Led by Sarah Lill (Northumbria University)
20 July 2012
This reading group session took place at Newcastle University, and focussed on the material published by Edward Lloyd, a figurehead behind the ‘Penny Dreadful’ publications. Published in the 1830s and attaining the height of their popularity between 1836 and 1837, we considered how Lloyd hired writers to create stories based upon semi-fictional events from recent history. These concentrated upon tales of pirates and highwaymen, often including highly sensationalised and lurid narratives. Sarah began by providing us with an overview of Lloyd’s background as well as the ‘Penny Dreadful’ origins and publication history, which helped to situate and frame the discussion for those of us who were unfamiliar with these kinds of texts.
The two texts we focused upon were ‘Grimes Bolton’, a story about the crimes and comeuppance of a robber, and ‘Charlotte De Berry’, narrating the exploits of a female pirate. We began by considering themes that linked the two stories. Firstly, we were struck by the amorality of the narratives, with protagonists characterised as being corrupt by nature. For example, Grimes disappointed a loving and supportive father with his delinquency, whilst Charlotte left heartbroken parents behind to pursue a life on the high seas. We also considered how the motif of disguise runs through both narratives. In the case of Grimes Bolton this was linked to shifting identities, whilst Charlotte de Berry took on male apparel during her career as a pirate. We thought about how this theme of disguise in relation to criminality differed between men and women. In the case of the robbers and highwaymen, the disguise functions to subvert class divides, particularly when the aim is monetary gain. In contrast, Charlotte’s disguise operates in a way that questions concepts of gender. We remarked how it was significant that when Charlotte returned to land, she resumed female dress, whereas her male outfits on the sea seemed almost to sanction her bloodthirsty and brutal behaviour. It was suggested that by disguising herself, Charlotte negated her identity as a woman in a way that seems crucial in allowing her to act and think as a pirate.
This suggestion that disguise is linked to criminality led us to consider the most notorious theme in each text – cannibalism. Whilst both stories provide accounts of shocking crimes – including theft, rape and murder – it is the descriptions of cannibal acts that are arguably the most gruesome. However, the theme of gender once again seemed to distinguish both texts from each other. Whilst in ‘Charlotte de Berry’, men are killed and eaten as an act of desperation, in ‘Grimes Bolton’ there exists the unsettling idea that the woman’s body must be preserved, thus justifying their prolonged torture and brutalization. Such a concept was supported when we examined the illustrations that would have accompanied these stories. Not only are they shocking even to a present-day reader, but they also uphold this sense of gender distinction in the way that the female body is degraded.
Such themes led us to think about why these stories were so popular during this era. Emerging from the Newgate Chronicle tradition of the eighteenth-century, which inspired Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders amongst others, Lloyd’s stories were most widely read during a period of social upheaval and uncertainty. We considered whether there was a correlation between the popularity of Lloyd’s publications, and the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. This was a time in which the new queen and her government were compelled to redress widespread poverty, unrest and political divisions. In this context, could Lloyd’s dismembered and devoured bodies be viewed as metaphors for the disunity and disease of contemporary society? It is significant that Lloyd moved in circles that included social reformers like Charles Dickens, and later, W. T. Stead. We thus wondered whether his gruesome tales functioned as cautionary advice, or as part of a wider desire to bring about social change.
The theme of educating society, particularly the working-classes, about the consequences of brutal behaviour and criminality, led us to draw parallels between Lloyd’s themes and those that were popular in children’s literature at the time. Although Lloyd's stories were clearly intended for an adult audience, we remarked how such tales can be seen as characteristic of a movement in such writing away from texts that preached Christian morality. For example, it was suggested that similarities could be drawn between Lloyd’s treatment of highwaymen and pirates, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s emphasis upon self-discovery and adventure in Kidnapped (1886) and Treasure Island (1883). We also noticed how there was a distrust of urbanity in Lloyd’s writing, with the forest and the sea representing a sense of mystery, and more importantly, a sense of distance from the morals of contemporary society.
We identified in both Lloyd's themes and writing style indications of cultural changes that would be developed throughout nineteenth-century literature. This session was thus rewarding in terms of introducing us to the ‘Penny Dreadful’ tradition that would culminate in a character who would enjoy an infamous afterlife – Sweeney Todd. It also raised significant questions in relation to the wider social sphere.- Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University.