Cultures of Surveillance

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


Urban Voyeurs: Surveillance Culture in G.W.M. Reynolds's 'Mysteries of London'

GWM Reynolds’s penny serial The Mysteries of London (1844-56) was one of the nineteenth century’s biggest bestsellers. However, the Mysteries’ working-class audience and radical political and sexual content excluded both serial and author from literary respectability. Neglected by critics for most of the 19th and 20th century, the Mysteries are now beginning to attract critical attention. They are the focus for my PhD thesis, which is the first to discuss the serial’s entire twelve-year span.
The title of Reynolds’s serial is a reference in part to the slum dwellings inhabited by London’s poor. Tucked into courts and alleyways behind well-kept facades across the capital, the semi-subterranean homes of the working and criminal classes were a focus of fascinated attention throughout the Victorian period. Writing in the 1840s, Reynolds was one of the earliest commentators to offer a picture of the Victorian slums, some time before the plethora of reports and investigations which characterised the ‘slumming’ craze of the 1880s. As well as foreshadowing these later depictions, Reynolds’s depiction of the slums and their inhabitants looks back to the urban writing of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a kind of urban picaresque exemplified in Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821); in which the taverns and houses of slum London are portrayed as a kind of tourist attraction equal in interest to the fashionable clubs of the West End.

Reynolds finds the implications of this tradition of slum tourism, described by Egan and mentioned by a number of those writing on the 1840s slums – including Dickens, himself an enthusiastic slum visitor – extremely problematic. The Mysteries of London is very Victorian in its emphasis on the value of individual privacy; one of the subplots of the first two-year series is the Post Office’s scandalous (alleged) practice of opening private letters in the search for compromising information. Like this government-sanctioned surveillance, early Victorian civic developments which sent new roads through the middle of established slums claimed to augment popular morals through the operation of a governing middle-class eye. The motivation which guided this kind of town planning, and which purportedly prompted the middle class social investigators into the London underworld, was (for Reynolds) uncomfortably close to that which had motivated the upper-class tourists of a short period before. The Mysteries, which is marked throughout by a discourse of disguise and performativity, questions the impact of this kind of intrusion on both the behaviour of the poor and the relationship between classes.

Characteristically, in a serial whose length means that patterns and repetitions become an important tool of critical analysis, Reynolds echoes and explores his concerns about the period’s social investigators in the dynamics of his characters’ sexual relationships. The Mysteries, a serial whose central commodity is the secret, is riddled with voyeurs. Just as Reynolds suggests that the poor are tempted to a performance of virtue in order to satisfy the supervising middle-class eye, so his women are prompted to particular behaviours in order to conform with the expectations of the period’s patriarchs. The male desire to see behind or underneath this performance – to access the ‘truth’ of womanhood – leads to a series of scenes by which women are spied on, through keyholes or from underneath the furniture, for the sexual gratification of male voyeurs. The parallel between the two types – the urban investigators seeking to delve into the spaces of the poor, and the voyeur spying on his object of desire – combines to provide a compelling investigation of the ethics of surveillance. It is this which I hope to explore in my paper.
PeriodSept 2011
Event typeConference
LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map


  • surveillance
  • G.W.M. Reynolds
  • popular culture
  • privacy