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The Poor Little Penny Dreadful
by [?]

The Cause to be sought in the Boy rather than in the Book.

Let us for a moment turn our attention from the Penny Dreadful to the
boy–from the éponge á laver les cabriolets to notre pauvre
. Now–to speak quite seriously–it is well known to every
doctor and every schoolmaster (and should be known, if it is not, to
every parent), that all boys sooner or later pass through a crisis in
growth during which absolutely nothing can be predicted of their
behavior. At such times honest boys have given way to lying and theft,
gentle boys have developed an unexpected savagery, ordinary boys–“the
small apple-eating urchins whom we know”–have fallen into morbid
brooding upon unhealthy subjects. In the immense majority of cases the
crisis is soon over and the boy is himself again; but while it lasts,
the disease will draw its sustenance from all manner of
things–things, it may be, in themselves quite innocent. I avoid
particularizing for many reasons; but any observant doctor will
confirm what I have said. Now the moderately affluent boy who reads
five-shilling stories of adventure has many advantages at this period
over the poor boy who reads Penny Dreadfuls. To begin with, the crisis
has a tendency to attack him later. Secondly, he meets it fortified by
a better training and more definite ideas of the difference between
right and wrong, virtue and vice. Thirdly (and this is very
important), he is probably under school discipline at the time–which
means, that he is to some extent watched and shielded. When I think
of these advantages, I frankly confess that the difference in the
literature these two boys read seems to me to count for very little. I
myself have written “adventure-stories” before now: stories which, I
suppose–or, at any rate, hope–would come into the class of “Pure
Literature,” as the term is understood by those who have been writing
on this subject in the newspapers. They were, I hope, better written
than the run of Penny Dreadfuls, and perhaps with more discrimination
of taste in the choice of adventures. But I certainly do not feel able
to claim that their effect upon a perverted mind would be innocuous.

Fallacy of the “Crusade.”

For indeed it is not possible to name any book out of which a
perverted mind will not draw food for its disease. The whole fallacy
lies in supposing literature the cause of the disease. Evil men are
not evil because they read bad books: they read bad books because they
are evil: and being evil, or diseased, they are quickly able to
extract evil or disease even from very good books. There is talk of
disseminating the works of our best authors, at a cheap rate, in the
hope that they will drive the Penny Dreadful out of the market. But
has good literature at the cheapest driven the middle classes from
their false gods? And let it be remembered, to the credit of these
poor boys, that they do buy their books. The middle classes take
their poison on hire or exchange.

But perhaps the full enormity of the cant about Penny Dreadfuls
can best be perceived by travelling to and fro for a week
between London and Paris and observing the books read by those
who travel with first-class tickets. I think a fond belief in
Ivanhoe-within-the-reach-of-all would not long survive that