By Sophie Raine
After seven years, I finally came to the end of my PhD and submitted my thesis ‘”Haunts of Infamy”: penny dreadfuls and aberrant urban spaces”. The first part of my thesis’ title, as many may have spotted, comes from G. W. M Reynolds’s best-selling serial The Mysteries of London (1844-46) and is used to describe the criminal den of the Resurrection Man. Though my research looked at how penny dreadfuls on the whole depicted clandestine sites and abusive institutions within the city (namely the dressmaker’s, brothel, asylum and convent), Reynolds’s description felt very apt for conveying these spaces which were ripe material for urban investigators and lovers of conspiracy and scandal.
The gratitude my work owes towards Reynolds, however, goes beyond a small nod in my title and it is only upon completing my thesis that I am able to reflect upon just how much Reynolds has influenced my research. After all, while I do not address his fictional works with the level of detail they deserve, Reynolds’s name appears in my thesis almost a hundred times and he is mentioned in every single chapter. This speaks, I feel, to how influential Reynolds was to other penny writers and in almost every work of penny fiction I researched, there were clear traces of Reynolds’s style.
My research aimed to explore penny dreadfuls beyond the work of Reynolds and demonstrate that, rather than Reynolds being an uncharacteristically radical and talented penny writer in a sea of plagiarising hacks, that many works of penny fiction were engaging in similar social issues and were worthy of reappraisal. I was able to uncover some fascinating works of penny fiction that had been critically neglected. My favourites of these include Lieutenant Parker’s The Young Ladies of London (1864) which tells the story of the downfall of a brothel keeper, brought about by the women he has exploited and abused; this serial also shows the sex trade as being maintained through a complex criminal network across the city, patronised by wealthy gentlemen. While I argue this portrayal of fallen women is more radical than examples I have read from Reynolds, the commentary on how the bourgeois exploit and harm the city’s most poor and vulnerable is articulated with the incredulousness seen in one of Reynolds’s serials. The economic divide within the city is returned to time and time again by penny writers in texts such as The Work Girls of London (1865), Herbert Thornley’s A Life in London and Edward Ellis’s Ruth the Betrayer (1863). Many of the works I studied, however, did not simply repeat the concerns of Reynolds but often innovated upon them, and even began to explore other forms of injustice in the city. Ruth the Betrayer, for example, addresses how women can be disempowered through both secular institutions such as the police force and through religious ones like the convent. A clear pattern trend to emerge: penny writers were creating their own urban investigations into prohibited spaces. These writers seemed to be following in Reynolds’s footsteps. As he navigated the city, mapping out its most depraved and clandestine of spaces, others followed.
When I began my research in 2015, I had planned to include a great deal more of Reynolds’s research. My thesis, however, took me down different avenues of research and Reynolds was, as a result, used as a way to understand how penny fiction had been shaped. Nonetheless, Reynolds always remained in my periphery and all roads it would seem, led back to Reynolds, whether I had planned this or not. For example, Reynolds Newspaper was instrumental in introducing me to texts I otherwise would not have been aware of, through its advertisements and reviews. It was clear that, even though my work focuses on lesser-known penny writers, it was impossible to detach from Reynolds. Having read approximately 50 entire penny serials, there is seldom one where I felt the influence of Reynolds, conscious or not, was noticeable. Where this form is concerned, Reynolds seems to leave his footprints everywhere.
Sophie Raine is a postdoc at Lancaster University studying penny dreadfuls and their representations of urban spaces. Sophie is the co-editor of Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic: Investigations of Pernicious Tales of Terror (2023) with UWP. Other publications include ‘Mapping the Metropolis through Streetwalking in Parker’s The Young Ladies of London’ (2019) in Victorian Popular Fiction Journal, ‘Subterranean Spaces in Penny Dreadfuls’ in The Palgrave Handbook of Steam Age Gothic (2021) and ‘“Founded on Fact”: Paratextual Politics in Penny Fiction’ (2022) in Victorian Popular Fiction Journal. In addition to this, Sophie is the Peer-Review Editor for the Victorian Network Journal.