14. Time Traveling With R.E. Prindle Sub Strata In George W.M. Reynolds

October 13, 2020


R.E. Prindle

Substrata In George W.M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of Old London

Having now read perhaps a majority of Reynolds’ works I think I have detected substrata that run through those works.  One substratum is not unique but appears in other writers such as W.H. Ainsworth and, perhaps even in Bulwer-Lytton and that substratum is a residue from at least the time of Queen Anne.  Anne’s time seems to be the dividing line between what went before in English history and what would succeed it, that is, a cosmic shift.

This substratum seems to be a strong sense of anarchy.  In Queen Anne’s time that streak of anarchy could be glaringly found in the career of the Duke of Wharton and his Mohocks. (Mohawks)  This wild American Indian streak shows up in Paris also in the Mohicans of Alexander Dumas’ time and the later Apaches.  Europeans rebelled against the strictures of civilization.  Echoes can be found in the African novels of Rider Haggard and even in the Jekyll and Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson.

To provide a solid background I offer a quote from The Social Life of Queen Anne by John Ashton publishing in 1897 from original sources.  On p. 382 et seq.


In every age and country young blood Is hot blood and in this reign it was particularly so.  The wild blood of the Cavaliers still danced in the veins of the beaus in Anne’s time and nightly frolics and broils were of frequent occurrence.  They had their predecessors in this work—as Sir Tope says in Shadwell’s play of “The Scowrers”:  Puh, that is nothing, why I knew the Hectors, and before them The Muns and the Titire Tus, they were brave fellows indeed, in their days a man could not go from Rose Tavern to the Piazza once, but he must venture his life twice.’  And Whackum in the same play, describes the days of the fraternity of Scowrers.  ‘Then how we scour’d the Market Place, overthrew the Butter Woman, despoiled the Pippin Merchants, wip’d out the Milk Scores, pull’d off the Doorknockers, dawb’d the Gilt Sign.’

In Anne’s reign these roysterers were called Mohocks—why I know not, except that it is sort of generic term for North American Indians.  In a later age this furore was termed Tom and Jerryism; but it had an intelligible  origin, from Pierce Egan’s Life In London or the Day and Night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq. and His Elegant Friend Corinthian  Tom &c,’  It still exists although it has no special name.


So there you have a long tradition of anarchy, or major streak in the English character.  Perhaps it was this type of roysterer that left England to conquer the world.  It is this substratum in Reynolds and perhaps the writers of his time but seems to have toned down in the next generation.  The streak may reappear in the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson toward the end of the century, especially  in the novelette of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson himself was nurtured on the writings of the Penny Dreadful school if you read him with that background in mind an extra layer appears.  Of course in the middle fifties and Sixties England had the Mods and Rockers succeeded by the Punks. The Punks theme song was anarchy in the UK.

The leader of the Mohocks was the Duke Wharton.  Wharton was an especially vicious psychopath.  During the day he functioned as a political figure while at night he led his Mohocks in the tradition of the anarchic bands.  So in Jekyll and Hyde, Dr. Jekyll appears as a respectable person but at night he howls through the streets injuring or offending everyone he meets.  Stevenson then probably based Jekyll and Hyde on Wharton. Reynolds too, in his Mysteries of Old London: Days of Hogarth based his character that was based on himself, Jem Ruffles on Duke Wharton.  Like Wharton Ruffles has recreated a gang of ruffians who cruise the streets at night beating, stealing and ripping off door knockers.  Door knockers seem to have been a special thrill for them. As Wharton as a duke was able to protect his minions from justice so did Ruffles in one of his multiple personas.

A ruffler was a person who routinely disturbed the peace hence the name Ruffles, a guy who ruffles things.  Now, at the time Wharton flourished so did the first, perhaps, of the great criminal masterminds, the celebrated Johnathan Wild.  Wild was the subject of several  biographies including those of Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones.

Wild organized all the thieves of London so that he was aware of every burglary and theft.  He established a reputation for being able to locate and retrieve stolen goods, for a fee of course, that was shared with his employees, so to speak, in other words, the thieves.  His method worked for some time; he passing himself off as respectable.  Needless to say he was finally detected and took his place at the Tuck Up Fair to dance on air.

His character recurs in several guises in Reynolds work, perhaps most notably as Old Death in the third series of The Mysteries of London.  George does his research presenting a good outline of how stolen goods were disposed of internationally, thus an international crime network.

As a young boy Reynolds in France learned of Wild’s French counterpart the famed Eugene Francois Vidocq.  Vidocq began his career as a serious criminal.  He was arrested on many charges spending a good deal of his time in prisons.  Tiring of this life he offered his services as a police informer and was accepted.  Amazingly from there he worked his way into being the chief of police.  As chief he filled Wild’s function of retrieving stolen goods.  His methods came under suspicion and he was relieved a rich man, which I rather suspect. He remained as the head of the Surete or Paris Police Force until 1832.  So the very young Reynolds would have been witness to Vidocq’s presence and aware of all the rumors surrounding him.  Reynolds’ detective of the Bow Street Runners was undoubtedly based on Vidocq as well, probably as Poe’s C.A. Dupin of The Murders In The Rue Morgue.

Yet he doesn’t refer to the Paris police much.  If Pickwick Abroad is any evidence he seems to have been under surveillance by the Gendarmerie which was an outfit separate from the police being some sort of National policing outfit.  I haven’t found a clear explanation of how the force functioned other than they evolved out of a medieval security force hence having a military structure.  Paul de Kock has them as a National police protecting highways in the Departments.

Other than some enigmatic comments in The Steam Packet the only evidence I have found to corroborate my opinion was Reynolds desire to see Brussels.  That city of Belgium was at the time an international refuge for criminals.  Reynold says in the Steam Packet that when he was a few miles from the Belgian border he looked longingly towards Brussels.  He gives no indication of what he was doing that far North in France.  That means he was quite a distance from Paris meaning he would have been absent from Paris for at least two to three weeks.

Something that seems clear to me is that it is almost certain that he was involved in fairly serious criminal activity, swindling in London forcing him to remove to France where he may very easily have had criminal associates in France.  Certain, if Dick Collins is correct, he had run ins with the police in Paris.

Further, if the Youthful Imposter was the point man in swindling the Jewish usurer in London the Jews, being an international brotherhood, it is quite possible that he was under surveillance by them waiting for vengeance.  That vengeance would have been achieved when Reynolds was led into a usury scheme and swindled of what he had swindled.  He was lured in 1835 into schemes that cleaned him of monetary resources and may have led to bankruptcy proceedings according to Dick Collins.  I have no evidence of who did it but if he was involved in usury there is every chance the Jews were involved.

In dire straits he very probably was ordered to leave France in 1836, thus the return to England.

An aside:  A very interesting ‘slip’, perhaps, occurs in Pickwick Abroad.  If one assumes that the lead character is an alter ego of Reynolds it will be noted that he is more familiar with the Gendarmes than with the Paris Police.  As a casual reader one equates the Gendarmes with the Paris Police.  This is not the case.  The Gendarmes are a National law enforcement agency whose jurisdiction is France rather than Paris.

The Gendarmes, the etymology of the word means Gens-d-armes, that is, Men At Arms.  The unit had a military organization derived from the Middle Ages.  One, then, has to question Reynolds familiarity with the Gendarmes.  He must have been a courier or something for organized crime units either French or international for the Gendarmes to have taken an interest in him..  Balzac and Paul Favel mention such organizations as highly developed .  A modern example would be John Lennon and the Beatles who were taken under the wing of the European mafia when they performed in Hamburg.  One then must question Reynolds’ familiarity with the Gendarmes, the Johnny Darmies.

It is interesting that as Pickwick Abroad opens Pickwick’s group is on the road to Paris.  In the diligence is Octavus Crashem, a hustler, gambler, crapshooter and cardsharp.  Collins opines that Reynolds was arrested in Calais for shooting shaved dice.  Crashem is cheating Winkle while in the one corner a man sits quietly watching and knowingly smiling.  That was Dupont a Gendarme.  No sooner does the group reach their hotel than Dupont and the police arrive to arrest Crashem as a debtor.  So, an interest in crime appears at the very beginning.

If, as he seems to have been inducted into crime at sixteen when he left Sandhurst, escaping to France to avoid arrest in England at the end of 1830 as seems to be the case, then, as an acknowledged criminal neophyte he might have been recruited by the rapidly developing international criminal organization.

The French crime writer (and remember Reynolds is very much a crime writer), Paul Favel records the doings of organized crime in his Black Coats series recently translated by Brian Stableford.  There are puzzling passages in Reynolds’ The Steam Packet in which he records being a few miles from the Belgian border looking longingly at the international crime resort, Brussels.   He mentions several towns along the route of the steam packet of which he is fairly familiar meaning he must have traveled while in France.  Many of the southern French locations he mentions seem to be familiar to him.

So, he may actually have traveled extensively in France while also gaining some firsthand knowledge of Italy.  Then in 1835-36 his affairs collapsed and his reason for returning to England may have been that he was asked to leave France.

I do not offer this interpretation, founded on circumstantial evidence, as fact, nevertheless it is a perspective of his undocumented puzzling career in France.  Something for which he had to be apologetic while seeking forgiveness for the errors of his youth.

One of Reynolds subtexts is the concept of forgiveness and redemption.  His characters are the most forgiving people you’d ever want to meet.  They are always ready to forgive the greatest crimes against them imaginable.  Reynolds seems to equate forgiveness with redemption.  To be forgiven is to be absolved.  This all leads back to The Days of Hogarth, The Mysteries of Old London and Jem Ruffles.

End of aside.

Days of Hogarth is a story of early transgressions with redemption and honorable amends.  It is, in fact, the story of Reynolds’ life as of 1847-’48 when it was written.  That was when he was putting the finishing touches to the Mysteries of London thus the two novels are complementary.

Just as Reynolds slips over the nineteen years from his entry into Sandhurst Military Academy and the wild success of Mysteries of London in 1844-’45 thus slipping the misery of those years, he is pleading for redemption and forgiveness along with a brand new beginning.  It is also a good explanation for beginning a story in 1926, the year he entered Sandhurst and skipping those offensive nineteen years to the beginning of his success, or a new life in other words.

That doesn’t mean that the adventures portrayed are literal, Reynolds is writing for an audience, but they portray the horror of those years metaphorically.  There is something symbolic about returning to the origins of Modern England formed in the reign of good Queen Anne merging into the Georgian period.  

One must remember that Reynolds was barely a grown boy becoming a young man when these adventures he’s recording occurred.  (Nobody can write about what isn’t in his mind.  Invention is very, very limited.) They originate when he is only twelve, take form when he is only sixteen and terminate in 1836 when he at twenty-two he has barely attained his majority.  When he began writing Mysteries of London he was only thirty years old, thirty-four when he finished all four series.  Only thirty-two when he finished the first two series which is about all  of Reynolds that most people, no matter how many, have read.  Those of us who have managed a couple dozen titles are few indeed.  I couldn’t have imagined that he wrote forty or more, and most of them are very hard to find.  The transition  from novice to fairly accomplished writer was quick indeed.  Perhaps more remarkable is that he was only 46 when he gave up novel writing, and then he lived for another nineteen years.

Empress Eugenie’s Boudoir seems to have been a recapitulation in which he brings forward a few stories from the past that, perhaps ignored when originally issued

 he doesn’t want ignored.  More especially his translation of Charles Paul de Kock’s novel Soeur Anne. That was a novel that was very influential for him and a good story. From Soeur Anne Reynolds lifts nearly intact the fleecing of DuBourg for the fleecing of Tupman.

To return to the Days of Hogarth,  Reynolds seems to have been enamored of Hogarth’s cartoons.  While they may have accurately portrayed the social system of Anne and George I they are lost on me.  I don’t have the patience to study them or the knowledge to accurately interpret as George apparently did.  The ‘ good old days of good Queen Anne’ must have been uproarious indeed.  But George is much more concerned with justifying his early conduct in a mythologized manner.

George’s main character, Jem Ruffles patterned after himself seems to be based on both the infamous Duke Wharton and Johnathan Wild.  Ruffles runs both a gang like Wharton’s Wild Boys and Wild’s control of the London underworld.  While fully involved in the underworld Ruggles is uneasy in his roles wishing to reform.  He gives up or closes out his Wharton side sending his Wild Boys out on their own.

George then introduces the president of the East India Company where he becomes the head of the Company’s press gangs.  This was an apparent step up from his criminal career because his crimes are  committed in the Company’s name.  According to the story the notion of press gangs was invented by the East India Company.  Unable to recruit enough personnel for the company, the Company hired men to snatch men off the streets to send to India.  Ruffles becomes the Captain of these crews.  Not too different really than his role as Duke Wharton.

I viewed this a little askance as I read it as Reynolds seemed to regard the kidnappings as legitimate work; but then this is also a historical novel and it is Reynolds story.  By the time Ruffles is employed by the East India Company Reynolds in Ruffles persona is halfway to his own redemption, he is legitimately employed in a questionable occupation.

As much as I know I’m reading fiction the proceedings and transitions are mind boggling.  True, this is fiction but it still has to be written by a human being and after all you can’t get out of a mind what isn’t it.  All fiction comes from the experience, knowledge  and mind set of the author.  More than anything one is impressed by the turmoil of Reynold’s life with its close association with crime.

The brutal years from twelve to twenty-one including the death of his father when he was eight and that of his mother when he was fifteen, left him an orphan.  His orphaning is a, if not the central fact of his life.  I can’t remember if he states that Ruffles was an orphan but mid-transition to legitimacy he becomes associated with the wife of the President of the East India Company who turns out to be his long lost mother.

Finally completing his transition to legitimacy, Ruffles is employed by the East India Company, going off to the sub-continent with his mother in tow.  Now, Days of Hogarth was written in 1847-48 when Reynolds’ career was taking off.  His four series of Mysteries of London was a roaring success.

In 1846 he had launched his magazine, The Reynolds’ Miscellany that was a roaring success for fifteen years until John Dicks began his own magazine Bow Bells and folded the Miscellany into it.  In ’48 Reynolds hired Dicks as his printer ensuring a runaway success until he sold out to Dicks in ’64 to devote himself to newspaper work.

His contract to write The Mysteries of London with George Stiff and George Vickers terminated with the last installment of Mysteries of London so, looking to the future, he was exuberant.

Then Jem Ruffles goes off to India working himself up into an outstanding administrator so, in real life, and in fiction Reynolds redeemed the early days of his youth.

If one notices George’s characters are the most forgiving people who may never have existed.  There is no egregious crime against themselves that they won’t forgive.  Reynolds believed than any criminal past could be redeemed by subsequent good behavior in later life.  That redemption required forgiveness on the part of society.  He was obviously hoping for forgiveness and redemption.  I don’t think he got it. For myself I find Days of Hogarth my sentimental favorite of his writings.

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