Recoveries: Revisiting the Long Nineteenth Century, Postgraduate Conference, University of Nottingham - School of English Studies

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The Mysteries of Reynolds

My paper deals with the particular challenges I have encountered in undertaking work on an author who has been gradually ‘recovered’ to critical interest during the last twenty years: GWM Reynolds. A radical journalist and newspaper editor, Reynolds also wrote sensational fiction for the Victorian working class. His most successful work, The Mysteries of London, was published in weekly penny installments over the course of twelve years (1844-56), and is reported by some sources to have sold over a million copies. For much of the twentieth century, critical comment on Reynolds’s work was restricted to brief descriptions in compendia of working-class culture; and it is only relatively recently that critics have begun to look at his work in greater detail.

Many of the problems that arise in pursuing work on Reynolds are purely pragmatic. There is no archive of his notes and letters: the only manuscript work in any British library bearing his name is likely misattributed. His audience can seem equally inaccessible: contemporary accounts, and internal evidence from the Miscellany, suggest a readership of clerks, apprentices, shopkeepers and servants. However, there are also tantalising glimpses of a wider audience, at either end of the social scale.

This kind of practical problem is often at the forefront of critical discussion on Reynolds, given the sociological and bibliographic emphasis of much existing work on the author. While I do intend in this paper to explore the nature and implications of such considerations, many of which I would imagine are common to all work on non-canonical writers, I also want to look at the literary qualities of Reynolds’s fiction. In contrast to the Victorian literature which we have historically valued most highly, the Mysteries are melodramatic, episodic, and include a number of scenes which gesture towards pornography. They also comprise the longest work of fiction published in English in the nineteenth century. My PhD thesis aims to look seriously, and with a literary eye, at these various qualities, precisely the considerations on which the works have previously been dismissed from critical notice: I hope in this paper to discuss some of the difficulties, as well as the joys, that I have so far encountered along the way.
Period7 Apr 2011
Event typeConference
LocationNottingham, United KingdomShow on map


  • G.W.M. Reynolds
  • popular culture