The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Fanny White and her Friend Jack Rawlings. A Romance of a Young Lady Thief and a Boy Burglar (1865)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Fanny White and her Friend Jack Rawlings. A Romance of a Young Lady Thief and a Boy Burglar was written by “Edward Ellis,” which was the pseudonym of Charles H. Ross and Ernest Warren. Ross (c. 1834-1897) was a prolific author of penny dreadfuls and plays who is best-known for his comic creation Ally Sloper. Ernest Warren (1841-1887) was a journalist, dramatist, and author of penny dreadfuls.

Fanny White begins when Jack Rawlings, a schoolboy at K.V. Kanem’s school for young men, robs a coach in which a number of students from Miss Macspartan’s school for young ladies are being transported. Miss Fanny White, one of Miss Macspartan’s students, sauces Miss Macspartan and then rides away with Jack. Fanny and Jack are friends; they met while simultaneously peeping through a hole in the fence dividing their two schools. When the pair return to their schools they find out that they have both been expelled. Jack, an orphan, goes to see Mr. Grubb, the lawyer who was responsible for getting Jack into Kanem’s school. Jack is told that he was left in a basket at the lawyer’s office along with enough money to raise him. Jack takes the remaining money and leaves. Fanny’s parents are furious with her, and her father calls her a “jade” and a “hussy” as he brings her home, but she runs from them at the first opportunity and finds Jack. They are on their way to London when their coach is robbed. All of Fanny’s luggage is stolen and Fanny is forced to dress in Jack’s clothes. When they reach London they begin looking for work and a place to stay. A gin-sotted old jade, Mother Death, takes them to an inn, but they quickly figure out that it is a den of thieves. While Jack and Fanny are eating they see a starving dog begging for food from the other men in the inn. Jack and Fanny feed the dog some of their meat, but one of the thieves, a cruel thug named Bill Monk, kicks the dog. Jack objects, and Bill attacks him. But Jack learned how to box in school and thrashes Bill. Later that night Jack and Fanny are preparing for bed when one of Mother Death’s whores warns them that they are in danger and won’t be able to escape from the inn that night. The kind-hearted whore is then murdered by Bill Monk. Jack and Fanny, looking for escape routes, check the chimney and find a corpse blocking it. At dawn, before the attack comes, Jack and Fanny kiss each other and slide down the chimney into the sewers, in what they call their “elopement.” They try to find a way out of the sewers, but the tide comes in and sweeps them through several pipes. They survive a near-drowning and an attack by rats. Fanny passes out, and Jack, searching for an exit, finds a pile of poisoned dogs. Behind the pile is a small laboratory in which Percy, Lord Manningtree is experimenting with different poisons. Lord Manningtree is the brother of the wealthy and famous Earl of Stonecliffe, but Manningtree is cruel and demonic where Stonecliffe is honorable. Manningtree is obsessed with chemistry and uses his new creations on stray dogs. Jack notices that one of the dogs Manningtree poisoned is still alive. Although the dog is poisoned, has a stump tail and is blind in one eye, he acts happy to see Jack, and Jack recognizes the dog as the one he fed in Mother Death’s tavern. Manningtree, who is polite and absent-minded in Jack’s company, apologizes for poisoning Jack’s dog and gives the dog the antidote for the poison. Manningtree also tells Jack how to leave the sewers.

Jack retrieves Fanny and the pair leave the sewers, find a hotel and buy new clothes. They spend the night together and decide that rather than scrape and save and make their money last for months they are going to spend their money and live the high life while they can. That night they go to the opera. Fanny is so beautiful that she catches the eye of all the nobles there, including Lord Manningtree. Jack is unhappy at all the attention Fanny is getting, but Fanny, who is happy to be the center of attention, it, cheers him up. Lord Manningtree offers to install Jack and Fanny in one of his houses, which they are happy to agree to, but once they are there Manningtree quickly takes Fanny aside, tells her that he loves her, and asks that she be his mistress. She turns him down, and he tells her if that she continues to deny him he will throw them both out. Fanny and Jack set a trap for Manningtree. Jack is Fanny’s twin in appearance, so he puts on Fanny’s clothes and acts like Fanny, and when Manningtree tries to kiss Jack, he knocks Manningtree unconscious. Jack and Fanny leave Manningtree’s home and find lodgings in London. Fanny finds work with Mrs. Herringbone, a famous milliner, but Herringbone sees how beautiful Fanny is and tells a salacious old nobleman, a former Prime Minister, about Fanny. Fanny is invited to a Society dinner party and attends. Jack is not invited, but does not like the idea of Fanny going alone to a party like this and waits outside the house in which the party is held. Fanny eventually realizes what sort of people she is around and what those people, including the former Prime Minister, are expecting her to do with them, and cries out for help. Jack rushes into the house and gets her out before she is raped.

Jack wanders around London looking for work, accompanied by the dog, which he names Filchit. Jack is taken on as a clerk in Mr. Grubb’s office. Mr. Grubb is also the lawyer to Lord Manningtree, who has murdered his niece Gertrude in order to get the family estates. Manningtree meets with Grubb to discuss this, and Jack overhears Manningtree admit to the murder. On the way home to Fanny Jack sees a woman throw herself and her baby into the Thames from a bridge. Jack tries to save both, but the woman is swept away before he can reach her. Jack saves the baby but is on the verge of drowning when Filchit drags him to shore. Fanny leaves Mrs. Herringbone’s and goes to work in a music hall, while Jack stays at home nights to take care of the baby. The men at the music hall love Fanny, although the women are jealous of Fanny and hate her. She is successful on stage, hugely increasing the music hall’s attendance. Grubb meets with Manningtree in his labs. Manningtree tells Grubb how the Earl of Stonecliffe is going to be poisoned, and then demonstrates by poisoning Grubb. Manningtree dumps Grubb’s body in the sewers, but then sees the ghost of Gertrude and faints.

Jack, who has not yet been paid by Grubb for his work, goes in search of Grubb but cannot find him. Jack ransacks Grubb’s office and finds a large sum of gold, a marriage certificate stained with blood, locks of hair, and a lady’s glove. Jack had intended to take only his back pay, but he sees so much money in the office that he gives in to greed and takes it all. Jack’s search of Grubb’s office takes so long that he is unable to walk Fanny to the music hall, as he usually does. Angry at Jack for standing her up, Fanny goes to the music hall by herself and on the way is accosted by a stranger. Fanny is saved from rape by Harry Belvoir, a nice young man from the countryside, and when Harry offers to walk her home after work she is happy to accept. Jack takes the baby he saved from drowning to an inn and pays the woman working at the bar a large sum of money to take care of the girl. Jack is followed home from the inn by a group of thugs who saw the money he carried and who intend to rob and murder him. Jack is saved from murder by Filchit’s appearance, although in the struggle with the ruffians Jack loses his gold. He returns home and sees that Fanny has been given several valuable stones by Harry Belvoir. Jack suspects the worst and accuses Fanny of cheating on him. Jack and Fanny fight–their first–and he walks out on her. Meanwhile Manningtree visits his ailing brother and is about to poison him when Gertrude’s face appears and terrifies Manningtree.

Jack meets a ventriloquist and accompanies him to a masquerade. At the masquerade Jack approaches a beautiful young lady and flirts with her, and she agrees to a tryst with him the following midnight. When Fanny returns home from work the following night she sees that Jack is in their room but fast asleep. Curious as to where he has been, she examines his pants, finds a scrap of paper bearing the name of the woman and the location at which Jack is supposed to meet her. Fanny dresses up as Jack and goes to the meeting in his place. The woman is veiled, and although Fanny flirts with her, all the woman will say is that her name is Lady Alice Brandon. She tells Fanny to meet her again next month. Jack wakes up in time to go the tryst but cannot find the scrap of paper on which he wrote the location. Over the next few weeks Fanny and Jack fight a great deal. One of the regular attendees at Fanny’s music hall is the salacious old rake Lord Crokerton, who is obsessed with Fanny. He gives her a bouquet, but she refuses to become his mistress, so Crokerton finds out from the music hall owner where Fanny lives and has her drugged and kidnapped and brought to Crokerton’s isolated house in the country. He attempts to rape her while she is unconscious from the drugs, but she recovers in time and knocks him out–he is old and weak while she is young and strong. She does not know where she is, but Filchit, who followed Crokerton’s carriage all the way from London, runs into the house and finds Fanny. They return to London, but when Fanny goes to the room she shares with Jack she finds a note for Jack from Lady Brandon; while Fanny was being attacked by Crokerton Jack was meeting with Lady Brandon. This infuriates Fanny and she gathers together all the money in the room, dresses in Jack’s clothing, and leaves.

Almost immediately she runs into Harry Belvoir, who to distract Fanny takes her to a gambling hall. The police raid the hall and Fanny and Harry have to flee. They escape, but during their flight Fanny loses all the money she took from her room with Jack. The Earl of Stonecliffe finally dies and Lord Manningtree succeeds to the earldom. Harry and Fanny take a room together, but when Harry declares his love for her and she tells him that she still loves Jack, Harry tries to rape her. Jack, who has been led by Filchit to Harry and Fanny’s room, rushes in, intending to save Fanny. She runs away, but she returns to Harry the next day after discovering that Crokerton has had her fired from the music hall. Fanny agrees to live with Harry, but in separate rooms; he will be her protector but nothing more. Harry does not have a job and suggests crime as a means of support, which Fanny agrees to. Unfortunately their first burglary goes awry and Harry deserts her when the police appear. Disgusted with Harry, Fanny goes in search of Jack, who is looking for her. Filchit saves Fanny from another rape attempt and then leads Fanny back to Jack. They stay together, but Fanny is told that her father is sick and possibly dead and goes home to see him. While she is gone Jack goes out with his friends in the flash crowd and attends a debauched orgy. Fanny is prevented from seeing her dying father by her older sister, who hates Fanny and does not want their father to change his will in favor of Fanny. Fanny is locked in a room until her father dies and is then taken to a madhouse. Fanny escapes from the asylum and becomes a highwayman. After a few successful robberies she is captured by a hunchback, who poisons his own wife and tries to rape Fanny. She uses a knife to wound him and then knocks him out. She continues leading a life of crime and successfully carries out a number of swindles and robberies. Harry and Jack meet up and become friends. They begin a career in robbery, but they are not as skillful as Fanny and are caught. Harry escapes but Jack is imprisoned. Harry finds Fanny and they try to spring Jack from jail. The escape attempt fails, because Harry betrays Jack to the police, and as they are capturing Jack Harry rapes Fanny. Eventually Fanny marries Lord Crokerton and spends all of his savings. Lord Manningtree dies. Jack discovers that he is the legitimate son of the Earl of Stonecliffe. When Jack leaves prison he becomes the Earl, and he and Fanny go out together nightly, enjoying themselves and scandalizing Society.

Fanny White and her Friend Jack Rawlings is a depraved dreadful in the vein of Charley Wag, a lurid and exploitive penny dreadful written to appeal to the basest instincts of the widest possible audience. But Ross does not include the ostensibly redeeming material in Fanny White that he inserted in Charley Wag. Fanny White is an extended exercise in titillation and coarse indulgence. Fanny White has numerous rape attempts; a scene in which a reverend (thinking he is in Fanny’s room) rapes a sixty-year-old virgin spinster; Harry’s rape of Fanny; the sexual relationship between the teenaged Charley and Fanny; Gothic interludes, including a cannibal hunchback eating the body of a dead baby; Fanny, dressing as a man, flirting with a woman, and Jack, dressed as Fanny, being sexually threatened by a man; whores beaten to death; and many other violent, misogynistic, and sexually sensationalist moments.

Fanny White often indulges in the melodrama and emotional hysteria of Charley Wag, but Ross usually manages to keep the mood of Fanny White light. But the generally good-natured tone of the dreadful is ruined by its many rape scenes. The dreadful has a large number of one-line paragraphs and has the over-extended feel of many dreadfuls–Ross was clearly paid by the word and by the chapter and saw no reason to shorten the plot. But the dreadful is still relatively short and has a complicated and fast-moving plot, and it makes for better reading than many similar dreadfuls. Ross does duplicate some moments from his other dreadfuls; the scene in which Fanny is prevented from seeing her father by her hateful older sister is a copy of a scene in Ruth the Betrayer. Ross also includes a racist character, Pompey, the slave at Miss Macspartan’s school.

Fanny White is the dreadful in which Ross displayed his greatest hostility for the aristocracy. All of Ross’ dreadfuls, and his Ally Sloper cartoons, have a cynical view of the nobility, but Fanny White portrays the aristocracy as thoroughly awful, ranging from mere philanderers to serial rapists. This depiction of the aristocracy as wicked and depraved is common among the penny dreadfuls of the 1860s, which were aimed at a lower-class reading audience who had ample reason to resent the aristocracy and who responded to the dreadfuls’ portrayal of the aristocrats as uniquely evil by buying the penny dreadfuls by the thousands. Fanny White was the subject of much contemporary critical and journalistic contempt, but it sold, and sold well, as did the collected edition of the dreadful published later in 1865, and that was practically all that its publisher, George Vickers, cared about.

Lord Manningtree is particularly wicked; he is not just lust-filled but is also a crazed mad scientist who thinks nothing of poisoning either dogs or his brother. Manningtree is an interesting example of the mad scientist in nineteenth century popular literature. Appearing in 1865, almost fifty years after Frankenstein, Manningtree is in every way Victor Frankenstein’s opposite; there is nothing Gothic or anti-heroic about Manningtree. Like the mad scientists from Alvey Adee’s “The Life Magnet” (1870) and J.A.A.’s “Professor Stueckenholtz” (1880), Manningtree is coldly heartless toward his victims, without any of Victor Frankenstein’s whinging breast-beating and hair-tearing. Similarly, Manningtree as mad chemist and Manningtree as a literally mad doctor are in line with other nineteenth century portrayals of mad scientists, although Manningtree’s sexual obsession with Fanny White is unique to mad scientist literature of the century.1 Likewise, Manningtree’s experiments, all of which involved poison, are far more realistic and mundane that most nineteenth-century mad scientists, whose experiments usually involve some form of fantastika.

Fanny White cannot be recommended to modern readers for pleasure reading–the story is too rape-obsessed. But for those interested in reading a prime example of the depraved dreadfuls of the 1860s it is a key document.

Recommended Edition

Print: Edward Ellis, Fanny White and Her Friend Jack Rawlings. A romance of a young lady thief and a boy burglar, etc. London: George Vickers, 1865.


1 Nevins, “Organ Theft and the Insanity of Geniuses.”