19th Century

G. W. M. Reynolds’s ‘Memoirs’ Novels (1850–57) | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK, and is currently writing a book with Mya Driver titled Victorian England’s Best-Selling Author: The Revolutionary Life of G.W.M. Reynolds (exp. 2022).

Illustration from the Seamstress: showing how the poor toil to support the lifestyles of the rich (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)


By 1850 the Victorian writer George W.M. Reynolds had become a famous writer. His Mysteries of London (1844–48) and Mysteries of the Court of London (1849–56) had sold very well (and in the process annoyed Victorian moralists with their highly suggestive and lewd scenes).

He had founded one of the biggest-selling literary magazines of the period, Reynolds’s Miscellany, in 1847.

In 1848 he became a Chartist activist and spent many months touring the country and speaking out in favour of political reform.

He had also founded a left wing weekly newspaper, titled Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, for which he wrote an editorial every week.

In 1850 he decided to begin writing a new series of novels, the focus of which was upon telling the stories of marginalised people struggling to make their way in a heartless and alienating industrial capitalist world.

The Seamstress; or, The White Slave of England

Reynolds began his ‘memoirs’ novels series when he published The Seamstress; or, The White Slave of England (1850–51). By the time Reynolds was writing, the figure of the young and poor seamstress had been used by a variety of Victorian novelists to expose social ills and tug at their readers’ heartstrings because, although real-life seamstresses were usually poor, they were viewed as morally pure.

Seamstresses elicited readers’ sympathies because they were not prostitutes and did not ‘sell’ their bodies for money and unlike factory women, seamstresses carried out their work at home, so they had not abandoned their domestic duties.[1]

Of course, Reynolds went further than many of the reform-minded novelists of his day and in The Seamstress presented a strong socialist critique of capitalist society by telling a tale of a young dressmaker who works all hours in her miserable garret to produce opulent dresses for the aristocracy yet is never able to make ends meet herself.

Julia explains the capitalist marketplace to Virginia (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Virginia’s Wage Slavery

The reasons why the seamstress Virginia is poor is revealed when she visits Julia, who lives in the splendid apartment directly beneath her own miserable apartment.

To acquire any work Virginia must approach an agent of a high-class haberdasher named Madame DuPlessey who acts as an intermediary between the customer (the Duchess of Belmont) and the labourer (Virginia).

Julia tells Virginia that, while in an ideal world she would get a fair price for her labour time, once the garment she has made enters the marketplace as a commodity—through the agency of Madame DuPlessey—the true value of Virginia’s labour is abstracted from the end product.

The rich Duchess of Belmont, when she buys a garment, is not paying for Virginia’s labour, or indeed for the labour of any of the agents such as the Madame DuPlessey, but for a product. The product assumes a value independently of the labour and materials required to produce it.

When the various agents in the process have also taken a commission out the price paid by the Duchess of Belmont, the amount that Virginia finally receives in wages is far lower than what it should be.[2] A more complex scientific critique of value, the the labour process, and commodities, once they enter the marketplace,–when the value of a person’s labour is ‘hidden’ from the final product,–would later be explained in much further detail by Karl Marx in Capital.[3]

Title page of the first issue of Ellen Percy, The Memoirs of an Actress (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Servants, Courtesans, and Actresses: The Memoirs Series in Full

With attempted suicides, clandestine aristocratic love affairs, and the tragic death of the heroine at the end, The Seamstress paved the way for Reynolds’s other stories about marginalised and poverty-stricken figures.

After The Seamstress there appeared several novels written in the first person, which the literary critic Graham Law has dubbed the ‘Memoirs’ series:

  • Mary Price; or the Memoirs of a Servant Girl (1851–52)
  • Joseph Wilmot; or, the Memoirs of a Manservant (1853–55)
  • Rosa Lambert; or, the Memoirs of an Unfortunate Woman (1853–54)
  • May Middleton; or, The History of a Fortune (1854–55)
  • Ellen Percy; or, The Memoirs of an Actress (1855–57)
  • Agnes; or, Beauty and Pleasure (1855–57).

With the exception of Joseph Wilmot the focus was upon poor and friendless women’s adversities.

A New Method of Story Telling

Reynolds also adopted a new method of telling a story in Mary Price: it would be written in the first person. As this new manner of writing was a departure from the style of fiction that Reynolds’s devoted readers were used to, Reynolds’s Miscellany offered a lengthy justification for it. The novel’s aim was

To dissect the social body in the minutest manner—to penetrate beneath the surface of everyday life—to draw aside the veil from the domestic hearth, and look deep into the modes of existence practised by families of all grades—and thus to lay bare the mysteries of English society,—such is a faint shadowing forth of the author’s design in his New Tale. In carrying out this aim he has adopted a machinery which has appeared to him the best suited for the purpose—namely, the autobiography of a Servant-Maid, whose experiences, observations, and adventures in the various families which she successively enters, form the basis of the work.[4]

Mary Price was still a ‘Mysteries’ novel, then, revealing what was going on in the underbelly of Britain’s great metropolis, but unlike The Mysteries of London and Mysteries of the Court of London—which were set not only in Britain but in places as far afield as Australia, India, Italy, France and featured recognisable political figures—the focus of the new ‘memoirs’ was to be centred on England alone and on ‘unknown’ people.

Whereas in The Seamstress the heroine dies at a young age and remains innocent (which is to say, Virginia does not become a prostitute), the women of the memoirs series do not always remain pure in character.

Oftentimes they must do whatever it takes to survive in a cold, unfeeling world. Thus in Rosa Lambert, readers were introduced to the title character who, with a drunken father in debt to a local landowner and good-for-nothing brother who refuses to work for a living, settles her father’s debt by sleeping with the creepy landowner for money.

First issue of Joseph Wilmot (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Ashamed of her own ‘shame’, Rosa escapes to London and becomes the mistress to over sixteen men.

Meanwhile in Ellen Percy, readers met the title character living in a dingy flat in Leeds but who eventually moves to London, becomes an actress, and charms her way through high and low life.

At the end of the novel Ellen, as happens in many a Victorian novel, marries a viscount and formally enters high society—she has finally made her way in the world.

One of the characters in Ellen Percy, named Mary Glentworth, proved to be so popular with readers that Reynolds brought out a new tale with her as the protagonist: The Young Duchess. American readers likewise warmed to the story of Mary Glentworth and the New York publishers Pollard and Moss released Mary Glentworth; or, The Forbidden Marriage. This was a completely new tale, written by an anonymous American author, who was trying to capitalise on Reynolds’s success—much as Reynolds had done with Dickens’s characters at the beginning of his career.

Modern readers will find that Reynolds’s memoirs series are worth rediscovering, and Jessica Elizabeth Thomas is currently editing a new version of the Seamstress which will be published in modern, clear typeface while retaining all of the original illustrations.

My copy of Reynolds’s Mary Price

[1] Lynn M. Alexander, ‘Creating a Symbol: The Seamstress in Victorian Literature’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 18: 1 (1999), 29–38 (29).

[2] George W.M. Reynolds, The Seamstress; or, The White Slave of England (London: John Dicks, 1853), 19.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital: A New Abridgment, ed. by David McLellan (Oxford University Press, 1995), 42–50.

[4] ‘Advertisement’, RM, 15 November 1851, 272.