Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

6 Things I’ve Learned from Reading Penny Dreadfuls

digital-periodicals-lady-readingAs you might know, I’ve recently been editing the Digital Periodicals series for Hic Dragones: new serialized eBook editions of classic Victorian penny dreadfuls. Penny dreadfuls (or penny bloods, as they’re also known) were long-running sensational stories, sold for a penny an issue in cheap, pulp newspapers and pamphlets. I estimate that I’ve now edited and formatted around 750,000 sensational words and read around a million more (penny dreadfuls are pretty epic in their length!), so I thought I’d share with you some of the important lessons I’ve learned from my plunge into lurid Victoriana…

1. It’s not all about madwomen in the attic

If I say the words ‘Victorian’ and ‘madness’, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Possibly Mr Rochester’s poor first wife in Jane Eyre, locked away in an attic so that her husband is able to bigamously marry a ‘more suitable’ match. Or maybe you think of spinsters, widows and outspoken women, cast aside by their families and locked away in lunatic asylums to keep them out of sight and out of the way.

There are a lot of references to lunatic asylums in penny dreadfuls, and they are as ominous and creepy as you would expect. What might come as a surprise is that the inmates are – on the whole – men. They are middle class men who have been locked away by relatives for financial reasons.

Valentine Vox 23

from The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist

The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist has probably the most extended treatment of this theme. The 1840 complete edition of the text even includes a wonderfully polemical introduction written by the author, which condemns recent changes in the law that allows for people to be incarcerated in private asylums on the loosest of medical evidence.

The asylum subplot in Valentine Vox is treated very seriously – despite the fact that the main plot (the adventures of the eponymous ventriloquist) is fairly light-hearted and, at times, rather absurd. The story of Grimwood Goodman’s unfair imprisonment – and the interconnected story of a man who befriends Goodman in the asylum – is one of cruelty, injustice and greed. The author repeatedly reminds the readers that Goodman’s fate is one that can befall any man – no matter how sane he is – at the whim of an unscrupulous family member.

2. The sun didn’t shine much in the 1840s

The 1840s was a boom decade for penny dreadfuls/penny bloods, with a lot of the best-known titles coming out around this time. These stories are the original Victorian Gothic, and, as you might expect, there are a LOT of dark and stormy nights.

Vileroy; or the Horrors of Zindorf Castle takes place in November, and begins one ominous night:

It was in the dark and gloomy month of November, just as the sun was retiring behind the tops of the forest trees, partly obscured by clouds, which his feeble rays were as unable to dissipate, as to tinge with gold the western sky, or to communicate genial warmth to animal or vegetable nature, that a travelling carriage stopped at the moat, which surrounded the Castle of the Baron de Zindorf.

Varney the Vampyre; or the Feast of Blood opens at midnight, as a storm begins to break:

The solemn tones of an old cathedral clock have announced midnight—the air is thick and heavy—a strange, deathlike stillness pervades all nature. Like the ominous calm which precedes some more than usually terrific outbreak of the elements, they seem to have paused even in their ordinary fluctuations, to gather a terrific strength for the great effort. A faint peal of thunder now comes from far off. Like a signal gun for the battle of the winds to begin, it appeared to awaken them from their lethargy, and one awful, warring hurricane swept over a whole city, producing more devastation in the four or five minutes it lasted, than would a half century of ordinary phenomena.

Angelina 1

Watch out for that lightning! (from Angelina; or, the Mystery of St Mark’s Abbey)

George Reynolds’ long-running bestseller The Mysteries of London goes even further, elevating the darkness and obligatory storm into an ‘elemental war’:

The night was dark and stormy. The sun had set behind huge piles of dingy purple clouds, which, after losing the golden hue with which they were for awhile tinged, became sombre and menacing. The blue portions of the sky that here and there had appeared before the sunset, were now rapidly covered over with those murky clouds which are the hiding-places of the storm, and which seemed to roll themselves together in dense and compact masses, ere they commenced the elemental war.

And Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf adds sound effects – creaking trees, howling wolves and the roar of forest streams:

The night was dark and tempestuous; the thunder growled around; the lightning flashed at short intervals: and the wind swept furiously along in sudden and fitful gusts. The streams of the great Black Forest of Germany babbled in playful melody no more, but rushed on with deafening din, mingling their torrent roar with the wild creaking of the huge oaks, the rustling of the firs, the howling of the affrighted wolves, and the hollow voices of the storm.

Long story short: pathetic fallacy was MASSIVE in the 1840s.

3. On the other hand, 1840s entertainment was amazing

Many penny dreadfuls are set in the past – often a dark and threatening version of the Middle Ages (as in Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf, Angelina; or the Mystery of St Mark’s Abbey and Vileroy; or the Horrors of Zindorf Castle). But quite a few have a more contemporary setting, taking place at the time of writing or the recent past (for example, The Mysteries of London, The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox and The String of Pearls, a Romance).

The contemporary novels almost all have an urban setting, which is usually London. These stories still have plenty of horrible settings to rival the Gothic castles, convents and ruins of the historical tales – lunatic asylums, prisons, seedy underworld drinking dens and the sinister kitchens of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop – but they also feature episodes set in the less gloomy world of polite entertainment.

Again, it’s Valentine Vox (which, I’ll admit, is my favourite serial of the 1840s) that has the most detailed description of the social engagements and entertainments on offer to a young ventriloquist-about-town in 1840s London. Valentine begins his tale at a magic show, where he learns about conjuring and – more importantly – ventriloquism. But that is only the start of his whirlwind tour of the delights of the capital.

Among his adventures, he goes to the Italian opera, travels on a steam packet day cruise and attends an Equal Rights march and a lecture on phrenology. He visits the British Museum, Guildhall, the House of Commons, the Victuallers’ fancy fair, a masquerade at Vauxhall, a waxwork exhibition, a concert by the Native Talent Association, a civic pageant and an exhibition of fat cattle. He also goes to the zoological gardens, Greenwich fair, the Royal Academy and Royal Ascot. All of these day trips and entertainments are described in meticulous – though rather ludicrous – description, and Valentine gets to try out the effects of ventriloquism on an array of unsuspecting audiences.

Valentine Vox 53

from The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist

My favourite episode comes towards the end of Valentine’s story, when he has the opportunity to try out a diving bell. It sounds awesome.

4. Werewolves are more badass than vampires

Okay… I already knew this one. But it’s good to have it confirmed.

There aren’t many vampires or werewolves in penny dreadfuls, but two of the best-known titles have one of these monsters as their title character. (It’s possible that these titles have remained well-known because of their monsters, of course.)

Varney the Vampyre; or the Feast of Blood is probably the Victorian penny dreadful that has found the most popularity with modern readers. It’s certainly the one that has the most modern editions (in paperback and eBook) and adaptations.

Varney the Vampyre isn’t so much a ‘classic’ vampire story, as a novel that sets the rules for the ‘classics’. It’s possible to see the influence of this story on Dracula and, a couple of generations later, on Hammer horror films. So many clichés of vampire cinema and literature can be found in Varney the Vampyre – dramatic storms, maidens in peril, puncture marks on the neck, pitchfork-wielding mobs. But, obviously, these weren’t actually clichés when the story was written. In the 1840s, Varney the Vampyre would have been an original and fresh story, drawing together Gothic tropes, the new fad for upper-class vampires that had been borrowed from German poetry and translated onto the British stage and page, and a little bit of pseudo-folklore.

It might come as a bit of a surprise to find that (and ‘vampires-as-monster purists’ might want to look away at this point) Varney is a sympathetic protagonist. Yeah – he’s definitely a blood-sucker, but he feels kinda bad about it. There are shades of Mitchell from Being Human in some of the vampire backstories told in the serial; there are moments of arrogance and pride that rival Lestat. But there’s also a whole lot of angst – maybe not quite as much as you’d expect from Edward Cullen, but enough to make you feel that it’s pretty hard being a vampire.

If that puts you off being Team Varney, have no fear – you can be Team Wagner instead. Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf is part of the much, much longer tradition of werewolf literature. But, unusually, there is a little bit less sympathy for its monstrous protagonist.

That’s not to say that Wagner doesn’t regret his lycanthropic ways or attempt to avoid causing wanton harm and destruction. But, ultimately, he is a monster. He made a rash decision that unleashed the beast within – and God help anyone who gets in his way.

Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf is a shorter narrative than Varney the Vampyre, but it’s a bit more bloodthirsty. If I had to face either of the protagonists in a dark wood at a full moon, I’d take my chances with Varney.

5. If in doubt, dress as a boy

The image of the Victorian lady is probably quite a familiar one to most readers. The Gothic maiden, dragged screaming and fainting into a world of dark horror, is probably also familiar.

Mysteries of London 3

from The Mysteries of London (1st series)

Some penny dreadfuls do have heroines that fit the expected mould. Caroline Mecklenburgh from Vileroy; or the Horrors of Zindorf Castle finds herself trapped in an imposing castle, threatened with starvation, forced marriage, rape and murder, and eventually rescued through a combination of a male saviour, judicial intervention and her own courage and fortitude.

But not all the heroines of penny dreadfuls are so quick to lock themselves in a room and wait for outside help. When faced with the dangers of the world of men, a surprising number of young women decide: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Pierce Egan’s Wat Tyler has a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to go to war. The String of Pearls, a Romance has Johanna Oakley who, after becoming convinced that the sinister Sweeney Todd had something to do with her lover’s disappearance, plans to dress as a boy and get a job with the barber.

The Mysteries of London, a very long-running and popular serial, has a vast cast of people living under assumed names, adopting new identities and wearing disguises. Almost no one is who they claim to be in this novel. So it’s hardly surprising that there are more girls dressed as boys in this narrative than in the others, or that more motives are given for this cross-dressing.

What is interesting, however, is that wearing men’s clothes is explicitly associated with bravery throughout Mysteries of London. For instance, when Ellen Monroe decides (with almost no provocation or explanation for her decision) to don male clothes in order to help out her unfortunate benefactor (Richard Markham), the narrator gives us this little picture:

The reader has, doubtless, seen enough of the character to be well aware that she had acquired a considerable amount of fortitude and self-possession from the various circumstances in which she has been placed: she was not, therefore, now likely to betray any diffidence or timidity as she threaded, in male attire, the crowded streets of the metropolis. She threw into her gait as much assurance as possible; and thus, without exciting any particular notice, she pursued her way towards the eastern districts of the great city.

There’s quite a nice little scene prior to this where Ellen goes to buy her suit and gets kitted out in dapper outfit, shoes, hat, gloves and neckcloth. It’s tempting to see the popularity of young, attractive women dressed in men’s clothes as a precursor to the male impersonators who would grace the music hall stage towards the end of the century.

6. Some things don’t change

As I’ve said, some of the penny dreadfuls paint a vivid picture of the characteristic quirks of the society that presented them (albeit sometimes seen through a glass, darkly). But every so often, a comment or episode chimes a little too well with modern society.

I’ll give just two examples here, both taken from The Mysteries of London. The first involves a knacker, explaining the fate of the horses he has to destroy. He reveals to an assembled group of horrified drinkers in a pub that some of the beef they’ve eaten may well have actually been horsemeat:

“What’s the use of all this here whining and nonsense, oh?” exclaimed the knacker. “Don’t I tell you that good horse-flesh answers all the purposes of beef, and is eaten by the rich in the shape of sassages and tongues? What’s the use, then, of making a fuss about it? How do you suppose the sassage-shops can afford to sell solid meat, without bone, at the price they do, if they didn’t mix it with horses’-flesh? They pays two-pence a-pound for the first-class flesh—and so it must be good.”

His audience (being British through-and-through) are appalled by the thought that they might have inadvertently eaten horseflesh, and horrified by the extent of the contamination. Sound familiar?

The second example will also be chillingly familiar. As the dodgy financial dealings of the numerous shady characters in Mysteries of London begin to come to light, we are introduced to Tomlinson, a banker (of ‘excellent’ reputation) who hovers continuously on the brink of bankruptcy. The narrative takes us behind the scenes at Tomlinson’s bank, to reveal the various practices through which the bank is able to survive. The reader is reminded repeatedly that a bankrupt tradesman would inevitably be sent to debtors’ gaol, but a banker without funds is always able to find ways to avoid arrest. Furthermore, a bank without money will lead to the downfall of any poor soul who had trusted them – but the bankers themselves will survive:

That is the invariable resource of all bankrupt bankers; and what is more extraordinary, they obtain confidence and succeed too.

Plus ça change…

For more information about the Hic Dragones Digital Periodicals series, please check the publisher’s website, like on Facebook or follow on Twitter.



  1. I really enjoyed reading this article and learnt a lot. Thanks so much. I had no idea Penny Dreadfuls were so plentiful (or so long, or know as Penny Bloods!).

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