Monday, July 13, 2015

Notes from the Greenwood: Stephen Basdeo on Robin Hood and Little John (1840)

Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840)

By Stephen Basdeo

Leeds Trinity University

Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880) was an author with a penchant for historical rebels. His novel Robin Hood and Little John; or, the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1840) portrays a ‘gentrified’ version of the legend. Robin is a respectable young man, the Earl of Huntingdon, and he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. It is seen by Robin Hood scholars as a ‘safe’ version of the legend. [1] But was it always viewed as a safe text? Egan’s other novels such as Wat Tyler (1841), a romanticised tale of the eponymous leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and Paul Jones (1842), the tale of a privateer in the days of Elizabeth I, present similarly respectable and romanticised accounts of these ‘heroes’ lives. But was Egan’s Robin Hood always viewed as a ‘safe’ text? While as Robin Hood Scholars we must, if we are studying the development of the legend as a whole, take account of the undeniable gentrification of the tradition which occurred from the seventeenth century onwards, sometimes it is good to also take a step back and view certain sources within their immediate cultural context. This is what I aim to do briefly in this short post by examining Egan’s novel.
Egan’s novel is one of my favourite pieces of Robin Hood literature. In his work it as though all of the different strands of the Robin Hood legend that had been gathering converged in this epic 400,000 word story. Egan pays homage in his novel to all of the main Robin Hood scholars and storytellers who had gone before him. The first character that the reader meets is a man called Ritson, named after the eighteenth-century antiquary, Joseph Ritson, who published Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795). Egan also retains the Saxon versus Norman theme of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (1819), whilst interspersing his narrative with stanzas from various Robin Hood ballads. After the action-packed narrative draws to a close (at one point Robin and 12 of his men fight off over 100 Normans), Egan closes his narrative by paying homage to the poet, John Keats, by repeating the last lines of Robin Hood: To a Friend (1818):
Honour to Bold Robin Hood!
Sleeping in the Underwood!
Honour to Maid Marian!
And to all the Sherwood Clan! [2]
Stephen Knight in Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (1994) engages in a witty commentary upon this novel, and has given Egan his rightful place as the heir of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) in the Robin Hood tradition. One thing that Knight does not seem to have accounted for, however, is the fact that Egan’s story was one of those controversial penny bloods, or as they were later termed, penny dreadfuls (for American readers, the equivalent in the U.S. was the ‘dime novel’). Penny bloods are some of the most fascinating pieces of Victorian print culture. Titles appeared either as standalone works issued in weekly parts, and often featured as their heroes historic criminals, hence the proliferation of titles such as Henry Downes Miles’ Dick Turpin (1839), the anonymously-authored Black Bess; or, the Knight of the Road (1866) and the 1863 serial The New Newgate Calendar, which adapted stories from the eighteenth-century Newgate Calendar. As far as readership goes, whilst they are often viewed as juvenile reading matter, it was not uncommon for adults to read them also. Indeed, titles such as A String of Pearls (known more popularly now as Sweeney Todd) originally appeared in The People’s Periodical and Family Library when first published in 1845. 
Egan’s novel was profusely illustrated, with many of the illustrations done by him, and images were central to the marketing of these penny serials.
Fig. 1
They enticed readers with a representation of the most violent scene on the front cover, whilst the clumsy and melodramatic plot satisfied readers’ demands for drama. [3] The violent content of Egan’s novel can be gauged in Fig. 1, for example, where one of Robin’s enemies receives an arrow through the eye.
Similarly, in Fig. 2, Robin thrusts a sword into Guy of Gisborne’s chest. Such images were seen by Victorian moralists as ‘[ministering] to the morbid cravings of the uneducated for the horrible and the repulsive.’ [4]
It was the violent images, combined with the fact that many of these novels’ heroes were thieves, which accounts for the moral panic over them in the Victorian press.
Fig. 2
And the criticism of penny dreadfuls corresponded to public fears towards the perceived rise in juvenile crime and delinquency during the nineteenth century. Whilst there had in previous centuries been an understanding that certain youths, could be unruly and turn to crime, it was only during the nineteenth century that the ‘juvenile offender’ became a distinct legal category, and the year 1816 saw the first Select Committee Report into the causes of juvenile delinquency. [5] Many of these parliamentary investigators heard what they wanted to hear in regards to the supposed connection between penny dreadfuls and juvenile crime. The 1852 Select Committee Report into Criminal Juveniles, for instance, recorded the thoughts of one young offender who:
Thought this ‘Jack Sheppard’ was a clever fellow for making his escape and robbing his master. If I could get out of gaol I think I should be as clever as him…I have had the book [Jack Sheppard] out of the library at Dole Field. I paid 2d a book for three volumes. I also got ‘Richard Turpin’ in two volumes for the same price. [6]
In the minds of officials and moralists in the press, penny dreadfuls were seen as one of the causes of juvenile crime, enticing impressionable young boys’ minds into a life of crime. Burglary and theft were the offences that were most often linked to the reading of penny dreadfuls. When 12 year old George White found himself in court for theft in 1869, for instance, the magistrate remarked that:
[I am] very sorry that the prisoner had access to the pernicious literature of the present day, where the most notorious and brutal ruffians and thieves were deified and made heroes of to the injury of the morals of young men and the detriment of society generally.[7]
The crimes which the Victorians connected to the reading of penny dreadfuls included murder, arson, and forgery, and the perpetration of these crimes by young men was often depicted as an addiction to reading these publications. When Arthur and Hector Smith, for instance, appeared in court for assaulting an old woman in 1868, their defence counsel tried to mitigate the sentence by saying that ‘they had for some time [been] addicted to reading trashy publications of the Jack Sheppard class’ (Jack Sheppard was a notorious eighteenth-century criminal). [8] 
The assumption that the reading of penny dreadfuls was one of the principal causes of juvenile crime meant that many Victorian commentators missed the most appealing feature of these works: the criminals portrayed in them were at heart good chaps, and there was nothing in them that really criticised the establishment. [9] Indeed, Robin Hood in Egan’s novel is a man who is the epitome of Victorian respectability. He is ‘an honest, open-hearted lad,’ and although he was ‘a little wayward and wilful,’ he is ‘never wicked.’ [10] Indeed, the Sherwood Forest that is depicted in the novel is a ‘curiously bourgeois’ one in which Robin and Marian marry, settle down for some time in the forest, and have children. [11] Robin even looks Victorian, sporting a typical early Victorian mutton-chop style beard. Thus Egan’s novel mixed, as all the penny dreadfuls seemingly did, a healthy dose of violent entertainment with a dramatic plot with a protagonist who, although a criminal, was not all that bad a person. But it was the violent content of these novels which was focused upon by middle-class moralists, and hence they were seen as trashy stories catering to the vulgar tastes of the working classes.
To conclude, I think it is best by saying that, whilst we as Robin Hood researchers might place Egan’s text within the gentrified Robin Hood tradition, [12] it should be remembered that Egan’s novel is actually part of a whole genre that was denounced by nineteenth-century judges, lawyers, parents, and moralists in the press.
Fig. 3: Pierce Egan the Younger
This would have made the story seem most definitely un-respectable by Victorian standards when it was first issued in penny parts. Egan’s text, and others of its class, was an example of vulgar and violent entertainment for young readers. It is true that penny dreadfuls featuring eighteenth-century highwaymen came in for the most censure from moralist critics, but it should not be forgotten that, towering above all the thieves and outlaws of nineteenth-century print culture was Robin Hood, ‘the patron saint’ of robbers as he was described by one penny dreadful reader. [13] And this is why I think that it is good to take a step back from our study of the whole legend sometimes. Primary sources such as Egan’s novel of course need to be contextualised within the study of the Robin Hood tradition, but they should also be examined within their immediate social and cultural milieu.



[1] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), pp. 127-128.
[2] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest [1 Volume Edn.] (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840).
[3] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), p.181.
[4] Francis Hitchman, “The Penny Press,” MacMillan’s Magazine, March 1881, pp. 839-849.
[5] Robert J. Kirkpatrick Wild Boys in The Dock: Victorian Juvenile Literature and Juvenile Crime (London: Children’s Books History Society, 2013), p. 5.
[6] Heather Shore, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999), p.8.
[7] Select Committee Report into Criminal Juveniles, Parliamentary Papers, 1852, vii, Appendix 2, p. 421.
[8] Anon. The Nottinghamshire Guardian, 18 June 1869, p. 2.
[9] Anon. The Times, 9 July 1868, p. 2.
[10] John Springhall, “Pernicious Reading? The penny dreadful as scapegoat for late-Victorian juvenile crime,” Victorian Periodicals Review 27: 4 (1994), p. 344
[11] Egan, Robin Hood and Little John, p. 6.
[12] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, p. 128.
[13] Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven, 2001), p. 368.

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