While a full biography of awaits to be written, probably the most detailed account to date is Dick Collins's 'G.W.M. Reynolds: a Biographical Sketch' that introduces the Valancourt edition of Reynolds's The Necromancer Kansas City: Valancourt Books, 2007), vii-lv. — Louis James, Professor Emeritus in Victorian and Modern Literature, University of Kent
Reynolds's portrait. Source: Reynolds's Miscellany, I/1 (7 Nov. 1846): front page
George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-79), once an enormously popular Victorian author, is almost totally unknown in our day (Bleiler, vii-viii). Like his contemporary Charles Dickens, Reynolds worked as an editor and journalist who also wrote numerous novels and other works — the majority of which were published as serials in weekly newspapers or journals. Unlike Dickens, he has now been almost completely forgotten, and his works, which were published and reissued several times during his lifetime, are now unknown to all but a few specialized scholars. The two works — best-sellers of the day — most often remembered, The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Court of London , sold over a million copies in ten years. These works, each comprising twelve or more volumes when published as books, were almost immediately translated and published in French, German, Italian, and Spanish.
In modern references, he is often referred to as a Chartist leader, but works about Chartism give him little recognition or ignore him altogether because he had a disagreement with the other leaders of the movement and broke with the Chartists. Chartism was a political movement made up of many diverse organizations and groups with slightly different purposes, but all agreed about the points of "the Charter", these being: "universal suffrage. . . , equal-sized electoral districts, voting by secret ballot, an end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament. . . , pay for the members of Parliament, and annual election of Parliament." The main purpose of Chartism was to achieve better standards of living for the lower middle class and the working classes, and this is where we can tentatively locate Reynolds's purpose in his fiction. Reynolds focus often relied on various themes and these recurred throughout his works. In this essay I shall treat the attention he gave to good and evil, virtue and vice, repentance, and the need for social change.
Nearly all of Reynolds's characters are either entirely good or entirely bad. In Wagner the Wehr-wolf, for example, God, angels, and the devil appear as characters. In his other works they do not figure so prominently, yet his concern with them is not superficial here. Reynolds did not divide his characters into good and evil based on their class but rather on their their motivations and their desires.
To give an idea of how he separated his characters into binary oppositions and how he characterized the good ones by contrasting them to the bad, I shall make some comparisons between some of the contrasting characters that are placed together in Wagner the Wehr-wolf and in The Mysteries of the Court of London. Fernand Wagner, the Wehr-wolf and main character in the former work, is an old and lonely man abandoned by his only living kin, his granddaughter, when he is visited by Faust and offered wealth, youth, and intelligence in exchange for accompanying Faust for eighteen months and that he "prey upon the human race" as a wehr-wolf (6). Yet Wagner is characterized as a good-hearted and kindly gentleman who sorrows over his foolish decision. He finds his granddaughter later in the work, discovers that she had become the mistress of an Italian nobleman, and forgives her for her inconsiderate choice. He becomes enamored of Nisida (the daughter of this same nobleman) and his granddaughter Agnes is murdered. He is arrested for the murder and while awaiting his trial, he is visited by "the Demon", the very devil characterized in human shape with "something awful in [his] form — something wildly and menacingly sinister in the sardonic smile that curled his lips."
The devil offers Wagner the very offer made to Faust, but Wagner refuses. The devil, who is intent on destroying Wagner's happiness, repeatedly tries to convince him to give up his soul in exchange for something Wagner needs. Somehow, the devil is sinister but never directly attacks Wagner or anyone else in the story. What most made me angry with this apparition is that after Wagner has fended off his attacks again and again, he interacts with Nisida and convinces her to repeat his temptations to Wagner again. Somehow, I saw this as an even more subtle and sinister attempt to defeat Wagner.
In an era when Jews were still often viewed with hatred and blamed for the problems of society, Reynolds's treatment of a Jew is quite interesting. Even Dickens treated Jews with stereotypical prejudice in both Oliver Twist and Great Expectations (though he made amends in later works). In Wagner, Isaachar ben Solomon, the Jewish moneylender, is characterized as a very good man. When two men — both of whom had come to do him harm by theft or violence — begin a sword fight in his home, he moved to a corner, "fell upon his knees and began to offer up prayers that no blood might be spilt — for he was a humane and kind-hearted man" (45). One of them is wounded, and "Isaachar . . . supplied water in an ewer, and linen bandages: and the old man, forgetting the object of Manuel's predatory visit to his abode, hastened himself to wash and bind up the wounded arm." When the subject of this attention comments that the Jew "hast something of the feelings of a Christian," Isaachar replies, "Didst thou ever suppose that different creeds make different hearts . . . ?" (45). Reynolds himself could be speaking here for tolerance of the Jews and their beliefs.
Now in contrast with the kind-hearted Jew we have the Grand Inquisitor of the Holy Inquisition who makes his appearance later. After Isaachar has been imprisoned for months, he appears before the venerable Inquisitor.
The old man was indeed a spectacle. His garments hung loosely about his wasted and attenuated form; — his countenance was wan and ghastly; — but the fire of his eyes was not altogether quenched. . . . For the persecuted old man had been confined for nearly seven months in the prison of the Inquisition; and during that period he had suffered acutely with the damps of his dungeon — the wretched food doled out to him — and the anguish occasioned by conscious innocence unjustly accused of a dreadful crime.
The stern, fierce Grand Inquisitor, Christian as he is, sends hapless victims off to the torture chamber and makes them suffer — often unjustly (127-28). It was no coincidence that Reynolds placed these two characters together to show the disparity of their characters as related to his contemporaries' expectations based on their respective religions.
Another contrast occurs in The Mysteries of the Court of London between Sir Richard Stamford and the Prince of Wales. Richard Stamford, a noble, has been betrayed by his wife and is wanted for her murder and for various other crimes of which he has been accused. He is caught and held for several days by a group of ruffians associated with the individuals who brought this ignominy upon him but fortunately escapes by digging through the wall of the cellar where he is held into the cellar next door (119-32). After his escape, he returns home and discovers that all is not as was first reported by the newspapers: his wife is alive though he is still unjustly wanted. He forgives his wife and is reconciled with her.
On the other hand, the Prince of Wales is a dissipated, greedy, and depraved monster. He seduces women, taking advantage of their innocent nature, often under assumed names and with the pretense that he will soon marry them. On one occasion, a trader who he owed money was about to be put in prison for debts. The prince discovered a way to discharge the debt, but only bothered because it would be embarrassing for knowledge of the debt to become public. Then, despite having the means at hand, he puts off paying this debt until the last minute and the trader commits suicide. When informed of this occurrence by his confidant Meagles who had been sent to pay the debt, the prince says, "Of course you have not paid the money to the creditors? Well, perhaps it is better that the vulgar trader should have blown his brains out; it is fifteen thousand pounds saved" (274). As readers we are positively outraged by the prince's behavior — as is his friend Meagles.
Reynolds was unusually candid about Victorian mores, for his contemporaries often left unsaid what he voiced. For example, he rails against the unjust system of morals which prevailed under which an unfaithful wife was punished severely while an unfaithful husband's deeds were simply overlooked or ignored (Wagner, 39). His audience being the more affluent sections of the lower class and perhaps certain portions of the middle class, he catered to their interests with his works on historical settings and events. Over these he superimposed a Victorian view of the world and added what could be termed pornography, mainly in the form of descriptions of women. Often these segments are followed by a sort of puritanical reverie commenting on how awful such things are. His approach to the unfairness of the social mores and to the misdeeds of the Prince of Wales give us a view of how he really felt about the virtue of women. Somehow he saw it as quite important, perfectly in step with others of his day. What is perhaps surprising here is, as we just mentioned, his use of seductive or voyeuristic scenes that exploit women. To give one example, I shall provide his description of Nisida from Wagner the Wehr-wolf:
Tall, graceful, and elegant, she united easy motion with fine proportion; thus possessing the lightness of the Sylph and the luxuriant fullness of the Hebe.
Her countenance was alike expressive of intellectuality and strong passions. Her large black eyes were full of fire; and their glances seemed to penetrate the soul. . . . [H]er lips, narrow but red and pouting, with the upper one short and slightly projecting over the lower, and her small, delicately rounded chin, indicated both decision and sensuality: but the insolent gaze of the libertine would have quailed beneath the look of sovereign hauteur which flashed from those brilliant eagle eyes. 
This, one of his shorter flights into female description, exemplifies his characteristic, rather odd joining of virtue and vice in his description of female characters. In some ways, I suspect the allegation that his work is pornographic is part of the reason that he has been ignored for so many years. A final important note regarding his treatment of characters in relation to good and evil, virtue and vice: the characters are not absolutely fixed without the ability to change. The most poignant example of this being the woman described, Nisida. Throughout Wagner the Wehr-wolf Nisida is a very difficult character to follow. She murders Wagner's granddaughter because she thinks she is a rival lover, she is constantly scheming, she affects to be mute and deaf (not even her brother knows that she really can speak and hear), and she seems to have strange motives for most of these things. At the end of the work, she suddenly explains everything: her mother had made her make certain promises and she had done her best to keep those promises. She apologizes for her more heinous acts and dies. Her brother is told, "Grieve not for her loss, my children, she has gone to a happier realm — for the sincere repentance which she manifested in her last hours has atoned for all the evils she wrought in her life-time" (152).
This belief that repentance can make up for the errors of an entire lifetime figures quite large in Reynolds works. It seems to entail a change of heart and attitude, forgiveness from God, escape from the devil, confession, and tranquility in death. Other characters who embody this view of repentance include Wagner himself, Arthur Eaton, and The Marquis of Orsini. Wagner's case is perhaps obvious — after he agreed to become a werewolf and thus inflict harm on others for his own benefit, he feels remorse and seeks a way to make up for the harm he has done. Wagner is able to effect an escape by following directions given to him in a vision by an angel and in freeing himself from his sins also dies. In death Wagner is buried with Nisida who we were explicitly told received a forgiveness.
Arthur Eaton, The Mysteries of the Court of London, provides another interesting case. After he abandons his pregnant lover, she arranges to have him poisoned in a way that make it seem as if he is dying a slow death from a wasting disease. While thus suffering and dying, he repents and tries to make amends to this woman, who refuses to forgive him and continues her plans to have him killed. He discovers that he is being poisoned, and discovers the antidote and while recovering goes to try to make amends with her. She is still angry and tries again to kill him, obtaining a poison that would kill him instantly in his sleep. He is awake when she arrives and tells her that he is still willing to take her and that he is very sorry for what he had done to her. She leaves still angry. His case is interesting because he continues repentant after he discovers that he is not going to die. This implies that his view of repentance requires sincerity.
Reynolds's underlying purpose in both The Mysteries of London series is to uncover the problems in society and to push for change. Although they seem to be soap-opera-like novels, they have have underlying political and religious purposes. The theme of repentance for individuals ties quite nicely to the Chartist idea that society can improve itself and compensate for its past errors. This view makes Reynolds's narratives slightly more important as social documents. Chartism sought for particular changes in benefit of society and repentance almost seems to be a proof that these changes can be brought about.
In several sections of The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Court of London, Reynolds steps aside from the narrative to describe the people on the street and to decry the social injustice he sees there. He makes brief comments in nearly every chapter, but certain chapters have pages of commentaries like the ones about the unfair treatment of women mentioned above. One chapter, for example, instructs the reader to look at a map of London and compare where poor people live to where the rich do, after which the narrator tells us:
The result will prove that two-thirds of the mighty Babylon are covered with a plague-mist of demoralization, misery, ignorance, wretchedness, squalor, and crime. And yet a thousand towers, pinnacles, and spires point up to heaven, and indicate the houses of God and the temples of worship. Oh, what have the myriad fat and bloated pastors done for the population that swarms in those frightful neighbourhoods. . . . [In many areas of the city] "the houses [are] of the most miserable description, the shops of the poorest kind. Every dwelling harboured numerous distinct families; and poverty forced the poor artisan into a close neighbourhood with the avowed thief. The result, in such cases, too often was that the former, instead of bringing the latter within the sphere of a commendable industry, became infected with the poison of demoralization, and in the desperation produced by the failure of work, threw himself into the arms of the villain who promised a rich harvest with little trouble in the reaping.
This passage exemplifies the characteristic accusations Reynolds levels against the government, the aristocracy, and the established church for causing these problems and not working to resolve them.
According to Reynolds — here still very much in sympathy with Chartist belief — poverty is the chief cause of crime. Reynolds wanted greater equality between classes, cultural freedom, economic security for all, and universal tolerance, and he constantly worked these ideas into both his works of fiction and his editorials. He appears somewhat conservative because, like Thomas Carlyle who also excoriates the aristocracy, he nonetheless relates desperately needed social change to the virtue and vice of individuals and to the good that individual repentance produces.
Works Referenced or Cited
Bleiler, E. F. "G. W. M. Reynolds" Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985. 205-211.
Goodway, David. London Chartism: 1838-1848. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
McWilliam, Rohan. "The mysteries of G.W.M. Reynolds: radicalism and melodrama in Victorian Britain" Living and Learning: Essays in Honour of J. F. C. Harrison. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1996. 182-98.
Plunkett, John. "Regicide and Reginamania: G.W.M. Reynolds and The Mysteries of London" Victorian Crime, Madness and Sensation. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004. 15-30.
Reynolds, G. W. M. Pauline Clarendon: The Mysteries of the Court of London. London: Privately Printed by The Oxford Society, not dated.
Reynolds, G. W. M. Wagner the Wehr-wolf. New York: Dover, 1975.
Collins, Dick. “G.W.M. Reynolds: a Biographical Sketch.” The Necromancer. Kansas City: Valancourt Books, 2007. Pp. vii-lv.
Last modified 20 October 2018