ne of the most popular protagonists of late nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls, Jack Harkaway embodied the resourcefulness and romantic adventurism of late nineteenth-century penny dreadful heroes. In Jack Harkaway's adventures, the gory tales of sensational criminals and murderers of early penny dreadful literature were tempered into well-meaning fun and more wholesome escapades in keeping with the younger audience. Jack Harkaway was created by the lawyer, Bracebridge Hemyng, for Edwin Brett's Boys of England, and Haining attests that "at the height of Harkaway's popularity, newsagents fought with each other in the street outside the publisher's offices to get their copies, so great was the demand by readers" (342). The American publisher, Frank Leslie, also provided tales of Harkaway's adventures to the American public, and indeed, Hemyng spent part of his life in Staten Island, N. Y., where he continued to pen Harkaway tales for his avid American and English audience.
Harkaway's adventures begin with our hero's running away from school. After accidentally overhearing a pair of thieves colorfully plotting to steal from a nearby manor, Harkaway saves the day by alerting the manor's inhabitants of their peril. In the morning, Harkaway shares his intentions with the kindly lady of the house:
"What do you think of doing?" Lady Mordenfield inquired, regarding him curiously.
"Schoolboys have only one resource when they run away," Jack replied, laughing.
"And that resource is — ?" said Lady Mordenfield.
"To go to sea."
"So you think of going to sea?"
"Yes, I shall try and make my way to the coast. I should have gone by train if I had had money enough."
"A sailor's life is a hard one," she replied.
"I am strong, and young, and hardy. Beside, it is a life of adventure, and what can be more delightful?" Jack said, his face flushing with pleasure, at the thought of the prospect before him.
Harkaway's claims of a hard schoolmaster and his decision to run away to the sea must have appealed to Hemyng's schoolboy audience, who can only have commiserated with Harkaway and wished that they too could embark upon a "life of adventure."
After a series of adventures, Harkaway does become a sailor and brings his reader with him on journeys around the world. At the same time, Harkaway remains the consummate British schoolboy, although surrounded by heathens and other barbarous characters, Harkaway retains his sense of honor and adheres to a schoolboy's code of conduct.
In "Jack Harkaway's Boy Tinker Among the Turks", the episode opens with all the sensationalism of penny dreadfuls: Harkaway and his friend, Harry Girdwood, witness the murder of a woman. Upon being roundly told off by the captain for endangering their relations with the locals, Harkaway stands up for himself and his friends, announcing that "We arrived too late to prevent it, but Tinker was pleased to take it upon himself to avenge the murdered woman, for a woman it was, as we could tell from her shrieks as the sack went under and stifled them for ever." Here, the death of a nameless woman, identifiable only by her shrieks as they sink beneath the waves, highlights the thrills and chills beloved of penny dreadful readers. Moreover, Harry Girdwood plays the part of the stalwart friend in reminding Harkaway, "You had no right to retort, and I shouldn't be a true pal, Jack, if I spoke to your face against my convictions." To this, Harkaway very properly, after realistically indulging in only a brief period of sulking, acts in the following manner:
He was very soon led back to the correct train of thought, and being a lad of high moral courage, as well as physically brave, he was not afraid to acknowledge when he was in the wrong.
Harry Girdwood walked a little way off.
Young Jack -- dare-devil Jack -- colored up as he walked to Harry and held out his hand.
"Tip us your fin, messmate," he said, with forced gaiety. "You are right, I was wrong, of course."
He turned off.
"Where are you going?" demanded Harry.
"To the captain."
"To apologise for being insolent."
Off he went.
Here, Jack Harkaway displays both courage and moral strength, and although he witnesses robbery and murder, these acts are accompanied by Hemyng's reminders that honor and respect are equally important. Although not ostensibly a moral character, he has after all run away from school, Harkaway very clearly embodies all the traits of a good English boy. Finally, this excerpt, with its terse dialogue, aptly displays the gripping and colorful narrative of penny dreadfuls.
Hemyng, Bracebridge. Jack Harkaway's Boy Tinker Among the Turks. Book 15. Chicago: M.A. Donohue & Company.
Last modified 12 August 2007