Monday 6 September 2010

The Mysteries of London

[Regular readers of this blog must forgive me, but I'm going back through the archives to highlight one of the gems of ... the full text of The Mysteries of London.]

The Mysteries of London is one of the famous 'penny bloods' (cheap sensational serials, published weekly, mass produced for working class readers, throughout the Victoria era). Best-sellers of their day — massively more so than now-famous Victorian novels, whose serial and novel formats were far too expensive for the working classes —  Victorian moralists raged against these disreputable books, in much the same way that comics and video games have been condemned by latter-day guardians of law and order. Here's James Greenwood, for instance, querying the wisdom of allowing their sale in The Seven Curses of London (1869):

"What are the assured grounds of safety? Is it because it stands to reason that all such coarse and vulgar trash finds its level amongst the coarse and vulgar, and could gain no footing above its own elevation? It may so stand in reason, but unfortunately it is the unreasonable fact that this same pen poison finds customers at heights above its natural low and foul water­line almost inconceivable. How otherwise is it accountable that at least a quarter of a million of these penny numbers are sold weekly? How is it that in quiet suburban neighbourhoods, far removed from the stews of London, and the pernicious atmosphere they engender; in serene and peaceful semi-country towns where genteel boarding schools flourish, there may almost invariably be found some small shopkeeper who accommodatingly receives consignments of “Blue-skin,” and the “Mysteries of London,” and unobtrusively supplies his well-dressed little customer with these full-flavoured articles? Granted, my dear sir, that your young Jack, or my twelve years old Robert, have minds too pure either to seek out or crave after literature of the sort in question, but not un-frequently it is found without seeking. It is a contagious disease, just as cholera and typhus and the plague are contagious, and, as everybody is aware, it needs not personal contact with a body stricken to convey either of these frightful maladies to the hale and hearty. A tainted scrap of rag has been known to spread plague and death through an entire village, just as a stray leaf of “Panther Bill,” or “Tyburn Tree” may sow the seeds of immorality amongst as many boys as a town can produce."
Here's one of the most dramatic bits of Mysteries, not for the squeamish:

"I tell you what," said the woman, whispering in a mysterious tone to her husband, "I have thought of an excellent plan to make Fanny useful."
    "Well, Polly, and what's that?" demanded the man.
    "Why," resumed his wife, her countenance wearing an expression of demoniac cruelty and cunning "I've been thinking that Harry will soon be of use to you in your line. He'll be so handy to shove through a window, or to sneak down a area and hide himself all day in a cellar to open the door at night, - or a thousand things."
    "In course he will," said Bill, with an approving nod.
    "Well, but then there's Fanny. What good can she do for us for years and years to come.  She won't beg - I know she won't. It's all that boy's lies when he says she does: he is very fond of her and only tells us that to screen her. Now I've a very great mind to do someot that will make her beg - aye, and be glad to beg - and beg too in spite of herself."
    "What the hell do you mean?"
    "Why, doing that to her which will put her entirely at our mercy, and at the same time render her an object of such interest that the people must give her money. I'd wager that with my plan she'd get her five bob a day; and what a blessin' that would be."
    "But how?" said Bill impatiently.
    "And then," continued the woman, without heeding this question, "she wouldn't want Henry with her; and you might begin to make him useful some how or another. All we should have to do would be to take Fanny every day to some good thoroughfare, put her down there of a mornin,' and go and fetch her agen at night; and I'll warrant she'd keep us in beer - aye, and in brandy too."
    "What the devil are you driving at?" demanded the man.
    "Can't you guess?"
    "No - blow me if I can."
    "Do you fancy the scheme?"
    "Am I a fool? Why, of course I do: but how the deuce is all this to be done? You never could learn Fanny to be so fly as that?"
    "I don't want to learn her anything at all. What I propose is to force it on her."
    "And how is that?" asked the man.
    "By putting her eyes out," returned the woman.
    Her husband was a robber - yes, and a murderer: but he started when this proposal met his ear.
    "There's nothin' like a blind child to excite compassion," added the woman coolly. "I know it for a fact," she continued, after a pause, seeing that her husband did not answer her. "There's old Kate Betts, who got all her money by travelling about the country with two blind girls; and she made 'em blind herself too - she's often told me how she did it; and that has put the idea into my head."
    "And how did she do it?" asked the man, lighting his pipe, but not glancing towards his wife; for although her words had made a deep impression upon him, he was yet struggling with the remnant of a parental feeling, which remained in his heart in spite of himself.
    "She covered the eyes over with cockle shells, the eye-lids, recollect, being wide open; and in each shell there was a large black beetle. A bandage tied tight round the head, kept the shells in their place; and the shells kept the eyelids open. In a few days the eyes got quite blind, and the pupils had a dull white  appearance."
    "And you're serious, are you?" demanded the man.
    "Quite," returned the woman, boldly: "why not?"
    "Why not indeed?" echoed Bill, who approved of the horrible scheme, but shuddered at the cruelty of it, villain as he was.
    "Ah! why not?" pursued the female: "one must make one's children useful somehow or another.
Are you, dear reader, amongst the 'coarse and vulgar'? If so, I hope you'll enjoy an insight into a fascinating aspect of Victorian literary life. You can start reading the Mysteries of London here. 

For more scholarly background, a great introduction by the marvellous Dick Collins can be found here.

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