mechanic," and "The Young Gardener." Sports pages illustrated "The Lazy Boy" and "The Active Boy," with corresponding sketches of "Decrepit at Fifty" and "Hearty at Fifty."8 The sporting columns were in fact pioneers of their kind—well-written and illustrated, and backed by news of local sporting events. In an early issue readers were offered free instruction at the Endell Street swimming baths.

If its ethos was that of Samuel Smiles' Self-Help, the paper's historical perspective was a curious mixture of Macaulay and The Penny Cyclopaedia. "What magic has transformed the howling young savage of the wilderness—the wolf-hunter of the English woods and hills—into the brave yet refined, muscular yet withal gentle boy reader of this Journal?"9 asked the author of a long series, "Progress of the British Boy," which began with the "uncouth savages" of ancient Briton. Not only was the Victorian boy better than any of his ancestors, he was superior to any other human race in the nineteenth century.

This stance was immediately struck in an opening story, "Alone in the Pirate's Lair," by Charles Stevens. The Rushtons, father and son, are homeward bound from Canton in a ship "laden with costly cargo." Crippled by lightning, they are attacked by pirates—Arabs, Negroes, "Malay scum," "Chinese, Japanese, Javans, Papuans, Pintadoes, Mestizoes," besides various "Europeans, probably Spaniards or Portuguese." The British captain addresses his tiny crew, his nordic superiority gently stressed by the "roseate beams" burnishing his "pale high brow": "My boys," he said gallantly, "no mercy can be looked for from you dingy devils, you know that. Your sole hope for deliverance rests in your own brave hands; English mettle before today has wrought wonders…."10 The "wonders" here are not enough against the polyglot horde, but the opening fight is only a preparation for the scenes in which young Jack, almost single-handed, takes on and defeats the entire band of pirates. His one help is a pirate named Ambrose who turns out, in spite of his French name and pirate guise, to be an Englishman.

This story is indebted to Pocock's perennially popular stage and toy theatre piece, The Miller and His Men (1813), which, it is relevant to note, has been credited with informing the nationalist rhetoric of Winston Churchill, with whom the play was a favourite (Speaight, p. 208). "Alone in the Pirate's Lair" was also made into a toy theatre play given away to readers of Boys of England, who were invited to reinforce their patriotic sentiments by reading the serial and by acting out the part of Jack Rushton. A young reader, "R. Purselove," had to be informed that "'Alone in the Pirate's Lair' is fiction; can you doubt it?" but he was encouraged, with a note about the hard life, "You are not too old for sea service."11

Brett's successful combination of patriotism, social mobility and violent adventures soon brought rival competitors into the field. His chief competition came from a group of writers who came together behind Charles Fox's Hogarth House, led by George and William Lawrence Emmett and E. Harcourt Burrage. In 1867 George Emmett published The Young Englishman's Journal; the next year Brett responded with Young Men of Great Britain, and his rival with Young Gentlemen of Britain. In 1869 the Emmetts produced The Young Briton, and in 1870, Sons of Britannia. The publication of new titles continued during the seventies and eighties, with established publishers such as John Dicks entering the field. The sales of those already in circulation probably increased throughout these years. In the early 1870's Boys of England was selling an estimated 250,000 copies a week.12

A central feature of these periodicals was the school story. There were tens of fictional schools created such as Bircham School, Pomona Academy, Roxburgh Grammar School, and Littlecote School. Many like Deadacre School, situated "between Gravesend and Rochester,"13 were evidently based on the author's personal recollections. In societal class they vary widely, from Charity Schools to the rival schools of Riversdale, an industrial city, described in "The Captain of the School," where "the pupils were sons of men who stood high in the world in their respective vocations and were persons of wealth."14 Some headmasters were brutal and ignorant, indebted to Dickens' character of Squeers; others were closer to Thomas Hughes' portrait of Arnold in Tom Brown's Schooldays. All schools, however, were hierarchic and anti-democratic, looking down on the common lads outside as louts and yokels. Flogging was generally accepted where justly administered as breeding respect, although abolished at "Liberty Hall," where Mr. Sunnyside lets "all the boys do much as they like, relying on their honour that they do nothing to disgrace themselves or this establishment."15 So educational debates, seen from the pupil's angle, filtered down into the unlikely area of penny boys' papers.

All these debates were to some extent indebted to Hughes' story. They excised Hughes' moralising, but took the book's empathy with a boy growing up within the tensions of the enclosed school hierarchy, the moral conflict with the bigger but ignoble bully, and the achievement of status within the school group: "It is a place, of course, where boys are fashioned into men; it is the place where your bones and sinews, too, are developed, where you first feel a sense of independence and where you first experience abilities to contest for those prizes which merit alone can secure."16 There is the strong sense which emerges also from Tom Brown's Schooldays, that the school is a microcosm of the society outside. "In many things does a school resemble the great world," wrote Bracebridge Hemyng. "It is, in fact, a small world, the reflex of the larger."17 Its life is intensely competitive and achievement-conscious, as titles such as "Who Shall be Leader?" suggest. The lower classes are there to be fought. In it the mores of Victorian capitalism are faithfully reflected.

The most popular of the school-boy heroes in this literature were Tom Wildrake and Jack Harkaway. Tom was the first to appear, in The Sons of Britannia for 14 March 1871. The school-boy episodes were by George Emmett with later adventures overseas by E. Harcourt Burrage. Tom is a figure of untiring energy. He gets sent to John Thrashley's Roxburgh Grammar School for tying a rocket to the tail of a bull; alone for a moment in the headmaster's garden he compulsively begins rolling the lawn. A correspondent in The Times Literary Supplement remembered how as a boy he ranked the story "above, even high above, Tom Brown of Rugby," citing in particular the lack of any moralising to come between reader and hero (11 April 1919). There is little story line; even the mandatory rivalry with the school bully does not occur. But beneath the exaggerated slapstick, Emmett did draw a convincing picture of an extrovert school boy basically happy even with school. There is much attractively presented school lore—never sneak, never cry out when beaten, lemon juice rubbed into the hand can split a cane. When he has some money, Wildrake goes illicitly to town with a friend and buys a miscellaneous selection of largely useless objects including a ball of string, German sausage, some penny dreadfuls, and two Pickwick cigars. They smoke the cigars and are sick, but on balance the afternoon is successful. Hughes' Tom Brown in a similar situation bought two cricket bats and balls, pictures for his study, and food for his supporters (Chapter IX). Even his pleasures are serious.

The popularity of Wildrake was met by Brett when on 19 August 1871 Boys of England began Jack Harkaway's Schooldays. It may be relevant that Harkaway appears as a name in Hughes' story—it is the Derby winner Tom picks in the school lottery—the possible association being that it comes at the most violent episode in the book, where Tom is roasted alive (Chapter VIII). There are other minor borrowings from Tom Brown, as when Jack is shied at while saying his prayers, and a major one in the central conflict between hero and bully. But the tone and content of these stories would have profoundly shocked the future author of The Manliness of Christ (1879).

The original Harkaway stories were written by Bracebridge Hemyng (1841-1901), an old Etonian and an unsuccessful barrister.18 In 1864 he wrote the section on "Prostitution in London" for the final volume of London Labour and the London Poor. About this time he used some of the same material as background for a penny issue novel, The Women of London; Disclosing the Trials and Temptations of a Woman's Life in London, published by George Vickers. Harkaway at first appears to be a break from these interests. The rough high spirits of the Wildrake stories are exaggerated into extreme slapstick. Within hours of meeting Mr. Crawcour, the Headmaster of Pomona School, Jack has filled his hat with flour and chalked "Please kick me" on his trousers. But the absurdity of such situations gives the story an almost surrealist inconsequence, which can be turned with equal suddenness to violence. Arriving at school, Jack throws a stone over a hedge and hits Mrs. Crawcour on the hand. He is summoned to her room, "a richly—furnished apartment, adorned with handsome prints, and fragrant with the perfume of summer flowers." Here a master strips him to the waist and suspends him from a ring in the wall by his bound hands. He then beats him unconscious, the Headmaster's wife looking on. She has food sent him "from her own table" and later visits him in his dormitory where he lies in bed recuperating. Harkaway confesses he is an orphan, and remarks, "If I had a mother I should like her to resemble you." He asks for and receives a maternal kiss. She leaves "with a rather sad air," her "rich silk dress making music as it went along."19

It is too simple to dismiss the appeal of the Harkaway stories as due to their sadism, if only because sadism is rarely simple. A scene such as this one has roots in the fantasies and folk-lore of public school life, and probably in aspects of flagellation within the Victorian family itself.20 The absurd jocularity and the lack of a realistic framework release Hemyng to explore areas—the notable exception is homosexuality—that Hughes could not have expressed, even if he had wanted to. The emotions controlled by school and society have instead their desired end: the bully Hunsden is shot in the arm by Harkaway, and the arm is amputated; Davis, who tries to get Jack's girl Emily, has his ear nailed to a doorpost, and when the door has slammed, "there, on the post, was the unfortunate man's ear, literally torn from his head."21

It is interesting to compare the Harkaway stories with Hemyng's thinly fictionalised recollections of his own days at Eton, Eton School Days, by an Old Etonian (1864). There a minor riot breaks out when the "Oppidans" storm the main school building to rescue one of their number captured by the "Collegers"; the violent scene is suddenly stopped and controlled by the Headmaster. In Jack Harkaway Jack leads a riot in which a master is made drunk, chained, and tarred and feathered, and a boy has a press dropped on him which crushes him to death. It is a scene Hemyng keeps at once strangely vivid and distant, wherein repressed violence moves across frontiers of reality and fantasy. The most extraordinary transposition, however, concerns the playing field. In Eton School Days the hero achieves a goal by heroically gripping the ball between his legs in a scrimmage, and crawling over the line while the opposing team tries to kick him down. When the players disentangle themselves, one boy lies with his leg fractured, and we learn of others who at other times were permanently disabled by football injuries. On a desert island, Jack sees a group of South Sea savages playing football, with what on closer inspection is found to be a freshly decapitated human head. The episodes echo each other strangely.22

Jack Harkaway went from school to a coral island, then back to Oxford, where he rowed in the winning Oxford eight, saved his University from a cricket defeat with a 153 run innings against Cambridge, and, in spite of entanglement with a gambling ring—"it is possible to be too good natured"—headed the lists of double firsts. In the rival periodical Tom Wildrake served in the Crimean War, in India, and visited Australia. In 1873 Hemyng went to the United States, where his hero went too, becoming strongly pro-American in Jack Harkaway in America (1873), Harkaway Out West (1874), and several sequels. Deprived of his paper's greatest attraction, Brett took Harkaway over himself, producing adventures for him and for his son in Cuba, Greece, Australia, and elsewhere, with differences that caused embarrassment when he came finally to pirate all the Harkaway stories into one series; an American compiler devised the explanation that Jack Harkaway had two sons, both called Jack, and neither known to the other. Another unknown writer rounded off the series with accounts of Jack Harkaway the Third in the Transvaal fighting the Boer War in Up-to-Date Boys (1899-1901).23

This is of more than incidental interest. Writing of school-boy stories in the Gem and the Magnet in the early nineteenth century, George Orwell noted that characteristically nothing changed. No one grows up; Bunter is always in the Remove. "Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever."24 In the Harkaway and Wildrake stories, everything is changeable, violent, and to be mastered. Time indeed is speeded up: thirty years see three generations of Harkaways.

Havelock Ellis, puzzled by the power of the Boys of England serials, concluded that they appealed to "the latent motor energies of developing youth" (My Life, p. 60). They also appealed to the latent motor energies of colonialism. Typically, school-boy heroes like Wildrake and Harkaway leave school to follow adventures overseas, often, like Wildrake, in the army. Here they reenact the mores and skills of school, as is implicit even in such titles as Vane St. John's Wait till I'm a Man!; or, the Play Ground and the Battle Field (1867). Pursued by savages, "Jack's training in hare and hounds at Mr. Crawcour's academy for young gentlemen, stood him in good stead now. It was a race for life."25 They were almost certainly read in the armed forces, where they would also reinforce the attitudes of those fighting "for the Empire" (Orwell, p. 96).

The racial stereotypes in this literature are therefore of particular interest. Russians are treacherous and loutish; Spaniards are cruel. The Chinese, although "wily," were treated often with a mixture of amusement and respect, perhaps out of recognition that China was also an empire. E. Harcourt Burrage created a Chinese hero, Ching Ching, a "celestial" of charm, supple strength, and strong British sympathies, who at one time rivalled Harkaway for popularity. "He am not a true born Britoner," he remarks of Banshee, a Negro, "—kick him."26 Those with dark skins are grouped in a miscellaneous category of "savages," embracing Red Indians, South Sea Islanders, African Negroes, Indians, and Australian aborigines. Generally they are treacherous and "by nature and instinct, very cruel."27 They can be killed without compunction.

Yet these attitudes can be ambiguous. There is first the curious need felt by many school-boy heroes for a Black. After Tom Brown's Schooldays, the next most common influence on these stories is perhaps Robinson Crusoe, a novel itself serialised by Brett; it is significant that a story produced by one period of mercantile colonialism should be so popular in another. The desire is first to discover a desert island, then to acquire a black servant. In Jack Harkaway after Schooldays Jack on a desert island acquires a "savage" he calls Monday; his son has one named Sunday, who further enlarges the group with a son called Sunday Afternoon. In Australia they adopt an aborigine called Tinker. Jack's relationship with Monday is at first that of the colonial bully.

"Give me a gun, you Monday!"

"Yes," replied Monday, giving him one.

"What did I tell you to call me?" asked Harkaway, severely.

"Sare, I forget, sare."

"No, it wasn't sare, either. It was sir. So don't forget another time or—"

He lifted his foot threateningly.

Monday grinned, and showed his white, gleaming teeth.

"No kickee, sare. No kickee poor Monday," he cried.28

Yet, once domesticated, Monday is fiercely protected; in a later story Monday himself attacks someone for calling him a "nigger." He frequently rescues Jack from danger, a function cheerfully served by other black servants in other stories. Again, fiction is a mirror of wider imaginative worlds.

There is also a vestigial undercurrent of the "noble savage" myth. In "Alone in the Pirate's Lair," "in spite of his abhorrence of the leading villain's hellish character, Jack could not but feel a thrill of admiration at his eminently dashing and handsome appearance."29 The Red Indians are admired by Bracebridge Hemyng, largely through his reading of Fenimore Cooper. Thus at the beginning of Jack Harkaway in America he looks at the shabby buildings of New York and compares them with the magnificent Indian culture they have usurped, and later he admires the courage of an Indian in the face of death where an Englishman had showed cowardice.

Moreover in Hemyng's stories the sense that whatever the cruelty of "primitive" peoples, it is paralleled by that of their colonisers. Watching an innocent Indian girl burnt alive as a sacrifice to the gods, the trapper Cabuchon remarks, "even this is no worse than the stabbing and cutting affrays we constantly read about among civilised people."30 It is here, if anywhere, that we find an underlying moral to the apparent anarchy of Hemyng's stories. Nearly a century before William Golding wrote his famous counter to Ballantine's Coral Island in The Lord of the Flies, showing a group of school children reverting in natural surroundings to the bestial, Hemyng made the same point in Jack Harkaway After Schooldays. If the island savages eat their victim alive, bit by bit, Hunsden buries Jack up to the neck in hot sand and leaves him to die, while Jack makes the islanders pierce and tattoo Hunsden from head to foot with sharp fish bones. Hemyng's studies of prostitution and his school-boy fantasies lead to the same point: society is exploitative and brutal. It was perhaps this rather than the more obvious excesses that led the respectable Victorian parent instinctively to censor Harkaway. Tales in the acceptable Boy's Own Paper were also violent and cruel, but there was no questioning of the values of God and British civilization.

The Boy's Own Paper was one of a group of better-class boys' papers, including G. A. Henty's The Union Jack (1800-83), which commanded writers of the stature of Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, Henty and Robert Louis Stevenson, appearing in the latter decades of the century. They emerged partly to counteract the penny serials of Brett and Hogarth House, but they were also a reflection of improving standards of education and living. Brett's Boys of England itself abandoned the ethos of aspiring self-help, and Brett produced papers with a better class image, such as Boys of the Empire (1888-93). He also introduced a more relaxed, indeed flippant, tone, with his successful Boy's Comic Journal (1883-93), reflecting another aspect of the changing social ethos. But that is another study. For a brief period of time, however, Tom Brown's heirs reflected the violence and brutality of an expanding empire. "The brave yet refined, muscular yet withal gentle boy reader" carried within himself and his reading an ambiguous inheritance.


  1. Helen Martin, "Nationalism in Children's Literature," Library Quarterly, VI (1936), 403-418; see also J. Harvey Darton, Children's Books in England (1932; rpt. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1958).
  2. R. Rollington, A Brief History of Boys' Journals (Leicester: H. Simpson, 1913), p. 28. On Brett, see Frederic Boase, Modern English Biography (1892; rpt. London: Frank Cass, 1965); F. Jay, Peeps into the Past, etc. (London: Spare Moments Office, 1918-21), pp. 47, 168; Arthur E. Waite, "Byways of Periodical Literature," Walford's Antiquarian, XII (1887), 65-74; "G. M.," "A Visit to Edwin J. Brett," Sala's Journal (29 Feb. 1894), pp. 184-186; F. Hitchman, "Penny Fiction," Q.R., 171 (1890), 155-156.
  3. "A Visit to Brett," p. 186; Boys of England, II (16 Nov. 1867), 416.
  4. Havelock Ellis, My Life (1939; rpt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), p. 60.
  5. Boys of England, II (13 July 1867), 128.
  6. Frances Williams, Dangerous Estate (London: Arrow Books, 1959), p. 116.
  7. Boys of England, I (27 Nov. 1866), 16.
  8. George Speaight, "Training for Health," Juvenile Drama (London: Macdonald, 1946), p. 208.
  9. Boys of England, I (27 Nov. 1866), 5.
  10. Boys of England, I (27 Nov. 1866), 6.
  11. Speaight, "Correspondence," p. 208.
  12. F. Jay, "The Personalia of the 'Penny Dreadful,'" Vanity Fair, II (1926), 122; for a fuller bibliography see Jay, Peeps into the Past; Sheila A. Egoff, Children's Periodicals of the Nineteenth Century (London: Library Association, 1951).
  13. Jack Easy's Schooldays (London: Brett, ca. 1880). The school-boy story also subsumed the historical romance (as in Young Hopeful's Schooldays [London: Brett, n.d.], which is set in Regency days) and literary classics (as in Young Pickwick's Schooldays [London: Brett, n.d.]).
  14. Boys of England, II (20 July 1867), 131.
  15. "Dick Dareall's Schooldays," Our Boy's Journal, I (4 Oct. 1876), 82.
  16. Boys of England, I (1 Jan. 1867), 86.
  17. Boys of England, X (2 Sept. 1871), 226.
  18. Albert Johannsen, The House of Beadle and Adams (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950-62), II, 138-139; Bookseller (11 Oct. 1901), 777; Jay, Peeps, p. 49.
  19. Boys of England, X (9 Sept. 1871), 243-244.
  20. Boys of England, XII (17 Feb. 1880) 263. See also the debates on parents beating children in Beeton's Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine (MS 1860-79), some volumes of which are restricted as pornography in the British Museum.
  21. Boys of England, X (4 Nov. 1871), 371.
  22. Eton School Days (1864 and 1870), p. 266; Jack Harkaway after Schooldays (1872), p. 53.
  23. The bibliography of Jack Harkaway stories is complicated by various pirated editions, changed titles, and lack of dates. Working where possible from first periodical appearance, a check-list of titles would appear to be:

    (1) By Hemyng: Jack Harkaway's Schooldays (1871), Jack Harkaway after Schooldays (1872), Jack Harkaway at Oxford (1872), Jack Harkaway in America (1873), Jack Harkaway Out West (1874), Jack Harkaway among the Indians (1874), Jack Harkaway and His Friends in Search of the Mountain of Gold (1875), Jack Harkaway on the Prairie (1876), Jack Harkaway in Search of His Father (1877?), Jack Harkaway among the Pirates (1878), Jack Harkaway in the Haunt of the Pirates; or, the Last of the Pirates (1879) (Hunsden is crucified over slowly growing bamboos).

    (2) By Brett: Jack Harkaway among the Brigands (1873), Jack Harkaway and His Son's Adventures Around the World (1874), Young Jack Harkaway and His Boy Tinker (1876).

    (3) Anonymous: Jack Harkaway the Third (1893), Jack Harkaway in the Life Guards (1897), Jack Harkaway in the Transvaal (1899), Jack Harkaway's War Scouts (1901).

  24. George Orwell, "Boys' Weeklies," A Collection of Essays (London: Secker and Warburg, 1961), p. 103.
  25. Boys of England, XII (1874), 2.
  26. E. Harcourt Burrage, Daring Ching Ching (ca. 1889); many of the Ching Ching stories appeared first in Ching Ching's Own (1888-1893). Ching Ching was based on a Chinaman advertising tea in the region of Fleet Street; see Vanity Fair, II (June 1926), 149.
  27. Sons of Britannia, III (1971), 675.
  28. Jack Harkaway after Schooldays (London: Brett, 1878), p. 100.
  29. Boys of England, I (4 Dec. 1866), 19.
  30. Hemyng, Jack Harkaway on the Prairie (London: Hogarth House, n.d.), p. 32.

John T. Dizer (essay date April 2000)

SOURCE: Dizer, John T. "Stratemeyer and His Villains." Dime Novel Round-Up 69, no. 2 (April 2000): 48-59.

[In the following essay, Dizer analyzes penny dreadful author Edward Stratemeyer's treatment of villainy in his works, arguing that "Stratemeyer obviously used villainy to create and sustain action."]

Countless writers have eulogized our juvenile heroes; reams and reams of paper have been sacrificed in their praise. All properly instructed young people know of the virtues and heroism of the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. But few stop to think of the villains; of their lives of quiet desperation, wasted just so that heroes may prove their heroism. For we all know that one can only prove heroism by conquering villainy. But what about the poor villains? Destined to be conquered by our heroes, destined to be forgotten and despised, destined for infamy, odium and obloquy and finally destined for prison and a pauper's grave; theirs is not a happy life. And all this just to provide a foil for our heroes. Could it be said that villainy deserves better? I am sure the villains think so. At least we can and should examine villainy using a series of case studies and drawing what conclusions the evidence offers.

Now, as in any scientific analysis we must define our terms and provide a frame of reference for our discussion. A true villain is a criminal, evildoer, low-life and malefactor. Also a rapscallion, reprobate and wretch according to Roget. It usually takes him years of practice, from childhood into adulthood, to qualify. He is beyond redemption and neither he nor the reader of his exploits wants or expects him to reform. Outstanding examples of adult villains are the candidates in our recent political campaign, although in all fairness a few of them are not positively identified as villains. Our type of series book villain tends to be more of a youthful heel, libertine, miscreant or especially an antihero, again using descriptions from Roget. It may be that with age, experience and treachery full villainhood may emerge but reformation and redemption are always possible.

Villainy, or more accurately the triumph of virtue over villainy, is essential to the Rover Boys, the Motor Boys, Dave Porter, Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys and of course to successful heroism in general. This paper will focus on villainy, both adult and juvenile, and a small amount of redemption as well, as depicted in selected works by Mr. Edward Stratemeyer, especially the adventures of the Rover Boys. Since we know that every hero must have one or more villains to conquer, a truth of which Stratemeyer was acutely conscious, we actually have a plethora of villains for our study but hope the gentle reader will accept the following examples as representative. (The original intent of this study was to include selected villains from a large number of Stratemeyer's own writings as well as antiheroes from such Garis-written Syndicate series as The Motor Boys and Tom Swift. This proved impossible because of the multitude of both books and villains in our statistical population. Noddy Nixon and Andy Foger will just have to wait.) As I have noted in various books and articles, Stratemeyer personally wrote in the neighborhood of 160 books for boys. Although I am very fond of the books I do admit that there is a certain sameness in the villainy. I will, therefore, use examples from his earliest writings, from three early popular series and finally from his long-running and very popular Rover Boys series. The Rover Boys canon is often considered to consist of three parts. The Putnam Hall series, the first generation Rover Boys series and the second generation of Rover Boys. Our study emphasizes almost exclusively the first generation Rovers and touches only tangentially on the other two series.

Our first example of villainy appears in the story paper Our American Boys, Vol. 1, No. 1, January, 1883. The story was "Harry's Trial" and the author was "Ed. Ward" or Edward Stratemeyer. Harry Melville, the hero, had the usual frank and pleasant face of any normal 15 year old hero. Mr. Olward, the head clerk and head villain was "a selfish, narrow-minded man, willing to take every possible advantage of a fellow creature." He "often tried to find fault and growled just because there was no real cause for growling." [sic] More to the point, he swapped Harry a counterfeit bill for good money and tried to lie out of it, "breaking out in a coarse way that exhibited his true nature." Stratemeyer, it appears, felt his true nature was not particularly admirable and of course he was exposed and fired. Stratemeyer does note that Mr. Olward "wanted his son, Tom, to have the place Harry now occupied …" so thinking for this adult villain, perhaps it was only reasonable to use any means at his command to eliminate our hero. At the end both the boy and his dad are out of work and a villain's lot is not a happy one.

Stratemeyer's first four hard cover books, all reprints of Golden Argosy serials, appeared in 1894 and 1895. Richard Dare's Venture (Merriam, 1894) is reasonably representative. In this book Earle Norris, a juvenile delinquent, was Richard Dare's nemesis. He smoked "strong-looking cigars." (p. 148) He took Richard to the Laurel club where, "The air was heavy with tobacco smoke, and the fumes of liquor were not wanting." (p. 151) Even worse, "'They are gambling!' [Richard] thought, with something like horror. 'I wish I was out of it.'" (p. 151) Of course Earle gets Richard fired but he doesn't stay fired. It appears that "Goods are missing from several departments …" and Earle with possibly excessive entrepreneurship has been making a quick buck so he gets fired for it. Richard ends up owning half the business and Earle drops out of sight.

Stratemeyer's treatment of villainy did not change appreciably in his books written during the late 1890s or for that matter during the rest of his writing career. Looking at the matter objectively, why should it? A hero is a hero and a villain is a villain and always the twain shall meet. As our next example we might take a quick look at Shorthand Tom Swift who first appeared in the boys' magazine Good News in 1894, became one of the 12 Bound to Win hard-cover heroes in 1897 and whose story was continually in print into the 1930s. Tom's personal villains were Lew Jackson who was a boy and a "big bully," (p. 7) but especially Samuel Newton, an adult villain as well as an importer who, among other things, had kept Tom out "of thousands of dollars that was left to him by his uncle…." [sic] (p. 258) Such theft was so-cially unacceptable to Stratemeyer and in due course of time Newton was "sentenced to several years of imprisonment, and the money he had stolen was restored…. Lew Jackson, the boy, has turned over a new leaf, and is now doing well as clerk in a broker's office." (p. 259) Unfortunately this seems to hint, even at this early date, at Stratemeyer's unfortunate propensity for the reformation of his villains.

Stratemeyer's Old Glory series of six volumes dates from 1898 to 1901 and was tremendously popular at the time. Villainy is subservient to the war. This does happen in series books although usually, in addition to the war activities, there are such active villains as saboteurs, spies and traitors to keep the heroes occupied. In Under Dewey at Manila, Larry Russell, obviously a classic hero, is described as "a youth of sixteen, tall, broad-shouldered, and of good weight" and that "… his handsome, manly face was thoroughly tanned by constant exposure to the sun." (p. 11) Only standard adult villains appear in this book and it is hard to sympathize with them, even for me. Larry's first villain was his step-uncle, the "harsh and dictatorial Job Dowling, a man who thought of nothing but to make money and save it." (p. 12) His miserly habits and physical abuse drove Larry and his brothers from home and into the plot of the story, such as it was. The major villain was one Olan Oleson, a Norwegian sailor described as having "heavy weight and natural awkwardness" and having a swarthy face. (p. 31) He had no connection with the war and not that much with the plot but he was obviously a prime candidate for villain. He had previously robbed Larry of his money and later tried to force him overboard during a storm. He was also referred to as a "wicked-minded Norwegian" "plotting continually to revenge himself" which the "infuriated rascal" did by forcing "the alarmed boy over the rail" and into the China sea. (p. 139) (Larry, the alarmed boy, survived and fought gallantly with Dewey at Manila, in case you are concerned.) Meanwhile, Oleson had been locked up for another "atrocious assault. He is in prison now, and likely to stay there for some time to come." (p. 279) This guy was really a nogood with no discernible virtues. He is so thoroughly despicable that he is a little extreme, even for a confirmed adult villain. He doesn't seem to be a typical Stratemeyer villain. We must remember that he is a Norwegian and a foreigner which probably explains it.

We have seen so far that Stratemeyer's villains often showed, in addition to attempted murder, such undesirable habits (for that time) as smoking, drinking, gambling and theft. They also showed impressive initiative in interpersonal relations but we should note that in all cases they were thwarted, rendered jobless or suffered demeaning retribution for their acts. You wonder why they bothered. No one now remembers either the names or the sad fate of these unfortunate scoundrels. But everyone knows, or did in my generation, Dan Baxter and Josiah Crabtree: heroic villains of the Rover Boys series. I call them heroic villains because they were villains on a heroic scale. It has been said that if you wish to be a villain, be the best villain you can and these villains did their best.

Stratemeyer introduced probably his finest assortment of both youthful and adult villains in the Rover Boys and Putnam Hall series. The numerous altercations between the Rover Boys (Dick, fun-loving Tom and Sam), Dan Baxter and Josiah Crabtree were only a part of the villainous activity. It all started in 1899 when the Rovers entered Putnam Hall. Putnam Hall is in Seneca County, New York, on the western side of Cayuga Lake. Dan and Josiah were apparently getting along more or less peacefully until the Rovers came onto the scene.

But I should digress for a bit. Another Dan Baxter is also the villain of an earlier Stratemeyer-controlled book. The Luck of a Castaway was written by "Mark Marline" and published by Mershon in 1900. The story, however, apparently first appeared in Young Sports of America as a serial starting on October 5, 1895, when Stratemeyer was editor of the magazine. I say apparently, since no textual comparison has been made. Two Marline titles were published by Mershon in 1900 and both appear to have come from this story paper. It seems obvious that Stratemeyer was responsible for the story though whether he wrote it is an open question. I wouldn't call it a bad story. It isn't bad; it is terrible. The most interesting point is that another villainous Dan Baxter, also apparently connected with Edward Stratemeyer, appeared in print in 1895, four years before the infamous Dan Baxter of the Rover Boys series. Dan Baxter the first went insane and was later burned at the stake by savages. "Soon Dan Baxter's cries ceased. He was dead, and had paid the full penalty of his various crimes." (p. 213) The book notes that "He was a bully and brute of the first order," (p. 2) he had a "villainous countenance," (p 8) he was "treacherous," (p. 37) and he was "insolent," (p. 69) to mention some of his qualities. He doesn't seem much different from Olan Oleson. Dan was definitely a social misfit and it is doubtful if he was missed except by Stratemeyer who brought him back to life.

The Rover Boys first met Dan Baxter the second on the steamer from Ithaca to Cedarville. All were traveling to Putnam Hall. The time, as noted above, was 1899. To complicate the time line Dan also appeared later (but earlier) in The Putnam Hall Cadets, a"… new series, which will tell of many things that happened at the famous seat of learning from the time it was first opened to the present day." (p. v) I say "later" because Cadets was published, we believe, in 1905 though the copyright date is 1901 and "earlier" because Putnam Hall was apparently founded about 1879. (The Rover Boys at School p. 39) Dan seems to have been a very slow learner with apparently both arrested development and many years of juvenile delinquency behind him when he met the Rovers. Dan was obviously a bit of a cad at least in Stratemeyer's opinion. He was "a youth of seventeen." He was "large and bold-looking, and it was easy to see that there was a good deal of the bully about him. He was smoking a cigarette…." He was also a masher and forced his unwanted attentions on Dora Stanhope and the Laning girls until the Rover Boys made him back off. "'He's a bad egg,' was Tom's comment, but how thoroughly bad the Rover boys were still to learn." (pp. 50, 52) And learn they did, in this and many following books.

Upon arrival at Putnam Hall fun-loving Tom Rover exploded a large firecracker (left over from scaring the dickens out of the unsociable station master of Oak Run) and promptly had a run-in with Josiah Crabtree, first assistant to Captain Victor Putnam. Putnam ran a tight ship but showed lousy judgment in hiring faculty. Why he kept Josiah all the years he did is a major mystery. Stratemeyer may have felt the same way, for in The Putnam Hall Mystery he has Captain Putnam comment, "He understood Josiah Crabtree's dictatorial manner perfectly, and he only retained the man because of his unusual ability as a teacher." (p. 57) Qualified faculty really shouldn't be that hard to find. Crabtree was one of the original 1879 faculty of Putnam Hall and "was a morose individual, with a very exalted opinion of himself." (The Putnam Hall Cadets p. 8) He proved to be an adult villain of the first water and also the second water and a worthy protagonist. He was the first major adult villain of the Rover Boys series but not, however, the first adult villain. That honor fell to Buddy Girk, a burly tramp with dirty hands who stole Dick Rover's good watch. Meanwhile, back at Putnam Hall, Dick had run across Buddy Girk and another undesirable who turns out to be Arnold Baxter, father of Dan and a highly worthy adult villain. Dan Baxter, "Mumps" (John Fenwick—sneak, tattle-tale and toady) and six other of the bully's cronies roomed next to the Rovers and their chums. Trouble brewed when Dan slapped Dick Rover and Dick floored "the bully of Putnam Hall" with a right to the nose. The following Saturday Dan, who was "several inches taller and at least 15 pound heavier" than Dick and who also had "a sneer upon his coarse face," had a "mill" to settle things. (The Rover Boys at School p. 108) Dan had a stone in each hand which Dick's friends pointed out and removed and Dan was shortly flattened by Dick Rover, and quite logically became "… their bitter enemy in secret as we shall learn in this and other volumes." (p. 117)

The Rovers now have two major and one minor adult villains as well as a major juvenile villain. All juvenile villains have numerous cronies and toadies. All the villains help to maintain the action. It must have been frustrating for poor Dan, who had run things so long at the Hall, to have three young upstarts topple him. We cannot admire his actions, however, at least as described by the obviously prejudiced Mr. Stratemeyer. In short order Dan bet against Putnam Hall (the cad), "… and the bully became more unpopular than ever." (p. 141) He went into a saloon to replenish his coffers from his Dad. It was necessary because it just so happened that his dad and his money were in the saloon. "Why, it's against the regulations to enter a drinking place," remarked Sam. Dan's actions came as a shock to the Rovers. Not for hitting up old Dad for cash but for doing it in a saloon. In addition it was discovered that dear old Dad, Arnold Baxter, was a friend of the thievish Buddy Girk. Naturally Dick had to squeal to Captain Putnam and Dan was bounced or would have been if he hadn't taken off for parts unknown leaving a dramatic note for the good Captain which started with "Good-by to Putnam Hall forever…."(p. 181) Arnold Baxter was also found to be an enemy of the Rovers' father and had shot him (Anderson Rover) in the arm in times past. Dan showed his filial love and respect by stealing two hundred dollars from his father and running off to Chicago. In later action Arnold attempted to throw Dick Rover off a train but was instead thrown off himself. "The rascal was found at the foot of the gully, a leg and several ribs broken and otherwise bruised." (p. 247) Meanwhile Buddy Girk had been apprehended and put in jail and, with the pawn ticket found in Buddy's vest pocket, Dick Rover's precious watch was redeemed. In fact Dick used Buddy's money, also found on his person, to recover his watch. A nice touch and typical Stratemeyer.

The Rovers also upset the plans of Josiah Crabtree who was attempting to hypnotize, court and marry the widow Stanhope, mother of the lovely Dora. They were responsible for a runaway accident in which Mrs. Stanhope received a broken rib and arm and in which Josiah ended up among some tree branches. In addition, on the next day Captain Putnam finally fired Josiah. Everyone was pleased except Dan. "Strange to say, a strong friendship bad sprung up between the bully and the hot-tempered school teacher." (p. 136) To get Josiah away from the Stanhopes, the Rovers fabricated a job offer for the teacher which took him to Chicago for a time. Then fun-loving Tom put live crabs in Crabtree's bed in an Ithaca hotel and as a result of the subsequent activity the hotel manager bounced Josiah from the hotel—All is fair in love, war and the Rover Boys. "Mumps," the sneak and toady, bought votes to get elected Second Lieutenant (Dick Rover won, of course) so the boys taught "Mumps" a lesson with doctored root beer and candied fruit. They frightened him so badly that the poor kid announced "… he was going to leave Putnam Hall never to return." (p. 241) And he left, never to return. You might wonder how Captain Putnam felt about the Rovers scaring off his paying students but it didn't seem to bother him. You would also think that the Rovers would be running out of enemies but it never happens.

And that was just volume one of the Rover Boys. In volume two, The Rover Boys on the Ocean, although Josiah, Dan and "Mumps" have left Putnam Hall, they all play prominent parts. Both Arnold Baxter, whom we left in the hospital in Ithaca, and Buddy Girk are heavily involved in the action. Stratemeyer believed in getting his money's worth out of his villains. Dan Baxter is smitten with Dora Stanhope and Josiah thinks if they kidnap Dora he may have a better chance at marrying Dora's mother. Josiah's reasoning seems faulty but he is strongly attracted to the Stanhope widow and/or her fortune. Dan and "Mumps," working for Josiah Crabtree, kidnap Dora, take her to Albany, put her on a yacht and head down the Hudson river with the Rovers in hot pursuit. They meet Arnold Baxter and Buddy Girk who have robbed a firm of brokers and bankers of over $65,000. All the villains, with the loot from the robbery, head down the river for Searock on the New Jersey coast. The Rovers have messed things up as they generally seem to do but stick with the chase and of course overcome the Baxters and company. Arnold is shot in the leg, and lay "… where he had fallen, moaning piteously…." Danhas hurt his back, Buddy Girk is in irons, Dora is rescued and the Rovers have the loot. "Mumps" suffers pangs of remorse and says, "'If I ever get out of this, you can wager I'll turn over a new leaf and cut Dan Baxter dead.'" (p. 229) As well he might. Most of the villains go to jail. Arnold Baxter goes back to the hospital and a warrant is put out for Josiah Crabtree who has disappeared. The Rovers return the loot and receive a handsome reward. So after all the villains' efforts Dora is home safe and Dan's chances with her are about zero. Crabtree's chances with Dora's mother are even less and Arnold Baxter has another bad leg. "Mumps" reforms and testifies against his former friends and "… all were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment." No wonder the Baxters, Crabtree et al were annoyed with the Rovers.

Digressing again I am assuming that we are having our usual problem of holding the reader's interest. If we analyzed in detail the rest of the Rover Boys books our descriptions of villainy could go on forever. Some may think they do anyway. So I will condense and summarize.

No matter where the Rovers roved, Africa, out West, on the Great Lakes, in the Adirondacks, on a ship headed to Australia and on and on they kept running into one or more of the Baxter/Crabtree crowd. If it was annoying to the Rovers just imagine how the others must have felt. They spent their money to outwit the Rovers and always lost out. Meanwhile back at Putnam Hall, Crabtree had been fired and there was a need for another adult villain. Captain Putnam solved this lack with his usual incompetence in attracting good faculty. Crabtree's replacement, one Jasper Grindle, was dictatorial and harsh, high strung, passionate and given to strange fits of anger as well as being a miser. After he, too, was fired through the efforts of the Rovers, he joined forces with Dan Baxter who apparently had an affinity for teachers if not education. After a horrible outing with Dan in the Adirondacks, he and Dan were foiled (of course) in their attempt to find a buried treasure which the Rovers had found first.

To make up for the shortage of juvenile offenders at Putnam Hall, Lew Flapp, Augustus Render, Rockley and Jackson all matriculated and, through the usual altercations with and machinations by the Rover Boys, plus a considerable amount of ill-advised youthful romping on their part, were dismissed from school but not from the later action. As Captain Putnam said virtuously, "'I will not allow such a boy as you [Lew Flapp] to mingle longer with the rest of my pupils.'" Their places at Putnam Hall were taken by Tad Sobber and Nick Pell and later at Brill College by Jerry Koswell, Dudd Flockley and Bart Larkspur. And so it went for book after book for both youthful and adult villains but especially for the Baxters. The Baxters proposed but the Rovers disposed.

Stratemeyer notes that "He [Arnold Baxter] was a well-educated fellow, but cruel and unprincipled to the last degree, and one who would hesitate at nothing in order to accomplish his purpose." (The Rover Boys on the Great Lakes p. 24) Even hesitating at nothing wasn't enough for success but one certainly cannot fault the Baxters and the others for a lack of initiative. We notice among their activities kidnapping, attempted murder, theft, sabotage, doping, tar and feathering, blackmail, bribery, forced marriage, mugging and, of course smoking, drinking, lying, bothering girls and, above all, at least for the younger set, bullying. They gave it the old college try but the Rovers were too much for them.

Stratemeyer's pejorative descriptions of the villains and their actions make it clear to the gentle reader just whom to boo and hiss. The villains' names are coupled with such descriptions as rascals, infamous bullies, cowards, sneaks and sallow little toadies. They whine, bluster, howl, rave, smile blandly, turn sickly green or have a sickly smile. Or their faces may beam sarcastically. There is no question but what they are villains. Not so for the heroes. As Captain Putnam says, "They are a great trio, those Rover boys. One cannot help but love them, in spite of their tricks and occasional wrong-doing." Some of the stunts that Tom, the fun-loving Rover, pulled were worthy of any qualified juvenile villain but were here considered just mischief from a spirited lad.

The villains always gave it their best shot but nothing worked out for them. In The Rover Boys on Land and Sea Dan Baxter was "now a homeless wanderer on the face of the earth." (p. 3) Arnold Baxter spent more time in prison or the hospital than he had planned to. The villains suffered retribution after retribution. There was little else to try except to reform. So they tried it. Both Dan and his father reformed. When you consider some of the pranks perpetrated by the Baxters, kidnapping, attempted murder, theft and so on, it would appear these villains were beyond redemption. We know, though, that for Stratemeyer anything was possible. Arnold Baxter, although the more accomplished villain, was the first to reform. This transformation happened in The Rover Boys in Camp (1904), volume 8. Arnold Baxter had escaped from the prison hospital and robbed and almost killed Anderson Rover. (He was convinced, possibly with reason, that Anderson had swindled him out of his gold mine.) He was holed up with his son Dan in a cottage near Bass Lake, waiting to catch a ship to Cape Town, when Dick stumbled across them. Dick exhibited the usual Rover stupidity in such situations and was captured. Arnold, however, wasn't in the greatest shape. "Age was beginning to tell upon him and he was by no means the man he was when introduced to the Rovers years before." (p. 247) When the cottage burned down Dick nobly saved Arnold's life and Arnold announced his reformation. "'I believe the man really intends to reform,' said Anderson Rover afterwards. 'But he is in a bad condition physically and may die before his term of imprisonment is at an end.'" "'I hope he lives,' said Sam. 'I'd like to see him lead an upright, honest life.'" How unbearably sweet. The Rovers, naturally, can afford to be magnanimous. It seems to me more like a top-notch villain gone wrong.

Dan didn't yet share in the reformation trend. He skipped town and persisted in his nefarious activities throughout The Rover Boys in Southern Waters, volume eleven, published in 1907. He helped steal the Rovers' houseboat as well as abduct two of the Rover girl friends, then helped steal a launch but drew the line at poisoning the Rovers. On page 207 he fell apart. As Dick Rover said later, "… [Dan] you've done some pretty mean and desperate things." And Dan responded with a melodramatic appeal, "I don't know why I did them, Dick—honestly I don't. Lots of times I knew you and your brothers were right and I was wrong. But the Old Nick got in me and I—well, you know how I acted. Now I'm an outcast—nobody decent wants to have anything to do with me." He reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge, another good villain who went bad. Dan went from bad to worse, as far as villainy is concerned, saving Dick's life and attacking his fellow villains. The outcome was that "In the end nobody prosecuted Dan Baxter, and he was allowed to go his own way." (p. 243) Not only that but the Rovers bankrolled him for a fresh start. A little sickening. It reminds me of Dorothy Parker's succinct review of a saccharine children's book, "Constant reader fwowed up."

In later books of the series Dan is useless as a villain. He reforms unbelievably, lives with dear old Dad, makes "thirty dollars and all expenses" and visits the Rovers to give them beautiful diamond stickpins. (The Rover Boys at College pp. 112, 113) "'He is going to make a fine business man, after all,' returned Dick." (p. 115) What finer accolade could one bestow? In the second Rover Boys series Dan is married and has a son, Walter Baxter. It is noted in The Rover Boys at Colby Hall that "… Dan Baxter has reformed and is now a first-class businessman and is quite prosperous." (p. 41) In fact he sends his son to Colby Hall where he can mingle with the next generation of the Rovers. What a waste of villainy. "[Walter] Baxter is very hot-tempered and willing to fight almost any time," but a nice kid and on the football team. (p. 49)

As to poor old Josiah Crabtree, his career ruined, thwarted in his passion for the widow Stanhope and imprisoned for his misdeeds, nothing goes well for him. In The Rover Boys on the Farm, volume twelve, from 1908, he is reported as being out of prison and in Canada. He is next heard of in New York City, on crutches and down and out. "'He said he had received a tentative offer of a position in a boys' school in Maine,' answered Nellie, 'but he did not know whether he was going to take it or not. My idea is that he is too poor to even go to Maine. And he had on such an old, rusty, black suit!'" (The Rover Boys in Business pp. 260, 261) The Rovers gave him $50 and a new outfit of clothing and Crabtree left to teach in Maine. What a comedown for an over-qualified villain.

Our discussion has probably told you almost as much about the Rovers and their villains as you wish to know. We might wind up the Rovers with an analysis of the final book of the original Rover Boys series, The Rover Boys on a Tour, number twenty in the series, published in 1916. As the French say, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Villainy hasn't changed appreciably. Dick and Tom are both married and in business with their Dad in New York City. Sam Rover is finishing at Brill College. Sam, incidentally, is the only Rover to graduate from college and at the top of his class at that. There is sufficient villainy to sustain the action in Tour but mainly adult villainy. Stratemeyer notes [the Rovers] "had also made several [juvenile] enemies, but these had for the time being left Brill." (p. 220) This slowed things down but not much, even though the Baxters and Josiah Crabtree were now out of the picture. The adult villains were Belright Fogg who was a "rascally lawyer," Blackie Crowden who stuttered badly and was a lazy thief, and finally Chester Waltham a young millionaire who had too much money and not enough couth. (pp. 82, 134) Fogg was a "shyster lawyer" and trouble-maker in general who had lost his job with the railroad several books back, partly because of the Rovers. Early in the book he had encouraged Blackie Crowden to steal $4,000 from Songbird Powell, one of the Rovers' chums. It took the rest of the book to get the money back. When finally cornered, Blackie said, "I ain't a bad man naturally, even though I do drink and gamble a little. If it hadn't been for a lawyer named Belright Fogg I would never have robbed the young man." (p. 311) The Rovers, after putting up with villainy for 17 years and 20 books were heartless, "… the boys, while sympathizing with him, had thought it best to let the law take its course." (p. 314) Other than giving up the $300 he had received from Crowden, the shyster lawyer Fogg apparently suffered no retribution. This also we can assume is life as it is. The spoiled young millionaire, just possibly because the Rovers had saved his life, withdrew his opposition to The Rover Company enterprises. So there we have it. Sam married Grace and Songbird Powell married Minnie. This is what used to happen in the halcyon days in upstate New York though it took a long, long time to get everyone married off. The Rover Company "is doing remarkably well and all of the Rovers are reported to be wealthy." (pp. 323-324) Crowden with his stuttering, drinking and gambling problems and tendency to theft paid the legal penalty. The lawyer, of course did not. The future of the young millionaire is unknown. Sic Semper Villainy.

And now it is time for conclusions. We have observed that in Stratemeyer's books, for every hero there is always one or more anti-hero or villain. The juvenile villains are not always painted with as dark a brush as the adult villains though, in the eyes of Edward Stratemeyer, both types seem to have accumulated a number of anti-social traits. These traits are apparently sometimes reversible. The villains are often enterprising, effective and rather impressive even in their inevitable defeat. And we might note with some satisfaction that it is possible for some of Stratemeyer's villains, regardless of the nature of their crimes, eventually to get a piece of the action even though they have to reform to do it. Stratemeyer obviously used villainy to create and sustain action. After all, if all male children grew up in a halcyon atmosphere with no villains in the offing and no evil forces against which they could struggle in order to form and develop their character, theirs would be a tranquil and placid life. Also, quite probably, an insipid life. And a life not worth writing about and where would that have left Edward Stratemeyer? So in all of his books we have one or more villains or, if you prefer, antiheroes. We can also note the presence of secondary villains; the toadies, the sneaks and hanger-ons who would like to follow in the footsteps of the primary villain, all apparently for the purpose of thwarting the noble purposes of the juvenile heroes. In reality, of course, all the villains are the carborundum against which the heroes hone their manly attributes. And if the antiheroes die, are removed from the scene or even perchance reform, what then? They are replaced, indeed they have to be replaced by new antiheroes to keep things going. A few juvenile villains reform. The adult villains invariably suffer for their misdeeds, spend time in prison or the hospital and eventually, with a few exceptions, disappear from the scene. Arnold Baxter is apparently living quietly with his son and Josiah Crabtree is teaching at a boys' school in Maine. He may have preferred prison. Isn't it a shame our politicians can't suffer the same fate as Stratemeyer's villains?



Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. "Penny Dreadful." In Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, pp. 399-401. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Offers a critical assessment of the publishing history of the penny dreadful.

Dizer, John T. "Howard R. Garis and His Juvenile Villains." Dime Novel Round-Up 71, no. 1 (February 2002): 3-14.

Examines the depiction of villains and rogues in the various works of mass-market writer Howard R. Garis.

Fleischmann, Ruth. "Brinsley MacNamara's Penny Dreadful." Éire-Ireland 18, no. 2 (summer 1983): 52-74.

Attempts to define Irish writer Brinsley MacNamara's The Valley of the Squinting Windows as a classic penny dreadful.

Springhall, John. "'Pernicious Reading'? 'The Penny Dreadful' as Scapegoat for Late-Victorian Juvenile Crime." Victorian Periodical Review 27, no. 4 (winter 1994): 326-49.

Relates how the penny dreadful was believed to influence children towards criminal activity.

——. "The Dime Novel as Scapegoat for Juvenile Crime: Anthony Comstock's Campaign to Suppress the 'Half-Dime' Western of the 1880s." Dime Novel Round-Up 63, no. 4 (August 1994): 63-70.

Describes how moral authority figure Anthony Comstock attempted to follow the pattern set by the Victorian accusations against the penny dreadful by making the same claims against the American half-dime western.

——. "'Penny Dreadful' Panic (I): Their Readers, Publishing and Content." In Youth, Popular Culture, and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830-1996, pp. 38-70. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Presents a historical and critical analysis of the penny dreadful.

——. "Jack Sheppard in Victorian Popular Culture." In Youth, Popular Culture, and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830-1996, pp. 163-68. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Offers an overview of the representation of ubiquitous penny dreadful character Jack Sheppard in Victorian popular culture.

Tolle, Geoffrey. "When Dick Turpin Rode Again: A Look at the Dick Turpin Literary Series." Dime Novel Round-Up 68, no. 5 (October 1999): 163-73.

Review of the various tales of Dick Turpin, a highwayman serialized in penny dreadfuls.

Turner, E. S. "The Demon Barber." In Boys Will Be Boys: The Story of Sweeney Todd, Deadwood Dick, Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter, Dick Barton, et. al., pp. 37-47. London, England: Michael Joseph, 1948.

Historical reflection on how the penny dreadful story of Sweeney Todd has been refashioned through the years.

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