Category Archives: George W.M. Reynolds

George W. M. Reynolds’ The Seamstress, or The White Slave of England

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.

Edition of The Seamstress that I read. Be forewarned that this is a photo copy of the 1853 edition. The print is excruciatingly small and in many places faded and two pages are missing. However, it is readable with a magnifying glass or if you have very good eyes and use a bookmarker. All the original illustrations are included. Hopefully someone will start reprinting more of Reynolds’ novels in better editions soon.

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 deceives Virginia into believing the Marquis is an adulterer who ruined her sister.

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.

Clementine’s murdered body found in Hyde Park by the police.

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 dies, surrounded by her parents, Mr. Lavenham and the Duchess of Belmont, and her lover, Charles, the Marquis of Arden.

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.

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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.

 

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Melmoth the Wanderer: Grandfather to Gothic and Irish Literature

Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer will be celebrating its two hundredth anniversary next year, and it deserves to be celebrated since it is one of the most important Gothic novels of all time, yet few people who are not students of the Gothic have ever heard of it. Published in 1820, the novel was the most popular of the several novels Maturin, an Anglo-Irish and Anglican clergyman, published. It is also one of the last works from the Golden Age of Gothic Literature, ranging from roughly 1790 to 1820 when Radcliffe, Lewis, Shelley, and many other writers published notable Gothic novels. Most importantly, it had a huge influence on many other Irish and Gothic novels that followed it.

Charles Maturin (1780-1824) wrote several novels including historical fiction that predated Sir Walter Scott, whom he was friends with, and a popular tragedy, “Bertram.”

In this article, I will discuss a little about why Melmoth the Wanderer is an important Gothic novel, especially for its title Gothic wanderer figure and its anti-Catholicism, and then I will look at some of the other works it influenced.

Contribution to the Gothic Wanderer Figure and Anti-Catholicism

A good summary of Melmoth the Wanderer can be found at Wikipedia for those not familiar with the novel although I would encourage you to read it. Its stories-within-a-story technique, a common element of the Gothic, makes the reader wonder how all the stories will come together, but in the tale of Immalee, the full extent of Melmoth’s Gothic wanderer role is apparent. Melmoth is a member of an Irish family who in the seventeenth century was cursed and now wanders about Europe causing terror and tempting the innocent. He is not immortal, but he does have an extended life of about 170 years before he meets his fate at the end of the novel. Although he does try to tempt people, at times Melmoth feels torn with guilt, especially when he attempts to convince the innocent Immalee to marry him. Immalee was lost in childhood and has grown up alone in nature, innocent and childlike, but eventually, she is found and returned to her family in Spain. However, before Immalee is found, Melmoth visits her on the island and educates her in religion and other problems and hypocrisies of human society—or rather he miseducates her. After Immalee returns to Spain, Melmoth convinces her to marry him in a dark ceremony, and then she conceives his child. When her brother accosts Melmoth, Melmoth slays him and Immalee nearly dies from grief. She is then taken to the prisons of the Inquisition where she gives birth to a daughter. Because of her sin for loving a minion of Satan, she is condemned to lifetime imprisonment in the Inquisition’s prison, and her child is to be taken from her and raised in a convent. However, the child dies before it can be taken from its mother and Immalee dies soon after.

Although the novel was written by an Irishman, it’s important to note that Maturin had a low opinion of Catholics and was himself Anglican. The novel is the most extreme example of anti-Catholicism of all the Gothic novels I have read. Much of the novel is the story of Moncada, who is forced by his family members—themselves manipulated by the clergy—to enter a seminary and become a priest. Because he resists, Moncada is beaten, tortured, and locked up in a cell without light. The depiction of the Inquisition is overall very derogatory. Not that the Inquisition was not a horrible institution, but Maturin has no problem with depicting it in the most derogatory way possible, likely without any real knowledge of the institution.

A Sequel by Honoré de Balzac

This edition of Melmoth the Wanderer includes Balzac’s sequel, and an introduction by Julian Hawthorne, the son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who referenced Melmoth in his 1828 novel “Fanshawe.”

At the novel’s conclusion, Melmoth’s prolonged life appears to end. However, because no one witnesses Melmoth’s death and there is no final body, the possibility exists that he lives on. Melmoth may not have died since it is believed that Maturin intended a never-written sequel in which Melmoth would return. Honoré de Balzac did write a sequel, Melmoth Reconciled (1835), in which Melmoth is able to find someone to take his place and thereby rest from his wanderings. This short sequel is lacking in Gothic atmosphere and effectiveness, but Balzac does retain the concentration upon Melmoth’s eyes which create a “piercing glance that read men’s inmost thoughts.” The French work is also progressive compared to British Gothic in that it allows the Gothic wanderer to rest, which would be denied to Gothic wanderers in British fiction until the Victorian period.

Influence of Melmoth the Wanderer on J. S. Le Fanu and James Joyce

In rereading Melmoth the Wanderer, I noticed many aspects and possible influences it may have had on literature that I had failed to notice previously when I wrote about it in The Gothic Wanderer. First is the opening scenes where John Melmoth comes to his uncle’s deathbed. This scene is written in a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted, and comical manner, despite the gravity of the situation. The manuscript John Melmoth reads that depicts life at the court of Charles II is also of this style. What surprised me was that these pages seem like they could have come straight out of J. S. Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard (1863). I’ve always thought that particular novel of Le Fanu’s to be almost unreadable, but the comical tone is very similar, suggesting that Le Fanu must have read Maturin. Notably, James Joyce is said to have been inspired by Le Fanu’s novel in writing Finnegan’s Wake (1939).

However, the influence of Maturin on Joyce is even more specific. In Chapter 14 of Ulysses (1922), titled “Oxen of the Sun,” Joyce uses a variety of literary styles that basically trace the history of the English language. One section of the chapter, lines 1010-1037, is written as a parody of Gothic novels, as scholars have long noted. Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated even notes that this parody owes a debt to Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard.

Note the similarity between this passage from “Oxen of the Sun” and the following one from Melmoth the Wanderer:

“The secret panel beside the chimney slid back and in the recess appeared…Haines! Which of us did not feel his flesh creep? He had a portfolio full of Celtic literature in one hand, in the other a phial marked Poison. Surprise, horror, loathing were depicted on all faces while he eyed them with a ghastly grin.”

In the penultimate paragraph of Chapter 1 of Melmoth the Wanderer, John Melmoth first sees Melmoth the Wanderer as follows:

“At this moment, John saw the door open, and a figure appear at it, who looked round the room, and then quietly and deliberately retired, but not before John had discovered in his face the living original of the portrait. His first impulse was to utter an exclamation of terror, but his breath felt stopped.”

John is shocked because he has already heard that Melmoth the Wanderer has lived well over a century and seen the portrait of this relative. The two passages are not obviously the same, but the entrance of a figure who causes shock occurs in both, and I suspect Joyce borrowed it from Maturin, whether consciously or not. Since Maturin was an Irish writer, Joyce was likely familiar with his work, though I am not aware of any scholars discussing Maturin’s influence on him, something that should be explored further.

Influence on George W. M. Reynolds

This painting by Eugene Delacroix is titled “Melmoth or Interior of a Dominican Convent.” It depicts Moncada being mistreated by the other monks for wanting to renounce his vows.

George W. M. Reynolds was the bestselling author of Victorian England and a key player in the Gothic renaissance that occurred in the 1840s and 1850s with the rise of the penny dreadful. One of Reynolds’ novels, The Necromancer (1851-2), tells the story of a man who has a bargain with the devil to marry seven women over the course of a couple of centuries so that they sell their souls to Satan; if he fails, his own soul will be lost. The plot of Reynolds’ novel recalls Melmoth’s effort to deceive Immalee into marrying him and agreeing to follow his God (Satan), although she never completely understands his purposes. That she ends up dead, and in the final scene of the novel, Melmoth is taken by the devil suggests that perhaps Melmoth had a similar pact with Satan. Maturin does not say this overtly, but Reynolds might well have read the novel, read between the lines, and expanded on the idea in his own book. Since so little is known about Reynolds, we do not know if he read Maturin’s novel or not, but it seems plausible given that he was obviously well-versed in the Gothic tradition.

Influence on Anthony Trollope

Scholars have not failed to note that the villain in one of Anthony Trollope’s greatest novels, The Way We Live Now (1875) is named Melmotte, a name that may owe a debt to Maturin’s Melmoth. Besides the name similarity, there is much confusion and many rumors about exactly who Melmotte is in Trollope’s novel. He is suspected of being Jewish because he is in finance, but beyond this, he is known for having lived in various locations—a type of wandering that makes him akin to the Wandering Jew, whose legend was a major influence on the creation of Melmoth the Wanderer. Among the possible backgrounds of Melmotte is also that he is Irish—his father believed to be an Irish coiner in New York named Melmody (Chapter 98), from whom Melmotte may have learned forgery. Melmotte, of course, claims he is English, wanting to rise in English society.

Since Trollope spent considerable time in Ireland, it is not surprising that he was likely familiar with this Irish novel, which would have been quite popular in his childhood. Coincidentally, Trollope worked for the Post Office in Ireland and Maturin’s father was a Post Office official.

Influence on Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Charles Dickens

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni (1842) is noteworthy for how it reversed the Gothic tradition by creating positive depictions of Rosicrucian characters with extended lives. (For a full discussion of Zanoni and Rosicrucianism in the Gothic tradition see my book The Gothic Wanderer.) Notably, Rosicrucians were known for life-extension and so Melmoth the Wanderer may have been influenced by the Rosicrucian tradition, which had already influenced other earlier novels such as Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne (1811). (Notably, George W. M. Reynolds’ novel Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7) features the Rosicrucian founder, Christian Rosencrux, as a character.) Bulwer-Lytton may have been influenced specifically by the end scenes of Melmoth the Wanderer when Immalee is imprisoned by the Inquisition and gives birth to a child who dies. In Zanoni, Bulwer-Lytton’s title character is a Rosicrucian who has lived a long life. He and his lover, Viola, are caught up in the chaos of the French Revolution, resulting in Viola giving birth to their child in prison. Melmoth dies long after Immalee when Satan comes to take him, but Zanoni ends up dying at the guillotine. However, hope remains in the image of the child born to Viola, who survives.

Notably, Zanoni was a major influence on Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859), particularly Sidney Carton’s sacrifice at the end of the novel, but also because of its many Rosicrucian elements, as discussed in my book The Gothic Wanderer. Therefore, Melmoth the Wanderer may be said to be the grandfather of Dickens’ novel.

Influence on Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was Charles Maturin’s great-nephew by marriage and adopted the name Sebastian Melmoth to protect his privacy and comment upon his state as an outcast following his famous trial and prison term.

It is well-known, but worth repeating, that Maturin was the uncle by marriage to Oscar Wilde’s mother. After Wilde was released from prison after serving a sentence for homosexuality, Oscar Wilde adopted the name of Sebastian Melmoth while he wandered about Europe. The name Melmoth implied he was cursed and a wanderer, and the name Sebastian referenced St. Sebastian, considered the first gay icon of the nineteenth century.

Numerous Other Influences

Melmoth the Wanderer influenced many other literary works in direct and indirect ways and has even influenced the creation of characters in movies and TV. The following list comes from Wikipedia, which includes a few of the works I have already mentioned:

  • In Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas (the basis for Roman Polanski’s film The Ninth Gate), Corso bumps into the mystery girl following him as she is reading Melmoth the Wanderer in the lobby of the hotel after seeing Fargas to review his copy of The Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows.
  • In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fanshawe, one of the major characters is named “Doctor Melmoth.”
  • In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Professor Humbert Humbert calls his automobile “Melmoth.”
  • In John Banville’s 1989 novel The Book of Evidence, the narrator steals an automobile from a garage called “Melmoth’s”; the make of the car is a Humber, an allusion to both Wilde and Nabokov.
  • “Melmoth” is mentioned in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
  • In Dave Sim’s Cerebus comic book (issues 139–150), there’s a writer named Oscar (homage to Oscar Wilde), who’s registered under the name “Melmoth” at his hotel.
  • In Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers metaseries, Melmoth is an antagonist of Frankenstein.
  • In Leonie Swann’s Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story, the mysterious sheep who has wandered the world and comes home to teach the flock what he has learned is named Melmoth.
  • The mysterious financier Augustus Melmotte in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now resembles Melmoth in more than name.
  • In an 1842 review of Stanley Thorn, Edgar Allan Poe refers to “the devil in Melmoth” as an ineffectual seducer of souls.
  • In letters P. Lovecraft addresses Donald Wandrei as Melmoth the Wandrei.
  • A British magazine about surrealism was named Melmoth after the book. Melmoth was published from 1979-1981 and its contributors included George Melly and Ithell Colquhoun.
  • In the British TV murder mystery series Midsomer Murders the episode “Murder By Magic” (2015) included a mysterious country manor called Melmouth House, the home of an infamous rake-hell and paganist, Sir Henry Melmouth, who died, apparently, in a ritual pagan fire, hoping to be reborn from the ashes like the mythical phoenix.
  • In Marty Feldman’s movie In God We Tru$t (1980), Peter Boyle plays a con man and crooked street preacher named Dr. Sebastian Melmoth.
  • Peter Garrison named the aircraft Garrison Melmoth after himself and Melmoth the Wanderer.
  • Sarah Perry’s third novel Melmoth (2018) centers on a female variation of Maturin’s character, damned (like Richard Wagner’s Kundry in Parsifal) for denying the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The reason I recently decided to reread Melmoth the Wanderer was because I had heard about Sarah Perry’s new novel Melmoth. I will be reviewing that novel in my next article.

Even though Melmoth the Wanderer’s life appears to end at the conclusion of Maturin’s novel, it is clear his influence wanders on and likely will continue to do so for many years to come.

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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 and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Contemporary Gothic Novels, George W.M. Reynolds, The Wandering Jew

Pickwick and Literary Piracy: Dickens vs. Reynolds

George W. M. Reynolds was reputedly the bestselling novelist of Victorian England although today he is largely forgotten. Instead, Charles Dickens is usually thought of as the best known and perhaps the greatest of the Victorian novelists, although Reynolds books outsold his. I’ve blogged previously on Reynolds’ bestselling novel The Mysteries of London, as well as his Gothic novels Faust: The Secret of the Tribunals, Wagner the Werewolf, and The Necromancer, but while these are perhaps Reynolds’ best-known works today—among the few literary critics and historians who read him—Reynolds’ career began in a way that made him the target of Charles Dickens’ spite right from the beginning.

Following the success of Sketches by Boz (1836), Dickens had embarked on his first full-length novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837), although its lack of a plot and its picaresque elements make it only loosely able to be classified as a novel. Dickens’ first true novel would be Oliver Twist (1838). Regardless, The Pickwick Papers were an overnight success as readers clamored for each installment of the adventures of Mr. Pickwick and his fellow members of the Pickwick Club as they journeyed about the country getting into various mishaps, falling in love, and meeting shady characters.

Before Pickwick’s installments had completed, according to Edgar Johnson in Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, the book had become a mania:

“Nothing like it had ever happened before. There were Pickwick chintzes, Pickwick cigars, Pickwick hats, Pickwick canes with tassels, Pickwick coats of a peculiar cut and color; and there were Weller corduroys and Boz cabs. There was a Pickwick Comic Almanac, a Pickwick Treasury of Wit, a Sam Weller’s Pickwick Jest Book, and a Pickwickian Songster. There were innumerable plagiarisms, parodies, and sequels—a Pickwick Abroad, by G. W. M. Reynolds; a Posthumous Papers of the Cadger Club; a Posthumous Notes of the Pickwickian Club, by a hack who impudently called himself Bos; and a Penny Pickwick—not to mention all the stage piracies and adaptations.”

Mr. Pickwick’s Arrival at Calais – the first illustration and opening scene of Reynolds’ Pickwick Abroad

Despite The Pickwick Papers’ success, modern readers are apt to find it a bit dull. Upon just rereading it, I only found myself laughing out loud at two passages. The lack of plot and the somewhat forced humor make parts of the novel tedious to read, especially the first few hundred pages before Mr. Pickwick’s landlady sues him for breach of affections, mistakenly thinking he was romantically interested in her, a situation that results in Pickwick refusing to pay the court costs and judgment rendered against him, and thereby, ending up in debtor’s prison. Here is really the only semblance of a plot, along with the occasional recurrences of the crooked Mr. Jingle and his servant Job Trotter, who continually try to put one over on Pickwick and friends.

The novel is also interspersed with long, rather dull, dark stories irrelevant to the plot but randomly told by various characters that Pickwick and friends meet. These stories slow down the plot and add nothing to the narrative, although the dark atmosphere of them, as at least one critic (Steven Marcus in the Afterword to the Signet Classic edition of 1964) has pointed out, contrasts with the general good of the world that Pickwick feels despite the difficulties he encounters. Marcus also concludes his discussion of the novel by saying “No novel could move further than Pickwick Papers toward asserting not only that the Kingdom of God is within each man but also that it is possible to establish something that resembles the Kingdom of God on Earth.” This interpretation is based upon Mr. Pickwick’s general kindness, even toward those who do him wrong, and overall generosity of character—points that are legitimate, although Marcus’ statement feels exaggerated since Dickens does not preach in this novel or make such a worldview clear as his theme. Rather, he wanders about with his story, slowly carving it into a novel and developing a worldview. The Pickwick Papers, then, is a trial run in which Dickens learned how to write a novel, but it is far from a great novel and rather dull, at least for the modern reader. Personally, I think it would have been quickly forgotten if Dickens had not gone on to write his many other and far greater novels.

But regardless, The Pickwick Papers was the runaway hit of its day, and so it did inspire sequels, as Johnson notes. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to determine who else wrote sequels to it, but Reynolds’ Pickwick Abroad was clearly one of them, and it is a remarkable book because like The Pickwick Papers itself, Pickwick Abroad; or, the Tour in France, is its author’s second published book (Reynolds’ first was The Youthful Impostor of 1835) and the beginning of an illustrious career for him. Interestingly, Reynolds first published before Dickens.

Of course, Dickens must get full credit for creating the “immortal Mr. Pickwick,” but Reynolds, who tended to steal other authors’ ideas and make them his own, most notably his successful The Mysteries of London (1844) that he was inspired to create from Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-3), deserves credit for creating a very readable—even more readable—version of Pickwick than Dickens. As if stealing his characters wasn’t enough reason for Dickens to hate Reynolds, there may have been some jealousy involved in that the book is quite well-written. None of Dickens’ faults are here—the book is not overly stylized, and neither are there any long unrelated stories inserted into it to slow down the main plot, and best of all, there is more of a plot. Reynolds creates Adolphus Crashem, a confidence man who, along with his accomplice Anastasie de Volage, repeatedly inserts himself into the lives of the individual members of the Pickwick Club and hoodwinks them. Anastasie manages to get the men repeatedly to fall in love with her, letting them think she is of a higher station than she is. In the end, both villains are brought to justice, but their constant presence throughout the novel gives it a continuity Dickens’ novel lacks.

Tupman in Pursuit of a Wife. Even Mr. Pickwick pursues a wife in Pickwick Abroad.

Reynolds’ versions of Pickwick’s characters are fair and accurate depictions of Dickens’ characters. The only place where Reynolds slightly goes astray is in Mr. Pickwick losing his cool a bit with Mr. Tupman who reprimands him twice for his pursuit of the opposite sex. The only other major deviation from Dickens is that the book exists at all when Dickens made the point at the end of his novel to have Pickwick say that his traveling days were over, yet in Reynolds, Pickwick travels to France.

I will leave readers to discover the other joys of Reynolds’ Pickwick for themselves, just adding that I am sad the only copy available is published by Forgotten Books, a reprint of an American edition, and actually a photocopy of it, so that the print is excruciatingly small to read.

But one final comment before I close. If Dickens didn’t already have enough reason to hate Reynolds, if he perused the book or his friends did, he would have been infuriated by Reynolds pointing out errors in the original novel. Reynolds does so by having Mr. Pickwick review the original novel as edited by Boz. The following is from the November 11, 1834 passage from Mr. Pickwick’s journal in Chapter VI of Reynolds’ novel:

Was a quarter of an hour too early for my breakfast, so took up the biography of myself and friends, and glanced cursorily over the notes which I have prepared for my editor, “Boz.” Found that in 1827 I had made Mr. Jingle declare himself to have written a poem on the French Revolution, which only took place in 1830. Could not mean the first Revolution, as Mr. Jingle was present (according to my notes) at the one of which he wrote; and he was not born when the first began. Must think of this: there is a grievous error somewhere.

Discovered another error. In the memoranda of a speech which I made on the night before my first sally-forth in search of adventures in 1827, I am represented to have said that “philanthropy was my Swing!” Now the incendiary Swing—the fabled illuminator of all the hay-stacks in the kingdom—had not then acquired his name, nor was he known. Must correct this error also.*

* We are sorry to find that Mr. Pickwick omitted these necessary corrections; and that his Editor, “Boz,” has also unaccountably suffered them to remain.

This first error occurs in the second chapter of Dickens’ novel. However, the novel contains a footnote that states: “A remarkable instance of the prophetic force of Mr. Jingle’s imagination; this dialogue occurring in the year 1827, and the Revolution in 1830.” I have consulted multiple versions of the novel and they all contain this footnote, so I am not certain whether it was in Dickens’ original book or the original installment and he was poking fun at himself and Mr. Jingle by the anachronism of describing something still in the future, or if the footnote was placed into the book in later editions to apologize for an error in original installments of the book. Did Reynolds’ pointing out the error in Pickwick Abroad lead to Dickens inserting a footnote to excuse the point? It seems more likely, given that he often made little revisions to his books when new editions came out, that Dickens would have rewritten the sentence to remove the error, so Reynolds’ humor here is really in line with Dickens’ own mocking of his character in this scene and not true fault-finding.

The second error occurs in the first chapter of The Pickwick Papers; however, Reynolds’ misquotes the line. The actually passage is, “The praise of mankind was his swing; philanthropy was his insurance office.” The use of “swing” here seems equal to saying today, “Music was his life,” meaning it is the person’s great activity or favorite hobby. I suspect Reynolds is just playing with words here since I was unable to find any reference to a person named Swing who was an illustrator or artist of the time period.

Did Dickens read and take offense at Reynolds pointing out these errors? Who’s to say? He was probably already infuriated enough to have his first book’s characters stolen for an unauthorized sequel. Did Dickens express his anger to Reynolds? If he did, it didn’t stop Reynolds from continuing to steal Dickens’ ideas. In 1841, Dickens published Master Humphrey’s Clock, a series that would ultimately include his novels Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop. Reynolds capitalized upon it by publishing Master Timothy’s Bookcase in 1841-42.

Whatever Reynolds’ faults, he knew how to tell a good story, and he did so in Pickwick Abroad, and even more so in The Mysteries of London and his three Gothic novels. Reynolds is well worth exploring, and ultimately, more readable than much of Dickens even if he never reached the heights of Dickens’ style or the meatiness of his themes.

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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, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, George W.M. Reynolds