G. W. M. Reynolds on Robin Hood

Modern period dramas on television often depict the Victorian era as a time when, although there were problems, people never criticised the monarchy or the established order. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, to the extent that Parliament felt compelled to pass the Treason Felony Act in 1848 which made it a felony to “compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend”:

  1. To deprive the Queen of her crown.
  2. To levy war against the Queen.
  3. To “move or stir” any foreigner to invade the United Kingdom or any other country belonging to the Queen.

Yet while most radical journalists during the period masked their republican sentiments by criticising Old Corruption – indeed, even the Chartists did not advocate republicanism – one brave journalist was unafraid of sounding his opinions in the public arena: George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-1879).

Reynolds was the nineteenth century’s most popular author, outselling even Dickens, and his novel The Mysteries of London (1844-45) was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. His output of novels was certainly impressive, for he authored over thirty, and was editor of three newspapers throughout his life.

He hated the idea all of the hereditary nobilities of Europe – Queen Maria of Spain he called:

A bloated, gluttonous strumpet. [1]

When it was proposed to erect a statue of Prince Albert, Reynolds denounced the measure as:

One of the most nauseating, degrading, and sickening specimens of grovelling self-abasement. [2]

The Secretary of State for War, the Duke of Newcastle was said to have:

A mental capacity amounting almost to the idiotic. [3]

These attacks were not simply for sensationalism, however, for what Reynolds aimed to do was to present an alternative history of monarchy and aristocracy which in Reynolds’ view was too sycophantic and loyal. [4] When he published his history of England in Reynolds Newspaper, Henry VIII was:

The Royal Bluebeard. [5]

In his novel Canonbury House (1857-58), Queen Elizabeth I is described as being both a tyrant and ugly:

Despite the eulogies passed upon her by parasite poets and sycophantic scribes of her own time and subsequent periods. [6]

Charles II was:

One of the most licentious, dissipated, and unprincipled scoundrels that ever disgraced the earth. [7]

Moreover, in Victorian history writing, William of Orange was often viewed positively – as a Protestant King who freed the English from the tyranny of the Catholic Stuarts. But according to Reynolds William III was:

A sovereign to be execrated and loathed as one of the scourges of the human race. [8]

When the Duke of Cumberland died in 1851, many of the obituaries were overwhelmingly positive, but the obituary in Reynolds’ Newspaper stated that the sum total of his character amounted to:

Perjury, adultery, seduction, incest and murder. [9]

Surprisingly, Reynolds did not adopt the legend of Robin Hood in any major way, in spite of the fact that radicals prior to him had done so, such as Joseph Ritson (1782-1803), Thomas Miller (1807-1874), and even his friend Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880). On 10 January 1869, however, Reynolds’ Newspaper addressed the subject of ‘The Robbery of the Land by the Aristocracy’.

prologue
Title Page Illustration to Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844-45) [Source: http://www.Victorianlondon.org]

In the article he discusses how the aristocracy came to hold their land, and argues that the people in the nineteenth century are essentially slaves to the nobility:

Albeit pretty certain that Britons never will be slaves to foreign masters, it is by no means equally sure that they are not even now bondsmen to native tyrants. [10]

The article then goes on to give a survey of the state of land ownership in nineteenth-century Britain: in pre-historical times, Reynolds argues, ‘providence intended that the produce of the earth should be enjoyed in common’. [11] However, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror rewarded those who joined him in battle with land stolen from the English. The result of this land grab by the Norman nobility resulted in the poverty that many people suffered during the Victorian era, according to Reynolds: ‘heavy rents hang round the necks […] like Millstones […] and thus it is that we find tens of thousands of our fellow men starving amid plenty’. [12]

But, Reynolds notes, throughout history there have been a few courageous men who have stood up to these tyrants, and they were mostly thieves:

Servile historians have depicted as robbers, rascals, and freebooters men who were in reality doing their utmost to save themselves and posterity from being plundered by the ancestors of those coroneted robbers who now hold possession of a large portion of English soil. [13]

Among these robbers and freebooters, Robin Hood is the most noteworthy. Although he was called a robber, Reynolds notes, he was gallant and brave, ever ready to help those who suffered under the oppression of Norman tyranny.

Perhaps as an indication of the continuing influence of Walter Scott’s Saxon vs. Norman idea, Reynolds argues that Robin Hood was most popular with the oppressed Saxons who looked upon Robin Hood ‘as their chieftain and defender’. [14]

Unfortunately, Robin was not to be successful in his endeavours:

The struggle, however, that endured for centuries between the people and the nobility – the former striving to retain possession of their land, the latter determined to dispossess them of it, has terminated in the complete triumph of the of the latter, and the result of this is despoilment is the terrible amount of pauperism, misery, destitution, and crime that overshadows the nation like a funeral pall. [15]

In many ways this is a topical post: the Duke of Westminster has recently passed away, and there have been ongoing debates in the press about whether the new Duke will pay inheritance tax upon the land and estates that now pass to him.Incidentally, the Duke of Westminster is descended from Gilbert le Grosveneur, who came over with William in the conquest annd was awarded land in and around London. It is impossible to know what Reynolds would have written about a situation like that, but he would have been questioning just by what right aristocrats continue to hold the land that they do.

References

[1] G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’ in G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press Eds. Anne Humpherys and Louis James (Ashgate, 2008), p.91.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’, p.92.
[5] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 26 October 1851, p.1.
[6] G. W. M. Reynolds, Canonbury House (London: J. Dicks, 1859), p.103.
[7] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 13 July 1851, p.1.
[8] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 5 September 1852, p.1.
[9] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 23 November 1851, p.12.
[10] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 10 January 1869, p.5.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.

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5 thoughts on “G. W. M. Reynolds on Robin Hood

  1. […] George William MacArthur Reynolds’ long-running serial novel, The Mysteries of London (1844-45), was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. It was full of sex, featuring characters such as the debauched aristocrat who keeps four beautiful women at his beck and call to service his every need. There is a lot of violence which is often gratuitous, as well as healthy doses of radical political sentiments. Reynolds (1814-1879) was a radical who espoused many political causes, the principal ones being Republicanism and Chartism. The sex, violence, and political radicalism of this novel and of Reynolds’ other novels moved Charles Dickens (1812-1870) to exclaim that Reynolds’ name was […]

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