chapter  5
Disreputable adolescent reading: low-life, women-in-peril and school sport ‘penny dreadfuls’ from the 1860s to the 1890s
ByJohn Springhall
Pages 8

It has become a truism that ‘respectability’, as a desirable indicator of social position, was a quality much sought after by a large proportion of Victorians, apart from those at the highest and lowest levels of the social hierarchy. Even so, from a cultural standpoint respectability periodically came under threat, given the scandalous British taste for ‘sensational’ gothic melodrama in theatrical and literary entertainment. Great literary gothic horrors, ranging from Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho in the 1790s, through Mary Shelley’s post-Napoleonic Frankenstein, to the late-Victorian climax of R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, have exerted among the most resonant and pervasive British literary influences on global culture and mass entertainment. Yet sanctimonious early-Victorian literary critics were convinced that the popularisation, by the cheap publisher Edward Lloyd and others, of gothic’s sado-masochistic and horrific elements, coupled with the criminality of Newgate fiction, could well corrupt the morally innocent young, or infect the ‘dangerous’ lower orders.1