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“’Tis Fifty Years Since”: The Making of Fiction for the Working Man, 1830–50
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“’Tis Fifty Years Since”:
The Making of Fiction for the Working Man, 1830–50

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Louis James’s Fiction for the Working Man, 1830–50, which pioneered the study of nineteenth-century working-class literature and the periodicals in which so much of that literature appeared. For the first in an occasional series of retrospective essays by the authors of influential works in Victorian print culture, we asked Professor James to reflect upon how he came to write the book and how it was first received. We are most grateful to him for this absorbing reminiscence. [End Page 142]

It began with a chance moment of curiosity. In 1957, I noticed a letter in the Times Literary Supplement complaining that the British Library had done nothing with a bequest of printed ephemera from the collection of the music hall artiste Barry Ono. I was a postgraduate student at Oxford at the time. While working in London at the British Library, then located in the British Museum, I inquired and was told there were no plans to catalogue the bequest. However, the helpful superintendent had samples of its contents brought up for me to look at. Leafing through penny serials with such titles as The Witch’s Cliff; or the Fatal Gulf, printed on yellowing paper with startling woodcuts, I was entranced.

One thing led to another. I was given space in the North Library reading room to list the titles in the collection. I shared a desk with a dark-suited elderly scholar working through tomes of medieval texts. Our single communication was one morning when he came to my side and contemplated my stacked volumes. “My pile is higher than yours,” he finally pronounced before returning to his work. I completed my listing, and it was to remain the one available index of the Ono Collection until 1998, when it was superseded by the fine British Library publication, Penny Dreadfuls and Boys’ Adventures by Elizabeth James and Helen R. Smith.

My Oxford English degree course had ended with the English Romantics, and I was now working on Wordsworth for a research degree. I was fortunate to be supervised by John Jones of Merton College, a scholar trained in law whose ground-breaking study The Egotistical Sublime: the History of Wordsworth’s Imagination (1954) had established him as a leading Wordsworth authority. When I told him of my North Library reading, instead of reproving me for my straying attention, he said that I could either contribute yet another thesis to the scores already written on Wordsworth or explore a virtually new field. He would be willing to supervise, [End Page 143] “provided you don’t expect me to know anything about the subject.” He proved to be the perfect supervisor: he meticulously read every sentence, his legal training alerting him to every weakness in argument or documentation. He also protected me from conservative academics on the research board who were suspicious of letting an inexperienced scholar wander into what was then unconventional territory for an Oxford DPhil.

I moved to London, renting bunk-bed accommodation in Oxford House, Bethnal Green, a social welfare centre. I cycled to the British Library by day and helped in the youth club canteen in the evenings. This proved useful not only due to the location. My research opened up a network of collectors, some of whom lived in the East End. These were men who were, as Ono had been, enthusiastic readers of “old boys’” literature, fiction treasured as the reading of their youth, boyhoods that for some had been in the Victorian era. They discussed, swapped rare titles, and occasionally corresponded through a journal printed in Canada with the stirring title, Reckless Ralph’s Dime Comic Roundup.

These collectors were wonderfully generous to me, coming from a world so far outside their own. A. W. Lawson, a wastepaper collector through two world wars, had extracted much of his collection from bales destined to be pulped for the war effort. He now lived like a recluse in a decaying Hoxton tenement, stacked papers obscuring the light that filtered though the dusty windows...