Category Archives: George W.M. Reynolds

Robert Macaire, Reformed Gothic Transgressor

George W. M. Reynolds (1814-1897) needs no introduction to regular readers of this blog. I have written about numerous of his works here, especially his Gothic novels, but even his non-Gothic works contain elements closely associated with the Gothic. Reynolds was also an author who had no qualms about capitalizing upon the works of other authors, from his sequel to Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, titled Pickwick Abroad, to his borrowing of Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris to create the Victorian bestseller The Mysteries of London.

The British Library edition of Robert Macaire

In Robert Macaire; or, The French Bandit in England (1839), Reynolds again recycles someone else’s work to create his own. I had never heard of the character of Robert Macaire before reading this novel, but according to Wikipedia, he was a stock character in French literature for about sixteen years before Reynolds borrowed him and sent him across the channel. The Wikipedia entry on the character states:

Robert Macaire is a fictional character, an unscrupulous swindler, who appears in a number of French plays, films, and other works of art. In French culture he represents an archetypal villain. He was principally the creation of an actor, Frédérick Lemaître, who took the stock figure of ‘a ragged tramp, a common thief with tattered frock coat patched pants’ and transformed him during his performances into ‘the dapper confidence man, the financial schemer, the juggler of joint-stock companies’ that could serve to lampoon financial speculation and government corruption.

“Playwright Benjamin Antier (1787–1870), with two collaborators Saint-Amand and Polyanthe, created the character Robert Macaire in the play l’Auberge des Adrets, a serious-minded melodrama. After the work’s failure at its 1823 premiere, Frédérick Lemaître played the role as a comic figure instead. Violating all the conventions of its genre, it became a comic success and ran for a hundred performances. The transformation violated social standards that demanded crime be treated with seriousness and expected criminals to be punished appropriately. The play was soon banned, and representations of the character of Macaire were banned time and again until the 1880s. Lemaître used the character again in a sequel he co-authored titled Robert Macaire, first presented in 1835.”

The next mention of Macaire at Wikipedia is to Reynolds’ novel, and while Macaire would appear in numerous other works, including a 1907 film, what interests us is only his early depictions that inspired Reynolds. That depiction also includes Bertrand, his good friend, who often accompanies him. While the plot is more complicated than I will get into here, I will hit the highlights that make the novel interesting in relation to Reynolds’ other works.

In Reynolds’ novel, Macaire and Bertrand leave France for England, first robbing the Dover mail coach and tying up passenger, Charles Stanmore, who will figure later in the plot. They then obtain a letter from a business in Paris that says a M. Lebeau will be going to see Mr. Pocklington in England to transact business and asks that Pocklington advance money as needed to Lebeau. Macaire decides to pretend he is Lebeau and under that guise introduces himself to Pocklington, soon finding himself staying under Pocklington’s roof with his friend who goes by the name of Count Bertrand. Mr. Pocklington has a wife, and more importantly, a niece, Maria. Although Macaire is about forty and Maria closer to twenty, he soon wins her love. All the while, he is also receiving financial advances from her uncle under the belief they are connected to business.

Not surprisingly, Macaire seduces Maria, but not before making her vow to love him no matter who he truly is. The scene recalls those in Gothic novels like Melmoth the Wanderer, where a woman basically sells her soul to her lover. Maria makes the vow, and then Macaire reveals his true identity as a bandit.

Stanmore, the victim at the mail coach, is not only a friend of the Pocklingtons but romantically interested in Maria, and while she is not interested in him, he becomes jealous of Macaire, not at first recognizing him as his assailant. As the plot unravels with Macaire returning to France and Stanmore also traveling there, Stanmore not only realizes who Macaire is, but he discovers Macaire was responsible for previously murdering his father. Macaire, meanwhile, visits a cottage where a young girl, Blanche, has been placed in the care of a couple, Paul and Marguerite, who were involved in the murder of Stanmore’s father. Blanche knows nothing of her family other than that her mother was the daughter of a nobleman and her father was disliked by the family. It turns out Blanche is the granddaughter of a count who has entrusted her to Macaire’s care. Macaire goes with Blanche to a notary to discuss the terms of money her grandfather wishes to settle on her, but when the grandfather visits at the same time, he and his granddaughter are reconciled, which infuriates Macaire, who wishes to have control of Blanche’s money.

Meanwhile, Maria’s friends and family realize who Macaire is. When he returns for the wedding, it is interrupted by Stanmore, who declares Macaire’s identity and accuses him of murdering his father. Maria tries repeatedly, even by eloping, to be with Macaire because of the vow she made him, and also because she is pregnant with his child, but her hopes are useless. In the end, she becomes ill. Macaire visits her on her deathbed, when she implores him to vow to reform. Heartbroken when she dies, she having been the only person who ever truly loved him, Macaire decides he will reform.

However, by now Stanmore has helped collect evidence against Macaire, which results in his capture and arrest by the police. Macaire hopes to be released so he can spend the rest of his life in penance, but following a trial, he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to decapitation. Fortunately, one of his criminal friends helps him to escape.

The pivotal scene when Charles Stanmore attacks Macaire just before learning he is his father-in-law

By this point, Stanmore has met and fallen in love with Macaire’s former ward, Blanche. Macaire, unaware of the marriage, has his heart now set on finding Blanche and convincing her to spend the rest of her days with him. When he goes to her house, she is horrified, for only now does she realize he is the convicted man her husband has sought to prosecute. Macaire implores her to have mercy on him and not turn him over to the police. He then makes the shocking announcement that he is her true father. She is instantly overwhelmed with happiness to know her father and also in fear of her husband’s wrath. When Stanmore returns home, his anger at seeing Macaire knows no restraint and he wishes to arrest or even kill him, declaring that Macaire murdered his own father, but then Blanche reveals that Macaire is her father. At this stunning revelation, Stanmore instantly relents and agrees to let Macaire escape, even lying and trying to postpone the police from pursuing him.

In the end, Macaire escapes and goes to Switzerland where he lives another six years in solitude, an “outcast” doing penance until he dies. Although the novel does not contain Gothic elements, his being an outcast, a Gothic wanderer really, and the guilt he feels for his past transgressions make him cousin to repentful Gothic characters like William Godwin’s St. Leon and James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire. Macaire is actually one of the few in early Gothic novels who is not punished but allowed to find redemption through years of penance.

I suspect the novel was highly influenced by French drama, of which I know little. While coincidences and shocking revelations are not uncommon in Gothic literature and even the works of Dickens, I sense an influence here of French dramatists like Victor Hugo where the final scene is intended both to shock the reader/viewer and create deep emotion. Certainly, the dramatic revelation that Macaire is Blanche’s father and how this news immediately softens Stanmore’s heart has a similar shocking but almost cathartic effect on the reader. I felt the same grief and shock as when at the end of the opera Rigoletto, based on a play by Hugo, the father discovers that the sack he carries contains the corpse of his daughter.

Some other points of interest in the novel include when Macaire first returns to France, he goes to visit his fellow criminals. He enters the den of thieves and must give a password to get in, reminscent of secret societies, which often figure in Gothic novels. The author refers to the appearances of some of the criminals as being like Guy Fawkes, Cagliostro, and an insolvent priest. Cagliostro, notably, would be the alias of Joseph Balsamo, a historical magician or occultist of sorts who figures in Alexander Dumas’ Marie Antoinette novels of the 1850s.

Also notable is some of Reynolds’ social satire, which is often far from subtle. For example, in Chapter 37, Macaire escapes from the Pocklingtons by going down the neighbor’s chimney. The neighbor is a parson. When Macaire tells him the Catholics next door are saying mass and have tried to kill him, the parson declares “Catholics! What—are they Catholics?…if so, they are capable of anything.” He then gives Macaire some parson’s clothes to disguise himself. When Macaire then walks down the street dressed like a parson, we are told “the beggars in the street forebore to ask him for alms—because mendicants never do apply for charity to a clergyman, knowing very well that if they do, they will only be sent to the cage or the county gaol as rogues and vagabonds.”

Also of interest is that when Macaire is in prison, he meets a fellow prisoner who is executed for parricide or matricide, the jailor can’t remember which. (Reynolds had previously written in 1835 The Youthful Impostor, which he later revised and published as The Parricide, or The Youth’s Career of Crime. I have not yet been able to read this work, but one wonders if it is an intertextual play on his earlier work.)

Robert Macaire, besides its Gothic connections, is an interesting addition to the Newgate novels of the time. I feel Reynolds’ novel superior in pacing and plot to similar novels of the time such as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (serialized in 1839-1840) and Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830). Paul Clifford may actually be another source for Robert Macaire since in that novel, Clifford is revealed to be the son of the judge who condemns him to death, similar to the fatherhood shock at the end of Robert Macaire. However, interestingly, and despite the controversy that the Newgate novels caused, Reynolds has no qualms with letting his criminal live—provided he is reformed of course. Plus, we should note that in the French version, as stated by Wikipedia above, Robert Macaire is also not punished, which caused outrage at the time. Certainly, the overlaps between the Gothic and crime novels are many, as would be evidenced later by Reynolds’ masterpiece, The Mysteries of London, a criminal and a Gothic transgressor being often the same kind of person, just one being surrounded by more Gothic atmosphere.

An early scene from the novel when Macaire asks Maria not to reveal his identity

It is worth mentioning that Robert Macaire includes eighteen illustrations by Henry Anelay, which are exquisitely done. I could find little about Anelay online, though he illustrated many novels in his day. The pictures really add to the text, although I did not like that they were often ten or twenty pages before the action they depicted, which gave away the plot a bit at times.

I read the British Library edition of the novel, which is basically a photocopy of the original. The print is extremely small and I fear I will end up going blind one of these days from reading their books, but they are often the only editions of Reynolds’ works available. As always, I hope my blog posts will help bring Reynolds to greater attention so better editions will be issued and his popularity will grow so he can take his place among the great Victorian novelists, alongside Dickens, Trollope, Bulwer-Lytton, Ainsworth, and the Brontes. While his style may not be as ornate and his plots as deep or philosophical, his social satire and the way he writes gripping plots make Reynolds worthy of far more attention than he has received.

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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 many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Master Timothy’s Book-Case: George W. M. Reynolds’ Improvement on Dickens

George W. M. Reynolds (1814-1879) remains little known except by the most persistent readers of Victorian and Gothic Fiction. One reason he is ignored and even disparaged has to do with his rivalry with Charles Dickens, whom he outsold, and also because he tended to pirate ideas from others and then make them his own. I have written numerous blog posts here about many of Reynolds’ other novels, including Pickwick Abroad (1837-8), an unabashed sequel to The Pickwick Papers (1836-7). Most will likely not agree with me, but I frankly enjoyed Pickwick Abroad more than The Pickwick Papers, largely because Reynolds has much more of a plot to his novel.

This ebook edition from Travelyn Publishing is available at Amazon.

Master Timothy’s Bookcase is another example of how Reynolds was able to capitalize upon popular contemporary books and make them his own. In 1840-1, Dickens published Master Humphrey’s Clock, a work largely forgotten and seldom read today, known primarily because within its pages Dickens published The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and Barnaby Rudge (1841). Dickens set out to write a serial centered around Master Humphrey, an old man with a longcase antique clock, in which he keeps his manuscripts. Master Humphrey gathers about him a group of friends who form a club consisting of them reading their manuscripts to each other. The manuscripts are the short stories in the book. Among the friends is Mr. Pickwick, so in some sense, the book is a sequel to The Pickwick Papers. Within Master Humphrey’s Clock, The Old Curiosity Shop was to be a short story, but Dickens then decided to develop it into a novel, and by the time Dickens got well into the novel, Master Humphrey’s Clock had become little more than a frame. When the novel was completed, Dickens briefly returned to the original format of Master Humphrey’s Clock before starting on Barnaby Rudge, and after Barnaby Rudge was concluded, he quickly wrapped up Master Humphrey’s Clock by having Master Humphrey die.

Honestly, there is little in Master Humphrey’s Clock of interest. The narrator is likeable but hardly fascinating and the short stories are forgettable. Even Dickens apparently realized the faults of the book, choosing that The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge would stand on their own in the future, as stated in the preface to the 1848 edition of The Old Curiosity Shop. Today, Master Humphrey’s Clock is usually published separately from the two novels it launched.

A cover page to the serial of Master Humphrey’s Clock at the time Barnaby Rudge was being serialized.

Reynolds clearly decided to capitalize on the popularity of Dickens’ work when he created the similarly titled Master Timothy’s Bookcase, which began circulating in July 1841, just a month or so before Master Humphrey’s Clock ended. However, in my opinion, Reynolds vastly improved upon Dickens’ format by tying the stories together far more tightly than Dickens. He also weaves in the supernatural to explain how all the stories become known to the main character, Sir Edmund Mortimer, through the supernatural agency of Master Timothy’s Bookcase.

The story begins with a brief history of the Mortimer family and the strange circumstances under which they have operated for centuries. Mortimer House is the family mansion in Canterbury. It has a wing that contains six special rooms. In each room, one of the past heads of the family has died. Each man is said to have learned the day of his death by dire warning and then gone to the appropriate room to die. On January 1, 1830, the sixth head of the family, Sir William Mortimer died, leaving his son Edmund to take up the title.

Sir Edmund does not know the full secret of the house until he inherits it. He does knows the family is watched over by a guardian genius. This genius, Master Timothy, soon appears and explains matters to him. Each past head of the family had been granted a gift as a means to find happiness. However, none of Sir Edmund’s ancestors succeeded in finding happiness with their choices. Most recently, Sir William had sought happiness in Wealth but failed to achieve it. Sir Edmund decides he will choose Universal Knowledge to help him make good decisions. (This is an interesting choice since it is similar to King Solomon choosing Wisdom; Solomon was known for his wise decisions, particularly in the case where two mothers claimed the same child was hers.)

Master Timothy tells Sir Edmund he will receive Universal Knowledge in the form of a supernatural bookcase that only he will be able to see and that will always be with him. Any time he wants to know anything about anyone or any situation, he can consult the bookcase and read the truth.

Master Timothy’s own story is then shared. In 1530, Sir Edmund’s ancestor, Henry Mortimer, was asked by a Mr. Musgrave to take a child to Lord Davenport and tell him it was his. Mr. Musgrave’s daughter, Mary, had apparently given birth to the child, fathered on her by the lord. However, Lord Davenport rejected the child, but when Henry tried to find Mr. Musgrave again, he had left the vicinity. Henry ended up raising the child himself. He named it Timothy after the relative who had raised him. After three years, Mary came to find Henry and Timothy. By then, her father, Mr. Musgrave, had died, and she was very wealthy. She decided to live near Henry and her child while pretending to be a widow. Unfortunately, Timothy died at age sixteen. Then Mary died, leaving all her wealth to Henry. Henry used the wealth to build Mortimer House. Then one night, Timothy’s apparition appeared to him and offered to reword his good deeds by granting him anything he wanted. Henry chose the gift of Glory, ultimately becoming a general and being knighted by King Edward VI. However, he did not find happiness.

Now having inherited the title and received his gift, Sir Edmund is not allowed to stay at Mortimer House. He can only return there to die, so he plans to live elsewhere. He is invited by Sir Ralph Lindsay to stay with him. From here, the plot becomes too complicated to easily summarize. Suffice to say, Sir Ralph’s family has its secrets, which eventually causes Sir Edmund to consult Master Timothy’s Bookcase. He continues to consult the bookcase throughout the novel in his various encounters with people until he begins to learn their secrets and begins to bemoan the gift of Universal Knowledge because it has revealed to him the hypocrisy of people.

While at first the knowledge is a mental burden to Sir Edmund, he never uses it to benefit himself or hurt others. However, he finally determines he can use the knowledge to help another, and so while in France, he tries to persuade a marquis to support his nephew’s wife, who is destitute. After Sir Edmund reveals to the marquis that he knows his secrets—secrets it is impossible anyone can know—the marquis agrees to aid his nephew’s wife. He gives Sir Edmund a box with valuables in it to bring to the widow, and Sir Edmund departs. However, the marquis is so upset that Sir Edmund knows his secret that he immediately cuts his throat with a razor. Sir Edmund is accused of murder and ends up in prison. He realizes his situation is the result of abusing the knowledge he received from the bookcase, and he wonders why the genius of his family would bestow gifts upon his family if they are only to bring misery to the Mortimers.

When Sir Edmund comes to trial, the judge decides he is a lunatic and sends him to an asylum in Paris. By this point, Sir Edmund himself wonders if he is a lunatic. He remains in the asylum until the Revolution of 1830 results in the inmates being freed. Sir Edmund now returns to England with plans to marry the woman he loves (who has her own secret, or rather she is keeping the secret of another, as Sir Edmund learned through the bookcase). But before the wedding can take place, Master Timothy summons Sir Edmund to return to Mortimer House, saying that upon his twenty-fifth birthday, he may peruse the family manuscripts. The servant at the house is alarmed when Sir Edmund arrives because he was not supposed to until the day before he is to die. Sir Edmund, however, assures him all is well. Sir Edmund is then granted the opportunity to read manuscripts that tell him the stories of all his ancestors and the various gifts they had chosen, each one of which brought misery.

Sir Edmund is now struck by the futility of seeking happiness. Then he sees an inscription suddenly appear over the door of the room he is in, making it clear this is the day he will die. Master Timothy appears and explains that man’s life comes to an end when he realizes the futility of the aim that influenced his career. Before he dies, Sir Edmund is allowed to see the largely miserable fates of all those he has known and whose stories he has learned through the bookcase. He remains skeptical he will himself die, waiting almost to the last second, thinking he is safe when an assassin breaks into the house and murders him, someone who bears him a grudge from earlier in the novel.

Sir Edmund dies as Master Timothy declares to him that the gift he should have chosen was Virtue—a curious choice since one can’t help recalling that the subtitle of Pamela (1740), considered the first novel, is “Virtue Rewarded.” This ending makes the novel far from perfect since Sir Edmund has never really done anything terribly unvirtuous or sought to hurt anyone, but apparently prying into people’s secrets is not virtuous. While Reynolds refers to Sir Edmund’s gift as Universal Knowledge, it is also clearly forbidden knowledge—the quest for which is a frequent Gothic plot that always results in disaster for those who seek it and stems back to the story of the Garden of Eden and eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. (For more on the quest for forbidden knowledge and its subsequent punishment in Gothic literature, see my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.)

While Master Timothy’s Bookcase is not a perfect novel, the stories in it are more intricately weaved together than those in Master Humphrey’s Clock. No driving motive or goal strengthens the plot, but the number of stories, many of which concern crimes or at least secrets, makes the book read like a rehearsal for Reynolds’ much greater work, The Mysteries of London (1844-5), another book whose idea he stole from another author’s work, in this case French novelist Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-3). One reason Master Timothy’s Clock has received a little attention is that one of the stories offers a solution to who was the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask. (One is tempted to accuse Reynolds’ of trying to capitalize upon Dumas’ work here, but Dumas’ novel was not published until 1847-1850). Unfortunately, Reynolds’ story of the Man in the Iron Mask is probably the weakest and most predictable story in the novel, and it is the only one Sir Edmund does not learn from the bookcase but from another person he meets. I will not reveal who Reynolds claims the man was, but it is a real stretch that has nothing to do with French royalty. Despite the disappointing treatment of this mystery, I doubt most readers will be disappointed overall by Master Timothy’s Bookcase. In fact, I am surprised it is not one of Reynolds’ best-known works.

Is Master Timothy’s Bookcase great literature? No. Is it an entertaining novel that does reveal some truths about human nature? Yes. Is the morality a bit in your face, if not a little preachy? Yes, but so was the work of most of the Victorians. And if Sir Edmund had chosen Virtue over Universal Knowledge, what a dull novel it would have been. Fortunately, Reynolds was a masterful storyteller, as most of the novel reflects. Consequently, his place in Victorian and Gothic literature deserves far more assessment. After all, if he outsold Dickens, we are missing out on a real understanding of Victorian culture and literature if we overlook him. I look forward to the day when George W. M. Reynolds is hailed as a major author of the period alongside Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Eliot, and the Brontës.

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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 many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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William Harrison Ainsworth: Father of the Second Gothic Golden Age

Stephen Carver’s new biography of William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882), The Man Who Outsold Dickens: The Life & Work of W. H. Ainsworth, is an eye-opening look at the man who helped to start what I consider the Second Gothic Golden Age. The first Gothic Golden Age I would define as from 1789-1820, beginning with the publication of Mrs. Radcliffe’s first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne and ending with the publication of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. With the publication of Ainsworth’s Rookwood in 1834, the Gothic was heavily revived and a new Gothic age began that would extend into the 1850s, ending roughly with the publication of George W. M. Reynolds’ last Gothic novel The Necromancer (1852). That is not to say the Gothic did not remain popular during the interim—Scott himself used Gothic elements in his novels, most notably in Anne of Geierstein—but Rookwood created a new form of Gothic that combined historical detail with Gothic elements on a level not done previously. In its wake would be many more Gothic novels by Ainsworth, as well as Gothic works by George W. M. Reynolds, and other English novels that used Gothic elements, including the works of Bulwer-Lytton, Dickens, and the Brontës, as well as several French Gothic novels.

A front page of “Reynolds sMiscellany” depicts England’s three bestselling authors of the day, Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton, and Ainsworth. It is interesting that George W. M. Reynolds would pay such homage to these authors since Dickens particularly hated him for writing unauthorized sequels and spin-offs of his books.

Carver’s book is a straightforward biography that details the entire life of Ainsworth, while also taking time to give plot descriptions, literary criticism, and the reception history of the various books Ainsworth wrote. I will discuss here just some of the more interesting points Carver discusses, especially in relation to Ainsworth’s Gothic works.

Ainsworth’s life and career spanned most of the nineteenth century and the Romantic and Victorian periods. Ainsworth’s interest in the Gothic began early. In 1819, at age fourteen, he wrote the story “The Specter Bridegroom.” His early horror stories were influenced by Scott’s ballads, but this story also inverted Washington Irving’s “The Spectre Bride” by having the bridegroom not only be the specter but the Wandering Jew, showing Ainsworth was familiar with the Wandering Jew fiction of the period. (For more about the Wandering Jew in Gothic fiction, see my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.) Carver says this story’s violent climax recalls those of William Beckford’s Vathek (1786) and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1795). (Notably, the Wandering Jew made his first appearance in Gothic fiction in The Monk.)

Another early Gothic work was December Tales (1823), Ainsworth’s second published work when he was only eighteen. Among the Gothic stories is a wandering immortal who sells his soul for eternal life so he can revenge himself on his enemies; then he has eternity to repent. He experiences such agonies as drowning without dying, which predates the similar situation in Varney the Vampire (1846), whose title character continually tries to destroy himself, only to have nature continually thwart him—the volcano he jumps in spits him back out; the sea he tries to drown in casts him ashore.

As early as Ainsworth’s first novel, Sir John Chiverton (1826), Ainsworth was being compared to Scott and Radcliffe and blending the Gothic with historical romance. Carver refers to Sir John Chiverton as possibly the first example of nineteenth century literature struggling to establish a new form of English Gothic since it is set in England (39).

In the preface to later editions of Rookwood, Ainsworth talks about writing the novel with the trappings of Radcliffe, but with an English setting. He discusses the design of romance and his intent to start a Gothic revival, so the preface is really like a Gothic manifesto for a Gothic revival. I have written extensively about Rookwood elsewhere at this blog, so I won’t discuss it further here, but it is the seminal work of this Gothic revival. I will note that according to Carver, Scott’s St. Ronan’s Well (1823) appears to have been an influence on the novel, but Scott’s work is a comedy of manners, while Ainsworth uses the Cain and Abel motif, the Gothic, and revenge tragedy to create a Gothic extravaganza.

Rookwood’s success led Ainsworth to be the darling of literary circles. He was befriended by Bulwer-Lytton, invited to Lady Blessington’s literary evenings, and hailed as the English Victor Hugo and successor to Sir Walter Scott.

Carver goes on to discuss Jack Sheppard (1839) and its role in the Newgate novels controversy, which I will skip over discussing here.

The opening of Windsor Castle

Other novels of Gothic interest include Guy Fawkes (1841), which is a Gothic tragedy with a Catholic hero. The novel’s family is named Radcliffe, which may be a homage to Mrs. Radcliffe. According to Carver, Ainsworth transforms Guy Fawkes from a terrorist into a revolutionary leader and hero in the novel (119).

The Tower of London (1840) is interesting also because it turns an English monument into a setting of Gothic horror. It also shows the influence of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831). In that novel, Hugo was treating the cathedral as if it were itself a book, “a book of stone.” Similarly, in Ainsworth’s novel, the history of England is written in the edifice of the Tower of London. (128). Like Notre Dame Cathedral, which was in disrepair when Hugo wrote his novel, the Tower of London was abandoned and neglected when the novel was published. Ainsworth’s novel resulted in the Tower becoming popular and being restored as a Victorian museum. The novel would be so popular that it would be referenced at length in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), nearly half a century later. Carver goes on to discuss how in successive novels Ainsworth turned national landmarks into Gothic castles, an epic and ongoing process of “psycho-geography” (130).

Significantly, while Ainsworth wrote Gothic novels, he continued to blend historical details into them. The Tower of London is about Lady Jane Grey, and Windsor Castle (1843) and Old Saint Paul’s (1841) also have historical backgrounds. Ainsworth always did a lot of research for his novels and he even includes indexes in some of them (149). In Windsor Castle, Henry VIII sells his soul to marry Jane Seymour, and the mythical Herne the Hunter helps the characters to save their souls. While Herne goes back to Shakespeare, Ainsworth creates his own version of Herne. He did the same with other legends and historical personages in a way that made them sink into the national consciousness so that what people thought they knew about their own English history and myth was really stuff they had learned from Ainsworth (151-2).

Other Gothic works include Auriol, or: The Elixir of Life (1850) and The Lancashire Witches (1849), both of which I’ve discussed at length in separate blog posts.

Worth mentioning, however, is that Ainsworth draws on Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and the depiction of Eve for his female witches. Carver argues that Ainsworth was in the feminist camp. In Jack Sheppard, his powerful sexual women are the ones left standing. In The Lancashire Witches, the witches are trail-blazing female characters because they self-emancipate. Eve in Paradise Lost dreams of flying, while Ainsworth’s witches do fly. Furthermore, the witches have a matriarchal dynasty, rather than one based in patriarchal authority. They are women of self-realization and determinism (163-66). Carver suggests that Alice, who has a mark on her forehead, may have inspired Stoker, in Dracula (1897), to give Mina the mark on her forehead (166). I think that a bit of a stretch given that the Mark of Cain was common in Gothic literature, but I will admit that usually it is on the forehead of a male and Ainsworth was the first to place it on a female’s forehead.

The Lancashire Witches was Ainsworth’s last major success and his last truly Gothic work, but he went on to write many more novels, most with Lancashire settings and about Lancashire history. Most notably, The Manchester Rebels of the Fatal ’45 (1873) discusses how Manchester raised a regiment to help support Bonnie Prince Charlie and is comparable to Scott’s Waverley (1814).

Ainsworth’s novels were popular enough in his time to be translated into German, Dutch, French, and Russian, and to sell well in America. In fact, Jesse and Frank James read or knew of them because they signed their letters to the newspapers as “Jack Sheppard” (212).

The Tower of London’s opening pages.

No doubt, Ainsworth deserves more recognition for his contributions to literature and his role in influencing many of his contemporary authors as well as those who came after him. An additional treat in reading this biography is how in-depth Carver is about the early Victorian publishing industry, particularly novel serialization, and we are given insight into Ainsworth’s relationships with Dickens, Thackeray, George W. Reynolds, his illustrator Cruikshank, and several other authors.

In the “L’Envoi” section that concludes the book, Carver provides an excellent summary of Ainsworth’s role in literature:

“In Ainsworth’s long life, we can see not only the struggle and commitment that necessarily comes of laying down one’s life for literature, but in his professional and personal relationships with friends and foes alike, the entire literary and cultural milieu of his age. And beyond this, there is the evolution of the English novel itself, from Romanticism to Realism, from Scott to Dickens. Writers like Ainsworth and his forgotten friends represent the transition, a dynamic period of literary production that was neither Regency nor Victorian but something in between, in which genres were born, merged and abandoned with dizzying speed.” (213)

Consequently, I feel Ainsworth is the link between the older Gothic novels of Radcliffe and a newer form of Gothic, which in Ainsworth’s novels meant a more historical Gothic, one also set in England, one valuable in itself, but that also paved the way for later works like Varney the Vampire and Dracula.

Ainsworth’s role in the evolution of the Gothic novel definitely deserves further exploration. I applaud Stephen Carver for this new biography that will raise new appreciation of Ainsworth, the author who not only rivaled his friend Dickens but inspired so many other great writers.

Stephen Carver also has a blog titled Ainsworth & Friends that is worth visiting.

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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 many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Mary, Queen of Scots at Center of Two Classic Gothic Historical Novels

I have been slowly working my way through the works of George W. M. Reynolds and decided next to read Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1858-9) which appears to have been his penultimate novel. I have also long wanted to read Sophia Lee’s The Recess (1783) and since that novel also centered on Mary, Queen of Scots, I thought reading them back to back would be a good idea.

Of course, Mary, Queen of Scots’ tragic story has been told and retold countless times to the point where I am rather sick of hearing it, but because I like Reynolds, I wanted to see what he would do with it. Plus, Lee is considered one of the early important Gothic novelists so I felt I should familiarize myself with her work. However, I found myself disappointed by both of these novels.

Title page to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, including a portrait of Reynolds

Reynolds’ story has to be the weakest of his books that I have read (I have reviewed numerous of his other novels on this blog), and it made me wonder if he was losing interest in writing novels since he quit writing them by 1860, even though he lived until 1879. That said, the problem with Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots may be that his choice of subject matter was flawed from the start since he could not easily create a lighthearted romance on the tragic subject. The story concerns a young Italian, Sir Lucio, who is shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland in the 1560s. He is the only survivor of the shipwreck. He is carrying with him the papal dispensation that will allow Queen Mary to marry her cousin Lord Darnley. In his attempt to reach Mary, Sir Lucio learns of a secret plot against her and is taken prisoner by her brother, the Earl of Murray. However, he manages to escape with the help of Mary Douglas, who becomes his love interest in the novel. He makes his way to Mary’s court and befriends Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio. A great deal of intrigue follows which results in Sir Lucio more than once saving the day by thwarting or manipulating the Earl of Murray and his allies.

Unfortunately, we all know how the story is going to turn out, so Reynolds focuses primarily on weaving the love story between Sir Lucio and Lady Mary Douglas. By the end of the novel, Sir Lucio is revealed to be an Italian prince and gains Mary Douglas’ hand. They wed and then move to Italy. By this point, the true plot of the novel is over. However, Reynolds then provides us with some letters that Queen Mary writes to Mary Douglas describing the events that lead to her downfall, her husband’s death, her marriage to Bothwell, and ultimately her death. In my opinion, the novel rather falls apart in the end, deconstructing itself from the heroic and romantic tale it began as by transforming itself into a tragedy without any real showing, just telling, to bring about its conclusion. Overall, the novel was not well thought out, and consequently, it feels like, if not a failure, a very weak effort.

One interesting place in the novel where Reynolds deviates from history is to depict David Rizzio as an older and hunchbacked man. Perhaps Reynolds does so because he is writing for a Victorian audience who would not want to read about the scandal of Rizzio being suspected to be Queen Mary’s lover. However, given that Reynolds was the author of The Mysteries of London, which is filled with shocking scenes, his decision to stay away from any scandal concerning Queen Mary and Rizzio is surprising.

The novel is not really Gothic in the sense that nothing supernatural happens and none of the main characters ever fear anything supernatural, but in at least one scene, Sir Lucio claims that a room is haunted to frighten those conspiring against Mary so he can make his escape from them.

Overall, I found the book somewhat disappointing, though very readable.

Sophia Lee’s The Recess was even more of a disappointment to me because while Reynolds has fallen into obscurity and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots is not one of his better known works, The Recess is continually referenced as an important early work of Gothic fiction. Frankly, to call it Gothic is a bit of a stretch in my opinion.

Sophia Lee

The novel tells the story of two sisters, Matilda and Ellinor, who are the daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots through a secret marriage she had to the Duke of Norfolk. The sisters have been raised in secret in a “recess”—a hidden underground series of rooms that is connected to a convent. The girls do not know anything about their origins and assume Mrs. Marlow, who cares for them, is their mother. Only as teenagers are they told the truth about their parentage.

Life begins for the girls when the Earl of Leicester seeks refuge with them. Immediately, Matilda falls in love with him. He secretly marries her and takes them to Kenilworth where Queen Elizabeth comes to visit. At this point, Elizabeth tells Leicester she is ready to marry him—their historical love affair has been famous for centuries—but he cannot because he is already secretly married to Matilda. The queen then decides to take the girls with her to court. Leicester and Matilda eventually flee to the recess to hide and avoid the queen’s wrath, only to find it has been taken over by banditti. This is really the only moment of any true Gothic atmosphere in the novel. Matilda and Ellinor are also separated when Matilda and Leicester leave the court. Matilda has many other adventures that follow, including Leicester dying and her giving birth to a daughter, Mary, named for her mother. Matilda becomes a “wanderer”—a term she uses many times, the significance of which in Gothic fiction I detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer—living in France and then the West Indies before managing to return to England to learn the fate of her sister. She arrives at the home of the Countess of Pembroke, a relative of Leicester’s, where she learns Ellinor’s story.

Meanwhile, Ellinor had fallen in love with the Earl of Essex, Leicester’s ward, and she had her own series of misadventures, including being in Ireland with Essex and being captured by rebels. Eventually, Essex, whom Elizabeth I also falls in love with, is executed for treason, causing Ellinor to seek refuge with the Countess of Pembroke.

For a short time, Matilda and Ellinor are reunited before Ellinor dies. By this point, Matilda’s daughter Mary has grown up. By accident, Matilda and Mary meet Henry, Prince of Wales, son of James I. Of course, Mary falls in love with her cousin Henry, and of course, he dies, meaning his brother will one day be King Charles I. Mary also ends up dying and Matilda is left alone. She journeys to France where she befriends a woman whom she then tells her story to in the form of a long letter that makes up the novel.

The novel overall is tedious to read—it was a great hit in its day and was part of the Sensibility mode of fiction, causing people to weep and feel great sympathy for the characters—but today, it is rather a bore. The novel is almost all telling without showing—there is little dialogue or scene development or even character development. The characters are all largely wooden despite the supposed emotion the scenes are supposed to evoke. Some critics have claimed the novel was revolutionary for its time in showing women involved in adventure and political intrigue as opposed to other women’s fiction of the time like the works of Fanny Burney. However, the storylines are largely improbable and over the top, and I can’t even say it was revolutionary since it reads like a later version of Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) or Roxana (1724), the latter of which is the tale of a fictional mistress of King Charles II.

This edition has an excellent introduction by April Alliston

If anything The Recess is more interesting as historical fiction than Gothic fiction. Although Lee does not strive to be historically accurate, she does paint a colorful picture of the age of Elizabeth I. The edition I read has an excellent introduction by April Alliston, who makes Lee sound far more interesting than her novel by discussing her family history, including her father’s career on the stage as a rival of the great David Garrick, plus Lee’s own writing of drama, and later her opening a school in Bath with her sister. Lee’s literary circles are especially interesting. It is possible that she knew both Jane Austen and Mrs. Radcliffe—speculation exists that Mrs. Radcliffe may have attended her school. Lee also knew Fanny Burney, and her sister Harriett was proposed to by William Godwin. Of particular interest to me is that she knew Jane Porter, author of The Scottish Chiefs (1809), whom I have often thought of as the first British historical novelist, but Lee predates her, as does Defoe. No doubt, The Recess influenced Porter and also Sir Walter Scott. Alliston also discusses how Lee was herself influenced by the earlier female French historical novels of the seventeenth century, including La Princesse da Cleves, probably written by Madame de Lafayette (1678), as well as by Shakespeare and other Renaissance playwrights, especially given her family’s role in the theatre and the frequent historical plays performed on the English stage.

I find the argument that The Recess made the Gothic novel popular rather weak. I would give that credit to Mrs. Radcliffe. The authors of the earliest Gothic novels—Horace Walpole, Clara Reeves, Sophia Lee, and William Beckford—were still trying to figure out what a Gothic novel was. It would be Mrs. Radcliffe who firmly set the standard for all the Gothic novels that would follow.

As a side note, if you enjoy reading about Mary, Queen of Scots, I would recommend watching the TV series Reign, primarily about Mary’s years in France. The series aired on the CW network from 2013-2017. I admit after the first episode I was totally turned off by the rock music and the unrealistic costumes that made it look like a show made for teenagers rather than one making any efforts to being historically accurate, but over time, the series improved and really grew on me, once I accepted it for what it was—more historical romance than historical truth. It certainly is the heir to novels like those of Lee and Reynolds, and since Catherine de Medici is one of the main characters in it, also an heir to Dumas’ Marguerite de Valois (1845). Mary, Queen of Scots’ years in France are usually overlooked when telling her tragic story, so the show provides an interesting narrative from that perspective.

Advertisement for the final season of Reign, depicting left to right, Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Catherine de Medici

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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.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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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