Unplanned Wildernesses: Narrating the British Slum 1844-1950

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The Hidden Poor and the Criminal Past: G.W.M. Reynolds's London Gothic

This paper explores the Gothic underworld of the London slums as they are presented in G.W.M. Reynolds’s penny serial, The Mysteries of London (1844-56). In contrast to the binary East/West divide that characterises later nineteenth century portrayals of the slums, Reynolds creates an above/below paradigm which emphasises the distinctive social geography of the early Victorian capital. This was a period when ‘street improvements’ were forcing the poor into ever-diminishing pockets of squalor, tucked in behind new streets and prosperous facades. The obvious Gothic associations of these semi-subterranean spaces, lurking mere moments from the busy urban thoroughfares, contributed to contemporary depictions of the poor and their homes as relics of a previous age, symptomatic of all that had been wrong with the eighteenth-century city, and that would be eliminated by the progress of Victorian civilisation.

Although he plays, in the Mysteries, on the fear and fascination that the slums exerted over middle-class Londoners, Reynolds’s depiction of these Gothicised spaces is distinguished by his emphasis on the causal relationship between capitalist civilisation and the growth of urban poverty. Rather than anomalous remnants of a disappearing past, the Mysteries depicts the slums and their inhabitants as the inevitable victims of an increasingly unequal society: the guilty secrets of the wealthy who have profited by their loss. It is an argument given vivid life in the story of James Melmoth, a working-class victim of legal injustice, whose peculiar vengeance on the society that has injured him will provide the illustration with which my paper concludes.
Period19 May 2012
Event typeConference
LocationLeamington Spa, United KingdomShow on map


  • slums
  • housing
  • G.W.M. Reynolds
  • London
  • Gothic