Penny dreadful

Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road. A romanticized tale of Dick Turpin – a popular subject in fiction. Circa 1860

Penny dreadfuls were cheap popular serial literature produced during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom. The pejorative term is roughly interchangeable with penny horrible, penny awful,[1] and penny blood.[2] The term typically referred to a story published in weekly parts, each costing one penny. The subject matter of these stories was typically sensational, focusing on the exploits of detectives, criminals, or supernatural entities. First published in the 1830s, penny dreadfuls featured characters such as Sweeney Todd, Dick Turpin and Varney the Vampire. The Guardian described penny dreadfuls as “Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young.”[3]

While the term "penny dreadful" was originally used in reference to a specific type of literature circulating in mid-Victorian Britain, it came to encompass a variety of publications that featured cheap sensational fiction, such as story papers and booklet "libraries". The penny dreadfuls were printed on cheap wood pulp paper and were aimed at young working class men.[4] More than a million boys’ periodicals were sold a week, but the popularity of penny dreadfuls was challenged in the 1890s by the rise of competing literature, especially the half-penny periodicals published by Alfred Harmsworth.[3][5]

Origins

Crime broadsides were commonly sold at public executions in the United Kingdom in the 18th and 19th centuries. These were often produced by printers who specialised in them. They were typically illustrated by a crude picture of the crime, a portrait of the criminal, or a generic woodcut of a hanging taking place. There would be a written account of the crime and of the trial and often the criminal's confession of guilt. A doggerel verse warning others to not follow the executed person's example, to avoid their fate, was another common feature.[6]

Victorian era Britain experienced social changes that resulted in increased literacy rates. With the rise of capitalism and industrialisation, people began to spend more money on entertainment, contributing to the popularisation of the novel. Improvements in printing resulted in newspapers such as Joseph Addison's The Spectator and Richard Steele's The Tatler, and England's more fully recognizing the singular concept of reading as a form of leisure; it was, of itself, a new industry. Other significant changes included industrialisation and an increased capacity for travel via the invention of tracks, engines, and the corresponding railway distribution (the first public railway, Stockton and Darlington Railway, opened in 1825). These changes created both a market for cheap popular literature, and the ability for it to be circulated on a large scale. The first penny serials were published in the 1830s to meet this demand.[7] Between 1830 and 1850 there were up to 100 publishers of penny-fiction, in addition to many magazines which embraced the genre.[8] The serials were priced to be affordable to working-class readers, and were considerably cheaper than the serialised novels of authors such as Charles Dickens, which cost a shilling [twelve pennies] per part.[9]

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