19th Century

Remembering a Poor Irishman and his Penny Dreadfuls (1893) | Katharine Tynan

Katherine Tynan was an Irish novelist and poet who was born on a farm outside Dublin in 1859. Educated at a convent school, in her spare time she recalls visiting a poor Irish “dairy boy” who collected penny dreadfuls, and who seems to have been particularly fond of collecting the works of two authors who have been featured on this site a lot: Eugene Sue and George W.M. Reynolds. What is amazing is how accurate some of her descriptions were considering that some of the stories had been out of print for nearly 40 years when she was writing. Tynan’s recollections of the dairy boy (who, as the ensuing recollection makes clear, was actually a fully grown man with a wife and a child) were published in The Speaker in 1893. A fascinating resource for anyone interested in the history of penny dreadfuls and Irish rural life more generally.[1] It has been transcribed by Stephen Basdeo.

I will describe him for you as he leans over his half-door of a summer’s evening, looking across green fields to the blue distance, where presently the lighthouse lamps will set up their revolving lights. The city is down there in the mist. Beyond it, and beyond a strip of blue sea, the islands and the rocky promontory are steeped in rose and grey. He is quite an old chap, with a jolly, round, bullet-head. His keen face is wizened by many lines of laughter. He is whistling jocundly to himself. If you should tempt him across his threshold to a conversation, he will presently, with hands deep in his pockets, break into a comical jig of a few steps, just for the mere fun of it. He comes up so, quite readily, to my mind’s eye out of the mists of nigh a score of years ago. That is my childhood’s impression of him, and I have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, the time when he went heavily, with never a jig in his toes and heels.

Katherine Tynan (Public Domain)

His house was high enough for a house of two stories, but compromised matters by a loft at each gable end, ascended by a ladder and leaving the common living-room a wide space of smoke-blackened wall and thatch between. In those days, however, there was little of the wall visible for the stacks of books. He had them piled high, here on a rough brown dresser intended for kitchen crockery, there on a primitive arrangement of shelves, suspended by a cord slung through holes in the end of each. He had bought lavishly, if not wisely, at the book-stalls, and at an occasional sale. Where did he get the money? Heaven knows! He was of the class known in Ireland as “dairy boys,” irrespective of age. His wages might be eighteen shillings a week. I suppose what other men spent in whisky or tobacco, with him went for books. His wife, a placid, silent woman, never objected to this extravagance of her man. I suppose she thought it was a peaceable diversion, and very desirable, seeing that other men’s diversions led to drink, and rows, and misery.

An Irish rural labourer’s cottage (from Cottageology)

He might be called a book-worm in the sense that the contents of the books, so far as reaching his mind, concerned him but little. If I said he was more intelligent, more bookish than his fellows, I would be wrong. He loved books with an intensity of devotion, but it was because they were books. The fine distinction of biblia abiblia never reached him. Equally delightful they were to him, were they Cumming on the Miracles or a lurid romance of G. W. M. Reynolds. It was to carry them home, to hold them, to feel them, to climb the ladder and add them to the congested shelves; that made the delight.

I don’t know where he found the curious taste. Perhaps it was as well it went no further with him than skin-deep of the books. It is unsafe to be different from your fellows. I once knew a pigeon who took it into his head to desert his own kind for human. He was a handsome fellow, too, and of a high and haughty spirit. A veritable anchorite of the desert to the iris-necked maidens of his kind, who came cooing and languishing about him all in vain. He first constituted himself watch-dog of the forge, opposite the kitchen-windows, and followed the blacksmith like a dog, but with more respect for himself than has anything canine. He watched the forge jealously, and resented the presence there of anything, human or otherwise, except himself and his adopted master. Even the harmless necessary horses were shod to the tune of his incessant pecking at their hoofs. But one day, in seeking to eject an intrusive hen who had roosted on a pitch-pot, the pair, in the heat of combat, fell in. But this was not Tom’s end. We, whom his originality and fearlessness had made friends, took him to the kitchen, and having cleansed him to the best of our power, left Time and his indomitable spirit to complete the cure. Alack, when he was well past convalescence, and in full possession of the kitchen as he had been of the forge, he disappeared one night from the fender where we had left him nodding. Either a passing cat, or our own perfidious one, had made an end of this rare spirit; which proves that a bird should keep his wings, and not step on the earth to be a prey to cats.

G.W.M. Reynolds’s Coral Island; or, The Hereditary Curse (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

However, no one of his own kind resented my old book-lover’s hobby. As for us youngsters, he was our Mudie. From his shelves we carried off the stories of the Thirties, Mrs. Gore’s novels, and Mrs. Trollope’s, Miss Sewell’s, and Miss Ferrier’s, G. W. M. Reynolds we devoured in The Coral Island, a big tome of horrors; and there was Eugéne Sue’s Mysteries of Paris in three big volumes, with a picture to every two inches of letterpress. Side by side with such coarse food for young imaginations we had Miss Wetherall in Say and Seal and The Wide, Wide World, and had the good taste to prefer her.

“…and there was Eugéne Sue’s Mysteries of Paris in three big volumes.” A first edition set of Sue’s ground-breaking novel (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

We were omnivorous readers, and were little in fear of check, as our reading-room was an overgrown orchard, where it was easy to elude pursuit or capture, and where we were wicked enough to lie low till voices were tired calling us, and we were left in peace till the owls began to hoot and the moon swung into the delicate green and rosy sky, and the long, long, delicious day was over.

“Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris in three big volumes, with a picture to every two inches of letterpress…” from the first edition of Sue’s novel (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

I don’t know if the old fellow had read any of his own books, but there were two he held perpetually before us as a fee if we brought back the long-missing members of batches, as a threat of their being withheld from us if we did not supply the same omissions. I think, myself, they were apocryphal, for I hunted the shelves from end to end and never caught a glimpse of them. They were called Fatherless Fanny and A Necklace of Pearls.[2] If he had the books he treasured them away in a safe place, and whether we restored the missing ones or not, we never caught sight of those oft-dangled bribes.

There was Miss Edgeworth, too. I think we knew Belinda and Ennui and The Absentee from cover to cover. Odd volumes of Swift he had too. We liked Gulliver’s Travels, but turned away from the uninvitingness of A Tale of a Tub. Our indiscriminate reading, after all, did us but little harm. A child desires a story beyond all things, and will turn away from anything that is not a story; and even if one has to wade through much undesirable matter to get one’s story, it is with a single attention fixed on it that takes in little else.

Tynan’s recollection of the mysterious “Necklace of Pearls” novel is likely the original Sweeney Todd penny blood: The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer.

Those were good days for the book-lover, and for us his clients. It was always summer, or the winters have escaped my memory. A milestone of a pantomime stands out in relief now and then, but nothing else at all of the winter. Only for ever the long, long days, and the apples, and the books that one read, devouring apples all the while from one’s pinafore with the appetite of some little wood-creature.

As well as his wife, there was a daughter in the old book-lover’s house; an unexpected girl of her class, as he was a man. Not that she had gifts of any kind, but she was pretty in a delicate way. She was a feather-headed, innocent creature, tall and slender. The old mother did the household work, and Polly’s hands were as white as a lady’s. Her face was a soft, delicate pink; not rosy and white, but just as faintly pink as a little rose. Round her small head her light, tow-coloured hair stood out as fluffily as if someone had been blowing through it. She, often enough, was leaning over the half-door, looking up and down the road, when we sailed in sight, young pirates, in quest of the books we were so careless about restoring. I don’t think she ever did work more serious than making up the muslins and prints that she affected; and that helped to give her that airy look as if one might blow her away like thistledown. She was so innocent she often came with us children mushroom-hunting, or blackberry-gathering. I remember, in a dim way, her pretty, vacant laughter, for despite her eighteen years she was as young as the youngest baby that would not be left at home, though its company was such a clog and embarrassment. We used to go over hills of furze, where strange, beautiful little moths fluttered, blue as the skies, golden-brown, silver. Polly, in her green or pink muslin frocks, was as light and fluttering. I don’t know where they have gone to, those moths— whether they came out of Fairyland and flew back there—but I never see them now, nor the poisonous toadstools that grew in brilliant rings of scarlet bronze, and azure, under the mysterious trees of a park, where nowadays the noon is commonplace.

Children notice much, half observantly. Anyhow, the time came when we knew that Polly had a lover. We met them sometimes in the green twilight, when the bats were out, or when we were selecting our tale of books. Polly languidly looking on, a whistle would come from outside, and Polly, with an increased shade of pinkness, would glide through the doorway, and we saw her no more.

He was a young farmer—much more than Polly’s social equal; he would have called himself a young gentleman, I daresay, having been to boarding school, and enjoyed other advantages. He was not especially prosperous at the time, for my father had just bought the land which belonged to him and his brothers, and which had been groaning under a weight of debt. There was enough money, however, when divided, to afford each of them a hopeful start in America. By degrees they all did sail for that Eldorado of Irish folk, and prospered, for so long as we knew anything of their doings.

Polly’s love-affair lasted during a summer. It is like brushing the dust off things in a long-closed room to piece my memories of it. J remember a wet August evening when we came upon them under an overhanging roof of ivy by a grey wall. The roads were winding ways of gold with the yellow bindweed that flared that summer in long lines, where in spring there had been an innocent procession of the daisies. The rain was sweeping silverly over the hills. The pair were under one umbrella, Polly’s muslin-clad shoulders protected by a tweed-covered arm that was withdrawn as soon as the little pitchers hove in sight. They were having merry times; for before they had seen us we had heard Polly’s laughter, almost violently merry.

Whether her father and mother were anxious over this unequal love-making I am not sure. We sometimes came in on conversations hushed at our entrance. I think our old book-lover grew disturbed in his heart, for he no more shuffled into his gay dance, and was indifferent about the books we took. Judging by later knowledge, I should think he was getting afraid his little girl’s heart would be hurt. A coarser fear I am sure he had not. He had the kind of simple refinement that would keep him from wronging in his thoughts the child he had reared with such unusual daintiness. Then she was such an innocent, fly-away creature, somehow it would be hard to associate sin with her, or even the serious sorrow and trouble of the world.

A month after that August evening we were caught and caged in school. It had been discovered in some unhappy hour for us that “those children were really running too wild.” Poor Polly’s innocent love-story finished itself out after we went. We knew that Polly’s Jim was going to America; it was common report. About the time we were getting into the habit of rules and lessons he and his big brothers were on an Atlantic liner. I suppose he was fond of poor Polly in his own selfish way, but not fond enough to marry her. Of course I know nothing about their parting. She was not likely to be very troublesome, poor, tender child, and the old father was too proud to go asking any man to marry her. I suppose they thought she’d forget in time, and once more be happy in the love of the old father and mother, who thought nothing too good for her. However, Polly cut the Gordian knot of her troubles more suddenly.

Another girl, stricken to the heart as she was, would have fallen into a decline and wasted away patiently to the grave. Poor, feather-brained Polly, after a week or so of dull quiet, woke up father and mother one night by talking loudly in a rapid, unnatural voice, broken by bursts of laughter more dreadful still. From the beginning there was no hope. The fever burnt and wasted her like wax before the fire. All her pretty hair was cut off, the pink gave way to hectic cheeks and ashen pallor, the pretty roundedness grew into sudden sharp curves. On a mild day of October a letter came that told us Polly was dead. When we came home the year after the old book-lover and his books were gone. When he had laid his little girl to rest he would stay no longer in the place where she had died. He went back to the city—he and his old wife—heavy-hearted, with the books carelessly heaped in a cart. He never came back to see us, as his fellows have always done; and driving through the city’s purlieus, where his home would be, we never caught a glimpse of him. I do not know if he even visits Polly’s grave, under the three twisted yews that the west wind has blown awry. The churchyard there abuts on the fields, and is not eerie. The hills look down on it for ever, and the west wind riots above it, and beyond are the fields where Polly walked with her lover twenty long years ago.

[1] Katherine Tynan, ‘The Book Love’, The Speaker, 10 September 1893, 354–57.

[2] This is likely a reference to the original Sweeney Todd story: A String of Pearls.