The Flemish Revolt: Pierce Egan’s “Quintin Matsys” (1838)

By Stephen Basdeo

Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80) is one of my most favourite Victorian authors. The son of the more famous Regency journalist and writer, Pierce Egan (1772–1849), he was an artist, illustrator, journalist, newspaper editor and novelist who, although rarely studied or read today, made a significant mark on Victorian popular fiction.

Pierce Egan the Younger pic
Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

He was rather fond of outlaws and rebels and liked to tell their stories: throughout the early part of his career he published Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838); Wat Tyler (1841), in which the eponymous rebel is depicted as a medieval Chartist; Adam Bell (1842), a story of a lesser-known medieval outlaw who is said to have lived around the same time as Robin Hood; Paul Jones (1841), which is the story of a man who defects to the American side during the war of independence; and Captain Macheath (1842), which tells the tale of the hero of Macheath the highwayman who originally appeared in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). All of these stories were melodramatic and politically radical tales in which the protagonists fight against an unjust and oppressive government.

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Title Page to Pierce Egan the Younger’s Quintin Matsys (1838)

Before all of these, however, Egan wrote Quintin Matsys (1838).

It was his first literary project and he took an unlikely historical figure for its subject, the Flemish painter Quintin Matsys (1466–1530). Matsys will be familiar to all art history students as the founder of the Antwerp School of painting and some of his most famous works include A Portrait of an Elderly Man (1513), A Grotesque Old Woman (c. 1513) and The Money Changer and His Wife (1514). The first of these has become a popular meme in today’s internet culture while the latter is famous throughout the world.

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The Real Quintin Matsys by Jan Wertrix

Shortly before Egan put pen to paper, a short story fictionalising Matsys’s life was written by A. B. Slous, entitled ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, and appeared in volume one of The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature (1833), so this may have been where Egan got some inspiration from, as the opening chapter in Egan’s novel which tells of Matsys’s early life bears much resemblance to the first chapter in Slous’s short story.[1]

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The Revolution in Antwerp as depicted by Egan the Younger

Yet Egan’s was no dry novel about the life of a painter. Matsys starts out in the novel as a humble and starving painter but becomes embroiled in a revolution against the noblemen of the City of Antwerp. Matsys leads a secret society of men known as ‘Redressors’ who punish noblemen who commit wrongs against the working and middle classes of Antwerp and its surrounding regions. Issues come to a head when a (very melodramatic and characteristically bad, scheming, and evil) aristocrat has Matsys’s future father-in-law arrested on a spurious charge of treason.

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The Revolution in Antwerp as depicted by Egan the Younger

After this, the Redressors lead the middle classes and working classes to the barricades in which they drive out the bad aristocrats and their private armies from the city. The many illustrations which accompanied the novel—which Egan engraved himself—are in fact highly reminiscent of the imagery of the French Revolution of 1830 (not the ‘big’ French Revolution of 1789 but the one featured in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables). Eventually the Holy Roman Emperor steps in and brokers a truce between the classes; when the working classes and bourgeoisie have secured certain political rights, Matsys is able to devote himself full time to the profession for which he would become famous. This is what might be termed an ‘origin’ story if we were talking about pop culture today.

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Young Quintin considering one of his paintings in Egan’s novel

Obviously, Egan intended this novel to be a commentary on the politics of England at the time, and not those of Belgium and there are allusions in Egan’s text to ‘the present day, when society is, in all its relations, as opposite as it can possibly be to that which 400 years since existed’.[2] And there is, in fact, no evidence to suggest that the historical Quintin Matsys ever led a revolt against the nobles of Antwerp.

However, this did not bother the authors of penny bloods like Egan as they regularly made stuff up anyway.

Egan’s radicalism is more of a pre-1832 style of English radicalism; the cause was the political enfranchisement of the people at large, and their struggle was conceived of in terms of a conflict between the bourgeoisie and the workers, with their main enemy being the aristocratic political establishment. This is the politics of Henry Hunt and those in attendance at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, 1819; it harks back to a time in British politics when, prior to the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, the workers and the middle classes had indeed allied together to campaign for the vote. But ever sneaky, the British establishment used that classic tactic of divide-and-rule; they gave the vote to some middle-class householders (those who owned or rented property worth more than forty shillings), which left poorer people out in the cold. So, the working classes had to organise themselves, and in 1836, the London Working Men’s Association was formed to secure the vote for the working man, and two years later the Chartist movement was born. Egan’s depiction of the middle classes and working classes working together, writing as he does in 1838, suggests that he believes such an alliance is still possible.

Much emphasis is placed by Matsys and his fellow rebels upon the ‘rights and sovereignty of the people’ and ‘the people’s liberties’. The people of course are the working and middle classes, but the generalised idea of the people and of liberty recalls not only Henry Hunt but also Thomas Paine. The Chartists likewise drew upon such language, but it has to be remembered that the movement was not fully formed at the period when Egan’s novel began its serialisation in early 1838, and later, it was the terms of the People’s Charter which the Chartists most emphasised. And in Egan’s Wat Tyler, we see a firmer idea of a ‘Charter of Liberties’ with specific demands, while it’s left a little more hazy in the early Quintin Matsys novel.

More research is needed into the early works. As we noted earlier, all of Egan’s early novels—Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, Adam Bell, and Paul Jones—include revolts against ‘the powers that were’. The fact that the revolt in all of these novels, but most markedly in Quintin Matsys and Wat Tyler, is led by men of the middle and working classes gives us an insight into radical ideas in what is often a rather understudied phase in English working-class history and thought between the 1832 Reform Act and the emergence of Chartism.


[1] A. B. Slous, ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, in The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature, 1 (London, 1833), pp. 668–70.

[2] Pierce Egan, Quintin Matsys, The Blacksmith of Antwerp (London: W. Barth [n.d.]), p.179.

See also: Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’, in Imagining the Victorians, ed. by Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett, Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, 15 (Leeds: LCVS, 2016).

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Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood Ballads” (1840)

This post is not one of my usual essay style posts, with an introduction and conclusion, etc., but more of a research note after having got hold of a first edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood novel.

Pierce Egan the Younger was one of the most popular Victorian penny-a-liner authors. Although he was the son of the more famous Pierce Egan the Elder (1772-1849), very little is known of the son’s early life.[i] The younger Egan first came to public notice when he provided the illustrations to a work that his father had written entitled The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). In the same year that he collaborated with his father on the Pilgrims, he began writing Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. The novel is one of the best (in my opinion) Robin Hood novels published during the nineteenth century. It is also one of the longest: it was sold for a penny in weekly instalments over the course of two years, between 1838 and 1840.

Title Page
Title Page to Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood Ballads (1840)

The novel, targeted primarily towards working-class and lower middle-class adults, is filled with sex, violence, and radical politics, and is the story of Robin Hood’s life from his birth to his death. Egan is clearly acquainted with earlier Robin Hood works such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Egan’s novel went through several editions throughout the nineteenth century. As an appendix to the first edition in 1840, however, he included a collection of Robin Hood ballads.

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Egan’s collection is based upon eighteenth-century versions of Robin Hood’s Garland. These were anthologies of seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads. And it is only the early modern ballads included in Egan’s collection, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. The medieval poems such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk are, strangely, not included in Egan’s version.

The extent of his ‘editing’ of the texts is minimal. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that the appending of the ballad collection at the end of Egan’s novel was perhaps the publisher George Pierce’s idea. The preface included at the beginning is virtually plagiarised from Charles Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, with one or two notes from Joseph Ritson inserted towards the end, and there is no attempt to relate the ballads to the sequences and plotlines in Egan’s actual novel.

One contribution to the ballad collection that we can tell Egan did make, however, is in the illustrations he provided (he had also provided all of the illustrations to the novel in the first edition). Through his images, Egan did attempt to provide some continuity with his preceding novel. This is because the characters of Robin Hood and his men who appear in the novel look exactly the same as those which appear in this ballad collection. Furthermore, as the ballads accompany the first edition, and Egan often insisted on providing the illustrations to all of his first editions (later publishers incorporated entirely new illustrations in later editions), then there is no reason to suppose that these illustrations are not his.

First editions of Egan’s Robin Hood with the ballads are rare: more common is the 1850 edition, published by W. S. Johnson, which will still fetch approximately £100.


[i] To learn more about some of the facts I have managed to reconstruct about his early life from archival records clink this link.

Mack the Knife: The “True” Story Behind the Song

The popular song Mack the Knife was based upon the story of an eighteenth-century highwayman named Captain Macheath. This post traces the literary life of this fictional character.

Most people, at some point in their lives, will have heard the song Mack the Knife, which has been covered by a wide range of singers including Louis Armstrong (1901–71), my personal favourite, Bobby Darin (1936–73), Frank Sinatra (1915–98), and Roger Daltrey (1944–). Few people will realise, however, that the song is based upon the story of a fictional eighteenth-century highwayman named Captain Macheath, who first appeared in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727) and whose story was subsequently reimagined in Bertold Brecht’s The Three-Penny Opera (1928).

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John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728)

Gay’s opera was essentially the first ‘jukebox musical’: it took the tunes of contemporary popular folk songs, changed their lyrics, and inserted them into the narrative. It tells the story of a womanising highwayman, Macheath, based upon the real-life thief, Jack Sheppard (1702–24), who has a romance with the daughter of the thief taker, Peachum. The latter is a character based upon Sheppard’s nemesis, Jonathan Wild (c. 1688–1725). As thief taker, Peachum controls all the crime in London in his capacity as the main law-enforcer, and has the power of life and death over his criminals. He takes exception to the proposed marriage between Macheath and his daughter and resolves to have him hanged. What follows is a comical tale of encounters with sex workers, escapes from gaol, until finally he is taken to be hanged. Instead of being hanged, however, the playwright steps on to the stage and proclaims a reprieve at the last moment, saving the heroic highwayman from the gallows.

The play did much to cement the image of the heroic highwayman in public consciousness with contemporary audiences, which built upon previous portrayals of some robbers as noble and generous in criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734).[i] In turn, later highwaymen such as James Maclaine (1724–50) fashioned themselves as modern-day Macheaths in order to curry favour with the public. In his play, Gay had a wider point to make, however: he wanted to criticise the government; the leading ministers of state were no better than the corrupt thief takers who patrolled London’s streets and who, while they prosecuted certain small-scale, petty criminals, left larger crimes unpunished. Thus we see Peachum in the opening scene of The Beggar’s Opera singing:

Through all the employments of life

Each neighbour abuses his brother;

Whore and rogue they call husband and wife,

All professions be-rogue one another.

The priest calls the lawyer a cheat,

The lawyer beknaves the Divine,

And the statesman because he’s so great,

Thinks his trade as honest as mine.[ii]

He then proceeds to say

A lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine. Like me too he acts in a double capacity, both against rogues and for ‘em; for ‘tis fitting that we should protect and encourage cheats, since we live by ‘em.[iii]

A particular target of Gay’s attacks in The Beggar’s Opera was the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745). Widely viewed as corrupt, even though nobody ever managed to trace any particular frauds or embezzlements to him, to satirists in the eighteenth century he represented all that was wrong with the ruling aristocratic oligarchy.

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(Portrayals of Captain Macheath/Mack the Knife through the Ages)

During the Victorian period, with the rise of the penny dreadful publishing industry, tales of highwaymen became immensely popular with both adults and youths of the lower middle and working classes. Dick Turpin (1705–39) appeared regularly in the columns of these cheap magazines, as did older highwaymen such as Robin Hood and the afore-mentioned Jack Sheppard. The actual stories differed little from other contemporary tales of highwaymen, being mostly full of daring adventures, escapes from the police, and the rescue of young maidens from aristocratic villains. Pierce Egan (1814–80), an author about whom I have written a lot on this website, authored Captain Macheath: The Highwayman of a Century Since (1840). Later anonymously-written penny dreadfuls include a long running serial in the magazine Tales of Highwaymen (1865–66), as well as Captain Macheath: The Prince of the Highway (1892), which is a virtual plagiarism of Egan’s earlier novel.

The song Mack the Knife does not appear in Gay’s opera, but appeared Brecht’s Three-Penny Opera. While in Gay’s earlier play, Macheath is a jovial and relatively good-natured fellow who flinches from using violence, Brecht gives us a Macheath, or a ‘Mack the Knife’ who, it is hinted, has a darker side to his character. This comes through most clearly in the song entitled Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, sung usually at the beginning of the play, which is the song we all know as Mack the Knife:

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear

And it shows them pearly white

But the knife that Macheath carries,

No one knows where it may be.[iv]

The song then gives us a litany of some of the quite brutal crimes attributed to Macheath/Mack the Knife:

On a blue and blamy Sunday

On the Strand a man  has lost his life.

A man darts around the corner,

People call him Mack the Knife.

 

And Schmul Meier is still missing,

One more wealthy man removed,

Somehow Mackie has his money,

Yet nothing can be proved.

 

Jenny Towler was discovered,

With a knife stuck in her chest,

Mackie strolls along the dockside,

Knows no more than all the rest.

 

Seven children and an old man,

Burned alive in old Soho

In the crowd stands Mack the Knife

Who’s not asked and doesn’t know.

 

And the widow not yet twenty

Only her name could she say,

Defiled one night as she lay sleeping

Mackie what price did you pay?[v]

Murder, arson, and rape: all of these crimes are attributed to Macheath; even though he is the hero of the tale, he is certainly not as noble and gentlemanly as the Macheath of Gay’s story. The story of the play is essentially the same as The Beggar’s Opera, although it is set in Victorian London instead of Georgian London as Gay’s play was: Mack the Knife marries Polly Peachum, to the chagrin of her father Peachum who is an underworld crime lord; in concert with the Chief of Police, Peachum convinces the policeman to gather enough evidence to hang Mack. Eventually Mack is arrested and is taken to be hanged, but at the last minute a pardon arrives from Queen Victoria for him. He is released and is soon elevated to a Baronetcy, the implication being that he can now steal from people legally because he is a member of the aristocracy. Through this means, Brecht, a socialist, offers a critique of the corruption endemic in the modern capitalist city in which thieves are no better than the elites, which is a similar argument to that made by Gay almost two centuries before.

Later singers, such as the ones I pointed out in the introduction, adapted Brecht’s Moritat and gave it the title of Mack the Knife. We see a slight return in these later songs to a friendlier portrayal of Macheath, such as that contained in the Bobby Darin lyrics:

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear

And it shows them pearly white

Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe

And he keeps it, ah, out of sight.

Ya know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe

Scarlet billows start to spread

Fancy gloves, oh, wears old MacHeath, babe

So there’s never, never a trace of red.

Now on the sidewalk, huh, huh, whoo sunny morning, un huh

Lies a body just oozin’ life, eek

And someone’s sneakin’ ’round the corner

Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

 

There’s a tugboat, huh, huh, down by the river don’tcha know

Where a cement bag’s just a’drooppin’ on down

Oh, that cement is for, just for the weight, dear

Five’ll get ya ten old Macky’s back in town

Now d’ja hear ’bout Louie Miller? He disappeared, babe

After drawin’ out all his hard-earned cash

And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor

Could it be our boy’s done somethin’ rash?

 

Now Jenny Diver, ho, ho, yeah, Sukey Tawdry

Ooh, Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown

Oh, that line forms on the right, babe

Now that Macky’s back in town.

 

I said Jenny Diver, whoa, Sukey Tawdry

Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown

Yes, that line forms on the right, babe

Now that Macky’s back in town

Look out, old Macky’s back

It appears that there are still heavy penalties for those who cross his path, but at least he does not rape women or burn whole families alive in their houses.

For those interested in seeing original versions of The Three-Penny Opera, see the following youtuve videos:

And the Roger Daltrey version of the movie can be found here:


References

[i] For a detailed and scholarly discussion of highwaymen and masculinity see the following: Erin Mackie, Rakes, Highwaymen, and Pirates: The Making of the Modern Gentleman in the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). For further reading on The Beggar’s Opera (1728) see the following: Lucy Moore, The Thieves’ Opera (London: Penguin, 1997).

[ii] John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, 3rd Edn (London: J. Watts, 1729), p. 1.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Translated approximately from the original German.

[v] Bertolt Brecht, The Three-Penny Opera (1928).

Radical Robin Hood: “Little John and Will Scarlet” (1865)

Introduction

With the exception of Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838-40), Robin Hood penny dreadfuls have generated very little critical attention. Usually they are not even read but merely cited. I have shown in a previous post, and in an essay for Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies (2016), (1) how Egan’s text should be read as a radical text. That particular essay has been adapted into an article which has recently been accepted by the journal English. But here I would like to draw attention to a less prominent, though no less radical Robin Hood story entitled Little John and Will Scarlet (1865). The novel was not merely an insignificant piece of trashy literature, but rather a thought-provoking story that was intended as a commentary upon nineteenth-century British society. In this post I shall show how the novel made direct references to contemporary debates regarding the extension of the vote to working-class men, and similarly highlight how the anonymous author employs radical discourse in the novel.

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Cover of the First Two Issues of Little John and Will Scarlet (1865)

Radicalism in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

By the mid-Victorian period the great radical movements of the early nineteenth century had all but disappeared. Chartism had effectively failed in 1848, and while a few attempts were made to revive the movement after this date, it is clear that many previous radicals lent their support to reform movements which advocated a series of more gradual reforms in British politics:

The campaign for ‘the Charter and something more’ ended with the sacrifice of the [Chartists’ demands and] abandoned in favour of ‘respectable’ and rational gradualism, moderation, and expediency.(2)

Yet demands for working-class suffrage did not disappear after the failure of Chartism. Two factors contributed to the emergence of a national debate about the extension of the vote to working-class males. Firstly, the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston died in 1865. Palmerston had previously blocked any attempt at political reform. Secondly, the American Civil War made some of the elites in this country fearful that Britain would witness the resurgence of a popular radical movement.(3) Debate about the subject of working-class votes was a hot topic in the press during the mid-1860s, and it is in such a political landscape that Little John and Will Scarlet began its publication.

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Little John and Will Scarlet (1865)

Old Corruption

“Old Corruption” was a term used by radicals during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to draw attention to corruption endemic in the British political system. At its most basic, it highlighted how the propertied elites abused the law to oppress the rights and trample upon the sovereignty of the people. Yet it had practically disappeared from political discourse by the 1860s, as W. D. Rubinstein argues.(4)

Yet Little John and Will Scarlet is unusual in that it still uses the discourse of Old Corruption in its description of both twelfth- and, indirectly, nineteenth-century British society. The aristocracy are:

Legalised banditti.(5)

England in the medieval period is ‘falsely called merrie’ according to the author for ‘miserable and wretched was man’s condition’.(6) This is because the people were ruled by a corrupt aristocracy:

The aristocracy was uniformly composed of marauders, tyrants, and sycophants – the usual characteristics of aristocrats – whose occupation was pillage, murder, and the ravishment of maidens.(7)

Moreover, these members of the aristocratic classes, or the legalised banditti use every device of cruelty and wickedness to oppress the good people of England. The result is that

Under these circumstances the people of England suffered deeply for the present, and had yet more dreadful cause for fear for the future. They always in the end bore the burden, and have from time immemorial to the present day.(8)

Both the twelfth- and the nineteenth-century aristocracy are to blame for the dire poverty that the common people of England face.

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Little John and Will Scarlet (1865)

The Solution

It was not enough simply to whinge about the present, however, for if one wishes to effect radical change then one must also present a vision of a better society. For society to change for the better, then society must become democratic. This is why Sherwood Forest’s outlaw society is presented as one which elects its leaders: Robin must be elected by his fellow men.(9) The result of this democratic and egalitarian arrangement is that society becomes harmonious and a place in which food is plentiful. This is in stark contrast to the undemocratic system perpetuated by the Norman/nineteenth-century aristocracy. But the anonymous author goes further: he hints at a republican solution to the problems facing nineteenth-century society:

Once when Oliver Cromwell released them from despotism, they had an opportunity, but they threw it away.(10)

Clearly, a republic would be a better set up for society than the prevailing system. This is quite significant as it represents the first time that a Robin Hood author since Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) connected republicanism with Robin Hood. Not even Pierce Egan the Younger or Thomas Miller the Chartist desired a republic.

Conclusion

This seemingly innocuous Robin Hood penny dreadful is suffused with radical thought. The public debate surrounding the extension of the vote to working-class males raged on until 1867 when the administration of the Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli passed the Representation of the People Act. Little John and Will Scarlet effectively marks the end of radical portrayals of Robin Hood. Between 1880 and 1914 a number of children’s books appeared which presented a wholly conservative depiction of the famous outlaw. Attempts would be made during the 1930s to reclaim Robin Hood for radicals, notably with G. Trease’s Bows Against the Barons (1934) which is a very communist portrayal of the legend in which the outlaws call each other ‘comrade’.


References

(1)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 ed. by Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp.48-64.
(2) John Belchem, Popular Radicalism in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1996), p.101.
(3) Brent E. Kinser, The American Civil War in the Shaping of British Democracy (Ashgate, 2011).
(4) W. D. Rubinstein, ‘The End of Old Corruption in Britain, 1780-1860’ Past and Present, No. 101 (1983), pp.55-86.
(5) Little John and Will Scarlet (London: H. Vickers [n.d.]), p.182.
(6) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.3.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.183.
(9) Little John and Will Scarlet, pp.46-47.
(10) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.183.

Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880): Biography of a Penny Dreadful Author

Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880) was one of the most popular penny dreadful authors in the Victorian period, perhaps second only to G. W. M. Reynolds. Egan’s immense popularity is summed up by the words of the following reviewer from 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]

The details of his life are very scant, and although listed in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he has thus far warranted but a short entry. It is the intention of this particular post to develop people’s knowledge of Egan’s life from my own research into newspapers, periodicals, and Census records.

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Title Page: Pierce Egan’s Edward, The Black Prince (c.1850).

Egan was born in 1814, the son of the famous Regency writer Pierce Egan (1772-1849). Very little is known about his childhood, although his mother sadly died when he was ten years old. [2] The records, to my knowledge, are very quiet until 1838 when he provides the illustrations for his father’s work The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National, after which Egan turned his attention to writing and published his first novel Quintin Matsys, or the Blacksmith of Antwerp, an historical romance set in early modern Antwerp, which was serialised between 1838 and 1839. Encouraged by the success of his first novel, he went on to write Robin Hood and Little John, which was serialised between 1838 and 1840, and Wat Tyler, or the Rebellion of 1381 serialised between 1839 and 1840. Having been praised by reviewers for animating the lives of well-known thieves and rebels, he authored the serial Captain Macheath in 1841, a tale of an eighteenth-century highwayman which was based upon John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727). [3] He returned to the medieval period afterwards, however, authoring Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie (1842) and Fair Rosamund (1844).

Debtors Prison
Interior of a Victorian Debtors’ Prison (Source: Wikipedia)

Egan is listed in the Census for 1841 as living at 2a Grove Terrace with his sisters, Elizabeth Egan and Rosina Egan (their surnames are spelled as on the Census as ‘Egans’). [4] Sometime after this he began cohabiting with his future wife, Charlotte Martha Jones, at this address. When Egan married her on 10 August 1844, for instance, they give both of their addresses as 2a Grove Terrace. [5] Perhaps more scandalous in the Victorian period than cohabiting together was the fact that she was already pregnant with their child when they married: their son, who they named Pierce after his father and grandfather, was born just a little over three months after they were married on 2 November 1844. [6] His second son John Milton Egan was born on 1846. Perhaps Egan’s growing family accounts for the fact that he appears to have been relatively inactive in the second half of the 1840s, contributing only a few illustrations to The Illustrated London News. It is perhaps this fall in income that contributed to him having been remanded in a Debtors’ Prison on 25 February 1847, where he was listed as being ‘out of business’. [7] The London Gazette does not reveal to whom Egan owed money, however, although he was quickly discharged from the prison on 26 March 1847. [8]

33 Huntingdon Street London Egan Residence
33 Huntingdon Street, London – Egan’s Residence during the 1860s

By the 1850s his literary career picked up again. Between 1849 and 1851 be became the editor of Home Circle. The year 1850 also marked the birth of his third child, a daughter named Violet Catherine Egan. [9] By 1851 the family had also moved to 148 Stamford Brook Cottages, Hammersmith where Egan is listed as living with his wife Charlotte, his sons Pierce Egan and John Milton, his mother-in-law Hannah Jones, his daughter Violet C. Egan, and one servant named Eliza Lancaster. [10] The family moved around a lot: by the time that the Census for 1861 was collected he is listed as living at 33 Huntingdon Street, London with his wife Charlotte, his sons John M. Egan and Pierce Egan, and his sister Elizabeth Egan. [11] The tone of his literary work also appears to have changed as his family grew, with his fiction becoming more ‘domesticated’, apart from the novel Clifton Grey (1854) which is a tale set in the Crimean War. When he became the editor of The London Journal in 1860, a title that he was to hold until his death in 1880, he wrote numerous short stories for the magazine: The Wonder of Kingswood Chace (1860-61), Imogine (1861-62), The Scarlet Flower (1862), The Poor Girl (1862-63), Such is Life (1863-64), Fair Lilias (1865), The Light of Love (1866-67), Eve; or The Angel of Innocence (1867), The Blue-Eyed Witch; or not a Friend in the World (1868), My Love Kate (1869), The Poor Boy (1870), Mark Jarrett’s Daisy, the Wild Flower of Hazelbrook (1872), Ever my Queen (1873), Her First Love (1874), False and Frail (1875), The Pride of Birth (1875-76), Two Young Hearts (1876-77). Egan’s immense contributions to The London Journal, and the penny publishing industry overall would see him honoured at a special dinner held for him by G. W. M. Reynolds in 1857. [12]

Throughout his time as the editor of both Home Circle and The London Journal Egan faced a couple of legal headaches. On 6 March 1850, he was sued in Westminster County Court by the publisher W. S. Johnson because, as editor of the Home Circle, Johnson alleged that Egan has not been paying him the correct amount for Johnson’s contributions to the magazine. Johnson’s case was subsequently thrown out, [13] but the two men appear to have made friends afterwards. They had to, of course: Johnson was the publisher of The London Journal. Johnson would even publish further editions of Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Edward the Black Prince in 1851. On 18 August 1871 Egan then came to Johnson’s aid in a court case, appearing as a witness for Johnson in the case of Johnson v. Lister at the Sheriff’s court. William Henry Lister, the proprietor of Conservative Standard, had plagiarised one of the novels in Johnson’s The London Journal. Egan said that, as the editor of The London Journal, the plagiarism had directly affected sales of Johnson’s magazine, and that in his opinion Johnson should be entitled to damages. Egan’s testimony resulted in Johnson being awarded damages of £125. [14]

Pierce Egan Older
Pierce Egan in 1863 – Illustration from The London Journal 17 October 1863, p.248.

Despite early financial setbacks such as his brief stint in the Debtors’ Prison, he appears to have been relatively affluent after the 1850s. By the time of the 1871 Census, he had moved 60 St. John’s Park, Islington with his wife Charlotte, his son Pierce Egan, his sister Elizabeth Egan, and two servants: Elizabeth Truscott and Henry Kerkeek. [15] Furthermore, he left the not inconsiderable sum of £2,000 upon his death at Ravensbourne, Kent in 1880. [16]

Although virtually no evidence exists in the form of letters and diaries which might give a clue as to the type of man that Egan was, a few things can be deduced. He was a Freemason. [17] And he appears to have been an amiable man, ever willing to use his contacts to help his friends advance their own literary careers. [18] He was also a member of several philanthropic organisations, such as the Newsvendors Benevolent and Provident Institution, and he donated to several worthy causes to help employees who had lost their jobs. [19] He also appears to have been a radical in politics: my own research has studied the strains of radical thought in his early novels, [20] and he was also a member of radical political groups such as the Repeal Association. [21]

Egan was a central figure in Victorian popular fiction, but he is an author who has thus far been eclipsed by two men: his father, Pierce Egan the Elder, and his friend and fellow radical G. W. M. Reynolds. But it is time that academic scholarship was developed upon Egan’s life and works. After all, in the words of the MacMillan’s Magazine reviewer, ‘an author who can command half a million ought not to be overlooked’.


References

[1] Anon. ‘Penny Novels’ MacMillan’s Magazine June 1866, 96-105 (p.96).
[2] Anon. ‘Births, Deaths, Marriages and Obituaries’ The York Herald, and General Advertiser 7 January 1826, p.3
[3] Anon. ‘Captain Macheath by Pierce Egan’ The Era 15 August 1841, p.6
[4] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1841. Class: HO107; Piece: 684; Book: 7; Civil Parish: St Pancras; County: Middlesex; Enumeration District: 8; Folio: 23; Page: 43; Line: 1; GSU roll: 438800.
[5] London Metropolitan Archives, Saint John The Evangelist, Paddington, Register of marriages, P87/JNE1, Item 008.
[6] London Metropolitan Archives, Paddington St James, Register of Baptism, p87/js, Item 008.
[7] Anon. The London Gazette 26 February 1847, p.869.
[8] Anon. The London Gazette 26 March 1847, p.1209.
[9] General Register Office. England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes. London, England: General Register Office, Vol. 3, p.223.
[10] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1851. Class: HO107; Piece: 1469; Folio: 545; Page: 38; GSU roll: 87792.
[11] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1861. Class: RG 9; Piece: 129; Folio: 74; Page: 24; GSU Roll: 542578.
[12] Anon. ‘Annual Dinner of Mr. Reynold’s Establishment’ Reynold’s Newspaper 12 July 1857, p.5.
[13] Anon. ‘Court of the Exchequer’ The Times 19 April 1850, p.7.
[14] Anon. ‘Sheriff’s Court’ The Times 18 August 1871, p.9.
[15] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1871. Class: RG10; Piece: 276; Folio: 13; Page: 19; GSU roll: 824919.
[16] See Anon. ‘Obituaries’ The Times 8 July 1880, p.10 & England & Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966, p.327.
[17] Anon. The Era 8 November 1857, p.15.
[18] Pierce Egan to Benjamin Webster, 27 August 1867, Corbett Autograph Collection Vol. 1 Part 3, Cadbury Research Library, Special Collections MS21/3/1/41.
[19] Anon. ‘The Newsvendors Benevolent and Provident Institution’ The Morning Post 10 December 1869, p.3 & Anon. ‘Total Destruction of the Surrey Theatre by Fire’ The Era 5 February 1865, p.5.
[20] Stephen Basdeo ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Vol. 15: Imagining the Victorians (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp.48-64.
[21] Anon. ‘Advertisements & Notices’ Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser 27 September 1847, p.1.

Wat Tyler: 18th- & 19th-Century Literary Afterlives

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”
– John Ball, Radical Preacher, 14th Century

Late fourteenth-century England had its fair share of problems: socio-economic tensions had been fuelled by the Black Death, and the people were hit hard by taxes in order to fund foreign wars. In addition, England had ineffectual leadership, especially given the fact that the new King, Richard II, was only ten years old upon his ascension to the throne in 1377. To pay for further foreign adventures, the new King, acting under the counsel of his advisors, levied a Poll Tax on the population. Issues came to a head when John Bampton, an MP and Justice of the Peace, travelled to Fobbing in Essex to investigate why the tax from that region had not been paid. Thomas Baker, representing the region, said that the taxes had been paid and that no more funds would be forthcoming. Bampton attempted to have Baker arrested, but violence from the townspeople broke out, and Bampton made a quick retreat to London. This revolt soon spread and other contingents of rebels from Kent, led by Wat Tyler and John Ball, marched on London (their rebellion seems to have been coordinated with rebels from Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk) to demand redress from the King.

Wat Tyler and the Tax-Gatherer (after Henry Fuseli) 1797, published 1798 by William Blake 1757-1827
Wat Tyler and the Tax-Gatherer (after Henry Fuseli) 1797, published 1798 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased 1992 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T06588

When the rebels reached London on 13 June, the gates of the city were thrown open to them, and the following day they took possession of the Tower of London. Some of the rebels met with the King and put forward their demands including the King’s officials who were on their lists for execution; the abolition of serfdom and unfree tenure, the right to self-governance, and a general amnesty for the rebels. The King appeared as though he would acquiesce to the rebels’ demands. The next day at Smithfield just outside the city walls, the mob gathered and Richard went out to meet them. He called Wat Tyler forth and Tyler demanded he also sign a new charter, and requested that some refreshment be brought to him. After this, Tyler attempted to leave but the King’s guards set upon him, stabbing him repeatedly. Richard then commanded all of the rebels to disperse. Tyler’s head was cut off and displayed upon a pole.

Wat Tyler died a premature death at the hands of a tyrannical monarch, but he was never forgotten. He has been a prominent figure in radical and socialist literature: the younger Robert Southey authored a ‘dramatic poem’ named Wat Tyler (1794), while in the nineteenth century Tyler features in the socialist William Morris’ work A Dream of John Ball (1888). But there were a host of various cultural afterlives in addition to the work of Southey and Ball, and I am going to provide an overview of Tyler’s representations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Wat Tyler 2
Death of Wat Tyler (1746) BM1875,0508.1498

History books authored during the eighteenth century took a very negative view of Wat Tyler’s insurrection. The anonymously-authored A General History of all the Rebellions, Insurrections, and Conspiracies in England (1718), written in a style not unlike criminal biography, was less than positive in its assessment of the revolt:

The principal heads of the said giddy multitude were Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. The rebels of Kent embattled themselves upon Blackheath near Greenwich, from whence they march’d to London, where the common sort siding with them, they committed a great many outrages and barbarities. [1]

Such a view of Tyler’s insurrections is hardly surprising given the fact that it comes from a conservative historian. Since the 1690s, the British public had developed a habit of taking to the streets and rioting whenever they felt that their needs were not being met. Numerous protests accompanied the Hanoverian succession in 1714, and indeed it was during the eighteenth century when the word ‘mob’ first emerged, being a contraction of the Latin term mobile vulgus. Riots occurred in 1706, 1707, 1710, 1736, 1743, 1754, 1766, 1769, 1780, 1791 and 1797. The most famous of all of these is perhaps the Gordon Riots of 1780, immortalised by Charles Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge (1841). While it is true that the majority of people did not have the vote, politicians had to be ever mindful of the effects that their decisions might have upon the public, as ‘King Mob’ was ever ready to rear his head and resume his reign. [2]

References to Wat Tyler’s insurrections and the mob occur more explicitly in the anonymously-authored play Wat Tyler and Jack Straw; or, The Mob Reformers (1730), which was performed at the theatrical booths of the St. Bartholomew Fair celebrations (probably alongside that Robin Hood plays). The play is a something of a farce, which pokes fun at both the mob (for Tyler ridicules the them) and also the establishment:

Mob. Huzzah! Huzzah! Wat Tyler and Liberty!
Tyl. Friends, hear me speak; nor let your smoaky brains hurry you on to do you know not what! [3]

But the play contains some subtly subversive elements. Immediately after taking about how they will whip the politicians for causing trouble with a ‘bubble’ from the South Sea (referring to the economic crisis known as the South Sea Bubble), Tyler exclaims:

On the proud wings of great revenge I fly;
Tyrant sit fast, or you may chance to know,
The mighty kick of Watty Tyler’s toe. [4]

Further literary representations of Wat Tyler from the eighteenth century were more radical, especially during the years of the American and French Revolutions. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) – a book which advocated independence for the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain – sits in stark contrast to previous portrayals:

Tyler appears to have been an intrepid and disinterested man, with respect to himself. All his proposals made to Richard, were on a more just and public ground, than those which had been made to [King] John by the Barons; and notwithstanding the sycophancy of historians, and men like Mr. Burke, who seek to gloss over a base action of the Court by traducing Tyler, his fame will outlive their falsehood. If the Barons merited a monument at Runnymede, Tyler merits one in Smithfield. [5]

At the height of the French Revolution, the young Robert Southey authored Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (1794). In this poem, Wat is a freedom fighter, taking up the country’s cause against the unjust taxes that have been levied to finance Richard II’s wars (with a message for his own day regarding the war against Revolutionary France):

Think you we do not feel the wrongs we suffer?
The hour of retribution is at hand,
And tyrants tremble – mark me, King of England.[6]

There appears to have been a trend at this point for radicals appropriating figures from England’s medieval past: one year after Southey there appeared Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) which attempted to portray Robin Hood as a medieval Thomas Paine.

Wat Tyler egan
Illustration from Pierce Egan’s Wat Tyler (1840)

Perhaps the greatest account of Wat Tyler’s life comes from Pierce Egan the Younger’s Wat Tyler, or, the Rebellion of 1381 (1841). In this novel, Tyler is truly allowed to live up to his potential. Thomas Paine held him up as a working-class hero, while Robert Southey envisioned him as a man who fought for ‘Liberty! Liberty!’ 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 Parliamentary Elections.

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]

Egan’s novel was practically plagiarised and abridged in the anonymously authored The Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler: The Good and the Brave (1851). Given the fact that it is a slimmed down copy of Egan’s text, the radical sentiments are still present within it, and Tyler is described as:

‘The friend of the poor, [who] supported their cause against the tyranny of their oppressors’. [8]

Wat Tyler’s next big break came in William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Merry England, or Nobles and Serfs (1874). Ainsworth is a novelist who has featured frequently on this website due to having published Rookwood (1834) and Jack Sheppard (1839). Merry England starts out promisingly, and sees Tyler and Jack Straw ‘conspiring’ together to overthrow the nobles. Although Ainsworth was not a confirmed radical (although I suspect he enjoyed causing sensation in the press, however), the novel is fairly critical of the nobles:

They [Tyler and Jack Straw] both hated the nobility, and burnt to avenge the wrongs inflicted on the serfs. Both desired to level all distinctions of rank, and partition all property among the people.[9]

The novel might have ended up being a perfectly enjoyable historical romance were it not for one majorly unconvincing subplot: Ainsworth tried to emulate Romeo and Juliet by having Tyler’s daughter fall in love with Richard II.

Perhaps the worst novel is G. A. Henty’s A March on London: Being a Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection (1897). Henty was a fervent imperialist who wrote a score of (now thankfully forgotten) children’s historical novels. Usually they centre round a boy hero who gets embroiled in major historical events. In the novel, Wat Tyler and his rebels fight not only against unjust taxes but also for the right to fight alongside their King in foreign wars. For the record, Tyler never demanded that he be able to fight for the King: he simply desired an end to serfdom and the alleviation of the harsh poll tax.

Wat Tyler did not lose his radical appeal, despite the fact that Henty portrayed him as an immoral man (the boy hero in Henty’s novel helps to protect the King from the mob rather than participating in the rebellion). In the twentieth century, during the Poll Tax Riots of the 1980s at Trafalgar Square in London people carried placards bearing the words:

“Avenge Wat Tyler”


References

[1] Anon. A General History of all the Rebellions, Insurrections, and Conspiracies in England (London, 1718), pp.28-29.
[2] See Tim Hitchcock & Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp.73-74.
[3] Anon. Wat Tyler and Jack Straw; or, The Mob Reformers (London, 1730), p.2.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Thomas Paine, Common Sense (London, 1776), p.112.
[6] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts (London: Sherwin, 1813), pp.10-11.
[7] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies Vol. 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp.48-65.
[8] Anon. The Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler: The Good and the Brave (London: Collins, 1851), p.8.
[9] William Harrison Ainsworth, Merry England, or, Nobles and Serfs 3 Vols. (London: Tinsley Bros. 1874), p.15.

Header Image: King Richard in Great Danger (1803) BM 1880,1113.4126

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited