That novelist is not Charles Dickens but the radical G. W. M. Reynolds (1814-79) whose enormously long The Mysteries of London combined sensation fiction and romance with detailed exposés of police oppression of the poor, government opening of private letters, stealing corpses for dissection, mistreatment of needlewomen, and adulteration of beer, wine, and whiskey with poisonous ingredients. Reynolds’s fiction, which appeared in serial form, comes across as a combination of Dickens, Mayhew, and radical newspaper editorials. A detailed description of a bordello with an emphasis on its use for blackmail — not a topic that many Victorian novelists would touch — precedes a long narrative of Italian liberation in which Richard Markham, his hero, leads to victory an Italian army against a usurping Italian nobleman and his Austrian supporting troops.
His 6,000-page novel reaches that length simply because he strings together what other authors would present as separate books, and some of those books are really collections of essays. The style of this extraordinarily baggy monster of a book, which deploys so many genres, tones, and styles, often appears strongest in his often impassioned essays, one of which attacks the game laws:
The Game-Laws! Never was a more atrocious monopoly than that which reserves the use of certain birds of the air or animals of the earth to a small and exclusive class. The Almighty gave man "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth;" and those who dare to monopolise any of these, to the prejudice of their fellow-creatures, fly in the face of the Lord of all! The Game-Laws have fabricated an offence which fills our prisons—as if there were not already crimes enough to separate men from their families and plunge them into loathsome dungeons. That offence is one of human construction, and exists only in certain countries: it is not a crime against God—nor is it deemed such in many enlightened states. The selfish pleasures of a miserably small minority demand the protection of a statute which is a fertilising source of oppression, wretchedness, ruin, and demoralization. The Game-Laws are a rack whereon the aristocracy loves to behold its victims writhing in tortures, and where the sufferers are compelled to acknowledge as a heinous crime a deed which has in reality no moral turpitude associated with it.
Reynolds here sounds very much like Like Thomas Carlyle, who argued in Past and Present and The French Revolution that the Aristocracy was little more than a collection of useless drones. Decrying the absence of moral and political leadership in a time of unemployment and financial crisis, the Victorian sage asked, what are England’s great landowners and holders of titles doing? His answer: they are tending their game. Carlyle, who thus who heaped scorn on England’s great landowners, warned that if they don’t perform the functions that provide the grounds — the justification — for their having wealth and power, they will be swept away, just as were the ruling classes in France.
Sounding the same warning, Reynolds points out that “The aristocracy of England regards the patience of the masses as a bow whose powers of tension are unlimited: but the day must come, sooner or later, when those who thus dare to trifle with this generous elasticity will be struck down by the violence of the recoil.” Unlike Carlyle — but like Matthew Arnold and many others after the passage of the 1867 Reform Bill — Reynolds sees educating the masses as the solution, though in the early 1840s he obviously has no faith that Parliament will do anything to help the working classes and those under them. In fact, he assures his readers that “although our legislators—trembling at what they affect to sneer at under the denomination of "the march of intellect"—obstinately refuse to imitate enlightened France by instituting a system of national education,—nevertheless, the millions of this country are now instructing themselves!”
Whereas Carlyle looked to the Captains of Industry, the new industrialists of the North, for leadership, Reynolds looks to their employees, the factory workers, proclaiming, “Honour to the English mechanic — honour to the English operative: each alike seeks to taste of the tree of learning, ‘whose root is bitter, but whose fruits are sweet!’ Thank God, no despotism — no tyranny can arrest the progress of that mighty intellectual movement which is now perceptible amongst the industrious millions of these realms.”
Reynolds, who exclaims, “And how excellent are the principles of that self-instruction which now tends to elevate the moral condition of the country,” exults that it is no longer “confined within the narrow limits which churchmen would impose” but includes the sciences and “all subjects of practical utility, — its aim being to model the mind on the solid basis of Common Sense.”
Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 2. Project Gutenberg EBook #51294. Produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Web. 27 September 2016.
Last modified 27 September 2016