12 SEPTEMBER 1963, Page 17


All For A Penny

BY GE01 FREY TILLOTSON LITERATURE, read or listened to, has always stood high among 'the entertainments. It is an obvious means of obtaining a blessed release,

an escape from what in the nineteenth century was often called a duty, and which in 'those bad • days' could often have been called slavery. Some people deserve to achieve escape more fully than others because of what they are escaping from. And few people could •have earned it more thoroughly than the English town- workers of the period which has now been studied by Dr. James*-1830-50—when the working day often ran to fourteen hours.. By 8 p.m. some of the workers were left without the power to escape. Dr. James quotes a novel of the 1830s in which a country boy, on his first visit to London, sees a slum 'full of the most looking, gloomy beings I ever saw, many of whom were silent, and apparently lost in thought, their eyes fixed on the ground, their foreheads knit, and their eyebrows scowling.' And the rest were only not idle because they were mad: 'others were talking fast and loud, and„seemingly, by the little my ear could catch, enumerating.' But there must have been a great body of people who were awake enough during their brief leisure to demand something worth reading. Dr. James calls them 'a large potential working-class reading public.'

We have gained some idea of what they were given from Summers, Mr. E. S. Turner, Mr. Altick and Miss Dalziel, but our idea is very much closer

and fuller now that Dr. James has come along. He shows us how varied were the sorts of story

available to the masses in penny numbers. There were the scores of imitations of Dickens's novels, and many sequels to them. There was what one Purveyor of it called 'blood-and-murder, ghost-

and-goblin' fiction. There was the Pamela kind, in which chastity is in protracted conflict with a

would-be seducer. There was the novel of fashion- able life. There was the moral tract kind, such as Wilkie Collins's Miss Clack disseminated. And there Was also fiction translated from the French or pirated from America. All told, we can only be glad they were given something so lively.

This vast sub-literature--or rather twenty years' worth of it—Dr. James examines. We can

get a fair idea of his varied exhibits merely from their expressive titles, In his bibliography, under the letters A and B, come such things as Adeline : or, the Grave of the Forsaken (1842), Angela the Orphan (1840); Bianca and the Magician (1841), and The Blue Dwarf (which collies as late as 1870) Bianca and the Magician is a variant of the Faust legend, and has this for climax : . . . shapes of portentious and horrible ap- pearance flew around, to the extreme terror of the ecclesiastic, who, hissing terrificly and vomitting flame, sprang forward as if to seize the helpless man . . . The infernal hubbub in- * FICTION FOR THE WORKING MAN 1830-50. By Louis James. (O.U.P., 35s.) creased, the planets seemed starting from their

spheres; until one tremendous thunderbolt struck the ruined mansion, which, unseated from its foundations by the shock, toppled headlong

to the ground, burying its inmates in the ruins. -Legitimately these tales claimed to be 'of the most Absorbing hiterest, and whiCh absolutely rivet the attention of the reader with a species of galvanic force. [They] are replete with Mystery, Horror, Love & Seduction.' A fair example of one sort of plot (which like many of them did duty' for a play, or plays, as well as for a novel) is that of the Miser of Shoreditch (1854): Jasper Scrupe, a miser, murders his brother- in-law William Wilmot for his money. Evelyn and Oliver, good and bad nephews of Jasper respectively, both love Constance, but Evelyn is loved by the gipsy Mabel. Oliver tries to rob and murder Jasper, but the uncle is rescued from the blazing house by one Samson Brayling who gets Jasper to confess he has murdered Wilmot. He also exposes Oliver for setting fire to Jasper's house: Oliver tires at Evelyn, but kills poor Mabel, who reveals herself his brother. He expires in a fit of remorse and Evelyn marries Constance.

Few readers of Dr: James's book will care to read far in these penny serials. tut one wonders if they could not be served up in modern type and with modern illustrations for those millions who nowadays devour their successors on page and. screen. Certainly they had their own pre- decessors in an earlier age—Dr. James detects narrative elements surviving in them from Spenser's Faerie Queene, and from the novels of . Richardson, Goldsmith, Horace Walpole and Mrs; Radcliffe. There are some few of them, however, which evidently are quite respectable as minor literature. Dr. James has a specially good word for • some half-dozen, including Thomas Miller's Gideon Giles, J. M. Rymer's Ada, The Betrayed (which Rossetti admired in his schooldays), and B. D. Cousin's Eliza Grim- wood : a Domestic Legend of the Waterloo Road, which shows a talent for description. Dr. James claims that 'The burning down of the old brothel [is] itself a notable piece of narrative, far removed from the descriptions that generally appear in newspapers and romances. The old keeper of the house drowses off, and the corner of Bell's Weekly Dispatch, which she has been reading, catches flame from the candle.' Where- upon conies this description of the flame: In an amazingly short time 'Robert Bell' was burnt, and also the black paragrapD on the outside, yet the flame was a small, very small blue one, with a yellow edge. not altogether more than half an inch high.

But even when not as good as this, they remind us that all stories are at bottom the same, because founded on the 'primary human emotions.' This was Matthew Arnold's term when, just after the closing of Dr. James's decades, he made his plea that narrative poets should choose themes exhibiting these natural emotions. It was a plea that had been made at intervals since story- telling began, and, when Arnold repeated it, was being met by the great novelists. It was also being met by the penny serialists, and it is a two- way compliment to say that some of Dickens's roots exist sturdily among their works. Dr. James is able to show how much in Oliver Twist' in particular can, by the coarsest' kind of reckoning, be paralleled in the penny serials. What Dickens had that the serialists lacked was, put at its briefest, a literary genius that we can match only in Shakespeare. Moreover, throughout Dr. James's book we are conscious of the near presence of good and great nineteenth-century writers other than Dickens—of Scott, and even of Shelley, Byron and Southey, of Thackeray and Mrs. Gaskell.

One thing that Dickens had in common with the penny serialists was a love of the theatre. The penny serials are a huge tribute to the art of the theatre, and in particular to the art of the actor. We can scarcely appreciate high acting nowadays because we like acting that • is naturalistic. But there is a special pleasure, which at its most refined we get in France, and perhaps from opera singers anywhere—the pleasure of witnessing the acting that shows itself to be acting. We can surely imagine the pleasure of hearing the following screeched out by the miser of Shoreditch discovered as he is hiding his gold: Ah! I am betrayed!—discovered—wretch!

. . . villain! prying sycophant! Thou shalt not have my gold! My arm is yet, strong enough

to resist thee. Miscreant! Robber!

And in the passage quoted above from Bianca and the Magician there is a distinct echo of Shakespeare. Certainly we are not fully ready to appreciate all there is in Dickens till we appreciate the aesthetic power of the raised voice—and the raised arm. In every one of the many black exuberant woodcuts that Dr. James reproduces from these serials, one or more of the persons represented have their arms up, and we recall Agnes Wickfield and the second Mrs. Dombey. Dr. James is to be welcomed like a mid- nineteenth-century explorer arriving back scorched and beaming from Central Africa. He has mapped a huge jungle. What part of it his predecessors have found they have partly mis- represented. He is able, for instance, to correct a generalisation that has hitherto had some status—the view held by Summers, that all these novels are to be called 'Gothic,' when, in fact, 'the genres of the domestic romance, the fashion novel, and stories of criminal life are more common.'

Dr. James gives us good measure. Even before he settles down to describe the fiction itself, he provides an account, which must be the best to date, of a complicated • matter, the growth of literacy in the lower orders during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He also provides appendices on working-class poets and London publishers of penny-issue fiction and gives us a check list of penny-issue novels not listed by Montague Summers and of French works (in translation) and American works—all this as well as his great bibliography of primary sources. His researches have been arduous. And not with- out their own Gothic thrills, for the books them- selves had to be found before he could write about them—he found one 'magnificent collection . . . piled, dusty and damp, around the walls' of a collector of waste paper in the East End.

One small point. Would not a better title have

been Fiction for the Masses .? Surely women of all social orders love stories even more than men.