‘No. 2 GIVEN AWAY WITH No. 1.’
By E. Latham , Chambers’s Journal, January 1, 1915.
Those of our readers who are not old enough to remember the palmy days of such periodicals as The Boys of England (begun in 1866, and discontinued, we believe, in 1889), The Young Men of Great Britain (begun in 1868), and The Penny Miscellany, when what are termed ‘penny dreadfuls’ were in the heyday of prosperity, say forty to fifty years ago, will not readily recognise the once stereotyped phrase which heads this article. The writer is old enough to remember the time referred to, and he has now before him the ‘penny numbers’ of three of these - novels shall we call them ? - of the period. These fair samples will form the basis of our remarks, and enable our younger readers to form some idea of the kind of fiction which was so plentifully supplied, and for which there was so great a demand, at the time mentioned. The pernicious literature of the present day is perhaps no better in many respects than it was then, but it is very different. We all know what current literature is ; we need only deal with the ‘penny dreadfuls’ and even ‘’a’ penny ‘orribles’ of the sixties and seventies : our readers can make the comparison for themselves.
Of the popularity of such fiction as we refer to there can be no doubt. A footnote in one of the tales we shall notice, referring to a hope expressed by one of the characters that the hero will be popular, says : ‘If a sale of forty thousand of Number 1 of his adventures proves his popularity, he is so. - PRINTER’S NOTE.’
Let us begin with ‘Charley Wag, the New Jack Sheppard, by the author of The Woman with the Yellow Hair, Somebody Else’s Wife,’ &c. The story is in four books, and is issued in penny numbers. We are both right and wrong in this statement. Each fasciculus, published at one penny weekly, consists of sixteen pages and two numbers, numbered on the first and ninth pages respectively, and yet the first week’s issue is called No.1 at the folded edge. This system obtains throughout, Nos. 15 and 16 showing on the edge No. 8, and so on. In this way it may be said that as well as No.2 being given away with No.1, No.4 is given away with No.3, and so on. There are in this story seventy-two single or thirty-six double numbers, plus three pages of text at the end.
A few extracts will be interesting, either for the purposes of comparison or taken by themselves. Book I. is entitled ‘Childhood in the Gutter;’ the first chapter is headed, ‘All but Murder,’ and begins ; ‘A woman ran wildly down one of the several steep flights of steps leading from Hungerford Market to the quay below, and creeping along upon the slippery stonework overhanging the water, paused for a moment at the extreme point, cast one fearful, shuddering glance around, and FLUNG HER CHILD INTO THE RIVER. The rain was lashing heavily against the window-panes, and the wind sweeping in fierce and fitful gusts along the deserted streets above, while every now and then a streak of livid lightning rent the air, followed by deafening peals of thunder -... she was young and almost beautiful, but deadly pale ; her hair -... Her flashing eyes, set teeth, and knitted brows bespoke her courage and determination, and her DEADLY PURPOSE. She tore the sleeping babe which a moment since had nestled at her breast, from its warm shelter beneath her thick, plaid shawl, raised it high in the air, to give her the more power, and flung it fiercely from her into the black and sluggish waters gurgling at her feet. “Thus perishes the record of my sin and folly.” It was more a murmured than a spoken thought, for her blanched lips scarce gave utterance to any sound ; but had it been instead the loudest shriek, the raging tempest would have drowned her cry in its boisterous fury.... No one had seen her, no one followed her. The darkness hid her retreating form, and Heaven alone was witness to her crime. The would-be murderess fled away, careful alone of her own safety, heeding not how fared the little living bundle the dark waters swept along towards death. What hope was there for it ? What guardian angel came to rescue it ? None other than TODDLEBOY.’
Well, the child is taken to a public-house, ‘The Drinking Fish,’ frequented by Mr. Toddleboy, and under the care of the landlady revives ; and the author remarks : ‘Of course you know very well, gentle Reader, as well as I do myself, that I never intended the baby to die, or else what good would there have been in rescuing it and intruding it upon your polite consideration ? No - to ease your suspense - supposing you feel any (and if you are a very young reader, I don’t know that you may not after all), I may as well tell you that in an hour’s time IT WAS ALIVE AND KICKING.’
Then follow various expedients resorted to by the successive people into whose hands the baby falls, each trying to get rid of it in pantomime fashion, until at last it comes into the possession of a kind-hearted woman who takes care of it. The hero, Charley Wag, becomes in Book II. ‘The Boy Burglar,’ and in Book III. ‘The Jailbird.” Book IV., the last, occupies more than half the whole, and is entitled, ‘The Most Successful Thief In London.’ Of course Charley turns out to be the son of a duchess.
The following is from the last chapter : ‘In one of the handsomest mansions in Park Lane, a ball, given in honour of some foreign princes, was taking place. In the brilliantly lighted salons were assembled the elite of England’s aristocracy. All seemed to partake of the gaiety around, and the host, a handsome young man, was about to lead the lovely daughter of the Earl of Dumbledore to join the dancers, when a tall, grave-looking man approached, and requested a few moments’ private conversation. The host conducted his fair companion to a seat, and complied with the stranger’s request. The stranger proved to be a detective, and the gentleman whom he came to apprehend on a charge of murder, and with whom he had requested a few minute’s private conversation, was our hero, Charley Wag !... A verdict of guilty was found, and our hero was condemned to death. The sentence was to be carried into effect the following morning, when, to the astonishment of the officials at Newgate, the prisoner was respited, and afterwards pardoned. The Duchess of Heatherland had saved her son’s life. On the day before the execution was to take place she had an interview with the Home Secretary ; to him she had explained all, and to him she proclaimed our hero, Charley Wag, as the heir to the dukedom and estates of Heatherland. This will, in ‘some measure’ - in ‘some measure’ is refreshing, and the respite and subsequent pardon of a murderer, even though he be the son of a duchess, requires a very strong imagination on the reader’s part - ‘account for Charley’s respite and subsequent pardon. Feeling that the position he had succeeded in establishing in society was gone for ever’ - we should think so indeed - ‘our hero determined upon going abroad, where he passed the rest of his life in strict retirement.’ Probably he did.
The tale concludes : ‘After justice had overtaken Bloodyer, Faversham,’ whom the duchess had married, ‘had altered visibly, and latterly the duchess perceived that his mind was affected. She seldom permitted herself to lose sight of him ; but on one occasion he succeeded in evading her vigilance, and set off for London by the last train at night. The duchess discovered his absence soon enough to catch the same train. Curious to know where he would go, she did not interfere with him, but kept him in sight from the moment of leaving the terminus at Waterloo-bridge. Striding onwards, Faversham made his way to his old house in Bayswater.’ We should think the duchess was rather tired if she followed him on foot. ‘At the back of this house was an old cellar which Faversham rented ; in this he had, years ago, caused a bricklayer to build him another or inner cellar. In this place were the bodies of all Faversham’s victims ! To this cellar the madman bent his steps. Entering the first cellar, the door of which he left open while he procured a light, Faversham passed into the other chamber without observing that he was followed by the duchess. Here a sight presented itself which curdled the blood of the shrinking woman. Lying about in all directions were the bodies or skeletons’ - a modern Bluebeard, eh ! - ‘of the unfortunates who had been murdered by Faversham ; and in a corner, over a few bones, the madman was crouching down and muttering incoherently. The duchess, unable to control her feelings at the ghastly spectacle, gave vent to an exclamation of horror. Uttering a yell, the maniac sprang to the door and closed it. The unfortunate woman was shut in with this infuriated demon. Vainly did she beg of him to spare her life and return home with her. The madman heeded her not. She must die. His vow must be fulfilled. Again giving the terrible yell, he clutched her by the throat, nor did he relax his grasp until his victim was a corpse. Then, flinging the lifeless body from him, he sat chattering by the bones in the corner until late in the night, when he fell asleep. When he awoke he was sensible of the horrors of his situation ! His wife, murdered by his own hand, was lying a corpse at his feet, the bodies of his victims around him, and, oh ! horror ! escape impossible ! The door of the inner chamber closed with a spring, and thus the madman in his frenzy had sealed his own death-warrant. For days the wretched man’ - wretched indeed - ‘remained fully alive to a sense of what his fate must be ; but at length, worn out and exhausted from want of food, and his efforts to make his terrible position known to the outer world, death came to his relief, and the charnel-house of those he had murdered became his own tomb.’
We may mention that there is a copy of this interesting work in the British Museum Library ; but the last one hundred and thirty-nine pages are missing ; the writer’s copy wants pages 529-40 and pages 543-58, but is otherwise complete. The comparative scarcity and bad condition, or incompleteness, of existing copies of this class of literature (!) is probably accounted for by their destruction or ill-treatment, like school-books, by their youthful owners.
Having given sufficient particulars of Charley Wag to serve our present purpose, let us glance at another typical example, The Blue Dwarf, by Lady Esther Hope (a pseudonym, we believe). Book I. is called ‘The Foster Brothers.’ In the first chapter a figure steals into the bed-room of a sleeping youth and replaces a bottle on a small table at the bedside by another similar one. Shortly afterwards a figure crawls from beneath the bed and substitutes another similar bottle for that left by the previous visitor. The second figure chuckles - not too loudly, it is to be hoped - and silently leaves the apartment.
Here is a description of the Blue Dwarf, from whom the story takes its name : ‘When the assassin fled.... it was no imaginary cry which pursued him as he rushed down the dell. A rushing sound followed his escape, and something entered the room in which the foul deed had been done. It was a man with a dark lanthorn, the light of which was now shed upon the insensible body. And such a man ! About four feet high, with short legs, and arms that reached considerably below the knee, this sudden apparition appeared to have no redeeming point in his deformity. His face was hideous ; grizzly hair like that of a negro surmounted a low, narrow forehead ; little red-circled eyes, themselves rather green than any other colour’ - he preferred green, we may take it - ‘a huge mouth, revealing teeth filed to a point and died’ - ‘died’ is good, but probably this is not the author’s fault - ‘jet black;’ - we should have thought a ‘dead’ black more appropriate, had the author known - ‘a beardless chin- might have all passed still as accidents of nature to be explained by sickness; or premature birth,’ -but the filed teeth, how can they be explained in this way ? ‘or some awful terror on his mother’s soul’ - a kind of accumulation of birth-marks, we suppose. ‘But his skin was blue’ - ah, we had overlooked this incontrovertible and inexplicable fact - ‘blue as indigo, with spots all over his face, neck and arms of a blue-black.’ Stephens’ ink must have been nothing in comparison. ‘He was shaggy too, like an orang-outang. He wore a fantastic dress like a gnome-king in a pantomime, composed of coarse stuff of a foreign make.’ Enough, or the picture will be too much for our imagination.
This novel, too, is in four books. Book II. has no title. Book III. is ‘The Great Rat-trap,’ and Book IV. ‘The Blue Dwarf’s Story.” In this case No. 2 is given away with No. 1, and the rest are issued singly; and with No. 26, so it says, is presented gratis Nos. 1 and 2 of The Confessions of a Page. By the author of the Fourth Series of The Mysteries of London.
In the last chapter the Blue Dwarf, whose name is Goldy Gordon, alias Sapathwa, disappears from the scene in the following manner. A solitary horseman arrives one stormy night at the door of a small tenement adjoining Berlin Cathedral, and, presenting an order to the keeper of the vaults, desires access to Vault 20. ‘When they arrived at the entrance to the vaults, “Thank you,” said the stranger ; “give me your light. I know my way now. I will not trouble you further.” “The lamp will not last you long,” suggested the old man. “It will last quite as long as I shall require it,” said the other. “And when you come out again, may I ask you to be so kind as to fasten the portal after you ?” “Yes,” replied the stranger, with a sad, strange smile; “when I come out I will do so.” The keeper then tremblingly gave him the light, and the unknown descended. “Well,” thought the old man, as the other disappeared, “I shouldn’t much like to go down there so late, and on such a night as this ; but there’s no accounting for tastes - he looks quite delighted at it. Well, he’s gone, and I will go too.” He was gone. The door closed after him, and closed after him for ever. He never returned; and not until his dying day did the old man narrate to any the story of his strange visitation.... It was about the time of the old keeper’s death that the foundation of Berlin Cathedral was found to be slowly sinking, and it was necessary for workmen to descend into the vaults. The mystery of the strange visitant was then, at length, cleared up. In that vault, which contained the coffin of Miriam Blakesley, was discovered, clasping the last relic of the inanimate form, the skeleton of him who was known in life as THE BLUE DWARF.’
You see both these edifying narratives end with skeletons in vaults, a murder, and the murderer’s involuntary death in the one case, and a voluntary death in the other.
The British Museum Library contains two copies of The Blue Dwarf, one of the first and the other of a subsequent issue. The earlier copy (1861) is imperfect, wanting all after page 392; the writer’s is complete, with 478 pages. The later edition (1875) is considerably abridged, and, as stated in the catalogue, ‘after chapter lxxxv., the text of this edition differs from that of the preceding.’ The change comes suddenly in the middle of chapter lxxxv., and there are only one hundred and forty-two pages in all, and the story ends quite differently. It is difficult to account for the alteration, but evidently for some reason it was desired materially to abridge the story.
Another anonymous novel of the period is Schamyl; or, The Wild Woman of Circassia ; and the following are advertised in its pages as ‘now publishing in penny weekly numbers:’
Vice and its Victim; or, Phoebe the Peasant’s Daughter; and The Ocean Child; or, The Wanderer of the Deep.
Then there was The Boy Sailor and The Boy Soldier; and although as usual, No.2 was given away with No. 1, these were issued in halfpenny numbers of eight pages each. The Skeleton Crew was the enticing appellation of another of these ‘’a’penny ‘orribles,’ the vogue of which, we are pleased to see, has passed away. No longer is it necessary, as an inducement, to give away No.2 with No. 1 of any novel; indeed, they are no longer issued in penny or half-penny numbers at all. In these days of cheap printing, complete novels are issued at sixpence and sevenpence per volume, and those of the Charley Wag type are ‘as dead as a door nail.’
Just a postscript here ; when I first read the following ;
“What guardian angel came to rescue it ? None other than TODDLEBOY.’” I recalled seeing that name somewhere. On December 18, 1867, ten years after the appearance of Charley Wag, a captioned comic page appeared in Judy, or, The London Serio-comic Journal, boldly signed 3 times : C. H. Ross, CHR and CHR again. The title? Tommy Toddleboy’s Tail Coat.
Ross had previously done a comic page about Ally Sloper, a character he had originally called ‘Arry Sloper’ in a Reynolds’s Miscellany serial titled ‘In Search of a Wife.’