-  What are  -

  "This is a very bad lad, sir," remarked the governor sternly; "he only came in yesterday, and to-day, while out for exercise with the others, he must misconduct himself, and when the warder reproved him, he must swear some horrible oath against him.  It is for that he his here.  How many times have you been here, lad?"
     Lad (gulping desperately). "Three times, sir!"
     Governor (sternly). "What!  speak the truth, lad."
     Lad (with a determined effort to gouge tears of his eyes with his knuckles).  "Four times, sir."
     Governor.  "Four times! and so you'll go on till you are sent away, I'm afraid.  Can you read, lad?"
     Lad (with a penitential wriggle).  "Yes, sir; I wish as I couldn't, sire."
     Governor.  "Ah! why so?"
     Lad (with a doleful wag of his bullet-head).  "Cos then I shouldn't have read none of them highwaymen's books, sir; it was them as was the beginning of it."

          - James Greenwood “The Thief Non-Professional" Seven Curses of London (1869)

     In the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain, developments in printing and an increased literacy rate amongst the general population encouraged the production of publications aimed at a wide range of people, many of whom had little money to spend on reading material and limited reading skills.  Thus arose the market for the penny dreadfuls.  Penny dreadfuls were magazines published on inexpensive paper with fairly simple but exciting stories crammed together with often crude, vivid visuals seen at the time as being just as important as the written material.  In 1873, Hotten’s Slang Dictionary defined them as "those penny publications which depend more upon sensationalism than upon merit, artistic or literary, for success."  The term is also sometimes used to refer to the stories and serialized novels themselves.

     The serialized cheap publications of the 1830s to 1850s are generally referred to as “bloods,” while the “dreadfuls” followed soon after, with a touch less gore and more adventure.  Thomas Frost recalls that, Edward Lloyd, the first publisher to target the semi-literate, working-class British readership, offered the following explanation of his strategy for success: “Our publications circulate among a class so different in education and social position from the readers of three-volume novels, that we sometimes distrust our judgement and place the manuscript in the hands of an illiterate person--a servant or a machine boy for instance.  If they pronounce favourably upon it, we think it will do” (Frost). 

     The works that appeared in the penny dreadfuls fall between and are indebted to the rough-hewn Newgate Calendar stories and the more complex and more expensive gothic novels of the period.1  It is primarily the sensationalism, terror, and threat of violent action that unites these three types of literature. Newgate Calendar stories, however, lack the suspense of the other two.  Meanwhile, as Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick note, the authors of the tales of terror published in Blackwood’s Magazine during the first half of the nineteenth century “differ markedly from the Gothicists not just in their concise scope but also in their sharper and more explicit rendering of terror. . . .  The usual tone in these stories is one of clinical observation (although without the customary detachment) rather than of genteel trepidation, and for the most part the terrors are unflinchingly witnessed, not ambiguously evoked” (xv).

     While most of the dreadful pieces were published by “hack” writers working for next to nothing, a number of respected authors also contributed to the magazines, just as the impact of the dreadfuls can be found in works by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, and others.  Despite the similarities, the cheaper materials appear to have drawn a notably larger audience than either gothic novels or the sensation novels whose popularity peaked in the 1860s.  Dreadfuls existed as a major form of popular literature for much of the nineteenth century.

     Peter Haining has defined the struggle between good and evil as the common factor of all dreadfuls.  “While many a reader might have observed a certain flexibility in his own moral code,” he writes, “in the heroes and heroines of the penny publications this was not only inexcusable, but also unthinkable” (14).  This claim is basically accurate, although of course readers did not have a unified moral code with which they measured the heroines and heroes, leaving room for ambiguity.  As with gothic works, when consuming dreadfuls, one often develops an attraction to or even compassion for the villain.  The excitement of their adventures is utter escapism.  Highwaymen are especially seductive, often using flattery, charm, and their dashing good looks as tools in crime.  Conversely, the good guy on occasion is so flatly righteous that one suspects that readers might have had some difficulty in sympathizing with this unattainable ideal.  The simple plot of good versus evil may have been a standard expectation but, as the allure of the criminals and their lifestyles suggests, other values and interests were also affirmed in the characters’ various moral standards, classes, genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, and careers.

     A major part of the anxiety voiced by James Greenwood (quoted above), Edward Salmon, and others regarding the popularity of the dreadfuls was based in the fact that a distinct majority of the readership consisted of children and young adults, especially males.  In 1870, the Forster’s Education Act had made elementary education compulsory for all children.  However, as Kevin Carpenter has noted, few books for children were available at this time and libraries attentive to young readers did not appear for decades (6).  Meanwhile, most of the penny dreadful publications were aimed directly at this audience, with the hero often being a virtuous boy or young man who finds himself trapped within a dangerous and seedy community of adult criminals such as highwaymen or pirates.  The poor, young readers didn’t need libraries to consume this material  because, like “lemonade-stand” subversions of Mudie’s monopolizing Lending Library, the youths would often establish clubs to combine their incomes and purchase the publications (6).

     Despite the narrative's standard “good vs. evil” dichotomy, critics argued that the dreadfuls glorified the subversion of cultural conventions by seducing working-class youths toward crime, debauchery, or simply an unproductive, immoral lifestyle.  When Lord Shaftesbury warned the Religious Tract Society that the literature’s influence was “creeping not only into the houses of the poor, neglected, and untaught, but into the largest mansions; penetrating into religious families and astounding careful parents by its frightful issues,” he depicted the relation between the works’ and their readers as an aggressive infiltration by alien forces (qtd. in Dunae).  However, just as Dracula cannot enter any home uninvited, the middle-class interest that Shaftesbury acknowledges reveals that the dreadfuls responded to instabilities in the foundation of the Victorian image of moral rectitude.  Needs and desires felt by members of the middle-class were not being addressed by the literature and art sanctioned by the dominant moral voice, and so these people turned to the dreadfuls for pleasurable fulfillment.  And we, as readers, can turn to characters such as the Blue Dwarf, Starlight Nell, Spring Heel'd Jack, and Tyburn Dick to gain a better understanding of the diverse needs and desires of the Victorians themselves.


1. On the relation of penny dreadfuls to the gothic, see Michael Anglo’s Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors.


Anglo, Michael. Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors. London: Jupiter, 1977.

Carpenter, Kevin. “Introduction.” Penny Dreadfuls and Comics: English Periodicals for Children from Victorian Times to the Present Day. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983.

Dunae, Patrick. “Penny Dreadfuls: Late Nineteenth-Century Boys’ Literature and Crime.” Victorian Studies. 22: 1979.

Frost, Thomas. Forty Years' Recollections. London, 1880.

Greenwood, James. Seven Curses of London. Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1869.

Haining, Peter. “Introduction.” The Penny Dreadful. Ed. Peter Haining. London: Victor Gollancz, 1975.

Morrison, Robert, and Chris Baldick. "Introduction." Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine. Eds. Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Salmon, Edward. Juvenile Literature As It Is. London, 1888.

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