Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood” and the Victorian “Standard English Novels” Literary Canon | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo

(A significant portion of this chapter was informed by reading Anne Humpherys’s chapter on the John Dicks press—see notes for further references)

There has been much soul-searching among English literature scholars in recent years with regards to considering which works should be placed in the English literature canon. The canon, so conventional wisdom dictates, represents the best of the best of English literature—common names which spring to mind will be Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, to name but a few.

The John Dicks edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (Basdeo Personal Collection)

The canon has proved to be a problematic concept.[1] As a historian of literature, however, I am more interested in studying how and why our conceptions of the canon has changed over time.[2] As new authors come to public prominence they seem to be deserving of a place while older authors may remain in the canon but fade completely from public memory (for example, Walter Scott). For poets, a place in either the Norton Anthology or the OED seems to indicate that a dead author has reached the literary Elysium of a prized place in the canon.

Of course the title of this post is somewhat misleading. To the Victorians there was never any “canon” as far as English novels were concerned.

The English literature canon as we know it today was originally formed in Edwardian universities—when British society seemed almost obsessed with the question of what Englishness meant in an imperial context—while similar conversations were taking place across the Atlantic in American universities.

Yet there was another person, nowadays forgotten, who in the 1870s and 1880s created a literary canon and his version of it was probably the one to which the great number of readers referred to when they thought of the term “English Literature.” Or, perhaps if the word canon is problematic here, he at least endeavoured to create a list of “Standard Works” representing the best of the best of English literature.

This man was John Dicks, based at 313 Strand, London, who published the English Library of Standard Works. Among these “standard” works was a well-known Robin Hood “penny blood:” Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, originally published in weekly penny numbers between 1838 and 1840.

This is important because knowing which Robin Hood text the Victorians considered part of a literary canon can help Robin Hood scholars, perhaps, to refocus their research away from what they might mistakenly consider to be “big name” texts but which are, in reality, minor novels. After all, when it comes to the nineteenth century, we have a situation in which Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822)—which was forgotten about almost instantly after its first edition and not revived until 1895—bizarrely enjoys much more critical attention than Egan’s work, and this situation surely needs to change.

John Dicks was the publisher the widely-read literary magazine Reynolds’s Miscellany, edited by G.W.M. Reynolds (Basdeo Personal Collection)

Little is known of Dicks’s early life. Born in 1818, he served as an apprentice in P.P. Thomas’s publishing house in Warwick Square. By 1848 he had struck out on his own and entered into partnership with Egan’s friend, George W.M. Reynolds, who agreed to write for Dicks the eight volume Mysteries of the Court of London (1849–56). The Dicks firm went from strength-to-strength Reynolds and Dicks became partners. The latter’s name was a big draw for Victorian readers—Reynolds’s earlier Mysteries of London (1848) being one of the biggest-selling novels of the era—and in collaboration together Dicks and Reynolds published Reynolds’s Miscellany, Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, and the Bow Bells magazine. Both men died rich from their joint venture; Reynolds never faced bankruptcy again like he had done in 1848 and on his death Dicks left an estate worth £50,000.[3]

Both Reynolds and Dicks were committed to providing cheap, quality literature for the masses. Most of Reynolds’s novels from the 1840s onwards were therefore published in weekly penny numbers. Reynolds’s Miscellany likewise sold for 1d.

Although he published new works by Reynolds, Dicks’s main output was reprints of older English texts. The first project of this kind was a series of 1d reprints of individual Shakespeare plays. At a time when there were few, if any, cheap reprints of Shakespeare’s plays, these penny reprints were immensely popular with the working-class reading public. Dicks therefore decided to reprint all of the plays in a single volume for 6d and this sold over 150,000 copies.[4]

After the initial success of his Shakespeare plays Dicks began printing cheap 1/2d copies of out-of-copyright seventeenth and eighteenth century plays. Some of these were given away as free gifts with Reynolds’s Miscellany and Reynolds’s Newspaper to encourage people to buy more titles from the catalogue. Then Dicks purchased the rights to contemporary plays and, thanks to his monumental reprint series—which eventually numbered over a thousand titles—he has in some cases left us with the only copies we have of some of the play scripts of nineteenth-century theatre productions.

With the circulation of the Miscellany and Reynolds’s novels continually, from c.1885 Dicks turned his attention to producing a “standard” series of novels. As one of Dicks’s advertisements reveals, his purpose in this endeavour was

“To place before the masses the Works of our Great Masters of English Literature at prices within their reach.”[5]

The first in Dicks series of reprints was Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, retailing at 3d per volume in paper wraps.  Scott of course can justifiably be called a “master” of English literature. Yet it is clear that Dicks had a different sense of what novels were “masterful” than we do today.

An advertisement for this series of “Standard Novels,” for example, lists the likes of Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, Eugene Sue, Lord Lytton, Jonathan Swift, Tobias Smollett, G.W.M. Reynolds, Pierce Egan, Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Alexandre Dumas, William Harrison Ainsworth, Nathaniel Hawthorne, W.M. Thackeray, the Brothers Grimm, Edgar Allan Poe, Benjamin Disraeli, Captain Marryat, Daniel Defoe. This is not an exhaustive list but it does give a sense of the full range of authors that Dicks sought to include. As Anne Humpherys argues: by placing “classic” literature alongside that of new authors like Reynolds and Egan in his advertisements, Dicks was shaping readers’ perceptions of what constituted “Standard” English literature by “Eminent Authors.”[6]

This is quite an inclusive canon, furthermore, for it will be noticed that French and American authors are included in this emerging canon of “standard” English works. The rule seemed to be that, if you were an author and your novels were available in England (in translation or otherwise), then you could secure a place in the emerging canon of novels. It was also a dynamic and evolving canon; as nineteenth-century authors died Dicks acquired the rights to their works and added them to his Standard Novels series. And Dicks negotiated with living authors to acquire the rights to publish their work.

The first series in Dicks’s enterprise was originally published as a periodical titled simply as Dicks English Library of Standard Works. The same size as Reynolds’s Miscellany, measuring 8 x 11 inches, readers were presented with an instalment of several different works each week. After the serial run of the Standard Works was complete Dicks turned to producing cheap 6d editions of English novels “by eminent authors.”

The serialised version of Dicks English Library of Standard Works. This edition features James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy. The novels were then reprinted as standalone paperbacks in “People’s Editions” of Dicks English Library. (Basdeo Personal Collection)

The 6d novels were printed from stereotypes. They were then issued in paper wraps and the books featured an illustration on the front, usually taken from one of the more thrilling scenes in the novels, as well as a picture of the author.

They may have looked attractive to buyers when they were first published, but many wraps have not survived in great condition. The paper used was made from cheap pulp and while the text block of a Dicks edition often survives the wrapper does not.

My own copy of the Dicks Pierce Egan Robin Hood does not include the original wrap but below is a picture of a novel from Reynolds which does include it. Readers can get a sense of what the original may have looked like (simply, in your head, replace the picture of Reynolds with Egan and switch the main illustration for one of Robin Hood).

I have not yet obtained an edition of Dicks’s Egan Robin Hood novel that has the original wrap, but here is my copy of G.W.M. Reynolds’s “Alfred” which gives you a sense of what the paper wrappers looked like. (Basdeo Personal Collection)

The novels were sometimes billed as “facsimiles” of the originals. This was true in some cases but not all. Dicks retained the illustrations from the first editions of these works (and where the first editions did not include illustrations he had new images drawn) and the texts were complete and unabridged, but the pagination was not always the same as in the original. This was certainly the case with Dicks’s Robin Hood.

From the John Dicks edition of Egan’s Robin Hood. Not quite a facsimile of the 1850 edition. (Basdeo Personal Collection)

But remarks about printing methods aside, it is worth us reflecting on Egan’s place in the Dicks Standard Novels series.

I once quipped in an interview with Allen Wright that, if you wanted to know what version of Robin Hood the Victorians were most familiar with, then you should begin by studying Pierce Egan’s works. Egan’s Robin Hood was reprinted several times throughout the century by different publishers but his inclusion in Dicks’s Standard Novels series is worthy of our notice. In this series Egan—who had been derided earlier in his career for the violence in his novels—was keeping company with the likes of Mary and Percy Shelley, Victor Hugo, and Charles Dickens. That a Robin Hood novel even got included in any kind of canon is noteworthy—Stephen Knight complained in Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003), for instance, that our favourite outlaw never made it into the realm of “high” literature and he wondered why that was. Instead I think a new question should be asked: why did Egan’s Robin Hood, which was supposed to be a representative of the nation’s most “eminent authors” and “Masters of English literature” fall out of a canon of “Standard Novels”?

[1] There are those whom I call the “traditionalists,” like Harold Bloom, who have gone further and devised what he termed “The Western Canon” in his eponymous book. There are also emerging scholars at the other end of the scale who (I don’t think I am unjustified in saying) would perhaps completely do away with the canon by decolonising it and, in some cases, replacing the works of “old white men and women” with non-white authors’ works. Then there are those who, like myself, recognise that the canon was born in a particular historical epoch that was marked by colonialism but who perhaps feel there is a place for an English literary canon still in our universities (It should be said, I think, that this debate is perhaps more prominent currently in the USA than in the UK).

[2] To a Georgian, for example, Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare were no more nor less important than John Dryden. Early Victorians were less reverent about Shakespeare than later Victorians were, often hacking up his plays and amending them to edit out ridiculous characters and farcical scenes.

[3] Anne Humpherys, ‘John Dicks’s Cheap Reprint Series, 1850s–1890s: Reading Advertisements’, in Media and Print Culture Consumption in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Victorian Reading Experience, ed. by Paul Raphael Rooney and Anna Gasperini (London: Palgrave, 2016), 93–110 (p. 94).

[4] ‘Advertisement’, Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, 15 July 1866, p. 6.

[5] ‘Advertisement’, Every Week: A Journal of Entertaining Literature, 2 June 1893, 417.

[6] Humpherys, op cit.

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