Monday, June 22, 2009

Newgate, a Romance

Newgate, a Romance by T. P. Prest, London: E. Lloyd, 97 numbers, 1845-1847

Newgate, a Romance by T. P. (Thomas Peckett) Prest, published by E. Lloyd, 12, Salisbury Square, began publishing in weekly penny numbers in 1845 and finished 97 numbers later in 1847. The serial was probably inspired by G. W. M. Reynolds’s best-selling Mysteries of London, most notably in the opening illustration which bares an uncanny resemblance to the opening illustration to Reynolds’s popular romance.

The nameless narrator has an unhealthy preoccupation with the ancient prison of Newgate. Days he spends watching from an inn across the street. Eventually his compulsion leads to an early morning visit to the empty street where he is accosted by a truculent crippled dwarf who promises to gain him admittance to Newgate if the narrator will accompany the beggar home.

After a long and tortuous journey through the maze of streets and alleys they come to the dwarf’s home in an offal cellar under a butcher’s shop. It turns out they are situated directly behind Newgate prison and a locked stone arched doorway leads directly into the catacombs of the “house of despair.” The excitable dwarf reveals all his secrets, steps backward, and falls screaming into a bottomless well. His exit leaves our hero with a wallet full of manuscripts and the keys to the ominous entrance to the prison.

Once home he opens the wallet and finds various romances of the wretches who ended their days in Newgate cells. The first is entitled The Shadow of Death; or, the Coffin Cell which covers nos. 3 to 13. This is actually a long excerpt from a current Lloyd serial called Captain Hawke; or, May Boyes; and the Shadow of Death. The narration returns to our nameless hero who enters Newgate through the offal cellar and into the hidden cell where the long dead highwayman had spent his last hours on earth. After this successful adventure he returns home and begins reading a short manuscript from the wallet, Proud Prudence of Aldgate: an Episode in the Life of Captain Hawke the Highwayman (Nos. 18-24) followed by another long tale titled Adam Beech the Burglar.

The narrator’s story weaves in and out between his reading of the manuscripts. He returns to Newgate and is almost arrested when the bodies of a man and a woman are found in the well. He gains an accomplice in the person of a theatrical Shakespearean actor, and finds that subterranean London is a larger geography than he imagined when they end up in a bizarre game of Skittles in an Inn’s cavernous cellar. Soon the narrator himself is leading a life of crime and serial murder.

The Hangman’s Tomb begins about no. 42 and Chapter XLVI. Contains the story of Frank Hayward the Footpad, then The Greenford Murders (words in gothic type),a highwayman romance featuring a prophesying hag. Next up: Continental Bandits, which contains the tale of Orlando the Owl; or the Highwayman of Hampstead Heath, and last The Poisoner; or, the Perils of Matrimony, a melodramatic romance full of captures and escapes of the fair Marianna. Instead of returning to our hero and tying up the narrator’s plot the manuscript romance comes to a sudden halt with the end of Marianna. The End after 97 numbers, approximately two years after the serial started.

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