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.
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.
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.
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.