Please welcome John Bainbridge, who along with his wife, Anne, write the Gaslight Crime blog, and who will explain to readers just what IS a Penny Dreadful, a delightfully creepy topic for Hallowe’en!
Writing a Penny Dreadful
By John Bainbridge
A couple of years ago I wrote the first adventure of a Victorian vigilante called William Quest, a gentleman adventurer with a swordstick who seeks to right wrongs and even up the injustices of society. That book was called The Shadow of William Quest.
Now I’ve written a sequel called Deadly Quest.
The whole project arose from my interest in the Victorian underworld. I’ve always wanted to write a novel that is part detective story, part thriller, and which hearkens back to the traditions of the Victorian Penny Dreadful tales and the Newgate Novels.
Many a Victorian writer wrote these popular tales, which were the staple fiction diet of the newly-literate classes in 19th century England. I’ve read a lot of them over the years. The best ones are fast-moving, often sinister and have lots of action. They are occasionally subversive, pricking at the mores of the day with often undiluted social criticisms.
Most of the writers are forgotten these days, but some went on to great heights. Even Charles Dickens used elements of the Newgate novel in Oliver Twist.
My first novel was set in London and Norfolk. The new book, Deadly Quest, is set entirely in London, mostly down by the River Thames. I’ve tried to capture a real feeling of London in 1854.
Fortunately, I’ve spent years studying Victorian history – I did it as a minor subject in my university degree. I’ve devoted a lot of time since to an expanded study of the Victorian underworld, particularly as regards London.
I’ve walked the streets and alleys used by my characters, by day and night. London has changed a great deal in 160 years, of course. Much of the Victorian cityscape has been bombed or swept away by developers. The London that is in my imagination is more real to me now than the modern city. There are traces of Quest’s London still to be seen, but they get fewer year by year . . .
Deadly Quest has scenes in a notorious rookery of the time called Jacob’s Island. A district of appalling poverty in Victorian times, Charles Dickens visited it with a police guard. It features in the climax of Oliver Twist.
It was already partially demolished by the 1850s. The area was bombed by the Luftwaffe in the London Blitz, and redevelopment accounted for much of the rest. Today that once dreadful slum is a development of luxury flats. You can still visit Jacob’s Island, but it takes quite a leap of imagination to get back to Victorian times.
One problem I encountered in my sequel was that I revealed virtually the whole of Mr Quest’s back story in the first novel, explaining why he decided to take the law into his own hands, fighting for truth and justice and so on. In the new book we start with a completely clean slate.
It’s my intention to do a whole series of William Quest novels, though the original conception of a Victorian avenger has changed since the first book. The outsider now finds himself working on both sides of the law.
This wasn’t unusual in Penny Dreadful novels of the Victorian Age, where the author often found his or her villain transformed into the hero.
With the creation of e-book readers, we are finding ourselves in a very similar situation to those Victorian readers. A whole new audience has appeared, eager for books. It seems to me that we should study the methods of the writers of Penny Dreadfuls and Pulp Fiction to cater for this expanding market.
They found a popularity after all, and created their own genres.