By Dr. Stephen Carver, Literary Historian
As a child, I possessed a morbid passion for nineteenth century gothic literature. I had inherited this trait from my mother, a Catholic turned Spiritualist with a taste for true crime and horror film and fiction. My parents had me late in life and my grandparents were all born towards the end of the reign of Victoria. I was thus always dimly aware of the name ‘G.W.M. Reynolds’ through not only the New English Library anthologies of out-of-copyright Victoriana which I sought out compulsively in second-hand shops, but from my extended family’s own hoard of dusty nineteenth century novels and periodicals.
Years later, as a postgrad at the University of East Anglia in the 90s, I was able to study Reynolds more seriously as part of a doctorate on then critically neglected nineteenth century novelists and journalists. (This ultimately turned into my equally neglected critical biography of W.H. Ainsworth, the author of Rookwood, The Tower of London and the controversial Jack Sheppard.) I was fascinated by jobbing writers and penny-a-liners, particularly if, like Ainsworth and Reynolds, they fell foul of the literary elite, especially Dickens. As a working-class student, I also found Reynolds’s politics extremely relatable, while loving his visceral urban gothic. And back then you couldn’t read his work online via the Hathi Trust; you had to actively seek it out in specialist libraries and antiquarian bookshops. One of my prize possessions remains an original bound edition of the first volume of The Mysteries of the Court, the most expensive book I have ever bought, just to see how it differed from The Mysteries of London.
I started teaching Reynolds at UEA as part of an undergraduate literary history course called ‘The 19th Century Underworld’ (which I finally turned into a book a couple of years back), and met other Reynolds scholars, most notably Professors Louis James and Anne Humpherys, at the G.W.M. Reynolds: Popular Culture, Literature & Radicalism in the Nineteenth Century Conference at the University of Birmingham in 2000. There was much exited talk about turning the papers into a book, and this became G.W.M. Reynolds & Nineteenth-Century British Society, edited by Anne and Louis, to which I contributed an essay on The Mysteries of London and underworld slang, also writing the Reynolds entry for The Literary Encyclopedia on the back of the research.
More recently, now what my wife calls ‘a recovering academic’ working in publishing, I started to put my old essays and lectures online, partly to reach a wider audience but largely for my own amusement. The process of revisiting these pieces and editing them in a blog format coincided with my first serious attempt at a historical novel, notionally about the wreck of the troopship Birkenhead, called Shark Alley. Once more inspired by the energetic and frequently tragic hacks of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, I realised my protagonist was not, as first conceived, a young Irish redcoat at all, but a jaded journalist and failed novelist with Chartist and Marxist leanings travelling on the doomed ship as a special correspondent. I became fascinated with the idea of creating a character so plausible that he could be slotted credibly into popular literary history, using the murky world of penny dreadful publishing as a cover and the device of the ‘found manuscript’ as a frame. I called my protagonist ‘Jack Vincent’ (my son’s forenames reversed) and subtitled the book The Memoirs of a Penny-a-liner. In the spirit of the original early-Victorians, I released it as an illustrated online serial, followed up by a triple-decker novel. My wife, an artist and graphic designer, recreated nineteenth century woodcuts for the project, including several from Reynolds’ serials.
In my hero’s backstory, with which I became so enchanted it became a full-blown and highly uncommercial parallel narrative, I attempted to chart the rise of the Victorian novel, from Egan’s Life in London to the ascendancy of Dickens, the Newgate Controversy, Reynolds’s Mysteries, and Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. ‘Jack Vincent’, therefore, had to work with all these men, and I depicted him writing for Egan as a Regency ‘death hunter’, meeting the young Dickens at the Marshalsea, falling from grace during the Newgate controversy, and working with Edward Lloyd, Reynolds, George Vickers and George Dicks before joining Mayhew’s team. Out of work again, he finally ends up as a war correspondent heading for South Africa in 1852 onboard the ill-fated Birkenhead, destined to wreck off Danger Point en route to the colonial war with the Basuto. Young soldiers – raw recruits mostly – stood to attention on deck as she went down so the civilian passengers could escape, before about half of them were taken by great white sharks. Reynolds was a significant secondary character, a kindred spirit, both sensational and subversive, who rescues Jack from drunken obscurity. Jack’s ‘Memoirs’ thus cover Reynolds working with Vickers on The Mysteries of London, striking out alone with Dicks, and his role in the Trafalgar Square riots and the Third Chartist Petition. Alas, my version of Jaws meets Titanic did not make me rich, but I was deeply gratified when Professor Roger Sales wrote to me that ‘I never knew quite what was true and when you were having me on…’
A couple of publishers half-believed as well, and because of my little serial, I now write outsider literary history for Pen & Sword and Morton Media. The great G.W.M. Reynolds then, ‘a name’, wrote Dickens ‘with which no lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated’, remains forever in my heart and in my work.