The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Blueskin. A Romance of the Last Century (1863-1866)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Blueskin. A Romance of the Last Century was written by one of two men. Traditionally it has been attributed to Edward Viles (1842-1906), a Shakespearean scholar and, according to traditional penny dreadful scholarship, the author of a number of penny dreadfuls and one of the few dreadful authors to make any money from the dreadfuls. But in recent years dreadful scholars like John Adcock have questioned the traditional attribution and suggested instead that James Malcolm Rymer (1804-1884) was the author of Blueskin.1 The Scottish Rymer (1804-1884) was a civil engineer and draughtsman who became a writer of thrillers and penny dreadfuls as well as the editor of Lloyd's Penny Weekly Miscellany. He is best-known as the author of Varney the Vampire.
There was a historical “Blueskin,” Joseph Blake (?-1724), an associate of the historical Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), the infamous thief and subject of numerous penny dreadfuls. Blake was known as “blueskin” due to his dark skin. There were a number of fictional Blueskins, who appeared alongside the fictional Jack Sheppard in several penny dreadfuls and novels beginning with Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839). Blueskin also appeared in “J. Dicks, Esq.”’s Tyburn Tree (1849) and Charles H. Ross’ Red Ralph (1865-1866), both of which brought in most of the gentlemen highwaymen of Turpin’s time, fictional and real, in super-crossovers.
Blueskin is a huge (1259 pages) retelling of the Jack Sheppard story, although Blueskin is the main character in Blueskin rather being a sidekick to Jack Sheppard. Blueskin is Joe Blake, an immensely strong and powerful man. At the beginning of Blueskin Blake is a retired thief working for the notorious thief-taker and crime lord Jonathan Wild. The fictional Blake is called “Blueskin” because earlier in his life, during a crime, a gunpowder bomb had exploded too near his head, coating half his face with a purplish-blue tint. A young Jack Sheppard, not yet entered into his life of crime, approaches Blake for help; Blake was a friend of Tom Sheppard, Jack’s father, and Blake knew Jack when he was young. Blake helps Jack enter Wild’s service, and the pair hunt out Jacobite plotters while enriching themselves. Plot complications ensue, as they usually do in the longer penny dreadfuls, and Sheppard and Blake are forced to flee from Wild and his agents. A long duel follows between them, with the usual hair’s-breadth escapes and picaresque roguery. Wild’s villainy is eventually discovered and he is hanged, and Sheppard and Blake escape to France and live on the wealth of a friendly heiress. (This is historically inaccurate; both Sheppard and Blake were executed as thieves).
Blueskin is of more interest contextually and historically than as fiction. As prose, Blueskin is typical paid-by-the-word hackwork, churned out at speed and for as many months as possible on behalf of a grasping and greedy publisher. Some penny bloods and penny dreadfuls (see: Sweeney Todd, Varney the Vampire, Fanny White) have an internal energy and drive that sustains them for months and hundreds of pages before finally petering out. Others (see: Ruth the Betrayer) begin well but soon fade due to the author lacking the inspiration to spin an interesting story out over a span of months and hundreds of pages. And some penny dreadfuls–too many–read as if they were written because the author was contractually obligated to write them. Blueskin falls into the latter category.
Which is odd, because Blueskin was in essence the middle part of a trilogy of dreadfuls, and a particularly popular trilogy at that. The first penny dreadful in the trilogy was Black Bess, or, The Knight of the road (2052 pages, 1863-1868), which has traditionally been credited to Edward Viles and which is in all likelihood the only one of the trilogy that Viles actually wrote. Black Bess, or, The Knight of the Road tells the story about Dick Turpin (see: Rookwood) and his superequinely intelligent horse Black Bess, their adventures and their deaths. Blueskin, which as mentioned is in all likelihood not by Viles, tells the story of Dick Turpin-adjacent characters. And the third dreadful in the trilogy, The Black Highwayman, Being the Second Series of Black Bess, or, The Knight of the Road (688 pages, 1866-1870), again credited to Viles but in all likelihood not by him—the dreadfuls in the trilogy were appearing simultaneously for several years, and as John Adcock says, Viles would have to have been “a remarkably prolific author to have been carrying on four serials weekly during 1863-1868!”2—begins with the exhumation of Turpin’s body but focuses on the exploits of Captain Hawk and his remarkably intelligent and faithful steed Satan.
Black Bess has drive and vigor, and only barely flags in the middle stages of the dreadful. Black Highwayman, freed of the weight of having to stick to the generally-accepted stories and legend of Dick Turpin, is colorful and energetic. But Blueskin, perhaps because it is the dreaded middle book in the trilogy—“dreaded” because middle books in trilogies are notorious for sagging and lacking direction—or perhaps because it is dealing with inherently less-attractive characters than Turpin, only intermittently displays the charm of Black Bess. More often it reads as a paid-by-the-line dreadful, no better or no worse than the mass of dreadfuls published during the 1860s and 1870s.
Blueskin is certainly not something one can recommend modern readers partake of, unless they are pregnant with curiosity to read the middle part of a 4000+ page, 150-year-old penny dreadful trilogy.
Print: Edward Viles, Blueskin. A Romance of the Last Century. London: E. Harrison, 1866.
1 John Adcock, “Author of Black Bess,” Yesterday’s Papers, accessed Jan. 23, 2019, http://john-adcock.blogspot.com/2010/01/author-of-black-bess.html
2 Adcock, “Author of Black Bess.”