For a tiny price, penny dreadfuls offered Victorian readers escape into a world of ghoulish murder and gruesome violence. How scandalous were they really? Hephzibah Anderson takes a look.

In a television schedule pulsating with supernatural mystery and melodrama, Penny Dreadful, the transatlantic production now entering its third season, has managed to carve out a niche as a smart, exuberantly ghoulish guilty pleasure. Unfurling against a pitchy Victorian backdrop, its blood-spattered plot has so far taken in vampires, werewolves, she-demons, Egyptology, prostitutes, an explorer, body snatchers and a sharpshooter from the American Wild West.

Classic literary allusions abound, with roles for Frankenstein, Dracula and Dorian Gray, but the show’s title derives from an altogether more ephemeral branch of literature: the cheap and sensational serials that were variously dubbed penny awfuls, penny horribles and penny bloods. Penny dreadful is the term that’s stuck, describing a 19th-Century British publishing phenomenon whose very disposability (the booklets’ bargain cover price meant they were printed on exceptionally flimsy paper) has made surviving examples a rarity, despite their immense popularity at the time. What endures is a louche frisson that the show exploits to atmospheric effect, but as for those forgotten original penny dreadfuls – were they really all that scandalous?

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They packed in kidnappings, poisonings, larceny, bigamy, revolution and all manner of gruesome revelations

The simple answer is yes. To read contemporaneous descriptions of the genre, these far-fetched tales of intrigue and adventure were the video nasties or shoot ’em up games of their age, and were held responsible for real-life acts of criminality and bloodshed. Take a closer look at the debate, however, and the reasons why they were deemed so shocking seem to have as much to do with context as content.

The penny dreadful emerged in the 1830s, catering to an increasingly literate working class population and made possible by technological advances in printing and distribution. Its heyday came in the 1860s and 1870s, when these booklets papered the nation’s newsstands. At a penny apiece, they cost as little as a twelfth of the price of an instalment of a Charles Dickens novel, and historians estimate that there were as many as 100 publishers in the business, paying authors by the line to crank out tales with titles such as Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood and The Black Band; or, The Mysteries of Midnight. Some writers juggled multiple works simultaneously, each one unfolding over the course of months or years and packing in a telenovela’s worth of kidnappings, poisonings, larceny, bigamy, revolution and all manner of gruesome revelations.

Grim tales

Creatively, the roots of the penny dreadful reached back to the gothic novel and beyond, to Jacobean tragedies, macabre folklore and ballads. Authors also turned to the news for material and pillaged popular works of existing fiction (does Oliver Twiss sound familiar?). Some, such as the long-running series The Mysteries of London by GWM Reynolds, which wound its way to its finale in almost 4.5 million words, drew on the lives of their readers, juxtaposing the dangers and privations of the slums with the dissolute shenanigans of the rich. These stories were essentially escapist in nature – narratives of rebellious wrongdoing for the powerless masses. No wonder highwaymen proved such popular characters, especially Dick Turpin, whose exploits ran to 254 episodes in Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road. (Turpin wasn’t executed until page 2,207.)

According to George A Sala, a successful journalist and sometime protégé of Dickens, the penny dreadfuls offered access to “a world of dormant peerages, of murderous baronets, and ladies of title addicted to the study of toxicology, of gipsies and brigand-chiefs, men with masks and women with daggers, of stolen children, withered hags, heartless gamesters, nefarious roués, foreign princesses, Jesuit fathers, gravediggers, resurrection-men, lunatics and ghosts”. He should know – he started out as a writer of such fictions himself.

The genre played fast and loose with conventions of plausibility, character development and even continuity

Unsurprisingly, the genre played fast and loose with conventions of plausibility, character development and even continuity. In Gentleman Jack, a footpad caper by the prolific James Malcolm Rymer, which ran for four years and described itself as “a romance of interest, abounding in hair-breadth escapes of the most exciting character”, one character was actually killed twice. Penny dreadfuls did, however, adhere to pretty strict technical specifications, each instalment totalling eight, sometimes 16, pages of cheap paper, with a lurid illustration filling half of the front page. And lest titles such as The Calendar of Horrors and The Maniac Father; or, the Victim of Seduction weren’t already salacious enough, these illustrations provided vivid images of vampires, ghouls and the aftermath of violent goings-on. They may have been in black and white but blood was blood.

Moral panic

The most popular works could shift 30,000 copies a week, but they weren’t popular in all quarters, especially when they started to target younger readers. While initially read by men and women of all ages, penny dreadfuls later began to be aimed specifically at children. This made commercial sense – already in the 1820s nearly half of the UK’s population was under 20 – but it also fanned the flames of moral panic. Commentator Francis Hitchman wasn’t alone when he declared that penny dreadfuls were “the literature of rascaldom”, responsible for peopling Britain’s prisons and penal colonies.

The great unwashed had been taught how to read, the argument went, but not what to read

By the 1870s, the police had begun raiding the offices of publishers of penny dreadfuls like The Wild Boys of London, which newsagents and booksellers were soon prosecuted for stocking under the Obscene Publications Act. The press, lawyers and clergymen strove to link such literature with juvenile crime and degeneracy, blaming it for violence, robberies and suicides. According to the moralists, young errand boys, sailors and textile workers all were susceptible to stories that left them dissatisfied with their own small lives, making them yearn for wealth and adventure beyond their station and glamorising the criminal life. As journalist James Greenwood put it in 1874, they were nothing less than “penny packets of poison”. The great unwashed had been taught how to read, the argument went, but not what to read.

Eventually, the debate evolved to question the extent to which literature can shape character. When 13-year-old Robert Coombes, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s new book, The Wicked Boy, was arrested for murdering his mother in London in 1895, the prosecution naturally sought to scapegoat penny dreadfuls. But this time most of the media agreed that they played little part in his matricidal actions. As the Pall Mall Gazette noted: “The truth is that in respect to the effect of reading in boys of the poorer class the world has got into one of those queer illogical stupidities that so easily beset it. In every other age and class man is held responsible for his reading, and not reading responsible for man. The books a man or woman reads are less the making of character than the expression of it”.

With a few exceptions, they have faded away like graffiti on a bathroom wall

Perhaps it wasn’t what was being read so much as who was reading it that lay at the root of society’s unease. Penny dreadfuls may not have explicitly promoted bloodthirsty deeds but their tattered pages did showcase a certain giddy disregard for authority. How else to explain the campaign against The Wild Boys? Yes, it contained violence, a smattering of nudity and some flagellation. And yes, its boy heroes were petty criminals. But those same boys also helped others dodge child-stealers and rescued drowning women – they were not without a moral code, it just wasn’t the same as Victorian society’s.                                                                                                        

Penny dreadfuls were never intended to have much of a shelf life and with few exceptions (The String of Pearls, which introduced the character of Sweeney Todd, is one), they have faded away like graffiti on a bathroom wall. But that’s not to say they haven’t left their mark on the broader culture, literary and otherwise. They informed the pace of true-crime narratives and pulp fiction’s cartoon-like zeal. In their blatant derivativeness, they foreshadowed fan fiction. And couldn’t they also be seen as the first YA books? In their sensationalised goriness, you could even say they prefigured teen horror movies. Looked back on from the 21st Century, their scandalousness can seem quaint, but the idea that literature could be deemed so incendiary – now that still thrills.

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