Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Penny Dreadfuls

If literacy rates are to be measured by one's ability to sign the marriage register (a somewhat dubious premise at best) then between 1840 and 1900, the rate of literacy increased from somewhere between half and two-thirds to around 97 per cent. There can be little doubt that literacy did increase dramatically during Victoria's reign and this can be attributed to a variety of factors; two of which were the movement toward and the expansion of popular education on the one hand, and the increasing availability of cheap reading material on the other.

Education for the lower and labouring classes in England was provided in the early years of Victoria's reign from a variety of non-government sources, and although it improved through her reign, the main thrust of what little was available emphasized such values as social conformity, knowing one's place, and subservience to one's betters. In 1870, the movement towards widespread, inexpensive mass education finally culminated in the passage of the Elementary Education Act, sponsored by W. E. Forster. This provided elementary education in England and Wales and a decade later, in 1880, schooling was made compulsory until the age of ten. While a great many children managed either to evade the acts, attend on only the the most irregular basis or leave school as soon as it was legal to do so, such schooling meant that the number of readers in the working classes was increasing. A new "class" of readers was being formed, the barely-literate. For these, as Richard Altick points out,

Because they possessed virtually no general information, their reading matter had to be devoid of all but the most familiar literary and historical allusions; they could not be expected to waste time puzzling over any more recondite kind. And because their attention spans were short, they needed a running supply of excitements, brief and to the point, and sentences and paragraphs to match.
The Victorian Era saw a revolution in publishing and particularly in works for the mass market. Improving works and religious tracts were produced in comparatively large numbers and were aimed at the lower end of the reading market. With the success of Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836 as a serial, it became clear that the market for "books" could be increased when they were sold in monthly installments. The greater demand, coupled with the reduction in printing costs meant that it was possible to supply the new market at a lower per-book cost.

Newspapers saw the abolition of the newspaper tax in 1855, and in 1861 the duty on paper. Thus, while The Times continued to sell, its dominant position was threatened by the increasing number of penny dailies (The Times continued to charge 3d until 1870). Even so, even the papers entering the market continued to appeal to a more educated class, at least until the 1880s when the impact of Forster's Education Act began to be felt. Sir Robert Ensor, in his magesterial Oxford History of England volume for the years 1870 to 1914, notes that the Education Act taught millions how to read, "without teaching them what to read." By the end of the century, the Evening News and the Daily Mail were directing their appeal to the newly literate working classes.

And it was at this class, the barely-literate, that the literary pap, whether in the form of cheap newspapers or Penny Dreadfuls was aimed. Its appeal extended beyond this class, however, reaching even the illiterate who would gather around a reader to hear the latest installment from the pen of (among others) the prolific author, G. W. Reynolds.

Penny Dreadfuls were inexpensive novels usually filled with violent adventure or crime and issued in installments. It was a popular genre, giving way, as literacy expanded to adventures aimed at a juvenile population. In their heyday, the Penny Dreadfuls (sometimes called "bloods" or "shilling shockers") were produced en-masse. The reader could be titillated with such titles as "Vice and its Victims," "Wagner the Wehr-Wolf" or "Varney, the Vampire" although perhaps the most famous of all, the tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street was rather more innocuously entitled, "String of Pearls: A Romance." Such works were liberally sprinkled with lurid illustrations and certainly appealing to the Costermongers according Mayhew.

What they love best to listen to - and, indeed, what they are most eager for - are Reynolds's periodicals, especially the "Mysteries of the Court."
"The Mysteries of the Court of London" which ran from 1848 to 1856 was Reynolds' sequel to "The Mysteries of London," his long running serial first published in 1844.

While most critics have treated the Penny Dreadful with disdain, there have been those who have been prepared to admit to a liking for this genre; even to its value. Noteworthy was G. K. Chesterton who described his taste in reading as:

one which I am prepared in a rather especial manner, not only to declare, but to defend. My taste is for the sensational novel, the detective story, the story about death, robbery and secret societies; a taste which I share in common with the bulk at least of the male population of this world. There was a time in my own melodramatic boyhood when I became quite fastidious in this respect. I would look at the first chapter of any new novel as a final test of its merits. If there was a murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I read the story. If there was no murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I dismissed the story as tea-table twaddle, which it often really was.
He then goes on to declare that any “literature that represents our life as dangerous and startling is truer than any literature that represents it as dubious and languid. For life is a fight and is not a conversation.” Certainly the Penny Dreadful more than fulfilled these criteria!

There are numerous examples of the penny dreadful available on line. Click on the titles below to either download or read on-line the book named.

To download Wagner the Wehr-Wolf in text format click here.

To download Varney the Vampire in text format click here.

To read Vol. 1 of The Mysteries of London online click here.

To read The String of Pearls, the famous story of Sweeny Todd, online, click here.

To read G. K. Chesterton's comments on the Penny Dreadfuls click here.


Christina said...

You have so many interesting articles on your site! I always thought the Penny Dreadfuls were just trashy newspapers - those which reported Jack the Rupper in graphic detail, etc - and never knew that the were actually stories, too. How interesting!
Oh...with regard to your article on wet nurses...You might be aware that Queen Victoria had such a horror of breast-feeding that when her daughter, Alice, chose to nurse her own baby, Queen Victoria was so disgusted that she named a cow in the royal dairy, Alice :-).


Grand Duchess Elizabeth

Most Beautiful Princess

Hels said...

Thank you for the posting on The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. I have created a link from your post to my blog, if that is ok with you. See

But the problem for me is: Why did an exhibition promoting industrial progress encourage/tolerate a medieval court? I'd love to know what you think

all the best

carla said...

hello, i was wondering how i could get the full piece on pennydreadfuls. you said that this article was extracted from a larger one. I would have contacted you directly but i was not able to find your e-mail address anywhere.

thank you

Dr Bruce Rosen said...

Carla, I can't respond directly since you did not include an email address or way of making contact.

Anonymous said...

Is there possibly an chance tehre's an archive of the penny dreadfuls online somewhere? (direct link please) I ahve been trying to find varney the vampire & a couple other stories to read.