'London, a Pilgrimage, by Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold', 1872. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
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Dazzled by manias and lured by wild gambling

The drives behind the Victorian periodical press and penny literature

The evolution of the Chartist movement of 1838–1857 coincides with a great flourishing of the Victorian periodical press and penny literature. In this study, Rob Breton looks at the relationship between penny fictions of popular literature and the Chartist press of the 1830s and 1840s. He challenges the established view that the “low-life” penny fictions contain little valid political content. Instead, he argues that “low life” narratives not only borrow their political content from the radical papers, but also owe their success to the penny press turning popular taste for radicalism into economic profitability.https://thecritic.co.uk/dazzled-by-manias/

The penny politics of Victorian popular fiction by Rob Breton, Manchester University Press, £80.00

The market demand for penny fiction is served up as evidence by Breton of the commercial viability of radicalism in British culture in the late 1830s and 1840s. He starts his first chapter with the strange mish-mash of truth and fiction that was the Newgate Calendars. He focuses on Martin’s Annals of Crime (1838) and Camden Pelham’s Chronicles of Crime (1841). Links are drawn between the discourses in Newgate Calendars and those in Chartist papers, such as slavery, the Corn Laws and child labour in factories. The increased market appetite in the Chartist press for the political agitator as martyr is also echoed in the criminal-as-martyr narratives in the Newgate Calendar.

These anonymous tales of rascals and criminal rogues offered vicarious thrills to the reader whilst instilling a fear of the hangman’s noose. The proletariat could see their quasi-revolutionary sentiments played out in literature whilst editorial control ensured appropriately severe punishment was meted out. However, Breton points out that the Calendar goes some way to explaining the circumstances that lead to a man becoming a criminal. The result of adding social realism, argues Breton, effectively humanises the criminal and politicises his story. Therefore, the nature of the Newgate Calendars content exposes their political awareness.

Breton moves on into the Newgate novel in Chapter 2, in particular William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839-40). He establishes a link between the Newgate Calendar and this novel, discussing how the criminal appears first and foremost as a social victim. Importantly, Jack Sheppard is granted a heroic agency which is an impossibility in Chartist fiction, because the Charter itself is still absent from the political landscape. Whilst Chartist literature represents working class characters hemmed and civilised into a middle-class value system, Jack Sheppard doesn’t do this. Instead, “Honest Jack”, this burglar and occasional highwayman who had been hanged over a century before, is permitted to exist slightly outside society, a fully autonomous folk hero establishing his own working class terms, supported by a loyal, productive crowd.

Breton argues that the novel’s popularity amongst working class readers is precisely what makes the novel a political threat.  In Jack Sheppard, more than any other Newgate novel, writes Breton, the threat of revolution is capitalised.

Reading as a culturally provocative act gets reframed in Breton’s debate as a politically subversive one

Reading as a culturally provocative act gets reframed in Breton’s debate as a politically subversive one, mainly because of the type of people reading. Jack Sheppard spawned a manic craze of popular plays and street shows, more so than any other Newgate novel.  But it could be argued that the plays were inevitably popular because 40% of Britain’s working class citizens are unable to read novels.  However, illiteracy – and its impact upon the urban working class’s access to culture – is sadly absent from Breton’s study.

In his third chapter Breton focuses on the penny blood Sweeney Todd  (1846-47). Like Jack SheppardSweeney Todd looks over its nineteenth-century shoulder to find an eighteenth-century hero. In doing so, argues Breton, Newgate novels indelibly link the spirit of rebellion to history. Whilst Sweeney Todd contains the usual Victorian penny blood traditions of urban squalor, gore, evil aristocrats and violence, what was truly in evidence on the event of its publication was that other great Victorian tradition: “moral panic”. Breton explains that this was due not to what the working classes were reading, but the fact they were reading at all. In addition, they were the market beneficiaries of a press explicitly producing literature for the underprivileged. This creation of cheap publishing birthed its own strong culture. That the working class had the audacity to read for enjoyment, rather than the dubious pursuit of improvement, argues Breton, is a truly culturally radical act.

In his fourth chapter, Breton maps out how G W M Reynolds’s novel Mysteries of London (1844-45) organises itself around the unworthy, rather than the worthy, poor whilst showing the reader into the “lowest and highest dens of corruption”. The novel, unlike the penny bloods, is mainly concerned with political reform, and here is the age-old conflict: Reynolds struggles with the balance between maintaining his middle class audience, and trying to politicise them into the kind of reform that might set them running away in fear.  Its radicalism, therefore, becomes gentrified and polite, and there is an over-reliance on romantic, individual heroism rather than collective social movement to affect change. Previous critics may have been keen to deny Reynolds his political legitimacy due to his pandering to commercial interest.  Breton’s counterargument, that radicalism and commercialism are not mutually exclusive, is cohesive and compelling.

The final chapter looks at two reform journals. Howitt’s Journal and Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine, were also learning how to balance reconciliatory attempts to appeal to all classes whilst trying not to threaten any of them.  The journals are under constant pressure to read the market.  Jerrold’s owed its popularity to consciously pursuing an anti-Chartist narrative. After all, many of its middle-class readers would have sided with Thomas Carlyle, who saw Chartism as a disruption of that beautiful relationship between the poor who put up with appalling social conditions and the rich who maintain them.

Passion for commercial enterprise, not social reform, reflects the true spirit of Victorianism

Chartism was the defining political movement of the early Victorian era, but its reform sentiments can be found as far back as the seventeenth century, and it constantly draws on martyred heroes and the past. In times of heightened social tension, stories of rebellious disorder featuring nostalgic folk-hero narratives will always be marketable. The penny blood market immediately understood the fashion for radicalism framed by the past, and rapidly set about giving the working-class market what it wanted to consume.

This is a timely study which constantly draws cultural radicalism and political radicalism into an ever closer relationship. Breton does not let the reader forget that the early Victorian publishing culture was born of a people dazzled by manias, lured by wild gambling and the prospect of capital gain. It is this passion for commercial enterprise, not social reform, that reflects the true spirit of Victorianism.

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