Published in 624 weekly volumes over 12 years, and amounting to some 4.5 million words in total, Mysteries of London has some claim to being the longest novel ever written – and is almost certainly the most successful serial publication in history. At the peak of its popularity in the late 1840s, it was selling 250,000 copies a week.
It was devised by George W M Reynolds (1814–1879) after the model of Eugene Sue’s French novel Les Mystères de Paris, which brought together members of high and low society through the means of a sensational mystery plot in which the city played a defining role. By the time Reynolds began writing Mysteries, he had led a complicated life that combined high moral ideals, radical journalism, frequent poverty, and jail for bankruptcy. A lot of the satirical bite of Mysteries comes from the fact that Reynolds clearly knew the street life he was writing about.
Reynolds himself stopped writing Mysteries in 1846, after a dispute with his publisher George Vickers. Vickers employed two other writers to carry on the series for another ten years, while Reynolds himself began writing The Mysteries of the Court of London – historical whodunnits set in the courts of kings George II and George III.
Because of their sensational content, and because such works were sold in instalments for a penny a time, they began to be known as ‘penny bloods’ or ‘penny dreadfuls’. Advances in printing technology from the 1830s onwards had made large-volume print runs affordable for the first time. Using cheap paper – as most penny dreadfuls did – drove costs still lower. The early penny dreadfuls tended to hark back to the Gothic popular fiction of the Georgian period – full of gypsies, pirates and romantic adventures – but The Mysteries of London marked a change in emphasis. Now the novels were up-to-date and about the streets its readers walked during their ordinary lives.
- Article by:
- Judith Flanders
- Crime and crime fiction, Popular culture, Reading and print culture
The penny dreadful was a 19th-century publishing phenomenon. Judith Flanders explains what made these cheap, sensational, highly illustrated stories so popular with the Victorian public.