Hope – the real Mystery of London?

One thing about G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London that is impossible to question is that much of it is very visceral.

Doesn’t the unflinching detail of the murder of Polly by Bill while their children look on generate a physical reaction in the reader? It’s rapid but not glossed over so that Reynolds makes us see it in front of us. I am always nauseated while reading it, and afterwards when thinking of it. It makes me angry.

Reynolds is using the technology of print to transport us to places, to make us witness to scenes, that our bodies might otherwise never experience. But it’s not a distant understanding – it’s not the experience of the city that the London Eye gives us. In such moments, technology does not mediate and distance us from the world, but wounds us, hurts us – but in thoughtful ways that are very different from the wounds that, were we to witness these scenes in real life, would so traumatise us that we couldn’t think. Reynolds harnesses the technology of print to make us viscerally present and analytically distant at the same time.

He uses the technology to transport us not only to the past but to another part of the city we couldn’t otherwise visit and be safe, and to other states of thinking and feeling.

How does this tie in with what we discussed today?

You heard about the technology and economics of the mass-circulation text, an example of which Reynolds’s Mysteries of London most certainly was. You heard how London was the most obvious place to produce and distribute such a text, but also how London can’t be seen as an entity complete in itself: you heard a lot about Paris too, and how Reynolds was inspired by his life in Paris and by his knowledge of French literature, especially of Eugene Sue’s phenomenally popular feuilleton, the  Mystères de Paris. You also heard about other mysteries of other cities – New York, St Louis and others around the world. The Mysteries of London is just one of many city mystery texts.  The French Mystères feeds into it and it in turn communicates with others, just as Victorian London was a city that existed not simply in itself but communicated with the world. London is the city of circulation, of coming and going, of paths, of adventures, of constant transformation, of multiple plots and multiple plottings, where identities as well as texts migrate and change. Movement, transport is the process that defines this London.

You also heard about Reynolds’s involvement in politics. I particularly mentioned  Chartism and I stressed the politics of Chartism’s interest in representation both in terms of representation in government and in terms of representation of reality.

The questions you asked were as follows:

•What is the reason for the prologue? •What is the reason for cross dressing? •What happened to Eugene? •Why focus on Wealth / Poverty? •What is the origin of the writing style? •What happens to Richard? •How does this text represent London? •How does the text end?

I added queries about gender, economics and space, and we combined the questions to form 6 topics, one for me to answer (what happened to the characters) and 5 that you discussed: the prologue, gender, economics, style, space. The answers to all these cumulatively will answer more specifically your question about “How does  this text represent London”.

The prologue you said set up binaries in order to question them, perhaps deconstruct them, to show that Wealth / Poverty were not absolutes but rather a question of circulation. This notion is set up right away: the opening sentences narrate how “Civilisation” moved East to West – and so may well move on in the future, perhaps again further west to the US.

Gender, we agreed, was a vexed category in The Mysteries of London. It opens with a cross-dressing heroine who isn’t condemned for her transgression. She gets into trouble not for her cross dressing but just because she happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Eliza theatrically feels the rain in the slums near Smithfield Market

Gender is straight away shown as socially performative: Eliza is performing the part of Walter in public while her sex remains, in private for her, never in doubt. It’s the city that enables such gender masquerade (and, indeed, masquerade in general). On a less liberating note, poverty in the city seems to brutalise and unsex mothers – as we see in the case of  Polly who intends to put the eyes out of her daughter with beetles. You had bigger problems in defining how the text defines masculinities – even though there are more men than women in the extract we read! But doesn’t the same apply to men as to women? Don’t we see men masquerading? Think of how the City Man Montague (= Eugene) takes advantage of the anonymity and constant circulation of the city to adopt an identity that is not his, to make money – and an identity – out of air.

In terms of style, you noted the redundancy of the style, the padding.  I’ve heard this before and your examples were very good but I’m not entirely convinced by how it’s the defining characteristic of the style: after all, the plots are swift moving and very ingeniously interlaced (even in the extracts you read, you saw Montague as Eugene, the wife-murdering Bill as one of the men who threw Eliza into the Fleet in chapter 1).  One of the most important experts on Reynolds, Anne Humpherys, reminds us that aspiring writers in the nineteenth century were advised to characterise like Dickens and plot like Reynolds (listen to the interesting BBC radio  documentary on Reynolds here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/r3docs). You also stressed the intense realism of the style. It’s here that I want to return to the murder of Polly by Bill. Isn’t the realism and the detail supposed to move us – to shift our mental and emotional positions? Its investigative realism of the kind that it was possible to read in the newspapers at the time is a very specific kind of representation of reality. It seeks to encompass all – from the luxurious boudoir in upper Clapton to the hell of Upper Union Court, from the polite language of the middle classes to the slang of the criminal underclasses. It seeks to represent all – just as the Chartists wanted everyone (well, all men) to be represented in Parliament. The style is in this sense democratic.

Space, we agreed, was heavily zoned into safe and unsafe areas. This applies as much to the bijou villa in Upper Clapton – the private boudoir where men don’t go (unless they are helped by the technologies of Reynolds’s writing and the illustrator’s burin) v. the public parlour where guests are received – as to the city at large. Eliza’s big mistake is to get lost and wander into areas she shouldn’t have been. She needed the technology of a map, just as Richard needed a moral compass – such as Reynolds’s own text is providing – to help him avoid the wiles of Mr Chichester and (a chapter we didn’t read) of Mrs Arlington’s “Salon”. Without technology, they are lost. You also pointed out the key difference between the suburbs and the centre of the city: the safety and health and space of the suburbs where the Markhams and Eliza have their dwellings v. the crowded centre where, even if as in the Park, the environment seems safe and attractive and natural,  moral corruption lies in wait just as bodies are threatened by disease and violence in the slums nearby.

The question of economics I thought was the hardest question of all. What economics is Reynolds promoting? The answer was very well explained: free circulation of information and money. In other words, Reynolds promotes free trade, though not a dishonest form of it where trickery and deception are employed to ensure the greatest profit for a few. No: he’s in favour of clear representation of what is put into circulation and how it is put into circulation. That ties up – perhaps bizarrely – to the emphasis on the representation of the underworld, including the sewer which was the Fleet at this time. Let’s think of this in relation to Eliza and her alter-ego Walter. At the end of chapter 3 s/he does the morally correct thing: as “an unknown friend” s/he alerts the potential victim to the plot to rob him. In other words, she puts information into circulation. But before that, she herself has been thrown into circulation first by the storm into the narrative, and then by Dick and Bill who throw her into the Fleet Ditch – the sewer which leads out of the city into the Thames and death. In other words, they try to stop her circulating in the city. S/he saves herself, however, and immediately – before the end of the chapter – starts circulating again.  Now isn’t this what wicked greed is in the Reynolds  —  the stopping of circulation, the arrest of flow and its transformation into accumulation?    The idea is based on the Romantic priority of nature over culture, of the countryside over the city.  Economics in London should be like the natural flow of pure water; instead, the reality is a filthy sewer polluted and blocked by City Men, swindlers, gamblers and other criminals.

What has this to do with London? Couldn’t this apply to any city? Yes, of course. That’s why, to cite the title of an excellent book edited by Celina Fox in 1992, “London” is a “World City.” Reynolds’s London stands for all corruption, all pollution, all crime. And its realistic and democratic representation  may itself represent for us the hope of a different, better future.

The Summer of 1871: Ouida and Mario

Today it’s the first day of the 4th Annual conference of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association. As always, I’m attending and giving a paper. This year’s conference theme is “Hard Cash” and it’s prompted me to think about exchanges where the medium isn’t “hard” at all.

Perhaps strangely, I started wondering about the possible prompts for Ouida’s move to Italy, her increasing interest in politics and in how writing can have a social impact. In 1871, she left for a tour of the continent. The tour turned into a life-time’s decision: from 1871 until her death in 1908 Ouida was to live in Tuscany. Her decision to live in Italy (Florence at first) was motivated, according to her early biographers, by her infatuation with the opera singer Mario who had a villa just outside Florence. Ouida was over 30 and some biographies (and still some more recent critics) have described this as an adolescent passion, a symptom of how popular culture can’t grow up.

As usual, I want to query such a response. As far as I’m concerned, such an understanding is the slave of history and stereotypes. It still continues as a trope that keeps the “soft” – in this case, women and popular culture – in its place. Just the other day I heard someone, who should have known better, reduce this representative of women’s creative engagement with a system that didn’t exactly treat her well (while profiting immensely from her labour)  to a stupid ignoramus “with hundreds of lovers” and no idea of how to manage her money (oh for goodness sake!).  To begin revisioning Ouida (and indeed the despised “soft” in general), I want to consider more carefully what actually happened in the summer of 1871. Not many letters from Ouida survive from this period and certainly she left no revealing diary, but by shifting our point of view slightly we can increase our understanding of history and its operations by thinking about what is at stake in dissing too glibly such excluded and derided figures.

In the first place, Ouida’s enthusiasm for Mario was shared by hundreds if not thousands. It was a collective passion. Mario had fans. The Victorian society hostess Lady Dorothy Nevill remarked on how Mario used to create ‘a perfect furore’ when he appeared, and The Leader in 1854 noted that he had what today would be called ‘stalkers’. Lady Geraldine Somerset recorded his farewell performance at Covent Garden on 19 July 1871 in her diary:


Mario in the role in which Ouida saw him in July 1871: Ferdinand in Donizetti's *La Favorita*

The scene of enthusiasm is difficult to describe, he was in glorious voice and acted quite magnificently. They gave him a tremendous reception, and at the end of the fine 3rd act [of Donizetti’s La Favorita], the ovation was beyond anything I ever saw, the whole house rose to receive him, waving handkerchiefs and hats, shouting showering wreaths and flowers upon him. P[rincess] A[ugusta]’s wreath was the first thrown and she threw it beautifully. HRH [the Duchess of Cambridge] threw him her bouquet and he caught it in his hand in the air as it reached him, so prettily that there was a roar of applause at it. P[rincess] M[ary Adelaid] caught up my bouquet round the corner of the box and threw it to him! Again and again and again he had to come forward, five or six times…

[after the last act] ‘a really delirious excitement, the whole house standing – quite a choking sight! He was quite pale and really overcome… the public were determined to see him yet again!! And called and shouted so he was forced to come on, in his dressing gown and stood all ému, only able to press his hand to his lips to express his emotion.

The almost equally breathless Times account of the performance confirms the ‘overwhelming’ delirium of an audience in which – to the amazement of the correspondent ‑ men were as ecstatic as women.

Ouida was there too and threw Mario a bouquet. Hers had an ivory cigarette case inside it inscribed with the following in mock-Dante Italian:

Pietosi dissero gli Dei

Oda la terra una volta la musica

Del Ciel, e labbre toccaro di …


In English it reads less elegantly: ‘In pity the gods said “May the earth hear once the music of heaven”, and they touched the lips of … Mario.’

What is the meaning of these gifts that are showered on popular artists such as Mario? What is the meaning of the ecstatic applause that follows their performance and the rapt silence that the nineteenth century audience learnt to give during it? Certainly both are in excess of any ticket price or contracted payment the artist receives. The artist and the audience give and also receive in a very curious economics, very different from the hard-headed exchanges of capitalism. For her most recent novel,  Folle-Farine (which was to come out in late August 1871, immediately before she left London) Ouida obtained £900 from her publisher Chapman. This was a considerable advance from what she’d received for her early novels, but not that much compared to her fellow literary stars Mary Braddon and Wilkie Collins (and indeed, George Eliot). Perhaps what she participated in in Covent Garden was another way of conceiving the exchange that is “Art”, music, literature — a collective, communitarian conception. Perhaps also a political one? It’s an economics where “cash” isn’t “hard” in the sense of reducible to conventionally agreed quantities. If that is what the conception of art is not, what is it? How are we to understand it positively?

(to be continued)