Reynolds Studies: A Personal History by Rohan McWilliam

I can honestly claim to have been interested in George W.M. Reynolds since early adolescence, even if my path into his life and work differs from the literary scholars who are making him their own.  I first came across Reynolds in the library at St. Paul’s School in Barnes when I happened in a lunch break over a battered copy of E.S. Turner’s Boys will be Boys (1948).  I was about thirteen.  The first chapter, with its evocation of the popular gothic mode of the early Victorian period, crept over me like a delicate web, introducing me to figures like Spring-Heel’d Jack.  I found out about the publisher Edward Lloyd’s stable of hacks like Thomas Peckett Prest and James Malcolm Rymer who wrote Varney the Vampire. Subsequent chapters in Turner’s book discussed Sweeney Todd and the intrepid boy-hero Jack Harkaway.  This world of charnel-houses, dashing highwaymen, mysterious monks, fortune-telling gypsies and demon barbers made their equivalents in Ted Heath’s Britain seem insipid.  The Victorian imagination, for me, has always been characterised by its dark shadows.   Reynolds’s Mysteries of London featured in the first chapter with his diagrams of the divisions between rich and poor.  Not long after, I found myself wanting to purchase Peter Haining’s anthology The Penny Dreadful (London: Gollancz, 1975) but lacked the pocket money to do so.  Saturday after Saturday, I stood in an East Sheen bookshop reading a copy with its characteristic Gollancz bright yellow dust jacket.  Reynolds was represented several times, including a body-snatching episode from The Mysteries of London.  During a family holiday in Norfolk, we stayed in a cottage where I discovered Reynolds’s Pickwick Abroad on a shelf and tried to make sense of this weird doppelganger: an alternate Dickens.  A world in which there were different versions of Pickwick still fascinates me and led to a desire to think seriously about the Dickens plagiarisms.  Here was a fictional world in which there seemed to be no definitive text but a series of improvisations and appropriations of Boz.

Dickensian doppelgangers? – Left: An illustration from The Pickwick Papers (1836) by Robert Seymour, Right: from Reynolds’s Pickwick Abroad (1838) by ‘Crowquill’.

Reynolds’s fiction was, however, not my path into the field we can now call Reynolds Studies.  When researching my PhD on the cause of the Tichborne Claimant (1871-1886)  in the 1980s, I came across Reynolds as the editor of Reynolds’s Newspaper.[1]   The paper was one of the champions of the butcher who claimed to be a long-long aristocrat called Sir Roger Tichborne and who sparked the largest agitation between the end of Chartism and the rise of the modern labour movement in the 1880s.  Reynolds was actually solicited to stand for Parliament as a Tichborne MP. Toiling for weeks over copies of Reynolds’s Newspaper in the British Library at Colindale, I came to regard Reynolds as a major figure in the development of British radicalism.  This was a moment when a group of historians, including myself, were challenging the then orthodoxy that a wave of British radicalism had come to an end with the defeat of the Chartists in 1848.[2]  Many of the democratic and social concerns that were characteristic of the Chartist platform were, we argued, absorbed into radical liberalism during the heyday of Gladstone.  They also inspired the first generation of Labour and trade union activists.   It was clear to me that Reynolds was a vital figure in this process.  He and his paper remained true to the basic assumptions of Chartism.  This included blaming the ills of society on aristocratic domination (a view that contrasted with the emphasis elaborated in the Communist Manifesto with its assault on industrial capitalism).   Reynolds argued for the principles of the People’s Charter through the mid-Victorian years but wanted to go further, championing the rights of labour.  His newspaper was an integral part of mid-Victorian radicalism.  I spoke about Reynolds at a History Workshop conference in memory of E. P. Thompson, making the case for Reynolds as a custodian of many of the traditions that has been explored in Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class.

Another formative moment for me was seeing Mike Alfreds’s and Micheline Wandor’s adaptation of Eugène Sue’s The Wandering Jew at the National Theatre in 1987 (the cast included a young Mark Rylance).  A huge amount of my work came out of that one night in the theatre.  I had been dimly aware of Sue (who sometimes cropped up in histories of detective fiction) but this production showed me how melodrama could be a powerful force for radical social analysis, drawing me into a series of studies of the melodramatic imagination.  The relationship between Sue and Reynolds seemed to me pivotal in the literary culture of the mid-nineteenth century.[3]  Both employed the potential of melodramatic story telling to make sense of the social order.

The scholar who had really put Reynolds on the scholarly map was Louis James in Fiction for the Working Man (1963) but Anne Humpherys and Ellen Bayuk Rosenman were also beginning in the 1980s to write a series of articles making sense of The Mysteries of London.  I was lucky to make contact with Louis James when I taught at the University of Kent.  Fiction for the Working Man (along with Richard Altick’s The English Common Reader) is the indispensable text for interpreting this early wave of popular literature and its social meanings.  Louis James’s book came out in the same year as The Making of the English Working Class but offers a rather different portrait of working-class culture.  For Thompson, working-class life was about politicisation and the call to plant the liberty tree.  Both James and Thompson showed how Romanticism shaped the plebeian imagination but James’s portrait pointed to a world whose frame of reference was not always political.  Radical publishers featured in his book but he showed how the early Victorian years changed the nature of popular fiction.  Domestic romance as well as tales of terror were important (check out the new 2017 edition of the book published by Edward Everett Root in which James describes the genesis of the book).  He also drew attention to the plagiarisms of Dickens.  After Fiction for the Working Man, James went on to show melodrama was vital to popular culture and had to be taken seriously: another way in which he shifted our view of the Victorians.[4]

In the early 1980s, newspapers were still not always taken seriously as an historical source.  Newspaper history was often antiquarian and divorced from social history.  All of us working in the field, however, made our ways through the two volumes of Virginia Berridge’s unpublished PhD about the Victorian popular press which performed column analysis on Reynolds’s Newspaper as well as Lloyd’s and the Weekly Times.[5]  Reynolds’s, Berridge argued, offered a way into thinking about working-class opinion which made it relevant to labour historians.   Berridge was one of the scholars who was trying to develop newspaper history as a serious subject in its own right (though she later moved into medical history).  The newspaper history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in the later 1980s was one of the places where this kind of inquiry happened.

A network of people with Reynolds interests began to emerge.  I was lucky that in the late 1990s I found fellow scholars such as Ian Haywood and Sara James who were both writing about Reynolds.    Sara James wanted to make sense of Reynolds’s relationship with France and especially with Eugène Sue.  So did Berry Chevasco who went on to publish on the subject.[6]  Kelly Boyd (full disclosure: my wife) was also working on cheap fiction at this time in the form of boys’ story papers.  She traced the influence of Reynolds and Edward Lloyd’s publication on popular periodicals for children.[7]   Sitting in the tea room of the Institute of Historical Research, someone said to me ‘that man over there is working on Reynolds’.  It turned out to be Michael Shirley who was over in Britain in the early 1990s, researching the first PhD on Reynolds.[8]  A lively conversation ensued.  It was also about this time that Trefor Thomas produced a useful abridgement of The Mysteries of London: evidence that Reynolds was being taken seriously as a writer and being made available.  Sara James organised a conference at Birmingham University on Reynolds in 2001 which gave a real focus to the work being done and drew on many of the above figures.

It was the emergence of these networks that made Reynolds Studies possible.  In retrospect, the conference was the genesis of the first edited collection on Reynolds edited by Louis James and Anne Humpherys.[9]  Ian Haywood’s The Revolution in Popular Literature (2004) picked up on the radicalism of Reynolds’s project and made the important argument that the Condition of England novel of the 1840s needed to be rethought from the bottom up.  We were trying to look at what working-class people actually read: something that was different from the conventional literary canon.  Haywood’s approach (working in the E.P. Thompson tradition) was to reclaim Reynolds as offering a form of cultural capital for working-class people.

I found myself exploring Reynolds’s novel, The Seamstress (the one novel outside the Mysteries cycle that was unabashed in its radicalism), and then Reynolds’s use of the popular French character Robert Macaire.[10]  The latter was also an attempt to work through my fascination with the film Les Enfants du Paradis (in which the actor Frédérick Lemaître is shown playing Robert Macaire).  Elements of that film with its lush romanticism and invocations of revolution helped me understand something of the early Victorian world.  Reynolds was important as a communicator of French culture at a moment when romanticism in the form of Eugène Sue, Victor Hugo and George Sand began to take on social questions.  Discussions of The Seamstress by contrast, revealed how the novel speaks to contemporary concerns.  The exploited seamstress that Reynolds described is still around. She has merely moved to Singapore and other locations where the poor manufacture clothes for people in the west.

The seamstress
The class divide, as portrayed by Henry Anelay, in Reynolds’s The Seamstress (1851).

This growth in Reynolds Studies needs to be historicised.  In retrospect, it reflects the growing concern with the impact of mass media and the complexities of mass communication.  These were the kind of issues addressed by Richard Hoggart and then Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall: the people shaping Cultural Studies but also modern social history.  The leading historian of Chartism, Malcolm Chase, once said at a conference that every age finds its favourite Chartist.  For the Fabian-influenced historians who first studied the movement, it was William Lovett.  For radicals of the 1970s like Dorothy Thompson and James Epstein, the great Chartist was Feargus O’Connor.  In the age of Rupert Murdoch after 1979, it was natural that it should be Reynolds (this is ironic as Reynolds’s period on the Chartist platform was brief).[11]  Reynolds saw the potential of mass media and developed forms of narrative that could shape the presentation of news.  The counterpart to this work in the United States was Michael Denning’s Mechanic Accents, which examined the relationship between dime novels and working-class culture in the nineteenth century.[12]  It still seems to me that Reynolds Studies needs to be in conversation with Denning’s book with its sensitivity to the complexities of cultural production.

What has impressed me now is the way we are seeing a new generation of younger scholars such as Mary Shannon, Jamie Morgan and Jessica Hindes coming forward and making sense of Reynolds in different ways.  Shannon has situated Reynolds in terms of the milieu of Wellington Street, off the Strand.  Morgan has explored Reynolds in terms of social class whilst Hindes has explored the metaphors of the body in The Mysteries of London.[13]  Reynolds is clearly relevant to the kinds of questions that scholars are concerned with today as his writings raise issues about the uses of space, sexuality, sentimentality and sensation.

What remains to be done?  The availability of Reynolds’s Newspaper in digitised form means that we can mine its riches for many years to come though we do need to put this in some perspective.  Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper sold more copies in the nineteenth century.  Reynolds’s Newspaper always remained slightly unrespectable which meant that many members of the labour aristocracy would not read it.   The relationship between Reynolds’s fiction and his newspapers is complex (not least because the latter was written by many different journalists, including his brother Edward).  The Reynolds Day at the Westminster City Archives in 2012 and now the formation of the G.W.M. Reynolds Society show off a desire to think more deeply about this world.

Within Reynolds’s own oeuvre, I would expect to see more work on Reynolds and sexuality, including the relationship with Victorian pornography.  We clearly must go beyond just reading the first two volumes of the Mysteries of London and need to think about his other novels in more depth.  Sara Hackenburg has recently traced the ways that Reynolds was indebted both to Byron and to Scott, a perspective that we need to build on.[14]  It may well be that Reynolds belongs to scholars of Romanticism rather than Victorianism.  A lot more needs to be done on the relationship between Reynolds and the eighteenth century.  He was, after all, the author of The Days of Hogarth, or, The Mysteries of Old London (1847-48), but, more deeply, we need to track the ways in which his output was the product of the Hogarthian impulse in popular culture that Martin Meisel has traced so brilliantly.[15]  Hogarth’s mental map of the city with its representations of the underworld and Gin Lane fed into the cultural imagination of the Victorians.

How did Reynolds’s Miscellany relate to Reynolds’s other publications?  Patricia Anderson’s work on illustrated periodicals opened up this area.[16]  I first encountered her at the Institute of Historical Research.  Not only was she thinking about Reynolds’s Miscellany but she wanted to release periodical history from the grip of antiquarianism.  Like Denning’s Mechanic Accents, the book drew heavily on Gramsci (very much in vogue in the later 1980s).  She traced the way in which illustrated periodicals reshaped the visual culture of the Victorians.

We have now seen the first full monograph on Reynolds (by Stephen Knight).  This takes on the necessary role of looking at Reynolds’s fiction as a whole.  Scholars such as Sambudha Sen are offering new views of Reynolds as a trans-national figure, exploring his impact on Indian popular culture.  We need to know more about Reynolds’s influence in the United States where he had his counterparts such as George Lippard.  Clearly we need to think about Reynolds as a global figure, including thinking about him in an imperial context (Reynolds saw the British Empire as a racket for the aristocracy).

There is always the problem that Reynolds was a bit of a one off.  Some figures such as Ernest Jones and Thomas Frost combined political radicalism and melodramatic narratives, but this was not the dominant voice in popular fiction.  The penny dreadfuls of Edward Lloyd tended to be rather a-political, though they can be read in all sorts of ways.  The 2016 conference and book on Edward Lloyd was an attempt to broaden out this world.[17]  One could imagine new work done on contemporaries including Douglas Jerrold, who clearly anticipated Reynolds in some respects.  The relationship between Reynolds and the Regency radical underworld of journalists needs to be more fully researched.

I have tried here to delineate some of the networks that brought Reynolds Studies into being (though this has not been exhaustive).  The aim of those of us who have worked on Reynolds has been to restore him to his role as a major figure in the literary and political culture of the Victorian world.  We do not claim that Reynolds was a literary original but we do want to appreciate the creative force in his work, the way that he absorbed and recombined different elements in the culture, harnessing romance for radical purposes.  We are trying to re-write Victorian culture from the bottom up.


Rohan McWilliam is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University and a former President of the British Association for Victorian Studies.

[1] Subsequently published as The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation (London: Continuum, 2008).

[2] Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds.), Currents of Radicalism: Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain, 1850-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[3] I explore it further in ‘Sweeney Todd and the Chartist Gothic: Politics and Print Culture in early Victorian Britain’ in Sarah Louise Lill and Rohan McWilliam (eds.), Edward Lloyd and his World: Popular Fiction, Politics and the Press in Victorian Britain (London: Routledge, 2019), pp. 198-215.

[4] Louis James, ‘Taking Melodrama Seriously: Theatre and Nineteenth-Century Studies’, History Workshop Journal, vol. 3 no. 1 (1977), pp. 151-158.

[5] Virginia Stewart Berridge, ‘Popular Journalism and Working-Class Attitudes, 1854-1886’: A Study of Reynolds’s Newspaper, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper and The Weekly Times‘, University of London PhD thesis,1976.

[6] Berry Chevasco, Mysterymania: The Reception of Eugène Sue in Britain (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2003).

[7] Kelly Boyd, Manliness and the Boys’ Story Paper in Britain: A Cultural History, 1855-1940 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 27.

[8] Michael H. Shirley, ‘”On Wings of Everlasting Power: G.W.M. Reynolds and Reynolds’s Newspaper, 1848-1876′, University of Illinois, 1976).

[9] Louis James and Anne Humpherys (eds.), G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics and the Press (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

[10] Rohan McWilliam, ‘The Melodramatic Seamstress’ in Beth Harris (ed.), Famine and Fashion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), pp. 99-114; ‘The French Connection: G.W.M. Reynolds and the Outlaw Robert Macaire’ in James and Humphereys (eds.) G.W.M. Reynolds, pp. 33-49.

[11] Rohan McWilliam, ‘The Mysteries of G.W.M. Reynolds: Radicalism and melodrama in Victorian Britain’ in Malcolm Chase and Ian Dyck (eds.), Living and Learning: Essays in honour of J.F.C. Harrison (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), pp.182-98.

[12] Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (London: Verso, 1998 [1987]).

[13] Mary Shannon, Dickens, Reynolds and Mayhew on Wellington Street: The Print Culture of a Victorian Street (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2016); Jamie Lucy Morgan, ‘Portrayals of Protest: G.W.M. Reynolds and the Industrious Classes’, (University of Sheffield PhD thesis, 2017); Jessica Hindes, ‘Revealing Bodies: Knowledge, Power and Mass Market Fictions in G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London‘  (University of London PhD thesis, 2016).

[14] Sara Hackenberg, ‘Romanticism Bites: Quixotic Historicism in Rymer and Reynolds’ in Sarah Louise Lill and Rohan McWilliam (eds.), Edward Lloyd and his World, pp.165-82.

[15] Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Theatrical and Pictorial Arts in Nineteenth Century England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984)

[16] Patricia Anderson, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

[17] Sarah Louise Lill and Rohan McWilliam (eds.), Edward Lloyd and his World: Popular Fiction, Politics and the Press in Victorian Britain.

2 thoughts on “Reynolds Studies: A Personal History by Rohan McWilliam

  1. Hello.
    I have a 1853 edition of Soldier’s Wife by G W M Reynolds.
    I am looking for anyone who might be able to point me in the right direction to have it valued.
    I can send images.
    Thank you

    Kind Regards
    J Connell


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