Tennyson and the Penny Dreadfuls

Written and read between 1830 and 1850, the Penny Dreadfuls were directly contemporary to Tennyson’s poetry.

The Victorian Love of Crime and Blood

Penny Dreadfuls or ‘Bloods’ were a series of Victorian pamphlets that told stories of ever-increasing crime and gore, recounting the deeds of highwaymen, murderers and brigands. They launched the careers of numerous famous writers including, Mary Elizabeth Braddon who went on to write Lady Audley’s secrets. They were one of the most successful publishing phenomena of all time, and many of their names are still familiar today, from ‘Gentleman Jack’ to ‘Sweeny Todd’.

Murder, Madness and Greed

Principally, written and read between 1830 and 1850, the Penny Dreadfuls were directly contemporary to Tennyson’s poetry, and their presence can be seen and felt throughout his poetry’s subject matter which deals with murder, madness and greed. Most particularly, the impact of the violence repeatedly written about in gory detail in the ‘bloods’ can be seen in Tennyson’s ‘Maud: A Monodrama’.

    ‘And the vitriol madness flushes up in the ruffian's head,
     Till the filthy by-lane rings to the yell of the trampled wife,
     While chalk and alum and plaster are sold to the poor for bread,
     And the spirit of murder works in the very means of life.’

'Murder... One of the Fine Arts'

Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ takes an aestheticized approach to murder, its descriptions echoing Thomas De Quincey’s satire, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ first published in 1827, which humorously describes the growing trend in the 19th century for murders recounted as entertainment and talks repeatedly of the artistry of killers who ‘drape’ the bodies of the dead so carefully.

Much of Tennyson’s poetry visions a world that is dominated by violence and evil, as he writes in the poem ‘Despair’:

The guess of a worm in the dust and the shadow of its desire—
Of a worm as it writhes in a world of the weak trodden down by the strong,
Of a dying worm in a world, all massacre, murder, and wrong. 

The link between Tennyson and the Penny Dreadfuls has most recently been reinforced by, unsurprisingly, the TV series ‘Penny Dreadful’, who named its Season Three finale episode ‘The Day Tennyson Died’, which was the 6th October 1892. The series, which contains many references to Victorian Literature, from Mary Shelley to Bram Stoker, had one of its main characters, Vanessa, give an account of Tennyson’s death,  and sprinkles Tennyson quotes throughout the episode, particularly from ‘In Memoriam’ (‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’), and finishing with a quote from ‘Maud’.

“Beat, happy stars, timing with things below,
Beat with my heart more blest than heart can tell,
Blest, but for some dark undercurrent woe
That seems to draw—but it shall not be so:
Let all be well, be well.”

 

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