Radical Ideas in the Penny Serials of Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

Scholars will have heard of a Pierce Egan (1772-1849), the Regency author who wrote famous works such as Life in London (1821). His son, Pierce James Egan (1814-1880), however, deserves more recognition than he currently enjoys due to the fact that he was one of the best-selling authors of the Victorian era, a point raised in MacMillan’s Magazine in 1866:

There is a mighty potentate in England whose name is Pierce Egan […] Many among us fancy that they have a good general idea of what is English literature. They think of Tennyson and Dickens as the most popular of our living authors. It is a fond delusion, from which they should be aroused. The works of Mr. Pierce Egan are sold by the half million. What living author can compare with him? [1]

Pierce Egan originally began his working adult life as an illustrator, and he collaborated with his father on projects such as The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). He soon turned his attention to writing light fiction, and published his first novel entitled Quintin Matsys; or The Blacksmith of Antwerp in  the same year.

IMG_6180
Illustration from Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood (1838-1840)

Other serials soon followed, and Egan enjoyed writing tales of outlaws. Robin Hood and Little John was serialised between 1838 and 1840. His second medievalist story was Wat Tyler which was serialised in 1840, and his third serial was Adam Bell; or, The Archers of Englewood Forest, which began serialisation in 1842. Critics have previously assumed that Egan presented a conservative and bourgeois view of life in medieval England, a reading based upon the fact that Robin is depicted as the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon. [2] I disagree with this, however, the fact that Robin is presented as the Earl of Huntingdon appears to be an afterthought in Egan’s text. In the first chapter of the second book, Egan mentions that Robin tried to recover his estate through legal means, but being unsuccessful, decides instead to wait for the return of the King. [3] Other than that, the discussion of Robin’s rightful heritage receives little mention in Egan’s novel, and thankfully his story is not reduced to being simply a tale of Robin recovering his birth right, something which other novels of Robin Hood do fall victim to. Robin’s real enemies in Egan’s novel are the aristocracy, represented by the Normans. Raised as the son of a simple Anglo-Saxon yeoman forester, he feels little affinity with the nobility. He is constantly on the side of the yeoman, or the people. And Robin is violent towards members of the establishment. Aristocrats receive arrows through their eyes, [4] limbs are cut off. [5]

In Egan’s Robin Hood, Robin is not actually outlawed until the second book of the novel. But we see quite a ‘democratic’ set up in Sherwood Forest. Robin is elected as the leader of his men, but Egan says this is not to do with the fact that he is the Earl of Huntingdon, but rather he is elected upon his merits by downtrodden Anglo-Saxon peasants. [6] It is a pure form of democracy, in opposition to the notions of ‘Old Corruption’ that were frequently levelled at the early nineteenth-century establishment. Indeed, what could have been more radical in the early Victorian period than seeing the peasantry voting? It is what the Chartists demanded, although more on the Chartists allusions in Egan’s work is highlighted below in the brief discussion of Wat Tyler.

adam bell
Illustration from Egan’s Adam Bell.

The Anglo-Saxons versus Normans theme is continued in Egan’s serial Adam Bell, which is based upon the story of an eponymous medieval outlaw who supposedly lived in the thirteenth century and was, like Robin Hood, celebrated in ballads and songs. [7] In Adam Bell life under the Normans is presented as pretty grim for the good Anglo-Saxon folk:

The Normans still governed, still possessed everything; still laid a grievous yoke upon the English, who hated them to the very marrow of their bones. [8]

Like Scott before him, Egan presents a vision of a divided society, and it is the oppression of the Normans which creates outlawry and crime:

Cumberland possessed, at this time, an extensive forest, which bore the name of Englewood – and in various parts of this wood dwelled several bands of Saxons, who had all been sufferers under the Normans. [9]

Egan’s most radical text, however, was his serial Wat Tyler, the complete volume of which was published in 1841. The medieval Wat Tyler who led the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 had been appropriated by radicals in the aftermath of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). Thomas Paine held him up as a working-class hero, while Robert Southey envisioned him as a man who fought for ‘Liberty! Liberty!’ [10] Circumstances had changed when Egan was writing, and Britain saw the emergence of Chartism between 1838 and 1858. It was a working-class political reform movement which sought to establish a People’s Charter:

  • A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
  • The Secret Ballot.
  • No Property Qualification for MPs.
  • Payment of MPs, thus enabling an honest trades-man, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency; when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  • Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
  • Annual Parliament Elections.
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Illustration from Egan’s Wat Tyler.

In Egan’s novel, then, Wat Tyler is a man who fights for a medieval form of a People’s Charter. Again Egan borrows the Saxon versus Norman theme from Scott’s Ivanhoe. The Normans represent the nineteenth-century political establishment, while Tyler – of Saxon descent in the novel – represents the British working classes. Egan’s Tyler attempts to obtain the end of serfdom for the Anglo-Saxons (which means enfranchisement for the nineteenth-century working classes) through ‘petitions’ but to no avail. [11] Tyler then leads a peasants’ revolt in order to obtain ‘a code of laws or charter’.

The genius of Egan’s writing lay in the fact that he managed to cloak his radicalism in respectability. How could the Victorian middle classes object to tales of Robin Hood, Adam Bell, and Wat Tyler? They had after all been staples of broadsides and chapbooks for centuries before, and in the case of Robin Hood, the outlaw had by the nineteenth century become thoroughly gentrified and respectable due to the works of Walter Scott and Thomas Love Peacock. Egan’s tales of thieves and rebels certainly did not come in for censure like another novel about a thief entitled Jack Sheppard, written by William Harrison Ainsworth and published in 1839. Where the establishment saw quaint tales from English history, readers got a semi-radical vision of one in which commoners rose up and violently challenged the establishment.


References

[1] Anon. ‘Penny Novels’ MacMillan’s Magazine June 1866, 96-105 (96).
[2] See the third chapter in Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003).
[3] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John; or, the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840), 98.
[4]  Egan, Robin Hood, 65.
[5] Egan, Robin Hood, 94.
[6] Egan, Robin Hood, 144.
[7] See Thomas H. Ohlgren (ed.) Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998).
[8] Pierce Egan, Adam Bell; or, The Archers of Englewood Forest (London: G. Vickers, 1842), 3.
[9] Egan, Adam Bell, 5.
[10] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (London: T. Sherwin, 1817), 6.
[11] Pierce Egan, Wat Tyler (1842 repr. London: W. S. Johnson, 1851), 460.
[12] Chris R. V. Bossche, Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency and the Victorian Novel, 1832-1867 (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2014), 38.

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14 thoughts on “Radical Ideas in the Penny Serials of Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

  1. […] Robin Hood has always been popular, in that he has always been a people’s hero. But does he make forays into ‘high’ culture. The expensive three volume novels which were aimed at the middle classes, such as Ivanhoe (1819), Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower (1838), and G. P. R. James’ Forest Days (1843) do not feature him in the title, although he is the hero of the narratives. Most likely this is a result of writers’ and publishers’ fears of casting an outlaw as the hero. In fact, Robin only got his first novel title when Pierce Egan the Younger, in a penny dreadful (incidentally aimed at the working classes) entitled Robin Hood and Little John (1838-40). […]

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  2. […] In Egan’s novel, then, Wat Tyler is a man who fights for a medieval form of a People’s Charter (the Chartists, in actual fact, even had a Wat Tyler Brigade). Egan borrows the Saxon versus Norman theme from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). The Normans represent the nineteenth-century political establishment, while Tyler – of Saxon descent in the novel – represents the British working classes. Egan’s Tyler attempts to obtain the end of serfdom for the Anglo-Saxons (which means enfranchisement for the nineteenth-century working classes) through ‘petitions’ but to no avail. Tyler then leads a peasants’ revolt in order to obtain ‘a code of laws or charter’. [7] […]

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