Penny Dreadfuls in Victorian England: On its Origin & Importance

On the Origins of Penny Dreadful in England

This essay delves into the history of Penny Dreadfuls in Victorian England and their continuing impact on the popular imagination.

In the dimly lit streets of Victorian England, a peculiar form of entertainment emerged in the 1800s, captivating the hearts and minds of the masses – the Penny Dreadfuls. If the term – Penny Dreadfuls – conjures up images of sensational and lurid tales filled with gruesome murders, ghosts, and other macabre themes in your mind, then know that all of it is valid. Yet, this genre of cheap, serialized literature played a pivotal role in the development of English popular culture during the 19th century. This essay delves into the history of Penny Dreadfuls, exploring their significance in Victorian society, some notable publications from the time, a scintillating murder case and the evolution of the Penny Dreadfuls over time as they continue to leave an imprint on contemporary media and culture.

The Birth of Penny Dreadfuls

The origins of Penny Dreadfuls (as hailed by the press) or Penny Bloods (as hailed by the young boys and shopkeepers of the generation) can be traced back to the 1830s, a period marked by significant advancements in printing technology. The introduction of steam-powered printing presses revolutionized the publishing industry by making it cheaper and more efficient to produce written material. The result was a dramatic drop in production costs, which led to the creation of affordable, mass-produced literature.

The first recognizable precursor to the Penny Dreadfuls was The Penny Magazine (1832-1845), which was a publication intended to educate and inform the working-class population, priced at, as the name suggests, just one penny. This publication established a precedent for affordable literature. However, the critical turning point came with the publication of The String of Pearls (1846-47). This serialized story introduced the infamous character of Sweeney Todd, the “demon barber of Fleet Street,” and paved the way for the burgeoning Penny Dreadful genre. Some of the most important and influential Penny Dreadfuls from that time include:

  1. The String of Pearls (1846-47): This serial, which introduced the infamous character Sweeney Todd, is often considered to be the prototype of the Penny Dreadful genre. Sweeney Todd’s gruesome exploits in his barber shop later became an enduring part of gothic literature. Read it here.
  2. Varney the Vampire; or The Feast of Blood (1845-47): This character was one of the earliest vampire figures in popular English literature and predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) by several decades. This series was instrumental in shaping the vampire lore. Read it here.
  3. Spring-Heeled Jack (c. 1837-1904): Spring-Heeled Jack was a mysterious and malevolent figure who terrorized London and its surrounding areas. He was known for his ability to jump incredible heights and for his grotesque appearance. Tales of Spring-Heeled Jack captivated the public’s imagination and contributed to the popular oral tales around Victorian England.
  4. The Mysteries of London (1844-1845): Written by George W. M. Reynolds, this Penny Dreadful was a sprawling narrative that delved into the seedy underbelly of London. It was one of the earliest and most successful social melodramas, depicting the lives of the urban poor and exposing the injustices of the time. Read it here.
  5. Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1847-48): This serialized Penny Dreadful was written by Reynolds and featured a protagonist who could transform into a fearsome wolf. Did it contribute to the monster archetype of the werewolf that has now become a part of popular imagination? One can only speculate.

Also Read:  The Cultural Phenomenon of Harry Potter

 Importance in Victorian Society

Penny Dreadful
The popular Jack Harkaway character, almost like the Harry Potter of Victorian times

The Guardian reports a case of homicide from the summer of 1895 when the body of Emily Coombes was discovered in a house in East London. Her sons, Robert and Nattie, were charged with murder. During the trial, the coroner’s jury had drawn special attention of the court toward the handful of Penny Dreadfuls discovered from the Coombes household, stating that the Court should look into enforcing a way to stop the circulation of “inflammable and shocking literature” which they believed to the motivation behind the heinous crimes in society.

This is evidence of how Penny Dreadfuls had become a cause for public concern by the end of the 19th century. However, they had gained popularity in the first place because they could successfully tap into the Victorian era’s fascination with the mysterious, the gothic, and the forbidden. They were written in a style that aimed to evoke strong emotions and often left readers on the edge of their seats, making them perfect entertainment for those seeking a thrilling escape from their everyday lives.

The success of Penny Dreadfuls can be attributed to their affordability. Priced at just one penny, they were accessible to a wide range of readers, including the working class and young people. This affordability democratized literature, providing an opportunity for those who might not otherwise have had access to books or more expensive forms of entertainment. The serialized nature of Penny Dreadfuls also contributed to their popularity. Readers eagerly anticipated the next instalment, which created a sense of community and shared experience. People gathered in pubs, homes, and other communal spaces to discuss the latest developments in their favourite stories. This sense of camaraderie added to the appeal of these publications.

They also played a pivotal role in fostering literacy in Victorian England, particularly among younger readers, during a time when many children had limited access to formal education, often reminiscent of the harsh conditions described in Charles Dickens’ novels. The proliferation of affordable reading material served as a compelling incentive to acquire literacy skills, as noted by Professor Jonathan Rose, the author of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. The intriguing stories of characters like Jack Harkaway and Sweeney Todd captured people’s imaginations, and the most effective means of staying engaged with these tales was to become literate. In fact, it wasn’t until 1880, several decades into the heyday of penny dreadfuls, that compulsory education was mandated for all children in England.

Also Read: Victorian England Through the Eyes of Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson

Penny Dreadfuls in Present Day and Time

Characters from the critically acclaimed TV show, Penny Dreadful (S01 E08)

Although the popularity of Penny Dreadfuls started declining towards the end of the 19th century, especially due to the rise of alternate periodicals by Alfred Harmsworth worth half one penny, the legacy of Penny Dreadfuls continues to endure in modern media and popular culture. The themes and tropes popularized by these publications have become ingrained in the literary and cinematic landscape since the 1900s. Many renowned authors, including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Alan Moore, draw inspiration from the dark and mysterious world of Penny Dreadfuls in their works, paying homage to the roots of popular fiction.

Additionally, interest in Penny Dreadfuls has surged following the contemporary critically acclaimed television series Penny Dreadful. Airing from 2014 to 2016, the show seamlessly blended characters from 19th-century literature, including Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, into a gripping narrative set in Victorian London. This series not only paid tribute to the original Penny Dreadfuls but also introduced their macabre charm to a new generation of viewers. Furthermore, the rise of digital media has provided a platform for the revival of Penny Dreadful-style storytelling. Online platforms and e-books allow writers to create serialized stories reminiscent of the original Dreadful format, captivating readers with episodic tales of suspense and horror. The accessibility of digital platforms ensures that the spirit of Penny Dreadfuls lives on, reaching audiences around the world.

As we reflect on the history of Penny Dreadfuls, we are reminded of the power of storytelling to transcend time and societal boundaries. The Penny Dreadfuls of Victorian England may have faded into history, but their spirit lives on, inspiring creators and enchanting audiences, ensuring that the legacy of these inexpensive, sensational publications remains immortal in the annals of literature and popular culture.

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