Sleaze: exclusive woodcut

The Mysteries of London
March 28, 1997

G.W.M. Reynolds's Mysteries of London and its successor, The Mysteries of the Court of London, appeared in weekly penny numbers (eight double-columned pages plus an eye-catching woodcut, either sensationally violent or sensationally voluptuous), between 1844 and 1856, and were hugely popular. The son of a naval officer, Reynolds left Sandhurst in 1830 to become a journalist in Paris where he espoused revolutionary ideals. Back in England after some years, he made money by plagiarising Dickens and running a successful family magazine, Reynolds's Miscellany, when the great success of Eugene Sue's roman feuilleton, Les Mysteres de Paris, inspired him to write a similar work set in London. His combination of scenes of low-life and high-life depravity with traditional "gothic" horrors translated from exotic settings to everyday London, all to the accompaniment of a fierce running commentary about social injustice and the hypocrisy and corruption of the rich and powerful, clearly had lasting mass appeal. The reader willing to follow "the mazes of the narrative" is promised visits to "many strange places - many hideous haunts of crime, abodes of poverty, dens of horror, and lurking-holes of perfidy - as well as many seats of wealthy voluptuousness and aristocratic dissipation" and Reynolds amply fulfils this promise. The central narrative thread of The Mysteries of London concerns two brothers: one goes to the bad, becoming a crooked financier, a libertine, and a venal MP, while the other, unswervingly virtuous, eventually marries the heiress of an Italian duchy, having overthrown its despotic usurping ruler. The good brother is relentlessly pursued throughout the story by his dark "other", the fearsome "Resurrection Man", whose body-snatching activities are described in gruesome detail and who eventually dies a horrific death. Throughout, Reynolds loses no opportunity to hammer home his radical message: "Shivering, starving, in their miserable hovels, the industrious many, by the sweat of whose brow the indolent few were supplied with their silks, and their satins ... wept bitter tears over their suffering and famished children."

Trefor Thomas has done a great service to Victorian studies by producing this handsome edition. Reynolds's epic of Victorian slums and sleaze is accessible to most present-day readers only in specialist libraries. Here, however, we have "substantial extracts" from 69 of the 259 chapters of The Mysteries of London, together with all the relevant woodcuts. The informative introduction fascinatingly "decodes" Reynolds's narrative in the light of modern critical theory and the deftly written link passages between the extracts enable us to follow the story through all its multitudinous "mazes".

Michael Slater is professor of Victorian literature, Birkbeck College, University of London.

The Mysteries of London

Author - G. W. M. Reynolds
Editor - Trefor Thomas
ISBN - 1 85331 111 1
Publisher - Keele University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 337

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