The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman. A Tale of the Road (1850-1854)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman. A Tale of the Road was written by “Claude Du Val,” the pseudonym of James Malcolm Rymer. The Scottish Rymer (1804-1884) was a civil engineer and draughtsman who became a writer of thrillers and penny bloods as well as the editor of Lloyd's Penny Weekly Miscellany.
There was a historical Claude Duval (1643-1670), a French highwayman who moved to England during the Restoration as a footman for the Duke of Richmond and soon took to highway robbery. Duval was active on the roads to London and targeted stagecoaches. Unlike most other highway robbers, Duval acted in a gentlemanly manner, dressed fashionably, and reportedly never used violence. He was known in his time for his courtly manners toward women, supposedly dancing a coranto with a knight’s lady after robbing her husband, and in another case agreeing to take only part of a gentleman’s money if his wife agreed to dance with him. Duval was eventually arrested in a London tavern and hanged.
Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman is the most typical of the Duval penny dreadfuls and story paper serials. It has little to do with the reality of Duval’s life or his recorded exploits. Instead Rymer tells a sprawling picaresque–the typical format for highwayman serials–in which Duval gambles, womanizes, rights various wrongs, restores noblemen in trouble to their rightful estates, succeeds in hair’s-breadth escapes from the forces of law and order, and in general leads a life of adventure. Claude Duval is one of the longest dreadfuls ever, 201 parts spanning over 1500 pages. Claude Duval has no overarching plot, simply a continuously unfolding series of linked adventures. It is by no means unreadable, and is certainly more enjoyable than Gothic-heavy serials like The Blue Dwarf and the more ideologically-oriented serials, like Richard of the Raven’s Crest, but one chapter of Claude Duval is much like the next and the cumulative effect is one of tedium. Like many penny dreadfuls, Claude Duval is best taken in small doses.
Duval became so famous that he entered folklore without the help of a romanticizing author or single work of fiction, unlike Dick Turpin, whose climb to fame was mostly the result of Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood. While Turpin became the nineteenth century British standard for gallant highwaymen, the precursor to the Gentleman Thief, Duval preceded him, and was acknowledged even in Rookwood as the first of the gentleman robbers. Duval was imitated by later French highwaymen like Louis-Dominique Cartouche (1693-1721) and Louis Mandrin (1725-1755), who became popular legends in France and the protagonists of plays, songs, and stories well into the twentieth century.
Claude Duval is slim and has an almost feminine figure. He is always stylishly dressed. He is usually high-spirited and genial, and carries himself with panache during his robberies:
Who am I? Who should I be but Claude Duval? Ha! Ha! Ha! A prize for him who can catch me. Ladies, I am your very humble servant. I admire and salute all, and would marry you all if there were not an absurd law against bigamy. Adieu! Off and away!1
Despite his occupation as a highwayman he is not altogether a bad man, and he has an unearned reputation for dark deeds. But his reputation as a ladies’ man is well-deserved:
“I am ‘more sinned against than sinning,’ for you can, in the tenderness and delicacy of your feelings, have no idea of how many evil deeds are placed at my door of which I am as innocent as you are guilty.”
“Me guilty?” cried the female voice.
“Yes, madam,” added Claude, in a low voice of most musical accent. “Yes, madam, guilty—deeply guilty.”
“Yes, of enslaving the affections of all who know you.”2
Duval’s behavior around women "is significant to the myth of the gentleman highwayman, especially as realized in Gay's Macheath, because of the weight his legend gives to the highwayman's gallantry and erotic appeal."3
Taken in short doses, Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman can be great fun. Duval has charisma, and Rymer clearly had fun in certain chapters in giving Duval his freedom to do and say whatever he wanted. But as a 1600+ page narrative it palls, quickly. Its lack of modern reprints, either in print or electronically, is unfortunate. Though clearly written to capitalize on the craze for highwayman fiction caused by Rookwood, Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman—in short doses—stands on its own.
Malcolm J. Rymer. Nightshade; or, Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman. London: J. Dicks, 1884
1 Claude Du Val, Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman. A Tale of the Road (London: E. Lloyd, 1850), 2.
2 Claude Du Val, Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman. A Tale of the Road (London: E. Lloyd, 1850), 7.
3 Erin Mackie, Rakes, Highwaymen, and Pirates: The Making of the Modern Gentleman in the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2009), 77.