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Victorian Popular Forms and Practices of Reading and Writing

Lady Clara Cavendish: Reynolds and Rymer’s Political Hoax

Lady Clara Cavendish : le canular politique de Reynolds et Rymer
Rebecca L. Nesvet


En 1858, Reynolds’s Miscellany, le périodique bon marché populaire de G. W. M. Reynolds (1814-79), présenta pour la première fois une nouvelle « auteure », Lady Clara Cavendish. Reynolds fanfaronnait en disant que les romans de Cavendish (d’un prix élevé qu’il avait bien volontiers payé) révèleraient la corruption de la cour des Hanovre. Cependant, comme l’avaient spéculé certains critiques victoriens, Cavendish était elle-même une fiction. Ses romans et elle sont en réalité l’invention de Reynolds et de son journaliste habituel James Malcolm Rymer (1814-84) qui, dans les années 1840, avait créé « Sweeney Todd » et « Varney le Vampire » pour Edward Lloyd, éditeur de fiction bon marché à sensation. Cet article montre que les écrits de la Cavendish de Reynolds et Rymer ne sont pas un assemblage aléatoire de textes mais que, alliés à du matériau paratextuel, comme les publicités de Reynolds, ils font se dessiner une personnalité cohérente. Une lecture holistique du phénomène Cavendish et de son corpus littéraire montre l’intention didactique et politique de Reynolds et Rymer derrière cette création, et leurs sympathies chartistes. Le canular Cavendish repose sur la rhétorique de la « corruption de l’Ancien Régime » afin de promouvoir les idéaux chartistes et d’éveiller la conscience politique des « masses industrieuses ». Faire de Cavendish une aristocrate familière de la Cour permettait à Reynolds et Rymer de donner à leur critique politique l’autorité dont elle aurait autrement manqué. Pour eux, par conséquent, le canular ne relevait pas d’une évasion dans l’imaginaire mais d’une affirmation de convictions idéologiques partagées, sans doute plus convaincante sous cette forme. De nos jours, la lecture de Cavendish met nettement en relief leurs affinités, aspect que les critiques commencent tout juste à redécouvrir et à réévaluer.

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1The fiction serials published in Victorian penny periodicals unquestionably constituted popular literature. This fiction is popular in intention, for its publishers and writers courted working-class readers in terms they suspected were likely to appeal to that audience. During the period of Chartist agitation, as Rob Breton has recently shown, penny fiction ‘experimented with incendiary and agitational materials, essentially capitalizing on or taking advantage of the popularity of the radical of Chartist narrative’ of British politics, not only to effect real change but because ‘radical politics was popular and commercially viable’ throughout the period (Breton 3–4). Penny fiction was also popular in actual effect, because by the rhetorical aims that Breton identifies and other endeavours as well, it successfully engaged a mass reading audience on a level that Britain had not previously seen. Andrew King identifies one prominent carrier of this type of fiction, the penny periodical Reynolds’s Miscellany as ‘one of the four penny fiction weeklies that served most to inform the cultural imaginary of Britain’ (King 54). Despite this popularity, in the twenty-first century scholarly discourse community, many of Reynolds’s Miscellany’s contributors remain elusive, shadowy figures.

2One such figure that vigorously stoked the transatlantic cultural imaginary deserves more critical scrutiny than she has yet received: a new ‘authoress’ whom Reynolds introduced in the Miscellany in 1858, claiming she would write for that periodical exclusively. Her name was Lady Clara Cavendish. Today, that surname might recall the dynasty into which the scandalous eighteenth-century Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was unhappily married, thereby denoting status, privilege, and corruption. In any case, Lady Clara’s Reynolds’s Miscellany serial romance The Woman of the World, commencing in late September 1858, attracted readers’ attention. It depicts a social-climbing woman’s manipulation of fundamentally unjust elite institutions and individual aristocratic libertines and sycophants to destroy the less powerful. At the serial’s conclusion, the villainess dies, restoring the social order that she had gleefully disrupted.

3Immediately, The Woman of the World attracted the scepticism of mainstream critics. In October 1858, the middle-class periodical The Era reported that ‘a tale of strong social interest’, The Woman of the World, is ‘running its career in a weekly miscellany, purporting to be a faithful portrait of court life as it exists among the elite of the English aristocracy, written expressly for the periodical by a member of this exclusive circle, a Lady Clara Cavendish’ (‘City of London’ 11). The Era added that a dramatization of Cavendish’s novel could be seen at the City of London Theatre, one of the minor playhouses that produced melodramatic content, often adapted from penny fiction, predominantly for working-class audiences (11). In January 1859, shortly before the conclusion of The Woman of the World’s serialization, Reynolds’s Miscellany announced that ‘Lady Clara Cavendish has consented to write another original tale, this engagement being attended with enormous expenditure’ (‘Further Announcements’ 64). Ultimately, Cavendish wrote three more serials for Reynolds’s Miscellany: The Fallen Star, which commenced publication in September 1859, The Divorce (March 1859), and The Court Page (June 1861). In the Miscellany’s back pages, each was announced with a hyperbolic puff.

4How did a penny paper that targeted working-class readers attract an author of Cavendish’s social status? Reynolds’s Miscellany strongly implies that she turned to writing for the public because she needed money. Reynolds advertised that for The Court Page, set during the Regency, based ‘strictly’ on ‘fact, excepting only that fictitious names are in some instances substituted for the real ones’, he paid Cavendish ‘an enormous sum’ (‘New Tale’ 368). Her secrets were valuable because they were controversial. As Reynolds explains, The Court Page ‘involve[s] some of the most remarkable revelations and occurrences’ of the Regency court, told and publishable on account of ‘the recent death of the hero’, which ‘has removed the only barrier which previously existed’, while ‘Lady Clara Cavendish’ has seen off all other potential legal challenges by ‘obtain[ing] a direct permission from the highest quarter’ to publish the late page’s information (‘New Tale’ 368). In desperation, it seems, a profligate or unfortunate aristocrat agreed to divulge the most outrageous secrets of her social class and the British monarchy.

5The Cavendish phenomenon’s heady brew of literary popularity, poignant financial distress, and sensational class treachery may have seemed plausible to some of Reynolds’s readers, but several journalists speculated that Cavendish was herself a fiction. One reviewer, writing for the British Quarterly, conjectured that Cavendish was a ‘mythical personage’ invented by ‘a formidable rival to Mr J. F. Smith’, sometime editor of the London Journal and one of the top writers of cheap fiction serials (‘Cheap Literature’ 339). In The Spectator, a reviewer proposed that Lady Clara was a pseudonym of Reynolds himself: her ‘style, it must be said, bears a remarkable affinity to’ his (‘A Shilling’s Worth of Cheap Woodcuts’). The Dublin-based Duffy’s Hibernian Magazine guessed, perhaps facetiously, that she is a pseudonym of Pablo Fanque (‘A Chapter on Self-Raised Men’ 124). A famous circus impresario, born William Darby, who adopted a new name in the interest of show business, Fanque may have signified the slipperiness and fictionality of Victorian celebrity self-fashioning. If ‘Fanque’ was a rôle played out in the press, Cavendish might be, too.

6These critics circled the truth. Cavendish and her novels are in fact the inventions of Reynolds and his regular employee James Malcolm Rymer (1814–84), who created Varney, the Vampyre (1845–47) and ‘Sweeney Todd’ (The String of Pearls, 1846–7; expanded 1850) for the penny blood publisher Edward Lloyd. This essay contends that the Cavendish corpus that Reynolds and Rymer created is not a random collection of pieces united merely by a byline. Instead, Cavendish’s supposed productions combine with paratextual material such as Reynolds’s advertising to articulate a consistent personality. Reading the Cavendish phenomenon as a holistic literary corpus reveals that in creating it, Reynolds and Rymer advance a didactic and political mission. During the previous two decades—in essence, the era of Chartism—Reynolds had become a committed, formal Chartist and both he and Rymer invested their popular fiction with recognizably Chartist narratives, simultaneously to engage their politically awakened target audience, to promote political change, and to situate themselves on what Breton has called ‘the right side of history’ (Breton 4). Pursuing these goals, the Cavendish hoax that they launched in the pages of Reynolds’s Miscellany enlists the rhetoric of a discourse now called ‘Old Corruption’ to support Chartist ideals, especially the political energization of the ‘industrious millions’. By inventing the aristocratic court insider Cavendish, Reynolds and Rymer invest their political critique with the authority that they could not otherwise have achieved. After the mid-1850s foundering of the Chartist movement, it was particularly important to rally the disillusioned populace. For Reynolds and Rymer, therefore, the Cavendish hoax did not constitute a departure or escapist fantasy, but a potentially more persuasive affirmation of the ideological commitments that they had long shared. Reading the Cavendish novels and their periodical paratext today throws into bold relief those shared perspectives, which critics are only beginning to recover and re-appraise.


7The past few years have seen a minor renaissance in scholarship on Reynolds and, to a lesser degree, Rymer, focusing on these men’s literary, journalistic, and political activity. While Stephen K. Knight’s critical biography of Reynolds (2019) demonstrates that his works, especially the gargantuan fiction bestsellers The Mysteries of London (1844–48) and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1848–56), easily outsold Dickens’s fiction, particularly among working-class readers, several scholars have been close-reading Reynolds’s publications to clarify his political and philosophical commitments and to understand how they shifted and evolved throughout the Chartist era and beyond it. Jennifer Conary’s archival research on the Parisian press of the 1830s demystifies Reynolds’s intellectual coming-of-age before he burst onto the London literary scene in 1837, demonstrating that his experiences in Paris in the immediate aftermaths of the revolutions of 1830–32 were integral to his enduring outlook. In The Monthly Magazine number of May 1837, Reynolds attacked the Quarterly Review’s condemnation of novels as vehicles of moral corruption on the grounds that this argument sweeps actual corruption under the proverbial rug. He rails that it is wrong of the Quarterly ‘to suppose that the [French] insurrection of 1830’ was inspired by novel-reading by people modest enough to depend upon the ‘circulating library’ rather than by ‘a just sense of wrong and oppression’ (Reynolds, ‘French Poets’ 17). Here, Reynolds’s complaint that tyranny, not novels, inspired the revolution in France could be read to suggest that if his British working-class readers harboured revolutionary feelings, this was actually rather due to injustice than to novel-reading. In general, Reynolds claims that ‘an extension of political liberty does not implicate a decrease of moral rectitude and social order: it rather encourages the opposite’ (Reynolds, ‘French Poets’ 46), so that political liberty rather increased public morality.

8A decade later, Reynolds put these principles into practice. Having published some novels and journalism to great acclaim, particularly the serial Mysteries of London (1844–45), Reynolds edited Reynolds’s Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, Science, and Art, whose topics included contemporary politics. This publication continued, in multiple series, into the late 1860s. In 1848, Reynolds spoke at Chartist gatherings including the momentous demonstration at Kennington Common. An ‘ally’ of Chartist leader Bronterre O’Brien, in the early 1850s, Reynolds played an administrative role in O’Brien’s National Reform League, was elected to the Chartist Executive in a landslide vote and was invited to stand for Parliament as a Chartist but rejected the opportunity (Humpherys and James 5). In the years immediately after 1848, Reynolds proved bolder. Reynolds’s Newspaper, founded in 1850 specifically in response to Parliament’s rejection of the Chartist national petition of 1848, and other publications of the 1850s, was overtly political. Reynolds’s Newspaper had by then long been comparable in its radical bias to Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor’s paper The Northern Star, to the degree that to be seen reading it constituted a political commitment to Chartism (Shirley 75). After that movement’s collapse in the wake of the 1848 petition’s failure, Reynolds quarrelled with his former friends but remained committed to basic Chartist ideals.

9Across his career, he promoted these ideals by recycling the Romantic radical notion of ‘Old Corruption’: the master narrative of British history wherein a hyperbolically demonized aristocracy and Hanoverian monarchy oppresses the working and emergent middle classes. As critics such as Virginia Berridge and Jenna Herdman have observed, ‘Old Corruption’ calls for reform without questioning the middle class’s involvement in the oligarchic oppression of the working class (Herdman 317). Developed by early nineteenth-century radicals such as William Cobbett, ‘Old Corruption’ was a defining feature of Reynolds’s Mysteries of London and Mysteries of the Court of London, the sprawling fictions by which he first came to prominence (317). In the same tradition, Reynolds’s short-lived Reynolds’s Political Instructor (1849–50) and then Reynold’s Newspaper (1850–1967; Reynolds died in 1879) deploy what Michael Diamond terms ‘virulent personal attacks on royalty and aristocracy’ that exceeded mere literary sensationalism to ‘create . . .  a revisionist account of the events and personalities of the mid-nineteenth century’, veritably, a ‘new’ and ‘shadowy history of England’ (Diamond 91–92). The Miscellany, too, critiqued ‘Old Corruption’ and argued that it persisted in the Victorian present. For instance, the Miscellany’s 1850–51 coverage of the planning and realization of the Great Exhibition depicts Prince Albert, patron of the Exhibition, as a libertine who devises amusements while the people suffer (Herdman 312). In McWilliam’s estimation, Reynolds refined the formula of Old Corruption to insist that ‘power and wealth, rather than having been modernized by liberalization of the economy, remain with the aristocracy’ (McWilliam 200). Illustrating this point via labyrinthine topographical representations of the networks of corruption, repression, and tyranny that would have spoken powerfully to the Chartists whose leaders had actually been imprisoned, Reynolds created what McWilliam calls the ‘Chartist Gothic’ (200). He did this in part because in the turbulent years of Chartist agitation and their 1850s immediate aftermath, radical sentiment was popular. The penny press, especially as curated by Reynolds, ‘experimented with incendiary and agitational materials, essentially capitalizing or taking advance of the popularity of the radical or Chartist narrative’ that is ‘inflected by radicalism’ (Breton 2). It is well known that Reynolds’s personal commitment to radical politics went well beyond a business strategy.

10Reynolds expected Chartist Gothic imagery from some of his hired writers, including Rymer, who, under the anagrammatic pseudonym ‘Malcolm J. Errym’, produced much of the fiction content of Reynolds’s Miscellany. During the Indian Revolt (‘Sepoy Mutiny’), Rymer wrote for Reynolds’s Miscellany the fiction serial The Sepoys, or, Highland Jessie, a Tale of the Present Indian Revolt (1858) which focuses on British prisoners in an Indian prince’s dungeon and characterizes the Revolt as a struggle between libertine Indian kings and East India Company plutocrats to which the industrious classes of both India and Britain are essentially sacrificed. In the same year, the same periodical published The Woman of the World, the first serial that Reynolds would attribute to Lady Clara Cavendish.


11To understand Rymer’s contribution to the Lady Clara Cavendish hoax’s development, it is necessary to flesh out his shadowy figure. Reclusive in his lifetime and forgotten for much of the twentieth century, Rymer was one of the most prolific authors of penny fiction and the only major author to contribute copiously to the catalogues of both the penny press’s major innovators, the publisher Edward Lloyd and Reynolds. His first venture into overtly Chartist creativity was his periodical The Queen’s Magazine, briefly published in the spring and summer of 1842, the months of the Second Chartist Petition’s presentation to Parliament, its failure, and the ‘plug riots’, or strikes and unrest, that followed Parliament’s rejection of the Petition. This magazine included such Chartist material as Jane Shore (1842) a romance serial that renders the legendary mistress of the libertine king Edward IV an unacknowledged advocate for, and later a martyr-saint of, the middle- and working-class Cockneys of London, in a time that Rymer identifies as the dawn of a landless propertied class parasitically aligned with the monarchy and aristocracy and against the city of London. The sociopolitical paradigm that shapes the England of Jane Shore is ‘Old Corruption’, even though, as Rymer began Jane Shore before The Mysteries of London was published, he could not have been inspired by it. In 1841–50, Rymer wrote prolifically for Lloyd’s ‘fiction factory’, first at its original address in Shoreditch and later at no. 12, Salisbury Square, which produced the derogatory terms ‘the Salisbury Square School’ and ‘Salisbury Square Fiction’. For Lloyd, in works that are now termed ‘penny bloods’ for their lurid content and cheap price, Rymer created his most enduring and notorious villains: the title character of Varney the Vampyre, or, the Feast of Blood (1845–47) and, in The String of Pearls, a Romance (1846–47; expanded 1850) the homicidal Fleet Street barber Sweeney Todd. Since the early 2000s, Rymer scholarship has burgeoned, with the commissioning of an entry in the Oxford Bibliographies of Victorian Literature (2021) perhaps suggesting that the pantheon of significant Victorian authors now includes him.

12Something that scholars have learned about Rymer is that the aggregated myths of his and his publishers’ political commitments need constant questioning. Critics such E. P. Thompson and Ian Haywood claimed that before the 1848 failure of the Third Chartist Petition, Rymer’s early publisher Lloyd was a Chartist, at least before 1848 (Thompson 804–05, discussed in Haywood 140). However, as McWilliam points out, the progressivism of his publications tended more towards liberalism. In fact, Lloyd’s fiction authors promoted popular nonviolence in the face of tyranny, a position at odds with the national Chartist leadership (McWilliam 210). Still, the penny fiction that Rymer wrote for Lloyd abounds with plots that conform to the Chartist Gothic narrative, particularly if one focuses on the villains. These include Lord Learmont, evil uncle of the heroine of Rymer’s Ada, the Betrayed (1843), Simon Godfrey, the plutocratic financier of The Dark Lady, or, the Widow and the Wife (1847–48), and even Todd and Varney, both of whom masquerade as aristocrats to attain money, property, and obscure continental titles. The Chartist rhetoric of one of Rymer’s final penny bloods written for Lloyd, the Byron homage Mazeppa (1850) is harder to ignore. As I explain in an article of 2020, the hero of Mazeppa, a London tradesman, inventor, and amateur boxer named Mr Lumpus, explains to his Eastern European comrades, including Prince Mazeppa, that he cannot hope to use his considerable leadership skills by becoming Prime Minister in Britain because he does not meet the property requirement necessary to stand for office. In Britain, property, rather than aptitude or experience, determines each subject’s range of opportunity, denying political participation to working men like Lumpus (Nesvet 2018). By the mid-1850s, Lloyd had slid further to the liberal end of the progressive political spectrum and by the end of the decade had largely divested himself of his fiction-focused business ventures. Rymer apparently stopped writing for Lloyd and, after a brief hiatus possibly occasioned by the decline and death of his first wife, Caroline, accepted employment from Reynolds, regularly writing for the Miscellany under the ‘Errym’ pseudonym and, as we shall see, other names as well. Perhaps Rymer not only saw the writing on the wall with respect to Lloyd’s relinquishment of fiction, but also found his political outlook closer to Reynolds’s than to Lloyd’s.

  • 1 Rymer’s notebook of holograph-inscribed clippings, which he circulated privately in the 1860s or la (...)

13Rymer brought to Reynolds’s Miscellany a literary technique that would become essential to the Lady Clara Cavendish hoax: multivocal authorship under a variety of pseudonyms, some with elaborately fleshed-out histories and satirical personalities. In 1843, Rymer created for Lloyd’s Penny Weekly Miscellany a pair of would-be poets named Thomas Greanplush (probably after Thackeray’s Yellowplush) and Ebenezer Squashtottle who, in a series of irate letters to Lloyd, duel in bad poetry for the affections of ‘Ada’, the heroine of Rymer’s bestseller Ada, the Betrayed, or, the Murder at the Old Smithy (1843). Greanplush and Squashtottle, who are uncritical readers, do not recognize Ada as a fictional character. In one letter, Squashtottle spells ‘Esq.’ phonetically ‘HESKEYHEWIRE’, complains that ‘greanplush his indigent [indignant] with me his ee & wants u too guv mee the sac’, but cannot because he ‘onli makes ewse of wulgar similaries but noe pottery [poetry]’ and has ‘noe . . . noeshun ow to spel’ (‘Ebenezer Squashtottle to Mr. Lloyd’ 96).1 A ‘grate pottery genus [great poetry genius]’, Squashtottle supplies a dreadful four-line poem ‘Too Ada’, and begs Lloyd ‘plees too show hit too the orther [Author] ov Ada’ (96). This homage looks fabricated, but possibly some of Lloyd’s least suspicious readers might have taken it at face value. Indeed, it was commonplace for contributors to the advice columns of the penny press to be fabrications; the compilers of such columns therefore conducted imaginary dialogues with themselves. Such acts of literary ventriloquism paved the way for Rymer and Reynolds to attempt a more audacious imposture with a serious political purpose: the creation of Lady Clara Cavendish and her scandalous compositions.

The Lady Appears

  • 2 These three-volume novels without illustrations predate the sensational novel phenomenon. They were (...)

14During the years immediately before Rymer left Lloyd’s employment for Reynolds’s Miscellany, the British public was entertained by an aristocratic tattler on court society: Baroness Calabrella (c.1788–1856), who had been born Catherine Ball and later went by the marital name of Lee. Her novels, serialized in Tory newspapers such as The Illustrated London News (Law 31), include sentimental novels The Tempter and the Tempted (1842), Evenings at Haddon Hall (1846), and The Double Oath, or, the Rendezvous (1850), all featuring upper-class protagonists in scandalous predicaments.2 In the same decade, she owned the Court Journal, which, as its title implies, peddled news including gossip about the social life of Victoria’s court. Joaquim H. Stocqueler, whom Calabrella hired in 1846 to edit the Court Journal, describes her as a quasi-Byronic female figure. To Stocqueler, Calabrella was ‘a tall and rather elegant figure’ who ‘must have been decidedly handsome in her youth’, and due to unspecified miseries, maintained ‘a severe and melancholy expression’ along with ‘a certain sense of dignity’ (Stocqueler 149). Less kindly, Stocqueler recalls, the Satirist questioned her aristocratic legitimacy, calling her the Baroness ‘Cab-Umbrella’ (150). In any case, her career demonstrated that there was a popular audience for supposedly factual court secrets delivered by an aristocratic insider via the genre of fiction and the medium of the newspaper. In 1858, Reynolds provided such a storyteller with Lady Clara, but tried to make her sympathetic and relatable, too. Before her first novel The Woman of the World had completed its serial run, Reynolds also published a poem attributed to her, a Romantic pastiche titled ‘The Music of Nature’ (1859). While The Woman of the World is scandalous, ‘The Music of Nature’ is reassuringly pious and humble. ‘The music of a grateful heart / Is music heard in Heaven’, it concludes (91). That the same authoress could produce both works must have been plausible to Reynolds and Rymer, who knew their common idol Lord Byron as the author of both Don Juan (published in instalments in 1819–24) and Hebrew Melodies (1815), or, to put it differently, of the most thematically contrasting parts of the four Cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (published in instalments in 1812–18).

15Who wrote the earlier Cavendish serials—The Woman of the World, The Divorce, and The Fallen Star? It is still difficult to tell, but throughout Cavendish’s brief publishing era, Rymer worked exclusively for Reynolds, regularly writing multiple synchronous serials for the Miscellany, usually attributed ‘M. J. Errym’, Rymer’s anagrammatic nom de plume. It is equally possible that Reynolds wrote the earlier Cavendish titles, hired someone else to do so, or collaborated with unknown authors on them. Several ads in Reynolds’s publications announced current or forthcoming serials in a list of three items: one attributed to Reynolds, one to ‘M. J. Errym’, and one to Cavendish, turning them into a familiar trio of contributors. I transcribe one of the many near-identical advertisements:

1. The Christmas Story will be immediately followed by a New Tale from the pen of Mr G. W. M. Reynolds. Further particulars in due course.
2. On the conclusion of the Celebrated Story of ‘The Woman of the World’, Lady Clara Cavendish has consented to write another original tale, this engagement being attended with enormous expense.
3. Our readers will also be delighted to hear that the services of Malcolm J. Errym are exclusively retained for the MISCELLANY, from whose pen an original tale will appear at the conclusion of the Christmas Story. (‘Further Announcements’)

16Reynolds’s claim that, unlike, say, ‘Errym’s’ commission, Lady Clara’s ‘engagement’ as a writer is ‘attended with enormous expense’ emphasizes the exclusivity of Reynolds’s supposed network, making him an intrepid crosser of class boundaries and a person who can get an impecunious aristocrat to trust him with her class’s most dangerous secrets. By including Lady Clara in the same advertisement as himself and ‘Errym’, as a distinct individual, Reynolds may also have aimed to head off any rumours that he and/or ‘Errym’ had invented her. Reynolds was a literary celebrity publishing under his own name and the subject of a detailed, photorealistic engraved portrait, so listing ‘Lady Clara’ alongside himself, may have made her seem as real as he himself was. This apparent ‘realness’ would give her views of upper-class life more credibility than Reynolds and his actual staff could muster.

  • 3 In a famous Old Testament episode, King David sends Bathsheba’s husband away to war to prevent him (...)

17While all the ‘Cavendish’ novels serialized in Reynolds’s Miscellany focus on Old Corruption, the final one, The Court Page, the one that can unequivocally be attributed to Rymer, exhibits Reynolds and Rymer’s political communion most clearly. In this serial, the forty-eight-year-old Prince Regent’s hobbies include ‘flirtation with the ladies in attendance upon his daughter, the Princess Charlotte’ and ‘Bacchanalian orgies’ distinguished by ‘wild license’ (The Court Page 403), and his residence, Carlton House, is seemingly ‘haunted by a person in white’, who turns out, of course, to be a very corporeal, living woman whom he has wronged (404). Meanwhile, the titular page, Walter (in 1842, the name of the sympathetic working-class lover of Rymer’s Jane Shore), falls in love with an upper-class woman, Lady Diana Charlton, who is simultaneously pursued by the ruthless Regent and his libertine friends. Diana’s values are proto-Chartist, as she defies class prejudice to love Walter (‘a waif and stray… without even a name’, 401) and to resist her courtly suitors. Walter, having lost her and thinking her dead, imagines her telling him ‘My Walter, you are the child of poor, but honest, people, and I will love you’ (401). The Regent emulates King David in the affair of Bathsheba by trying to send Walter off to die at Waterloo (121–22).3 The only sympathetic royal is Princess Charlotte, destined to die at seventeen years old. This ‘wretched princess’ loathes ‘that little court of interested persons who made her the tool of their own ambitions and purposes’, contributing to ‘the domestic tragedy of Carlton House’ (121–22). The domestic discord in the Prince Regent’s residence reveals him an unfit husband and father. As such, he cannot be expected to serve as the nation’s patriarch when he is crowned king. Like other tales of ‘Old Corruption’, this critique of the late Hanoverian monarchy and its court culture, The Court Page eschews criticism of middle-class complicity with oppression.

18Instead, The Court Page traces Walter’s political awakening, including his recognition of his rights to life, liberty and the chance to requite Lady Diana’s love. This focus seems calculated to awaken similar feelings in Reynolds’s plebeian readers in the aftermath of Chartism’s post-1848 collapse. In the 1840s, Rob Breton demonstrates that for reasons of both justice and profitability, penny fiction including Reynolds’s Mysteries of London ‘play[ed] a significant role in the development of a new working-class culture defining itself against the development of a new middle-class culture’ (Breton 84). In short, Reynolds reached out to a working public that, as Breton persuasively argued, was already aware of Chartism and beginning to see its interests through a Chartist lens. Consequently, aiming for popularity and to be on ‘the right side of history’, penny fiction ‘includes instructional discourses that are frequently the bread and butter of the Chartist press’ (Breton 96). Reynolds, the most legitimate and continuous Chartist of the penny press magnates, adhered to this agenda more conspicuously and continuously than his colleagues and rivals.

19The social origins of Reynolds’s readers, or, at least of the readership that his Miscellany transparently targeted, may be deduced from the advice columns that feature on the back page of the Miscellany. The number of August 21, 1858 carried the inaugural Cavendish serial The Woman of the World. Its ‘Notices to Correspondents’ reply to many urban skilled workers or people in search of skilled work. One anonymous correspondent desires employment in ‘a merchant’s office’ (112). Another asks for a recipe for ink, presumably being unable to afford store-bought ink (112). Reynolds regrets to inform two would-be emigrants that, respectively, passage to New Zealand is no longer free and ‘English governesses’ are ‘not wanted’ in America (112). He tells ‘An Apprentice’ his rights: ‘your master is exceeding the just limits of his power over you and his claims upon you’ (112). Reynolds praises another reader’s handwriting as ‘unusually excellent for a person in your condition of life’ and ‘it may even be pronounced genteel’ (112). This praise implies that the reader is not actually ‘genteel’ (112). Another working-class person with upper-class skills is trying to teach himself or herself Latin. Reynolds recommends the textbook Latin without a Master (112). It was something of an open secret that many of the letters to the editor mentioned in the Victorian penny press were fabrications by the editor or his staff writers. The 1858 Reynolds’s Miscellany’s cast of real, invented, or composite correspondents constitutes a diverse cross-section of urban Britain’s working class: people exploited by the upper classes and whose social networks contain no upper-class members. ‘Lady Clara Cavendish’ promises these readers firsthand knowledge of upper-class malfeasance; knowledge that the middle-class Reynolds could not personally provide. By covertly writing as Lady Clara, Reynolds and Rymer implied that their Chartist Gothic world-view constituted accurate, informed sociology. The Lady Clara ruse also enabled them to suggest that if an aristocratic woman could dare to challenge the codes of her class in the interests of subsistence or social justice, so might their readers.


20Perhaps Lady Clara resonated with this audience. In 1859, the year after she was first introduced in the pages of Reynolds’s Miscellany, Reynolds reported that circulation had ‘double[d]’ to a readership of 500,000 (‘Doubling Our Circulation’ 416). This figure, if true, is particularly astounding given that according to the 1860–61 Census, the population of London was only slightly over three million—or six times Reynolds’s reported readership (Emsley). The several Cavendish novels published in the Miscellany may have contributed in some way to that success. However, it is difficult to know for certain. Were Reynolds’s actual readers convinced that Lady Clara existed? Did they read her fiction as accurate information about upper-class malfeasance? Did they recognize its radicalism? Certainly, Lady Clara Cavendish rallied no masses to oppose her class’s monopoly on political power; at least, none that came to the attention of the press. In fact, as we have seen, the British middle-class press presumed her a hoax, and said as much in print. Moreover, in the 1860s, Reynolds quietly abandoned her. After 1861, no new Cavendish novels appeared in Reynolds’s publications. The back pages of the Miscellany ceased to advertise her works. In 1866, Rymer gave up the ruse. In one of the last periodicals he edited, The London Miscellany (1866), he bills himself, or, rather, his usual moniker ‘M. J. Errym’, as the author of The Court Page, which Reynolds had always advertised as Cavendish’s work.

21On the other hand, a publication of 1890 suggests that some Victorians recognized the radical rhetoric embedded in her serials. In that year, six years after Rymer’s death and eleven after Reynolds’s, an advertisement for a new edition of The Woman of the World was serialized in Reynolds’s Newspaper. The advertisement begins much like those in Reynolds’s Miscellany in 1858–61 but clarifies that Cavendish’s writing is motivated by political enthusiasm that in her time would have been radical. ‘We have much pleasure in announcing that we have secured, at a considerable expense, the services of a lady whose pen cannot fail to provide a valuable addition to Every Week’, the ad begins. It clarifies that ‘the fair authoress’ possesses ‘deep sympathies with the masses of the people’ and so ‘has peculiar claims upon the large audience which she now seeks to address’ (‘Important Announcement’ 7). In the dark days of late Chartism, this fin-de-siècle advertisement observes, Lady Clara Cavendish was a radical whose class sympathies went squarely with the industrious millions.

Conclusion: ‘This Gifted Writer?’

22She was better remembered across the Atlantic in the United States, although there, her radicalism seems to have been downplayed or forgotten: she captivated her audience simply by divulging aristocratic cultural secrets, but not in the interests of structural change. In the American press, Cavendish’s identity was not publicly questioned. Her novels enjoyed both reprinting and syndicated extraction. The New York City publishing firm of Frederic A. Brady offered new editions of The Woman of the World, The Divorce, and The Court Page during the early 1860s, and published advertisements that identify Cavendish as the author of the three novels. According to the New York Daily Herald (1865), Brady’s edition of ‘Lady Clara Cavendish’s “Marriage of Mystery” is making current sensation’, being ‘one of the best of the stories of this gifted writer’ and ‘said to be founded on actual occurrences whose curious and startling complexion casts romances into the shade’ (‘Literary Intelligences’ 1). In 1860, Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, the most popular women’s fashion and lifestyle magazine in the States, published an advertisement for the New York firm of E. D. Long’s new editions of several books by ‘Lady Clara Cavendish’ and two by Alexandre Dumas père (‘Literary Notices’ 275). To the American women and girls who read Godey’s, Lady Clara probably seemed as real as Dumas and as distinguished as he was. One small town New England paper, based in Maine, published a cynical short essay on ‘Friendship Between Females’—in short, not to be trusted—as that of Lady Clara Cavendish (‘Friendship Between Females’). The same column was syndicated in other small-town American papers. It is unclear whether the column was written by someone connected with Reynolds’s business or was pirated, but, the American appetite for British court gossip being considerable, perhaps the publishers and newspaper proprietors of Victorian America wished to believe that Lady Clara was the real thing, and so did not look too closely for her origins.

23In fact, in America alone, the hoax survived into the twenty-first century. In 2009, Broadway World reported on an evening of snippets from ‘nineteenth century theatre’ produced by the Los Angeles based Independent Theatre Company. The programme included ‘a selection of short scenes from’ a ‘masterpiece of melodrama’: ‘A [sic] Woman of the World by Lady Clara Cavendish’ (‘Independent Shakespeare’). Not only does the publicity assume that Cavendish was in fact the author of this play, hers is the only selection attributed to a woman, making her the programme’s token woman writer. Another recent American resurrection of ‘Cavendish’ also assumed that she was a real woman and wrote knowledgeably about Victorian women’s experiences. In 2016, Georgia-based Neo-Victorian performance artist and community, museum, and homeschool educator Sloane Meyer blogged that she had ‘recently read an absolutely adorable Victorian play titled The Woman of the World [sic] by Lady Clara Cavendish while preparing for a recent Naughty Women, Lovely Tea, presentation’ (Meyer). The implication is that Meyer at least considered serving ‘Cavendish’s’ play up with the tea, as not only a play about a ‘naughty woman’, but the work of such a woman. Therefore, while ‘Lady Clara Cavendish’ seems not to have altered British political or social life in the way that Reynolds and Rymer may have dreamed she might, she took on a life of her own, outliving and outlasting them. The Lady Clara Cavendish persona proved a more intriguing character than any of her supposed fictional creations and, when re-examined today, throws into relief the ideological common grounds that in the late 1850s, Reynolds and his hired writer Rymer shared.

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1 Rymer’s notebook of holograph-inscribed clippings, which he circulated privately in the 1860s or later, identifies him as the creator of the Greanplush-Squashtottle correspondence as well as a similar set of duelling letters to the editor. See James Malcolm Rymer, Tales & Sketches, privately circulated, vol. 1, in the collection of the British Library.

2 These three-volume novels without illustrations predate the sensational novel phenomenon. They were published by mainstream publishers such as Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley.

3 In a famous Old Testament episode, King David sends Bathsheba’s husband away to war to prevent him from interfering with David’s seduction of her (2 Samuel 11:14).

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Rebecca L. Nesvet, « Lady Clara Cavendish: Reynolds and Rymer’s Political Hoax »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 95 Printemps | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 20 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Rebecca L. Nesvet

Rebecca L. Nesvet, Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, has published on Victorian ‘penny blood’ author James Malcolm Rymer and his coterie in various Victorianist journals.
Rebecca L. Nesvet est Professeure Associée d’anglais à l’université du Wisconsin (Green Bay) et a publié sur Rymer dans le Victorian Institute Journal, dans Victorian Network, dans Scholarly Editing: The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing, dans Nineteenth-Century Prose, dans Notes and Queries, et dans The Oxford Bibliographies of Victorian Literature.

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