In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section James Malcolm Rymer

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biography
  • Periodicals Edited by Rymer
  • Rymer’s Literary Criticism
  • Varney, the Vampire
  • The Unspeakable, or, The Life and Adventures of a Stammerer
  • Other Novels

Victorian Literature James Malcolm Rymer
Rebecca Nesvet
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0165


James Malcolm Rymer (b. 1814–d. 1884) created two of the most influential monsters of 19th-century fiction: Varney the Vampyre and Sweeney Todd. The son of an Edinburgh-born London engraver, Malcolm Rymer, who published poetry and a Gothic novel, Rymer was raised in a working-class literary-artistic family. His brothers Gaven and Chadwick were artists, and his brother Thomas put his engraving skills to criminal use as a serial financial forger. For the penny periodicals magnate Edward Lloyd, Rymer prolifically wrote bestselling serials including Ada, the Betrayed, or, The Murder at the Old Smithy (1843); The Black Monk, or, The Secret of the Grey Turret (1844); Varney, the Vampyre, or, The Feast of Blood (1845–1847); and the Sweeney Todd tale The String of Pearls, a Romance (1846–1847, expanded in 1850 as The String of Pearls, or The Barber of Fleet Street). In the 1850s, Lloyd’s business model changed. Favoring news over fiction, he jettisoned Rymer, who in 1858 took up employment composing serials for Reynolds’s Miscellany, a penny periodical founded by the radical journalist and novelist George W. M. Reynolds. Some of Rymer’s serials of this period, such as the outlaw romances Edith the Captive, or the Robbers of Epping Forest (1861–1862) and its sequel Edith Heron, or the Earl and the Countess (1866), were issued in stand-alone editions by Reynolds’s regular publisher, John Dicks. Rymer also composed essays, short tales, and poetry and served as a periodical editor, including of two of Lloyd’s penny periodicals. Extremely private, he published for the most part anonymously, as “the author of” several of his bestselling penny bloods, and under a variety of pseudonyms, including the anagrams “Malcolm J. Errym” and “Malcolm J. Merry” and “Lady Clara Cavendish.” In the 20th century, while Sweeney Todd’s fame grew, Rymer was largely forgotten, in part because an apocryphal bibliographic tradition erroneously maintained that The String of Pearls and many of his other works were written by another Lloyd employee, Thomas Peckett Prest. Since the 1960s, scholarly interest in penny fiction has brought to light Rymer’s contemporaneous popularity, his complex aesthetics, his often liberal or radical politics, his profound impact on Victorian mass culture, and his work’s vibrant transmedia afterlives.

General Overviews

To date, there is no introductory volume on Rymer, but key studies of Victorian penny fiction and the Sweeney Todd tradition incorporate brief overviews of Rymer’s life, work, and significance. James 2017 and Collins 2010 provide essential biographical information. Two important studies of Rymer’s collaboration with Edward Lloyd are Smith 2019 and Carlisle 2019.

  • Carlisle, Janice. “Popular and Mass Market Fiction.” In A Companion to the English Novel. Edited by Stephen Arata, Madigan Haley, J. Paul Hunter, and Jennifer Wicke, 132–143. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2019.

    Carlisle helpfully demonstrates that Rymer’s work constitutes mass-market fiction and innovatively responds to the life conditions of working-class Victorians.

  • Collins, Dick. “Introduction to the Revised Edition.” In Sweeney Todd (The String of Pearls). Rev. 2d ed. Edited by Dick Collins, v–xxx. Ware, UK: Wordsworth, 2010.

    Informed by groundbreaking original research into provincial periodicals and other obscure sources, Collins provides the most comprehensive biography of Rymer to date, excepting Collins 2008 (cited under Biography). A considerable revision of the 2005 first edition.

  • James, Louis. Fiction for the Working Man: Cheap Literature, 1830–50. 3d ed. Brighton, UK: Edward Everett Root, 2017.

    Originally published in 1963, this inaugural study of Victorian popular fiction remains essential to Rymer scholarship. James helpfully establishes Rymer’s basic biography, highlights his essays, sheds light on Rymer collector Frank Algar, sometime possessor of Rymer’s surviving sketchbooks, and close-reads key Rymer penny bloods, including Ada, The Black Monk, and Varney.

  • Smith, Helen R. “Edward Lloyd and His Authors.” In Edward Lloyd and His World: Popular Fiction, Politics, and the Press in Victorian Britain. Edited by Rohan McWilliam and Sarah Louise Lill, 39–53. London: Routledge, 2019.

    An essential study of Rymer and the penny blood publisher Edward Lloyd’s professional relationships, including with Rymer. Smith debunks traditionary accounts of Rymer’s career and documents how Rymer became Lloyd’s most prolific and popular writer, how Lloyd managed Rymer, and the mid-1850s dissolution of their collaboration.

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