Sex and Marriage in Victorian Popular Fiction, VPFA Annual Conference

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


‘Scenes of patrician depravity’: female power and male impotence in two stories from The Mysteries of London

This paper examines two fictional love-affairs which appear in GWM Reynolds’s Mysteries series. Published in twelve years of weekly instalments (The Mysteries of London, 1844-48; The Mysteries of the Court of London, 1848-56), the Mysteries were Reynolds’s longest and most successful work. They were also notorious for their lurid sexual content, described by the Bookseller magazine in ‘a single word – sensuous’.

On one level, there is a straightforward erotic purpose to Reynolds’s writing: his women are typically possessed of heaving, spherical bosoms, dainty ankles, porcelain skin and perfect ivory teeth. However, the Mysteries’ stories of aristocratic passion and infidelity also echo and address wider issues about gender roles and relationships in early Victorian society.

This is certainly the case for those two plots taken as ‘case studies’ here. Lady Cecilia Harborough’s affair with the virgin Reverend Reginald Tracy focuses (with typically Reynoldsian excess) on motifs of female display and seduction; the story of the Earl of Desborough and his wife, Eleanor, explicitly addresses the issue of male impotence and its impact on a marriage. Taken together, they provide not only an index to the broader issues which the Mysteries address, but a new perspective on sexual relations (and relationships) as they were understood by Reynolds’s extensive popular readership.
PeriodJul 2011
Event typeConference
LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map


  • sex
  • G.W.M. Reynolds
  • popular culture