Duval and the Dime Novel; or, Adventures of a Gentleman Highwayman

I have spent just about two years working with our dime novel collection and bringing it under some semblance of bibliographic control. I have encountered poor writing, improbable plots, novels without covers, novels without title pages, and all manner of literary and bibliographic eccentricities and annoyances. But as I reach the end of my work cataloging the collection, it’s hard not to think about some of my favorite parts of the process. In previous blog posts, I’ve discussed the general challenges of cataloging dime novels, as well as exciting discoveries I’ve made in the collection. But this post focuses not on any particular novel or series, but on one particular character: the dashing gentleman highwayman Claude Duval.

Illustrations from Claude in his dungeon; or, Maggs the traitor.
Illustrations from “Claude in his dungeon; or, Maggs the traitor.”

Claude Duval was a real person, once upon a time. He was born in Normandy, France, in 1643 and eventually moved to England, where he turned to highway robbery. He was known for not using violence in his robberies, and one popular tale had him agreeing to take only part of one gentleman’s belongings if that gentleman’s wife would agree to dance with him. Duval was eventually arrested, tried, and convicted, and he was hanged at Tyburn on January 21, 1670. Centuries later, he became a popular subject in British penny dreadfuls before being imported across the pond to our dime novels.

He was featured in multiple series of novels from several publishers, but the first series I encountered was De Witt’s Claude Duval series, begun by De Witt and Davenport, and later published by Robert M. De Witt alone when Davenport left the firm. In De Witt’s stories, Duval travels with his friends and fellow highwaymen Dick Turpin and John “Sixteen-String Jack” Rann. Duval and his friends are thrown into, and escape from, Newgate Prison more times than I felt like counting, and were constantly involved in daring escapades and romantic liaisons. But there were two aspects of De Witt’s Duval novels that made them particularly stand out. The first was their illustrations.  Your average dime novel will have an illustration as a frontispiece, if it has any illustrations at all. But De Witt’s novels generally featured a selection of illustrations throughout the text, in addition to an illustrated cover. The illustrations are not of the highest quality (and some are laughably bad), but they add to the experience of the novels.

Two different issues of Claude in his dungeon; or, Maggs the traitor, the earlier one on the left, the later one on the right
Two different issues of “Claude in his dungeon; or, Maggs the traitor,” the earlier one on the left, the later one on the right.

The second aspect was how many novels in the series AAS holds two copies of. In many instances, it is unnecessary to hold two copies of the same item, unless one is incomplete. However, in the instance of dime novels, these copies are different issues of the same novel published at different times, and they highlight the prevalence of reprinting in the world of dime novel publishing. A particularly striking example of this is in our two copies of Claude in his dungeon; or, Maggs the traitor. Unlike some novels, where separate issues are almost identical, these two novels look nothing alike. The wrapper of the earlier issue is light yellow, with the type and illustration printed in black. The later issue has a much more colorful wrapper, featuring dark gold, blue, and red. It also has a different cover illustration than the earlier printing. The novels lack dates (as do so many dime novels), but De Witt’s different addresses helped out in that regard. The earlier issue has an imprint of New York: R.M. De Witt (late of De Witt & Davenport), 160 & 162 Nassau St. Davenport left the firm in 1856, so the novel was likely published in that year or the next. The address on the later issue, however, is no. 33 Rose Street. Thanks to an afternoon spent deep in AAS’s directory collection, I know that De Witt was at Rose Street from 1870 to 1877, which means these two novels were published at least fourteen years apart (which I think is pretty cool!).

Luke, the swell. An exciting story of life, love and intrigue, no. 11 of the Ten cent Claude Duval novels published by Norman L. Munro
“Luke, the swell. An exciting story of life, love and intrigue,” no. 11 of the Ten cent Claude Duval novels published by Norman L. Munro.

Duval was also featured in another series from De Witt, De Witt’s nightshade series, as well as the Ten cent Claude Duval novels from Norman L. Munro. Munro’s novels were smaller and cheaper than the De Witt stories (which were large format and cost 25¢) but they also drew on British penny dreadfuls as their source materials, and they feature the same adventures in London and the British countryside as the De Witt novels. Now that our dime novel collection is cataloged and thus more visible and accessible, readers can enjoy access to these dashing tales of Claude Duval, as well as all the other heroes, heroines, and villains that populated the pages of dimes novels, introducing these works to a new generation of readers and scholars.

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