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The Mysteries of London: The Forgotten Gothic Victorian Classic

How does one even begin to write about George W. M. Reynold’s mammoth classic The Mysteries of London (1844)? The new Valancourt press edition that I recently read is two volumes and runs around 2,300 pages. It may be the longest novel in the English language after Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). It may also be one of the most important, yet most overlooked novels in Victorian and Gothic fiction. The novel is hard to define, and yet it must have influenced the genres that followed it. It is not by any means the first crime novel, nor is it properly the first mystery novel—there is no detective solving crimes, but there is plenty of crime and not a little mystery. In this case, mystery refers more properly to secrets and criminal plots than any effort to solve mysteries. Its title is more in keeping with Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842) which I have previously blogged on. Radcliffe is paid homage to in the use of a place name Montoni in the novel. Montoni is the villain of Radcliffe’s masterpiece. Sue is largely ignored other than one passing reference to Paris, but that is because Reynolds was basically stealing Sue’s idea and popularizing it for himself.

The Mysteries of London has been reprinted in a wonderful new two volume edition by Valancourt Press, with all the original illustrations.

Part of the novel’s obscurity is due to Reynolds’ piracy and the sense that a penny dreadful type story cannot be great literature. Reynolds was not a plagiarist in the sense that he stole passages from other authors, but he certainly stole their ideas and capitalized on them. Not only did he capitalize on Sue’s novel, but Paul Feval in the same year began writing a French novel, Les Mystères de Londres, so he claimed Reynolds had stolen his idea. (Feval didn’t seem to care that he himself had stolen Sue’s idea.) But even before Reynolds began The Mysteries of London, he had already likely infuriated Charles Dickens by publishing Pickwick Abroad, or the Tour in France (1837-1838), an unauthorized sequel or offshoot to The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), which ran simultaneously with Dickens’ novel. Dickens is said to have despised Reynolds, and one cannot blame him, but one also has to wonder whether Reynolds influenced Dickens. Critics today claim the novel belongs on the shelf beside other great social novels like Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875). And while we cannot know whether Dickens read The Mysteries of London, he must have been very aware of it and read pieces, if not all, of it, or at least have known of its characters. After all, Reynolds far outsold Dickens. The Mysteries of London is said to have sold 50,000 copies a week in its serial format and over a million copies the first year it was published in book form. Those numbers would have been far beyond any Victorian authors’ dreams.

To summarize the novel in full would be impossible, but I will just mention a few of the main plot highlights. The novel opens with a young man in a bad neighborhood who ducks into an old building when he fears for his safety. Inside, he overhears criminals plotting to rob the Markham house; then he is captured by the criminals and thrown into a trap door, which they don’t realize has an outlet. The young man warns the Markhams without revealing his identity. Later, we learn this young man is really a woman, Eliza Sydney, who is passing herself off as her brother to gain the inheritance that was supposed to be left to him, but which she will not acquire because he is deceased. Poor Eliza is being tricked into this crime by another who hopes to profit by it. Eventually, when it’s time to collect the inheritance, her identity is revealed and she’s sent to prison for her deceit. After she is released from prison, she makes some good acquaintances, which allows her to be introduced into high society in Italy, where she emigrates. There the Grand Duke of Castelcicala falls in love with and marries her.

The other major plot concerns the Markhams, whom Eliza had warned of an impending robbery. When the father dies, his two sons, Eugene and Richard, make a pact that they will each make their own way in the world and then meet again after twelve years on a given date in 1843. The novel then follows Richard Markham through his ups and downs. All the while, Richard wonders how his brother is faring in the world. Richard befriends some gentlemen who turn out to be swindlers and get him tossed in prison, although he is innocent of the forgery he’s accused of. Numerous plots surround Richard, but in the end, he falls in love with the beautiful Isabella, and eventually, he learns that her father is a count and the nephew of the Grand Duke of Castelcicala, who has married Eliza. When the Grand Duke refuses to allow his land to become a republic, he is overthrown and Richard is part of the effort to overthrow him and then establish the count—who by then is his father-in-law—on the throne. As a result, Richard becomes a prince and a hero. But despite his triumph, he is continually pursued by the criminal Anthony Tidkins, also known as the Resurrection Man, because he digs up the dead and sells their corpses to scientists. Tidkins hates Richard and is continually trying to kill him. And then, in the final scene, after Tidkins has been murdered by another criminal, Crankey Jem, Richard reunites with Eugene.

Eugene has, meanwhile, been living under two different identities, first as Montague and then as Greenwood. Throughout the years separated from his brother, he has been committing numerous white collar crimes of embezzling, forgery, counterfeiting, and cheating people through fake stock speculations. He has also debauched several women, including Ellen Monroe, who is the daughter of Richard’s legal guardian during his youth. Eugene’s rise to wealth happens as Richard finds himself cast into poverty and prison, but then everything changes; while Richard becomes a hero and prince, Eugene becomes impoverished. Finally, Eugene keeps the appointment and the brothers meet again, but a man Eugene has cheated assails him just as he is heading to the meeting, and as a result, he dies soon after meeting his brother. Richard and all those he has wronged assure him he is forgiven so he dies in peace—a true redeemed Gothic wanderer.

The Resurrection Man is the other great Gothic Wanderer of the novel, although he is a hardened criminal who never in the end feels remorse for his crimes. However, we are given his backstory of how he tried to be honest, but between a miserable childhood and all society being against him because of his past, he finally quits trying to be good and becomes so angry at society that he strives to be a true criminal always. It should be noted that Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) has a Resurrection Man character in Jerry Cruncher, and later, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Body Snatcher (1884). Of course, that does not mean Reynolds influenced them since there were real resurrection men at the time, but that Reynolds created one of the greatest criminals in literature means one can’t help wondering whether Tidkins did influence other resurrection men counterparts.

One of the Resurrection Man’s cronies is “the old hag” whose name is never given but who continually helps to lead women into ruin. When Ellen Monroe is desperate for money, she goes to the hag, who leads her to a painter, then a sculpture, then a theatre manager, and, eventually, to Greenwood. Each one is a step closer to debauchery—Ellen agreeing to disrobe to be painted or sculpted nude, and finally, she sells her body to Greenwood. In the end, the hag, however, does feel some guilt over the women she has wronged, especially Harriet Wilmot, who turns out to have had a child with Richard and Eugene’s father—Katherine Wilmot—their long-lost sister whom Richard plays first benefactor to before he meets her as his sister. In the end, the hag is robbed and beaten to death by the Resurrection Man. As she is dying, Ellen Monroe forgives her. Here is another case of a Gothic wanderer figure—one who ends up feeling remorse for her crime.

The Resurrection Man threatening Adeline.

Numerous crimes occur throughout the novel, but for me, perhaps the most fascinating criminal plot concerns Lydia Hutchinson. Lydia finds a teaching position in a boarding school for young ladies, where she befriends one of the ladies, Adeline. Adeline gets Lydia to act as chaperone to her, but eventually, she leads Lydia into disgrace when they both start having sexual relations with a couple of young men. Adeline ends up pregnant and gives birth to a stillborn child in the school, which Lydia passes off as her own to protect Adeline. Lydia, as a result, is dismissed and sinks further and further into degradation. She continually asks Adeline for help but Adeline ends their acquaintance. Through a series of twists and turns, however, Lydia gets a position as a lady’s maid to Adeline and starts to blackmail her after Adeline has married and become Lady Ravenswood. Lydia has gone from virtue to vice and becomes a truly horrible taskmaster to Adeline until Adeline can take no more and hires the Resurrection Man to murder Lydia. After that, Adeline is haunted by the crime, rather like Lady Macbeth; eventually, she tries to redeem herself through being charitable. The Resurrection Man, however, has no remorse. He has buried Lydia’s body, but when it suits him, he digs it up and threatens to blackmail Adeline with it. When he shows her Lydia’s corpse, she is so overcome with horror and guilt that she faints, bursts a blood vessel, and dies.

Overall, The Mysteries of London, while it contains no supernatural elements, other than a claim that Ravensworth Hall is haunted, has plenty of Gothic guilt and redemption, plenty of villains, and plenty of mysterious and horrid haunts in London and its surroundings. This is urban Gothic, and Reynolds helped to develop it, drawing upon Sue’s novel and setting the stage for the Gothic atmosphere Dickens and other writers would also create in their depictions of London.

Of course, the string of Newgate novels, focusing on criminals, were already being published several years before The Mysteries of London was published. Oliver Twist (1838) had already depicted the darker side of London life, but never to the extreme Reynolds’ does. There is also plenty of sensationalism in the text long before what are considered the first sensational novels appeared—works like Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). There is cross-dressing to hide identities, although cross-dressing had been in fiction and on the stage long before. (See my blog on Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809) as an example.) Murder, however, is more abundant in The Mysteries of London than in any novel prior to it. So is gambling and the cheating of others. Gambling is a huge theme in the novel which is often overlooked as a major theme in Gothic fiction (see my book The Gothic Wanderer for a detailed discussion of gambling as a transgression in nineteenth century Gothic fiction.) Reynolds also fills his pages with family secrets, including those concerning illegitimate children and mysterious parentages (a theme that goes back to Radcliffe), and there are very contemporary themes such as Richard Markham’s campaign in Castelcicala to reclaim the throne for his father-in-law and establish a republic, a theme relevant to the Italian effort for unification—the Bandieri brothers made a failed effort/raid in 1844 in Calabria for this purpose which Reynolds no doubt followed and was inspired by. And most interesting for lovers of the Gothic, beyond the mysteries, the horror, and the dead bodies, is the recurring themes of guilt, forgiveness, and redemption.

The redemption theme is at the heart of understanding criminal psychology in the novel. While Reynolds creates some truly despicable and horrible villains—the Resurrection Man, the old hag, Lady Ravenswood—in each case, we see the villains feeling remorse for their crimes, even when they find themselves unable to stop from continuing them, either through an addiction to their criminal behavior or under threat of having past misdeeds revealed, so they must commit new crimes. We also have several stories within the story (an Arabian Nights plot device frequently used in Gothic fiction) where the criminals tell their histories and we come to understand the miserable childhoods and experiences they had and how even when they tried to walk the straight and narrow path, their poverty and a judgmental society pushed them into lives of crime.

Reynolds is nothing if not charitable toward his criminals. Here he is following Eugene Sue’s model, and while I don’t think he is as effective in his arguments for reform—after all, I think his first purpose was to sensationalize his storyline so it would sell—I believe his heart was in the right place. Eugene Sue’s main character, Rodolphe, who turns out to be a prince in disguise, makes a concerted effort to walk the streets of Paris, meet the poor and criminals, and help them through charity and a good example to reform. Reynolds’ Richard Markham is cast in Rodolphe’s mold with some differences. He is not a prince but eventually he rises to that status through marriage and his campaigns in Italy. He does not seek out the poor or try to help them, but when he comes across those in need, he does help. He is benefactor to several characters, mostly women, before the novel ends, but he also gets at least one criminal—Talbot—to reform.

Eugene Markham, Richard’s brother, whose alias is Montague and Greenwood, and who is known as the worst of the upper class criminals in London, is allowed a long and moving death scene of reconciliation with his brother and the chance to receive forgiveness from those he has wronged before he passes away into a state of peace, a scene that surely had at least an indirect influence upon Dracula’s death scene a half century later.

Eugene’s death

One final point concerning reform to make is that one of the minor characters, Henry Holford, a young criminal, breaks into Buckingham Palace, planning to help the Resurrection Man rob it. He ends up hiding under a sofa and witnessing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s courtship. Reynolds makes the point in these scenes that Queen Victoria is a young, innocent queen who is completely ignorant of the poverty and desperate situations of so many of her people. Holford becomes enamored with the palace and the queen and continually sneaks into the palace to spy on them until Prince Albert spots him. Holford manages to escape but does not dare try to return to Buckingham Palace after that. However, he decides he wants to become famous and will do so by assassinating Prince Albert. He ends up shooting at the prince while he and Victoria are in their carriage. (Four of eight assassination attempts against Queen Victoria had already been attempted at this point when she and Albert were in their carriage.) Holford’s murder attempt fails and results in Holford spending the rest of his life in an insane asylum. These are very daring chapters because while most Gothic novels previously had been set in the past, Reynolds is not only setting his in the present but depicting the royal family as characters in it and criticizing them. We are left with a Queen Victoria who is a type of Marie Antoinette, clueless about the poor, and the sense that perhaps revolution will occur in England as it did in France. That we also have a revolutionary plot in Italy in the novel suggests Reynolds may have been thinking revolution in England not so unlikely either.

Reynolds’ Epilogue states that now that the novel is finished, virtue has been rewarded and vice punished, and then Reynolds argues that his work has always had a moral purpose, concluding his tome by saying:

Kind Reader, who have borne with me so long—one word to thee.

If amongst the circle of thy friends, there be any who express an aversion to peruse this work,—fearful from its title or from fugitive report that the mind will be shocked more than it can be improved, or the blush of shame excited on the cheek oftener than the tear of sympathy will be drawn from the eye;—if, in a word, a false fastidiousness should prejudge, from its own suppositions or from misrepresentations made to it by others, a book by means of which we have sought to convey many an useful moral and lash many a flagrant abuse,—do you, kind reader, oppose that prejudice, and exclaim—“Peruse ere you condemn!”

For if, on the one side, we have raked amidst the filth and loathsomeness of society,—have we not, on the other, devoted adequate attention to its bright and glorious phases?

In exposing the hideous deformity of vice, have we not studied to develope the witching beauty of virtue?

Have we not taught, in fine, how the example and the philanthropy of one good man can “save more souls and redeem more sinners than all the Bishops that ever wore lawn-sleeves?”

If, then, the preceding pages be calculated to engender one useful thought—awaken one beneficial sentiment,—the work is not without its value.

If there be any merit in honesty of purpose and integrity of aim,—then is that merit ours.

And if, in addition to considerations of this nature, we may presume that so long as we are enabled to afford entertainment, our labours will be rewarded by the approval of the immense audience to whom we address ourselves,—we may with confidence invite attention to a SECOND SERIES of “THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON.”

The Mysteries of London, Vol 2. Reynolds would go on to write The Mysteries of the Court of London because of the popularity of the series.

Little scholarship has appeared on The Mysteries of London to date. The only volume to my knowledge on the author is G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press edited by Anne Humpherys and Louis James. It is a collection of essays on Reynolds. Published in 2008, this volume is priced so that hardly anyone can afford it. At Amazon, the hardcover sells for about $100 and even the ebook is priced at $54.95. This is not the way to get more people interested in Reynolds, who deserves far more attention than he has received.

Is Reynolds as great as Dickens or Trollope? No, I have to admit both are far better authors. Both are better stylists, and both do more to develop their characters. Reynolds characters are constantly active, but there is little in the way of interior monologues so we will feel we really know them as real people. Even the guilt-ridden characters are not depicted in ways to make us truly feel their guilt like a great novelist would do. But Reynolds was not writing for a literary but a lower and middle-class audience that wanted cheap thrills and a soap-opera type plotline. That he tried to infuse some morality into his storyline shows that he knew his audience and also knew the power of the pen to reform as well as entertain. That he doubtless influenced countless of his contemporaries and literary successors cannot be denied although the full extent of that influence needs more research. I hope in the years to come more affordable and readable editions of Reynolds’ novels will be produced (currently, most that can be bought are poor quality editions that are scanned and reprinted versions, unlike the fine edition that Valancourt Press has produced of The Mysteries of London) and more scholarship will be devoted to him. It is long past time that Reynolds’ place in Victorian fiction receive the recognition it deserves.

If you have not read any of Reynolds’ other novels, I highly recommend, besides The Mysteries of London, his three supernatural works, all of which I’ve previously blogged about:

Wagner the Wehr-Wolf

The Necromancer

Faust: Or the Secret of the Tribunals

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, a study of nineteenth-century British Gothic literature from 1794 (The Mysteries of Udolpho) to 1897 (Dracula) with a look at twenty and twenty-first century texts like Tarzan of the Apes, Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Tyler has also written Haunted Marquette, a history of hauntings in his native city of Marquette, Michigan, Spirit of the North: A Paranormal Romance, and the historical fantasy The Children of Arthur series, which details the story of King Arthur and his descendants, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. You can learn more about Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

 

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