by G.W.M.Reynolds

Foreword by Lee Jackson

Welcome to The Mysteries of London, one of the most famous 'penny bloods' (cheap sensational serials, published weekly, mass produced for working class readers, throughout the Victoria era). Best-sellers of their day — massively more so than now-famous Victorian novels, whose serial and novel formats were far too expensive for the working classes —  Victorian moralists raged against these disreputable books, in much the same way that comics and video games have been condemned by latter-day guardians of law and order. Here's James Greenwood, for instance, querying the wisdom of allowing their sale in The Seven Curses of London (1869):

"What are the assured grounds of safety? Is it because it stands to reason that all such coarse and vulgar trash finds its level amongst the coarse and vulgar, and could gain no footing above its own elevation? It may so stand in reason, but unfortunately it is the unreasonable fact that this same pen poison finds customers at heights above its natural low and foul water­line almost inconceivable. How otherwise is it accountable that at least a quarter of a million of these penny numbers are sold weekly? How is it that in quiet suburban neighbourhoods, far removed from the stews of London, and the pernicious atmosphere they engender; in serene and peaceful semi-country towns where genteel boarding schools flourish, there may almost invariably be found some small shopkeeper who accommodatingly receives consignments of “Blue-skin,” and the “Mysteries of London,” and unobtrusively supplies his well-dressed little customer with these full-flavoured articles? Granted, my dear sir, that your young Jack, or my twelve years old Robert, have minds too pure either to seek out or crave after literature of the sort in question, but not un-frequently it is found without seeking. It is a contagious disease, just as cholera and typhus and the plague are contagious, and, as everybody is aware, it needs not personal contact with a body stricken to convey either of these frightful maladies to the hale and hearty. A tainted scrap of rag has been known to spread plague and death through an entire village, just as a stray leaf of “Panther Bill,” or “Tyburn Tree” may sow the seeds of immorality amongst as many boys as a town can produce." [click here for full text from The Seven Curses of London]

Are you, dear reader, amongst the 'coarse and vulgar'? If so, I hope you'll enjoy an insight into a fascinating aspect of Victorian literary life. You can start reading the Mysteries of London here.

If, however, you would first like to know a little more about the serial and it's author, then read on for an article by the erudite Dick Collins, who is in the process of editing an annotated print edition of this very text ...


George William McArthur Reynolds

A very brief introduction 

by Dick Collins

    G. W. M. Reynolds was born in Sandwich, Kent, on 23 July 1814. He was named George after his father; William after his uncle, from whom he had 'expectations;' and McArthur after his godfather. His only brother was born two years later, and named Edward Dowers Reynolds - the latter after his mother's father, Purser Dowers.
    Reynolds' father George was born in 1762, in Eastry, Kent. In 1802 he was commissioned as a post-Captain in the Royal Navy: which means he was a full Captain and Flag Officer. Unlike his father-in-law Dowers, he wasn't a Lieutenant Commander who had the title as a courtesy. During the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Reynolds commanded the Tribune, a 36-gun frigate that plied the North Sea. He captured several enemy ships, and received the prize money for them - though in one case he had to give it back, when the owner of the (illegal) cargo successfully sued for its return. In 1813 he married Caroline Frances Dowers (1789-1830) in Dover.
    Purser Dowers (1751-1837) was a Londoner by birth, and having joined the Navy, rose to be Commandant of the Royal Naval Hospital in Walmer, just south of Deal in Kent. He was close friends with the local surgeon, another Naval Commander, Duncan McArthur (1772-1855).
    Shortly after Edward Reynolds was born, the family moved to St. Peter Port, in Guernsey, where they had a house on the plush and prestigious New Ground. George Reynolds senior may have been a Captain, but he was not a gentleman by rank, and the boys probably played more with the local children than their 'peers' in the Naval community. From this derives GWMR's later bilingualism: he probably spoke Guernésiais, mis-called Channel Islands French, from earliest childhood. There may be another legacy. That he hated the upper-classes is shiningly clear from the Mysteries: but in 1841, he gave a speech to a meeting of Tee-Totalers, claiming his father was Sir George Reynolds, and had left him a large fortune on his death. Both statements were lies, and it is significant that he felt the need to tell them.
    In 1822 the family moved back to Kent, to Canterbury, where Captain Reynolds died at the turn of 1822-23. He left the boys in the guardianship of their mother, and, in the event of her death, in that of their great-uncle Thomas Brown King, and Duncan McArthur. George went to school at Dr. Nance's Academy in Ashford, twelve miles from Canterbury; and on 12 February 1828 entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a Gentleman Cadet. He did not do well. His mother died in March 1830, having spent her last years running a small school in Dover, and on 13 September that year George was 'removed by his friends.' There are no records at Sandhurst saying why his career there was cut short; but from hints in the Mysteries, it is possible he was gambling too heavily with his comrades.
    In the next few years, George and Edward were technically under the guardianship of Duncan McArthur - King seems to have played no part in their upbringing. A curious link arises between McArthur and Reynolds' best creation, Anthony Tidkins, the Resurrection Man. Tidkins was born in Walmer, and among his first body-snatchings is one done for 'the surgeon of Walmer.' In real life, this was of course Duncan McArthur. Since the latter was still very much alive when this episode was published in 1845, GWMR was accusing his guardian of complicity in grave-robbing. Certainly, as Trefor Thomas has said, the grave-robbing scenes in the Mysteries - among the most memorable in literature - are very realistic, and seem to owe a lot to someone's personal experience. Since most surgeons of the day used illicitly obtained corpses at one time or another, this someone was surely Duncan McArthur.
    In 1832, when he was just eighteen, GWMR published his first book: The Errors of the Christian Religion Exposed, by a Comparison of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Reynolds turns his back on the Church of England, and proclaims himself a Deist and a disciple of Tom Paine. The book was printed by the infamous 'Infidel' Richard Carlile in London, and since Carlile frequently used volunteers to take the blame for his seditious books, it is likely that he was mostly the author of it. But Reynolds was now marked by the authorities. It is alleged - on poor evidence - that stayed at the expensive Long's Hotel, in Bond Street, and was arrested for trying to steal jewellery to pay his bill. In 1833 he left England for Calais, where he claims to have befriended the ageing Beau Brummel.
    Although GWMR claimed to have been left a large fortune by his father, it probably amounted to less than £2,000 by the time he finally inherited it; and that was not until July 1837. In Calais he is alleged to have been arrested, for using weighted dice; and it is also alleged that while in prison he met Susannah Frances Pierson. Whether this story is true or not, Reynolds moved on to Paris, where he lived at 18, Rue Royale: and on 31 July 1835 he married Susannah in the Chapel of the British Embassy in Paris. She was not older than seventeen, was at least seven months pregnant, and had very probably married before, at the age of fourteen, in the same Chapel. Despite these ill-omens the marriage lasted, and there is no reason to believe it was other than a love-match. Their first son, George, was born in Paris in 1835.
    The couple found lodgings at no. 55, rue-neuve St. Augustin, and George now began a series of business ventures, mostly on the promise of paying when he got his inheritance. He opened a bookshop, the Librairie des Etrangers, and started a newspaper, the London and Paris Courier. It is doubtful whether this latter ever got off the ground, although he applied for a licence for it. But soon he was bankrupt. He fled with Susannah and Edward, who had joined him, to Calais; was arrested, and brought back to Paris; lodged at no. 12, rue Mont Thabor, and made to work off his debt in the enlightened French way. By the end of 1837 he was back in London, in poverty.
    They lived at first in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, but by November 1837 Reynolds was bankrupt in England as well - within four months of gaining his 'large' inheritance. They found lodgings at 10, Upper Stamford Street, in the Borough, and then to no. 36; soon they had to move on, to 193 Blackfriars Road, where their first daughter Blanche was born in February 1839, and then very soon after that to no. 8 Bedford Place. George found work editing the Monthly Magazine, and made a great success of a failing enterprise. He produced several books on the French language and culture - for example The French Self-Tutor in 1839, The Modern Literature of France, and a translation of Hugo's Dernier Jour d'un condamné - but he quarrelled with his employers, who didn't like his rather racy stories, and he was soon out-of-work again. In May 1839 he was back in the Bankruptcy Court, and spent from then until November in the Queen's Bench Prison, for debt - under the less enlightened English system. He attempted to use his experiences in jail as a source for his writing; but his main success at this time was a plagiarism of The Pickwick Papers, called Pickwick Abroad, which came out in the Monthly. His 'jail novel,' a mishmash of plots called (absurdly) Grace Darling, failed badly, and deservedly.
    In May 1840, Reynolds had a sudden, dramatic and very public conversion to Tee-Totalism. He was soon a member of the London United Temperance Association and, more importantly, gainfully employed as editor of its journal, The Tee-Totaler. Though such journals usually just chronicled meetings and speeches, Reynolds included a lot of quite sensational fiction, directed against drinking, which didn't please everybody. What also probably didn't thrill many, he booked weekly meetings at the Enon Chapel, off Clare Market, where thousand of bodies were buried, and sometimes not even buried, beneath the rickety floor-boards. At this time he was living at no. 11, Suffolk Place, just opposite the churchyard at Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, where Tidkins snatches another corpse. He went into business with the Secretary of the Association, Henry Williams Weston, and was soon bankrupt again. His job with the Tee-Totaler went, and he was forced into jail again. Weston got away almost scot-free, but Reynolds was an undischarged bankrupt for several more years.
    Reynolds claimed that he became a political Radical at 'college' - presumably he meant Sandhurst - and his writing had always had a distinct Left-wing edge to it. He was the political correspondent of the Weekly Despatch, the leading Chartist newspaper in the South of England, though he also wrote for another paper - which he refused to name. Was it a Right-wing print? We don't know. In 1843, the French novelist Eugène Sue started to serialise his Mystères de Paris, and in October 1844 Reynolds began his Mysteries of London. Though doubtless influenced by Sue, the book nevertheless soon became independent of its model, and quickly became the best-selling story of its day. It made Reynolds financially stable, for the first time in his life, and he was able to move his family to a nicer area of London: they took rooms above a grocer's shop in King's Square, Goswell Road.
    As you read The Mysteries of London, it will become clear just how much of Reynolds' own life went into his fiction.

* * *

    The Mysteries of London came out in penny weekly numbers, and was published by George Vickers. When the first series ended in 1846, Reynolds hinted at a continuation. Why it never came about, at least from his pen, is a story worthy of anything in the Mysteries.
    Neither man was particularly scrupulous; Vickers probably had the edge over Reynolds in dishonesty. They quarrelled, almost certainly over money, and Reynolds left Vickers. In his place he found a young printer, John Dicks, with whom he began a life-long friendship. Still, Vickers and Reynolds appear to have remained on cordial terms for the moment, and Reynolds appears to have done some work for Vickers after the Mysteries. Probably feeling he had some control over the Mysteries, Vickers paid two other writers, Thomas Miller and E. Leman Blanchard, to write continuations. They never reached the standard of Reynolds' own work. Reynolds, on the other hand, started a new series of his own, The Mysteries of the Court of London, set in the time of George III and George IV, which ran for nearly a decade, and was in its way almost as much a sensation as the original Mysteries of London.
    To return to our theme: in June 1847 Reynolds and Dicks started a new project, to be called Reynolds' Miscellany. He arranged for it to be printed by George Stiff, who worked mainly for Vickers, and on Wednesday 14 June they sent some advance copies to Vickers' shop in Holywell Street, off the Strand, to be sent on to Scotland. The publication date proper was fixed for 28 June. On Monday 26 June, Reynolds was appalled to see, in shop windows all over London, a brand new magazine, Reynolds' Magazine, carrying almost exactly the content of his own Miscellany, with slight changes to the tiles: thus The Corral Island instead of The Coral Island, and so on. It was printed and published by George Vickers. Reynolds demanded an explanation, and Vickers easily provided one: it was pure coincidence. There was nothing Reynolds could do but issue a long, rambling editorial consigning Vickers and Stiff to the lowest pouches of hell; which just gave their joke publicity, and made Reynolds look quite a fool.
    The war was not over. In March 1848, Reynolds addressed a mass-meeting in Trafalgar Square, that promptly turned into a three-day riot. The next month he chaired the enormous Demonstration on Kennington Common, that proposed the petition to adopt the People's Charter. A month or two later, he was back in the Bankruptcy Court, but the provisional notice of his discharge was soon published. It was open to objection; George Vickers objected. Reynolds was back in Court. As Reynolds tells the tale, one evening, between hearings, he was at his offices in Wellington Street, with John Dicks, when he was approached by Mr. Moss, Vickers' solicitor. Insisting on speaking to him alone, Moss told Reynolds that Vickers was willing to let him off his debt - if he henceforth gave up writing and publishing for ever. Reynolds refused, and reported Moss to the Court on 29 September. Although his action was deemed outrageous by the judge, the Court settled Vickers' objection in Reynolds' favour: he got his discharge from bankruptcy - implying that the story was almost certainly true.
    Reynolds' Magazine didn't last, and the Miscellany went on to be a huge success, making a fortune for both Reynolds and Dicks. Reynolds died on 19 June 1879, in a luxurious house in Woburn Square, London, Dicks in 1884, in Menton, in the South of France. Reynolds' later career as a Chartist, and proprietor of the leading Left-wing newspaper in Britain, is no part of this story now. But his outrage on seeing Reynolds' Magazine produced a fascinating outburst, that shows that, however much he had become a man of the people, the old snob never really died:
    "But upon what pretence did Mr. Stiff issue a work entitled "Reynolds' Magazine"? He has a stoker in his employment of the name of Abraham Reynolds, and this man, who is perfectly illiterate, and who earns a pound or a guinea a week, lent his name to the spurious publication!"

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