Our narrative opens on the 23rd of July, 2019.
A stifling heat pervaded the great metropolis, and the streets were swarming with life. Crowds of Londoners, like myriad animated streams, were pouring through the countless avenues and thoroughfares, diverging and then converging – and every constituent marched doggedly with one thing, one person, on their mind. Journalist, politico, sensationalist – no, not the new PM – rather, G.W.M. Reynolds was the man of the moment. Rich, poor, guilty, innocent, the lazar-house, the palace, the prison, the mansion, the brothel, and the parliament – Reynolds had seen their true faces all, and it was now time for us to see his. How fortunate then, that an assemblage of researchers and enthusiasts were gathering at the Westminster Archives with the aim of engaging in just such an undertaking.
Everything portended an evening of informative speakers and literary discussion.
First to speak was Jennifer Conary of DePaul University, who conveyed us to the Paris of Reynolds’s youth. Sacred fane of Liberty, fount of Equality! – France under King Louis-Philippe transpired to be more a den of swindlers and con-men, eager to divest Reynolds of his funds, and was also home to officious bureaucrats, on whose wrong side Reynolds repeatedly found himself. Nevertheless, it was against this backdrop that the young Reynolds found his feet as an editor, of the English-language Paris Literary Gazette, and as a writer of fiction, with his first novel, The Youthful Imposter (1835). In keeping with the title of this first work, Reynolds returned from France claiming to be a full-fledged citoyen, to have served in the National Guard – to have out-Frenched the French.
Second: Louis James of the University of Kent discoursed upon Reynolds’s diverse array of fictional heroines, hailing from both Occident and Orient. While the social novels of The Seamstress (1851), Mary Price (1852), Rosa Lambert (1855) exposed the lives of servants and seamstresses, and the hypocrisies that underlie the trope of the ‘wronged woman’, James also argued that, in these works’ blend of domestic setting and scandalous plotting, Reynolds anticipated the ‘Sensation Fiction’ craze of the 1860s. Moreover, James suggested that, in the Pontic adventuring of Leila; or, the Star of Mingrelia (1856), lies an allegorical repudiation of European interventionism in the Near East, specifically relating to the Crimean War.
Meantime, Ian Haywood of the University of Roehampton guided us through ‘Reynolds Country’, a state bordering the newly established Republic of Castelcicala. One such anecdote from Haywood’s voyages related to the fact that Reynolds’s ardent republicanism extended to naming two of his children after three of the great names of 1848, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin of France, Giuseppe Mazzini of Italy, and Lajos Kossuth of Hungary. By virtue of the sheer esotericism of their names, Haywood was able to track the careers of Ledru Rollin and Mazzini Kossuth Reynolds, and we were perturbed to discover that the pair had been caught fraudulently selling shares in a fictitious Cornish mine. A farrago worthy of serialisation – had Reynolds himself been alive to see it.
Finally, Anne Humpherys, of CUNY, walked us through Reynolds’s various Pickwick knock-offs – starting with Pickwick Abroad (1838), then Noctes Pickwickianae (1840), and finally Pickwick Married (1842). Arguing that these works are neither the same as Dickens’s original, nor completely different, but instead constitute ‘a third kind of work’, Humpherys demonstrated how each Pickwick spin-off remained Dickensian in its characterisation and narratives, but Reynoldsian in the additional degree of sex and politics. Reynolds’s hand can be seen in the radicalisation of Sam Weller in Pickwick Abroad, and in the glimpses into the conjugal life of Mr Pickwick and his twenty-year-old wife in Pickwick Married.
The reader will perhaps be conscious that, however well acquainted we may now be with the various elements of Reynolds’s life and works – with Reynolds the novelist, Reynolds the journalist, and Reynolds the overzealous filial denominator – our knowledge of how these elements converged and manifested themselves in Reynolds the man remains indeterminate. The task of Reynoldsian resurrectionist fell to Emma Curry, whose comedy, Wellington Street, starring the great G.W.M. himself, also made its West End debut on this fateful night. Based on the premise explored in Dickens, Reynolds, and Mayhew on Wellington Street (2015) by G.W.M. Reynolds Society president, Mary Shannon – that, in the 1840s and ‘50s, Reynolds, Charles Dickens, and Henry Mayhew, among others, all worked on the same London street – Curry’s sitcom served to portray the rivalries and the clashes of personalities that this proximity no doubt engendered.
The extract presented to us portrayed just such a scene, with an exuberant Reynolds defending the narrative improbabilities of his latest instalment of The Mysteries of London, before being confronted by arch-rival, Charles Dickens. The condescending Dickens, still bitter about Reynolds’s phoney Pickwicks, goads Reynolds into rivalling his proposed contribution to the launch party of Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor (Dickens is keen to effect ‘urgent moderate action’ with regard to the level of poverty in the metropolis). Reynolds’s apparent proclivity to fractiousness extends also to his wife, Susannah, who reproaches him for his overuse of profanities, demanding ‘no more “blackguarding turds”’ after yet another of his anti-Dickensian tirades. Like all the great serials, Curry’s extract closed on a cliff-hanger, with Reynolds fretting over how he can outdo Dickens at Mayhew’s soirée – no doubt portending a farcical denouement. Curry’s take on the literary scene of mid-nineteenth century London, excellently performed by the cast, blended the affection and irreverence that characterises the literature of this period, and also capitalised on a setting that lends itself to comic treatment.
Our narrative is about to close, but ere we lay aside the keyboard, thanks and congratulations are owed to Mary Shannon and the G.W.M. Reynolds Society for organising the evening. Also, to Louis James for exhibiting his collection of rare books and other artefacts of Reynoldsiana. To Emma Curry and the cast of Wellington Street. And to the Westminster Archives who acted as our hosts. But here, reader, we must part ways, our narrative is coming to an end – the sky is darkening over London, thunder roars and rolls overhead, and I have a train to catch.
Daniel Jenkin-Smith (with additional material from G.W.M. Reynolds).