In 19th century England, Dick Turpin was a name as famous (or infamous) as Robin Hood or Sweeney Todd. Stories of these and other “virtuous” criminals sold hundreds of thousands of copies of serialized books which were soon named “penny bloods” or “penny dreadfuls.” Beginning in the 1820s and declining by the 1890s, penny dreadfuls were often published on a weekly basis. For your penny, you usually got 8 pages of cheaply-made paper containing a lurid story that might pick up in the middle of the sentence it had ended with the week before. Stories stretched out over forty or sixty weeks, sometimes longer. Our copy of The Mysteries of London (George W. M. Reynolds) was published over 209 weekly parts between 1845 and 1848. Pulp fiction, dime novels, comic books and television soap operas are all distant descendants of the penny dreadful.
Publishers were (then as now) eager to make the most money they possibly could from each publication. Today you can buy a comic book in individual issues, and then buy a repackaged compilation of 8 or 10 issues. Perhaps you missed one issue, or the compilation has extra added bonus material. Later, the publisher might even bring out an “authorized” or “absolute” edition. These were all practices used by Victorian publishers, as well. The copy of The Blue Dwarf* (Percy B. St. John) in Archives & Special Collections is a 3 volume set, in original color paper covers (or “wrappers”). Each volume cost one shilling when it was published, around 1870.
These volumes are compiled from the weekly parts–37 numbers in all. The numbers used in these compilations were not edited or changed from their earlier form – something that can be proved by a careful inspection of the gutter (the margin of the page nearest the binding) on some pages.
Our copy is bound tightly enough that there is no safe way to take a picture of this. The picture above is from a copy that was owned by the University of California, Berkeley and digitized by Google Books. Anyone can access the entire book from Hathi Trust in digital form here.
The academic community has been debating the pros and cons of wholesale book digitization for several years now. Scholars who are much more eloquent than I am have pointed out both the benefits and dangers of utilizing digital editions. For example, I recommend this lecture by Michael F. Suarez, S.J., given at the Grolier Club in 2010 (his lecture begins at 10 minutes in, with specific examples beginning around minute 23).
Here is the example I would like to add. In the digitized version, page 192 looks like this:
In our paper version, it actually looks like this:
While someone researching 19th century illustrations certainly has instantaneous access to many digitized examples, the quality of those examples should sometimes be viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism.
Here are a few resources for learning more about penny dreadfuls:
- The Barry Ono Collection of Penny Dreadfuls at the British Library
- Aspects of the Victorian Book: Penny Dreadfuls also at the British Library, click on the small button that says “images”
- Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls at Stanford University
And to find penny dreadfuls held at Amherst, click here, or do the following search in our online catalog:
*Full title: The blue dwarf: a tale of love, mystery, and crime; introducing many startling incidents in the life of that celebrated highwayman, Dick Turpin.