The Poor Little Penny Dreadful by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Essay

Oct. 5, 1895. Our “Crusaders.”

The poor little Penny Dreadful has been catching it once more. Once
more the British Press has stripped to its massive waist and solemnly
squared up to this hardened young offender. It calls this remarkable
performance a “Crusade.”

I like these Crusades. They remind one of that merry passage in
Pickwick (p. 254 in the first edition):–

“Whether Mr. Winkle was seized with a temporary attack of that

species of insanity which originates in a sense of injury, or

animated by this display of Mr. Weller’s valour, is uncertain;

but certain it is, that he no sooner saw Mr. Grummer fall, than

he made a terrific onslaught on a small boy who stood next to

him; whereupon Mr. Snodgrass–“

[Pay attention to Mr. Snodgrass, if you please, and cast your memories
back a year or two, to the utterances of a famous Church Congress on
the National Vice of Gambling.]

“–whereupon Mr. Snodgrass, in a truly Christian spirit, and in

order that he might take no one unawares, announced in a very

loud tone that he was going to begin, and proceeded to take off

his coat with the utmost deliberation. He was immediately

surrounded and secured; and it is but common justice both to him

and to Mr. Winkle to say that they did not make the slightest

attempt to rescue either themselves or Mr. Weller, who, after a

most vigorous resistance, was overpowered by numbers and taken

prisoner. The procession then reformed, the chairmen resumed

their stations, and the march was re-commenced.”

“The chairmen resumed their stations, and the march was re-commenced.”
Is it any wonder that Dickens and Labiche have found no fit
successors? One can imagine the latter laying down his pen and
confessing himself beaten at his own game; for really this periodical
“crusade” upon the Penny Dreadful has all the qualities of the very
best vaudeville–the same bland exhibition of bourgeois logic, the
same wanton appreciation of evidence, the same sententious alacrity in
seizing the immediate explanation–the more trivial the better–the
same inability to reach the remote cause, the same profound
unconsciousness of absurdity.

You remember La Grammaire? Caboussat’s cow has eaten a piece of
broken glass, with fatal results. Machut, the veterinary, comes:–

Caboussat. “Un morceau de verre … est-ce drole? Une vache de
quatre ans.”

Machut. “Ah! monsieur, les vaches … �a avale du verre à tout
�ge. J’en ai connu une qui a mangé une éponge à laver les
cabriolets … à sept ans! Elle en est morte.”

Caboussat. “Ce que c’est que notre pauvre humanité!”

Penny Dreadfuls and Matricide.

Our friends have been occupied with the case of a half-witted boy who
consumed Penny Dreadfuls and afterwards went and killed his mother.
They infer that he killed his mother because he had read Penny
Dreadfuls (post hoc ergo propter hoc) and they conclude very
naturally that Penny Dreadfuls should be suppressed. But before
roundly pronouncing the doom of this–to me unattractive–branch of
fiction, would it not be well to inquire a trifle more deeply into
cause and effect? In the first place matricide is so utterly unnatural
a crime that there must be something abominably peculiar in a form of
literature that persuades to it. But a year or two back, on the
occasion of a former crusade, I took the pains to study a
considerable number of Penny Dreadfuls. My reading embraced all
those–I believe I am right in saying all–which were reviewed, a few
days back, in the Daily Chronicle; and some others. I give you my
word I could find nothing peculiar about them. They were even rather
ostentatiously on the side of virtue. As for the bloodshed in them, it
would not compare with that in many of the five-shilling adventure
stories at that time read so eagerly by boys of the middle and upper
classes. The style was ridiculous, of course: but a bad style excites
nobody but a reviewer, and does not even excite him to deeds of the
kind we are now trying to account for. The reviewer in the Daily
thinks worse of these books than I do. But he certainly
failed to quote anything from them that by the wildest fancy could be
interpreted as sanctioning such a crime as matricide.

The Cause to be sought in the Boy rather than in the Book.

Let us for a moment turn our attention from the Penny Dreadful to the
boy–from the éponge á laver les cabriolets to notre pauvre
. Now–to speak quite seriously–it is well known to every
doctor and every schoolmaster (and should be known, if it is not, to
every parent), that all boys sooner or later pass through a crisis in
growth during which absolutely nothing can be predicted of their
behavior. At such times honest boys have given way to lying and theft,
gentle boys have developed an unexpected savagery, ordinary boys–“the
small apple-eating urchins whom we know”–have fallen into morbid
brooding upon unhealthy subjects. In the immense majority of cases the
crisis is soon over and the boy is himself again; but while it lasts,
the disease will draw its sustenance from all manner of
things–things, it may be, in themselves quite innocent. I avoid
particularizing for many reasons; but any observant doctor will
confirm what I have said. Now the moderately affluent boy who reads
five-shilling stories of adventure has many advantages at this period
over the poor boy who reads Penny Dreadfuls. To begin with, the crisis
has a tendency to attack him later. Secondly, he meets it fortified by
a better training and more definite ideas of the difference between
right and wrong, virtue and vice. Thirdly (and this is very
important), he is probably under school discipline at the time–which
means, that he is to some extent watched and shielded. When I think
of these advantages, I frankly confess that the difference in the
literature these two boys read seems to me to count for very little. I
myself have written “adventure-stories” before now: stories which, I
suppose–or, at any rate, hope–would come into the class of “Pure
Literature,” as the term is understood by those who have been writing
on this subject in the newspapers. They were, I hope, better written
than the run of Penny Dreadfuls, and perhaps with more discrimination
of taste in the choice of adventures. But I certainly do not feel able
to claim that their effect upon a perverted mind would be innocuous.

Fallacy of the “Crusade.”

For indeed it is not possible to name any book out of which a
perverted mind will not draw food for its disease. The whole fallacy
lies in supposing literature the cause of the disease. Evil men are
not evil because they read bad books: they read bad books because they
are evil: and being evil, or diseased, they are quickly able to
extract evil or disease even from very good books. There is talk of
disseminating the works of our best authors, at a cheap rate, in the
hope that they will drive the Penny Dreadful out of the market. But
has good literature at the cheapest driven the middle classes from
their false gods? And let it be remembered, to the credit of these
poor boys, that they do buy their books. The middle classes take
their poison on hire or exchange.

But perhaps the full enormity of the cant about Penny Dreadfuls
can best be perceived by travelling to and fro for a week
between London and Paris and observing the books read by those
who travel with first-class tickets. I think a fond belief in
Ivanhoe-within-the-reach-of-all would not long survive that

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