ERBzine 1797a: Mysteries of London Art Gallery

ERBzine 1797: ERB Library Review by R.E. Prindle

George W.M. Reynolds‘ Mysteries Of London

Mysteries of London

by R.E. Prindle

After a stuttering beginning on his return to England from France in 1836, beginning in 1844 George Reynolds put his career in gear and began his twenty year odyssey with his novel The Mysteries of London.  This novel would stretch out over 208 weekly installments.  Did he have a writing program outlined or was he just struggling for success improvising as he went? George was not operating entirely on his own. The Mysteries seem to have been undertaken in some sort of collaboration with George Stiff, the publisher and George Vickers the printer.  George was paid as a salary five pounds a week.  At the same time as he was writing Mysteries Reynolds was also contributing to Stiff’s journal and picking up the odd job so that he had an adequate income. 

By 1846 he had had enough of writing for other people’s magazines and wanted to strike out on his own.   Upon his return from France in 1836 he landed a job with Monthly Magazine as Editor in Chief. He used that magazine as his publishing platform until he was relieved of his duties because his novel Pickwick Abroad plagiarized Dicken’s characters.   Thus while still writing under contract to Stiff and Reynolds  he established The Reynold’s Miscellany in 1846.  Then after completing his contract with thme launched his own publishing house, employing John Dicks as his printer.  Dicks was the partner he need to fulfill his own destiny.  They stayed together for the rest of Reynolds’ novelistic career.

His work with the Monthly Magazine brought him to the attention of the publishing world and Stiff and Vickers.  As, I suspect then, Stiff came up with the idea of The Mysteries of London based on his reading of Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris.  Reynolds then had to organize and write the long running weekly serial.

While Dickens had worked with an artist and printer to team up to produce the spectacularly successful The Pickwick Papers, Reynolds, Stiff and Vickers were hopefully following Dickens’ example.  Reynolds had already written a long serial in his novel Pickwick Abroad.  That work may be considered a loose progenitor to the Mysteries of London.

Perhaps as Reynolds was searching for a long serial success he used his Pickwick abroad as his matrix while being heavily influenced by Pierce Egan’s Life In London of 1821.  Mysteries would follow Life In London in format fairly closely while being essentially an advanced Pickwick Abroad.

In searching for an entry point or beginning for his story Reynolds chose a curious story, that of long con involving a character named Eliza Sydney.  A long con is a long running confidence game as opposed to the short con which may take a few minutes.  A long con may take years and this one did.  Reynolds was essentially a confidence man; he understands the game.

I have read Mysteries twice now and am studying the long con of Eliza Sydney here.  It’s funny how my first reading of a book offers all surprises.  The second reading, after a period or reflection, takes a whole different aspect as though a new first reading.  The original reading stays in the back of my mind, while in a study, such as Reynolds’ corpus becomes, it is supported by additional reading that contributes new nuances to the novel in question, here, The Mysteries of London.

The Mysteries is a long succession of many inter-related novels that extend over 2500 pages in the Valancourt edition.  In Reynolds’ opening story of Eliza Sydney, now knowing the whole story of the long con, one can no longer read without integrating details of the whole story or perhaps creating a background not given in the text.

Eliza was being used by a man named Stevens who disguises Eliza as a young man, she is only sixteen, which character she must maintain at all times.  To escape detection as much as possible she is confined to her apartment.  As the story opens she is weary of isolation and decides to investigate London.

In the first scene then she is walking boldly down the street in men’s clothes, the very image of Pierce Egan’s character Corinthian Tom, the Man About Town of Life In London.  While the reader has clues that there is something wrong with the image, it isn’t clear that the young man is a woman in disguise.  Having left her  carriage behind she has wandered indiscriminately. She is now lost. 

She has wandered into the abattoir of the Smithfield district.  This area was a slaughter house of cattle, something like the old stockyards of Chicago, hence odorous and grungy.  So, Eliza has left the security of her apartment and entered Reynolds’ vision of the real London.  In addition a terrific storm was developing.  Reynolds parodies  Bulyer Lytton’s famous line from Pelham:  It was a dark and stormy night.

As the storm breaks Eliza has no refuge, but leaning up against the door of a house the door opens and she steps inside.  This is not an ordinary house, this house once belonged to the eighteenth century master criminal Johnathan Wild. In the interim from my second reading of Mysteries I had come upon the history of Johnathan Wild in Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, and Nathaniel DeFoe’s account.  This same house figured prominently in those novels.

It contained many mysteries which Reynolds exploits here.  As the story was written Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard was a recent hit release so most of Reynolds’ readers would have shuddered because of Ainsworth’s account.

Now, the house straddled the banks of the Fleet River that had been covered by the development of London.  At one time it had run wild and free but times have changed.  It was now part of London’s sewer system that was being newly redeveloped so one assumes a great deal of the offal of the abattoirs found its way into the Fleet, actually once a river but now a foul ditch called a river. 

As Eliza enters this forbidding house in a district of abattoirs and as a powerful storm breaks an eerie situation is portrayed which can only be truly felt if you have the background.  Shortly after Eliza enters this maze of a house and finds  her way to the first floor (second floor in US terms) a couple of the worst criminals in town, who use Wild’s abandoned house as a refuge, enter.  Thus Reynolds cleverly unites the eighteentha and nineteenth centuries.  These two desperate characters are Dick and Bill and they are waiting for Cranky Jem.  Jem will weave through the entire 2500 hundred page novel.

Eliza is discovered after hearing of plans to rob a house belonging to a man named Markham.  There’s only one thing to do about it so Bill and Dick pitch Eliza through a trap door and one is led to believe into the foul, Fleet which because of the storm is running high.  And then Reynolds terminates that episode, much as in the Perils of Pauline silent movie serial to introduce the main characters of the novel.

Eugene and Richard Markham

Chapters IV, V and VI.

Opening his novel with the tale of Eliza Sydney in Smithfield and then interrupting it with the introduction of the Markhams was probably done as a hook to interest the new reader to continue the story.  Dickens Pickwick Papers was near failing until he introduced the character Sam Weller which invigorated his tale.  To avoid that pitfall Reynolds opens with a big blast leaving the reader panting and anxious for the next installment.

This opened the way to introduce the true direction of the story which would be the careers of the Markham brothers who allow the story to continue.  That continuation being the divergent paths the two brothers will follow.  Richard that of Virtue, a la de Sade and Eugene that of Vice.  Unlike de Sade’s conclusion Richard and Virtue will triumph while Eugene and Vice will meet a sad fate.

De Sade being, of course, the famous Marquis de Sade who established the mores of Libertinism.

Before leaving the first three chapters though I want to mention a couple major influences on Reynolds.  As the novel opens in 1844 Harrison Ainsworth was issuing his novels  of his historical romances, sometimes two a year.  He was met with a rapturous response, the novels are all first rate and Reynolds must assuredly have read them.  I believe they altered his own style significantly.

At the same time there is a strong influence from Pierce Egan.  Much stronger than, I think, is suspected.  Egan died in 1849 so one wonders if their two paths crossed.  Egan was a prolific writer.  In addition to his two manuals Life In London and Real Live In London he wrote a novel that I think made a substantial impression on Reynolds titled The Life Of An Actor, meaning the kind of life actors led.  This is a quite moving excellent novel.  It has that quality of seeming to describe actual events as though the writer is participating in them that Reynolds does so well in his own novels.

A central heroine is named Eliza by Egan like Reynolds’ Eliza Sydney.  One may say such similarities are coincidental yet names are important and novelists often give tribute to their influences through the use of names and such.  Such Eganate influence do pop up, just as Life In London isn’t too far from Mysteries of London.  Continuity in Reynolds is quite prominent and he seems to want to meld all the strains of English literature into his own.

Life In London written in 1821; Reynolds might have read it some time in the late twenties whether at school or Sandhurst or he may have read it on his return to England in 1836.  I believe the reading was much earlier than his Mysteries as it seems to have had time to mature in his mind.   There is also an incident that occurs in Reynold’s Mysteries of Old London: Days of Hogarth there is a very close variation of the story of Splendid Jem in Egan’s Finish To The Adventures Of Tom And Jerry of 1828.

As I mentioned the similarity of Eliza, Reynolds seems to categorize the type of person by their names.  The name Laura is affixed to likeable females leading questionable careers who are over whelmed by circumstances. In addition the name Mortimer recurs over and over. The family name Mortimer is used in Master Timothy’s bookcase, one of Eugene Markham’s aliases is Mortimer.  The name reappears frequently.  I have no idea of its significance to Reynolds but it is apparently quite personal.

So, Chapter IV, V and VI set up the two main characters Richard and Eugene Markham.  Eugene may probably refer to Eugene Sue who had written his great success The Mysteries Of Paris shortly before Stiff hired Reynolds to write The Mysteries Of London.  Sue was of course familiar to Reynolds from his Paris days and figures in his Modern Literature of France written in 1838.

As Chapter IV opens Richard aged 15 and Eugene aged 19 are sitting on a tor between two trees discussing what they are going to do with their lives. Now, while in France a very young George Reynolds had read two novels by the libertine Marquis de Sade titles to wit Justine, or Virtue and Juliette or Vice.  De Sade as we all know devised  the philosophy of sexual cruelty which he named the height of freedom, Sadism is named after him.  The two sisters, Justine and Juliette as with the Markhams  decide between Vice and Virtue as ways of life.  Justine will take the path of virtue suffering defeat after defeat, humiliation after humiliation with virtue being her sole reward.  Juliette following the path of Vice abandons virtue entirely and engages in a life of criminal luxury.  The moral being that a life of vicious behavior is more successful than a life of Virtue.

George Reynolds was revolted by de Sade’s conclusion so in his novel, Mysteries of London, he tries to change de Sade’s conclusion making Virtue, Richard succeed over Eugene’s Vice.  Thus we must add the Marquis de Sade as a major influence on Reynolds’ novel.

Chapter V.  Time passes says Reynolds, Richard is 19 and Eugene 24. The naïve Richard beginning life meets a man on the street, one Chichester, a con man, who introduces him to a female accomplice Mrs. Arlington, a decided frail.  A frail is a female and one who has not guarded her sexual virtue and thus become a fallen woman.  Mrs. Arlington hosts a party of con men and Richard, who they know has money, with disastrous consequences for Richard and Virtue.  But first we have to return to Eliza Sydney who we last saw on the banks of the fetid Fleet River.  She, true to the Perils of Pauline fashion, survived the terrors of the Fleet.  By this installment the readers anxiety for Eliza must have reached a fever pitch so the book is firmly set and is on for the duration of four years. 

The story was extremely successful selling fifty thousand copies a week and that figure reached quickly so Reynolds knew his audience.

Eliza’s escape is a bit of a stretch, but if you’ve seen the Perils Of Pauline and serials in general all escapes are a bit of a stretch.  Four years have passed, this is a very long con, and she is comfortable in her apartment however becoming more impatient with her masquerade as a man which she finds onerous.  This very long con is approaching a denouement.

Mr. Stephens, the brain of this con needing another accomplice has met Eugene as George Montague the City Man and intends to employ him.

The Long Con develops.  Eliza’s escape is revealed and enter Eugene in his alias as the City Man, George Montague.  Interesting that George Reynolds would name his con man George.  Perhaps George Montague is the dominant side of Reynolds’ personality.  He then does an exquisite thing.

I hope I can be forgiven for revealing the Mysteries, or spoilers, but this is an analysis of how Reynolds constructed his story so one must reveal the Mysteries to display Reynolds’ art.  If we were reading for the first time Reynolds successfully conceals Eugene’s identity virtually to the last page.

In my opinion both Richard and Eugene are alter-egos of Reynolds.  That is he splits his personality so as to depict both aspects of his ego.  In doing so he more or less confesses his own criminal years from sixteen to at least twenty-one and as he displays fondness for the Long Con maybe much later.  During his years from twenty-one to thirty-six he may have made more forays into confidence games.  He certainly writes about them enough.  Eugene/Montague/Greenwood/Juliette is nothing if not a confidence man of the City.  Stock schemes, phony companies are his stock in trade.

It should be noted then, according to Guy Dicks, that his sons were involved themselves in confidence games.  Did George talk to them about schemes so that they actually followed in his footsteps?

One must question his relationship with his printer John Dicks.  The latter seems to have been a much more upright man than George.  George kept him as a mere employee until he gave up his novelistic career then strangely not only sold Dicks his copyrights but gave Dicks the right to use his name something like Lamont Cranston allowing the Shadow to use his.  Thus he threw over his former existence and walked away from his literary life.  Very extraordinary.  There is more of a mystery to Reynolds than appears on the surface.

I will have to try to fathom his relationship to his wife Susannah more deeply.

Eliza’s escape is a bit of stretch, but if you’ve seen the Perils of Pauline and serials in general all escapes are a bit of stretch.  Four years have passed, this is a very long con, and she is comfortable in her apartment however becoming more impatient with her masquerade as a man.  This very long con is approaching its denouement.  Mr. Stephens, the brain of this con needing another accomplice has met Eugene as Montague the City Man and intends to employ him.

Reynolds then does an exquisite thing.  He brings Eliza/Walter, Eugene/Montague and Richard into a fleeting association of which none of them were aware but a truly uncanny situation worthy of ETA Hoffmann.  Eugene had defrauded a man of his entire fortune by a confidence trick.  The defrauded man had committed suicide never suspecting Eugene/Montague had cheated him.  He had a daughter Eugene had been courting to whom he confided his daughter, Diana.  Naturally Eugene cold heartedly ruined her then passed her to his associate Harborough.  Arthur Chichester, Rupert Harborough and Eugene are a triumvirate.

Unbeknownst to Eugene Chichester having picked up Richard off the street, forming a fast friendship, is combining with Harborough and other associates to defraud Richard of most of his fortune.  Eliza/Walter dropped in a party Richard was attending with the con associates and there she met Richard to whom she described to Eugene without mentioning his name as an interesting young man.  So, Richard and Eugene were within a hairs breadths of each other but made no contact.  If they had Richard and Virtue would have been saved.  Eugene then had no means to save his brother from a disastrous bilking and an actual prison sentence.  Thus Richard/Justine follows the course of de Sade’s heroine.  In a hair raising way Richard become involved with Diana, his brother’s cast off mistress.

A really superb touch on the part of Reynolds and with the true situation concealed from the reader until the end of novel twenty-three hundred pages later.  But the the reader has to go back and put it all together.

The main characters of the next couple hundred pages have now been introduced:  Richard and Eugene, Arthur Chicester and Rupert Harborough.  Rupert is a terrible scoundrel and with his wife is the center of the maelstrom.

It is important to bear in mind that George Reynolds is deeply offended by de Sade’s conclusion that Virtue is futile and that Vice will succeed in the end.  The whole novel is an attempt to refute de Sade and makes Virtue/Richard triumph over Vice/Eugene.

Now the story branches further as the various strands of independent and interlocking novels increase the interest, tension and excitement.

Advance to 16 Part II  Confidence Games Short And Long.