Before I retired from teaching to write full time, a colleague of mine mentioned a newspaper article he’d come across which he thought might interest me, for it concerned penny dreadfuls—those cheaply-produced Victorian serials for the masses, with their blood-red titles singing out against a yellow background, promising action and adventure aplenty. The article, which appeared in the Guardian at the end of April 2016, was by Kate Summerscale, author of The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, her new book which fuelled the article. She points out that, in the case of Robert and Nattie Coombes, who murdered their mother in 1895, the coroner’s jury made particular note of the cache of penny dreadfuls found in the boys’ back parlour. “We consider the Legislature should take some steps,” she quotes them as saying, “to put a stop to the inflammable and shocking literature that is sold, which in our opinion leads to many a dreadful crime being carried out.” The coroner agreed. She goes on to cite, amongst other things, the verdict in the case of a 12-year-old servant boy who hanged himself in 1892: “suicide during temporary insanity, induced by reading trashy novels.”
Trashy novels! But what exactly were these trashy novels? Take a look about at some of the gorgeous covers I’ve assembled courtesy of the British Library and you may begin to see a pattern emerging. Each has a lavish illustration depicting a dramatic moment in the plot, often coloured-in with swathes of red, echoing the lurid font of the title. Nearly all bear a quote in the footer to tease and stir the imagination, unreadable at this low resolution. My undoubted favourite is Cloven Hoof, the Demon Buffalo. I myself am not above a little (properly acknowledged) plagiarism, and I’d bet my bottom dollar that some version of this snippet makes its way into one of Gooseberry’s next adventures. I’m also intrigued by the prudent if dithering nature of the man leaving clues in Dark Dashwood, the Desperate. I too have had to ponder the mystery of why anyone in their right minds would need to leave clues—especially cryptic ones—to a treasure they’ve taken their time and trouble to conceal. Consider the logic of this for even a minute and, trust me, your mind will implode. Be that as it may, these serials are first and foremost tales of high adventure set in dangerous out-of-the way places where fortunes may be won or lost on the single throw of a dice. They’re fiction as escapism. And the authors of these trashy, seditious works, who were they exactly…?
If you’re an aficionado of the Victorian, especially Victorian Britain, your eye might well have been drawn to The Young Duke, by a certain Benjamin Disraeli. Could Britain’s twice-serving Prime Minister, beloved of Queen Victoria herself, really be responsible for this trash? Well, in a nutshell, yes! He is! It’s a reprint of a novel he wrote in his twenties—when he needed quick ready cash—before he’d even considered entering into politics. Much is made of Millennials whose online history will dog them throughout their later lives, but this is not a new phenomenon by any means. The Young Duke is but an early example. Priced at a staggering sixpence and tellingly lacking any quote from the text, this is what would-be criminal types would have learned from within its pages. It is the duke of the title who is soliloquising. I only hope those proto-malfeasants didn’t waste their hard-earned money:
“Am I a Whig or a Tory? I forget. As for the Tories, I admire antiquity, particularly a ruin; even the relics of the Temple of Intolerance have a charm. I think I am a Tory. But then the Whigs give such good dinners, and are the most amusing. I think I am a Whig; but then the Tories are so moral, and morality is my forte; I must be a Tory.”
For those who can be bothered to care, a Whig is a liberal member of the House (of Lords, in this case) and a Tory is their conservative opposition. Showing more promise by far is Death Trailer the Chief of Scouts, purportedly by the Honourable W. F. Cody, better known to us perhaps as Buffalo Bill. Unfortunately, it’s not actually by him. Buffalo Bill’s adventures were ghost-written by a succession of writers, starting with Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men by Ned Buntline, which began its serialization two days before Christmas in 1869. Buntline was the nom de plume of a man named Judson, a serial bankrupt who killed a man in a duel and was brought to trial for his murder, during the proceedings of which he was shot at and wounded by his victim’s brother. He escaped in the ensuing fracas, only to be captured by a lynch mob, and saved from being hanged by his friends.
Take a closer look at the covers and you’ll see that the majority cost tuppence—2d. (tuppence; two pennies)—roughly equivalent today to about UK£1.50 (or US$1.35 now that we’re lumbered with Brexit). That’s approximately one-sixth of the cost of, say, All the Year Round, the magazine in which Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone was first serialized, which was aimed at a moneyed audience. Penny dreadfuls, by contrast, targeted the burgeoning newly-literate working-class youth market. What may not be so obvious these days (and hurrah for that!) is that they were actually meant for boys. In retrospect it is easy to see the establishment’s fear of penny dreadfuls as being something of a class issue. While it was perfectly acceptable for gentleman of standing to pay their shilling and weep openly over the death of Little Nell, it was scandalous for working- and middle-class boys to stump up tuppence to learn the fate of Cloven Hoof in the mysterious council chamber.
Yet, for some readers, their influence proved to be too great a pull. Kate Summersecale cites a number of instances where pairs of boys ran away from home, often with ambitious but totally naïve plans based on the tales they had read: “Steal the money; go to the station, and get to Glasgow. Get boat for America. On arrival there, go to the Black Hills and dig for gold, build huts, and kill buffalo; live there and make a fortune.” But suicide induced by reading trashy novels? As much as I pity the poor boy who felt his only option was to hang himself, I think not.
Such cases inevitably led to a backlash from within the publishing world itself. The Half-penny Marvel of 1893 had this to say of its fellow papers:
“It is almost a daily occurrence with magistrates to have before them boys who, having read a number of ‘dreadfuls’, followed the examples set forth in such publications, robbed their employers, bought revolvers with the proceeds, and finished by running away from home, and installing themselves in the back streets as ‘highwaymen’. This and many other evils the ‘penny dreadful’ is responsible for. It makes thieves of the coming generation, and so helps fill our gaols.”
Before long The Half-penny Marvel was printing its own penny dreadful stories (surprise, surprise), and its publisher, Alfred Harmsworth, cornered the market with a string of similar half-price publications.
These persisted as late as the 1960s when, as a boy growing up in New Zealand, I too was entranced by imported British magazines that serialized out-of-copyright tales of highwaymen written some 130 years before. I remember the anticipation I felt while waiting for the next week’s instalment. Summerscale quotes Robert Louis Stevenson as saying of such stories, “I do not know that I ever enjoyed reading more.” I heartily concur.