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The Yellowback: Sensational Stories on the Railways

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For our new Mystery on the Rails season we’ve been exploring crime on the railways and how it has inspired writers and filmmakers. Here, University of York student Tom Shillam looks at the sensationalism of Victorian ‘yellowback’ novels and how this reflects on the anxieties of the typical railway traveller. To find out more about ‘yellowback’ books, take a look at Loughborough University lecturer Dr Lise Jaillant’s blog ‘The Return of the Yellowback: Selling Cheap Editions in Railway Stations‘.


Travel by rail, to the late 19th-century Victorian, was an adventure. Whereas travel once involved walking and the horse-drawn carriage, travel by rail broke the connection of self to land and allowed the traveller to cut through the air effortlessly.[1]

With this revolution came a sense of excitement and curiosity, but also anxiety; one was leaving home, heart and hearth behind and venturing into the unknown. By climbing into a railway carriage with a bunch of strangers, one was experiencing a loss of control.

Publishers catered for these anxieties by marketing sensationalist crime fiction on railway bookstalls. While the progressive potential of rail travel had always been clear – railways could carry newspapers like The Times to the farthest corners of the country – its newfound capacity in the mid-19th century to brew an appetite for drama and gore disturbed Victorians.

Even some publishers, such as William Henry Smith – better known as W.H. Smith – were alarmed by the crusade of sensation and scandal transforming station bookstalls. The first W.H. Smith railway bookstall had opened at Euston in 1848 selling cheap books and papers, and by 1860 Smith’s bookstalls were on all main lines. Smith took to scrutinising the books he sold and advertisements displayed out of moral concern.[2]

But why did this sensationalist crime fiction become so popular at this time? Technological improvements in printing and paper production, coupled with growing literacy, were important in creating a new mass market for printed materials.[3] In addition, advertising became central to the success of newspapers from the 1860s onwards and advertisers were selective about which papers they supported; radical papers with more political coverage and less gossip suffered.[4] A market for the sensational, the immediate and the striking expanded and authors wrote plot-driven novels which played on the senses.[5]

Indeed, as demand for short, sharp and hard-hitting crime fiction grew, a new type of novel began to populate railway bookstalls: the ‘yellowback’. Measuring 17.5 by 12.2 centimetres, covered in yellow-glazed boards and often featuring a racy illustration, these cheap books – costing two shillings or less – were designed to attract attention.[6]

John Sutherland, an expert on yellowbacks, explains: “The crude woodcut-illustrated covers and garish colour were designed to be seen at 20 yards by the traveller in a hurry… there’s always been for travellers a noticeable relaxation of moral discipline – people tend to read things they wouldn’t like to be seen reading if they were among their usual friends and acquaintances”.[7]

Baron Montez was one such book; its author, Archibald Clavering Gunter, a retired stockbroker of California, probably reached more than a million readers with his novels, which appeared in British railway stations as part of the ‘Routledge’s Railway Library’ series.[8] Routledge came to be one of the most successful publishers of fiction for rail travellers, publishing more than 1,277 books in 50 years.[9]

The front cover of yellowback crime novel Baron Montez. Available at the National Railway Museum’s Search Engine (ref: P1/68 R).

 

Clearly, the illustrator seeks to draw the railway traveller in with this scene of imminent violence, and to play on the Victorian terror of moral corruption by depicting a lady in a pure white dress recoiling in anticipation of the imminent act. The cover reflects the racial prejudices and stereotypes of the time.

The novel is based around real-life events which the author, directly and indirectly, experienced. Gunter was born in Liverpool in 1847 and at five years old was taken to California by his parents, later to become a mining and civil engineer. Rich deposits of gold, of course, had been discovered in California in 1848 and initiated the ‘Gold Rush’ – thousands of adventurers sought the shortest route to California and were forced to cross the Isthmus of Panama and sail up the coast to get there.[10]

Fessenden Otis, a chronicler of the time, recalls what the ‘Isthmus’ was like prior to the construction of a railroad across it from 1850: “The character and geographical position of the country through which the line of the road had to be carried was such as might well have made the hardiest projectors shrink from attempting its construction. The first 13 miles…was through a deep morass, covered with the densest jungle, reeking with malaria, and abounding with almost every species of wild beasts, noxious reptiles, and venomous insects known in the tropics…the greater part of the line was through a rugged country, along steep hill-sides, over wild chasms, spanning turbulent rivers and furious mountain torrents, until the summit-ridge was surmounted, when it descended abruptly to the shores of the Pacific Ocean”.[11]

It is here, in a rapidly changing Panama in the 1850s, that the novel starts. The reader is introduced to the villain, Fernando Montez, a cunning and crude ‘creature’ who is hosting a cultivated and civilised American couple. Montez rues the fact that the construction of the railway, 18 months earlier, has robbed him of the opportunity to extract excessive charges from, and exploit, Western travellers who he and others led through the jungle. Always driven by a devious and deceitful impulse fundamental to his character, Montez is soon lusting after the American gold miner’s wife and plots to separate the couple.[12]

The plot plays out in Panama town; conspiring with the corrupt local police, Montez decides to provoke American railroad travellers into initiating a conflict between themselves and the locals which the police will not put down. This will allow Montez and his accomplice, Domingo, depicted above, to rush into the hotel room where the American couple are staying and slay the defenceless George Ripley so that Montez can take Mrs Ripley for himself.

The railroad, then, is interpreted as a symbol of progress and enlightenment which evil men like Montez, a ‘despicable carcass’, cannot comprehend; Gunter sought to appeal to the Victorian reader by dramatically lending credibility to their sense of superiority.

Thirty years later, the untiring and unchanged Montez is running a firm responsible for a portion of the work on a new canal – again based on a real-life construction, spanning the Isthmus – this time he is taking investments from unwitting Westerners who don’t realise that Montez has no intention of spending their money on the canal. His newfound business nous is a fraudulent front for his latest lust-driven scheme – to draw in a Franco-American investor’s ward, the adolescent and attractive ‘Jessie Severn’, and elope with her.

The unfolding of the plot around the scheming and dealing of a positively amoral man was a common feature in the sensation fiction of the time and, as we saw with WH Smith, alarmed many Victorians. It undoubtedly did the job of carrying a passenger through an otherwise lengthy and tedious railway journey, but was also seen as part of a cultural malaise – how could the crudities of these works appeal to decent, upstanding, moral citizens, some asked?

Perhaps this is the reason for the paradox at the heart of Gunter’s work, regarding his attempt to stoke fear and fascination through the actions of Montez while simultaneously easing the reader’s anxieties by separating upstanding Westerners and ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as far as possible from this debased behaviour. Gunter came from a similar middle-class background to those voicing concern and felt the same anxieties himself – but as a novelist, he had to grip the reader’s imagination. No better way to balance these desires, then, than by presenting Montez’s crudity as the diametric opposite of Anglo-Saxon decency. It is hard to doubt that the sensational novels which sold most copies conformed to this requirement; gripping the reader’s imagination by a violent and disturbing story of good and evil, but at the same time comforting Victorians in the sanctity of their moral worldview.

[1] Charlotte Mathieson, Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[2] Richard Cavendish, “The First WH Smith Railway Bookstall,” History Today, 48 (1998).

[3] Matthew Taunton, “Print Culture,” British Library, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/print-culture.

[4] James Curran, Media and Power (London: Routledge, 2002).

[5] Andrew Maunder and Grace Moore, Introduction to Victorian Crime, Madness and Sensation (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), 1-15.

[6] Simon Eliot, “The Business of Victorian Publishing,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, ed. Deirdre David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 50-52.

[7] John Sutherland, quoted in David Hayles, “Pulp Fiction for the Victorian Traveller,” The Times, July 17, 2010, 8.

[8] James Hart, The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste (London: University of California Press, 1948), 189.

[9] Richard Davies, “Cheap, Eye-Catching & Victorian: Discover Yellowbacks,” AbeBooks, https://www.abebooks.com/books/rare-railway-library-routledge-london/victorian-yellowbacks.shtml

[10] Fessenden Nott Otis, Isthmus of Panama, History of the Panama Railroad and of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1867), 152.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] Archibald Clavering Gunter, Baron Montez of Panama and Paris (New York: The Home Publishing Company, 1893), 36.

Written by Sam Terrace

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