fter readers have made their way through a substantial portion of The Mysteries of London’s thousands of pages, encountering an astonishing variety of incidents and genres, they might assume that nothing Reynolds does next will surprise them. After all, by the time they have begun the last quarter of Reynolds’s immensely long novel they will have found themselves in the midst of plots from a wide variety of novelistic genres, including the Newgate or crime novel, those of the Sensation and Silver Fork schools, political and romance fiction, and even tales of heroic foreign adventure in aid of Italian reunification. Readers have already met both dreadful villains (conscience-less members of the highest nobility and for-hire murderers, body-snatchers, procurers, and rapists), and virtuous if very unlucky male and female protagonists. The book’s melodramatic events come interspersed with powerful polemics against corruption, cruelty, and class injustice as Reynolds pauses in the narrative and turns his attention to the evils of the entire legal system — the Home Office, police, judges, and penal systems. Along the way The Mysteries of London provides detailed descriptions of stock swindles, dreadful cemetery conditions, adulteration of food and drink, bodysnatching, fraud in auction houses, and multiple forms of exploiting children in coal mines, criminal gangs houses of prostitution, and blackmail rings. But, as they say in late-night advertisements on American television, “Wait, there’s more!”
Reynolds introduces Queen Victoria and Prince Albert into the novel in a particularly incredible way: After the the Resurrection Man and Crankey Jem recruit Henry Holford, a rather strange young man, to sneak into Buckingham Palace in preparation for a planned robbery (which never occurs because he discovers that all valuables are locked away every night), the young man hides until morning beneath a sofa at which time he listens to queen and consort converse after servants have brought them breakfast. After telling us that “their conversation soon flowed without restraint,” the narrator abruptly qualifies his statement:
But such an empire—such a despotism does the habitual etiquette of Courts establish over the natural freedom of the human mind, that even the best and most tender feelings of the heart are to a certain extent subdued and oppressed by that chilling influence. The royal pair were affectionate to each other: still their tenderness was not of that lively, unembarrassed, free, and cordial nature which subsists at the domestic hearth elsewhere. There seemed to be a barrier between the frank and open interchange of their thoughts; and even though that barrier were no thicker than gauze, still it existed. Their words were to some degree measured—scarcely perceptibly so, it is true—nevertheless, the fact was apparent in the least, least degree; and the effect was also in the least, least degree unpleasant.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at breakfast. Click on image to enlarge it.
This unpleasantness, it turns out, arises in a reversal of gender relations, since “the Queen was authoritative in the enunciation of her opinion upon any subject; and if the Prince differed from her, he expressed himself with restraint. In fact, he did not feel himself his wife's equal.” In fact, the narrator points out, if one judged only by the words spoken and not the “voices which marked their respective sex . . . he would have thought that the Queen was the husband, and the Prince the wife.”
Reynolds characterizes Prince Albert as “very amiable, very intelligent; but totally inexperienced in the ways of the world,” which hardly seems accurate from what we know today. But Reynolds's characterization of both the Prince Consort and his regal wife derives in large part because of the polemical use he wishes to make of this scene. Thus he tells us that the “Queen exhibited much natural ability and an elegant taste: nevertheless, she also seemed lamentably ignorant of the every-day incidents of life. We mean that the royal pair manifested a reluctance to believe in those melancholy occurrences which characterize the condition of the industrious millions. This was not the result of indifference, but of sheer ignorance.” As Reynolds explains, those “surrounded by every luxury” cannot even conceive that “literal starvation could possibly exist.” The Mysteries of London was written, we recall, during the “Hungry Forties.” though presciently before the terrible Irish famine between 1845 and 1849. Reynolds underlines his point with a conversation about newspaper accounts of hardship and starvation, which she refuses to believe:
There appears to be some distress in the country. The very first article on which my eyes rested when I took up this newspaper ere now, is headed 'Dreadful Suicide through Extreme Destitution.' Beneath, in the same column, is an article entitled 'Infanticide, and Suicide of the Murderess, through Literal Starvation.' The next column contains a long narrative which I have not had time to read, but which is headed 'Suicide through Dread of the Workhouse.' On this page," continued the Queen, turning the paper upon the table, "there is an article entitled 'Death from Starvation;' another headed 'Dreadful Condition of the Spitalfields' Weavers;' a third called 'Starving State of the Paisley Mechanics;' a fourth entitled 'Awful Distress in the Manufacturing Districts;' and I perceive numerous short paragraphs all announcing similar calamities."
When Albert comments that newspapers “are always full of such accounts,” Queen Victoria “impatiently” assures him that “England is the richest, most prosperous, and happiest country on the face of the earth,” and that her ministers have explained to her that the writers who are paid by the word “therefore amplify the details as much as possible.” Futhermore, she adds, when you
read that the weavers are in an actual state of starvation. This is only newspaper metaphor: the writer means his readers to understand that the weavers are not so well off as they would wish to be. Perhaps they have not meat every day — perhaps only three or four times a week: but they assuredly have plenty of bread and potatoes — because bread and potatoes are so cheap!” . . . . the idea of people actually dying of starvation in a Christian land is of course absurd. I am really bewildered, at times, with the reasons of, and the remedies proposed for, that distress. If I ask the Home Secretary, he declares that the people are too obstinate to understand what comfortable places the workhouses are; — if I ask the Colonial Secretary, he assures me that the people are most wilfully blind to the blessings of emigration: if I ask the Foreign Secretary, he labours to convince me that the distracted state of the East reacts upon this country; and if I ask the Bishop of London he expresses his conviction that the people require more churches."
One assumes that Reynolds both includes compliments to royal couple and explains how they have been misled by those in power in part to protect himself from prosecution. But this generally sympathetic attitude is also in keeping with the assumptions of the Chartists with whom he was in sympathy, for they believed the queen could not possibly know the truth about poverty and injustice in her domains and do nothing about it.
Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 1. Project Gutenberg EBook #47312 produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team from images available at Google Books. Web. 2 August 2016.
Last modified 1 October 2016