Stephen Basdeo publishes chapter on Victorian penny dreadfuls

Stephen Basdeo has published a chapter on George William MacArthur Reynolds’s novel The Mysteries of London. The novel was serialised between 1844 and 1848 in weekly penny numbers and colloquially known as a “penny dreadful”. In spite of its “low” literary status, however, Reynolds’s story was actually the biggest-selling novel of the era, outselling the works of leading lights of the period such as Charles Dickens, William M. Thackeray, Thomas Hardy, and the Brontes.

The novel is a tale of vice and crime in high and low life, and Basdeo’s chapter analyses the life of the main villain, the sinister Resurrection Man named Anthony Tidkins. For a majority of the novel, Tidkins is depicted as a menacing, brutal, and evil figure. As his alias suggests, his primary activity is grave robbing. The full range of his criminal activities is quite diverse, however, for in concert with his accomplice, the Cracksman, he practises extortion, kidnapping, and highway robbery in return for a fee, and collaborates with “white collar” criminals such as MPs and fraudulent bankers, all in the pursuit of profit.

Yet, as Basdeo’s chapter argues, while other Victorian authors often depicted criminals as inherently wicked and irredeemable, Reynolds, an outspoken radical and friend of the poor, shows that the only reason the Resurrection Man is criminal is because the poor suffer political oppression along with social and economic deprivation. Reynolds’s depiction of the life of the Resurrection Man is, therefore, an early literary manifestation of the old adage: society gets the criminals it deserves.

Basdeo’s chapter is published in the edited volume entitled Victorian Cultures of Liminality, and is edited by Dr. Amina Alyal, Prof. Rosemary Mitchell, and Dr. Susan Anderson.

Stephen Basdeo teaches at Leeds RIASA on the BA Sport Management programme. His research interests include the history of crime from the medieval to the Victorian period, as well as general British social and cultural history, and he has recently published a book entitled The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018).