Postgrads on Reynolds

Sophie Raine (Lancaster University)

I was first made aware of the George W M Reynolds Society at the RSPV conference at the University of Victoria this year. I was giving a paper on Reynolds’ use of classical imagery in his illustrations of nude models. One aspect of Reynolds’ work which I found particularly interesting, and which was the main crux of my paper, was his portrayal of seemingly transgressive women, from nude models to sex workers. These representations were radical in many respects with these women compared, through illustration and classical allusion, to deities and going on to life fulfilling lives irrespective of their pasts. After the paper, met Mary L Shannon who suggested I might be interested in joining the Reynolds’ Society when it had been fully set up – needless to say, I was! With Reynolds being still somewhat of an obscure writer, it was refreshing to discuss his work with a fellow scholar who also admired him as a writer and a Chartist thinker.

When I heard that the Reynolds’ Society was seeking a post-graduate representative, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to promote the work of Reynolds to a larger demographic and to discuss this intriguing figure with likeminded scholars. The first text of Reynolds that I encountered was The Mysteries of London, an urban fiction serial in the style of Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris. In the fourth year of my thesis now, I am still finding that Reynolds’ texts are endlessly intriguing and culturally significant; in addition to The Mysteries of London, my thesis also explores The Seamstress, or the White Slave of England, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, The Bronze Statue and The Loves of the Harem, a Tale of Constantinople. Though my research covers a many unexplored penny dreadful writers, it is clear that much of the socio-political writings of the penny dreadful writers were influenced in some way by Reynolds.

I am delighted to be part of the Reynolds’ Society as one of the postgraduate representatives and am looking forward to promoting the work and life of George W M Reynolds with boundless enthusiasm.

Daniel Jenkin-Smith (Aston University)

My PhD research revolves around the role of clerks and bureaucratic institutions in nineteenth-century literature. In this regard, one might imagine that George Reynolds, as a depicter of the under- and upper-classes (as well as their various iniquities) had little to do with the servants of officialdom, who are conventionally to be found somewhere between the two. Indeed, in Reynolds’ epic serial, The Mysteries of London (1844-48), he appears to stress such a view from the outset. Amidst the web of binaries that Reynolds spins in his prologue to introduce his ‘city of fearful contrasts’: civilization and vice, wealth and poverty, even the temperate and torrid – where is the literal ‘grey area’ that is bureaucracy?

While later critics of bureaucracy, the most famous being Max Weber, identified this amalgam of rationally devised and repetitively and dispassionately executed administrative procedures as a power base in itself; part of the appeal of Victorian writers, like Reynolds, is that officialdom is more often than not a subordinate, if not implicit, presence in their work – a spectral force that facilitates the actions of more explicitly depicted vested interests. By virtue of his radical social and political agenda, Reynolds exemplifies this tendency.

Despite initial indications to the contrary, this ghostly bureaucratic presence is summoned from the very beginning of Reynolds’ Mysteries: opening the novel by alluding to London’s prisons and workhouses inhabited by the poor, themselves established by a parliament of the rich, Reynolds establishes a social order that perpetuates itself through its institutions, themselves maintained by clerical labour. And rather than ‘clerk’ being a cultural shorthand for lower middle-class dreariness (a trope we might associate with some of Reynolds’ notable contemporaries) the various anonymous clerks that populate the Mysteries are often the willing menials of this binary social antagonism. Reynolds’ depiction of a white-collar worker as a ‘peripatetic law-manual or text-book’ to a judge, or as a storehouse of information and administrative instrument to the Home Secretary, performs two functions. Firstly, the clerks supplement and extend the activities of the elites whom Reynolds satirizes, they are part of an increasingly sophisticated division of labour that serves to keep the powerful where they are; and secondly, in delegating the ostensibly dispassionate and functional duty of retaining and communicating information to clerks, Reynolds leaves his villainous elites free to focus solely on chicanery, politicking, and bias. We see this in the following satirical dialogue regarding workhouses between the Home Secretary and his private secretary:

“This letter is from a pauper in the—— Union, stating that he has been cruelly assaulted, beaten, and ill-used by the master; that he has applied in vain to the Poor Law Commissioners for redress; and that he now ventures to submit his case to your lordship.”

“Make a note to answer that the fullest inquiries shall be immediately instituted,” said the Minister.

“Shall I give the necessary instructions for the inquiry, my lord?” asked the Secretary.

“Inquiry!” repeated the Minister: “are you mad? Do you really imagine that I shall be foolish enough to permit any inquiry at all? Such a step would be almost certain to end in substantiating the pauper’s charge against the master; and then there would be a clamour from one end of the country to the other against the New Poor Laws. We must smother all such affairs whenever we can; but by writing to say that the fullest inquiries shall be instituted, I shall be armed with a reply to any member who might happen to bring the case before Parliament. (Mysteries of London, Volume 1, Chapter CXIV).

Not only is clerkdom (even at this high level) typified by an unthinking obedience, but it is precisely by his mechanical willingness that the private secretary becomes a sounding board for the cynical candour of the minister.

Importantly, whatever the detachment these figures may maintain with regard to their duties, they cannot escape Reynolds’ black and white moral code. One of the more explicitly bureaucratic scenes of the Mysteries is set in the ‘Black Chamber’ of the Post Office, where correspondence is intercepted. Reynolds writes that, the clerks’ labour ‘seemed purely of a mechanical kind: indeed, automatons could not have shewn less passion or excitement’, but, even so, Reynolds reminds us, ‘bad deeds, if not the results of bad passions and feelings, soon engender them.’

While Reynolds’ overt political concerns lay with the manual working class and the urban poor, it is through the portrayal of such non-manual workers that he could further illustrate and attack the stacked deck that was Victorian society.

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