George W. M. Reynolds, author of such fabulous Victorian novels as The Mysteries of London (1844-48) and Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-47) never ceases to be entertaining, and yet, The Seamstress (1850 serialized, 1853 book), despite its rather sensational subtitle, falls into too much of a cliché in parts to be a truly great Victorian novel, although it does have some social criticism and a tragic rather than sentimental conclusion worthy of notice.
The title character is Virginia Mordaunt, a poor seamstress in London who has never known her father and whose mother died not long ago. She is now eighteen and trying to make her living in England as a seamstress. She knows nothing about her parents’ pasts. She only knows a man used to visit her mother and give her money a few times a year, but those payments apparently ceased after her mother’s death.
The novel opens very well, suggesting it will be a biting piece of social criticism. We see Virginia working late into the night to finish sewing a dress. She then sells the dress to Mrs. Jackson for half its value. Mrs. Jackson is a middle woman and an invalid, so she asks Virginia to bring the dress to Miss Pembroke, who in turn pays for the dress, then asks her to resell it to Madame DuPleasy. Madame DuPleasy—an Englishwoman whose real name is Snuggins but who uses a fake name to get patrons, including a female member of the royal family—pays fourteen shillings for the dress, while Mrs. Jackson had only paid Virginia three shillings and sixpence for it. Madame DuPleasy then asks Virginia to bring the dress to the Duchess of Belmont, who must pay cash for it because she is already in debt up to 600 pounds with Madame DuPleasy. The Duchess pays twelve pounds and nine pence for the dress, and even subtracting the four guineas Madame DuPleasy charged for the materials used to make the dress, her profit is extreme compared to the small amount Virginia made. Consequently, Reynolds wants us to see right away how capitalism works against the poor and honest.
While Virginia is running the dress about London, she is seen and admired by a young man who will turn out to be Charles, the Marquis of Arden, and the stepson of the Duchess of Belmont. The Marquis immediately tells her she’s beautiful, but Mr. Lavenham, a family friend to the Duke and Duchess, tells him not to insult her and walks Virginia home.
Virginia returns home to learn Miss Pembroke is going out of town for a few weeks so she won’t be giving work to Mrs. Jackson, who, therefore, cannot give work to Virginia. Mrs. Jackson suggests Virginia talk to Miss Barnet, who boards in the same building as Mrs. Jackson and Virginia. When Virginia does so, she learns Miss Barnet also once worked as a seamstress, but now she is mistress to a wealthy man named Mr. Osmond.
Meanwhile, the Duke and Duchess of Belmont hold a grand ball. During the ball, Mr. Collinson accosts the Duke because he owes him money, and he gets the Duke to agree to marry one of his two daughters if he cannot pay within two years. While Mr. Collinson is not a Jew, he works with an “openhearted” Jew named Mr. Solomon.
A violent scene now occurs at the party in which the Duchess ends up stabbed and Mr. Lavenham is seen holding the knife. He is sent to prison, but Virginia, believing he is innocent after his kindness to her, visits him in prison. Meanwhile, the Duchess recovers, but not before, in delirium, revealing a secret that her maid Clementine hears.
Meanwhile, the Marquis has continued to pursue Virginia until she believes he loves her. Then she discovers he is Mr. Osmond, the lover of Miss Barnet. However, he convinces her he loves only her and will marry her. Virginia falls in love with him, but she does not realize Clementine has been following the Marquis. Clementine goes to the Duke and warns him that the Marquis is pursuing Virginia. The Duke does not want his son to marry beneath him so he agrees to Clementine doing whatever necessary to destroy the relationship.
Clementine now meets Virginia in the street and befriends her. She tells her a story of woe of a fictional sister who was made pregnant and then abandoned by her lover. As Virginia and Clementine are walking together, Clementine points out the Marquis in a carriage with his sister and claims the Marquis is the man who abandoned her sister and that he is already married as evidenced by his wife being in the carriage with him. Virginia is heartbroken from believing the Marquis has deceived her, and she quickly moves to a new location where he can’t find her.
Clementine now goes to the Duke and blackmails him by threatening to reveal the Duchess’ secret. She demands that she get to marry the Marquis. The Duke unwillingly agrees, but then he serendipitously meets a young gentleman later known as Mr. Lovel. Mr. Lovel is down on his luck from losing at gambling so he agrees to the Duke’s proposition that he murder Clementine. The plot results in Clementine believing she will rendezvous with the Marquis, and she’s even told to take the Duchess’ jewels with her as part of her wedding ornaments. Then she is murdered in Hyde Park and it’s made to look like a robbery.
Meanwhile, Virginia has found a new place of residence that is even more squalid than the first. We learn that she now works for another middle woman who works for Aaron and Sons, a great house built on the skulls, crossbones, blood, and marrow of the miserable wretches forced to sell themselves in the “Slave-Market of British Labour.” Virginia makes slop-shirts at two pence, farthing a piece. If she works from 6 a.m. to midnight, she can make three a day. She must pay for her thread and for any work she spoils, so if lucky, she can earn at most three shillings a week. Reynolds states that the 30,000 needlewomen of England in such situations should demand an interview with the Queen to improve their situation. The government looks the other way at how these women live because it wants its taxes from Aaron and Sons. (It is notable here that Aaron is a Jewish name.) Reynolds goes on to say that one doesn’t have to look beyond the boundaries of this world for devils and demons—there are humans making it into a terrestrial hell—they are soul-destroying devils and demons, vampyre-like in drinking the blood of men, women, and children, and hideous cannibals. (While the novel is not overt in badmouthing Jews, it does have undertones here of connecting Jews with vampires, a theme quite common in the Gothic and through the figure of the Wandering Jew, who is a source for later vampire figures in British literature. Although this is not a Gothic novel, Reynolds did write three Gothic novels and frequently uses Gothic elements in his other novels.)
Virginia finds herself sexually harassed by the foreman at Aaron and Sons, but when she goes to the master of the warehouse, he thinks she’s just trying to manipulate him for her advantage because he can’t believe she or any of the women who work for him are virtuous. Eventually, Virginia threatens the foreman with a knife to keep him away from her; as a result, she loses her job. Here we have a similar situation to Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) where Clarissa threatens to kill herself with a knife to keep Lovelace away from her. The harassment in the factory also predates similar behavior that Fantine experiences in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862).
Virginia now becomes ill and close to death. Meanwhile, two years have passed when the Marquis overhears Collinson threatening his father and comes to realize all the underhanded behavior that has occurred. He has continued to look for Virginia, not understanding until now why she deserted him. He goes to the Duchess and reveals what he knows. She now, for the first time, realizes the girl he loves is Virginia Mordaunt and she reveals that Virginia is her and Mr. Lavenham’s child from a time before she married the Duke. Mr. Lavenham happens to be released from prison right at this time. A chain of events leads the Marquis to learning Virginia is dying, so he and her parents rush to her bedside in time for a death scene worthy of Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (serialized 1851-2). If Uncle Tom’s Cabin were not published after The Seamstress, I would suggest Reynolds stole from Stowe, which he was not above doing, and it seems ironic that both novels focus on a type of slavery, despite their vast differences.
Virginia’s death is not surprising given her name. While the surname Mordaunt technically appears to mean “the biter,” I think Reynolds’ intention was a word that sounded more like mort or death. In other words, Virginia Mordaunt means Virgin Death, and to die as a virgin is the fate that awaits Virginia. She must die as a virgin to show her innocence, just as Richardson’s Clarissa had to die after her rape. She also dies like Little Eva and Dickens’ Little Nell (The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841) to show she is too good for this wicked world.
The Duchess and the Marquis return home from Virginia’s deathbed only to discover the Duke has committed suicide. Angry, the Marquis now accuses Mr. Collinson of causing the Duke’s death through his behavior, as well as bringing about Virginia’s death (the edition of the novel I read from Scholarly Select is missing two pages so Collinson’s behavior in regards to Virginia is not clear but appears to have something to do with a document Collinson has. Either the missing pages explain this or Reynolds didn’t make this point clear). Charles forces Collinson into a duel in which both are killed. The Duchess dies of grief three days later. In the end, the murderer of Clementine, Mr. Lovel, ends up in jail and his new wife, our old friend Miss Barnet, ends up walking the streets (presumably meaning she becomes a prostitute). The only characters who have any hope of happiness are the Duke’s two daughters, one of whom marries a country squire three times her age, and the other marries the man she loves after four years spent recovering from the shock of all her family’s death. Reynolds tells us that as little as he likes the British Aristocracy, he nevertheless hopes the couple are happy. Finally, we learn that Aaron and Sons, that “Palace of Infamy,” continues to flourish, even though Reynolds wishes the earth would open and swallow it.
The Seamstress is not a remarkable novel. It could have been a much stronger piece of social criticism if its overly dramatic plot were toned down to focus on the social problems it depicts. Reynolds loved sensational plots, but while The Mysteries of London works well because of the multiple plots it interweaves, the characters in The Seamstress are largely static and clichés rather than well-developed to the point where we feel anything for them. That said, Reynolds clearly cared about the working class and the novel deserves to be included in studies of the Condition of England novel of the 1840s and 1850s. Reynolds was one of the leading figures of the Chartist movement in his day, founding in 1850 Reynolds’ Weekly Newspaper, the leading radical newspaper of Victorian England. By 1870, it had a circulation of 350,000. However, in The Seamstress, he lets his politics take a back seat to his desire to entertain his readers through his sensational plots. His readership was also likely of the lower and middle classes, so he wrote to a level they would enjoy, making the aristocracy glamorous and yet criminal while upholding the value of hard work and virtue as displayed through his virgin heroine.
Regardless, The Seamstress is a novel that deserves more recognition than it has, as do all of Reynolds’ works.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and numerous other books. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.