By Stephen Basedo
Who was Victorian England’s best-selling author? There are many contenders for this title. Charles Dickens would obviously have a claim. Yet as you’re reading this short article on the G.W.M. Reynolds Society’s website, presumably you think that the eponymous author of some of the Victorian period’s most famous popular literary works also has some claim to this title as well.
I certainly think so—it’s why Mya Driver and I named our recent book Victorian England’s Bestselling Author: The Revolutionary Life of G.W.M. Reynolds (2022) and I should warn readers now that this post is essentially a shameless advertisement for the said book (no doubt Reynolds himself would approve of the self-promotion…)
This work represents my attempt to draw for scholars an outline of the life of one of the Victorian era’s most famous literary figures. Resources for Reynolds’s life and times are scarce, of course; he left us no manuscript materials such as letters and diaries and all we really have to go on are his newspaper writings and novels, as well as some scant information in census and Royal Literary Fund records (the latter of which Dick Collins did an excellent job of piecing together long before I became a researcher).
Yet lack of resources has not prevented scholars from the writing of biographies for other literary figures such as Henry Fielding (who likewise left us little manuscript material) and so, in 2020, I decided that maybe Reynolds deserved his own book as well.
Much was already known about Reynolds’s life, thanks in part to Dick Collins,[i] but also due to the fact that when I started writing, there was already one essay collection on Reynolds by Anne Humpherys and Louis James[ii] (another by Jennifer Conary and Mary Shannon is due this year); a monograph by Stephen Knight;[iii] in-depth scholarly articles by the likes of Ian Haywood; as well as significant biographical and critical sketches in monographs by Haywood[iv] and Shannon.[v]
What was needed, therefore, was someone to synthesize much of this information, provide new insights into his life, and present it to the scholarly public. This is what I have tried to do (I shall leave others to decide on how well that was done).
After all, Reynolds is becoming an internationally renowned British author. His fame, then and now, in the United States and in the broader English-speaking world will surprise no one. Many of the society’s members are from the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Yet recently I had the pleasure of discovering scholarly work by—and becoming friends with—Matheus Rodrigues da S. Mello of the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Mello has already published one brilliant article in Portuguese titled ‘The Mysteries of London: Cheap Literature and the Workers’ Movement in England (1830–40)’—Reynolds scholars can expect a translation of this on my own website—which sets Reynolds’s mysteries in its social context. He is also completing further work on Reynolds this year.[vi]
Mello is the latest in a long line of South American fans of Reynolds. This is evident by the findings present in a recently (just on Friday last) published article by Luiz Felipe Anchieta Guerra and I on Argentine novelist Juana Manso’s Mistérios del Plata (published in Rio de Janeiro in 1852) in Victorian Popular Fictions. In this paper we set the publication of Manso’s Misterios novel alongside what we call a global mysteries ‘tradition’. Manso’s novel is significant for Reynolds scholars because, in her introduction, she references Reynolds and Eugene Sue:
‘It was not out of servile imitation of the Mysteries of Paris, and those of London, that I called this novel Mysterios del Plata.’[vii]
In view of the new-found Brazilian and Argentinian connection, one thing is clear: ‘Reynolds Studies’ is a field that will grow, not only in Brazil but elsewhere. PhD students, every year, seem to present us with fascinating conference papers on Reynolds. Almost annually new articles seem to come out. Thus, as far as Reynolds’s biography is concerned, I hope, that some enterprising younger scholar takes on the task of writing it anew one day, and finds new information, critiques my findings, and illuminates our knowledge of Reynolds’s life even more.
[i] Collins, Dick, ed. The Necromancer (New York: Valancourt Books, 2007)
[ii] Humpherys, Anne and Louis James, eds. G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2019)
[iii] Knight, Stephen, G.W.M. Reynolds and his Fiction: The Man Who Outsold Dickens (London: Routledge, 2019)
[iv] Ian Haywood, The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics and the People, 1790–1860 (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
[v] Shannon, Mary, Dickens, Reynolds and Mayhew on Wellington Street: the Print Culture of a Victorian Street (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015)
[vi] Matheus Rodrigues da S. Mello, ‘Os Mistérios de Londres: Literatura barata e movimento operário na Inglaterra (1830–40)’, in Movimentos, Transitos e Memorias: Novas perspectivas, secúlo XVII–XIX, ed. by Marieta Pinheiro de Carvalho, Margarida Durães, Vitoria Schettini de Andrade, vol. I (Niterói: Asoec-Universo, 2019), pp. 240–54.
[vii] Manso, Juana Manso, ‘Misterios del Plata: Romance Historico Contemporaneo’,Journal das Senhoras, 1 January 1852, 6: ‘Não foi por servil imitação aos mysterios de Paris, e aos de Londres, que chamei a este romance Mysterios del Plata’.
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