Hard-boiled Heroines; or, Crime, Sex, and Crinoline in the Penny Dreadfuls
“If Madame Tussaud could conceive a series of waxwork figures which would begin by looking like virtuous and lovely waxworks and end by turning into wax murderesses, she would have accomplished in wax all that homicidal-heroine-makers accomplish ordinarily upon paper. As a matter of taste we prefer the waxworks to the murderesses with Balmoral boots and devilish eyes that stare at the public out of so many works of fiction. They are quite as natural and they do not degrade fiction.”
- Homicidal Heroines. The Saturday Review April 7, 1866.
The Saturday Review critic was referring to Mary Braddon and her 3-volume imitators. If, however, he had checked the news stalls, it’s likely he would have been rendered speechless at the catch-penny works enticingly displayed in the finger begrimed windows and would have fallen into a comatose swoon whilst perusing the hot-blooded text contained therein.
For a number of years Mary Braddon has been a hot topic in feminist studies, strange then that the strong resourceful (and often homicidal) women of the penny dreadfuls have been neglected by Victorian academics. James Malcolm Rymer’s 1858 The Sepoys; or, Highland Jessie (later reprinted in Every Week ) is a wonderful romance featuring a gutsy two-fisted kilted Scottish Wonder Woman as the heroine of the Sepoy Mutiny. Rymer’s women were handy with guns, knives, and poison and rode their horses like men.
Ritchie’s New Newgate Calendar, an eight-page weekly penny dreadful of 1864, contained “Horrible Murder and Mutilation of John Hayes by his wife Catherine,” “The Diabolical Career of Mother Brownrigg, the Fetter-lane Fiend,” and “Vicissitudes of Jenny Diver, the Female MacHeath,” all dolled up in “magnificently coloured wrappers.”
Other “crime and crinoline” titles on sale throughout the sixties were Jack Harkaway author Bracebridge Hemyng’s The Women of London Disclosing The Trials and Temptations of a Woman's Life in London With Occasional Glimpses of a Fast Career, the pseudonymous Rose Mortimer; or, The Ballet-Girl's Revenge Being the Romance and Reality of a Pretty Actress's Life Behind the Scenes and Before the Curtain By a Comedian of the T. R. Drury Lane, and Edward Ellis (probably Charles Henry Ross) Ruth the Betrayer; or, The Female Spy, a satire on James Malcolm Rymer’s 1843 penny blood title Ada the Betrayed; or, The Murder at the Old Smithy.
It was no surprise that Victorian penny dreadful heroines took to the gun and the axe when we look at the trials they underwent in the hands of imaginative penny-a-liners. Women were stripped, whipped, kidnapped by lustful aristocrats, imprisoned by murderous nuns, and (in Fanny White and Her Friend Jack Rawlings, A Romance of a Young Lady Thief and a Boy Burglar) raped by hunchbacks.
Divine Providence and hidden inheritance, masks and faces and cross-gender dressing, the orphan raised in poverty who is really a Lord or a Lady, - these were the elements used time and time again by the dramatists and penny-a-liners of Victorian England, and the audience never tired of it. The best of the serial writers, James Malcolm Rymer, Charles Henry Ross and Edward Ellis, all serial writers for Reynolds’s Miscellany, used the cliches in every work and managed to make each story fresh and exciting. The reader who was familiar with the conventions knew what to expect and enjoyed the anticipation.
Rymer was the leading writer of penny dreadfuls from the beginnings in the 1840’s to the modern crop of writers appearing in print during the glory days of the 1860’s. He was particularly inventive in his use of the conventions of the form. The heroine of May Dudley; or, The White Mask is not even in reality May Dudley, she is Phoebe Carrol, whose mother took in the real May Dudley, who died, and Phoebe’s father substituted his daughter for the dead heiress. “-some day, as sure as this is sunlight that shines in upon us, the secret of my not being of noble birth will be discovered.” Rymer enjoyed overturning the readers expectations, his highwayman, the White Mask, is a woman, and her page Rachael, also known as Robert, dresses in the costume of a groom.
When May Dudley transforms herself into the White Mask the affinity with melodrama becomes apparent, even the word metamorphosis is reminiscent of the stage with its grandiose effects and transformations;
“That is all well,” replied May Dudley; and then she stood up in the barouche, and unclasped the Kamschatka mantle from her throat.
Released from that golden clasp, the heavy sable robe fell in a confused heap to her feet in the carriage, and revealed May Dudley, again in that same costume which she had worn in the Park on the night before.
The scarlet cloak, the rich lace trimmings, the faultless boots, and the cravat so full and so costly, with its long ends tucked carelessly into the breast of the embroidered vest.
Charming, as she there stood, with her own beautiful hair about her sweet face - a picture of youth, of gaiety, of love.
But the beauty was soon eclipsed.
She drew on that terrible, that hideous head-dress, the white mask, that at once covered up all the fair hair and the sweet, gentle, girlish face, that many a Court gallant retired to rest that night only to dream of.
The metamorphosis was complete.
The silken hat was straightened out and placed over the white mask.
The gauntlet gloves were put on.
May Dudley was no more; but in her place there leaped from the carriage the knight of the road.
The White Mask !’
Rymers luxuriant description of fashion was probably for the benefit of his female readers, but the disrobing and gender-change was obviously aimed at raising the blood pressure of the male.
When a mysterious packing-case shows up in her parlour and may Dudley observes movement from within she does not hesitate ;
“From the breast pocket of the scarlet coat she still wore beneath the Kamschatka robe she produced a pistol.
She levelled it at the packing-case.
She fired !
A yell burst from within the packing-case. The side of it fell to the marble floor of the hall and a hideous face appeared.
A robust man, with a physiognomy on which every vice had set it’s seal, rolled out of the case.
There was blood upon his face.”
The ugly burglar turns out to be the wondrously named Cloudy Carrol, May Dudley’s wicked father ! (Or is he?)
Edward Ellis’s The King’s Highway. A Romance of the London Road a Hundred Years Ago had a unique twist on the gender-bending serial heroine. His hero, Paul Clifford, the highwayman, dresses as a woman for a prison play and is set free by a puritanical prison warden who drives him out of prison like the snake out of the garden of Eden.
‘Within he saw a gay silk dress and a wonderfully gorgeous head-dress. “Come out!” he cried, in breathless anger, “Come out, I say ! Come out you painted Jezebel!”
But Paul thought it safer to remain where he was.’
Ellis wrote ‘Fanny White and Her Friend Jack Rawlings A Romance of A Young Lady Thief and a Boy Burglar,’ in which Fanny White escapes from a madhouse and robs a farmer with his own pistol. She steals his clothes and leaves him in a petticoat then dresses ‘in male attire - and uncommonly pretty she looked in it too,” and then relives Dick Turpin’s Ride to York on her mare ‘Black Prince.’ The Boy Burglar is much more bashful, he attends a masquerade with Mr. Gimp, and they choose costumes;
“Charlesh the Shecond, an Italian Brigand, a monk, a nobleman of the reign of Louish The Fourteenth? Shay the word.”
“I’ll have a monk’s dress,” said Mr. Gimp.
“Would your young friend like a female dress? He’s fair. He’d make a very pretty girl.”
Jack negatived this decidedly.’
Fanny is always hopping in and out of her clothes, dressed first as a man, then a woman, ad infinitum ;
“-it was not long before she had disencumbered herself of all these ugly impediments, and stood in the ruddy glow and genial warmth, adorned only by her own loveliness- but then, you know my heroine throughout has always been such a shocking slut.”
Jack is jailed and then escapes twice from Newgate. Near the end Fanny spies on a horrible hunchback as he roasts and eats a dead infant ;
“He dug his long, fang-like teeth into the flesh. (Only half-cooked!) Into the tender infant flesh. He snarled over it like a savage cur. He worried it ! He gnawed it ! Jagged it !”
After his meal he hears a sound, hides his meal , and engages in a knock down brawl with his bald scarecrow of a wife;
“ I should rather have liked to have seen them making love,” thought naughty Miss Fan.’
He poisons his wife, hacks off her head with a blunt knife, and then captures Fanny;
“With furious eagerness, he tore her apparel from her palpitating form. Her bosom rose and fell like a tempestuous sea. He strained her to his breast. His eyes glowed like burning coals. He glued his horrible blue and swollen lips to hers, red and pouting. He covered her lovely face and bare white bosom with passionate kisses.”
Fanny, with cool aplomb, slashes his eyes with a knife and then beats him unconscious with a poker.
Pseudonyms were a not unusual occurence in the Victorian Age. Jane Austens novels were by “A Lady,” The Bronte sisters wrote as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, Marian Evans wrote as George Eliot, Sir Walter Scott wrote anonymously, and Dickens was “Boz.” At the time Dickens wrote Pickwick, authors and theatre folk were thought to be disreputable characters, not suitable for mixed company. Women adapted masculine identities to avoid public censure, pseudonyms were adapted when authors had too much product on the market at the same time; and sometimes , as in the case of pornography and penny dreadfuls (sometimes considered the same thing) to conceal the identity of an author who sailed against the prevailing middle-class code of conduct.
Edward Ellis (pen-name of Charles Henry Ross and Ernest Warren) tongue-in-cheek parodies featured sex with hunchbacks , wicked murderous nuns who stripped captives and whipped them in stinking dungeons, a heroine who kept a brothel in Belgravia, women who bludgeoned men to death with hatchets, lustful princes, scions of the aristocracy, and degenerate street children. Under the prevailing social code Ellis would have been considered a bohemian pornographer and libertine on the scale of an Oscar Wilde.
Ruth the Betrayer is full of uncensored scenes. Here is a description of Ruth’s mansion party in Belgravia. Although not specifically identified in the dread as a brothel, Belgravia was notorious for its high priced prostitutes.
“A chosen few went to her mansion in Belgravia, and were acquainted with something of its inner mysteries. They had been presented, perhaps, at some of the wild and reckless orgies which were there of such frequent occurrence. They had seen and assisted in some of the revels where wine had flooded the table, women had gone crazy drunk, and the entertainment had subsided from frantic hilarity into bestial debauch.
Ruth had been present upon these occasions over and over again - had been as loud as any in her laugh - as lawless in her talk; but she had somehow or other always disappeared towards the close of the saturnial, and nobody could say what had become of her.”
The women were “beautiful bloodsuckers” with “Their scented hair - their moist red lips and pearly teeth - their fair white necks, swelling bosoms and voluptuous forms.” His romances were illustrated by two of the best artists in the business, Robert Prowse Sr. and Frederick Gilbert, talented brother of Sir John Gilbert, R.A.
It was obvious that Edward Ellis had read Bracebridge Hemyng’s article on Prostitution in Mayhew’s London Labour, which he used in Ruth The Betrayer under the chapter heading A Hot-Bed Of Juvenile Vice.-
“Wretched young thieves, lads with hang-dog faces and wisps of hair tortured into the corners of their eyes, were to be seen associating with, and treating to gin and beer, with their air of men of forty, little strumpets not more than twelve years old, whose faces already bore evidences of profligacy and intemperance, and whose language and behavior were revoltingly indecent.”
The penny dreadful heroines were no shrinking violets, Ruth is a frighteningly malicious woman, - in 411 double-columned pages of eye-straining print she decimates half the male population of London with gun, axe, knife and her bare hands. The bigamous heroines of Mary Braddon (with a nod at G. W. M. Reynolds) were mercilessly parodied throughout ;
“It was the head of a woman of no more than twenty - a pink and white faced beauty, with delicately chiseled features, and a clear, open, frank and honest face, over which, from time to time, there played a gentle smile of so much sweetness, one would scarcely have believed that it could have had birth save in purity and innocence.
But, oh ! who shall say what records of treachery and baseness were hidden beneath that fair, white bosom, which rose and fell as placidly as that of a sleeping babe ?
Who shall say with what black crimes was she not familiar - had she not herself committed - was she not doomed yet to commit, before her allotted race was run, and the lovely head, with its lustrous orbs of blue, its crimson pouting lips, and rich, soft, silken curls, should be in its last bed, beneath earth, and food for worms.
On, on the cab rattles merrily through the busy streets, alive with gay-hearted, careless holiday folks. the policeman nods and dozes, and the Spy, still smiling sweetly to herself, closes her eyes, and dreams of vengeance and death !
On, on ! She is on thy track, wretched, doomed one !
The she-leopard is on thy path !
See how parched are her lips - how hungry her eyes !
She is athirst for thy blood !
She is crouching for a spring, and will be on thee in another moment, rending thee limb from limb !”