Post-Apocalyptic Bandits: Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826)

I am the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole. [i]

The Last Man (1826)

Mary Shelley is popularly known as the author of the gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Her talents were not limited to the creation of horror stories, however, for, unbeknownst to most general readers today, she also gave birth to another genre: the post-apocalyptic story. The novel interests me for two reasons: I enjoy post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories, and the principal protagonist, Lionel, spends the first few chapters of the novel as a bandit.

The Last Man was published in three volumes in 1826, presents a vision of England in the year 2073: England has become a republic, but a deadly plague is sweeping the earth. Society breaks down, and England and Scotland become increasingly lawless places. On the continent, in France as in Britain, all government infrastructures have broken down and a Messiah-like cult leader has taken political power and promised his followers that, in return for their support, they will be spared from disease.

Before this nightmarish vision of society comes about, however, we first meet Lionel as a boy in rural Cumberland. Shelley’s vision of England in 2073 is a lot different to the emerging industrial powerhouse that she would have been familiar with in the 1800s. We see a predominantly agrarian country composed of peasants and lords. For her description of Lionel’s early life, Shelley follows a similar formula to that found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), and The Newgate Calendar (1784). We are told that Lionel was born to poor but honest and respectable parents, but due to them having died when he was young, and having a duty to care for his sister, Perdita, in his adolescent years he is forced to pursue a career as a shepherd.

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Title Page to the First Edition

Lionel soon finds that he must supplement this meagre income from shepherding by becoming a bandit. Although the novel is set in England in the future, Shelley likely based her depiction of banditry upon the stories she had heard of them when visiting Italy in 1818.[ii] At this time, the after-effects of the political upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), combined with rising food prices and the sale of common lands, meant that many southern Italians turned to banditry in order to sustain themselves. Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits (1969), when speaking of the types of men who turn to crime, notes that in predominantly agrarian societies such as nineteenth-century Italy, shepherds often turned to banditry, not only due to their low socio-economic status, but also because they often become acquainted with such highway robbers, which offers them a route into banditry:

There are, once again, the herdsmen, alone or with others of their kind – a special, sometimes a secret group – on the high pastures during the season of summer pasture, or roving as semi-nomads across the wide plan … the mountains provide their common world, into which landlords and ploughmen do not enter, and where men do not talk much about what they see and do. Here bandits meet shepherds, and shepherds consider whether to become bandits.[iii]

Thus Lionel tells us that,

I was in the service of a farmer; and with crook in hand, my dog at my side, I shepherded a numerous flock on the near uplands. I cannot say much in praise of such a life; and its pains far exceeded its pleasures. There was freedom in it, a companionship with nature, and a reckless loneliness; but these, romantic as they were, did not accord with the love of action and desire of human sympathy, characteristic of youth. Neither the care of my flock, nor the change of seasons, were sufficient to tame my eager spirit; my out-door life and unemployed time were the temptations that led me early into lawless habits. I associated with others friendless like myself; I formed them into a band, I was their chief and captain.[iv]

Another thing which, in agrarian societies, makes banditry an attractive option for shepherds is their existing familiarity with the terrain. This means that they are often able to attack travellers quickly, and then swiftly disappear into the hills and mountains of the countryside to avoid pursuit.[v] Although it should be said that the youthful Lionel is not the world’s most skilled bandit, for he regularly finds himself in the town lock-up:

It was seldom indeed that we escaped, to use an old-fashioned phrase, scot free. Our dainty fare was often exchanged for blows and imprisonment.[vi]

While other countries also suffered socio-economic setbacks in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it was Italy which witnessed the largest amount of banditry. Shortly after Shelley authored The Last Man in 1826, Charles Macfarlane published The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in all Parts of the World (1833), which deals mainly with contemporary Italian brigands. A further indication of how common ‘shepherd-banditry’ was in Italy during the nineteenth century is provided by Hobsbawm, who notes that, for example, during the 1860s, out of thirty three bandits arrested, twenty eight of them listed their occupations as either ‘shepherd’, ‘cowherd’, or ‘field guard’.[vii]

Make no mistake, however, for Lionel and his fellow brigands bear no resemblance to the ‘good’ outlaw/Robin Hood archetype:

I feared no man, and loved none … My life was like that of an animal, and my mind was in danger of degenerating into that which informs brute nature. Until now, my savage habits had done me no radical mischief; my physical powers had grown up and flourished under their influence, and my mind, undergoing the same discipline, was imbued with all the hardy virtues. But now my boasted independence was daily instigating me to acts of tyranny, and freedom was becoming licentiousness.[viii]

However, Lionel changes his course of life when the deposed king, Adrian, comes to live in the same area as Lionel, having been pensioned off by the new Republican government. It turns out that Lionel’s father had been friends with Adrian’s in his youth, and the latter does all he can to help ‘civilise’ Lionel and turn him from his lawless ways. Eventually Adrian succeeds in educating and refining the manners and morals of his new friend, and the pair forms a strong friendship.

Of course, this is not to last, for soon the plague makes its way to England spreading havoc and desolation. In this volatile situation, four people, Lionel, Adrian, and two other survivors attempt to journey to a colder climate where, they hope, the disease will not be as virulent. However, along the way all but one of them succumbs to the disease. The remaining character, Lionel, “the last man”, is then shipwrecked on a Greek island. The novel ends in the year 2100.

This is not one of Shelley’s most famous novels, but it was one of her personal favourites. Given the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic stories such as The Walking Dead, etc., perhaps you migth also consider giving it a read.


[i] Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 3 Vols. (London: H. Colburn, 1826) [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[ii] Shelley, The Last Man [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman/i-intro.htm> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[iii] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2000), p. 39.

[iv] Shelley, The Last Man [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman/i-1.htm> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Hobsbawm, Bandits, p.39.

[viii] Shelley, The Last Man, op cit.

Available for preorder: “The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler” (2018)

My book entitled The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Pen & Sword, 2018) is now available to preorder on Amazon and Waterstones’s website.

Follow the Amazon link: Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader (2018)

The blurb on the back of the book reads:

In 1381, England was on the brink – the poor suffered the effects of war, the Black Death, and Poll Tax. At this time the brave Wat Tyler arose to lead the commoners, forming an army who set off to London to meet with King Richard II and present him with a list of grievances and demands for redress. Tyler was treacherously struck down by the Lord Mayor. His head hacked from his shoulders, pierced on a spike, and made a spectacle on London Bridge. Yet he lived on through the succeeding centuries as a radical figure, the hero of English Reformers, Revolutionaries, and Chartists. ‘The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler’ examines the eponymous hero’s literary afterlives. Unlike other medieval heroes such as King Arthur or King Alfred, whose post medieval manifestations were supposed to inspire pride in the English past, if Wat Tyler’s name was invoked by the people, the authorities had something to fear.

If you buy it, I hope you enjoy it and are likewise inspired to learn more about the hero of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

The First Robin Hood Novel: Robert Southey’s “Harold, or, The Castle of Morford” (1791)

(This is an updated version of an earlier post I made)

Scholars generally point to 1819 as the year that the first Robin Hood novels appeared, these being the anonymous Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.[i] However, an attempt was made during the late eighteenth century, well before the aforementioned works, by Robert Southey, to give Robin Hood his ‘big break’ in that most famous of literary genres. Held in the archives of the Weston Library, Oxford is an unpublished manuscript by Robert Southey for a Robin Hood novel entitled ‘Harold; or, the Castle of Morford’ (1791).[ii]

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Robert Southey

Southey (1774-1843) was born in Bristol to a middle-class family of linen drapers. At an early age his mother sent him to live with his aunt, and it is under the guidance of his aunt that his love of literature was encouraged. He was a pioneering medievalist, for in addition to ‘Harold’ he authored Wat Tyler (1794), Joan of Arc (1796), and also edited a version of the Icelandic Edda in 1797 and a version of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in 1817 (to Southey is credited the first English prose account of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as well as the first use in English of the word ‘zombie’, although the word was used in a different context than it is understood today).[iii]

There is one main issue with the manuscript: it was bound in a codex at some point during the nineteenth century; while such a practice has the obvious advantages of keeping all of the pages together, it has also meant that many of the words on the margins of the leaves have been obscured. While close attention to the context can offer clues as to the meaning, ultimately it means that oftentimes, when these words are not clear, you are guessing what Southey originally wrote. Furthermore, binding all of the leaves so tightly together has meant that, in some cases, the ink from one page has rubbed off on to the opposite page, which can in some cases render the job of transcription even more difficult. The saving grace, as far as practical issues are concerned, is that the young Southey’s handwriting is neat and legible.

The novel was clearly envisaged as a gothic tale. It opens with the short and perhaps rather dramatic sentence: ‘it was night’, which anticipates Edward Bulwer Lytton’s ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ from Paul Clifford (1830).[iv] Further gothic motifs include aristocratic villains, family secrets, betrayals, murder, as well as ghostly visions in ruined castles, as related in the following scene:

Harold […] arrived at the borders of the forest about midnight. By the pale light he discovered a castle which at first struck him as his paternal seat he advanced towards it with a hasty step. It was [illegible] and he concluded that it was not the Castle of Alnwick. He roam’d for some time amongst the ruined courts in an agony of grief the stair case was entire he determined to explore the building and if possible acquire some spot where he might rest in safety. He ascended and passed along an extensive gallery with several apartments on either side. He entered one of the smaller ones and threw himself upon the ground determined there to pass the night. He had not remained long in this situation the dismal toll of a bell from the turret roused him […] The firm footsteps of a person in the gallery struck his ear he rush’d into it and beheld at the northern end a figure in armour stalking along it turned and look’d at him by the moon beams which shone thro the broken pane he perceived the armour was bloody. He exclaimed My Father! The spectre turned into a room at the farther end of the gallery. Harold followed him but he saw no more. The appearance overcame him entirely.[v]

As with most nineteenth-century Robin Hood novels, Robin Hood is not the main protagonist but is a man who comes to the aid of Harold and King Richard I, the latter who is in disguise as a knight-errant, in a similar manner to his role in Scott’s Ivanhoe. In fact, there are some passing resemblances to Ivanhoe which definitely are deserving of further consideration: Harold is a returning crusader, just like Scott’s eponymous title character; some of the characters also bear some curiously Saxon names which are comparable to those found in Ivanhoe: there is one character named Athelwold, similar to Athelstane in Ivanhoe (Southey actually misspells Athelwold as Athelstane on one occasion).[vi] A character named Ulfrida also appears in Southey’s novel, a name similar to the crazed Ulrica in Scott’s tale. The fact that Southey and Scott were friends may suggest that Scott knew about this MS. and borrowed ideas from his unpublished novel.

There is also a clear attempt by Southey to draw upon the early modern Robin Hood tradition. A character named Aeglamour is a member of Robin Hood’s band, which suggests that Southey was aware of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd (1641), in which Aeglamour is the eponymous sad shepherd who Robin assists with his troubles (Jonson’s work had been edited for a scholarly audience a few years prior to Southey’s authoring of Harold).[vii] The Bishop of Hereford makes an appearance as one of the villains who has deprived Harold’s brother, Tancred, of his estate.

The character of Robin Hood has all the usual traits, being described as,

the famous outlaw Robin Hood, a man worthy of a better fate; the spoils which he takes from the wealthy he distributes among the poor; his birth is unknown, and it is but a very few years since he chose this barbarous way of life.[viii]

Refreshingly, there is not attempt to ‘gentrify’ Robin Hood by making him a member of the upper classes. Instead, in keeping with earlier traditions, he is depicted as a yeoman forester. We first meet him when Richard and Tancred wander into the forest, and they find that Robin Hood has kidnapped Marian, the daughter of the villainous Baron of Morcar, to marry her:

Welcome my good friends exclaimed the outlaw and you too strangers my assistants in this happy enterprise welcome. Let all be happy. Mirth and pleasure reign. My trusty friends pay homage to the queen of the forest the wife of Robin Hood. For as such I may now present her to you. What monarch can be more blest than me?[ix]

Southey’s Robin Hood is also something of a political reformer, and resolves to help Richard to rid his land of corrupt politicians. The young Southey was a firm believer in the ideals of the French Revolution, and no doubt his portrayal of Robin Hood and Richard as a reformist king stems from his enthusiasm for the rights of man.

Southey also inserts several poems into his narrative which are written in the style of ballads. This is the song celebrating the outlaws’ life:

Rises now with orient ray

Bright the gold on the orb of day

Aw’d by his effulgent light

Swiftly they the shades of night

On the leaves with silver hue

Glittering shines the pearly dew.

Scar’d by the hunters now the deer awakes

And swiftly scuds along through o’er bushes and o’er brakes.

What pleasures can the palace yield

Equal to these woodlands give

How blissfully the outlaws live.

Who roams at will [illegible…illegible…] and field hill

How happily dwell we in the wood

And o’er the flowery field

How happy live we in the wood.

Beneath the sway of Robin Hood.

The deer with spreading antlers crowned

Stalks stately o’er the [illegible]

The bowman fits his dart

And fixes the sharp point within the victim’s heart

He falls upon the ground

We hail the prize with choral strain

Feast on his flesh and Nottingham brown ale

List to the minstrels song and merry outlaws tale

What pleasures can the palace yield?

Now we with sober mien comes

And darkness hides the sky

The labour of the day is done

And home the outlaws hie.[x]

All of Southey’s unpublished works remain in copyright until 2039, so there will be no edited version of the text before then. It is part of his juvenilia, and it is not his best work, therefore I doubt Robin Hood studies will suffer too much from its absence. Copyright issues prevent me from making my transcriptions of the manuscript publicly available, however I will be happy to answer any queries about it.


[i] See Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

[ii] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 is the original manuscript. There is also a duplicate of the novel, copied out, apparently, at some point during the nineteenth century: Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114.

[iii] “Zombie”, in The Oxford English Dictionary Online

[iv] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 3v.

[v] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 15v.

[vi] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 21r.

[vii] Francis Waldron (ed.), The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (London: J. Nicholls, 1783).

[viii] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 3r.

[ix] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 10r.

[x] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 12v-12r.

“The Bondman” (1833): Wat Tyler, Medievalism, and the Great Reform Act of 1832

In the course of my research for my book The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler, due to be published by Pen & Sword in 2018, I came across a now little-known novel written by a Mrs. O’Neill (I have been unable to find out her full name) entitled The Bondman: A Historical Narrative of the Times of Wat Tyler (1833). O’Neill’s text is the first time that the story of Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 received its ‘big break’ in the historical novel. Now, during the nineteenth century, novelists would often appropriate the medieval past to comment upon contemporary social, political, and economic issues. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), about which I have written a lot on this site, was written as a response to the parlous, divided state of England at the time. As I was reading The Bondman, I realised that in the novel there are echoes of the political agitation that occurred in the lead up to the passage of the Reform Act of 1832.

During the early nineteenth century, by and large, neither the working nor the middle classes had the vote. The franchise was restricted to those who owned over 40 shillings of freehold property. Electoral constituencies were not equally sized, and many were not fit for purpose. Some constituencies, the ‘rotten boroughs’, such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire (which was a mere field in 1832), returned two MPs to Parliament. Yet new towns such as Leeds and Manchester had no representation in Westminster. The system needed changing, and after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), reform-minded members of the middle and working classes came together to secure representation in Parliament. Mass meetings were held throughout the country, but it was only in 1832 that the Whigs passed the ‘Great’ Reform Act, which widened the franchise by lowering the property qualification to £10. This went some way to addressing the demands of the reformers, but it still excluded many members of the working classes from voting. From that point on, the middle classes, who had been allies with the lower classes previously, now abandoned all further actions towards reform (the working-class Chartist movement would be founded six years later).[i]

So how does The Bondman reflect the events of 1832?

Firstly, perhaps a précis of the plot is in order. The narrative revolves around the life of a serf named Stephen Holgrave, who lives on Baron Sudbury’s estate in the South of England. He is set free from bondage after having saved his master Sudbury’s life on campaign in the Hundred Years’ War. Now a free man, he goes off to marry his sweetheart. Yet he falls victim to the schemes of Thomas Calverley, the Baron’s sergeant-at-arms, who is secretly in love with Holgrave’s life. Accused by Calverley of poaching in the Royal forest, Holgrave must submit to becoming a bondman again. From that day forward he experiences a radical awakening. He begins to resent the upper classes, a resentment fuelled by the preaching of his brother-in-law, John Ball (a historical figure and one of the key men in the Revolt of 1381), as well as by the revolutionary ideas of the local village blacksmith, Wat Tyler. Soon the revolt breaks out, and Holgrave joins with Tyler, Ball, and Jack Straw.

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Joan of Kent, the Queen Mother. Frontispiece to The Bondman (1837 edn.). Personal Collection.

Essentially, the novel is the story of the growth of a labouring class consciousness, and the language of class is prominent throughout the novel. Having resubmitted to bondage, Stephen asks himself,

Can it be that the lord of the castle and I are sons of the same heavenly father?[ii]

In one of his speeches given to a crowd of peasants, John Ball speaks of bondmen as being,

The labouring class.[iii]

When the Poll Tax of 1381 is initiated by Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who also has a personal rivalry with John Ball), opposition to the tax creates discontent, nnot simply among the peasants, but amongst merchants, skilled workers, and professional people. What emerges in the novel is

A coalition of the lower classes.[iv]

This ‘coalition of the lower classes’ mirrors the alliance of the working and middle classes seen prior to the passage of the Reform Act. Reflecting the strikes and the political agitation seen in the lead up to the passage of the Act in 1832, O’Neill’s novel speaks of how there was,

In many places a total suspension of labour.[v]

In the novel, the rebels have a very specific set of demands which are in keeping with the historical rebels’ demands, such as the abolition of serfdom, the right to freely buy and sell in the marketplace, as well as a general pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion. But in O’Neill’s novel, added on to this list of demands, is the general enfranchisement of serfs and freemen.[vi]

At the end of the novel, Tyler and Ball die, but Holgrave survives and must go back to serving his Lord. But the Baron of Sudbury soon realises, through twists and turns in the plot which are unnecessary to repeat here, that Holgrave was falsely accused of the crime. the Baron immediately restores Holgrave to freedom, and in a show of good faith, he releases all of his other serfs from bondage as well, because it is, in the Baron’s opinion, much better to be served by freemen. Of course, O’Neill points out that it is only some people in medieval England who get emancipated, while the rest carry on as before. Holgrave, instead of adhering to Tyler and Ball’s revolutionary principles throughout his life instead settles down to family life and thinks no more about his fellow bondmen in England. Such scenes mirror the ‘Great Betrayal’ of the working classes by the middle classes after 1832.

In addition, Kathryn Gleadle points out in Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867 (2009), the role of women and the events of 1832 are not well-researched.[vii] The novel is also interesting because it illustrates how one woman, at least, in an era when women could not vote, was engaging in politics (some wealthy women could vote in elections in some instances prior to 1832, but it was rare, and this right was taken away from them after the passage of the Act). Unfortunately, I have been unable to find out any further information about Mrs. O’Neill. She was definitely an educated woman, for footnotes appear throughout the novel referencing primary sources such as Froissart’s Chronicles. Of what social class she was I do not know, but it is evident that her sympathies lay with the rebels of 1381, for she calls Wat Tyler ‘the Worthy’.


Notes

[i] See the following works on the Great Reform Act of 1832: Edward Pearce, Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act (London: Random House, 2003); Eric J. Evans, The Great Reform Act of 1832 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 1992).

[ii] Mrs. O’Neill, The Bondman: A Historical Narrative of the Times of Wat Tyler (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1833; repr. 1837), p. 139.

[iii] O’Neill, The Bondman, p. 250.

[iv] O’Neill, The Bondman, p. 244.

[v] O’Neill, The Bondman, p. 259.

[vi] O’Neill, The Bondman, pp. 263-265.

[vii] Kathryn Gleadle, Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Rob Roy (1671-1734)

A famous man is Robin Hood,
The English ballad-singer’s joy!
And Scotland has a thief as good,
An outlaw of as daring mood;
She has her brave ROB ROY!
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave,
And let us chant a passing stave,
In honour of that Hero brave!

The Life of Rob Roy

Each country of what now comprises the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has its famous outlaw-cum-folk hero: England has Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), the legendary noble robber who stole from the rich and gave to the poor; Wales boasts of Twm Sion Cati (fl. c. 1550); Ireland has the famous ‘rapparee’ Éamonn an Chnoic (sup. fl. 1670-1724). The subject of today’s blog post is the celebrated Scottish outlaw, Robert Roy MacGregor.[i]

The MacGregors were part of an ancient Scottish family, but although they were minor gentry, they began to experience financial hardship in the late seventeenth century. This was not helped by the fact that the family joined in the Jacobite Rebellion against the government in 1689, after which the family was disgraced. In order to offset some of their money troubles, during the 1690s members of the family began to extort protection money from farmers. It is for their somewhat dubious activities that criminal biographers in the eighteenth century endeavoured to present the family’s history as nothing but a history of crime and depravity:

They were not more Antient, than Infamous, for from time immemorial, they have been shun’d and detested for the Outrages they daily committed. They liv’d by Rapine, and made Murder their Diversion; and, in a Word, they seem’d emulous to monopolize all that was Wicked.[ii]

During the late 1690s and into the eighteenth century, Rob appears to have ceased his illegal activities and, under the assumed name of Campbell, bought some land and ‘thrived modestly’ trading in livestock, according to his biographer.

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Illustration from: Walter Scott, Rob Roy ed. by A. Lang (London, 1829; repr. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2005).

However, the early eighteenth century was a time of Jacobite intrigue: in 1688 the Stuart King, James II was ousted from the thrones of England and Scotland because of his Catholic faith and he was replaced with the Dutch King William and his wife Mary, James’ daughter. In effect, this was a coup d’état, and there was significant opposition, especially in Scotland, to this new foreign King, in spite of the fact that Mary was related to James.  At his time, Rob took to smuggling arms which alarmed the authorities because his loyalty to the new regime had never been rock solid. Yet there was nothing to link him directly, at this early period, to the Jacobite cause (Jacobite is the name given to those in the 17th and 18th centuries who actively fought for the restoration of the Stuarts).

It was also during the early eighteenth century when Rob’s business hit a slump, and in 1708 he was forced to take out loans from a number of local tradesmen. But a few months later when repayment was due, Rob had not got enough cash to meet the demands of his creditors. He was subsequently declared bankrupt by the Marquess of Montrose and his lands were seized. Rob, in order to escape his creditors (a debtors’ prison would likely have been Rob’s punishment), he along with some of his men retreated to the remote areas of the highlands. Although later stories attempt to attribute his downfall to one of Rob’s men absconding with his fortune:

Rob Roy’s fall was a matter of business failure, and the later tradition that it was due to a drover absconding with his money is implausible in view of the evidence that he knew months in advance that he was in trouble, and that he never himself used this as an explanation. His flight to the remote highlands, Montrose’s determination to bring him to justice, and Rob’s passionate belief that he had been wronged, however, converted an everyday bankruptcy into an epic story.[iii]

In 1713 he sought the protection of the Duke of Atholl (one of Montrose’s rivals) who granted him protection and even allowed him to continue trading on a limited scale in order to earn back some of the money he had lost through bad investments.

When George I acceded to the throne of the newly-forged Kingdom of Great Britain (previously, England and Scotland had been separate states), Rob, a nominal Jacobite, saw this as a chance to strike back against Montrose, who was a supporter of the Hanoverians. Although the Jacobites never officially welcomed Rob with open arms into their cause, but they did allow him to carry out raids on the lands of Hanoverian supporters, and no doubt he welcomed the chance to carry out raids on Montrose’s lands in revenge for his bankruptcy.

In 1715, the Jacobites began seriously plotting the downfall of the Hanoverian regime. James II had fled to France after 1688 and raised his youngest sons there. The Jacobites in France, having been in contact with their supporters in Scotland, plotted the invasion of Stuart forces. Once landed, it was hoped that the Scottish and English people would rise up in support of the Stuarts, oust the Hanoverians, and place James Stuart (James II’s son) on the throne.

rob-roy-1723
The Highland Rogue. 1723. (c) ECCO

But a restoration of the Stuarts was not to be: Rob himself witnessed the crushing defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1715 at the Battle of Glen Shiel, for he had been co-opted to serve in the Jacobite forces.

As we have seen, Rob was never a loyal Jacobite, and only joined the cause as a means of getting revenge on his former antagonist, Montrose. After the battle he returned to his life of banditry, although the authorities did not concern themselves with even trying to arrest him. Rob’s lands had been forfeited to the government because he had, by allying with the Jacobites, committed treason. Montrose had, through the government’s seizure, been repaid and so no longer dedicated any effort to capture Rob.

He was pardoned in 1725 after writing a letter swearing allegiance to the House of Hanover. He then became a farmer and died peacefully in his sleep in 1734.

The Legend of Rob Roy

The incidents recorded in the life of the historic Rob Roy are pretty mundane. The details of his life are neither more nor less interesting than the various lives of contemporary criminals which circulated in print during the period that he lived. One such biography, which has been cited above, is The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (1723) published while Rob was still at large.

The celebrated poet, William Wordsworth, was inspired to author a poem about Rob after he visited a grave which he presumed to have been the famous outlaw’s:

Heaven gave Rob Roy a dauntless heart

And wondrous length and strength of arm

Nor craved he more to quell his foes,

Or keep his friends from harm.

Yet was Rob Roy as wise as brave;

Forgive me if the phrase be strong;–

A Poet worthy of Rob Roy

Must scorn a timid song.[iv]

rob-roy-title-page
Title Page: Walter Scott, Rob Roy 1st Edn. (Edinburgh, 1818). Personal Collection.

However, perhaps the most famous reincarnation of Rob Roy was Walter Scott’s novel, Rob Roy (1818). Here the highland outlaw is a heavily romanticised outlaw: noble, brave, chivalrous, strong. The novel was phenomenally popular, with a ship leaving Leith for London containing nothing but boxes of Scott’s novel:

It is an event unprecedented in the annals either of literature or of the custom-house that the entire cargo of a packet, or smack, bound from Leith to London, should be the impression of a novel.[v]

Rob Roy was also the main protagonist in a number of Victorian and Edwardian penny dreadfuls. Modern audiences will likely be familiar with Rob Roy though the eponymous film starring Liam Neeson in 1995. Although it is not based upon Scott’s novel, the movie is, like Scott’s portrayal, a heavily romanticised account of Rob’s life: he falls victim to the scheming of an English aristocrat, his lands are confiscated, his wife is raped, and he is outlawed. Eventually, however, he kills his antagonist in a fight to the death at the end of the film.

Like so many criminals-turned-folk heroes, it is his ‘literary afterlife’ which has ensured that his story lives on, more than anything he ever actually did while he was alive.

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Aldine Rob Roy Library (c.1900)

References

[i] For a full biography see: David Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. May 2006) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17524> Accessed 13 Jan 2017]

[ii] The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (London: J. Billingsley, 1723), p.x.

[iii] Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’

[iv] The Complete Poetical Works by William Wordsworth ed. by John Morley (London: MacMillan, 1888) [Internet <http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww242.html> Accessed 13 January 2017].

[v] Walter Scott, Rob Roy ed. by Andrew Lang (1829; repr. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 2010), p.69.

Thomas Miller’s “The Mysteries of London; or, Lights and Shadows of London Life” (1849)

Thomas Miller’s The Mysteries of London; or, The Lights and Shadows of London Life (1849) is a continuation of G. W. M. Reynolds’ eponymous penny blood serialised novel published between 1844 and 1848 (Reynolds had been inspired by an earlier French serial entitled The Mysteries of Paris published in 1844 by Eugene Sue). Reynolds decided to quit writing the Mysteries for two reasons: he had not only grown tired of writing it but had also fallen out with his publisher.[i] Miller, who was a skilled novelist, was chosen by the publisher, George Vickers, to continue the very popular serial. The Mysteries of London, in fact, was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era.

I have only recently tracked down a copy of Miller’s continuation of the Mysteries and have not had time to read it as yet. Like Reynolds’ first and second volume of the Mysteries, it does not yet appear to have been digitised by Nineteenth-Century Collections Online or the British Library, and is quite rare.[ii] Furthermore, it has not, thus far, been subjected to critical analysis.

Miller will be familiar to readers of this blog as the man who authored the Robin Hood novel, Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John (1838). Interestingly, from my own position as a Robin Hood researcher, the principal aristocratic villains of Miller’s Mysteries has the same surname of De Marchmont, the same name as one of the cruel Norman antagonists in Miller’s Robin Hood story. Furthermore, one of the principal female protagonists in Miller’s novel is named Marian, and she has travelled from a village near Sherwood to seek her fortune in London. Given that Miller’s Mysteries was written partially to highlight the abuses and corruption of the aristocracy, perhaps he was trying to incorporate the world of the Mysteries into the Robin Hood universe, in order to show that, even from the medieval period, aristocrats are villainous, self-serving, and corrupt.[iii]

Once I have read the novel in full an analysis and commentary will follow. This post is only to highlight some of the pictures that appeared in the serial. Permission is freely granted to use the pictures, should anybody wish to do so – a citation to the website is all that is asked as it does take a lot of time to scan these images in and upload them on the website (I had a recent twitter spat with a certain popular history magazine after they used one of my images).

See also my post on E L Blanchard’s Mysteries sequel.


References

[i] Anne Humpherys, ‘An Introduction to G. W. M. Reynolds’ “Encyclopedia of Tales”’ in G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press ed. by Anne Humpherys & Louis James (Ashgate, 2008), p.125.

[ii] See listings on Price One Penny database: copies are available in Bishopsgate Library, British Library, Bodleian Library, Cambridge University Library, Kansas University Library, Uni. California, Senate House, and Minneapolis Central Library www.priceonepenny.info

[iii] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), p.155; Knight says that Miller was ‘a serious radical’ and ‘a dedicated Chartist’. While there is sympathy for the Chartist cause in his work, I can find no overt reference in either Miller’s writings or those of Chartist historians to suggest that he played a role in the movement. His main association with Chartism seems to have come from the fact that he was friends with Thomas Cooper throughout his life.

Society Gets the Criminals it Deserves: The Resurrection Man from G. W. M. Reynolds’ “The Mysteries of London” (1844-45)

[All images unless otherwise stated are my own, scanned from a first edition of Reynolds’ Mysteries that is in my own collection – permission to use is freely granted providing there is a citation or link to this blog]

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

A name with which no lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated.[1]

This post discusses the principal criminal character in The Mysteries of London, the Resurrection Man. While the Resurrection Man, or Anthony Tidkins as he is also known, is a menace to the good and virtuous (if slightly naïve) hero, Richard Markham, Reynolds simultaneously argues that we should not condemn this criminal character outright.

To begin, however, let us briefly discuss what a Resurrection Man was. The medical profession during the eighteenth century needed bodies to dissect and study. In London, the profession received a steady supply of bodies from the many criminals hanged at Tyburn. However, at the same time that the medical profession was expanding, juries were becoming more lenient and, to put it bluntly, there were not enough people being hanged. Still, the doctors managed to somehow get enough fresh cadavers to operate upon, often asking no awkward questions of the shady characters they had to do business with. Issues came to a head when it was revealed that Burke and Hare, two notorious Body Snatchers from Edinburgh in the 1820s, had not only been digging up graves but also murdering people to sell on to the surgeons. By the time Reynolds was writing The Mysteries of London the Anatomy Act had been passed which had at least gone some way to regulating the supply of cadavers for the medical profession – Doctors could now legally have access to the bodies of deceased people provided there was no existing relatives. The Resurrection Man does not simply dig up corpses, however: his exploits comprise a wide range of criminal activities: extortion, blackmail, highway robbery, burglary, and murder.

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The Resurrection Man Relates his History to the Cracksman – G W M Reynolds, The Mysteries of London (1844-45) (c) Stephen Basdeo

Yet the blame for the Resurrection Man’s course of life is attributed to Victorian society. Reynolds humanises him by giving his working- and middle-class readers the Resurrectionist’s backstory.

“I was born thirty-eight years ago, near the village of Walmer, in Kent. My father and mother occupied a small cottage – or rather hovel, made of the wreck of a ship, upon the sea-coast. Their ostensible employment was that of fishing: but it would appear that smuggling … formed a portion of my father’s avocations. The rich inhabitants of Walmer and Deal encouraged him in his contraband pursuits … and in consequence of the frequent visits they paid our cottage, they took a sort of liking to me.”[2]

Okay, so his father was a bit dodgy, and he used to supply the local villages with illegal cut-price luxuries. But neither the father nor young Tidkins are wicked to the core. They are generally good people.

But one morning the Resurrection Man’s father is arrested for smuggling, and the local villagers then become confirmed hypocrites:

“The whole neighbourhood expressed their surprise that a man who appeared to be so respectable, should turn out such a villain. The gentlemen who used to buy brandy of him talked loudly of the necessity of making an example of him: the ladies, who were accustomed to purchase gloves, silks, and eau-de-cologne wondered that such a desperate ruffian should have allowed them to sleep safe in their bed; and of course the clergyman and his wife kicked me ignominiously out of door”.[3]

While his father is in prison, the Resurrection Man and his mother are reduced to a state of dire poverty and the villagers, supposed Christian people, refuse to render them any assistance. The young soon-to-be criminal witnesses the local Parson preach charity and philanthropy from the pulpit.

The father is acquitted for want of evidence but the goodwill that Tidkins’ family enjoyed from the other villagers is never revived. Despite the hypocrisy he has witnessed, young Tidkins strives to grow up honest and respectable by finding himself a job. Yet he is met with more callous treatment at the hands of the villagers:

“I was not totally disheartened. I determined to call upon some of those ladies and gentlemen who had been my father’s best customers for his contraband articles. One lady upon hearing my business, seized hold of the poker with one hand and her salts-bottle with the other ;- a second was also nearly fainting, and rang the bell for her maid to bring her some eau-de-cologne – the very eau-decologne which my father had smuggled for her ;- a third begged me with tears in her eyes to retire, or my very suspicious appearance would frighten her lap-dog into fits ;- and a fourth (an old lady, who was my father’s best customer for French brandy), held up her hands to heaven, and implored the Lord to protect her from all sabbath-breakers, profane swearers, and drunkards”.[4]

From this point forward the young Tidkins realises that he can no longer maintain an honest livelihood even if he wanted to. But still he is not wicked. He becomes a Resurrection Man with his father and carries on the dubious trade for some time. Yet still there is the prospect of redemption for Tidkins. In the course of his duties as a Resurrectionist, he becomes acquainted with a certain medical doctor and his daughter. Tidkins and the daughter fall in love, and it looks as if he is ready to try and turn from his dishonest profession. However, further ill luck befalls the now adolescent Tidkins:

“One morning I was roving amidst the fields, when I heard a loud voice exclaim,- ‘I say, you fellow there, open the gate, will you?’ I turned round, and recognised the baronet on horseback. He had a large hunting whip in his hand.- ‘Open the gate!’ said I; ‘and whom for?’ ‘Whom for!’ repeated the baronet; ‘why, for me, to be sure, fellow.-‘ ‘Then open it yourself.’ said I. The baronet was near enough to me to reach me with his whip; and he dealt me a stinging blow across the face. Maddened with pain, and soured with vexation, I leapt over the gate and attacked the baronet with a stout ash stick which I carried in my hand. I dragged him from his horse, and thrashed him without mercy. When I was tired, I walked quietly away, he roaring after me that he would be revenged upon me as sure as I was born”.[5]

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The Resurrection Man Burns Down the Judge’s House – From G W M Reynolds The Mysteries of London (1844-45) (c) Stephen Basdeo

Unlike what the television period dramas of men such as Julian Fellowes would have you believe, the Victorian and Edwardian eras were not peopled with friendly and benevolent aristocrats. A lot of the time they were exploitative, framing laws in their own interests, resisting any demands for political reform, and treated the working poor with utter contempt. Tidkins is committed to gaol for two years and it is here that his heart becomes truly hardened:

“I could not see any advantage in being good … I swore within myself that whenever I did commence a course of crime, I would be an unsparing demon at my work”.[6]

He is eventually released, and after the manner of the time, there is no probationary service and he is simply left to fend for himself without a crust.

That day came. I was turned adrift, as before, without a shilling and without a crust … How could I remain honest, even if I had any longer been inclined to do so, when I could not get work and had no money – no bread – no lodging? The legislature does not think of all this. It fancies that all its duty consists in punishing men for crimes, and never dreams of adopting measures to prevent them from committing crimes at all. But I now no more thought of honesty: I went out of prison a confirmed ruffian. I had no money – no conscience – no fear – no hope – no love – no friendship – no sympathy – no kindly feeling of any sort. My soul had turned to the blackness of hell![7]

He resolves to get revenge upon the Justice who sentenced him to goal. He breaks into the Justice’s house and helps himself to the food in his pantry. He also carries off with him a significant quantity of silver plate. As he is making his way out of the Justice’s estate, he spies a barn and resolves to set it alight:

“A bright column of flame was shooting up to heaven! Oh I how happy did I feel at that moment. Happy! this is not the word! I was mad – intoxicated – delirious with joy. I literally danced as I saw the barn burning”.[8]

Tidkins’ glee is raised to new heights the day after when he reads in the newspaper that the fire in the Barn spilled over into the main house, and the Justice’s daughter is burned alive! He next puts the Baronet’s estate to the flame:

“Not many hours elapsed before I set fire to the largest barn upon the baronet’s estate. I waited in the neighbourhood and glutted myself with a view of the conflagration. The damage was immense.[9]

Although both the Justice and the Baronet suspect Tidkins of setting their property alight, they cannot prove it and although he is re-arrested he is released due to lack of evidence.

“And the upper classes wonder that there are so many incendiary fires: my only surprise is, that there are so few! Ah! the Lucifer-match is a fearful weapon in the hands of the man whom the laws, the aristocracy, and the present state of society have ground down to the very dust”.[10]

reynolds-4
G W M Reynolds – Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Make no mistake: Reynolds does not ask us to sympathise with Tidkins – he is, after all, a wicked man. Rather, we are supposed to understand what led him to commit crimes in the first place.

Society has made him the way he is: the Resurrection Man was from the working classes, and the cards were stacked against him since birth. He had no choice but to turn to crime. This was a feature of what Gertrude Himmelfarb calls Reynolds’ nihilistic political radicalism: he often highlighted the plight of the working classes and the need for their enfranchisement, but as Himmelfarb says, if one examines Reynolds’ Mysteries, the only social message to be drawn from it is that:

Violence and depravity, licentiousness and criminality, were the only forms of existence, and potentially the only means of redemption, available to the poor.[11]

The root cause of criminality, as Reynolds argues, is the social and political oppression of the working poor. As the Resurrection Man says:

Let a rich man accuse a poor man before a justice, a jury, or a judge, and see how quick the poor wretch is condemned! The aristocracy hold the lower classes in horror and abhorrence. The legislature thinks that if it does not make the most grinding laws to keep down the poor, the poor will rise up and commit the most unheard-of atrocities. In fact the rich are prepared to believe any infamy which is imputed to the poor.[12]

Other questions of society are also raised in Reynolds’ novel, such as how to properly treat prisoners. Turning them out into the street with minimal support will only increase recidivism rates and harden them further. Thus, Reynolds’ depiction of the Resurrection Man’s history anticipates Emile Durkeim’s statement that ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’.


References

[1] Charles Dickens, The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens ed. by Madeline House and Graham Storey 12 Vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), 5: 604.

[2] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London 2 Vols. (London: G. Vickers, 1845), 1: 191.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 192.

[5] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 195.

[6] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 195.

[7] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 196.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) p.450.

[12] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 193.

George Emmett’s “Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood” (1868-69)

[All images taken from books in my personal collection – feel free to use]


Further to my recent postings on Robin Hood in Victorian penny dreadfuls, this post sheds light upon another Robin Hood serial written by George Emmett entitled Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood which was serialised between 1868 and 1869. The Emmett brothers owned a busy but financially insecure publishing business. Constantly in financial difficulty, Emmett perhaps mistook his true vocation for none of his novels sold well enough. Emmett’s tale is a very defective historical romance which, had it been undertaken by a more talented writer, might have passed for a good novel.[1]

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Title Page to Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (1873)

Following Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), the novel is framed as an antiquary’s research into the old ballads of Robin Hood. But unlike the antiquarian research of Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) or Thomas Percy (1729-1811), the study of old ballads that Emmett undertakes (or says that he has done, at least) has a tint of nationalism to it. He says that the old Robin Hood ballads were

Rude in composition […but] suited our sturdy Saxon ancestors […] expressing all that was manly and brave […] appealed to the hearts of the freeborn youth of England, and taught them to aid the oppressed.[2]

Although the idea of Social Darwinism had yet to emerge, one can detect the first seeds of the sense that Robin, a Saxon, is racially superior to the Normans. And Robin’s Saxon heritage is constantly played up in the novel. In one of many instances, Emmett writes that Robin was

The indomitable leader of the Saxon archers.[3]

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Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merry Sherwood (London: Hogarth, 1870)

While Ritson, Pierce Egan the Younger, Thomas Miller, and the anonymous author of Little John and Will Scarlet (1865) had cast Robin as a radical and anti-establishment figure in their works, it is in Emmett’s work that Robin truly becomes the loyal servant of the King and nation in Victorian literature.

The novel begins promisingly by setting the story of Robin Hood, not during the times of King Richard and Prince John, but during the rebellion of Simon de Montfort, or ‘The Second Barons War’ (1264-67). This had been done before in G. P. R. James’ novel Forest Days (1843). But Emmett was not as talented as James and lacks the talent for weaving together a complicated tale of exciting battles and political intrigue. In fact, both in its text and images, the novel is barely historicised. Robin is always dressed more as a seventeenth-century highwayman than a medieval outlaw.

As is usual in the later Victorian penny dreadfuls, Robin is the Earl of Huntingdon. In other places, Emmett also calls Robin a yeoman, which is quite puzzling.[4] There is unlikely to be a ‘deep’ explanation for this inconsistency of the account of Robin’s birth, in all likelihood it was probably the case that, in a novel which was written on a weekly basis, Emmett simply forgot that he had made Robin an Earl. But he is not the type of outlaw that a person would want to meet. By that, I do not mean that he is a cruel and murderous outlaw as he is in eighteenth-century criminal biography. Rather it is to say that he treats his fellow outlaws, especially Little John, with a harshness that borders upon contempt. In all fairness, Little John is portrayed as an annoying fellow, and somewhat dim and constantly utters the annoying phrase ‘Body o’me’ when he’s astounded by something. Thus Little John, the sturdy giant of earlier tales is degraded in Emmett’s novel into a buffoon.

Furthermore, the Forest Society of Sherwood lacks the free-spirited and democratic ideals of Egan’s novel and Ritson’s ballad anthology. There is the sense that Robin, the Earl, is very much the undisputed leader of the outlaw band. And it is very hierarchical. Robin calls Will Scarlet his lieutenant’.[5] In addition, Robin is repeatedly called ‘King of the Outlaws’, and Robin draws his men up in military array.[6]

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Robin Hood and the Wood Demon from Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth, 1873)

The one interesting insertion into the narrative is that of the Forest Demon. When Robin and his men are outlawed for joining Simon De Montfort in his rebellion, they make their home in Sherwood Forest. It is here that Robin meets the strange woodland creature. Forest spirits would make their way into further Robin Hood adaptations such as Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures (1917) and in the television series Robin of Sherwood (1984-86). The association between Robin Hood and woodland spirits comes from a now-discredited theory from 1830s (which was never taken seriously at the time anyway) that supposed Robin to be the manifestation of the Teutonic Spirit Hodekin, and which subsequently made it into The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography when Sir Sidney Lee was editing it during the nineteenth century.

What is clear from Emmett’s tale is that the quality of Robin Hood novels has begun to decline by the 1870s. Further evidence of the poor quality is The Prince of Archers (1883) which appeared in The Boys of England. They are very much for a juvenile audience and cease to be targeted in any way towards adults. Still, just like the late-Victorian children’s books, they were undoubtedly popular with the young lads who read them avidly.


References

[1] Robert Kirkpatrick, Pennies, Profits and Poverty: A Biographical Directory of Wealth and Want in Bohemian Fleet Street (London: CreateSpace, 2016), pp.417-422.
[2] George Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth House [n.d.]), p.2.
[3] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.19.
[4] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.2.
[5] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.24.
[6] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.25.

Pernicious Trash? “The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood”(1883)

There is now before us such a veritable mountain of pernicious trash, mostly in paper covers, and “Price One Penny”; so-called novelettes, tales, stories of adventure, mystery and crime; pictures of school life hideously unlike reality; exploits of robbers, cut-throats, prostitutes, and rogues, that, but for its actual presence, it would seem incredible.[1]

The citation above denouncing penny dreadfuls as pernicious trash brilliantly encapsulates mid-to-late Victorian moralists’ views of popular reading matter. As previous posts on this website have shown, Robin Hood stories formed a staple of the penny dreadful publishing industry. Much like graphic novels today, penny dreadfuls were popular with both younger and more mature readers. Criminals such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and Dick Turpin (1705-1739) usually featured as their heroes. Sometimes they were issued as standalone periodicals, but more often than not a few chapters per week were featured in magazines such as The Boys of England. It was in The Boys of England that a long-running serial entitled The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood first appeared in 1883.

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Illustration from The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood (1883)

As the title suggests it is the story of Robin’s youth. But the influence of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) can be seen from the start. Robin and his father live on the Huntingdon estate, but the political rival of the Lord of Huntingdon is the Lord of Torilstone who lives not far from the Huntingdons.[2] Readers familiar with Scott’s work will immediately recognise the not-so-subtle reference to Torquilstone in Ivanhoe. One of the key villains is Sir Front de Boeuf.[3] There is also the usual Anglo-Saxon versus Norman theme that is usual in Victorian Robin Hood narratives.

The actual story is relatively unremarkable and lacks the democratic political sentiments found in Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838-40) and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865). After Robin’s estates are confiscated by Prince John, Robin and Little John are forced to seek shelter in Sherwood Forest. They come across some outlaws and, upon learning that he is of noble birth they ask him to become their leader. Instead of being elected as leader of the outlaws in Egan’s novel, Robin is

Appointed King of Sherwood.[4]

Robin does steal from the rich and give to the poor, but this is done by the outlaws more out of a sense of Christian charity, rather than a desire to improve the lot of the commoners of England through political activism, as he does in Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or, the Days of King John (1838).

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Illustration from The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood (1883)

But before we assume that this story was considered as respectable reading for youths, it should be noted that the narrative is filled with graphic descriptions and illustrations of violence. Here is an example of the cruelty of one of the Norman Barons to their own  soldiers:

“Base Slave!” thundered the Baron; and then with all the force of his muscular arm, he brought down the heavy drinking cup upon the skull of the soldier who stood uncovered before him. The wretched man fell to the ground and lay senseless, bleeding from a terrible scalp wound; the tankard was crushed and bent out of shape by the force of the blow.[5]

There is also an attempted rape upon the sweetheart of Allen-a-Dale.[6] The outrages of the Normans are met with an equally violent response by the outlaws. Robin and his men do not hesitate to resort to violence. This is the description of Robin shooting one of Baron Torilstone’s retainers through the eye:

The missile flew true to its mark, its steel point entering the man’s eye, pierced his brain, and he fell headlong to the ground.[7]

While the Victorians in general loved violent entertainment,[8] it was the violence contained in The Boys of England that led to it being widely condemned in the press as an example of the pernicious reading that was used as a scapegoat for juvenile crime.[9]

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One of the many Victorian Juvenile Criminals who passed through the Courts. This one was named Joseph Lewis, and was indicted for stealing 28lb of iron in 1873. Sentenced to 12 months hard labour. (c) National Archives 5348 (PCOM 2/291)

Individual stories from The Boys of England were rarely picked up on, but there were many instances in court when the magazine appeared in the dock. For example, in 1872 thirteen-year-old Samuel Hoy was indicted for poisoning his stepmother with arsenic. At his trial it was said that amongst his possessions were copies of The Boys of England.[10] And the press usually made sure to point out whether a particular juvenile offender had on his person at the time of his arrest a copy of a penny dreadful. When thirteen-year-old Alfred Saunders was arrested for stealing £7 from his father, The Times reported that:

His pockets were crammed with copies of The Pirates League, or The Seagull, the Young Briton, Sons of Britannia and The Boys of England.[11]

Reading The Boys of England, along with other penny dreadful tales, made youths delinquent because it corrupted their morals, according to moralists in the Victorian press. For example, a headmaster in 1874 wrote that:

The hero in these periodicals, read openly in the streets, devoured, I should say, by the thousands of errand and work boys, is he who defies his governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters, and is the leader of the most outrageous acts.[12]

It is doubtful whether those who complained about penny dreadfuls ever actually took the time to read them, The genre as a whole was often condemned in blanket statements such as those seen above, while picking on one or two titles in particular.

It is not the intention here to discuss whether these magazines actually drove youths to crime or not. The supposed links between violent entertainment and criminal acts have raged since Victorian times. But I think the study of penny dreadfuls highlights some of the problems associated with Robin Hood scholars’ ideas of ‘gentrification’. A gentrified Robin Hood text is any text in which Robin is the Earl of Huntingdon. Scholars tend to assume, as in the case of Anthony Munday’s sixteenth-century plays, that if Robin is a lord then he is also a highly moral character. Yet surely this idea of gentrification is complicated if the vehicle in which these stories appeared was widely condemned in the press? Contemporaries did not view these tales as gentrified, and denounced them as ‘pernicious trash’. In light of this, are such tales really gentrified?


References

[1] Anon cited in Juvenile Literature and British Society: The Age of Adolescence, 1850-1950 ed. by Charles Ferrall & Anna Jackson (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 12.
[2] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 9 March 1883, p.25.
[3] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 13 April 1883, p.105.
[4] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 11 May 1883, p.171.
[5] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 20 April 1883, p.122.
[6] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 8 June 1883, p.233.
[7] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 23 March 1883, p.57.
[8] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
[9] John Springhall, ‘Pernicious Reading? The Penny Dreadful as Scapegoat for Late-Victorian Juvenile Crime’ Victorian Periodicals Review 27: 4 (1994), pp.326-349.
[10] Robert J. Kirkpatrick, Children’s Books History Society, Occasional Paper XI: Wild Boys in the Dock – Victorian Juvenile Literature and Juvenile Crime (London: Children’s Books History Society, 2013), p.17.
[11] Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.9.
[12] Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.25.

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.