Sunday 27 July 2014

Remarkable Reynolds: celebrating the 200th birthday of a Chartist

G W M Reynolds' birthday cake (made by Kathy Newport
of Cracking Cakes)
The Chartist journalist and author G W M Reynolds was a sociable chap, who every year for two decades closed down his Reynolds Newspaper business for two days to take the entire staff for an annual “festival” of food, drink and games.

So hopefully he would have appreciated the celebration of his life and work held to mark his bicentenary at the weekend which culminated in sparkling wine all round and a slice of 200th birthday cake.

George William McArthur Reynolds was by turns a prominent teetotal campaigner and ardent opponent of the teetotal cause, a religious sceptic, lifelong republican, Chartist orator and journalist, and quite possibly the most prolific author of the Victorian era.

At his death in 1879, The Bookseller described him as “the most popular writer of our time”, while the weekly Reynolds Newspaper, one of many he founded and which he edited for more than two decades, survived into the 1960s.

The erotic content of Reynolds’ penny-dreadful fiction, and the sheer violence of the gothic horror stories that flowed from his pen delighted a huge audience, but shocked his literary peers.

Charles Dickens cursed Reynolds’ very name as one “with which no lady’s and no gentleman’s should be associated". But then, Reynolds thought nothing of “borrowing” characters and whole fictional worlds from his rival to produce such works as Pickwick Abroad and Pickwick Married.

A typical Reynolds work - of which
Dickens would not have approved.
The day-long celebration of Reynolds and his work was organised by Dr Mary L Shannon, post-doctoral fellow at the University of Roehampton, whose book Dickens, Reynolds, and Mayhew on Wellington Street: The Print Culture of a Victorian Street is to be published in 2015.

Opening the conference, Louis James, emeritus professor of Victorian and Modern literature at the University of Kent, outlined the difficulties in pinning down details of Reynolds’ life.

Born in 23 July 1814, the son of a retired Navy captain, Reynolds was enrolled at Sandhurst military academy aged 13, but left two years later for reasons that were never explained. He and his younger brother appear to have run wild, although reports of fraud, theft and narrow escape from transportation may well have been exaggerated.

Certainly, Reynolds was exposed to radical print culture and adopted radical politics in the early 1830s, moving to Paris where he married and began to write fiction and edit magazines. However, there is no evidence whatever to back up his later claims to have become a French citizen and joined a cavalry regiment of the French National Guard. Neither does there appear to be any truth in his story that he inherited and squandered a vast fortune from his father.

When his attempt to launch an English-language journal in France failed, Reynolds and his young family returned to England in 1837, having suffered the first of a number of bankruptcies in his early career. There he edited a variety of publications while living in the most abject poverty in a slum tenement in Bethnal Green.

His luck changed when he began publication of The Mysteries of London as a penny weekly serial. It and its sequel, The Mysteries of the Court of London, proved immensely popular, and when Reynolds teamed up with the printer and publisher John Dicks in 1847, he at last found a business partner who could help him to make his fortune.

Although print copies of Reynolds work are now hard to find and often expensive, Mysteries of London is available cheaply as a Kindle book.

For all his radical politics, Reynolds first appears to have become involved in Chartism as late as 1848, when he is reported to have “taken the chair” at a riotous rally in Trafalgar Square ostensibly called to protest over income tax but subverted by those present to promote the Chartist cause.

He went on that year to represent Derby at the Chartist Convention and was one of a number of speakers at the great Kennington Common rally of 10 April 1848.

Reynolds later served on the executive committee of the National Charter Association, but gradually moved away from the fading Chartist movement, dedicating his efforts to his journalism and fiction. By 1872, Reynolds Newspaper had a circulation of 300,000.

Very few images of Reynolds survive. However, Ian Haywood, professor of English literature at the University of Roehampton, revealed a number of new sightings of him in contemporary reports of Chartist activities.

In one caricature, Reynolds can be seen addressing the Trafalagar Square rally – not from a chair, but from behind the low wall along the raised northern edge of the square in front of the National Gallery.

In another drawing based on the famous daguerreotype of the event now ironically in the royal collection, he appears on a speakers’ platform at the Kennington Common rally alongside an orator who may well have been George Julian Harney.

At heart, however, Reynolds was neither an orator nor a politician, but a writer and editor firmly based in the print culture of Victorian England – even if his contemporaries rather wished that he was not.

Talking about her own research into Reynolds' time in Wellington Street (just off the Strand in central London), Dr Shannon drew attention to the high concentration of literary publishers within the space of a few doors.

Indeed, she suggested that not just would it have been possible for Reynolds to have bumped into Dickens, whose own periodical was based there, but that from the upstairs office of Reynolds News there may well have a been a direct line of sight into Dickens’ own groundfloor study.

If so, it was probably more infuriating for Dickens than it was for Reynolds, who felt that his rival’s writing lacked the authentic feel of working class life and the radical edge of his own work.

Although Reynolds moved away from Chartism, he remained a radical all his life, arguing in the early 1870s that he had seen Chartism as a means by which he might advance his own anti-religious and republican beliefs.

He also struggled to see himself as an employer, even while his business prospered. From 1851 to the 1870s, he and Dicks organised annual two-day festivals away from work to thank their burgeoning workforce for their contribution to the success of their titles.

Professor Anne Humpherys of City University New York has used the reports of these events which appeared in Reynolds Newspaper to track down every venue. Surprisingly, they all still stand today in one form or another.

The reports note the presence not just of Reynolds’ and Dicks’ editors and writers (male and female) but of their compositors, printers and advertising department employees. By the end, more than 100 members of the workforce took part.

However, the festivals ended when first Dicks and then Reynolds retired from active involvement in the newspapers. Reynolds died in 1879 and is buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

As Louis James told the conference, despite Reynolds’ popularity as an author there was no obituary in The Times. But radical groups across London organised a memorial meeting, and his later entry in the Dictionary of National Biography was written by the future prime minister Ramsay McDonald.

Remarkable Reynolds: Dickens' Radical Rival was presented by the English and Creative Writing Department at the University of Roehampton and Westminster City Archives.

Buy the Kindle edition of Mysteries of London (The Original Steampunk Mystery Novels Book 1).

Ian Haywood points to an 1848 newspaper report from the Court of Bankruptcy: "The bankrupt, George William McArthur Reynolds, described as a printer, bookseller and publisher, in Wellington street, Strand, is the author of the Mysteries of London, Pickwick Abroad, and other works the the same class."

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