Posted 16 September 2009 in Books by Catriona
Yesterday, I found in the letterbox the most recent catalogue of penny dreadfuls from Jarndyce, the antiquarian booksellers who specialise in eighteenth- and, especially, nineteenth-century books.
I bought a copy of Bow Bells Novelettes from Jarndyce some years ago, which is why they offered me a copy of this catalogue.
Seductive as it is, I doubt I’ll be able to buy anything from this catalogue (not even—sigh—the copy of Eliza Winstanley’s “Entrances and Exits” that they’re offering), but I do so love Jarndyce catalogues.
Look how beautiful this one is:
And it’s full of enticing illustrations from the penny dreadfuls themselves. Agnes Repplier, an American writer, wrote (in the late nineteenth century) an essay on English railway fiction (available here from Google books) in which she argued that “the seductive titles and cuts which form the tour de force of penny fiction bear but a feeble affinity to the tales themselves, which are like vials of skimmed milk, labelled absinthe, but warranted to be wholly without flavour” (211).
I don’t know about the absence of flavour, but I know the illustrations are fabulous.
Look at this cover for “The Boy Detective; or, The Crimes of London”:
From this, it appears as though most of the crimes are committed by the boy detective himself. Still, at least he provided himself with an appreciative audience.
And, on another note, how can he even see that a crime is being committed in that room, from the angle he’s standing on?
Or what about “Risen from the Dead”?
The actual caption for this one is “‘Great Heaven! Where am I?” exclaimed the supposed dead man,” but I prefer to imagine that the caption reads, “This is a pretty complicated way of getting out of telling your wife about us.”
Then again, I have too much time on my hands.
This one doesn’t have a caption, but I’m sure we can write our own.
My current choice is “Had she been capable of experiencing any emotions at all, Sivestra would have congratulated herself on having the foresight to bring her embroidery scissors to the planned seduction.”
Duchess Novelette is quite a late addition to the realm of Victorian periodicals: it ran from 1894 to 1902. (Indeed, the novelettes were generally quite late: there’s a fascinating 2008 article from Kate Macdonald and Marysa DeMoor on the production of novelettes and supplements from Publishing History, which you can find here. That’s a PDF file, but it should open in your browser.)
Its lateness in the period explains the relative sophistication of the cover image:
Nothing, however, can explain the fact that rather than “A Wild Love,” it should probably be titled “That’s Definitely Going to Give You a Crick in the Neck, You Know.”
Also, considering the heroine—at least, I’m assuming that’s the heroine—is dead here, the hero’s expression should probably verge more on “horrified” than on “slightly bewildered.”
Speaking of sophisticated images, this one is obviously from an earlier publication. It’s labelled “The Death Struggle”:
I would have labelled it “Slightly After the Main Struggle But a Disturbingly Long Time Before the Actual Deaths.”
This one’s my favourite, so far:
This caption reads, “Kairon stooped down and imprinted a kiss on the half-parted lips of the statue, and, as he did so, distinctly felt them move!”
Um, Kairon? Unless you thought there were a reasonable chance that the statue would come to life, why were you snogging it in the first place? And who makes a statue with “half-parted lips”? I’m thinking Pygmalion has been convinced to go into mass production.
And trust me: there’s a rational explanation for this last one.
Spring-heeled Jack was a specifically Victorian urban legend, and popular subject for the penny-dreadful market. Sadly, he hasn’t proved as durable as Sweeney Todd or Jack the Ripper, but he certainly had his own degree of fame.
I’m assuming that what appear to be whiskers are the blue-and-white flames he was said to vomit.
And I’m rather annoyed that, having already prepared a joke about why he might be wearing a unitard, I find, apparently, a tight-fitting oilskin is all part of the mythos.
He might have had more consideration for the needy bloggers of the future.