Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Window-Shopping for Penny Dreadfuls

[1] Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road, No. 200
by Marie Léger-St-Jean

THIS IS the story of three boys. The first two were growing up in the 1870s, the last one two decades earlier. It’s the story of motherless brothers Charley and Bill from London’s East End on the one hand, and on the other hand, that of a Scottish boy christened Robert Lewis Balfour, who grew up to write Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  
[According to Ernest Mehew in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Robert Louis Stevenson was given the names Robert Lewis Balfour but changed the spelling – although not the pronunciation – of his second name to Louis when he was about eighteen, and dropped the third in 1873; to his family and close friends he was always known as Louis.]
Bill is illiterate. In charge of his younger siblings, he has not had his brother’s luck: Charley attends the Ragged School on Hatton-Garden. A ten-minute walk away from the school, on Rosamund Street, now the Spa Fields Park, stands a newsvendor. Sounds pretty boring when you can’t read, but that’s because you’ve forgotten the power of illustration. Have you ever ‘read’ a graphic novel as a kid, when you hadn’t yet learnt how to read? The only tricky thing is flashbacks, otherwise, you’re fine. So that’s why Billy was interested in the newsvendor: he would display on his shop windows the first page of the week’s number for a variety of penny dreadfuls. Each one contained an elaborate woodcut.

Nowadays, if you consult a penny dreadful, most likely in the Rare Books Room of a research library, unless you’re acquainted with a collector, it will seem like just a normal book, its seriality masked by the binding except for the predictable presence, every eight page, of a woodcut. It took me three weeks to realize that the penny bloods I was consulting at the Cambridge University Library were not later reprints, even though numbers would finish and start in the middle of a sentence, or even of a word.

That’s why Bill’s story is important: it brings to life the context in which penny dreadfuls were encountered when they were first published.

But how do we know Billy’s story if he’s illiterate? Presumably, if he cannot read, he cannot write (the reverse could not be assumed true). We know it second-hand. Actually, third-hand. If it’s true at all. Apparently Billy’s brother told it in a Thieves Anonymous meeting at which was present James Greenwood. Greenwood is respectable enough to have his own entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. John Adcock put together his bibliography.

GREENWOOD occupies an interesting position: recounting Billy and his brother’s story, he is an investigative journalist, warning against the evils of penny dreadfuls. But as many writers at the time, he is trying to string together a living as a hard-working low-earning man of letters, otherwise known as a literary hack. Thus, besides journalism, Greenwood also engaged in penny-dreadful writing…

But let’s return to Bill and Charley’s story, if we are ever to get to Robert Lewis’s.

[2] Black Bess, No. 190
Billy could read most of the story of highwaymen, but illustrations are sometimes ambiguous, generating suspense. That’s when Billy would call upon his younger brother to use his newly acquired reading skills to decipher the text beneath the illustration. Perhaps it could tell if the doorkeeper was shutting or opening the door to let the highwayman through or bar his way. But the text on the first page would not always settle the matter. Presumably the answer lay in the seven hidden pages, but the two boys’ pockets were empty.

Though social critics denounced or celebrated penny fiction as horrendously or triumphantly cheap, Billy had to steal and pawn a hammer to acquire the prized jewel. The week after, it was his younger brother’s turn. Theft was the only recourse to obtain the boys’ weekly mental sustenance. And as the brother tells in the Thieves Anonymous meeting, how could it be wrong to steal tools when week after week, Jonathan Wild was appropriating luxurious jewelry!

QED, penny dreadfuls cause petty criminality, both by creating an addiction and giving a bad example. By displaying the first page and its illustration in the shop window, newsvendors were using insidious advertising, how else could boys react to the enticing snippet but to want to know what happened next?

NOT ALL BOYS resorted to theft, and not just because some had better morals or showed more self-restraint than Billy and his brother. Robert Lewis needed nothing more than the illustration and its caption to set his imagination going and reconstruct the narrative. In ‘Popular Authors,’ he even says that there’s a whole paper to be written on the relative merits of reading a story and just looking at the illustrations. I guess that’s partly what I’m writing.

[3] Robert Lewis Balfour as a youth
Robert Lewis, let’s call him Bob for short, was introduced to penny fiction as his nurse read from Cassell’s Family Paper. However, when that was no longer acceptable reading, he started doing the weekly rounds of the shop windows. He could not afford to buy any complete numbers and had to contend himself of the first page, like Billy and his brother. However, in contrast, he did not seem to mind: he took what he wanted and constructed his own stories, as any child does to play.

The force of words, as opposed to simply that of illustrations, was uncovered to him by his mother reading Macbeth, the sounds of the storm raging outdoors uplifting the power of words.

[4] Black Bess, No. 187
Bob first encountered complete numbers in the romantic setting of Neidweith Castle, about which Sir Walter Scott wrote a poem, ‘The Maid of Neidweith’. The abandoned tales sparked the interest of Bob and then only did he become addicted to penny dreadfuls in their full form, complete with images and text. (Stevenson’s article does not tell how he procured himself the means of sustaining his addiction.) Only after discovering the power of words through Shakespeare, the article’s unfolding suggests, was Bob prepared for the genius of Viles, Rymer, & cie. Only then did it seem that authors might actually tell a better story than he could from the illustrations.

STEVENSON tells another story of the boy Robert window-shopping and image-reading in his friend Henley’s Magazine of Art. The gallery is no longer one of penny dreadfuls, but of juvenile drama by Skelt.

When did Bobby enjoy the juvenile drama so? Even as he imagined the stories of penny dreadfuls, or later, when he had started reading them instead?

The stories of Billy, his brother, and Robert Lewis highlight a reading practice common throughout the United Kingdom and throughout the second half of the nineteenth century at the least. As for more Victorian examples, a journalist surveyed the shop windows of London, Edinburgh, and Newcastle for penny dreadfuls in 1888. [1] At the beginning of the twentieth century, a working-class woman warns against the dangers of daily news being displayed in a similar fashion, ironically preferring boys read penny dreadfuls instead. [2]

But their diverging stories also bring attention to the fact that one cannot abstract a reader’s attitude from the retail and distribution strategies. It is important to bring to light the different ways in which fiction was encountered by Victorian audiences and break the uniform mould of the three-decker novel. This is true for any historical period, all geographic locations. But it is not enough to understand actual reading experiences: they are varied, pluralistic, sometimes counterintuitive, and should not be generalized.

[5] James Greenwood
[1] ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ by T. Mackay, Time, Aug 1888, pp.218-225 (p.218).
[2] ‘The Morals of the Coming Generation’ by Priscilla E. Moulder, Westminster Review, Sep 1913, pp.299-301 (p.300).
“Penny Awfuls” by James Greenwood, St. Paul’s Magazine, XII, 1873 HERE.
“Popular Authors” by Robert Louis Stephenson, Scribner’s Magazine, July 4, 1888 HERE.

“Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road. A Tale of the Good Old Times” by Anonymous (attributed to Edward Viles). Illustrated by Robert Prowse and others. No. 1 published August 8, 1863. E. Harrison, Salisbury Court, Fleet Street. “Ran to 254 penny weekly numbers and 2028 pages, each number of eight pages (…)” Frank Jay N&Q April 29, 1922 HERE.

“Price One Penny: A Database of Cheap Literature, 1837-1860 (POP)”, by Marie Léger-St-Jean, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge, England [last updated 20 June 2015] HERE.
Updated with two footnotes on 15 november 2015.


  1. "One cannot abstract a reader’s attitude from the retail and distribution strategies." Indeed. Thank you for this illuminating tale, Marie.