15th Century

Maid Marian in Victorian Penny Dreadfuls: A Proto-Feminist?

A paper read at the Women in Print Conference, Chetham’s Library, Manchester 20 May 2016

Header image scanned from my personal copy of J. H. Stocqueler’s Maid Marian the Forest Queen (1849)  – unless otherwise indicated, all images have been scanned from books in my personal collection.


Penny Tinkler writes that ‘the study of popular literature, in particular novels and periodicals, has contributed important dimensions the history of girls and women in England during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’. [1] Studying popular literature is important in discussions of gender history because popular literature projected gender ideals to their readers. One of these ideals was that women should be the ‘the Angel in the House’, confined almost exclusively to the domestic sphere. When it comes to Robin Hood novels, however, representations of Marian differ from typical Victorian gender norms. This paper analyses successive portrayals of Maid Marian in nineteenth-century penny bloods/dreadfuls. The novels considered in this paper are: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John; or, the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest which was serialised between 1838 and 1840; Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen which was serialised in 1849; the anonymously authored Little John and Will Scarlet (1865); and George Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Outlaws of Sherwood Forest which was first published as a three volume novel in 1869, and later reprinted as a penny dreadful in 1885. This paper will show how penny dreadful authors represented Maid Marian as a strong and independent female figure. But this paper will also ask why, when nearly every representation of Maid Marian in penny dreadfuls represents her as an emancipated proto-feminist woman, [2] no female authors ever adopted her.


Illustration from J. H. Stocqueler’s Maid Marian (1849)

Context: Maid Marian before 1800

In the earliest Robin Hood texts, Maid Marian is entirely absent. She appears nowhere, for instance, in the fifteenth-century poems A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and the Monk, or Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. [3] In fact, the first clear association of Robin with a woman named Marian was in Tudor May Day celebrations. [4] From the May Day celebrations she made her way into two late Elizabethan plays written by Anthony Munday entitled The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon, written between 1597 and 1598. Following Munday’s plays, Marian appears as Robin’s wife in Ben Jonson’s play The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood, which was written in 1641. From then on, Marian became fixed as Robin Hood’s love interest. She appears in Martin Parker’s poem, A True Tale of Robin Hood, which was first printed in 1632, and in the late seventeenth-century ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian. [5] However, ballads featuring Marian do not appear to have been very popular and went quickly out-of-print. [6] This is not because audiences did not warm to her as a character. It is rather as a result of the fact that the ballads featuring her have a ‘complete lack of any literary merit’, according to the Robin Hood scholars R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor. [7] Another reason for this may be that, in the seventeenth century ballad tradition, Robin Hood was known to have had another love interest – a lady called Clorinda, Queen of the Shepherdesses. Clorinda appears in a widely printed ballad entitled Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage to Clorinda, which was first printed in the Sixth Part of John Dryden’s Miscellanies, published in 1716. [8]

Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe published in 1819, which is, in my opinion, the greatest literary work to feature Robin Hood, does not include Maid Marian. In Ivanhoe Robin of Locksley has to be celibate in order to concentrate on saving the nation. [9] Neither does Marian appear in the two volume novel Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time also published in 1819. [10] In that novel Robin’s love interest is an aristocratic lady called Claribel. Instead, Marian’s big break came in a now little-known novella by Thomas Love Peacock entitled Maid Marian published in 1822. It is In his novel, Marian is a headstrong, powerful woman who challenges established gender roles, [11] in fact it is rumoured that the character of Marian was based upon Peacock’s friend, Mary Shelley. [12] In the novel, Marian disregards the wishes of her father by joining Robin in the woods, [13] is fond of traditionally masculine pastimes such as hunting, [14] and is bored when confined to the domestic sphere of life. She declares at one point that: ‘thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers were indifferent to me’. [15] Peacock thus set the tone for subsequent portrayals of Maid Marian in literature.

Representations of Marian in Penny Serials

Robin’s first entry into the world of Victorian penny bloods came with Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John. He was a prolific novelist, and after Scott and Peacock is perhaps one of the better authors to have adapted the legend of Robin Hood. The idea of class struggle, although not fully articulated, is present within Egan’s novel, for he says that there are ‘two classes’ under whom the poor suffer (the poor are represented by the Anglo-Saxon serfs).[16] Egan’s vision of Sherwood society is truly egalitarian: Robin is elected as the leader of the downtrodden Anglo-Saxon serfs, [17] while Little John also has to be elected as his lieutenant. [18] Whilst critics such as Stephen Knight have interpreted Egan’s Robin Hood as a gentrified and conservative text, [19] it is more likely that, given the democratic ideals present within Egan’s Robin Hood, as well as his Wat Tyler (1840) and Adam Bell (1842), his novel was a radical text. [20]

Egan Robin Hood

Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840 – 1850 Edn.)

In the novel, Marian is committed to the democratic ideals of the Sherwood Forest society. Marian is first introduced to the reader as Matilda, but when she goes to live with Robin in the forest, her name changes to Marian. Egan explains the reason for this in the novel, saying that it was ‘a request she had made that all should call her thus, rather than they should think her birth or previous state above theirs’. [21] In contrast to the other female characters, Marian is made of sterner stuff, displaying fortitude and strength in the face of danger. She is a skilled archer, and able to hold her own against the rest of the outlaws in archery competitions. [22] This is in contrast to how Egan portrays other women in his novel: the other ladies are typical ‘damsels in distress’ – one character called Maude faints frequently at the first sign of trouble, [23] while another character, Christabel, has ‘scarce ever been from her chamber’. [24] Apart from Marian, then, the women in late medieval society are portrayed as thoroughly Victorian.


Title Page: J. H. Stocqueler’s Maid Marian (1849)

Egan’s Robin Hood was immensely successful, going through at least five editions. It also inspired another novel authored by Joaquim Stocqueler entitled Maid Marian, the Forest Queen (1849). In the first half of the novel, Marian is the central character. Robin is away fighting the Crusades in the Holy Land with King Richard, and it is Marian who has been placed in charge of the outlaw band in Robin’s absence. The reader first encounters Marian alone in the forest, attired in a male forester’s outfit. [25] In keeping with Egan’s and Peacock’s portrayals of Marian, in Stocqueler’s novel she is skilled in the use of the bow and arrow. [26] She enthusiastically participates in hunting with her fellow outlaws, [27] and at one point even wrestles with a wild boar. [28] These vigorous activities do not make her unfeminine, however, and Stocqueler says that she was blessed with both ‘gentleness and firmness, feminine grace and masculine intrepidity’. It is because of these qualities that Stocqueler says that all women should strive to be like Maid Marian: active, brave, independent. [30]

Little John Will Scarlet

Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet (1865) – From Nineteenth-Century Collections Online

It is a similar case in the anonymously authored Little John and Will Scarlet. The novel is basically a rehash of Egan’s tale. There are two heroines in this serial, Eveline and Marian, and they are both expertly skilled with a bow and arrow, and do not flinch from killing people in self-defence. Eveline, for instance, rescues Will Scarlet by shooting a Norman with a crossbow. [31] During a battle between the outlaws and a horde of Norman soldiers, Marian saves Robin by killing a Norman who was about to stab Robin with his sword. This event, according to the author, is proof that ‘women [are] our best and safest shield from danger’. [32] The outlaws need women in their band: they are not there for decoration, but play an active role in the outlaws’ activities.


Aldine Robin Hood Library (c.1900)

In contrast to the examples discussed above, George Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood presents Marian as a typical Victorian lady. She is delicate, and does not have the independence of mind that previous incarnations of Marian do, exclaiming at one point that ‘I know but little, my tongue is guided by my heart’. [33] She often requires rescuing by Robin from the clutches of the Sheriff, [34] and has a habit of getting captured by Norman soldiers travelling through the forest, [25] and from wild animals in the forest. [36] In Emmett’s novel it is the male characters who participate in the best adventures, and it is clear when reading the novel that it is the first Robin Hood story to be written specifically for boys. [37] In other adventures written for boys, Marian is present but often she is only a background character, as is the case with Aldine’s Robin Hood Library which were a series of 32 page pamphlets published between 1901 and 1902. When Marian is present, she more often than not requires rescuing from the Sheriff’s castle. [38] It appears that when the legend of Robin Hood is adapted specifically for a young male readership, writers left little room for free-spirited and independent Marian to appear in the text.

Emmett's Robin Hood

George Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Sherwood Forest (1885 Edn.)


The Emmett novel and the Aldine Robin Hood Library notwithstanding, it is clear that novelists enjoyed portraying Marian as a free-spirited, brave woman. When Egan, Emmett, and Stocqueler were writing in the early-to-mid Victorian period, the ideal of domesticity had reached its zenith. The idea of the Angel in the House was central to the image of Victorian moral society, [39] but in Marian there was a heroine who differed from Victorian gender expectations. She is out in the public sphere, actively assisting her husband. In fact, as John Tosh notes, ‘the doctrine of separate spheres […] has been more dogmatically asserted by modern scholars than it ever was by the Victorians themselves’, [40] a point which has also been echoed by Amanda Vickery. [41] June Hannam similarly notes that, ‘far from confining themselves to the home, a significant minority of women in the nineteenth century took an active role in public life’. [42] The representations of Maid Marian that appear during the nineteenth century are perhaps an example of this: the male writers who authored Robin Hood novels thought that headstrong and independent Marian was a better ideal of femininity.

FullSizeRender[3] (2)

Marian Hunting a Wild Boar – Illustration from Stocqueler’s Maid Marian (1849)

Just because Marian is portrayed as an active heroine, however, does not mean that she represents a woman that is fully emancipated from patriarchal restrictions upon her life. This is perhaps a consequence of the fact that it was male writers depicting her in their novels. Egan was much too concerned with politics in his novel, and gender issues appear to have taken a back seat. Stocqueler’s novel is interesting, however: Marian is a free-spirited woman while Robin is away on Crusade. When he returns, Marian becomes a typical ‘Victorian’ lady: she becomes weak and impressionable, [43] and almost kills all of the outlaws after she is beguiled by a witch who lives in the forest to administer an elixir to them. In fact, in Stocqueler’s portrayal of the witch there is an example of when female independence can apparently go too far. The witch has poisoned all of her previous husbands, and now lives alone. Poisoning in the nineteenth century was assumed to be a gendered crime, even if actual statistics prove this myth wrong. [44] Nevertheless, women who poisoned men were seen as perversions of ideal femininity. [45] And the witch is proud of her independence, declaring at one point that:

I am monarch in my own right – free, independent, absolute! – free to go where I will and when I will – unburthened by domestics and guards – mistress of the birds of the air and the beasts and reptiles which crawl at my feet – the arbiter of life and death. [46]

Her poisonous machinations know no social rank either, evident when Minnie exclaims: ‘peer or peasant, baron or boor, they have all had a taste of Minnie’s craft’. [47] Marian is an example of good femininity: she is independent, but only to a point – she still requires Robin’s leadership in most matters. Minnie, on the other hand, is what happens when women supposedly are allowed too much freedom.


It cannot have escaped people’s notice that all of these authors were male, and thus the paradox here is this: why did female authors not adapt Maid Marian as one of their heroes? The reason that later women writers, particularly those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, never adapted Maid Marian is because, despite her relative freedom and independence, she is only ever represented in relation to the other sex. Her whole life revolves around her husband, Robin Hood. This is something common to many fictitious heroines, and Virginia Woolf remarked in A Room of One’s Own (1929) something similar, to the effect that ‘all the great women of fiction’, for example, she concluded that they were ‘too simple’ because they were ‘not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.’ [48] Marian was never her own woman, and could never do as she pleased.

Maid Marian was usually depicted in nineteenth-century street literature as a quasi-feminist woman. At a time when the Victorian ideology of domesticity was at its height, Marian was a woman who shunned the private sphere and went out into the world. But there were several qualifications to this: Marian is independent only inasmuch as Robin allows her to be, and her independence, indeed her own world, revolves around her husband. Stocqueler’s novel is especially interesting, for Marian is contrasted with the witch, a woman who is independent but is a perverted form of Victorian femininity. Thus although at first glance Marian should have been an ideal figure nineteenth-century women writers, especially feminist ones, but the reality is that she is far from an ideal feminist icon.


[1] Penny Tinkler, ‘Women and Popular Literature’ in Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 Ed. June Purvis (London: UCL Press, 1995), 131-156 (133).

[2] Stephanie Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.

[3] Critical editions of these poems are available in R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (eds.), Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997) and Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).

[4] James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), 34.

[5] See Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, 176-178.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Knight & Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, 527-540.

[9] Walter E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’ The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).

[10] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1819).

[11] Marilyn Butler, Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in his Context (London: Routledge, 1979), 151.

[12] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.

[13] Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. George Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 29.

[14] Peacock, Maid Marian, 20 & 36.

[15] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.

[16] Pierce Egan the Younger, Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840), 191.

[17] Egan, Robin Hood, 144-146.

[18] Egan, Robin Hood, 146.

[19] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 128.

[20] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), 50-68.

[21] Egan, Robin Hood, 101.

[22] Egan, Robin Hood, 191.

[23] Egan, Robin Hood, 94.

[24] Egan, Robin Hood, 88.

[25] J. H. Stocqueler, Maid Marian, the Forest Queen, being a companion to “Robin Hood” (London: G. Pierce, 1850), 2.

[26] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 40 & 139.

[27] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 53.

[28] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 40.

[29] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 26.

[30] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 205.

[31] Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet, or, The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest (London, 1865), 11.

[32] Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet, 60.

[33] George Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth House, 1885), 76.

[34] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 176.

[35] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 251.

[36] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 201.

[37] Kevin Carpenter, ‘Robin Hood in Boys’ Weeklies to 1914’ in Popular Children’s Literature in Britain Eds. Julia Briggs, Dennis Butts, M. O. Grenby (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 47-68 (54).

[38] Carpenter, ‘Robin Hood in Boys’ Weeklies to 1914’, 58.

[39] John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson, 2005), 135.

[40] John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 77.

[41] Amanda Vickery, ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History’ in The Feminist History Reader Ed. Sue Morgan (London: Routledge, 2006), 74-86 (77).

[41] June Hannam, ‘Women and Politics’ in Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 (London: UCL Press, 1995), 217-246 (218).

[43] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 132.

[44] See Katherine Watson, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims (London: Hambledon, 2004).

[45] Radojka Startup, ‘Damaging Females: Representations of women as victims and perpetrators of crime in the mid nineteenth century’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, UCL, 2000), 10.

[46] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 109.

[47] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 92.

[48] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London, 1929) [Internet <>https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/chapter5.html>&gt; Accessed 04 May 2016].


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