Stephen Knight on ‘The Man Who Outsold Dickens’

No prizes for guessing who the above moniker applies to. In light of the recent publication of G. W. M. Reynolds and His Fiction – The Man Who Outsold Dickens, it seemed like a good idea to conduct a bit of a parley with the book’s author, Stephen Knight. The Man Who Outsold Dickens covers Reynolds’s whole career as a writer of fiction, so, when interviewing Stephen, we focussed on these works’ popularity, their populism, and the incredible breadth of their concerns and scope. We also discussed Reynolds’s descent into obscurity after his death – as well as the burgeoning ‘G. W. M. Rey-naissance’ of recent years. Stephen ran the whole gamut of Reynolds’s fiction while writing the book, so expect plenty of allusions to obscure gems from the Reynolds back catalogue (as well as some good Dickens put-downs) over the course of the interview.

Many thanks to Stephen for answering our questions. His new book can be found here:

Q.) How did you first discover Reynolds?

A.) I first encountered Reynolds about ten years ago when I was working on nineteenth-century crime fiction without detectives or police. When looking at Sue’s rich Les Mystères de Paris (1842-3) I found that Reynolds had followed it up with The Mysteries of London (1844-8). That seemed very interesting, and I steadily built up a collection of his novels – some in the original versions, which the general lack of interest in the author made not terribly expensive. I included a chapter on The Mysteries of London in my 2012 book The Mysteries of the Cities and after I retired from university in 2015 worked on the book which has just come out.

Q.) Which is your favourite of his works (and which, if any, is your least)?

A.) Of all Reynolds’s novels, I admire most the first one I read, The Mysteries of London, for its scope, its multiple plot-lines, its commitment to a radical representation of the men and women of the absolute present – not to mention its many splendid illustrations, a feature of most Reynolds books. I am not sure I have a least-favourite, but I think I would regard as least important the ones not set in England and not very realistic, like Leila, the Star of Mingrelia (1856).

Q.) The subtitle of your new book, ‘the man who outsold Dickens’ could suggest that Dickens is to be seen as Reynolds’s chief peer or rival – why is this? Are there any figures with whom he might be better compared?

A.) The subtitle to my book, `The Man Who Outsold Dickens’, was used to assert both the extraordinary success of Reynolds’s fiction and also to suggest the remarkable fact that Reynolds has not been remembered at all, unlike his ultra-famous contemporary – even though they overlapped substantially in themes and audiences. They worked for publishers and in offices which were close to each other in inner London, and they criticised each other at times – Reynolds has in Mary Price (1852) an author named Charles Wiggins who is `Dreadfully conceited … courting observation even from the stable-boys’ (I.119).

Q.) Despite Reynolds’s popularity and critical success, his work has since been neglected and many people have never even heard of him. Why do you think his work does not have the longevity of someone like Dickens?

A.) Reynolds became forgotten in part because he was a genuine radical – for several years a Chartist, always in favour of the ordinary people, consistently pro-Jewish, and even pro-gypsy — but it seems mainly because his fiction often deals with and in many ways both targets and values the unrespectable newly literate folk whom Wilkie Collins called `The Unknown Public’. Dickens, for all his apparent human feeling, is distinctly bourgeois-oriented and conservative in his themes and his responses to people, and that was the politics essentially asserted for a long time by the English literary critical establishment. So Reynolds was largely overlooked, until in the recent past scholars like Louis James, Anne Humpherys and Ian Haywood found him of real interest.

It is in a way more interesting to compare Reynolds with Wilkie Collins than with Dickens, as Collins was politically closer to Reynolds, genuinely sympathetic with people without status, especially women and servants, but though Collins’s work could be quite radical on themes like the marriage laws and the failings of the gentry, it remained conventional in terms of democratic politics and the representation of sexual matters.

‘Dreadfully conceited’ – Charles [Wiggins] by ‘Gill’ (1868).
Q.) Much has been said of Reynolds’s ‘plagiarism’ of Eugène Sue and other writers. How far do you think he simply pays homage to other writers of the time? Or do you find that there are examples of blatant plagiarism?

A.) The idea that Reynolds `plagiarised’ Sue seems to stem from people who have not actually read Reynolds, or perhaps neither author. In his most famous title Reynolds certainly borrowed Sue’s new non-religious sense of `mysteries’ and also the idea of a great modern city as the subject, but the London version is entirely new in its huge plot, in that it treats the poor and the criminals, and especially women, much more closely and sympathetically than Sue, and, by using centrally the two Markham brothers from a business-oriented family, he quite avoids Sue’s highly conservative reliance on the heroic status of his noble hero, Prince Rodolphe.

The charge of plagiarism has more weight in terms of Reynolds’s early book Pickwick Abroad (1838), where he takes most of Dickens’s characters on a lengthy visit to the Paris he knew so well, having lived there for six years – though the incidents are all new and there are several new characters. He did follow that with two minor works, the short serial pieces Noctes Pickwickianae `Pickwickian Nights’ (1840) and Pickwick Married (1842), but he said farewell to near-plagiarism in Master Timothy’s Bookcase (1842), which does imitate the title and idea of a story-collection from Dickens’s Master Humphrey’s Clock (1841), but the stories are quite different, and are all set variously abroad. The Pickwick connection was no doubt a matter of annoyance for Dickens, but it could be said that, having grown up writing in France, Reynolds might well have had a looser concept of what was plagiarism.

Q.) Reynolds’s works seem to portray women ambivalently: their political and social autonomy is often defended and celebrated – but so too are these portrayals often highly sexualised. How do you think we can reconcile these two features of his works – do they even need reconciling?

A.) Reynolds’s treatment of women and especially their sexuality is unusual if he is taken as a mainstream author, not one of the semi-porn writers of the time with whom he is often dismissively linked. His overt recognition of women’s sexual activities was a major way in which those who objected to his politics tried to downgrade him, and the idea that he is a vulgar, even pornographic, writer is still around in some commentators who pay little attention to his actual writing.

His early novels tend to deal with love and romance in a familiar Victorian way, with traditional-style courtships followed by failure or by marriage, but perhaps to some degree influenced by Sue and other French authors (Reynolds wrote a good book on them as early as 1839) in The Mysteries of London the major characters Eliza Stanley and Ellen Monroe are  sexually active without marriage, if briefly: both eventually marry, but their relationships with their men are not really part of their strength of character and importance in the text.

This pattern continued through The Mysteries of the Court of London (1848-56) which is set back in time to the early nineteenth century and is not, as ill-informed commentators seem to think, a sequel to The Mysteries of London. Here too sexual activity occurs, though not in any reader-attracting detail: it can, though, be quite active, as in the life of the splendidly self-assertive Venetia Trelawney of volumes 3-4 (her other name should be concealed to avoid spoiling the plot for new readers).

Active sexuality recurs in the fiction, though not by any means in all novels. A good example of it, and one of Reynolds’s best novels, is Rosa Lambert (1854), where the central figure becomes by accident, and then by choice, a career mistress, going through a range of liaisons, some of which bring her real pleasure – but there are no specific sex scenes, and her chosen life brings her to a sad and early end.

Essentially, Reynolds’s treatment of women and recognition of their sexual activity is part of his all-round realism and the absolute modernity of most of his work. It is noticeable that of his nine stand-alone 1850s novels only one features a man in the title, but most of the eponymous women lead celibate, though also romantic, lives before their marriages. It seems Reynolds was aware that among the newly literate readers were many young women – like those working in the newly developing large London shops — and he consciously wrote for them.

‘Rosa sitting for her portrait’ by Frederick Gilbert from Reynolds’s Rosa Lambert (1854).

Q.) Reynolds wrote many texts set in different places in Europe as well as further abroad. Do these texts differ in style or tone? And how does this international scope reflect Reynolds’s preoccupations – both literary and otherwise?

A.) Apart from contemporary English themes and also historical accounts (his The Days of Hogarth [1848], narrativising the master’s four best-known image series, is a totally overlooked masterpiece), Reynolds set several stories in Europe and even beyond in near Asia. Wilkie Collins shared Reynolds’s internationality of interest, and capacity with languages and he used Euro-settings in some short stories, mostly in France, some in Italy, but not in his novels. We know little of Reynolds’s travels after his 1838 return from France, as all his private papers have disappeared – fame awaits their finder – but he was clearly familiar with Italy and more surprisingly had a developed interest in areas like Turkey and its north-western neighbours, where he set The Bronze Statue (1850), Omar, A Tale of the Crimean War (1857) and the quite un-erotic The Loves of the Harem (1855). Throughout his fiction, the narrator is recurrently pro-Europe, sometimes with reference to radical events like those of 1848, but often simply commenting that France has better services and politics than England. Some stories like one long narrative told in The Empress Eugénie’s Boudoir (1857), relate with interest and even approval to the time of revolution – and the context is the court of Napoléon III.

Q.) Can Reynolds’s success be partly attributed to his role in the Chartism movement?

A.) Reynolds’s Chartist engagement was not very long: he fell out with the leaders (as he did with most colleagues who operated on the same level as himself) by the early 1850s. His famous speech-making intervention at the Trafalgar Square Chartist meeting of March 1848 certainly made him widely known, though he was already a public figure as his Mysteries of London had been selling very well for five years. His Chartism seems to be no more than one of the many elements of his broad-based, seriously radical, approach to life, seen largely in the themes of his novels – apart to some extent from the medieval-set ones, which are primarily historical and can like Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1847) and The Necromancer (1852) have fantasy elements. The broad radicalism is also very clear in his magazines, and that continued after Reynolds stopped writing fiction by 1861: he offered radical journalistic education for the literate masses until his death in 1879.

Q.) Having just published your book on Reynolds, I am reticent to ask, but what do you think you’ll be working on next? Do you think you’ll continue researching into Reynolds?

A.) Having for this book read all the novels and novellas, and quite a few of the short stories, I remain very interested in Reynolds – how could a serious cultural historian not be? I like the idea of working next to collect and discuss all his short stories. They would be hard to assemble from his various sources, and an anthology of them might, like Julian Thomas’s collection of Wilkie Collins’s many short stories, take some 900 pages. But it would be a project both very interesting and highly worthwhile, for the serious reading public, and the further understanding of the real importance of G. W. M. Reynolds and his writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s