By Stephen Basdeo
When I was completing my undergraduate dissertation on Victorian crime and penny fiction, my supervisor, Prof. Heather Shore, suggested that I look up an author – then unknown to me – named George W. M. Reynolds and his novel entitled The Mysteries of London. In what some might call fate, two days later I noticed on eBay a lovely two volume set of the full run from the 1840s, printed by G. Vickers, containing all the illustrations. At £40 they seemed like a bargain, so I snapped them up and immediately set about reading them.
To say that this recommendation made me a little poorer might be an understatement; after having read The Mysteries, I wanted more, so I began to become a book collector, tracking down originals or first editions of The Mysteries of the Court of London; The Soldier’s Wife; Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals; Alfred; Robert Macaire; The Days of Hogarth; The Massacre of Glencoe; and A Sequel to Don Juan.
Although I have read most of the above, either as part of my research or just for fun, I do keep coming back to his “Mysteries” tales. I am interested in the history of crime and in particular portrayals of organised crime in fiction. I found that Reynolds had quite a sophisticated view of organised criminals’ modus operandi, which correlated (approximately though not perfectly) with modern criminologists’ definitions of the term. We know that there is a rough hierarchy among the Resurrection Man’s gang, that they collude with ‘upperworld’ figures, and that their primary motivation was to make a profit above all else.
Yet while many Victorian writers often presented their criminal characters as irredeemably criminal, often two-dimensional characters, Reynolds humanises his criminals and forces the reader to feel sympathy with them. There is not a person who reads The Mysteries of Londonwho does not feel for the plight of the “Mummy” growing up as a labourer in the mines, or the Resurrection Man who wanted to live an honest life but, as a result of his father’s actions, is told that ‘society has condemned you.’ A point which I intend to make in a monograph I’m currently writing on organised crime in literature is that the biographies which Reynolds gave his criminals anticipate that famous phrase: ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’, which was unusual in an era when such characters were often written off as part of an irredeemable and ever-growing ‘dangerous’ or ‘criminal class’.
Every major Victorian author enjoys the posthumous honour of having a society dedicated to them. As a man whose novels often outsold those of his more famous rivals, it is an honour to have the chance to be part of community of scholars who likewise recognise his achievements.
Stephen Basdeo is Assistant Professor of History at Richmond University (RIASA Leeds). His research interests include depictions of organised crime from the medieval period to the present. Details of his latest publications related to G. W. M. Reynolds include:
Stephen Basdeo, ‘“That’s Business”: Organised Crime in G. W. M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London(1844–48)’, Law, Crime, and History, 8: 1 (2018), 53-70
––––, ‘“Society has condemned you – unheard, I grant you; nevertheless, society has condemned you”: The Marginalisation and Criminalisation of the Poor in The Mysteries of London by G. W. M. Reynolds’, in Victorian Cultures of Liminality: Borders and Margins, ed. by Amina Alyal, Rosemary Mitchell, and Susan Anderson (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2018), pp. 189-204