Tag Archives: Victorian Fiction

The Victorian Underworld

A little while ago, I blogged about Kellow Chesney’s classic book The Victorian Underworld, one of the best and most readable introductions to the subject for the general reader.

Donald Thomas’s book has the same title and covers some of the same ground, but it’s well worth a read as well. Reading both books will give you a good working knowledge of the subject and suggest avenues of research you might care to follow.

Mr Thomas is well known as an academic, an historian and biographer, and as a writer of crime fiction – I reviewed his novel Jekyll, Alias Hyde recently. He has also written a detective series and some Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Victorian Underworld, was first published in 1998 and was shortlisted for a CWA Golden Dagger.

Thomas begins with a prologue entitled “Darkest England,” setting the scene for the Victorian townscapes and countryside where the underworld thrived.

Mr Thomas pulls no punches in exposing of the hypocrisy of Victorian Britain. Sheer poverty drove people towards crime because of the basic need to survive.

On a personal note, I must say I get a little weary of present-day politicians preaching the merits of Victorian values,  and yearning to recreate such a world. Victorian Britain must have been an interesting place to live if you were very wealthy – but for the vast majority, it was a long struggle often just to put bread on the table.

As Aristotle pointed out a few thousand years ago, “poverty is the main cause of crime and revolution.” The Victorian Establishment suppressed – often with considerable brutality – most attempts to even up the odds.

The Underworld of the Age was an inevitable reaction to a Victorian lack of decency and fairness. Although there was a great deal of casual crime, there was also a considerable amount of criminal organisation. Mr Thomas looks at both in great detail.

Here we have the thieves, the swell mob and the pornographers, the way justice was loaded against the poor and there’s a lengthy examination of corruption at the heart of the Establishment and, in particular, at Scotland Yard.

There is a very good chapter on the stealing of the Crimean gold from a moving train, fictionalised in a book and a film by Michael Crichton as The First Great Train Robbery. The reality of the crime is much more sensational than any work of fiction.

Mr Thomas deals well with the subject of Victorian sexuality – there were, after all, tens of thousands of prostitutes on the streets of London.

He devotes a chapter to the mysterious memoirist called Walter, whose voluminous My Secret Life, gives some vivid pen-sketches by a man who was a customer of these women. There’s also a look at W.T Stead’s exposure of child prostitution and a glance at Victorian homosexuality.

Mr Thomas’s book was first published a few years after I first studied the Victorian Underworld as an undergraduate, doing a minor in Victorian social history at the University of East Anglia.

I seem to recall that, apart from the Kellow Chesney book, I was obliged to seek out primary sources – and so one should. But for the general reader without a great deal of time, these two books by Mr Chesney and Mr Thomas, offer a very readable and fascinating introduction.

My interest in the history of the Victorian Underworld has never wavered. I’ve read a lot more since graduation and tried to portray this world as accurately as possible in my own novels The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest.







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The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney

If any one book inspired me to write my William Quest Victorian thrillers it’s this one, Kellow Chesney’s very readable and scholarly book on the Victorian underworld. It was first published in 1970 and – for me – is the standard work on this fascinating subject.Victorian Underworld: Chesney, Kellow

I first encountered it when I was an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Although I majored in literature, I did a minor in nineteenth-century social history. The underworld was only a small part of my studies, but discovering Kellow Chesney’s book sent me of on a wider reading programme, both in secondary reading and the primary sources.

When I’m asked to recommend a book on the Victorian underworld this is the one I suggest as a first read. There are several other titles I like – and I hope to give these a mention on the blog in the coming months – but Kellow Chesney’s book is the most comprehensive and the best introduction.

It’s all here, starting with a walk through the mid-century streets of London – and how vividly the author portrays the place. This is no dull work of scholarship, it’s a page-turner as exciting as all the best mystery thrillers.

Then from the main streets frequented by the richest members of society, Kellow Chesney takes the reader to the borders of the underworld, the places where the dispossessed and those forced into crime to survive are obliged to lurk – and the boundaries between the rookeries and the smart streets of society are often back to back.

We are then taken on a journey into the rookeries themselves. Kellow Chesney conjures them up in all their awfulness. It is impossible to understand the Victorian criminal underworld unless you can understand the causes of crime.

Here are the beggars, the pick-pockets, the footpads and the swell mob. The skilled cracksmen who break the safes and steal the jewellery of the richest members of society. Here are the magsmen, gonophs, macers and shofulmen. The screevers and the Newgate mob. (I’ll talk more about these in a blog early next week.)

There were perhaps 80000 prostitutes in Victorian London alone. Kellow Chesney deals sympathetically with their plight, whether they were working the poorest streets in the East End for pennies or selling themselves for much more in the night houses in the West End.

The book is wonderfully illustrated, mostly with the sketches of the great Gustave Dore, adding to the feeling of being there so brilliantly evoked in Mr Chesney’s words. If you can, seek out one of the original hardback editions – the pictures are not so well reproduced in the paperback editions.

When I came to write William Quest, Kellow Chesney’s book was the first I re-read. If you want a good understanding of the Victorian underworld, I commend it to you.

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Writing a Victorian Thriller

An interview with John Bainbridge about his Victorian thriller “The Shadow of William Quest”:

So how did William Quest come about?

I’ve always wanted to write about aspects of the Victorian underworld, but I wanted a setting that was London and Norfolk. For a long time I had this image of a gentleman carrying a swordstick walking along a London alley. I knew straight away that he was on some sort of quest for vengeance. His name, in these preliminary thoughts was Edward Stanton. Then one day the name William Quest flashed into my mind. It seemed to fit. I knew it would open with a killing but had only the vaguest ideas as to where to go from there.

So did you write out any sort of detailed plot plan?

Not really, and I’m glad I didn’t. I scribbled a few pages of very rough ideas in a Moleskine notebook. Many of these got rejected as I went on. I knew that there had to be some sort of back story for Quest. I had thoughts on what that should be. Then I sat down and it really wrote itself.

Did it come easily?

Much easier than anything I’ve ever written before. Whole characters just appeared, complete with names. I had no idea that there would be a character called Jasper Feedle at all. He just appeared one morning with that name. Walked out on to the pages, complete. Wissilcraft, the spy, was someone else who built up his part. He was meant to be a very minor character, just in a couple of scenes. And then there he is, driving the whole plot forwards.

Did you do much research?

I took a minor in nineteenth century social history as an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia. I always had a considerable interest in the Victorian underworld so I had most of that information at my fingertips. I have always had an interest in Victorian London and Norfolk and wanted a contrast between the London rookeries and the lonely countryside of Norfolk. Recent visits back to Norfolk gave me ideas for the scenes there and for the climax.

How do you work?

Mornings only! An early start and then only to lunchtimes, then the brain gives up. I usually write between 850 to 1400 words a day. I try to write every day. I really want to do more words.

Do you have a favourite character?

It has to be Jasper Feedle. Mostly because he saved me a lot of labour and came on like an actor, gave the performance, without any great effort from me.

Why the Victorian period?

When I was younger my period was always the 17th century. My university experiences and reading since diverted me to Victorian times. I think it a fascinating period. People think they know it, but…. And there are several periods within the period. The Regency attitudes linger on for a long time into Victoria’s reign. I found that fascinating and it was one reason why I set Quest as early as 1853. Much of Dickens’ work is driven by those attitudes. Worth remembering that there were thirty years of Victorianism after Dickens died. They were rather different years, much as the 1980s were different from the 1940s.

A good time to be alive?

If you were well off. Most of my ancestors were working class during Victoria’s reign. Many had unpleasant and early deaths. But there were wonderful people fighting for reform as well. I wanted to reflect both aspects in the novel. But at the end of the day it is a thriller and not a social novel. But Victorian values are not something, generally, we should wish back. Like Quest and his friends I would like a fairer and much more compassionate world.

But the relics of Victorian Britain are still there?

They are indeed. In Britain we are fortunate that we can walk down the same streets and see the same buildings as our Victorian ancestors. Walk down many High Streets, look up above modern fascias, and we can still see the buildings they would have seen. A lot of Britons still live in the same houses as the Victorians. Much of our civic architecture is Victorian. We should make sure the planners and developers leave it alone.

Will there be any more William Quest novels?The Shadow Of William Quest Cover

I hope to finish another Quest novel by the spring.   The sequel to my historical novel “Loxley”, which is scheduled for publication next month.

What advice would you give to anyone writing a Victorian thriller?

Don’t dwell too much on the plot until you have immersed yourself in the period. Sometimes the best ideas come out of that period. Read widely, walk those Victorian streets, look at their art, listen to their music, read their literature. It’s a bit like time travel. You need to be living there in a bit of your mind. Once you can get into that state the ideas should come. Better than trying to force a plot on to the period.

“The Shadow of William Quest” is now out in paperback and on Kindle, Kobo and Nook eBook readers. Just click on the link below for more information.





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The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.

The Moonstone is deservedly one of the most famous novels of the Victorian age and has never been out of print since it was first published in 1868. The story burst upon the reading public, serialised in thirty-two parts in Dickens’s weekly magazine All The Year Round. A novel in three volumes appeared later the same year.

The serial was originally scheduled to run for twenty-six issues but proved so popular that Collins extended the story. Hailed then and now as one of the greatest mid-Victorian sensation novels, T.S Eliot famously described The Moonstone as ‘the first, the longest and the best of the modern English detective novels.’ It is all that and much more.

The Moonstone offers a lot of reading pleasure in addition to a gripping mystery. It’s satirical, witty and wise about human nature. The narrative tells us a lot about life on a mid-nineteenth century country estate and reveals much about the author’s own dark experiences and compassionate views.

In the story the heroine Rachel Verinder is bequeathed a rare yellow diamond of fabulous quality on her eighteenth birthday. The jewel known as The Moonstone was looted by her uncle, an army officer, at the Storming of Seringapatam in 1799. The bequest may be a gesture of family reconciliation or more likely a malicious gift.

A trio of mysterious Indian jugglers are hanging around the Verinders’ Yorkshire estate, bringing a feeling of lurking menace. In the night after the birthday celebrations The Moonstone is stolen. When the local police are baffled, a detective from London is called in to solve the mystery – thus beginning a great crime novel tradition.

The passionate rose-grower Sergeant Cuff is one of the earliest literary detectives, a character as engaging and idiosyncratic in his way as Sherlock Holmes. We know that Collins was thinking of the real detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard. He investigated the notorious Road Hill House murder where he suspected Constance Kent of murdering her infant brother. Wilkie Collins takes inspiration directly from that case for a significant clue to the solution of The Moonstone.

A great strength of the novel is its unusual structure. Multiple narrators relate their partial version of events in a lengthy document. Apparently Collins was influenced by attending a criminal trial – Dickens, his close friend and mentor, started out as a court reporter so they may well have discussed this. The novel is laid out as a record of events two years after the affair of The Moonstone has been resolved. Each narrator has been asked to write a record only of what took place in their personal experience. They bear witness just as in court and are not permitted to add details with hindsight.

It’s a very clever device whereby the reader is given fair-play clueing. Characters and events are viewed through several eyes, each with their own bias or prejudice. The reader must decide who is an unreliable narrator and there may be more than one.

It’s easy to understand why the Victorian readers were avidly awaiting the next instalment as the story is just as much of a page-turner today. Part of that must be down to Wilkie Collins’s skill at writing believable characters. They leap off the page. None more so than the lovable, elderly house-steward Gabriel Betteridge who narratives the First Period – The Loss Of The Diamond. Betteridge’s view is kindly towards underdogs and outsiders, echoing Wilkie Collins’s voice. He’s also delightfully eccentric, using Robinson Crusoe as his personal oracle and ‘catching’ detective-fever when he assists Sergeant Cuff.

The Second Period – The Discovery Of The Truth, begins with the narrative of Miss Drusilla Clack. A do-gooding spinster and that stalwart of Victorian fiction, a poor relation, she’s very funny and a joy to read. Wilkie Collins is equally good at writing both sexes and you get the impression he was thinking of real women he’d met – and real occasions when he’d been earnestly harangued in someone’s drawing-room.

Miss Clack is determined to improve people whether they like it or not. Her favourite way of helping others is to leave tracts everywhere she visits. When a maid at the door unaccountably declines to take ‘A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons,’ Miss Clack triumphantly shoves it through the letter-box. Collins satirises her hypocrisy with a skill every bit as good as Dickens’. In a scene where Miss Clack is invited to stay, she writes ‘the glorious prospect of interference was opened before me.’

Wilkie Collins’s sympathy for working-class people and outsiders is evident in the novel. He shared his home with his mistress Caroline Graves, who had kept a lowly junk shop. The other woman in his life, Martha Rudd, the mother of his children, had been a barmaid and housemaid. You can tell that he saw people as individuals and didn’t regard them as inferior based on low status. It’s apparent from all his novels that he liked and understood women.

Gabriel Betteridge says: ‘People in high life have all the luxuries to themselves – among others, the luxury of indulging their feelings. People in low life have no such privilege. Necessity, which spares our betters, has no pity on us. We learn to put our feelings back into ourselves, and to jog on with our duties as patiently as may be.’

And the maid-servant Rosanna Spearman says bitterly of her young mistress: ‘Suppose you put Miss Rachel into a servant’s dress, and took her ornaments off?’

Collins’s treatment of the Indians in the story is also more sympathetic than most of his contemporaries. There was a sort of fascination-come-horror about India after the Mutiny in 1857. This was a useful way of introducing a touch of the exotic and a sense of threat, a nice vicarious thrill for his readers.

The other aspect that makes The Moonstone such an enjoyable read is Wilkie Collins’s superb sense of place. Gabriel Betteridge describes the setting of much of the novel.

‘Our house is high up on the Yorkshire coast, and close by the sea. We have got beautiful walks all round us, in every direction but one. That one I acknowledge to be a horrid walk. It leads, for a quarter of a mile, through a melancholy plantation of firs, and brings you out between low cliffs on the loneliest and ugliest little bay on all our coast.’

He goes on to describe a quicksand known as The Shivering Sand. Collins evokes a desolate atmosphere that contrasts vividly with the ordered grounds of the house with their rose garden, hedges and safe gravelled walks.

The Moonstone has had a wide influence. It partly inspired Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which is a sort of light-hearted detective novel interlude in his wonderful series The Pallisers. And it’s likely that Dickens’s unfinished novel The Mystery Of Edwin Drood took some influence from a major plot strand (can’t be more specific without spoilers). It’s hard not to recall The Moonstone when reading the Sherlock Holmes stories with an Indian background such as The Sign Of Four and The Creeping Man.

The Moonstone has been praised by some of the greatest detective writers including P.D James and Dorothy L. Sayers. (Her novel The Documents In The Case, co-written with Robert Eustace has a similar structure, using letters).

It appears at No. 8 on the CWA list of the Top 100 Best Crime Novels of all time. I don’t really like the idea of such lists – much as we all enjoy scanning them – so many good novels get left out. Though it’s a testament to Wilkie Collins’s powers that his greatest works are as well-loved today as they were when first published in the 1860s.


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Jekyll and Hyde – Victorian Secrets And A Text

Last time I looked at the genesis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Now I would like to examine something of what Stevenson intended in this published version, in effect a fresh draft of his original idea. And I’d like to suggest that Stevenson, in a mischievous Hyde-ian mood, plays with the reader throughout the text, deliberately manipulating reactions and assumptions in a very clever way. Touching the nerve of an audience who were mostly very well aware of just what he was getting at.

Now this latter point has been undervalued for much of the novel’s published life, because we lack the ability to see the story in the way its first readers did. They did not know that Jekyll and Hyde were the same person. We do know and it’s hard to put that thought out of our minds. But let’s try to do so.

The novel is presented through the eyes of several characters, all of them – except one – unreliable narrators, because they only know a part of what is happening and are bringing their own social assumptions to what they see.

The principal narrator is Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and lawyer. Then there is Richard Enfield, a friend of Utterson’s who reveals a tiny bit of the tale to him. There is a second-hand account from a housemaid who may, because of her romantic leanings, be the most unreliable narrator of all. There is Dr Lanyon, who finds out the truth too late though he imparts it in a letter to Utterson. And there is Dr Jekyll himself, who knows the whole truth – but how he presents it is questionable.

Rather skilfully, Stevenson shows us that a first-person account may be loaded to produce a certain interpretation. His Jekyll wants, through his confession, to present himself in the best possible light. Though given what has happened that’s not too easy for him to do. Stevenson presents those difficulties in the sub-text.

I posit the thought that here is how the first readers might have perceived the story from its opening. Dr Jekyll, a respectable scientist of around fifty, has somehow come into acquaintanceship with a much younger man, Edward Hyde. Hyde is given the run of Jekyll’s house, is obviously being kept by him, has been provided with a home of his own in Soho, and become the legatee in Jekyll’s will – which Jekyll has lodged with Utterson with the instructions that Hyde should have the full rein of Jekyll’s property if the latter should disappear.

We are told that in his youth Jekyll was wild and had ‘certain appetites’. Stevenson doesn’t actually say what these appetites were. The reader is left to make up his or her own mind, though once again Stevenson loads the dice. I suggest that, in the mind of the Victorian reader, there would be only two possibilities strong enough to shock – sexual appetites or drugs. And given that many Victorians took substances that are now illegal, and quite regularly at that, probably the former.

It is quite clear, and not just from some sub-textual reading, that Hyde appears to have Jekyll in thrall to him. Utterson, in his narration, believes that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll. But why?

The suggestion has been made that early readers might have thought this to be a homosexual relationship, where a rent boy is blackmailing a client. A not unusual scenario in the London of this period, as Oscar Wilde found to his cost.

This gay theory receives a boost from the incident in the tale where Hyde murders the supposedly respectable Member of Parliament Sir Danvers Carew.

This scene is worth looking at in some detail, though we have to bear in mind that we are seeing it through what is effectively the witness statement of a housemaid, who only observes it from a distant window. She witnesses the encounter between Carew and Hyde. It is eleven o’clock at night. She reports that:

‘an aged and beautiful gentleman with white hair, drawing near along the lane; and advancing to meet him, another and very small gentleman (Hyde)… When they had come within speech…the old man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness. It did not seem as if the subject of his address were of great importance; indeed, from his pointing, it sometimes appeared as if he were only inquiring his way; but the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was please to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something too, of a well-founded self-content.’ (My italics)

Notice those qualifications: Why only ‘seemed to breathe such an old-world kindness of disposition’?

The maid then sees Hyde become enraged and beat Carew to death with a heavy walking cane.

What were the first readers of Jekyll and Hyde meant to make of this? Here is a wealthy gentleman, supposedly respectable, though down by the river late at night, accosting a young man of what was then considered to be the lower classes in a very pretty manner of politeness?

Stevenson, of course, given the time of publication, couldn’t be more specific. But I would suggest that he knew perfectly well what he was implying. Every man about town, and Stevenson had certainly been one of them in his time, would have understood the principles of homosexual pick-ups, even if – like Stevenson – they were heterosexual themselves.

The other time we see Hyde using violence is earlier in the novel where he knocks down and tramples a little girl. This is shown to us as an impatient act of violence only. Yet even some of the novel’s first readers put a different construction upon it, drawing upon the time they were living in.

In a letter to his friend Robert Bridges, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suggested that ‘The trampling scene perhaps a convention: he was talking of something unsuitable for fiction.’

Stevenson presents us with an image of Hyde paying off the father of the little girl with a cheque from Jekyll’s cheque book. We are perhaps meant to be reminded of W.T.Stead’s journalistic purchase of a young girl in his famous expose of child prostitution, which was the scandal celebre of London at the time. It happened in the same year that Stevenson wrote his book.

Sometimes, when I read of Hyde out on the streets in that way I’m reminded of those other supposedly respectable Victorian gentlemen who created a different persona so that they might be able to indulge in pleasures of which their families and friends might disapprove. If you read the pages of the sexual diarist known as Walter, though he lived during the earlier Victorian period, you get a feeling that this was another Hyde, though without his more violent instincts.

And, as people remarked not long after the novel’s publication, perhaps Jack the Ripper was Jekyll by day and Hyde by night. The belief that the serial killer was a doctor was prevalent almost from the start of the murders.

Another possibility that might have come into the mind of an early reader is that Hyde is Jekyll’s illegitimate son. This suggested by the remark that Jekyll had gone slumming in his youth to satisfy those ‘certain appetites’. And that Jekyll is concealing the relationship because Hyde is either insane or, as Stevenson notes, malformed.

In his confession, which ends the book, Jekyll writes that as a young man he had ‘a certain gaiety of disposition…Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures.’ He tells us that he turned away from all of that as he aged, until the point of the story where the now respectable Dr Jekyll yearns to explore these feelings once again; transforming himself into Hyde to avoid compromising his reputation. Unfortunately, his creation loses control, going, presumably, far beyond Jekyll’s original and youthful vices. Jekyll confesses to the reader:

‘The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn towards the monstrous…’

And in quite an early conversation in the narrative, Stevenson has Jekyll tell Utterson – and perhaps issue the more salacious reader with a caveat against assuming too much – that ‘it isn’t what you fancy; it is not as bad as that…’
Perhaps not as Jekyll but what about his indulgences as Hyde?

The conclusion of the story, Jekyll’s written confession, is a masterpiece of narration, as Hyde and Jekyll battle each other to present a point of view. The first revelation of the truth about the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde has driven Dr Lanyon to his death. Here we are given a detailed reason why.

The novel succeeds or fails here. The fictional narrator, supposedly Jekyll, hardly, at this point, knows who he is. At one point he seems to be looking and considering whether to let either Jekyll or Hyde triumph. He has become some third-person standing outside them both, unsure of which way to lean:

‘To cast in my lot with Jekyll, was to die to those appetites which I had long secretly indulged and had of late begun to pamper. To cast it in with Hyde, was to die to a thousand interests and aspirations, and to become, at a blow and forever, despised and friendless.’

There is no answer, only death. The desires of Dr Jekyll can only be subdued that way.

There is no doubt that the first readers were shocked at the conclusion. It inspired a huge amount of comment in society at the time. Not just in the newspapers and reviews, but as the subject of church sermons and philosophical debates. The Victorian readership were forced to confront the reality of the nature of man. That there is light and darkness within all of us.

But they may well have breathed a sigh of relief that the solution to the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was not much worse. Not any of the other socially unacceptable possibilities that a very clever writer had planted in their minds.

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Jekyll and Hyde

I was interested to see that a new British television series of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde airs in a week or two. The story has been perennially popular since Robert Louis Stevenson first wrote it in 1885 while enjoying a seaside recuperation at Bournemouth. It was published a year later.

It is one of those rare works of fiction where you can just say the title and everyone will know what you mean. Although, the majority, I suspect, have never read the original tale, taking their knowledge of the story from films and television. Many will not even know that the correct title is actually “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.

We can, of course, never read it in quite the same way as its first readers. By now surely everyone knows that Jekyll transforms into the malignant Hyde? The original shock value of that transformation can never be recaptured. But how often today do we read or hear of someone having a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality?

I’ll deal with a few of the films and the new television version – set not in Victorian times but in the 1930s – in a few weeks. But now I want to go back to Stevenson’s original story

Why does the story still hold such power 130 years after it was written? To start with, it was an instant bestseller. The book sold over 40,000 copies in its first six months. It was read with interest by Queen Victoria herself, the prime minister and had an influence on writers and artists. The story and its moral implications became the subject of newspaper editorials and church sermons. It almost instantly inspired stage-plays, with members of audiences reportedly fainting during the transformation scenes – well, that was the spin put out by theatre managements anyway!

Richard Mansfield’s acting performance in the role in the London of 1888 just happened to come along at the same time as the Whitechapel Murders. Indeed, some audience members thought that Mansfield might even be Jack the Ripper. Or that the story and play might have inspired the killings. The kind of publicity that modern-day authors would kill for (pun intended!) The gentler Stevenson would probably have been less sure.

Legend has it that Stevenson wrote and corrected the story more or less in three days. Legend has it wrong, I’m afraid. The actual work covered about six weeks in time, though that’s not bad going for a 64,000 word book. And it was not originally envisaged as a moral parable. Stevenson was hard up and needed the money, as authors tend to do. It certainly fulfilled that purpose.

In fact it was written and intended to be published as a “crawler” – one of those Christmas stories so beloved of Dickens, slightly scary, designed to appeal for the mass-market, something with a slight gothic edge. Rather like his previous yarns “The Body Snatcher” and “Olalla”. Stevenson meant it to be published for the Christmas of 1885. In fact it appeared a month later.

Interestingly, given the nature of the plot, his publisher Longmans issued it in two separate editions; a cloth binding for the wealthier reader of literature at 1s 6d and a cheaper paper covered edition for mass readership at 1 shilling. Almost as soon as a copy had crossed the Atlantic it was massively pirated, robbing Stevenson of much needed royalties.

The story goes that Stevenson gained the germ of the story during a nightmare – worth pointing out that he was, like many a Victorian, taking drugs at the time for poor health – being woken by his wife Fanny as he cried out in his sleep. He told her it was a pity that he’d been wakened as he was dreaming “a fine boguey tale.”

Inspired, he wrote a version of it down at white heat and presented it to his spouse to read. Famously, she tore his tale to shreds, saying that he’d missed an opportunity to present the morality of the plot. To her horror he threw the manuscript into the fire, and began again.

But what was that original draft like, and why did Fanny object so much? It’s possible that it resembled far more some of the film versions, with the sexual overtones of Hyde as a man about town, depicting Victorian London in all its grimmest aspects. Suggestions have been made that this was what scared Fanny so much. She was, after all, trying to nurture a literary genius towards deserved and widespread fame. And these were prudish times. At least for works that were to find an audience in print.

On the other hand, Stevenson himself, in a letter to a friend, decried a stage production that included more sexual connotations to the story, though his own argument in that letter makes little logical sense.

It is quite likely that in the earlier version, Jekyll created Hyde as a cover and alibi so that he might carry out his own unpleasant yearnings. When we think back on the story, memory might play us false. Readers tend to remember Jekyll as all good and Hyde as all bad. But that’s not what Stevenson actually says in the text.

While Hyde is irredeemably evil, Stevenson quite clearly suggests a side of Jekyll that is at best louche and at worst, well?

One of the characters remembers that Jekyll was ‘wild when he was young; a long while ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; a ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace, pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condemned the fault.’

Now what is all that about? I believe it to be a trace of the character of Jekyll left behind from the original draft. After all, and it’s the question that the reader should always be asking, why has Jekyll created the ability of becoming Hyde in the first place? Scientific curiosity or something more prurient?

Was Stevenson recalling something of his own youth? He was brought up with a respectable Edinburgh background. His first real influence was his very Calvinistic nurse. And yet Stevenson went wild in his youth, roaming the streets and brothels of his native city, almost with an alternative identity as ‘Velvet Coat’, as the dwellers in its underworld nicknamed him. It’s known that he fell in love with a young prostitute, even considering the prospect of marriage to her – to the horror of his family. Word had got around. Edinburgh is quite a small place.

And for all that the book is set in London, there are surely elements of Edinburgh there too. We see the respectable squares of the city and the rookeries that are really not so far away. The duality of the city landscape, something like Edinburgh’s old and new towns, where there is the past and poverty on one side and enlightenment and wealth on the other.

The city that Stevenson describes, London, is shown to the reader in a nightmarish way, with its citizens almost morally drowning under a sea of fog, which clings to the streets and buildings like the corruption and depravity that are not so very far away.

Jekyll’s own house is shown to have two sides, like its owner. It remains a fashionable home in a slightly run down but respectable square. But to its rear is the block where Jekyll carries out his experiments.

We are told that they were once the dissecting rooms of a respectable surgeon – bringing forward suggestions of body snatching and doubtful acts of anatomy. The block has its own door leading to a more dubious area of the town – the suggestion is that this is the door through which stolen bodies were smuggled. The street beyond is not quite a rookery but a poor place, where the denizens of the underworld might linger. Respectable gentlemen only seem to walk it armed with a heavy cane – or perhaps a swordstick.

And it is quite clear that it is those elements that Jekyll wishes to explore, behind the alias of his sinister alter ego. And though Stevenson destroyed his original draft, written at such speed, the writer within him took over, presenting a series of assumptions and challenges for the careful reader.

Next week I shall look at how Stevenson suggests secrets in his book, how he plays – I think quite deliberately – with his readers’ imaginings. And I shall try to recapture the feelings the first readers of the story might have had, trying to put to one side the now well-known solution to the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.


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The Prisoner Of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda
(and Rupert of Hentzau)

Anthony Hope’s novel “The Prisoner of Zenda” became a bestseller when it was first published in 1894 – and has remained in print for the past 121 years. It is also the only thriller I can recall that begins with the hero eating a boiled egg.

Thriller did I say? Well, yes, the Kingdom of Ruritania is fictitious therefore it can’t be an historical novel. And it is set much in the period when Hope was writing. I suppose, to use an old-fashioned term, we might call it a swashbuckler. But it remains a very thrilling one.

The story is familiar to many because of two really good film versions (starring respectively Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., and Stewart Grainger and James Mason – other minor film adaptations and parodies aren’t worth bothering with).

I suspect fewer people these days have ever read the novel. Which is a pity because it’s a cracking read, written in a style that seems as modern as if it were written last week. Not having re-read it for about forty years I was surprised how good it is. Many of the misconceptions of my memory of it were easily dismissed looking again. For instance I’d remembered the heroine Princess Flavia as a bit of a drip, which is the way she’s usually portrayed in the films. She isn’t. She’s a strong well-rounded character up there with the leading men.

The plot is relatively simple. Rudolf Rassendyll, a distant relative of the royal house of Ruritania returns to that kingdom for a holiday. His resemblance (they are not identical as in the films, where the same actors had to play the part) to its wastrel king is noted and, following a sequence of events I won’t spoil for you, he is forced to take the monarch’s place.

There is a great deal of conspiracy, some sword-fights, a dramatic rescue from a castle, a bit of romance, and some hints about the wider European situation which are quite prophetic. The tale is told in the first person by Rassendyll himself.

I do wonder if the seeds of the story were planted in Hope’s mind by what happened at Mayerling in 1889, when the heir to the Austrian Empire and his lover committed suicide at a hunting lodge. The stories are different, but the Mayerling incident triggered off a great deal of mystery and speculation at a time when Hope might have been contemplating his book.

The joy of the piece is the villain Rupert of Hentzau, young, dashing, immediately likeable for all his erring ways. He just happens, through personal ambition, to be on the wrong side. If you like swashbucklers he is iconic – and his influence has permeated down to a number of lesser works. The other villain, Duke Michael, the King’s brother is tamer by comparison.

Interestingly, there is a kind of social and political edge to the conflict of the book. In the capital of Ruritania, Strelsau, there is an old town and a new town. The new town backs the king and the hero’s side in the debate as to who would be the best ruler. But in the old town, where the working people live, there is greater support for Duke Michael and Rupert of Hentzau. I often found myself wondering whether I was backing the wrong side, as we’re supposed to like and be fighting for the existing king and the status quo?

The story ends with one of the best – and realistic – rescue sequences in literature. Terrific stuff! And a sad but satisfying ending.

Anthony Hope (properly Sir Anthony Hope-Hawkins, born 1863) began his career as a barrister, becoming a full-time writer at much the same time as “The Prisoner of Zenda” was published. Interestingly, his first novel “A Man of Mark” (1890) was self-published. He wrote a great many, now mostly forgotten, plays, lots of other novels, often set in fictional countries, and journalism. Apart from the two Ruritanian novels, his other great hit was “The Dolly Dialogues”, about Victorian society and still worth a read. He was knighted in 1918 and died in 1933.

Following the great success of “The Prisoner of Zenda” he wrote a sequel “Rupert of Hentzau” four years later. Rassendyll returns to Ruritania to settle matters left outstanding after his first adventure. Though “The Prisoner of Zenda” is told by Rassendyll in the first person, this second and longer story is narrated by Fritz von Tarlenheim, one of the secondary heroes of the first book, though there are accounts of certain incidents by other players in the drama, Tarlenheim’s own account often framing theirs.

This interesting demonstration of narrative technique is a positive master-class in how to use first person properly. It’s worth studying for that technical aspect alone.

“Rupert of Hentzau” is, in many ways a better novel than its predecessor, both in character psychology and plot development. A swashbuckler too but, well, something finer and more ambitious. A swashbuckler that is a tragedy, perhaps with that hint of the Mayerling incident thrown in. The characters are never pure heroes or villains. You can see where their ideas come from, and most have an uneasy recognition of what might be the consequences of their actions.

And it has the joy of a perfect villain in Rupert of Hentzau himself, too good to be literally written off in one novel. Rupert is given more space than in “The Prisoner of Zenda”. We are allowed to see the depth of his motivation. And few rogues are as likeable. The final drama of the novel is satisfying; it has a roundness, a completion. A fine piece of writing.

The two books should really be read one after the other to get the full effect. They are novels you can get quite lost in. Hope has that good novelist’s gift of leading you entirely into his world.

I had maligned Anthony Hope in my memory of four decades as a second-rater. He isn’t. These two novels are page-turners of the very best kind and I’m happy that my misconceptions were so pleasantly banished. Hope was a much better novelist than he is usually given credit for. And his Ruritanian swashbucklers are grand pieces of their kind. The fact that they’ve never been out of print and always had an audience proves that.

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Raffles – The Amateur Cracksman

A.J. Raffles, gentleman about town, celebrated amateur cricketer, notably at Lords, and – most importantly of all – amateur cracksman, burglar and thief without parallel.

In these short stories by E.G. Hornung, first published in book form in 1899, Hornung gives us the idea of the gentleman-burglar. Not original in itself. There were a number of gentlemen-burglars in the popular literature of fin de siècle England. And in France the great Arsene Lupin was still to come. John Creasey was clearly inspired by these stories with his creation John Mannering, The Baron as late as the 1930s.

But Raffles is special. Not least because of the links between Hornung’s character and that of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was Willie Hornung’s brother-in-law, and it was a roundabout comment by Doyle that led to the birth of Raffles. Doyle had admired a public school rogue that Hornung had killed off in an earlier story, and remarked that such a character would feature well in popular fiction.

There are considerable likenesses between Sherlock Holmes and Raffles. Both are based in 1890s London, both are gents of the middle class, both have rooms in nice parts of town. Both have companions; Holmes has Dr Watson, Raffles has Bunny Manders. Indeed, some of the stories have a vague similarity, though whether this is conscious or not in debateable. “The Amateur Cracksman” as a volume is dedicated to Doyle.

And here I owe Hornung an apology. Since I last re-read the stories decades ago, I had pictured in my mind that some of Hornung’s major plot developments had been lifted from the Holmes stories. Particularly the way Raffles fakes his own death and re-appears in disguise to an astonished Manders. I was quite wrong. In fact Hornung came up with the idea first. And it was Doyle who lifted the plot device for his Holmes resurrection yarn “The Empty House”.

But I think there is no doubt that Bunny Manders, from whose point of view we are given most of the stories, is a deliberate aping of Watson. To Hornung’s credit they are both very different men. Bunny is taken on by Raffles initially so that the former can pay off a gambling debt. Bunny had been Raffles’ fag at a possibly inferior public school. Raffles likes him because of the innocent look Bunny always seems to have on his face – a useful counter to the suspicions of the Scotland Yard detective Inspector Mackenzie.

And here we have another departure from Doyle. In Sherlock Holmes, the various police detectives are usually not terribly clever and are outshone by Sherlock. Not so Mackenzie. He suspects Raffles is the gentleman-burglar plaguing London almost from his first appearance. He just can’t prove it, though he has some darned good tries.

Now I like Mackenzie in his own right. He is one of the great fictional detectives, worthy of a series of his own. In a way you kind of want him to succeed, even if it means bringing Raffles to heel.

Bunny’s one talent is his aura of innocence. He really has no others. He is quite incompetent as a thief, and his hero-worshipping of Raffles can be quite annoying. Some critics have tried to imply a kind of homo-erotic motivation to the feelings of adoration that Bunny has for Raffles. I think that’s going too far. Victorian men often had strong masculine friendships, without a hint of homosexuality. And Hornung counters any suggestion by having Raffles occasionally besotted with a female or two along the way – though nothing ever comes of it very much. You might imagine Raffles and Bunny nodding a greeting towards Oscar Wilde at their club, but that would be as far as it would ever go.

In later years Conan Doyle frowned a bit at the Hornung stories. The idea of making the hero a villain. The morality of the Raffles stories is worth reflecting upon. Here is A.J Raffles, famous cricketer and gentleman about town. He is often invited as a guest to the mansions of the rich, and then proceeds to burgle them while he is being entertained under their roof. And not just for the financial profit of stealing her ladyships’ jewels. More than that. For the thrill of it! Raffles hunts these family treasures in much the same way, and for the same motivation as his hosts might pursue foxes.

And why is Raffles invited to their homes at all?

Certainly not because of his social background. In the snobbery of the English class system – and Hornung is really very good at exposing its silliness – Raffles in himself is a nothing. He knows a lot of people who are members of what we might call the Class, but he is never one of them. They invite him as a guest purely because of his talent on the cricket field, his ability as an all-rounder. The fact that he gets mentioned in the newspapers.

Though Raffles has been to a minor public school, he is really not at all a member of the Class. He has no ancient lineage, and, though he might have a set of rooms at Albany, very little in the way of cash – except what he makes from fencing stolen goods. He has a moral code of sorts – he never robs anyone who can’t bear the loss. Hornung was, I think, very clever to root his hero in the middle-class, who in the 1890s were eclipsing the upper-class and the aristocracy. There is something in Raffles as a middle-class of the entrepreneur, even if it is by the way of crime. His is the class on the rise. His victims are effectively social dinosaurs.

Doyle’s concerns about Hornung making the hero a villain tend to be disregarded by the reader. The morality of Raffles’ situation tends to be ignored because of what George Orwell called the ‘sheer efficiency’ of the storytelling. The reader gets so wrapped up in the telling that scruples are banished from the mind.

In the later stories, featured in the volume “The Black Mask”, Raffles comes back to life, after his Holmesian fake death, as Mr Maturin, a supposed invalid living quietly in the London suburbs. Raffles of Albany has been exposed. His cricketing and gentleman’s club days are over and Raffles is in hiding. He meets up with Bunny and they resume their life of crime, this time in a more covert way.

There are no invitations to the homes of the ‘Grand’ this time round. But the stories are every bit as good. Hornung can do the suburbs of London every bit as effectively as the great houses of England. There is a kind of wistful, autumnal feel to some of these later tales. Wonderful portrayals of late Victorian England. Hornung is in many ways a considerable literary stylist. He could probably have built quite a reputation writing more mainstream novels.

Raffles has featured a great deal in the theatre, in films and on television. In the cinema he has been played notably by Ronald Colman and David Niven. There were some quite early stage productions. More recently Graham Greene penned a modestly successful play “The Return of AJ Raffles.”

On television in the 1970s Raffles was played very successfully by Anthony Valentine with Christopher Strauli as a very innocent-faced Bunny, and the late Victor Carin as a quite superb Inspector Mackenzie. We’ve just watched them again and found them thoroughly enjoyable this time round. More recently, there was a one-off television production with Nigel Havers as Raffles. This was interesting because they ditched the character of Bunny altogether and gave Raffles a companion who was East End working class with criminal abilities worthy of the master himself. If you enjoy classic television do seek them out.

Hornung was one of those authors who gave a word and an image to the English language. Today, when we hear the name Raffles, we hardly think of the imperialist Sir Stamford Raffles, but usually only of a gentleman-burglar in a top hat and crape mask, forcing open the casement of a country house and filching a diamond necklace from a safe hidden between the bookshelves of a sumptuous library.

Quite an achievement for any writer.

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Francis Frith and the Writer

One of the most useful tools for the writer who sets the scenes for his or her work in Britain’s recent past are the photographs of the Victorian photographer Francis Frith (1822-1898). Frith was one of those Victorian entrepreneurs who made a fortune in one field – a grocery empire – and then sold up to pursue and turn a hobby into a new business.

An avid taker of pictures, Frith photographed most of the great sights of Europe, and even ventured into relatively unexplored parts of Africa.

In 1859 he established the Francis Frith Company with the considerable ambition of photographing everywhere in the British Isles, partly to cater for the Victorian passion for picture postcards.

His legacy is vastly important for historians and writers. If you want to know what some English village looked like in, say 1887, how the people were dressed, what modes of transport they were using, then the pictures of Francis Frith and his firm of photographers are a vital primary source.

The archive of tens of thousands of pictures are of national importance and are now preserved by the Francis Frith Collection http://www.francisfrith.com/ Photographs are available in a variety of ways, as illustrations for books, pictures for your wall at home or business, and as books based on various parts of the British Isles.

Around the turn of this century, I became involved with the work of Francis Frith when I was commissioned to write the accompanying text to the pictures in a series of popular books, giving some history of the places concerned; volumes on towns and villages, counties, tourist attractions, and stretches of coastline etc. I also wrote a couple of more detailed histories for the Devon towns of Torquay and Newton Abbot (just back in print in a partnership between the Frith Collection and Sainsbury’s).

It was one of the most pleasant tasks I’ve had in a long writing career, journeying to some fascinating places with the Frith pictures to hand, to try and identify where the photographer had stood and what had changed since. Seeing how places had changed over a period of time from the 1860s until the 1950s (which the broad range of pictures cover) and indeed up to date.

Despite some hideous modern developments, quite a lot of places would still be recognisable to the Frith photographers. Type my name (John Bainbridge) into the “Search” on the Frith website and you can see some of the titles I did.

Here is a Britain of horse-drawn cabs and farmers’ carts, bathing machines on a hundred beaches, old trains and battleships, the grand hotels of British resorts, the workplaces, the homes of the rich and the poor, ancient churches, cathedrals and abbeys, hilltop views and a countryside often still being worked as it had been for generations.

Here you see real-life Victorians, caught in a moment of time, doing much of the things we do today; busy at work, seeing the sights, just standing around holding conversations. All of these people long dead and gone, but still there for us, just as we see people on today’s streets.

Well worth a look if you are writing a novel set in the British past, not just so you get the settings right, but also so you can discover the way people dressed and the transport that was in use at the time. A good browse of the Frith photographs of your setting will really get you in the mood for writing that historical novel or crime mystery set in the past.

The Frith Collection is a very precious archive indeed.


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