Women-in-peril dreadfuls
Pages 13

In contrast to the focus on Dick Lane at the outset of The Wild Boys, the opening chapters of The Young Ladies of London; or, The Mysteries of Midnight (1867-68) introduce the sinister Count Lewiski, a man about town who entraps rich gentlemen visitors to the wicked metropolis, using as bait the beautiful Emma Langton, his mistress, once a happy farmer’s daughter. The serial’s engraved frontispiece depicts fashionably dressed women importuning male clients wearing top hats in the Haymarket district of central London, then notorious for its prostitution. Once near Petticoat Lane, Lewiski is transformed into Edward Lewis, ‘the keeper of several lodginghouses and brothels in the east-end [sic] of London; a shrewd fellow, who had amassed a considerable sum of money by his dishonest and filthy calling’. Great play is made with the vulnerability of exploited seamstresses in the area as a means of sketching in local colour: poor, pale, weak girls with half a dozen shirts to finish, paid only ninepence for 18 hours of toil to support children or a dying mother. By the time that this novel was published victimised East End seamstresses had become elements in a safe and sentimental iconography, their usage being evident since the radical journalism of the 1830s. The real conditions of East London’s huge casualised labour force, characterised by low wages, irregular employment and foreign immigration, appear never to have been directly confronted in penny fiction. Any radical sentiment in The Young Ladies of London is both subordinated to, and subverted by, the melodramatic plot. Hence Count Lewiski employs one Ghastly Gaskill to drug and then kidnap unsuspecting girls who are soon put to work in his Haymarket seraglio – ‘another poor wretch doomed to fall a victim to your accursed toils’ cries Emma, unavailingly.11