As the nights are beginning to draw in and Halloween approaches, how about something to make the flesh creep and send a shiver down the spine? Charles Dickens was a master of the macabre, whether it’s in his Christmas ghost stories such as A Christmas Carol, in the chilling Gothic emptiness of Satis House in Great Expectations or the dirty squalor of London in Oliver Twist. But there was another novelist who most people have never heard of, whose books also offered the Victorian reading public a good helping of horror. At the height of his career, he sold more copies of his work than Dickens, who is widely thought to have been the bestselling novelist of the age. This other writer’s name was George W. M. Reynolds, and he has recently been called ‘the other Dickens’. 2014 marks the bicentenary of his birth.
His full name was George William MacArthur Reynolds, and he was born in Sandwich in Kent in July 1814. In many ways, Reynolds was a more ‘modern’ man than Dickens, in that he seems to belong less to his time and more to our own. A firm atheist at a time when most people in Britain still counted themselves as Christian, and, like Dickens, a strident critic of the British government and champion of the poor, a lover of all things Jewish and a fan of Muslim culture (at a time when many of his peers were banging the drum for colonialism and even racial prejudice), he adopted a multicultural attitude to life and culture long before the term had been invented. (It’s first recorded in 1935, in case you were wondering.) In 1848, he supported the revolutions in Europe, especially Paris, and championed the poor in their struggle for better pay and political representation. He also supported the Chartists in Britain. In other respects, he was more recognisably ‘Victorian’: in 1840 he became an outspoken campaigner for Temperance (having turned up to a Temperance meeting drunk on wine, argued with the leader, and been persuaded to become teetotal). Indeed, arguing was something Reynolds appears to have done a great deal of, and it was said that one of his publishers, Dicks, was the one person he never fell out with.
Reynolds’ fiction was so popular that, during the 1840s when Dickens’s career was already making him one of the first modern celebrities, Reynolds even outsold the author of David Copperfield. Indeed, Reynolds had started out as a shameless copyist of Dickens’s work: one of Reynolds’ early books was Pickwick Abroad, which transported Dickens’s hugely successful characters to France (copyright laws weren’t as established as they now are, so Reynolds appears to have got away with it). Like Dickens, Reynolds also set up his own publication, Reynolds’ Weekly Newspaper, which first appeared in 1850. It would continue publication in some form or other until 1969, and has the distinction of being the longest-running English working-class radical newspaper. Upon his death in 1879, the trade magazine The Bookseller described Reynolds as ‘the most popular writer of our times’. Yet this modern man and hugely successful novelist has not had the posthumous reputation or readership that Dickens has enjoyed. Why?
Reynolds’ most popular work was a long-running serialised novel, The Mysteries of London (1844-48). For the idea for this serial, Reynolds borrowed heavily from Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (in the 1830s he had lived for several years in France). At its height, Reynolds’ book sold 40,000 copies a week in penny instalments. In total, it sold a million copies before it was published in bound volumes.
But something happened to Reynolds’ reputation after his death, and for reasons that are almost as mysterious as the ‘Mysteries’ in his own novels, his posthumous readership didn’t just decline, but more or less disappeared altogether.
Undoubtedly this can partly be put down to the subject matter and the style of Reynolds’ work. Like Dickens, he produced writing at a feverishly rapid rate, but he was very much a writer of his time, reflecting and drawing on what were often ephemeral attitudes and contemporary cases. He was a capable writer, but his style can strike modern readers as too overblown, too sensational, without the subtlety that we encounter in his contemporaries, even in Dickens (who was no stranger to sensation himself). Reynolds’ work slots firmly into the ‘penny dreadful’ tradition, produced to satisfy the public’s appetite for exciting stories and horrific, suspense-filled narratives published in serial form. Another of his books, Wagner the Wehr-wolf (1847), which has recently been reprinted by Wordsworth Editions, is one of the first treatments of the werewolf in English fiction. It’s one of Reynolds’ more readable efforts for modern audiences, and is worth reading as it still carries the power to appal and entertain.
Perhaps modern readers also find Reynolds’ social commentary in his novels too intrusive: he was known to ‘go off on one’ when highlighting the plight of the poor in his fiction, with the story becoming lost in the midst of his impassioned diatribes. Whilst original readers were prepared to countenance such passages – indeed, positively encouraged them – they can come across as too preachy and demagogic for modern tastes.
But Reynolds, and his work, perhaps deserves to be more widely known. His influence on the popular imagination of the 1840s and 1850s cannot be swept aside, and he is an important figure in the history of the heyday of serial fiction in the mid-nineteenth century. Upon his death in 1879, the Saturday Review had this to say of him: ‘how colossal his invention, how sublime his effrontery, his purpose how relentless and how dark.’ Just the sort of writer to dust off and discover in the cold autumnal months.