19th Century Guilty Pleasures — Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls

BackDime Novel image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, from the personal collection of Larry Latham in the Victorian era, rising literacy rates in Europe and America gave birth to a new form of literature for the masses.  Adjectives such as “lurid” and “melodramatic” have been used to describe this sort of literature, but then not everyone can be in the mood for Tolstoy and Ibsen all the time.

In 1860, enterprising American publishers Erastus and Irwin Beadle began releasing Beadle’s Dime Novels; the term ‘dime novel’ became ubiquitous for similar paperback novels to follow.  Across the pond, a similar form of popular fiction arose in the 1830s, called the penny dreadfulPenny Dreadfulhttp://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6e/Dialog-warning.svg/26px-Dialog-warning.svg.png Originally an inexpensive, mainstream alternative to serialized fiction, within a few decades these booklets were targeted toward working class teenagers. American dime novels found new life in England as penny dreadfuls. The penny dreadful eventually gave rise to the modern day comic book, and dime novels might perhaps be compared to inexpensive formulaic romance paperbacks or e-books.

Although these stories were intended for the lower classes, I suspect more than a few highly educated people secretly enjoyed them too.  In my upcoming novel Duke of a Gilded Age, Belle Oakhurst gets caught with an armful of dime novels. So what’s wrong with a few guilty pleasures?

~ S.G. Rogers


Fifteen minutes later, Belle had picked out several dime novels to go with Little Lord Fauntleroy. After she paid for her purchases, she positioned Little Lord Fauntleroy on top of the stack and waved to Wesley.

“I’ll wait for you near the door,” she said.

“I shall buy these two books and be along directly,” he said.

When he joined Belle, he reached for her books. “Let me carry those for you.”

“No! No, thanks, I mean. I’ve got them. They aren’t heavy.”

He gave her a shrewd glance. “You’re blushing.”

“I am not! It’s just hot in here. Shall we go?”

Wesley shifted his books to the crook of his left arm and opened the shop door for Belle. She acknowledged the courtesy with an approving nod.

“So you do know some manners.”

“And you’re not as priggish as you pretend. If you think I can’t tell you’ve got dime novels there, you’re wrong. I recognize the bindings.”

Belle was annoyed to be found out. “Fond of them yourself, are you?”

“No, my mother was constantly borrowing those things from the upstairs neighbor.” He tilted his head to one side to read the titles of her books. “Although, if you wouldn’t mind lending me A Tale of Two Romances when you’re finished, perhaps we could discuss the finer points of its subtext and characterization.”ornament29

Duke of a Gilded Age (coming June, 2013)

When American-born Wesley Parker inherits a dukedom, he must learn to be an aristocrat. Assigned to the task is his attorney’s daughter, prim Belle Oakhurst. As they travel to England together on a luxurious ocean liner, their tempestuous relationship encounters more than rough seas. Although Wesley is increasingly attracted to Belle, she is already engaged. While Belle begins to regret her hasty promise to marry, she is bound by honor and duty to keep her pledge. Furthermore, a thoughtless fabrication on her part threatens to expose her as a liar. Neither Wesley nor Belle can foresee that their voyage across the Atlantic will be fraught with peril, and will cost more than one man his life.

4 thoughts on “19th Century Guilty Pleasures — Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls”

  1. I think books like this serve a great purpose – when I was a harried working mom, the only way I could get to sleep was by reading a romance. I think it was that “happily ever after” that let me relax enough, and I’m sure the dime novels did the same. I’m going to have to read faster to keep up with you!


  2. You write them faster than I can read them! I LOVE how you research your novels, and I love how you write. I’m reading Children of Yden right now, but I’ll read everything you write. BIG FAN!


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