The latest big-budget TV show to hit our screens is Penny Dreadful, a luxurious velvet-coated look at the Victorian supernatural genre. It airs this month courtesy of a co-production by Showtime and Sky Atlantic and it has a cast list stuffed with big names, and a wardrobe budget that I suspect, rather like the period-costumes on show, makes the eyes water. Money, and indeed big names, are never a guarantee of success but I do hope this production is a triumph because gothic horror, it seems, is the new black. There will be many viewers approaching this genre for the first time, and that is to be applauded. Anything that showcases gothic melodrama is a good thing in my book, and with Sam Mendes and John Logan at the helm hopes are understandably high. However, there was a time when the very name Penny Dreadful provoked unbridled outrage from sections of the public. In today’s post, I’d like to explain why.
The name Penny Dreadful refers to one of the earliest forms of mass pulp fiction. Most novels launched in Victorian Britain were first serialised in literary magazines over periods of several months. Charles Dickens, still as yet under his Boz pseudonym, first published The Pickwick Papers over 20 separate instalments between 1836 and 1837. Although the series initially disappointed it took off, as did Dickens’ career when the character Sam Weller appeared in the tenth instalment. The character was so popular that bootleg copies of the issue were quickly produced. During Queen Victoria’s reign literacy and social advancement exploded and the printing presses struggled, legitimately or otherwise, to keep up with the voracious literary appetite of the British public. The problem, as it turned out, is that once a commodity breaks out of the clutches of the elite and becomes more socially democratic, more freely available, the harder is it to control. For the British Upper Class, the full impact of social literacy improvements was not entirely welcome.
Publications such as The Strand, which offered no less than Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers a vehicle for their output were expensive. One shilling, or twelve pennies, to be precise. That priced a vast raft of the country out of the market. Victorian improvements in printing and changing attitudes to reading redressed the balance in the form of publications like Penny Dreadfuls. Costing just a single penny these magazines placed fiction well within the reach of the masses. Flushed with its new-found literary emancipation the poor, and Victorian Britain had more than its fair share, luxuriated in a plethora of pulp fiction. The majority of the content was never destined for a hall of fame, but the value of fiction is in whether it finds an audience, not how it gets there. So what if the stories were sensationalist, anarchic and wildly melodramatic? So what if the term Penny Dreadful soon became synonymous with any form of low-grade writing? The market was soon full of bootleg copies and that served to prove that they were popular among the lower class. The stories were fast-paced, easy to read and introduced a hitherto ignorant public to a world of joyishly hackneyed titles and grotesque yet fascinating characters, Sweeney Todd made his literary debut in the format. The model was simple and writers like Thomas Prest, who co-created Sweeney Todd, rode it hard. Writing as Bos (remind you of anyone?) he churned out stories with dangerously familiar titles, The Penny Pickwick, Nicolas Nicklebery and David Copperful among my favourites. I’ve often wondered if Dickens was flattered, annoyed or quite possibly both.
However popular the stories were, prolific contributors like Prest also stirred up angst in the middle and upper classes who feared that Penny Dreadfuls would encourage a vast population to rise up and commit a crime. People really did believe that these cheap publications had placed Britain on the brink of crime-based disintegration and the backlash from certain circles was extraordinary. But no less extraordinary than the criticism often aimed at Charles Dickens who was supposed to represent the high-end of literary output. His work may have cost twelve pennies as opposed to one, but he was still panned for being prone to melodrama. The social elite was quite happy to enjoy magazines like Punch that pandered to their alleged sophistication and were also happy to love and loathe Dickens in equal measure. But they really didn’t appreciate the literary intrusion of Penny Dreadfuls. You really can’t please all of the people all of the time. But then you should never try. Consider this from G.K. Chesterton in A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls, taken from his book The Defendant (1901).
At the very instant that we curse the Penny Dreadful for encouraging thefts upon property, we canvass the proposition that all property is theft. At the very instant we accuse it (quite unjustly) of lubricity and indecency, we are cheerfully reading philosophies which glory in lubricity and indecency. At the very instant that we charge it with encouraging the young to destroy life, we are placidly discussing whether life is worth preserving.
The argument is centuries old. Replace Penny Dreadful with the very first printing press or more modern social media and Chesterton’s view straddles time. Looking back at these publications today is a delight. Just consider the image at the top of this post. Black Bess, or the Knight of the Road…Published by E. Harrison, and Sold by all Newsagents everywhere. PRICE ONE PENNY.
I would wager that Showtime and Sky Atlantic have spent somewhat more than that. Now, pass the remote control…