Saturday, August 13, 2011
'Penny Fiction' by Francis Hitchman
The following article, by Francis Hitchman, appeared in the Quarterly Review in July 1890, and is one of the most detailed and interesting contemporary accounts of penny dreadfuls and penny part publications.
‘We must educate our masters,' said Lord Sherbrooke (then Mr. Lowe), in the course of the debates on the Reform Bill of 1867. The remark fell upon fertile soil, and Mr. Forster's Education Bill of 1870 sprang directly out, of it. The very class, who but a few years before had detected in the demand for education nothing but the greedy clamour of the clergy of the hated ‘Establishment' for more influence than was rightly theirs, and who under the influence of the happily extinct Manchester School of politicians, had been most vehement in their protest against State interference between parents and children, now demanded ‘free, compulsory, and secular education,' always at the cost of the State, and always to be directed by the bitterest enemies of that ‘State Church,' to which the working classes were indebted for all the education they had received for half a century. It is useless to resuscitate the miserable controversy. The Birmingham Education League is dead, and the quarrels which it stirred up are, we may hope, dead with it. We have been ‘educating our masters' in the three R.'s for nearly twenty years, and some of us are beginning to ask, to what use they have put that painful training in the rudiments which has cost the country so much solid money. The natural inquiry is, what do they read? Not indeed that they read much. The modern system of education, with the pressure of impending examinations forever weighing upon teachers and children, is admirably adapted to prevent the youth of the period from troubling itself greatly about literature in any form. The son of the working man, who leaves school as soon after he has passed the age of thirteen as possible, has no love for books, and, having ‘passed his standard,' not unnaturally thinks he, has practically done with the whole apparatus of learning for the rest of his life. By and by he will perhaps take some small interest in public affairs, or the concerns of his trades' union may become important to him, and in that case he will spend his Sunday morning over a newspaper. With the Sunday newspaper, however, we have in this place nothing to do. Except for one trumpery addition, their number and character remain pretty much what they were when the subject was dealt with in these pages more than ten years ago. Before the time for the Sunday paper arrives, however, the working lad that the enterprising publishers of Shoe Lane and the purlieus thereof have provided him with a certain store of amusement. A walk during the dinner hour - say from twelve to one - through the courts and alleys in the irregular space which is, roughly speaking, bounded on the north by Holborn, on the south by the Thames, on the west by St. Martin's Lane, and on the east by St. Paul's and its precincts, will afford the observant passenger sufficient food for reflection. He will find that while a certain proportion of the lads from the various offices and factories in that region are beguiling their leisure with various minor games, or indulging in the rough horse-play in which the London ‘larrikin' delights, many of the remainder are occupied in reading. In the same way the lads employed in City offices and warehouses, who in many cases have a great deal of leisure, naturally spend it in the same way.
It will, of course, be said that this is a laudable occupation. There are not a few good people in whose eyes a book is a species of fetish, and who look upon printed paper with as much reverence as do the Mahometans. To all such the boy, who, in their own phrase, ‘never has a book out of his hands,’ is worthy of respect and even of admiration. Unfortunately, however, the lad of this type revels in a literature which is not precisely of the kind for which Cobbett and Franklin hoarded their pence. No small proportion of it comes under the category of 'Penny Dreadfuls.' It had been hoped that books of this class had become extinct. A somewhat sanguine writer on the subject a few years ago expressed a lively satisfaction at the fact that he had inquired in vain for the catchpenny romances that were popular in the days of his youth. ‘The Mysteries of the Court,' ‘The Mysteries of London,' ‘The Haunted House, or Love and Crime,’ ‘Maria Martin, or the Murder in the Red Barn,' ‘The Haunted Cellar, a tale of Fleet Ditch,' and 'Joskin the Body Snatcher,' were, he found, ‘out of print.' It would seem, however, that they are 'out of print' only in the serial form. A walk through Holywell Street will show that they are still to be bought in sixpenny volumes - price four pence halfpenny at the discount booksellers and that they dispute the favour of the poorer class of readers with translations of the improving, romances of MM. Zola and Paul de Kock.
But this is not all. In a lane not far from Fleet Street there is a complete factory of the literature of rascaldom - a literature which has done much to people our prisons, our reformatories, and our Colonies, with scapegraces and ne'er do wells. At the present time no fewer than fifteen of these mischievous publications are in course of issue from this one place. They are not, it is true, very new, but they have a steady and considerable sale in the back streets, and are constantly advertised as in course of re-issue. First on the list comes 'Spring Heeled Jack, or the Terror of London,' No. 2 given away with No. 1, with ‘a splendid coloured plate gratis.’ The 'plate,' a coarse woodcut printed on tinted paper, represents a stage-coach crowded with affrighted passengers, over whose heads springs the devil with horns, hoofs, tail, and bat-like wings complete. The story is what might be expected a tale of highwaymen, murderers, burglars, wicked noblemen, and lovely and persecuted damsels, whose physical charms and voluptuous embraces are dilated upon with exceeding unction. It is almost needless to say that the highwaymen of the romance are not the sorry and sordid rogues we know them to have been in real life, but always 'dashing,' 'high spirited,' and ‘bold.' As a matter of course, they all carry pistols, which they use with unerring skill, which never miss fire, and apparently never require re-loading. It is equally a matter of course that the enemies of these gallant fellows - the constables, who at the time of the story, which is left in uncertainty but is presumably about the middle of the eighteenth century, are under the orders of a ‘Commissioner' - are ugly, stupid, ill conditioned, and cowardly; that it is a ‘paternal government' under which 'things have reached such a pitch that a man may be fined, perhaps imprisoned, for carrying a pistol to protect himself;' and that, in one word, all the officers of the law are ‘tyrants’ and 'oppressors,' whom it is the duty of ‘spirited lads' to resist to the uttermost. No. 2 on our list bears the promising title of ‘Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,' and is a delectable story of a barber under whose shop is a cellar into which his customers are precipitated through a trap door, to be robbed and murdered at leisure. By way of adding to the ludicrous ghastliness of the story, the corpses of the victims, who appear to average about one per diem, are made into meat pies by a fascinating woman who keeps a shop in Bell Yard. There is the usual apparatus of a gang of desperate criminals of superhuman strength, sagacity, and courage; and of stupid and blundering watchmen and honest folk. Everybody always goes armed, and is ready to produce his weapons on the smallest provocation, or none at all; and the use of a pistol is invariably represented as a proof of courage and presence of mind. ‘Cheeky Charlie, or what a Boy can do' - the third of these romances - is an impossible tale of an outcast boy, who is rescued by a personage very appropriately called ‘the Vagabond,' from the cruelties, of the workhouse and the Guardians of the Poor. The story is almost abject in its silliness - many children of twelve years old could write as coherently and as well - but it enforces with great energy the theory that the constituted authorities are both rogues and fools, the fool predominating. ‘Green as Grass,' No. 4 of the series, might also have been written by a sharp errand boy. The tale is of a swindling attorney, who with his son victimizes a wealthy but intensely vulgar family, whose foolish son gives the title to the book. It is stupid beyond expression in conception and execution alike, the fun is intensely depressing, and the illustrations so wretched as to suggest the idea that the artist (?) must be caricaturing himself. ‘Turnpike Dick' is described as the true history of all the celebrated highwaymen, and appears to be a hash up of the moral and improving biography of Dick Turpin and his ‘gallant companions.' The hero is always in company with a magnificent horse; is always armed with sword and pistols, sumptuously dressed; he has ‘a rich, mellow voice,' in spite of his 'nocturnal rambles' and frequently repeated ‘draughts of brandy;' he is of matchless physical beauty, and is naturally beloved by the most adorable of women; and he beguiles his leisure with wine and song amidst a select crew of 'knights of the road,' whom he treats in a ‘haughty yet affable manner.' The moon is always 'shining merrily' on his gallant exploits, and fortune is ever on the side of the handsome hero, and as constantly unfavourable to the stupid, cowardly, and ill-looking constables and their assistants. ‘Jack Sheppard,' burglar and prison breaker, is the hero of the sixth romance on the list. The story is constructed on precisely the same lines as the last mentioned, and may be compendiously described as a glorification of vice and crime. The ‘large coloured picture, presented gratis' with the first number, emphasizes this point, representing, as the epigraph informs, the reader, ‘Jack Sheppard commencing his career of undying fame (!) in the carpenter's shop.' The ‘Poor Boys of London, a Life Story for the People,' is a tale of slightly loftier pretensions, in the course of which the author displays his acquaintance with casual wards, thieves’ kitchens, and criminal resorts generally, and uses such descriptive and dramatic powers as he possesses to extenuate the offences of the 'poor boys' who, in his own phrase, are ‘driven to crime.' ‘The School on the Sea' is a tale relating the rebellion of a number of boys against an impossible sea-captain, who is the head of an equally impossible school on a ship provided by the Admiralty. The whole thing is a farrago of disgusting rubbish, but it appears to be popular. The title of ‘He would be a Clown, or the Pet of the Pantomime,' sufficiently explains the substance of the next serial on our list, the author of which, if he proves nothing else, demonstrates very clearly that he knows nothing whatever of the stage. ‘Tales of Pirates, Smugglers, and Buccaneers;’ ‘Three Fingered Jack, the Terror of the Antilles,' and ‘Lions and Tigers, or the Pirates of the South Pacific,' are romances, the substance of which may be guessed from their titles. The moral tone is simply deplorable. Lawlessness and violence are the subjects of the writers' fondest admiration, and the severer matter is pleasingly seasoned with love scenes of the 'luscious' kind, which are almost as offensive in their way as the performances of certain young lady novelists of a higher rank. Of the remaining works on this publisher's list no special mention need be made. 'Broad Arrow Jack,’ ‘Captain Macheath, the Prince of the Highway,' and ‘Famous Fights in the Prize Ring,' all point the same moral - that no life is so delightful as a life of roguery tempered with violence; that highwaymen and thieves are heroes; and their mistresses queens of beauty and romance, whose venal caresses are the rightful guerdon of skill, daring, and dash.
When it is remembered that this foul and filthy trash circulates by thousands and tens of thousands week by week amongst lads who are at the most impressionable period of their lives, and whom the modern system of purely secular education has left without ballast or guidance, it is not surprising that the authorities have to lament the prevalence of juvenile crime, and that the Lord Mayor, and Aldermen should constantly have to adjudicate in cases for which these books are directly responsible. The story is always the same. An errand boy or an office lad is caught in the act of robbing his master - 'frisking the till,' embezzlement, or forgery. In his desk are found sundry numbers of these romances of the road, a cheap revolver, a small stock of cartridges and a black mask. A little pressure brings out the confession that those ‘properties' have been bought by the youthful culprit with the intention of emulating the ‘knights of the road,' the tale of whose exploits has fascinated him. It is necessary, for the sake of other lads in the same employment, to press for a conviction and the boy is taken off to prison, to come out a passed recruit of the great army of crime.
Even where the literature offered for the consumption of this class of boys is not directly criminal, it is often dangerously foolish, and even vicious. One publication boldly announces itself as 'The Bad Boys' Paper;' and, though the editor, who adopts the pseudonym of Guy Rayner, ostentatiously announces that his ‘one aim and object is to provide a healthy and entertaining journal,' it is impossible to say that he has attained it. The hero of one is a boy who runs away from school after getting drunk with his comrades on smuggled punch in the dormitory; another relates the adventures of an English boy of fifteen in India, whose favourite companion is a tame tiger, and who does wonderful things with a bow and arrow; another is a story of low life, with all the vulgarity retained, and the humour carefully left out. The remainder of the paper fully comes up to the level thus indicated. An even worse specimen of this class of paper is a shabby and ill printed rag which has for title ‘The Boys London and Boys of New York.' This sheet is printed in London from stereotyped plates, which are very obviously manufactured in America, and appears to have been issued for many years past, the number for the week ending 29th September 1889, being 647. The staple is of course fiction, the character of which may be judged from the titles of the stories, instalments of which appear in this number: The Haunted Glen, a Story of Mystery (with an illustration of appalling hideousness); the Steam Catamaran, a Legend of the North West; the Shorty's Trip around the World; Johnnie Burgoo, or the Mystery of a Boy's Life; the Maniac Engineer; Mad Anthony Wayne; Cale Loring and his Demon Dog, and the Wreck of the ‘Columbus.' ‘The London Story Paper’, which is almost as old an undertaking as that just mentioned, is of much the same type, printed like it from American stereotypes, with illustrations a shade better.
English papers for boys are almost as foolish, but there is improvement in the external appearance of most of them. The oldest is the ‘Boys of England,' now in the fourteenth year of its existence. The editor and proprietor, announces somewhat conspicuously that this ‘journal of travel, sport, fun, and instruction' is ‘subscribed to by H.R.H. Prince Arthur and Count William Bernstorff.' Why those distinguished persons should honour the paper it is not easy to see. There is certainly nothing in its contents to induce tutors and governors to recommend it, though it may be admitted that there is nothing flagrantly offensive. The chief failings of the paper are its weakness, and curiously ‘second-hand' air. The American reprinted matter is especially thin and poor. Much the same thing may be said of two other publications of the same class which are issued by the same publisher - 'Boys of the Empire' and ‘The Boy's Comic Journal.' Other papers of a similar but slightly lower type are: 'Ching Ching’s Own,' ‘The Boy's Champion Journal,' ‘The Boys' Leisure Hour,' and ‘The Young Folks’ Paper.' They present no feature of special interest, and call for little remark. The best that can be said of them is that they are comparatively harmless; the worst, that no boy is likely to be the better for reading them. He will derive neither information nor instruction from them, and it may be doubted whether the time spent over them would not be infinitely more usefully employed in cricket and football or some lighter games. Boys cannot, of course, be invariably engaged in athletic exercise, but they would certainly be far wiser if they devoted themselves to chess or draughts, or even dominoes, than if they indulged in the intellectual debauchery which a constant study of books of this class implies.
For children of a larger growth enterprising publishers cater with great liberality and with corresponding profit to themselves. The number of penny weekly papers, leaving newspapers, trade journals, and professedly religious organs wholly out of account, is literally enormous, and their circulation almost fabulous. There is probably no family of the classes rather absurdly described as 'working' and ‘lower middle' in which one at least of these prints is not bought as regularly as Saturday night comes round. In many such families three, four, and even more are taken by various members and lent from one to another. Including such as may be seen on the counters of public-houses and the tables of coffee taverns and cheap restaurants, we are probably well within the mark in saying that every copy sold is read by six persons. Now as one of these prints boasts a circulation of 334,000 a week (?), another modestly announces its sale as ‘a little under half a million' (?), a third claims a quarter of a million, and several are known to sell over 100,000 weekly - it is obvious that the family penny papers combined must be one of the greatest social forces in the kingdom. Whether they are worthy of their vocation is a question which it may be worth while to investigate.
The first point which strikes the inquirer is the obvious niggardliness with which most of these prints are managed. The American cheap press is drawn upon largely and unblushingly. More than one of the weekly prints, to be mentioned hereafter, is composed almost exclusively of reprints of this kind, while several of the remainder obtain from one-third to one-half of their matter from the same source. Two methods of procedure are open to the enterprising publisher. In one case he simply cuts the story out of the American journal and reprints it as it stands, trusting to the printer's reader to correct the eccentricities of American orthography. This method may be commended for its comparative honesty. The author, it is true, receives no compensation for the use that is made of his work, but he is served no worse than the hundreds of English authors of infinitely greater pretensions, whose work is similarly ‘conveyed' every day in the United States. The English reader, too, is not plundered. The story presents itself for what it is - a tale of American life by an American writer - and as such he gets it at a very cheap rate. Greater ingenuity is required for the second method, which is, however, less popular with publishers on account of the greater expense which it entails. Under this system the publisher hands over a copy of the work which he wishes to have edited for the English market to one of the hacks in his employment. Pen in hand, this latter goes over the whole book, altering, striking out, writing in, and generally transmogrifying it. The title of the book is changed, as are the headings of the chapters; over-long chapters are divided; two short chapters are run into one; the dramatis personae are re-baptized, names that are familiar to the students of English fiction being substituted for American names and titles; the ‘brown stone, mansion on Fifth Avenue' becomes a stately edifice in Belgravia or Grosvenor Square; Saratoga or Long Branch becomes Brighton or Scarborough; the 'trip to Europe' is a Continental tour or a visit to Scotland; and the millionaire's country-house on the Hudson River becomes a hunting-box in the Shires, or a fishing lodge in the West of Ireland. The people are similarly changed. The Senator is transformed into a Duke or an Earl at the least - titles are very cheap in fiction of this character - the M. C. blossoms out into an M.P.; the Pittsburg ironmaster into a Manchester cotton lord, and the Wall Street operator into a prototype of the Rothschilds or the Barings. When a little more care is thought desirable, the style is modified in accordance with English notions of the fitness of things, and the more obvious Americanisms are suppressed. The book thus becomes an English novel for all practical purposes at a cost to the enterprising proprietor of the penny Weekly of about 5l., which, if he is in an unwontedly generous mood, he may perhaps make guineas. Instances have been known of a story so manipulated having passed through a periodical of the lower class, and having afterwards blazed forth in all the glory of chromo-printed boards for sale at the railway stations (price 2s.).
There is, it must be admitted, one trifling drawback to these ingenious operations in the copyright complications which occasionally result, a very odd instance of which occurred a year or so ago. An English writer, who is not altogether unknown in the neighbourhood of Fleet Street, produced a novel in the usual way in London, which had the customary run at the circulating libraries and at the end of the season was forgotten. Some time afterwards he was not a little surprised to discover that his story, with some changes of names and places, was appearing in weekly instalments in a well-known periodical. He naturally complained, and the sequel to his complaint was that he made the unwelcome discovery that his story had been translated into American, and re-translated from the American version into English. Legal proceedings were threatened, and the pillaged author confidently expected a considerable sum from the publisher of the, periodical, but the latter was, luckily for himself, able to show that the original story owed so much to a German original that he was able to set his opponent at defiance.
The proprietors of these publications do not of course rely only upon American sources for their wares. Ancient and forgotten Annuals, Keepsakes, Books of Beauty, Friendship's Offerings, Town and Country Magazines, and similar repertories of ‘genteel fiction' are regularly sifted for available matter. One editor indeed makes no secret of his dependence on these sources, as will be evident from the annexed advertisement which appears weekly in his papers:-
‘Literary contributions to…must be short, and very curious or very amusing, original, translated or copied. Copied scraps must be from old books, magazines, periodicals, or newspapers published originally at least forty-two years ago. Literary contributions (if used) will be paid for as follows: Original or translations, three halfpence per line, and extra when specially good; copied or cuttings from print, one penny per line. Compiled articles counted original.'
The same thing is done by the proprietors of other weekly pennyworths, who enlist the great army of amateurs in their service by offers of prizes of one or two guineas for the best story of a certain length, reserving to themselves the right of publishing all the competing compositions, even though they may not adjudge the prize to them. There are besides a great number of persons to whom the pleasure of appearing in print is a sufficient reward for a great deal of labour, and from them much ‘copy' is obtained. For the rest, the verses and miscellaneous paragraphs, which fill up the odd corners of the minor prints of the day, are raked together from all conceivable sources: ancient jest books, collections of anecdotes, defunct and abortive magazines, and the boxes of odd volumes which may be seen outside secondhand bookstalls and brokers’ shops, are all put under contribution.
A different origin may be ascribed to much of the ‘original’ work which appears in the columns of some of these prints. One proprietor, for example, has a regular manufactory of periodical fiction. Thither a little band of ‘literary gentlemen' bend their steps betimes each morning, and until four or five o'clock in the afternoon they labour in the transmogrification of American novels as a above described, or, in the production of new and original romances of high life and the passions. Sometimes by way of stimulating their invention, the proprietor provides them with a set of illustrations which have done duty before, and which they may ‘write up to' as best they can. More frequently, however, they have to rely on their own unassisted genius. The principal point upon, which stress is laid, is that every instalment of these romances shall contain at least one situation susceptible of pictorial treatment. It is hardly necessary to say that the gentlemen who accept engagements of this kind are not as a rule very distinguished members of the Republic of Letters, though in some few instances their antecedents are better than might be expected. One example, who was tolerably well known a few years ago, was a University man, a beneficed clergyman, who, having had a misunderstanding with his bishop, threw up his living and abandoned the clerical dress and habits. Another man of the same type bore an historic name, took honours at Oxford, and was expected to do great things. His abilities were of a high order, but he was idle, reckless, and, worst of all, constitutionally incapable of resisting the seductions of drink. He had a facile pen and great stores of information, but he never succeeded in accomplishing anything beyond the veriest hack-work. His greatest achievement was a romance written for a weekly paper now defunct. The proprietor had made a journey to Paris, and whilst there had picked up for a small sum some fifty or sixty wood blocks which had been used to illustrate a romance by Ponson du Terrail. These were handed over to the hack in question, with instructions to arrange them in any order that he pleased, and to write up to them so as to use them all. This romance, whose principal merit was that it presented not the faintest resemblance to anything that Ponson du Terrail ever wrote, achieved a considerable amount of success, but produced little in the way of either money or reputation for the unfortunate author, who died in a London hospital a year or two after the story was completed.
It must not, of course, be supposed that the Grub Street of today is populated exclusively with broken-down University men. A goodly proportion of them began life in the unambitious capacities of compositors, reporters, and hangers on of the newspaper press. One well known personage of this class began what in moments of confidence he delights to style his ‘literary career,' when acting as shopman to a second hand bookseller in a manufacturing town of the Midlands. Another distinguished person of the same type translates dubious French novels on week days, and on Sundays actually officiates as minister of some sort of Dissenting chapel. A third was a village schoolmaster in Scotland, while of a fourth a curious anecdote was told a few years ago in a monthly magazine. ‘A friend of the writer,’ said the magazinist, 'has in his service a housemaid whose father writes novels for a Fleet Street publisher from 10 to 4 daily.' A still more amusing illustration of the social status of some of our popular instructors was lately related by a lady, the wife of a well known physician. Her cook having repeatedly neglected to send up the dinner with the punctuality which is desirable in a well-ordered household, she remonstrated with some sharpness, and to her astonishment was informed that the young person in question was so much occupied with the novel she was writing that she had been unable to pay due attention to her duties in the kitchen. It would be easy to multiply instances of the same state of things, but the fullest information could probably be given by the officials of the Reading Room at the British Museum. Those who wish to see the subject, treated in the most amusing light, however, may be referred to a clever novel of the ‘Besant and Rice' series, which has for title ‘With Harp and Crown,' and in which real and well known persons are described under feigned names.
From writers of this type it is, of course, hopeless to expect work of any high pretension, nor as a matter of fact is it to be found. But if the literary level of the weekly press be low, its morals are irreproachable. Fortunately it has been found out immorality and indecency do not pay. Not merely is Lord Campbell's Act a stringent one, stringently enforced, but the feeling of the public is distinctly against nastiness of the kind which is the surest passport to the favour of the Parisian democracy. A print such as the Vie Parisienne, the Gil Blas, or the Petit Journal pour Rire, would not live for a month in London, for the sole reason that shopkeepers and newsvendors would not exhibit it, and decent people, whether of the ouvrière or of the petite bourgeoise class, would not buy it and would not place it where their families might see it. It is easy to vent cheap sneers at the pruderie anglaise which has brought about this state of things, and for tenth-rate novelists, who would never have been heard of but for their clumsy Zolaism, to say unpleasant and ungracious things about English girls. The fact remains, and it is certainly one of which no Englishman need be ashamed, that the popular literature of to-day is singularly pure in tone, and that any violation of decency would inevitably lead to such a falling of circulation as would practically amount to the ruin of the paper guilty of it. At the same time it must be admitted, that this very care for purity and decorum produces some rather anomalous results in itself; while the innocent ignorance of the writers on all points connected with those exalted personages, about whom they write so fluently, is sometimes laughable to an almost painful degree. One or two elementary truths might with great advantage be impressed upon the minds of those authors. It might, for example, be pointed out to them that peers of the realm do not as a rule look for their wives amongst the shop girls and milliners' apprentices of Regent Street and Bond Street; that baronets are not, as a rule, superhumanly wicked; that the chorus and ‘extra ladies' of the minor theatres are not necessarily superhumanly virtuous; that ladies of birth, family, and position, are not invariably much worse from the moral point of view than their own maids; and finally, that gentle- people, of whatever age or condition they may be, have occasionally some notion of the value of self-restraint, and are sometimes actuated by motives a little higher than those of a sordid self-interest.
If those few and simple rules were observed, and if the caterers for that taste for high life, which obviously prevails amongst those whom Mr. Laurence Oliphant was wont to call the ‘lower middles,' would but condescend to write from a somewhat higher point of view than that of the servants' hall, something better might be afforded than is to be found in these romances. Take, for example, the batch of papers which represent what may very fairly be called the ‘J. F. Smith school of fiction.' This is perhaps the oldest of all the styles of the penny weekly press. ‘The London Journal,' in which it took its rise, made its first appearance nearly forty nine years ago. As usual it began as ‘a weekly record of literature, science, and art,' but science and art were left on one side at a very early period, and the paper became a vehicle for thrilling romances of fashionable life of the most exciting kind. The principal author was a Mr. J. F. Smith, who was, if not the founder – that title being properly due to the notorious G. W. M. Reynolds - the great exemplar of the penny periodical romance. Mr. Smith, who died at the beginning of the month of March last, was a man of more than respectable abilities, and was content to lead a queer, disreputable Bohemian life on the salary of a Parliamentary Under-Secretary. Curiously enough, he was absolutely unknown amongst journalists, and even amongst ‘literary men' of the type immortalized by the author of ‘Caste.' Yet, as the writer of the single obituary notice which appeared in the daily papers remarks, ‘he had a thousand readers where Dickens had ten, or Thackeray one. He was the people's chosen author; he won the throne of their affections, and he held it unassailed.' During the time of his greatest prosperity he lived in a second-rate Bloomsbury boarding-house, and his only public appearances were at the office of the late Mr. Johnson, the proprietor of ‘The London Journal,' where he wrote his weekly instalment of copy, and whence, having drawn his salary, he disappeared for a week. With few exceptions his works were thrilling romances of fashionable life, but he began his career as a writer of fiction as a devotee of the ‘romantic school.' His first success was achieved in 1849, when, after Rush's murders, he wrote an exciting novel with the taking title of ‘Stanfield Hall.’ It's only fair to say, however, that the tale, though sufficiently sensational, was not a mere vulgar reproduction of the story of Mr. Jermy, but a work more in the style of the late G. P.R. James, with a touch of Charles Dickens's humour. ‘Stanfield Hall' was followed by ‘Minnigrey' ‘Woman and her Master,' 'Amy Lawrence,' and an endless series of tales upon the same lines, thanks to which 'The London Journal' was at one time the best property of its class in London. In the course of time Mr. Smith seceded from 'The London Journal’ and joined the staff of a rival print of the same, kind 'The Family Paper' of Messrs. Cassell where it is said that he was not quite so successful. He had, however, founded a school of romancers which is with us to this day. Mr. Pierce Egan the Younger, whose name suggests memories of the Tom and Jerry era, was the most successful amongst them; but he was nearly, if not quite, equalled by a certain Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth whose name will not be found in Mr. Mudie's lists Miss Braddon, Mr. Charles Reade, Mrs. Henry Wood, whose romances, however, scarcely hit the popular taste. Mr. Smith had founded his school, and the class for which he catered was satisfied with his method. Its principal characteristics were summed up some time ago, and they have not changed in the interval. The romances if Mr. Smith and his imitators, it was, said, ‘contain plenty of vice and not a little crime, but the criminal always comes to grief in the end, and virtue is duly rewarded with wealth and titles and honour. The villains are generally of high birth and repulsive appearance; the lowly personages always of ravishing beauty and unsullied virtue. Innocence and loveliness in a gingham gown are perpetually pursued by vice and debauchery in varnished boots and spotless gloves. Life is surrounded by mystery; detectives are ever on the watch, and the most astonishing pitfalls and mantraps are concealed in the path of the unwary and the innocent. Nor are reflection and observation wanting. Maxims of the most tremendous morality, overwhelming aphorisms, and descriptive passages of surpassing fineness are scattered lavishly over the pages.’
So far as it goes, this description was perfectly accurate in the fifties and still remains so; but one really important point has been omitted - the stories are all identically the same. When one has been read, all have been read; the names and the localities only are changed. Lady Laura's hair is brown, and her eyes are blue in one story; Lady Constance in another has black hair and violet eyes, but each goes through the same adventures, each is made love to by an unprincipled adventurer - Captain Hawke in one story, Major Falcon in another - each rejects his guilty overtures with the same superb disdain, and if, when the trying scene is over, Lady Constance goes into hysterics, Lady Laura takes her revenge by ‘falling into a deathly swoon.’ So with the other persons of the story. For some inscrutable reason known only to the penny romancer, the baronet is always a villain, is always the possessor of colossal wealth, which he squanders remorselessly for the guiltiest purposes, while the Earl is as invariably the best and noblest of men, against whom, calumny and cruelty launch their envenomed shafts in vain. There is always a stolen child and a missing box of deeds, containing amongst other things the parchment certificate of the marriage of the hero's parents, without which of course - the Registrar-General's office being unknown in the land of Smithian romance - the hero is considered by everybody to be of illegitimate birth. When at last, through the supernatural skill of the detective and the simple mother wit of the comic servant, the missing deed box is discovered, the hero is placed in possession of his title and estates; the wicked baronet is discomfited and sent into exile; the intriguing lawyer, whose intrigues would not have puzzled a child, is led off to the bulks, which, it appears, still exist at Chatham; and the virtuous heroine is rewarded for her constancy by promotion from the servants' hall to that coronet which, as Foote taught the world a century and a half ago, is the invariable reward of ‘Piety in pattens.’
All this, it will be said, is very poor stuff, but the, popular appetite for it seems to be practically inexhaustible. ‘The London Journal' is still in existence, though but the ghost of its former self, subsisting mainly, as it would seem, on it's ancient reputation, and by the republication of those thrilling romances of Mr. Smith by which it first achieved success. Its place has been taken by a rival publication almost identical in size, shape, and general appearance, which has for title ‘The London Reader,' and is now in the twenty-seventh year of its existence, and by a ‘Family Reader' now in its twentieth year. All three have something more than a family likeness; even the illustrations might be drawn by the same hands. The men are always ten and a half feet high at the least, and the women about eight feet. Both are handsome in the same way, with straight noses and strongly accentuated mouths, and both, men and women alike, habitually stand with the head a little on one side, the body leaning forward, and one hand thrust backwards behind the hip, an attitude into which a lay-figure may be put readily enough, but which no human being would voluntarily adopt.
These illustrations were adopted in the first instance as a means of marking the difference between ‘The London Journal,' and its predecessor amongst the penny weeklies, ‘The Family Herald.’ This last-named paper, which made its first appearance in 1844, is a really favourable specimen of the class to which it belongs, and has had the honour of being praised by two such very dissimilar critics as the late Leigh Hunt and ‘The Saturday Review' in its former days. Hunt, in the last pages of his 'autobiography,' tells how in his old age he was still cheerful and could still call for and enjoy his ‘Family Herald,’ adding a few words of kindly commendation of the little paper. The ‘Saturday,' in its turn, once allowed an article in praise of it to appear in its columns, which, though perhaps a little warmer in its eulogies than the circumstances warranted, was not without a certain justification. The ‘Family Herald' is, in fact, what it has always been, a very creditable specimen of the popular literature of the day. The bulk of the matter is, of course, fiction, but space is found for other things. Of the fiction it may at once be said that it will compare favourably not merely with that which appears in magazines of its own class, but with the stories which adorn the pages of magazines of much greater pretension. Several well-known writers, indeed, first made their bow to the public in the pages of ‘The Family Herald,' notably that Miss Warden, whose ‘House on the Marsh' was the sensation of the season a few years ago. In themselves the stories are at worst inoffensive, but they have certain positive merits which can be fully appreciated only after a long course of penny fiction. In the first place, the tales are not too ‘genteel;' in the second, they are not wildly sensational. In other words, the writers do not strive to make up for their incapacity to delineate character by nicknaming their puppets out of the highest ranks of the peerage, and by putting into the mouths of high-born ladies language and ideas which would be considered vulgar even by the shop-girls and apprentices who form the majority of the readers of these papers. Nor do they endeavour, as a rule, to atone for the feebleness of their grasp of character by inventing situations of impossible horror and incongruity. The stories are, in short, very fair specimens of fiction of the second order, and may certainly claim recognition on the ground of morality and good feeling. That part of ‘The Family Herald’ which is not occupied by novels, serial and other, is filled with miscellaneous clippings on various subjects; riddles, and an essay on some social or general topic not political. These essays will seem to most readers the weakest part of the paper. They are very trite and commonplace, and consist mainly in the repetition of two or three obvious reflections in a variety of ways.
Partly by way of supplement to their weekly issues and partly as independent speculations, the proprietors of some of these periodicals publish short stories in a separate form, each complete in a single issue, to which they give the name of 'Novelettes.' Those of 'The Family Herald' are of much the same character as the stories in that journal. They are perfectly cleanly, sometimes rather dull, and sometimes mildly sensational. If their readers get little moral or ethical teaching from them, they are at least able to while away their leisure pleasantly. It is not always possible to speak at gently of some other of these publications. ‘The Bow Bells Weekly’ a rival of ‘The Family Herald,' which after sundry vicissitudes has lately made its appearance in a new form publishes one of these ‘Novelettes' every week. The idea seems to be a successful one, for the issue has continued for a period of about a dozen years, but an examination of the stories does not leave behind it a very exalted idea of the intellectual capacity of either writers or readers. The stories are all of ‘high life,’ or rather of something which the writers imagine high life to be. The puppets invariably address each other in the very finest English finest from the point of view of the servants hall, that is to say; and when the author speaks in his own person, his skilful manipulation of the pronouns 'who,' 'whom,' and ‘which,' with and without the conjunction, affords the reader a wonderful insight into syntax. The incidents are of the most romantic and blood curdling description, the mysteries enthralling, and the passions of every personage of the fiercest kind. A murder or two, a mysterious disappearance, an abduction attempted or successful, are but parts of the common form in which these romances are cast, and in the end everything always comes right; virtue, youth, and beauty inseparable allies in these stories are triumphant, and the villain, as always happens in real life, meets the fate he deserves. Of course it would be absurd to look for perfection, but it might have been hoped that the standard would be a little higher than it is. The publishers would seem, however, to understand their business, and, finding that trash will meet a ready market, content themselves with supplying it.
At the same time it might have been hoped that some effort would be made to rise above the level of mawkish silliness with which they appear to be content. One, in the series entitled 'The Princess's Novelette,' is as fair a specimen of this quality as could be desired. The heroine is the daughter of a London banker who is hustled by a body of working men at a station on the Underground Railway. She is rescued by a gentleman who ‘offers a striking contrast to the gay youth of gilded saloons.' Arrived safely at home, she contrasts her hero with her own brother, ‘by profession a soldier,' whom she at once puts through his facings with the question:-
‘”Augustus, are you fearless and brave?”
‘”Ella, my dear," said Mrs. Laughton, “what an extraordinary question to put to your brother! Soldiers are not all intended to risk their lives. The common privates, sons of labourers and mechanics, are drilled on purpose to fight. Gentlemen officers are to keep them in their proper places."'
Satisfied apparently with this lucid explanation Ella's 'ideas respecting marriage are altered,' and she sets to work to find the hero who saved her from the wicked working man. In the most artless way in the world she gets his name and address at the station and sets a private detective on his track, instructing him to meet her at the house of a nurse formerly in the service of the family. Having thus discovered all about her hero, she intrigues for an invitation to a house where she expects to meet him. There she flirts outrageously with a baronet of great wealth concerning whom the reader learns nothing save that he speaks of a waltz as ‘the mazy.' Having refused the baronet's offer of marriage, she invites herself to the house of an aunt in the country, in the hope that her hero, who rejoices in the remarkable name of Edwy Delyun, may make his appearance there. ‘Tastily but simply dressed,' she walks along the road which Mr. Delyun must traverse on arriving, in hope of seeing him, and on the following day ‘takes a light rod ' and goes out fishing by herself. She succeeds, of course, in hooking first the bough of a tree and next the susceptible heart of the innocent Edwy. Matters are brought to a crisis by a jealous poacher, who imagines that the young lover is endeavouring to secure the affections of a maid-servant of whom he is enamoured, and who naturally, according to the writers of penny fiction, shoots him in the back. The wound is a trifling one, but the fair Ella obtains assistance and completes her triumph.
This agreeable picture of maidenly modesty and the manners of good society is paralleled by ‘The Illustrated Family Novelist,' the number of which now before us relates the loves and sorrows of a young lady who falls in love with a handsome actor whom she accidentally meets in the street, and who moves heaven and earth to win him, the moral for the benefit of the smart shop-girls and milliners' apprentices who may be seen studying the paper in omnibuses and tramcars, being of course the desirability of making acquaintance with handsome and interesting young men in the street. Much the same kind of moral is enforced in all these ‘Novelettes,' which increase in number and apparently in popularity with every succeeding month. For this latter accident their extreme cheapness may possibly account; they are certainly amongst the least costly specimens of popular literature with which the student can make acquaintance. The price is always the same, a penny; and for that sum the reader is provided with a sufficiently sensational story worked out with as much elaboration as he is likely to require, and illustrated with from one to half-a-dozen pictures in woodcut or some of the more recent processes, not greatly inferior to the illustrations which accompany more costly periodicals. In actual amount of letterpress about as much matter is given as is usually found in one of the small one-volume stories prepared by publishers of a different type for the circulating libraries. Thus each number of the ‘Bow Bells' series already mentioned consists of sixteen large quarto pages, printed in double columns with three illustrations. Allowing for what compositors call ‘fat,’ and for the space occupied by the woodcuts the story thus contains about 25,000 words, equal to about 100 pages of the ordinary three-volume novel. The other series contain some a little more matter, and some a little less. Thus, ‘The Ladies' Own Novelette,' which is not quite so utterly futile in substance as some of its competitors, announces on its cover that it gives ‘TWO COMPLETE NOVELS' for its penny, and carries out its promise by issuing 32 pages of a size somewhat smaller than those of ‘Bow Bells,' and containing about 40,000 words or 150 pages of regulation novel size. The quantity and quality are very much alike in all the series, but the shape is sometimes altered, and various inducements are held out to subscribers. The lottery for prizes of more or less value is a favourite one, and prize competitions for successful answers to charades and arithmetical puzzles are hardly less popular. One widely circulated print of this kind advertises its willingness to sell paper dress patterns, with full instructions, at half price to subscribers who like to send a ‘coupon' cut from the cover and certain stamps, while several open their columns to ‘correspondents,' answering in this way questions on every conceivable subject, from the etiquette of courtship to the manufacture of cowslip wine, and from the art of corn-cutting to the authenticity of the Canticles.
There is, from one point of view happily, no lack of effort to stem the current of mingled wickedness and folly which threatens to turn cheap literature into a curse. The twin great Societies are doing admirable work; but the Religious Tract Society is doubtless greatly hampered by its name. There are probably thousands of the class whom it is most desirable to reach who refuse to read the stories of the, 'Leisure Hour,' on the ground that they 'don't care for tracts.' Nor, considering the feebleness and ineptitude of not a few of the earlier publications of the Society, can this feeling be a source of any real surprise. If, however, the same paper appears without the imprimatur of the Society, the class for which it is intended will buy and read it so long as it is conducted on its present lines. The wisdom of this course is proved by the popularity of the Society's two papers for children 'The Boy's Own Paper' and ‘The Girl's Own Paper’ which in the last ten years have proved themselves quite the best things of their kind. It would be pleasant to speak as highly of the series of penny novelettes issued by the Society, apparently in emulation of the exceedingly secular publications with which we have hitherto dealt. Unfortunately these stories, though well printed and got up, are written to a great extent on the lines of an old-fashioned tract, with a somewhat obtrusive moral, and are consequently hardly likely to be bought in large numbers by the class whom it is most sought to reach. Of course kind-hearted people will buy them extensively to give away; but that is a very different thing from such a circulation as the ‘wholly worldly’ press enjoys.
The series of stories issued by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, under the title of the 'Penny Library of Fiction,' is certainly not open to this objection. Some people may, indeed, be inclined to say that they err occasionally in the opposite direction, and differ too little from the sensational stories which their startling covers appear to emulate. The objection is, however, overstrained. The stories are good from the literary point of view; most of them, if not all, are eminently amusing and interesting; the tone is thoroughly healthy and masculine, and though religion is never paraded its influence is felt. Like the impluvium in the hall of a Roman house, it purifies and tempers the surrounding atmosphere in silence and almost unseen. It is even more satisfactory to be able to add that the stories stand on their own merits. Whether they are profitable to the Society as a commercial speculation we have no means of knowing; but judging from the wide circulation which our independent inquiries assure us that they enjoy, it is probable that they are. In any case there is every reason to believe that they really reach the class for which they are designed, and that they have in many cases served to create a taste for reading of a higher character than semi-vicious and wholly frivolous romances. It is useless to complain, as some do, that these publications are deficient in the very quality for which the societies are supposed to exist. The days of the tract are gone by, and the classes amongst which they were once distributed - not perhaps altogether without benefit - have asserted and are asserting themselves more strongly every day. The British working man, in short, will neither buy tracts nor read them. For the first time, perhaps, a good many people saw him in his true colours during the late strikes suspicious, haughty, jealous, irritable, and resenting above all things the very appearance of patronage and condescension. If we wish to improve the literary food which he will accept, we can do so only by offering him better things than have yet been presented at a similar price. No good will be done by an attempt at censorship, whether by Act of Parliament or by Act of County Council. Abortive prosecutions are above all things to be deprecated. If books come within the lines of Lord Campbell's Act, the law should of course be enforced; but ill-advised prosecutions like that of the ‘Decameron' some months ago, and prurient gossip like the Music Hall debates in Lord Rosebery's Parliament, do a thousand times more harm than good.
If we wish, therefore, to get rid of the worse and weaker forms of penny fiction, we must begin in the school-room – not necessarily by yielding to the popular cry for technical education for boys and cookery classes for girls at the public expense but by encouraging the growth of something resembling culture. The Catechism has gone, of course; it is a ‘sectarian' formula, and; as such, hateful to the ‘sectarians' of Secularism and Dissent. The Bible has followed the Catechism, though even so critical an observer and educationist as Matthew Arnold pleaded for it as the only relic of culture left to the working classes. The result is that we are in the position of the man in the Gospels. We have cast out the unclean spirit of ignorance from the working-class mind, and have left it empty, swept and neatly garnished with ‘the three Rs.' Let us beware lest the unclean spirit returns with seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and turn the class we have made our masters into the agents for the overthrow of society.
How the void thus created is to be filled up is the problem of to day. It is impossible, as, we have said, to fall back upon religious teaching in the Board Schools; to do so would raise a storm which no Ministry cares to provoke. While the settlement of this question is pending, however, there are happily some signs of light in the distance a healthy and natural light, and not the artificial glimmer created by philanthropic societies and individual benevolence. Publishers are beginning to awaken to the fact that the spread of education and the increased facilities of communication have created a vast new public to which it is worth while to appeal. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and kindred institutions, the Messrs. Chambers, and to a certain extent Messrs. Cassell in a more recent period, had, as it were, to create their public. To day the audience is gathered; the demand exists, it awaits only supply. The extent of the sale of the trash, upon which we, have spent so much space, proves the existence of a public who may be reached by a little courage and enterprise, and from whom a large profit may be drawn. Many publishers are happily that they are beginning to meet the growing demand. Messrs Cassell have led the way with a ‘National Library,' which it is no hyperbole to say is a marvel of good editing, mechanical excellence, and cheapness. Other publishers are following with cheap ‘libraries' of the masterpieces of English literature, and more modern books, such as Lady Brassey's fascinating journals of travel, and Captain Burnaby's 'Ride to Khiva,' while a great number of really good and wholesome works of fiction have recently appeared at the nominal price of 6d. – really 4 ½ d. or 5d. per copy. The greatest triumph is Perhaps the sixpenny edition of ‘Westward Ho!' Charles Kingsley's healthy and vigorous Elizabethan story. The first impression of this reprint - 100,000 - is, it is gratifying to learn, already sold, and the demand does not appear to be completely supplied even yet. Whether the other numbers of the same series will be equally popular is perhaps open to question. 'Hypatia' and 'Hereward the Wake' demand a considerable amount of knowledge in the reader, while 'Yeast' and ‘Alton Locke' deal with social problems which have materially changed their aspect in the thirty years that have passed since the books were first published. The experiment is, however, a spirited and courageous one, and will command the good wishes of all who desire to see sound literature made popular. It only remains for some publisher of courage, enterprise, and wit, to follow where the Christian Knowledge Society has led, by giving similarly good literature to the new generation, in the time-honoured penny number form, to make the romances of the highway and the prison things of the past.