The Legacy of the Penny Dreadful

Spring Heeled JackI know, I know. There are people out there who turn up their noses at genre fiction these days. Romance, Sci-Fi, Horror, and Mysteries, they’ve all come under attack from purist who think that high-minded literature is the way to go.

I respectfully disagree. In fact, some of the most captivating and scintillating stories ever written have been “purple prose” or penny dreadfuls. In fact, the entire genre of penny dreadfuls—or ‘dime novels’ in the U.S.—represented an amazing leap forward in the progress of mankind during the 19th century. No, they weren’t great works of literature, they were something far better.

To understand why it was so awesome to have the literary market flooded with cheap paperbacks full of hyperbolic stories of cleft-chin heroes and moustache-twirling villains, you first have to understand the context. Life in the middle of the 19th century was a whole new experience for most people. Factories defined people’s day-to-day and hour-to-hour lives. Goods could be created much faster, and people consumed more of them. The means of mass-producing literature were well in place, now all that was needed was to find someone to write it all.

And sure, we had the Charles Dickenses and Louisa May Alcotts, the Robert Browings and Mark Twains and Henry Jameses of the world, writing and making their mark on culture. But what did an average working-class bloke want with the likes of them?

Perhaps the most important literary advance of the 19th century was not the giants of poetry and prose that we learn about in school today, it was the simple fact that more people than ever before could read. Across the English-speaking world (and the rest of the developed world), efforts were being made to educate the lower classes. Literacy became an important goal of the social reform-minded. And when people are literate, they want something to read.

Penny dreadfuls in Britain and dime novels in the U.S. were the answer to the demand for cheap and sensational entertainment for the masses. The trend began in around the 1830s in Britain and roughly the 1860s in the U.S. of producing what amounted to cheap thrills in literary form. These penny novels were serialized and fictionalized accounts of true crime and shocking history. Sometimes they were slap-dash retelling of older gothic novels with a new twist. The point was that they sold.

Now, penny dreadfuls weren’t the first stories to be published in serialized, consumable form. Some of the greatest writers of the 19th century, like Charles Dickens, wrote serialized novels. In a pre-television era, waiting for the next issue of a popular journal to come out was like waiting for the next episode of Downton Abbey. These stories had just as wide of a following as Doctor Who (for example) does today and just as many people talking about them around the water pump as soon as they were read.

Penny dreadfuls and dime novels were simply more cheaply-produced versions of these popular stories. They were the Jersey Shore of the 19th century. The writing didn’t have much literary merit and the subject matter was dubious at best, but they were highly in demand.

229px-Inserat_1900_Buffalo_BillA great deal of these sensational stories were aimed at working class young men. So much so that there was a fear in Britain that stories about highwaymen and murderers with “celebrities” like Dick Turpin and Sweeney Todd (yes, that Sweeney Todd—this is where he came from) would encourage their readers to imitate art.

Across the pond, the most popular dime novels were those about the heroes of the Old West, men like Buffalo Bill and Deadwood Dick. These were the original Westerns. The wild adventures and heart-stopping thrills of cowboys versus Indians were in such high demand that they were even copied and rewritten and sent to Britain. They boosted the popularity of the real figures they fictionalized that people like the real Buffalo Bill, “Wild Bill” Hickok, and even Annie Oakley were the rock stars of their days.

The key to these fast and dirty tales was that they were inexpensive and exciting. Great prose or not, they kept generations reading and wanting more. They evolved into various forms throughout the 20th century, from comic books to pulp fiction magazines to, you guessed it, romance novels. You could sit and debate their merits all day, but the important thing is that people were reading them. They were fun.

The paper they were written on was, in many cases, too cheap to endure and very few examples remain today (especially since they were often used as kindling after being read). But their spirits live on in everything we genre-fiction writers do. To me, “penny dreadful” is not a bad word. It’s a vibrant chapter in the history of what I’m doing today, and I’m glad for it.


[images are public domain, courtesy of Wikicommons]


6 thoughts on “The Legacy of the Penny Dreadful

  1. There were also the penny papers for girls. They were quite popular because often times they showed girls who broke some through some of the boundaries of the day. A great book on this is The New Girl by Sally Mitchell.

  2. Neat post, and interesting thoughts – especially the idea of how significant it was that suddenly the average Joe was more likely to be literate, and looking for something to read. I think too, though, that’s it significant to consider that some of who we now study in English classes etc, and dub “Literature” were, in the beginning, popular literature themselves. Like Dickens and his serials, often written to the demands of readers (such as who lived, died, etc). Even “almighty” Shakespeare, was out to make money and a success of his plays, using old histories and legends as fodder. He was surrounded by many contemporaries with significant skill who aren’t remembered quite as well (Marlow, Jonson). Perhaps someday of what today is considered “merely” genre fiction will likewise be more recognized as “worthy”.

    Just my two cents. 😉 Thanks again for an intriguing post.

    • Oh yeah, Shakespeare was a notorious crowd-pleaser! But he did it with such flair and emotion that I will forever forgive him! The funny thing is, whether you think it’s great literature or not, often it’s the popular stuff that defines an era and a people and ignites their imagination. It’s just good stuff.

      • Totally agree! It’s the popular materials that really speak to the populace, I suppose (pardon all the “p’s”). 😉 Hmm … wonder what that will say about our culture when you look at the Bestsellers lists now?

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