Blood Relations: James Malcolm Rymer, Penny Fiction, and the Family

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University Club, Room 212
@ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Woodcut illustration. The heroine Johanna, disguised as a boy, and her friend Arabella walk past Sweeney Todd's London barber shop.
Artist unknown, plate. no. 21: ”Johanna’s Alarm at the Sight of Sweeney Todd’. James Malcolm Rymer, The String of Pearls, or, the Barber of Fleet-street, a Domestic Romance (London: Edward Lloyd, 1850), 161.

Rebecca Nesvet

UW-System Fellow (2022-2023)

Associate Professor of English, English and Humanities, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay


The most successful author of Victorian penny “bloods” and “dreadfuls,” or cheap illustrated serial fiction was the obscure, reclusive James Malcolm Rymer, creator of the definitive “dreadful” villain, Sweeney Todd, homicidal barber of Fleet-street. A major, neglected influence upon Rymer was his birth family: a working-class London literary-artistic coterie of extraordinary creativity. Resident in the radical artisanal parish of Clerkenwell and active during the cultural feud over Leigh Hunt’s “Cockney School of Poetry,” the Rymer family included a published novelist and poet, a milliner, several artists, and an audacious serial forger who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land. This family’s experiences and works inform James Malcolm Rymer’s Victorian fiction, which, despite his “dreadful” image, he wrote for and often about the British urban working family, an institution he associates with ingenuity and love.


Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She has published in Victorian Studies, Nineteenth Century Studies, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, Victorian Popular Fictions Journal, Victorian Network, and Scholarly Editing and anthologies from Routledge, Macmillan, Bloomsbury, and the University of Wales Press. She is a Technical Editor and Pedagogy Consultant at the COVE Collective ( and Reviews Editor of Victorian Periodicals Review.

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