Noodling Around The Eighteen Forties: Dickens, Thackery, Reynolds

December 12, 2021

Noodling Around The Eighteen Forties:

George W.M. Reynolds And The Literary World

A Survey Of Sorts.

by

R.E. Prindle

This is one of those essays where I don’t know where to begin.  Incongruously let us begin with the nineteen sixties.  My generation (1960s) doesn’t have a literary history.  Supplanting that, our interest was focused on stereo phonograph records.  Song writing.  Electric guitars and such.

Rather than seeking a solitary literary reputation everything was put into being in a musical group, one or two electric guitars, electric bass, possibly a Farfisa or other type of keyboard and most importantly a charismatic singer.  This also resulted in a massive array of speakers.  Also a major attraction was the singer-songwriter, usually a guitar player.  To show how obsessed with songwriters was Bob Dylan, the very epitome of sixties songwriting, was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature.  Many of us shook our head in wonder.

However this whole very large body of ‘artists’ embraced the musical ethic.  The artists  preferred variations of the same few themes thus the whole generation nodding in agreement was entranced.

Looking backward to the eighteen forties I believe the same thing happened involving literature.  The musical sixties were magnificent as so the literary eighteen-forties.  The literary phenomenon was worldwide (the world at this time being Europe with an assist from the US.  France and Germany were stellar also but I’m going to concentrate on England and the US.

Just as the musical phenomenon  of the sixties was done by performers born from 1935 to 1945 so the literary scene of the forties depended on writers born between 1800 and eighteen-eighteen.  As the sixties were thematic so were the 1840s, like thinking individuals produce like thinking results in their output.

I am no literary snob so I include all forms of literature in my valuation, from the pulp literature of that time, styled Penny Dreadful, to so-called literary fiction, the latter the peak of literary snobbery.  If anything the general tenor of the time was represented by the Penny Dreadful style.  Another name for the style  is ‘popular.’  Popular being the direct opposite and inferior to Literary fiction.

Just as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon epitomized the singer songwriter faction of the Sixties so Charles Dickens and Geoge Reynolds epitomized the literary period of the eighteen-forties.  The authors played off each other while they all had similar literary backgrounds.  English literature from Daniel Defoe was essentially a continuum to the forties period.

After the forties writers were more affected by technological advances, rising population and a better educated more prosperous workforce.  Therefore those of the changing times could not see and feel in the same way as the forties generation.  By the 1860s a new ethic was forming.  Times had changed. By the 1890s that ethic was replaced.  In many ways a new England came into existence much as is happening in the world of the twenty-first century.

Dickens gives us some idea of how his generation learned their craft, who were their great influences.

Quote:

On the other hand, if I looked for examples, and for precedents, I find them in the noblest range of English literature:  Fielding, De Foe, Goldsmith, Smollett, Richardson, MacKenzie—all these for wise purposes, and especially the two first, brought upon the scene the very scum and refuse of the land.  Hogarth, the moralist and censor of his age…

I embrace the present opportunity of saying a few words in explanation of my aim and object in its production.  It is with some sort of duty to do so in gratitude to those who sympathized with me, and divined my purpose at the time, and who, perhaps will not be sorry to have their impression confirmed under my own hand.

It is, it seems, a very coarse and shocking circumstance, that some of the characters in these pages are chosen from the most criminal and degraded of London’s population; Sikes is a thief, and Fagin a receiver of stolen goods; that the boys are pickpockets and the girl is a prostitute.

Unquote.  Quoted from the preface to the third edition as bound in the 2021 Easton Press edition in parts from the 1843 printing of Oliver Twist.

You can imagine the critics handling of George Reynolds novels that took Dickens characters a few steps further.

Another writer who one hears frequently alluded to is Charles Maturin whose most famous work is Melmoth the Wanderer. In the same vein is George Croly’s Salathiel, a story of the Wandering Jew. And for another, the greatest novelist who ever lived, Walter Scott, with perhaps the lesser known G.P.R. James who also wrote through this period but reflects the eighteenth century in style more.  Unless I am mistaken George Reynolds pays homage to James in his character from the third series of The Mysteries of London, the highwayman Thomas Rainford.  The R in GPR James is Rainsford, shortened most frequently by Reynolds to Tom Rain.

The founder of the idiom was the very famous at the time, Pierce Egan. He was essentially a sports writer.  Loved British games and pastimes. He especially covered boxing writing a multi-volume set detailing the careers of what was called the fancy, or boxing.  He had a very successful sporting magazine so that it was a natural to publish his most famous book, Life in London in parts thus establishing that method of publishing novels. 

Life in London took the country by storm much as Dickens’ Pickwick Papers would sixteen years later.  As with Dickens other writers purloined his characters for their books and especially for theatrical performances that were smashes irritating Egan who rightly felt he should have had a share in profits.

He created the characters of Tom and Jerry.  I’m sure very few people lifting a Tom and Jerry cocktail understand where the name came from.  Even in the twentieth century the characters were being used without credit in the Tom and Jerry cartoons.

Then in 1826 came the early novelists Edgar Bulwer Lytton and W. Harrison Ainsworth; both extremely popular and prolific.  Bulwer Lytton is famous still for his novel The Last Days Of Pompeii, a nearly perfect novel.  And Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes. 

Thus the way was paved for the emergence of Charles Dickens and the literary blossoming of the generation reaching perfection in the forties.  The ethic played out in the fifties and the early sixties when the evolution of civilization made room for the next generation of authors. Having mentioned Bulwer-Lytton, Ainsworth and Dickens let us now introduce the rest of the group.  I deal here only with the most prominent and influential writers; the period is rich in authorship including Anthomy Trollope’s mother Frances who was a Liberal voice and a very interesting woman, somewhat of an embarrassment for her son.

Edward Lloyd was a publisher not a writer but his writers epitomize the pulp, or Penny Dreadful, faction.  He began a couple years before the forties.  Like many people beginning from nothing he sponged off successful authors publishing derivative novels under similar names such as Oliver Twiss instead of Dickens’ Oliver Twist.  Finding his groove he became what we today would describe as an industry powerhouse.

Others had watched Dickens success and probably Lloyds and determined to succeed in a like manner.  The key being episodic publication whereby a penny a week over twenty weeks became a pound book.  So, the savings were nil but the installment plan worked.  One of these publishers  was George Stiff who published the London Magazine.  It was he who recruited the author that gave the genre credibility.

A similar situation was occurring in France.  In 1943 a French writer, Eugene Sue began a serial publication of his novel The Mysteries Of Paris that quickly became a sensation, excellent novel then, excellent today.   Not slow on the uptake Stiff immediately thought of a counterpart, The Mysteries of London.  All he needed was the right author while he already had a printer named George Vickers.

Kicking around London since 1836 was a fellow by the name of George Reynolds.  George William McArthur Reynolds in full, alternately going by G.W.M. Reynolds.  Reynolds a young 22 year old, had been in Paris for a few years, returning to London in 1836 where he began circulating ln literary circles.  He edited the Monthly Magazine for a year or so on his return.

Reynolds is an interesting character.  He was apparently devoid of literary ideas himself but could adapt any else’s into an original sounding story.  Dickens popularity had turned him into an industry as other writers rushed to emulate him or plagiarize him.  Edward Lloyd led the way.  Without an idea, Reynolds bethought himself to write a continuation of Dicken’s smash hit The Pickwick Papers and so as Dickens had left his characters at the end of his novel, Reynolds decided to lift his cast of characters and place them in the Paris he had just left.  The result was Pickwick Abroad.

The result was an entertaining book, relatively successful, and might have stood on its own with similar but different characters.  Reynolds apparently wanting a four bagger elected to purloin Pickwick and his Club.  Reynolds followed that with a series of titles that were not particularly successful but were well written.

In 1843 then, Stiff looking around for an author settled on Reynolds and offered him the job that Reynolds accepted.  Following his first attempt with Dickens he now had Sue’s Mysteries of Paris as a matrix to embrace his skill.  Now thirty-one he set to work turning out a weekly installment for four straight years.  He was a sensational success.  Paid at the rate of five pounds a week, his annual salary of two hundred and sixty pounds was enough for he and his growing family to live fairly comfortably plus he could freelance on the side so he could easily have added fifty or more pounds a year.  If so three hundred pounds was doing alright in a small way.

In the early forties Ainsworth was at the apex of his career turning out two or three titles a year, all of an excellent quality.  Dickens was continuing his success while Bulwer-Lytton was rolling along.  Lloyd was getting along while he had a couple first rate writers in James Malcom Rymer and Thomas Prescott Press.  Between the two of them they would turn out two monster successes that may be the best known Penny Dreadfulls today:  Varney the Vampire and Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.  More on them later.

As I mentioned earlier all these writers read each other and were influenced by each other.  Reynolds matured overnight creating a superb style and method that resulted in a monster hit.  While he began by emulating Dickens he began to turn the table on Dickens so that Dickens began to be influenced by his style.

Dickens was not all that prolific while Reynolds was a non-stop writer who worked in several genres.  As popular as Dickens was he was very limited in style.  Thus his Our Mutual Friend was almost as emulative of Reynolds as Pickwick Abroad by Reynolds.

Another writer who was publishing his major works in the forties that I hesitate to include except for the fact that his last two novels, 1870 and 1880, indicate that he was heavily influenced by the forties ambience and may have also in a clumsy imitation have shown reading acquaintance in his 1848 novel, Tancred.

I am also going to have to add a man thought of as a literary author but who was well aware of the Penny Dreadful genre.   That would be William Makepeace Thackaray, and his novel Vanity Fair also published in 1848 that was an outstanding success then and is still read today.  But more on that later, in fact, I intend a full review.

By the end of the First Series of Mysteries of London in 1846 then, George Reynolds was the reigning Penny Dreadful author although he was at such an apex that he almost created another genre.  Ainsworth was in eclipse after 1843 when his essential creative burst played out.  Dickens was having problems coming up with story lines, and Bulwer Lytton, despite the brilliant Last Days of Pompeii was having quality problems.  Rymer began Varney the Vampire about this time.  Varney went on forever.  Rymer was not the sole author being assisted by Prest while once the story got rolling other authors, some speculate up to eight, contributed story lines.  The last story, about the best of the lot, seems to have come from a different hand.  Sweeney Todd also had a good long run of the nature of Varney.

During the forties then Lloyd and Reynolds were the major stays of the genre with the incredible prolificity of Reynolds making him the equal of Lloyd.  Reynolds had a powerful mind that could keep two or three novels separate in his mind.  This prolificity was noticed and he was accused of having a staff of writers.  Not so.

In a postscript to the The Mysteries of the Court of London he explains:

Quote:

For every week, without a single intermission during a period of eight years  has a Number under this title been issued to the public.  Its precursor “THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON” ranged over a period of four years. For twelve years, therefore, have I hebdomadally issued to the world a fragmentary portion of that which, as one vast whole, may be termed an Encyclopedia of Tales.  This Encyclopedia consists  of twelve volumes composing six hundred and twenty-four weekly numbers.  Each Number has occupied me upon an average seven hours in the composition; and therefore no less an amount than four thousand three hundred sixty-eight hours have been bestowed on this Encyclopedia of Tales, comprising the four volumes of “The Mysteries of London,” and the eight volumes of “The Mysteries Of The Court Of London.”  Yet if that amount of hours be reduced to days, it will be found that only a hundred eighty-two complete days have been absorbed for those publications which have ranged with weekly regularity over a period of twelve years!  This circumstance will account to the public for the facility with which I have been enabled to write so many other works during the same period, and yet to allow myself ample leisure for recreation and healthful exercise.

Unquote.

It may be mentioned that the other works he mentioned amounted to at least double the words of his two Mysteries.  All these books are of an even high quality.  At the same time he was married and rearing a brood of kids.

Just as with the exciting sixties of the twentieth century the period of the eighteen forties in England must have been the greatest period in English history.  They called them Penny Dreadfulls but with all the exciting reading available each week it would have taken shillings to keep up.

The forties themselves must have been an exciting period for those with eyes to see.  After the July Revolution in France and the Reform Act of 1832 in England a slow but quickening drum roll was leading up to the 1848 revolution when by coincidence several of these books were published.  While the Reform Act wasn’t properly understood as Benjamin Disraeli, the author and politician believed; it was an actual revolution with repercussions leading up to the Really Big One in 1848. Reynolds himself believed in violent revolution and promoted it in his books.

Let us turn now to William Makepeace Thackery’s Vanity Fair, as mentioned, published in 1848 while being influenced by both Dickens and Reynolds.  At this point I have to introduce two trends that influenced many of these people.  One was the immense popularity of Rabalais’  Gargantua and Pantagruel with its famous motto: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law from the sixteenth century and the works of another Frenchman the notorious Marquis de Sade: Justine and Juliette, or Virtue and Vice of the eighteenth century.  De Sade thought that the happier and more fulfilled life was enjoyed by Vice, or his heroine Julliette while Virtue was its own reward, that is, a life of misery as epitomized by Justine.

Reynolds in his Mysteries of Paris in which two brothers Richard and  Eugene Markham took the place of De Sade’s sisters and virtue won out over vice.

Thackaray weighed in with the attitude that the consequences of ‘do what wilt’ led to different consequences with more or less equal results whether vice or virtue.

Thackaray was a year older than Reynolds born in 1811 to Reynolds 1812.  Thackaray was born in India but was sent back to England by his mother when he was four.  His mother ignored him when she returned later thus perhaps provided one role model for his heroine, Becky Sharp.

Both he and Reynolds left England for France in 1830, returning in  1836.  A rare coincidence.  Both pursued literary vocations in France.  After Reynolds became prominent Thackaray was asked what he thought of Reynolds.  Thackaray laughingly said that if he was the same George Reynolds that was in Paris he was the only that ever paid him for an article, Reynolds was OK with himself.  A literary incident worthy of Isaac D’Israeli himself.

So, if you know how to look at both Reynolds’ Mysteries of London and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair the two themes, Rabelais and De Sade course through both works.

A Review of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Benjamin Disraeli attempted to write a novel in the style of the forties with his last novel, Endymion.  In it he passingly discusses Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.  He calls Dickens Gushy and Thackery Sainte Barbe.. While not the best selling author of the period Dickens style penetrated the heart of the period on down to the time of this writing.  It is futile to argue against success but Thackeray, Reynolds and any serious litterateur would follow Disraeli and call him Gushy.  Some writer comparing Dickens and Smollet said that Dickens wrote like a boy and Smollett wrote like a man.  That about sums it up and Thackeray and Reynolds wrote like a man also.

That doesn’t mean that Thackeray wasn’t impressed by Dickens’ succuss that he doesn’t do a little ‘gushy’ himself in Vanity Fair but it the weakest part of the novel.  There may also be a smidgen of Bulwer-Lytton and an attempt to wear Reynolds’ hat.  Thackeray does succeed to a certain extent in interweaving his story strands much as Reynold did.  So that, over all the story is interesting and affecting but not in Dicken warm hearted way.  The Bohemian in Thackery comes out in a gentle mockery.  As he said, he didn’t like any of his characters and he passes that message onto his perceptive readers.

Thackeray, underlain by his reading of De Sade and Rabelais had a leaning toward the Bohemian so there is a smear of the snide and mockingly sarcastic.  We, or I, don’ laugh with his characters but laugh at them.  Emmy, after all is a ridiculous character and Thackeray thought so.

My thirteen volume set of Thackeray is what is called the Biographical Edition because Thackeray’s daughter, Anne Ritchie provides biographical notes to each volume.  She quotes her father as saying that he didn’t like any of his characters in Vanity Fair with the exception of Dobbin which means he must have based that character on himself.  I think an attentive reading indicates it is so.  None of the leading characters are ‘nice’ excepting Dobbin and he’s a sap.  Really, what an approach.

Thackeray follows the format of the typical forties novel.  A couple Rakes, Osborne and Crawley botch their lives and the lives of those around them.  The female lead, Becky Crawley, nee Sharp is meant to be the most offensive character in the novel but it seems that Thackeray has a sneaking admiration for her.  As with De Sade’s Juliette she is the soul of vice while doing as she wilt.  Thackeray ends on a happy note and while giving  Juliette/Becky all her wishes.  His detestation of his counter-heroin, Emmy/Justine is apparent at the end.  He saddles Dobbin with her as a wife.  While Thackeray doesn’t say so I imagine that ‘Dob’ lived to regret it.

There are two high points to the novel.  In the first half the novel climaxes with the battle of Waterloo.  The protagonist of this half was George Osborne, your typical rich ne’er do well of the time.  Osborne’s father was a merchant so Thackeray is directed his story at the commercial middle class.  George dies at Waterloo shot through his ‘rotten’ heart as Thackeray is quoted by his daughter in the preface.  He was an arrogant, undisciplined, rotten guy too.  One catches hints of Smollett and Reynolds in his portrayal.  Very Count Fathomish.

The portrayal of the gay, party atmosphere of Brussels before the battle of Waterloo is marvelously done.  The partying went on until the very bugles called the troops to battle.  The English left wing was already engaged.  Osborne rode off to war staggeringly drunk.

Of course, the character that readers remember is the female lead, Becky Sharp, or Crawley as she was.  Apparently there was discussion at the time as to whom Becky was based on.  I think Thackeray told us when he mentioned Marianne Clarke.  Marianne who? perhaps you say.

Marianne Clarke. Now there’s a story.  As it turns out, Mary Anne, who was a sensation of her time was the great-great grandmother of Daphne Du Maurier.  Daphne was the daughter of Gerald Du Maurier and the grand daughter of the famous novelist George Du Maurier, Peter Ibbetson, Trilby, and The Martian.  Apparently Marianne was a family embarrassment so that Daphne wrote a novel about Mary Anne to expiate the shame.  An excellent novel too.

But to relate Mary Anne Clarke to Becky Sharp.  Marianne was of the courtesan class.  Her grea-greatt-grandaughter’s quasi-history titled simply Mary Anne fictionalizes that history.  If not true on all points the story line is accurate.   During the ‘teens then there were men, entrepreneurs one might say, who recruited women to be mistresses of the Lords.  The girls had to be accustomed to the manners of the upper class, and these men trained them.  Mary Anne then was taken up by George III’s second son, Frederick, the Duke of York.  Mary Anne blew it of course when she abused her relationship with the Duke.  She then exposed him which was a major scandal ending with her having to move to the continent, a ruined woman.

A sensation of the time was Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs.  Harriette was as successful as Mary Anne but in a different way.  Her memoirs give a general picture of this interesting social custom.  She was the mistress of several men so that when the bloom left her rose and men just passed her by she decided to write a tell all exposing the ‘life.’  In order to make more money she after to delete the name of anyone who paid he price.  Many did.  When she approached the hero of Waterloo, General Arthur Wellesley, the Duke made the famous comment ‘Publish and be damned.’

Becky will follow the same general course, like Mary Anne Clarke she was a married woman.  She aspired to move in the haute monde which she wheedled her way into having seduced the notorious libertine Duke Steyne.  Always duplicitous she betrays her husband Rawdon Crawley.  Even though Becky has accumulated a substantial amount of money from Steyn she conceals the money from Rawdon.  Rawdon has accumulated debts so that he is subject to arrest.  In order to be able to spend a night or two  carousing Becky and Steyn arrange to have Rawdon arrested for his debts which he was.  She could have had Rawdon released by paying the debt for which he was arrested before her caper or capers with Steyne but preferred to have her husband locked away intending to release him after the fling.

Getting no response from Becky Rawdon appealed to his sister-in-law who took pity on him and advanced the money.  Returning home the poor guy walked into the raucous party.  The tale is told to elicit the most sympathetic response for Rawdon which is done admirably well.  From then on it’s all downhill for Becky until the end of the book when we learn in the recap that she has recaptured a degree of respectability actually becoming rich, per Juliette.

Our Virtuous Justine is a woman called Amelia, a real dishrag, Thackeray actually has nothing but contempt for her but as a counterpart to Becky she is a plausible counter-heroine.

Amelia was the wife of the dashing army officer George Osborne, a rake and man about town.  He and Amelie had been betrothed from birth as her father, a successful businessman was friends with George’s father, another successful businessman at the time who helped George’s fatjer to become rich. Adverse circumstances ruined him.  Now broke and dishonored Osborne scorns him while rejecting the union of George and Amelia.  The various stories develop against the background of Napoleon’s hundred days.  The first climax of the story.  George is killed at Waterloo and the second half of the story begins that leads up to Becky’s betrayal and  Rawdon’s disgrace.

Apart from the two climaxes the story drags along inviting the reader to put down the book.  That may have been the initial response in 1848.  As a serial the book started slow and remained slow for a while until it gradually caught on and made a respectable showing.  The book too needed a kick start.  I can understand it; however as I am reading a ‘classic’ I persist to the end.  I don’t what excuse people of the time made.

We do have a good snapshot of the moment however.  And  that is worth something.   Still, there is something in Thackeray’s attitude that carries weight.  Thackery unites his story with the metaphor of Vanity Fair. Life is a tragicomedy.  A ship of fools.   He begins the novel in his own persona as a stage manager looking in at life, or Vanity Fair, as a manager of a puppet show  pointing out the characters, or actors, or figments of his imagination, before setting them in action.  He is then free to comment on all aspects of his story as a disinterested viewer.  While I was not overawed during the reading, the lingering effect and reexamination reveals a profundity not obvious in the reading.

In Vanity Fair Thackeray, then, combined elements of Dickens and Reynolds with varying success and perhaps a smattering of Smollett. There was also something new, almost a change of direction.  In 1841 Punch magazine had been established.  It called itself The London Charivari after the French magazine Le Charivari established in 1832.

A charivari is a loud raucous parade so that the puppet master satirized politics and the passing social scene.  Thus, the title Vanity Fair was suggested to Thackeray whether he realized it or not.  He then cast himself, the author, as the ring master of essentially the circus of life.  Thus in the preface he portrays himself as a sort of god looking down into his world, Vanity Fair, moving the pieces around to compose his story  or stories a la Reynolds.

The novel having run for a couple years a magazine appeared  to compete with Punch, the London Charivari, titled The Puppet Show, undoubtedly partially inspired by Vanity Fair.  In 1848 Reynolds ended  The Mysteries of London and began The Mysteries of the Court of London that run through four series into 1856.  These Forties writers looked back fondly on the post-Waterloo years, the twenties and thirties technological changes, such as the railroad, being new the writers, if they didn’t reject the changing times, clung to the sentimental period of the stagecoach.  Their period ended or began to end about 1860 as newer authors pushed to the front.

Perhaps the epitaph to the period was provided in 1880 when Disraeli who died the year after published his Endymion.  Disraeli  published his absurd novels from 1826 to 1848 then taking a hiatus until his 1870 novel Lothair then ten years later his last which is a tribute to the forties novel.  He closely follows the methods of Gushy, Dickens and Thackeray, St. Barbe while not mentioning the disreputable Reynolds.  Endymion is a pleasant sentimental novel approaching to the quality of the Big Three but ending a faint imitation.

Englishmen looked back nostalgically  on the 1840s much as we do today at the 1960s.  Both were periods of great change.

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