Nicole C. Dittmer and Sophie Raine (eds), Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic: Investigations of Pernicious Tales of Terror

Nicole C. Dittmer and Sophie Raine (eds), Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic: Investigations of Pernicious Tales of Terror, Gothic Literary Studies Series (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2023), 248 pp. £75 Hb. ISBN 9781786839701

In the introduction to Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic: Investigations of Pernicious Tales of Terror, Nicole Dittmer and Sophie Raine make a clear case for the volume in stating that the penny dreadful’s ‘immersion’ in Gothic scholarship is ‘inconsistent and not yet extensively analysed’ (5). Indeed, even broader studies of penny fiction have appeared only sporadically, with the penny dreadful typically side-lined as cheap and ephemeral popular literature of the nineteenth century, ‘infused with violence and sensationalism’ (2). A recent wave of publications – Anna Gasperini’s Nineteenth-Century Popular Fiction, Medicine and Anatomy: The Victorian Penny Blood and the 1832 Anatomy Act (2019), Rob Breton’s The Penny Politics of Victorian Popular Fiction (2021), and the ‘Reappraising Penny Fiction’ edition of Victorian Popular Fictions (Vol. 4, Autumn 2022), edited by Stephen Basdeo and Rebecca Nesvet – perhaps signals a more sustained resurgence of this area of scholarship. Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic is thus an indicator of, and has the potential to further stimulate, a more consistent scholarly focus on the body of literature encompassed by the ‘penny dreadful’, ‘penny blood’, ‘penny fiction’ designators. The volume is a welcome and necessary addition to Gothic scholarship, as while the penny dreadful’s Gothic elements have long been acknowledged, its rightful place within Gothic studies has been taken for granted and deserves greater scholarly attention. Further, as Dittmer and Raine rightly state, ‘neglecting these texts from Gothic literary criticism creates a vacuum of working-class Gothic texts which have, in many cases, literary and socio-political significance’ (3). This point of reclamation is really the overarching contribution of the chapters presented in the volume, which as a whole provides a specific and direct examination of the penny dreadful’s engagement with Gothic narrative, convention, and trope and even approaches the penny dreadful as an evolution of the Gothic genre. Furthermore, Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic pushes against the Gothic canon, not to mention the wider literary canon, by making the case for the significance of literary formats beyond the novel, thereby resisting the Gothic genre’s perceived decline in the 1820s, and most importantly, highlighting the value of working-class fiction.

Following Dittmer and Raine’s introduction, which provides an overview of the largely parallel antecedents and contemporary and critical reception of the penny dreadful and the Gothic, there are three thematic sections. The first focuses on the adaptations and legacies of the penny dreadful with Hannah-Freya Blake and Marie Léger-St-Jean applying findings from Léger-St-Jean’s Price One Penny database, which impressively holds over a thousand penny titles. Their examination of the first wave Gothic texts that came to be reprinted as penny fiction not only demonstrates that ‘the Gothic never died’, but most significantly, finds that the Gothic canon requires some reassessment (28). Blake and Léger-St-Jean point out, for example, that the works of Elizabeth Helme and Regina Maria Roche were reprinted more than those of Ann Radcliffe in the second half of the nineteenth century, with penny fiction playing a ‘pivotal role’ in maintaining their popularity (33). Next, Brontë Schiltz goes on to explore the way in which successive adaptions of James Malcolm Rymer’s The String of Pearls (1846-47), better known as Sweeney Todd, emphasise the ‘Marxist horror’ of the serial (49). While highlighting the significant social dynamics of the penny dreadful, Schiltz’s assessment that Mrs Lovett becomes more villainous than Todd in the serial’s adaptations, as a figure ‘too quick to betray her own class in pursuit of entry into another’, facilitates a compelling discussion around the role of women in the serial (57-58). Hannah Priest ends the section with an examination of George W. M. Reynold’s lesser-known serials, Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf (1846-47) and Faust: A Romance (1845-46), comparatively drawing out their ‘subtle intertextualities’ (75). Priest suggests that these serials were intended to be read alongside Reynold’s The Mysteries of London (1844-48) and demonstrates that doing so can facilitate valuable re-evaluations of the ‘use and misuse’ of lower-class bodies under industrial capitalism within his fiction (80-81).

The ensuing section surveys the penny dreadful’s engagement with other forms of discourse, particularly focusing on Victorian medical science. Manon Burz-Labrande opens the section by focusing on a Gothic discourse of public health and contamination that facilitated the parallel marginalisation of the penny dreadful and the lower classes in the 1840s and 1850s. Burz-Labrande draws on Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘biopower’ in order to demonstrate the way in which a historical context of disease outbreaks informed the rise of modern epidemiology, public health, and urban planning measures, elements that came together to form a class-based ‘cordon sanitaire’ in London’s geography (94-96). Fittingly succeeding this chapter, Joseph Crawford charts popular attitudes towards medical practitioners across the 1830s and 1840s, building on the work of Gasperini by examining Rymer’s serials in relation to an interweaving context of anxieties relating to the 1832 Anatomy Act, the 1834 New Poor Law, and the early 1830s cholera epidemic. Crawford makes pertinent contrasts with the more sympathetic portrayals of medical practitioners in middle-class fiction such as Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook (1839), but most significantly suggests that penny dreadfuls were not just strictly anti-medical. A notable example is Crawford’s suggestion that The String of Pearls is ‘in dialogue’ with the public health measures that followed the cholera epidemic of 1831-32 (127). Dittmer further substantiates the section by highlighting the ‘intricate conversations’ that penny fiction created between a range of medical and behavioural discourses (137-138). Exploring the ‘concerns of gynophobia’ in Wizard’s The Wild Witch of the Heath (1841), Dittmer examines the transgressive figuration of the witch through an ecoGothic and contemporaneous biological lens to highlight the reinforcement of female archetypes in Victorian society (138).

The final section rounds the volume off through an exploration of mode, genre, and style in the penny dreadful with a specific focus on storytelling and ideology. Celine Frohn first parallels penny serials such as James Lindridge’s Jack Rann (1840)and Thomas Peckett Prest’s Valentine Vaux (1839-40) with the picaresque tradition of the eighteenth century. Frohn notes that the ‘range of politics available to working-class readers’ lies within the humour of the penny dreadful, counterbalancing the scholarly emphasis on the violence and gore of penny fiction by suggesting that the Gothic potential of these serials is often ‘nullified’ by their humour (162; 170). Rebecca Nesvet next examines the ‘Gothic Ideology’ of Rymer’s corpus, drawing on a wealth of biographical information, including his lesser-known late career under Reynolds (180). Nesvet suggests that while Rymer first recycled the anti-Catholic conventions of the first wave Gothic, his later works repurpose the Gothic to meet a more radical and Chartist message of toleration but ‘within an inherently anti-clerical ideological framework’ (195). Finally, Sophie Raine closes the volume with a discussion of the ‘extra-textual’ and metafictional elements of Reynold’s Newgate: A Romance (1846-47), which as Raine points out, illustrate the author’s concern with the preservation of working-class narratives (203). Raine finds that Reynold’s deployment of the ‘found manuscript’ device, a central mechanism of the Gothic, destabilises the line between fact and fiction and serves as an authorial warning that commands the reader to be mindful of what they consume.

While Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic greatly exemplifies the fruitful and double-edged reassessments that come from a sustained examination of the penny dreadful and the Gothic, the volume’s original contribution could in fact have been more emphasised. For example, a more extensive focus on the evolution of the Gothic post-1820 would, perhaps, have further elucidated the migration of the Gothic aesthetic from the novel to the penny dreadful across the nineteenth century. As noted by Louis James, the penny dreadful was highly influenced by the periodical fiction and serials of the 1820s and 1830s, such as the ‘Tales of Terror’ published by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Considering the volume’s title includes the phrase ‘Pernicious Tales of Terror’, and its emphasis on the penny dreadful’s adaptations and reprinting of middle-class fiction, it is surprising that such antecedents are not mentioned. Moreover, it is worth noting that the designator ‘penny dreadful’ is applied in the volume as an overarching term for the penny literature produced between the 1830s and 1860s, and the reasons for doing so are clearly set out in the introduction. Yet, the term is used unevenly throughout the volume, with some contributors upholding the distinction between the ‘penny blood’ (as serials of the period 1830-1870) and the ‘penny dreadful’ (as those produced between 1860-1900 for a mainly juvenile audience), which makes the volume at times feel disjointed. A similar point can be made in terms of the Gothic timelines cited across the volume, as the introduction suggests the Gothic novel declined in the 1820s, while Blake and Léger-St-Jean cite the same decline but mark the end of the first wave Gothic with Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer in 1821. As Maturin’s novel was published in 1820, which is the date typically cited in Gothic bibliographies, I believe 1821 refers to the timeline established by the data collected from the database (1764-1821), but some greater explanation for the significance of this specific date was necessary to maintain the volume’s coherency.

These minor points do not diminish the achievements of the volume, which makes a significant contribution to both studies of penny fiction and the Gothic and is demonstrative of the success of the University of Wales’s pioneering Gothic Literary Studies Series. Penny Dreadfuls and the Gothic does much to expand the purview of current scholarship around the penny dreadful with contributors not only re-examining the wider works of Reynolds, Prest, and Rymer, but also serials and writers that have previously received little or no scholarly attention, a point effectively highlighted by the chronological list of referenced titles at the end of the volume. As rightly noted by Schiltz, ‘it is impossible to write the history of the penny dreadful without reference to class and economics’, however, the volume approaches the penny dreadful through a range of different methodologies, concepts, and themes and includes some pertinent discussions around gender as well as social class (48). Contributors point to the wider significance and even international impact of British penny fiction and formulate new avenues of inquiry that can contribute toward the recovery of overlooked Gothic writers, particularly the women writers of the Minerva Press, thus bringing studies of the penny dreadful to bear on other areas of Gothic scholarship that are similarly in the midst of a revival.

Bethany Brigham, Northumbria University