Author · James Malcolm Rymer
Editor · Rebecca Nesvet
Editor · Rae X. Yan
Technical Editor · Adam McCune

Freely available on a non-commercial basis.

Front Matter
Author · Rebecca Nesvet
Author · Rae X. Yan


On 10 May 1857, there was a disturbance in the central Indian garrison of Meerut. A group of sipahis or ‘Sepoys’, indigenous soldiers, rebelled against their British commanders. Over the two years following, this ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ quickly spread to nearby Delhi and then fanned out across the vast subcontinent. Meanwhile, in Britain, it inspired many literary, dramatic, and artistic representations. One of the earliest--and perhaps the earliest such work of prose fiction--was the ‘penny blood’ The Sepoys, or Highland Jessie: A Tale of the Present Indian Revolt (1858). Written while the rebellion was in progress by the prolific ‘M. J. Errym’ (James Malcolm Rymer, creator of Sweeney Todd), The Sepoys was serialized in Reynolds’s Miscellany. In its first instalment, Rymer explains that ‘[t]he political and public incidents of the Indian Revolt will be the stream in the current of which will be carried forward the individuals whose adventures we shall pourtray’. Those ‘individuals’ include the fictional ‘Jessie Brown’, the Scottish Highlander heroine of a widely circulated urban legend about the Indian Revolt.

Today, scholarship on literary representations of the Indian Revolt and the legend of Jessie Brown wholly neglects The Sepoys. ‘For a decade or so’ after the Revolt, states the scholar Christopher Herbert, it was ‘at the same time too overwhelmingly a matter of experiential fact and too lacerating emotionally to allow for fictional representation except in refracted forms’. Gautam Chakravarty disagrees. He identifies Revolt poetry, prose, and drama dating from the late 1850s, but, like Herbert, does not mention The Sepoys. This silence is not surprising, as penny fiction of all kinds tends to receive less critical attention than the canonical high literature of the Victorian era, and The Sepoys was no bestseller. Despite its obscurity, The Sepoys’ early depiction of the Indian Revolt, its treatment of Indian and British subaltern subjects, and its eclectic take on ‘Highland Jessie’ all merit its recovery for the Victorian canon.

The Sepoys begins in the besieged city of Cawnpore (Kanpur). Enter our hero, a fictional young Sepoy and ‘mountain chieftain’ named Jeffur Ahib. He is trying to rescue a British woman he loves, one Bessie Hope, who is among the British women and children imprisoned by the tyrannical (and historical) Nana Sahib, an ally of the Sepoys. Nana Sahib has incarcerated these Britons in the Cawnpore Assembly Room. This place name would have struck Rymer’s readers with terror: at the end of the historical siege, Nana Sahib had all the Assembly Room’s inmates murdered. Would Jeffur save Bessie, or must she must perish in the liquidation of the makeshift dungeon?

At this suspenseful point, Rymer turns back the clock several weeks to question the dominant British narrative. He reveals that before the revolt’s outbreak, Jeffur had interceded on his tyrannized peasant subjects’ behalf with Bessie’s English friends. Key among these are the ruthless East India Company army captain Hannibal Hawkins and his avaricious bureaucrat brother Caesar. Their characterization hardly flatters the regime they represent. Their surnames suggest that they are state-sanctioned pirates, like the English privateer Sir John Hawkins, cousin of Francis Drake. The Hawkinses' decidedly unchristian forenames identify them with two ruthless empire-builders, one of whom, Julius Caesar, invaded ancient Britain. This allusion shifts the text's perspective by drawing parallels between the disenfranchised Indians and the British readers' own ancestors.

The Hawkinses' actions make the revolution's outbreak intelligible. In their first scene, in pre-revolutionary Delhi, Jeffur begs the two men for assistance for an Indian peasant family whom their recreational hunting has rendered homeless and whose crops they have destroyed. Unconcerned by the deaths of indigenous peasant children, the Hawkinses anticipate the Marquis of St-Evremonde, aristocratic villain of DickensA Tale of Two Cities (1859). The Hawkinses abuse many Indian characters with the ‘N’ word and also call them ‘rascals’. In Rymer’s words, before the Revolt, these ‘European residents’ in India ‘idly lolled upon their silken cushions, little dreaming of the volcano that was to explode over and around them!’ When the revolt erupts, they risk reaping what they have sown. Tyrants in peacetime, the Hawkins brothers are transformed by war. Adversity enables Captain Hawkins to become an active military hero--and the protective lover of an Indian princess, Zeelook. Jeffur does not overthrow the British Empire; instead, he learns to reform it from within. He protects Bessie and other British characters from their Sepoy enemies, who, with the exception of himself, are represented as atavistic savages or Oriental tyrants. He is capable of revolutionary violence but suppresses it in himself and others.

In this sense, he is an Indian proponent of‘ nonviolent or ‘moral force’ Chartism’, a movement that Rymer and his fiction workshop colleagues promoted in the 1840s. ‘Chartism’ (1837-48) was the struggle for expanded suffrage, food security, and other rudimentary civil rights for working-class Britons. Its name derived from the ‘People’s Charter’, a Magna Carta-inspired list of demands drawn up in 1838, primarily by William Lovett, the founder of the London Working-Men’s Association (LWMA). Lovett promoted nonviolent Chartism, and found himself at odds with the MP for Nottingham Feargus O’Connor, who argued, to the alarm of much of the establishment, that working-class rights would be won only if the Chartists displayed a credible threat of violent revolt. Parliament refused to ratify the Charter, and the outcome of the Chartist movement remains the matter of debate. Either the Chartists, split ideologically between Lovett and O’Connor’s philosophies and lacking elite buy-in, failed, or their campaign indirectly contributed to the suffrage and Parliamentary reform that, in the shadow of the continental revolutions of 1848, created modern British government.

In any case, one of the Chartists’ key vehicles was the penny press. Rymer’s publishers G.W.M. Reynolds and Edward Lloyd were both Chartists. The critic Troy Boone has shown that the genre of the penny blood tended in its content and even narrative structure to promote moral force Chartism. Boone demonstrates this argument with a persuasive reading of the 1842 blood Varney the Vampire, or, The Feast of Blood, which Helen R. Smith and others have attributed conclusively to Rymer.

In 1858, the Chartist moment had long since passed. The Charter was abandoned, O’Connor was dead, and Lovett languished in obscurity. However, Jeffur Sahib is a Chartist in all but name, because he first employs moral force to rescue his people from the Hawkins’ casual depredation, then, despairing of moral force’s efficacy, joins the Sepoys in their rebellion, and finally abandons that on account of its cruelty. He tries all the competing Chartist strategies, and ends the serial as a conscientious, uneasy, yet essential collaborator with an elite that otherwise will not let him save his people and theirs.

As important as this ambivalence is Rymer’s superimposition of Chartist history over the Indian Rebellion. It suggests that despite his often disturbingly racist depiction of Indians, he understood that the people of Britain and India were fighting the same battle against a common elite enemy, represented not only by the Hawkinses but by their entitled upper-class hanger-on The Honourable Miss Flint, the butt of much cruel humor. As hard-headed and hearted as the stone for which she is named, The Honourable Miss Flint delusionally persists in believing that one of the Hawkinses will marry her, is upset not to be treated, by the villains, as a desirable heroine, and endangers the entire party of British refugees in order to rescue her ‘reticule’, or handbag. Boone points out that penny bloods often taught working-class families to question the elite narrative of Victorian imperialism. The Sepoys seems to, a decade after the height of the Chartist struggle.

Rymer also dynamically revamps the legend of Jessie Brown. This mythical tradition began in Britain a few months after the outbreak of the revolt. In December 1857 and well into 1858, papers across England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and the United States printed a report on the 1857 Sepoy Siege of Lucknow allegedly derived from a French physician, ‘M. Banneroi’s’ ‘Letter to the Editor’ of a Parisian paper. The fictional doctor claimed that during the siege, one Jessie Brown, the Highland Scottish wife or fiancee of a British soldier, had a delirious vision of traditional Highland bagpiping or folksong. ‘Dinna ye hear it?’ she is said to have asked her bewildered carers. Shortly thereafter, the letter claims, her lover’s Highland regiment arrives and ends the siege.

Only, it never happened. Quickly, journalists discovered that no ‘Jessie Brown’ was at Lucknow. The story was a ‘fable’, a ‘falsehood’, or, as one Scottish paper put it, ‘a shave’. By that point, however, the story had taken on a life of its own, in popular music, published and performance poetry, painting, and stage drama. The Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault staged his Jessie Brown, or the Relief at Lucknow in New York’s Wallack’s Theatre as early as February 22, 1858, with ads appearing by February 16th. Three days earlier, in London, Reynolds’s Miscellany had published the first instalment of Rymer’s The Sepoys. Evidently, neither Boucicault nor Rymer appropriated material from the other, as they had not time. Instead, they both ripped the same story from the pages of their respective local newspapers.

By February 1858, the Jessie Brown story was ‘completely exploded’, but in The Sepoys, Rymer makes it relatively fresh and surprising. Firstly, he refrains from introducing Jessie until chapter . In the meantime, he builds the audience’s admiration for the true hero Jeffur, the suspense concerning Bessie’s captivity among the doomed women of Cawnpore, and the Jeffur-Bessie romance plot. Secondly, while most accounts of Jessie Brown’s vision present her as a passive heroine, Rymer makes her an action figure. Granted, she pines for her soldier love and rejects Nana Sahib's advances, but she also wields a cavalry sword and an Enfield rifle. Thus armed, she protects not only Bessie and other British women, but several rather feckless British soldiers, too. This masculine heroism makes The Sepoys a foil for the initially decadent Hawkins brothers. She challenges them to shape up and fulfill their potential as defenders of the Empire and all its people: Scottish and English, British and Indian.

Rymer’s other minor characters offer versions of Scottish and Irish identities that promote British cohesion without English supremacism. Sandy and Dennis, the most capable and courageous of the British characters, demonstrate the necessity of Scottish and Irish labor to the defense of Britain’s overseas empire. At the tale’s conclusion, two transcultural marriages take place, and will evolve under the eye of a new regime: the British Raj. Notably, the two Indians involved, northern Muslims, are depicted as light-skinned in relation to the Hindus. Rymer’s progressivism extended to Chartist rhetoric, but not to imagining a British Empire not ruled whites, nor to interracial marriage. The marriage plot is a device that dramatizes the willing wedding of British and Indian elites. As such, it seems to legitimate the Raj--the system of direct rule that replaced the East India Company's management of colonial India.

Why should Price One Penny Editions revive this problematic, unpopular, and not particularly well-written baggy monster? Firstly, our edition will reveal the ‘penny blood’ genre’s engagement not only with the dynamics of urban life--in this case, in 1857 Delhi--but with the global as well. Secondly, it is a seminal and relatively late component of the James Malcolm Rymer canon, which ought to be recovered, as Rymer was not only extremely prolific and influential, but, in his own time, admiringly paralleled with Shelley. Comparing The Sepoys with other ‘bloods’ attributed to Rymer, such as Varney the Vampire, Ada, the Betrayed, or the ‘Sweeney Todd’ story The String of Pearls may help to identify Rymer's aesthetic, political, and philosophical leanings. The Sepoys also belongs to the Scottish diasporic literary tradition, not on account of its Scottish wanderer characters, but because Rymer himself was the London-born son of a (Lowland) Scot: Malcolm Rymer, originally of Midlothian.

Finally, The Sepoys deserves attention from scholars of postcolonial movements across the globe. As an early example of Indian Revolt literature that engages the discourse of universal human rights, it anticipates Reynolds’s fellow Chartist Ernest Jones’s newspaper journalism and his poem The Revolt of Hindostan, or, The New World. In an 1857 editorial, Jones proclaims that the rebel Sepoys oppose ‘one of the most iniquitous usurpations that ever disgraced the annals of humanity’. By resisting this occupation, they righteously defend ‘all that is sacred to man’. Jones then exhorts his working-class British target readers to ‘recognize the independence of the Indian race’, refuse to bear arms against the revolutionaries, and pursue their own liberation. He reiterates this revolutionary rhetoric in the aforementioned poem, which repeatedly equates revolutionary India with ‘America’ (the United States). Reinforcing the Revolt’s role in the history of anticolonial revolution, its title recalls Shelley’s Cythna and Laon, or the Revolt of Islam (1816). In that epic romance, Shelley prophesies a nineteenth century revolution against the Ottoman Empire. Like Jones’s Revolt, Rymer’s The Sepoys played a role in the Victorian imagination of the Indian independence struggle. It is fortuitous that the digital revolution enables Price One Penny to disseminate The Sepoys, for the first time in its history, to a global public.

Front Matter
Author · Rebecca Nesvet
Author · Rae X. Yan