Victorian Popular Fictions 3.2 5 Haugtvedt

Class and Complex Transmedia Character in

Jack Sheppard (1839-1840)


Erica Haugtvedt

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The reception of William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel, Jack Sheppard (1839-1840), was contemporaneously deemed a mania and has been described by critics today as a moral panic over the influence of fiction. Several adaptations of Ainsworth’s novel across media ambiguously depict Jack’s hanging, and the adaptations that most clearly show his survival occur in those versions that are least legally defensible and most clearly targeted toward the labouring classes. In this essay, I analyse Buckstone and Greenwood’s melodramas at the Adelphi and Sadler’s Wells, respectively, in autumn 1839; two penny press novelisations of Jack Sheppard published in 1839 and 1840; and an anonymous melodrama staged at the City of London Theatre in 1845, which was shut down due to violating the licensing ban on Jack Sheppard titles. From contemporary accounts of the mania, I argue that audience members treated historical and fictional accounts of Jack as describing the same entity, which created the space for specifying new facts and thus claiming new meaning. I therefore see Jack Sheppard as a transmedia character. For the labouring classes, claiming new meaning sometimes inhered in Jack’s defiance of capital punishment. This transmedial extension of Ainsworth’s character by working-class audiences in the penny press and cheap theatre pointed to the inadequacies of Victorian copyright law to protect the creative property of originating authors across media, and thus disturbed Victorian middle and upper-class literary critics because they saw the lower class’s celebration of a criminal as threatening to undermine their social order. Using the concept of transmedia in this period allows us to see how enthusiastic audience members in the working classes created what I term character complexity as they built a palimpsest out of the panoply of cross-media character representations. This transmedia character complexity matters because it is an avenue for oppressed communities to reclaim their dignity through narrative meaning-making.


transmedia; character; penny press; serialised novel; melodrama; plagiarism


Date of Acceptance: 8 December 2021

Date of Publication: 17 December 2021

Double Blind Peer Reviewed

Recommended Citation:

Haugtvedt, Erica. 2021. “Class and Complex Transmedia Character in Jack Sheppard (1839-1840).”   Victorian Popular Fictions, 3.2: 76-97. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI:

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