University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Poisonous Reading – James Greenwood attacks the Victorian ‘penny dreadful’

In this piece, written for the Fear and Fun module, taught by Dr Rob James and Dr Karl Bell, second year UoP student Amber Braddick discusses journalist James Greenwood’s exaggerated denouncement of the Victorian ‘penny dreadful’.  Despite such middle-class anxietes over the corrupting influence of cheap print on working class youth, many of their stories strike a highly moralistic tone.

James Greenwood’s, A Short Way to Newgate (1874) demonstrates the anxieties felt by the middle classes towards the extremely popular penny dreadfuls during the late 19th Century. The author, Greenwood, is not only writing in an attempt to show other middle and upper class members of society how dangerous this type of literature is, he’s also trying to inform the lower classes that the penny dreadfuls will infiltrate and corrupt their children and society and attempts to stop people reading them

Greenwood demonstrates the extent of middle-class anxieties of the growth of penny dreadfuls as he described them as animalistic, as a ‘two-legged creature, who poisons the minds of little children … Never a more dangerous one, for his manginess is hidden under a sleek and glossy coat, and lips of seeming innocence conceal his cruel teeth.’[1] That fact that he has gone into such description and imagery shows how he is trying to invoke people’s emotions, describing a terrible monster coming for people’s children and just how exaggerated his views of the dreadfuls are.  Greenwood describes a ‘plague of poisonous literature’ throughout the source but never distinguishes what specific literature is ‘poisonous’.  His sole focus on penny dreadfuls heavily implies that cheap text the lower classes read are part of this ‘plague,’ where educational, expensive books are exempt. [2] These views are also displayed elsewhere, as Yan highlights: the common view at the time was that reading ‘so long a virtue, a grace, an education … has become a downright vice, – a vulgar, detrimental habit.’[3]  These fears are evident throughout the Victorian era: it is documented that the middle classes even believed that novel reading was ‘an abuse of literacy likely to do moral damage to the readers and, indeed, to the national culture’.  Many chapters of academic books about Victorian culture are dedicated to ‘the case of the poisonous book.’ [4] What must be kept in mind when looking at stigma around reading at this time is that the upper and middle classes see a distinct difference between what they read and the purpose that reading has and what and why the lower class read, which Greenwood displays.

James Greenwood (1840-1929), Victorian journalist and author, National Portrait Gallery, NPG x36132

James Greenwood (1840-1929) Victorian journalist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG x36132

One thing that stood out to me when reading the source is how Greenwood emphasises the fact that it is a younger audience reading the penny dreadfuls. He states that dreadfuls ‘poison the minds of little children,’ warns ‘parents of little lads’ that their children may be exposed to this type of literature and refers to the audience of the dreadfuls as ‘boys and girls.’[5] There was a growth of youthful audiences to dreadfuls in the 1860s and John Springhall emphasises that by the 1860s, with adult readers having forsaken Edward Lloyd’s ‘penny bloods’ ‘a more accessible version of gothic melodrama was required for a new replacement juvenile audience’. [6] This would also be economically advantageous, as 20% of England and Wales’ population was under 20 years old.[7] Also, a major contributing factor to penny dreadfuls being popular with juveniles is the fact it was the cheapest and most easily accessible literature for the working class. Greenwood highlights that these younger audiences are more impressionable and that dreadfuls are ‘polluting his mind and smoothing the way that leads to swift destruction.’[8]

The penny dreadfuls are described by Greenwood as ‘tempting the ignorant and unwary, and breeding death and misery unspeakable,’ further demonstrating the overly exaggerated anxieties of the middle class in Victorian society towards the lower class. [9] While almost all histographies surrounding this topic agree that there were many anxieties of the penny dreadfuls, not all historians agree that there should have been. Morse argues a contradictory point to the source: that in many of the dreadfuls the characters associated with violence are the villains of the story and instead of partaking in this violence, the protagonists find clever solutions to defeat the villain, therefore displaying to their audience that the ‘good guys’ find alternatives to crime and violence, as well as the dreadfuls showing the consequences of the villains actions.[10] Springhall, a pioneer of youth studies and popular culture, also agreed with Morse that the middle class did not have reason to fear the penny dreadfuls as ‘low-life stories were written for the people, but not by the people’ illustrating that many of the dreadfuls were written by middle class authors. [11] He also argues that if ‘Victorian critics and moralists had taken the trouble to examine the publications they would have discovered that … far from recommending the values of a criminal or oppositional subculture, low-life penny dreadfuls managed somehow to combine “fierce melodrama and meek domestic sentiment.”’[12] This statement very much contradicts the source, as Greenwood has read a selection of the literature and summarises it as conveying ‘that there is no creature so noble as the thief, and that the noblest fellow’s primest reward consists in boundless debauchery.’[13] The fact that this is so far from Springhall’s claim may demonstrate the vast range of messages in the dreadfuls, as twelve is a considerably small sample, or may show the differences of examining dreadfuls with a contemporary mindset compared to those at the time.

Greenwood’s work shows that the middle class believed that by educating the working class on the awfulness and corruptness of penny dreadfuls they will stop reading them. As Greenwood explains ‘she (a shopkeeper) would have been mightily astonished, and not improbably indignant, had she been informed that this branch of her trade was as injurious to public morality.’[14] This indicates the lack of inter-class understandings, as it’s more likely that dreadfuls were consumed in such large amounts because they were the cheapest material available and their stories were escapist, allowing the working classes the pleasures of reading. Had Greenwood understood the working class more he may have viewed lowering the prices of ‘respectable’ readings so the working classes could have more of a choice as to what they could read as an alternative method for discouraging the reading of penny dreadfuls.

[1] Greenwood, ‘A Short Way to Newgate,’ The Wilds of London (1874).

[2] Greenwood, ‘A Short Way.’

[3] Shu-chuan Yan, “Emotions, Sensations, and the Victorian Working-Class Readers,” The Journal of Popular Culture 50, no.2 (2017): 328.

[4] Karl Bell, The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore and Popular Culture (Boydell Press, 2012), 224; Patrick Brantlinger, The Reading Lesson (Indiana University Press, 1998), 1.

[5] Greenwood, ‘A Short Way.’

[6] John Springhall, Disreputable Pleasures: Less Virtuous Victorians at Play (Taylore & Francis Group, 2003), 103.

[7] John  Springhall, “Disseminating Impure Literature: The ‘Penny Dreadful’ publishing business since 1860,” The Economic History Review New Seriese 47, no.3 (1994): 569.

[8] Greenwood, ‘A Short Way.’

[9] Greenwood, ‘A Short Way.’

[10] Samantha Morse, “Affective Ethics and Democratic Politics in and the Victorian Penny Press.” Journal of Victorian Culture 24 no.1 (2019): 16.

[11] John Springhill, “’A life Story for the People’? Edwin J. Brett and the London ‘Low-Life’ Penny Dreadfuls of the 1860s,” A Journal of the Humanities, Arts and Science 2 (1990): 246.

[12]Springhall, Disreputable pleasures, 103.

[13] Greenwood, ‘A Short Way.’

[14] Greenwood, ‘A Short Way.’










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