G.W.M. Reynolds, having lived in France as a journalist for some time before returning to England, was inspired by the popular French series known as the Mysteries of Paris by Eugene Sue. The Mysteries of London commenced publication in 1844 as penny issue installments and ran uninterrupted until 1856. There ended up being a total of 624 weekly numbers. Each weekly issue was eight pages of double-columned text and an accompanying woodcut. Other types of editions included a monthly issue of four weekly parts stitched together and an annual volume of 52 numbers.
SUMMARY (Selections from the First Volume):
Prologue: The prologue introduces London as a "city of strange contrasts," in which the greatest civilization also has the greatest vices. It asks the reader to imagine two youths, one taking the path of "noisome dens of crime, chicanery, dissipation, and voluptuousness" and the other "amidst rugged rocks and acclivities...but on the wayside are the resting places of rectitude and virtue."
Chapter I-V: The first chapter sets the scene with a thunderstorm. Amidst the storm, an effeminate youth with chestnut colored hair has lost his way in a bad neighborhood of London (Smithfield). Afraid, he dashes into what seems to be an abandoned house. The room which he enters has a black square in the middle of it, and he hurries to a back room where there is a trapdoor. Two "ruffians" soon enter the first room, and the youth finds that he has no escape. He can do nothing but to listen to how the two ruffians are planning a heist at the Markham house, and to hear them tell tales of how the place they were in used to be the haunts of Jonathan Wild, perhaps the most infamous criminal of the 18th-century. The fearful youth overhears the two men telling stories about how many people must have been plunged to their death through the trap door. The youth is soon discovered as he tries to escape, and he is so paralyzed by fear that he cannot run and faints. The two ruffians drag him back in, and indeed drop him through the black square, presumably to his death. Later, however, the Markham residence receives an anonymous tip letting them know of a potential heist. The next chapter begins with the meeting of two brothers, Richard Markham (age 15) and Eugene Markham (age 19) issuing from the house and meeting at the top of a hill. Eugene has been home to beg his father to help him settle debts that he had incurred after joining a regiment, promising that he would from then on not give in to the dissipations that placed him into debt. Their father refused, however, and Eugene resolves to go forth and make his own fortune in the world. Richard and Eugene agree to meet again in twelve years at this same spot, to compare who has done better in the world. It so happens that four years later, the father dies, and leaves his fortune to Richard. One day, Richard (who has generally kept to himself, sheltered) makes the acquaintance of the Honorable Archur Chichester, who introduces him to aristocratic life, in which (Chichester says) it is okay for single gentleman to take mistresses. Chichester invites Richard to meet his baronet friend, and also his baronet friend's mistress, Mrs. Arlington.
Chapter VI introduces the setting of a boudoir in a beautiful villa where the paraphernalia of men and women's toilette are mixed up. A woman occupies the boudoir reading as a female servant enters. The woman is under the guardianship of one Mr. Stephens, who requires her to dress up as "Walter" (hence the male toilette items) even though she is "Eliza," the real Walter's sister. In the course of a conversation with one George Montague, who also knows the secret that she is in fact female, she reveals that she is the youth at the beginning in the thunderstorm. She had survived her plunge and escaped. She also tells how she once went to an opera and won an invitation to Mrs. Arlington's, and made the acquaintance of Richard Markham there. The narrative then flashes back to Richard Markham in Chapter X, telling how he falls in love with Mrs. Arlington who then tells him her own sad life story, in which George Montague tricked her father out of all of his money (asking her father to give him money for speculation) and then left her afterwards. Richard promises to restore her to honor.
Chapters XIII-XIX: Markham continues his "learning" about the many sordid experiences in London life. Among other places, he is taken to "The Hell," a gambling house where he witnesses the devastating scene of a young officer losing all of his money and then shooting himself in the head. The description of this act is lurid--the man blows his brains out and falls over in a pool of blood. A police officer shows up and shines lantern on Markham's face; though innocent, Markham manages to get himself taken to Newgate.
In a "den of horrors" (before commencing with this story, the narrator makes some polemical statements about how what is to follow is not exaggeration), a mother beats her two children, a boy of seven and a girl of five, for not bringing back enough money from a day of begging. When the father comes home, she concocts a plan for him to take the boy on burglary heists. Her other plan is to blind the eyes of her daughter so that she will draw more compassion to herself and hence more money. She doesn't get a chance to do this (thankfully); after coming back from a night of drinking, the father hits her for berating him and murders her when she turns against the children. When he hits her in the head, she falls over and hits her eye on the edge of the table and fractures her skull. The father pretends he is going to fetch a doctor and leaves his children with the corpse of their mother.
Back at the Old Smithfield House, the scene of the first chapter, the "ruffians" Dick and Tom hide Bill Bolton, the man who has murdered his wife, in a vault below the house, adjacent to where "Walter" had made his escape. Markham meanwhile has landed in Newgate, where his idealistic notions of the English system of justice are broken. Even before they are judged, prisoners endure privations in Newgate. The narration laments that he can only talk to his advocate, Mr. Monroe (friend of his father's) through grates. The other prisoners talk about which judges are lenient, how to act in their own best interests, and also which judges can be bribed and so forth. Markham is slightly cheered, however, by Monroe's visit. At Newgate, Markham meets a "Republican," Thomas Armstrong, who tells him how he was let down by George Montague who took his charity and then revealed all of his political secrets to the government. Armstrong is a noble man who speaks out against the wrongs of government and social institutions and has hence landed himself in jail. When Markham says that he knows Montague, Armstrong's superior character leads him to say that he forgives Montague. Markham also meets someone quite different, a "resurrection man" or a body-snatcher (someone who digs up bodies from the grave and sells them for science experiments). The body-snatcher involves Markham in shady dealings, asking him to accept packages for him. Meanwhile, in his dungeon, Bill receives food from Dick, though Bill is kind of losing it, imagining many scary visions including hallucinations that he sees his murdered wife. He hears that officials have offered 100,000 pounds for his capture so he must nevertheless stay put. One time he comes up the stairs to receive food from Dick, and the officers catch sight of him. Bill thinks Dick has sold him out, and kills Dick with a knife he has just asked for. Bill find out that it is actually the resurrection man that has sold him out. Bill is taken to Newgate, of course.
At The Dark House tavern in Spitalfields, Markham, having found his way out of jail, goes in seek of the resurrection man to square away his own innocence through paying him. At the tavern, the resurrection man is late, and he manages to get his innocence signed away by Pocock (actually Mr. Talbot, another crook and friend of the baronet) and consequently doesn't need to pay the resurrection man. In another chapter, the work of the body-snatchers is given in detail through a description of a heist performed by the resurrection man and his gang for the surgeon. They have precise and exacting methodologies and successfully exhume a body without signs of the grave being violated. In later chapters, we are introduced to one poor Ellen Monroe and her father; they are so poor that she agreed to work as a seamstress earning only sixpence for seventeen hours of work. Ellen's story is one of compelled ruin: forced by circumstances of poverty and wanting to help her poor father, she listens to a hag's advice and allows her face to be used for a statuary making plaster casts. From there, she poses half-naked for a sculptor, and then eventually, fully nude for a photographer. One day, she finds that she is no longer pure or chaste of mind. The narration blames the old hag for deliberately leading her down a "road to ruin."
Chapters LVIII-LX: This section has one of Reynolds's most famous depictions of upper class corruption: on New Year's Day, 1839, the resurrection man and the "cracksman" sends a young boy into Buckingham Palace in order to find out enough information about the palace so that a heist may be planned. The young boy successfully penetrates the interior of Buckingham palace and even sits on the throne when no one is looking. Queen Victoria is kind of a dupe in Reynolds's treatment of her; her advisers seem to keep the knowledge of suffering subjects from her. The chapter on New Year's Day takes a quick detour from narrative to wax polemical on the subject of the wealthy versus the poor. A social chart with the industrious classes at the bottom, and the sovereign at the top illustrates the unethical burden placed on the "industrious classes" to support the few rich members of society. The differences between their meals on New Year's Day are included to illustrate the central theme of "contrasts" with which the prologue began.
[Mysteries of London in its entirety is about 4.5 million words in length; the wrapping up of its plot includes Eugene (who has been a liar and a cheater under many assumed identities) dying at last in his brother's arms. The one brother turns out good and honorable, and the other evil and selfish, though they have both threaded their way through the labyrinth of London. Eugene ends up marrying Ellen Monroe, after she essentially becomes a depraved villain who blackmails Eugene into marriage. In a much happier ending, Richard Markham helps an Italian state, Castelcicala succeed in its struggle for independence, and ends up marrying Isabella, the daughter of the new ruler.]
Reynolds's work has not generally been included in the Victorian canon for obvious reasons of its status as "lowbrow" literature, but recent scholars have taken up his works in order to study the cultural moment which its popularity reflected. Generic sources for Mysteries are pretty clear: the Newgate novel, melodrama, and gothic writing. In particular, the 1840s experienced a kind of "mystery writing" craze, and Reynolds's Mysteries perhaps reflects this movement's apogee.
The antagonism between Dickens and Reynolds largely reflects how the two men viewed approaches to solving social problems. Reynolds was not afraid to be polemical; certainly, the bold declaration of the contrasts between wealth and poverty in the prologue and elsewhere throughout the series makes Reynolds much more of a radical. The sensational aspects of his literature were calculated specifically to inspire the "masses"--Reynolds did not want to be a respectable writer for the middle-class reading public. Dickens, for his part, said that he held Reynolds's "name with which no lady's, and no gentleman's, should be associated," referring specifically to Reynolds's participation in an unruly Chartist open-air meeting in 1848. Yet, to modern audiences, one can't help but to point to many similarities between Dickens's serial writing and Reynolds's. Oliver Twist showcases Dickens's own indebtedness to the Newgate novel, and many contemporaries commented too on the melodramatic aspects of Dickens's stories. Both men importantly explored the notion of the Victorian poor as being compelled by circumstance towards evil ends, countering dominant discourses of the reform era which located evil as endemic amongst the poor. Thus, though these men imagined themselves as deeply at odds, the line between what was a respectable way of expressing such notions and what was not wasn't always clear. Reynolds used many of the same techniques as Dickens to appeal to his audiences's sympathies, only that he stretched them further and aimed at inspiring a more radical social movement.