The Mysteries of G.W.M. Reynolds

by

R.E. Prindle

Part I

 

It is now over two hundred years past since Walter Scott ended his great series of novels. Closing in on two hundred years since G.W.M. Reynolds began his truly amazing career that puts him in the pantheon of great novelists. Not exactly the household word of his contemporary, Charles Dickens, but after a century of neglect he is now making a belated reappearance. With the rise of on demand publishing his whole extensive catalog is now available although it requires some searching. The British Library is leader in the field.

Unfortunately the BL is reprinting the Dick’s English Library editions that use diamond point for print. At least the books aren’t heavy. For anyone beginning reading Reynolds, Valancourt Press of the US has a beautiful paperback edition of what may be Reynolds’ most popular work, the 2400 page Mysteries Of London. That book was inspired by the French writer Eugene Sue’s great work The Mysteries of Paris.

If your mind is attuned to the period Eugene Sue who was as prolific, if not more so, than Reynolds, is just as readable especially his two great masterpieces Mysteries of Paris and the Wandering Jew. The latter book has nothing to do with Jews, rather the Jesuits, but Sue uses the medieval legend of the Wandering Jew as a framing device.

Sue inspired Reynolds for numerous titles. Reynolds was accused of plagiarizing frequently and this may be true in the sense that he often used their structures. Dumas had Auguste Maquet who researched material and provided a story outline that allowed Dumas to put his entire effort into composition without having to invent the story line so he could clothe the skeleton of the story. In that sense Sue’s Mysteries of Paris provided the format for what was already in Reynolds’ mind.

Sue and Reynolds were part of that crop of novelists born from 1800 to 1816 and either died or petered out about 1860. Their brains were exhausted, worn out by their prodigious output. His contemporaries are the key to understanding Reynolds’ work. They were all essentially sociologists and psychologists. It might be advisable here to note that Reynolds born in 1814 left England at the age of sixteen on his own arriving in France in the turmoil succeeding the French Revolution of 1830 then returning to England in 1837.

Those seven years were the most formative years of his life. Not unlike the end of the century’s George Du Maurier who spent his childhood as a Frenchman then going to England with his French heritage. Reynolds developed an Anglo-French style of writing. His is not the pure English style of the period. It is much richer and fuller. He digs deeper.

As in his 1840 novel Master Timothy’s Bookcase he explains that his joy in life is exploring and explaining mysteries, getting behind the effects and seeking causes. He is not satisfied with surface appearances. He does so with spectacular results. Unfortunately he began his career by plagiarizing the characters and basic plot, such as it was, of Charles Dickens, (born 1812) Pickwick Papers, not to mention parodying Dickens’ title: Master Humphrey’s Clock with Master Timothy’s Bookcase. The loss of credibility cost Reynolds as he was shunned by the literary establishment while opening a feud that lasted their lives through.

Reynolds shows his rue in the 1864 reissue of Pickwick Abroad. To justify himself, in a preface he quotes from ‘a small sample of the favorable reviews which the greater portion of the press bestowed upon “Pickwick Abroad.”

‘From the Sunday Times: “Mr. Reynolds proceeds in his striking imitation of Boz (Charles Dickens). Would it were not so. The writer has powers that may be more worthily employed to working out an original story (which to a certain degree, this is) in an original manner.”’

And then from the Sun: ‘”In Pickwick Abroad” were not the work built upon another man’s foundation we should say it was one of the cleverest and most original productions of the modern British Press. We rise from the first Number with the only regret that Charles Dickens himself had not written it.’

In such a manner Reynolds tries to justify himself. As the work was published serially over twenty numbers and the second quote refers only to the first Number, by the twentieth part Reynolds himself seeks to exculpate his plagiarism, or perhaps, borrowing might be a kinder word. Afterall, Chretian de Troyes work The Holy Grail had four different continuators. Perhaps Reynolds should have described his Pickwick Abroad as a ‘continuation.’ But no, as we will see, he tried to appropriate Dickens characters.

Nevertheless, in his last part p. 607 of the 1864 reissue he writes:

“We must now think of bidding adieu to our friends” said Mr. Pickwick, “and of shortening the hour of departure as much as possible. One of the most important periods of my life has been passed in Paris; and though I have occasionally met with disagreeable adventures, still the reminiscences of them are almost entirely effaced from my mind by the many – many happy hours that I have spent in this great city since the day I left England. The numerous songs, tales, and anecdotes that I have heard or read are carefully entered in my memorandum book; and on my return to England I shall place the whole in the hands of some gentleman connected with the press, and who at the same time is conversant with France, and acquainted with the character of her inhabitants, for the purpose of laying them before the public in proper form.”

“The talented editor of your travels and adventures in England would be the most fitting for such a work,” observed Mr. Chitty. “He is the most popular writer of the day, and from the manner he executed the important task you formerly entrusted to his care and abilities certainly deserves your confidence in this instance.”

“No, –” returned Mr. Pickwick: “I am sorry to say that he declines the labour, and it therefore remains for me to find one who will be bold enough to take it, with the fear of being called imitator and plagiarist before his eyes. I am perfectly aware that there will be much hypercriticism to contend with – that many journalists will be severe, if not actually overwhelming, in their remarks on the new undertaking.”

‘Severe and overwhelming.’ Reynolds must have been bold indeed to continue through twenty parts, reach a conclusion and be off and running in a career that would span twenty-three years and involve from 20 to 35 million words. This guy, Reynolds turned out enormous works one right after the other, without pause and sometimes working on two or three at a time. Just amazing.

His masterwork, The Mysteries of the Court of London ran to ten volumes and about 5000 pages and took him eight years to finish while writing other novels. Marcel Proust is still blushing.

The Court of London is too staggering. There is no let up over the course of the work.

He was fortunate in his choice of wife in that she wrote for herself while also being the first editor who transcribed what must have been scurrilous penmanship as Reynolds must have been turning out thirty to fifty pages a day. The mere editorship must have been a consuming task. In addition, Reynolds kept a close eye on French literature as is evident by who he borrowed from. Sue (born 1804) was a constant source after his Mysteries of Paris published in parts 1841-43. Reynolds must have been reading the parts when issued. Paul Favel (born 1816) who wrote his own Mysteries of London beginning in 1843 which very probably was an influence on Reynolds who was keeping a close eye on literature from France. Favel is quite worthy too.

At least Reynolds implies as much in his 1840 novel Master Timothy’s Bookcase in which his apparent alter ego is the hero Edmund Mortimer. As a foundation for his later work Bookcase is essential reading. A stunning work in itself it is as nothing to Mysteries of London and The Court of London. Reynolds had a very powerful mind. He was capable of extraordinary mental gymnastics discussing the most complicated subjects in readily understandable terms.

Bookcase borrows the title and in a nearly unrecognizable form the method of Dickens’ Master Humphrey’s Clock. There was no need for Reynolds to make reference to Dickens work, or as roughly as Reynolds says he was treated for Pickwick Abroad, it was not enough to make him stop. Indeed the feud or assault continued to Dickens’ death which came before Reynolds’.

In Humphrey’s Clock, a number of old stories, were stored in the clock case from which members of Humphrey’s club extracted stories to read. Reynolds took the notion to a level that was impossible for Dicken to match.

The premise of the Bookcase concerns seven members of the Mortimer family as told through the life of the last Mortimer, Edmund. The genius of the family appears before each generation in turn and offers to give them through life the quality they think will make them happy.

The first Mortimer chose glory, the next literary fame, then love, success in all enterprises, Health, Wealth and finally Edmund the hero of our story chose Universal Understanding. Of course, for each quality there was an upside and a downside; in all cases the downside prevailed eroding happiness and becoming a curse.

Reynolds very cleverly shows the downside of universal understanding. The Genius of the family named Timothy provides Edmund with a magical bookcase that solves all mysteries for him. Like his subconscious the bookcase is always with him providing a written scroll to answer whatever mystery Edmund asks.

If one remembers the US radio commentator Paul Harvey, his shtick was : You’ve heard the story, now, here’s the backstory. Harvey explains the mystery much as Timothy’s magical bookcase does.

One is also reminded of The Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus, tr. 1650. In it the scholar explains how Poemander helped him solve mysteries. Reynolds was very well read so there is no reason to believe he hadn’t read the book. The scholar explains the situation thus:

My thoughts being once seriously busied about the things that are, and my Understanding lifted up, all my bodily Senses being exceedingly holden back, as it is with them that are heavy of sleep, by reason either of fulness of meat, or of bodily labour; Methought I saw one of an exceeding great stature, and of an infinite greatness, call me by my name, and say unto me, ‘What wouldst thou hear and see: Or what wouldst thou understand to learn and know?

Then I said, Who art thou? I am, quoth he, Poemander, the mind of the great Lord, the most mighty and absolute Emperor: I know what thou wouldst have, and I am always present with thee.

Then I said, I would learn the things that are, and understand the nature of them, and know God, How? Said he. I answered that I would gladly hear. Then said he, Have me again in mind, and whatsoever thou wouldst learn, I will teach thee.

And there you have the magic bookcase, the unconscious of Freud, the auto-suggestion of Emile Coue. The biblical injunction: Seek and ye shall find. In a reasonable sense Edmund took the particulars of a situation worked them through on an unconscious or semi-conscious sense just as Reynolds does in his explications.

Thus, through the first couple hundred pages Reynolds has Edmund living his life, meeting people and involving himself in their problems, the back stories of which are explained by recourse to Timothy’s magic bookcase.

All goes well until Edmund is accused of a murder which he didn’t commit but which circumstantial evidence indicates he did. In trying extricate himself his explanations were so vague and bizarre to his judges, but not to we readers, that he is convicted and sentenced to be hanged but then he is considered to be insane and his sentence is commuted to life imprisonment in the Bicetre Insane Asylum.

He is then sent to the famous French prison for the insane where he is considered to be a mono-maniac. He is imprisoned with three other mono-maniacs. Now, Reynolds wants to introduce a discussion of the circulation blood. I think this really clever the way he leads his story to this point, creating a false ending with the monomaniac interlude and then Edmund will be freed from the life sentence when during the 1830 French revolution the revolutionaries throw open the prison doors and unleash a small army of loonies on Paris.

Edmund’s fellow inmate, a doctor, had contested William Harvey’s right to be called the discoverer of the circulation of blood, contending that Plato had been before him. Reynold’s describes the situation:

‘The first (monomaniac) was an old man of sixty-five, with long grey flowing locks, with long grey hair flowing from the back part of his head, the crown and region of the temples being completely bald. He was short in stature, stooping in his gait, and possessed of a countenance eminently calculated to afford a high opinion of his intellectual powers, he was however a monomaniac of no common description. Bred to the medical profession he had given, when at an early age, the most unequivocal proofs of a fertile and vigorous imagination. He first attracted attention towards the singularity of his conceptions by disputing the right of the Englishman, Dr. Harvey, to the honour of having first discovered the circulation of the blood. He maintained that Harvey merely revived the doctrine, and that it was known to the ancients. This opinion he founded upon the following passage in Plato:–“The heart is the centre of a knot of the blood -vessels, the spring or fountain of the blood, which is carried impetuously around: the blood is the food of the flesh; and for that purpose of nourishment, the body is laid out into canals, like those which we draw through gardens, that the blood may be conveyed as from a fountain, to every part of the previous system.”

The young physician was laughed at for venturing to contradict a popular belief, and was assailed by the English press for attempting to deprive we Englishmen of the initiative honour of the discovery. He was looked upon as an enthusiast, and lost all the patronage he had first obtained by his abilities.

Thus, Reynolds as part of his story introduces an extraneous discussion of the circulation of the blood in which he was interested. And then Reynolds goes on to explain the purposes of what will be his own more than vast body of work.

“Of a surety…there are individuals in his world whose motives are so strange that they escaped human comprehension. Many an action in a man’s life is explained by some little sentiment or feeling, lurking at the bottom of his soul, and buried in the most infallible mystery. The most extraordinary and important deeds are frequently regulated or indeed engendered, by motives so trivial that, if judged by the side of other men’s minds, they would appear totally incapable of exercising so powerful a control over a sensible imagination. We are apt to exclaim against the explanations frequently given by romanticists and novelists, to account for the conduct of the heroes or heroines, as unnatural and being at variance with probability; but, in the great volume of human nature, we trace the motives of character, and eccentricities of disposition, which seem to justify the wildest descriptions of the professed dealers in fiction. No romance, which emanates from the imagination is so romantic as the tales of real life. Oh! If the veil were withdrawn from all eyes—if the whole world could read the mysteries and secrets of the heart—how much villainy would be suddenly exposed—how much how many unjust suspicions explained—and how many supposed motives of applause as rapidly turned into evident causes of blame.

So, there you have the goals towards which Reynolds is striving in all his work with his very powerful mind.

After Edmund escapes from the Bicetre Asylum he immediately returns to England. Here the stories of deep mystery end and there is an interlude before a long story titled The Marriage of Mr. Pickwick. Ends the book. I will deal with the Pickwick story in another part.

It would appear that the French part of the Bookcase story represents Reynolds’ sojourn in France in fictionalized or perhaps, hypnoid state. In the interlude Reynolds looks back and examines that stay from a more sober point of view. Here in an interesting interchange between Edmund, already an alter ego, with another man who appears to be a different alter ego. The second alter ego gives a different brief history of what might have been a portrait of Reynolds in France seen from a different perspective. It is well to bear in mind that Reynolds arrived in France when he was sixteen with a very ample inheritance of 12,000 pounds. Such a young sport with money must have been seen as easy prey to sharpers. As his stories are replete with such characters and stories, indeed, Pickwick Abroad is a virtual catalog of sharp and indeed, criminal practices, Reynolds must have had the same approximate encounters. It is most likely that at least one or two succeeded and probably more as he went through 12,000 pounds in six years. Here is the passage; Edmund, the sober Reynolds and Mr. Ferguson, the flighty Reynolds.:

As Sir Edmund was returning home…he stopped for a moment to request a light for his cigar at a lonely cottage which stood on the way to his own mansion. A young man with a pale countenance and yet with an ironical and smirking expression thereupon, answered the knock on the door, which stood half open. The individual immediately addressed Sir Edmund by name and claimed acquaintance with him.

“I have seen you before,” said he:–your face is familiar to me.”

“I reside in the neighborhood,” answered the baronet; “and that may be the reason—”

“No.” Interpolated the stranger. “ I have seen you elsewhere. I never stir out of my own house and therefore well aware that I couldn’t have seen you in the vicinity. I was once a man of the world, now I am a misanthrope.”

“Indeed,” said Sir Mortimer; “and yet,” he added glancing around him, “methinks that for a misanthrope you are tolerably comfortable.”

“It was in Paris that I saw you.” Exclaimed the stranger, without heeding the observation, and having reflected for a moment. “Ah, now I remember you well, and who you are—and the strange adventure which befell you there. But, believe me, I am delighted to see you released from that horrid dungeon into which you were cast. I never believed your guilt,–I knew you were innocent,–indeed, I was fully able to judge of the force of a combination of circumstances, all collected against you, from my own experience in a most extraordinary scene of adventures, and yet”, he added with remarkable rapidity of utterance, which was evidently characteristic of him, “mine was rather a laughable than a serious history. Did you know me by name in Paris? Did you ever hear of Mr. Ferguson, who had acquired the honourable distinction to the name of the ‘Man of the world? No! Well—I believe I was as much entitled to the name as the Barber in the ‘Arabian Nights Entertainments’ was to that of Silent…’

Undoubtedly as a sixteen year old in 1830 Reynolds over the next six years flattered himself as being a man of the world, which he was, he ruefully recalls, as much as the obviously talkative Barber in the Arabian Nights had received the sarcastic name of Silent.

Also Reynolds having read the Arabian Nights shows how he must have passed much of his time in France. The work was translated into French from 1702-1713 by Antoine Galland and first in England as late as 1844 by Edward Lane.

Reynolds was exceptionally well read for such a young man. He was only twenty-six in 1840 when this book was written. He was interested in all the Liberal Arts including psychology as being developed by the great Anton Mesmer and his successors and hence the inkling of the sub- or unconscious. And he considered himself a teacher. Quite extraordinary.

As there will be discontinuity between this period and part two and three I will discontinue here and pick up on the continuation shortly.

 

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