Revealing Bodies: Knowledge, Power and Mass Market Fictions in G.W.M. Reynolds’s 'Mysteries of London '

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines how one early mass-market text, G.W.M. Reynolds’s 1844-56 'The Mysteries of London' (later 'The Mysteries of the Court of London'), interrogates its own position as both artwork and traded commodity. Through imagery of bodies resurrected and secrets exposed, Reynolds uses the twelve volumes of his penny serial to consider questions about the purpose and value of art which link the developing popular market in fiction to wider issues about working-class autonomy and cultural power.

Chapter 1 considers the idea of surface value. In the nineteenth century the distinction between popular and elite culture was often positioned as a contrast between surface and depth. Examining how Reynolds disputes this notion through his depiction of forgers and their clients, I further suggest how the Mysteries might contribute to twenty-first century critical debates about surface reading.

Chapter 2 addresses the mid-century belief that it was necessary for the educated elite to protect more vulnerable (working-class) readers from certain cultural material. I show how Reynolds’s portrayal of the eroticised woman allows him to challenge this belittling notion of the popular audience, depict censorship as a mechanism for reinforcing existing power structures, and suggest a way for conventionally objectified social actors to reclaim their autonomy.

Chapter 3 focuses on the hidden bodies of the poor, highlighting the analogy made in Reynolds’s work between the working-class corpses traded for dissection under the 1832 Anatomy Act and the bodies of the servants and labourers on which industrial society was founded. I explore how Reynolds draws on the radical Gothic of Mary Shelley to argue that erasing the humanity of the poor risks turning them into monsters.

Reynolds’s serial operates on an ‘economy of secrets’, with blackmail a central motif. Chapter 4 examines this trope in the context of crime fiction more broadly, with a focus on the role of the servant. Comparisons with Caleb Williams, Bleak House and Lady Audley’s Secret throw the particular radicalism of Reynolds’s work into sharp relief.

The Mysteries’ sensationalism, structure and sexual content have often seen the serial dismissed as populist trash; but they can also be seen as deliberate aesthetic choices, positing a particular notion of what literature might do. I conclude my thesis, the first to consider this lengthy serial in its entirety, by suggesting that taking Reynolds’s work on its own terms offers an important corrective to the period’s existing literary histories.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Livesey, Ruth, Supervisor
Award date1 Dec 2015
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


  • popular fiction
  • victorian literature
  • mass culture
  • G.W.M. Reynolds
  • nineteenth-century literature
  • serial fiction

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