Victorian Popular Fictions 4.2 2 Raine

“Founded on Fact”: Paratextual Politics in Penny Fiction

Sophie Raine


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In the preface of James Malcolm Rymer’s The Night Adventurer (1846), the writer claims that, contrary to popular opinion, the “masses” were attracted to stories on “account of their truthfulness” rather than “wild, romantic literature” (1846: Preface). Indeed, the ‘factual’ basis for penny serials was so marketable that numerous prefaces, author notes and newspaper advertisements emphasised how these serials were “founded on fact.” While there were sensationalist purposes for using factual biographies of criminals, the use of non-fictional sources has, I argue, a far more philanthropic social purpose which outlines the radical politics of the authors.

For penny fiction, which was often deemed as harmless and derivative content, the authority the paratext proffered was vital in demonstrating its active engagement with social and political issues. Penny fiction authors used paratextual space to create authority, establishing affinity between author and reader in order to disseminate and support the moral of the fictional narrative in a more effective way. Writers exploited the unique, composite style of penny fiction, pioneered by George W. M Reynolds in The Mysteries of London (1844–6), to disseminate their political agendas, educate their readership and assert themselves as writers of serious literature.


paratext; prefaces; footnotes; epilogues; politics; penny fiction; G.W.M. Reynolds; James Malcolm Rymer; Thomas Peckett Prest

Date of Acceptance: 31 December 2022

Date of Publication: 13 January 2023

Double Blind Peer Reviewed

Recommended Citation:

Raine, Sophie. 2022. “‘Founded on Fact’: Paratextual Politics in Penny Fiction.” Victorian Popular Fictions, 4.2: 18-31. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI:


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.