Essie Fox Reviews Screams from a Penny Dreadful

Essie Fox, author of The Goddess and the Thief, reviews Joan Fleming’s classic Victorian mystery Screams from a Penny Dreadful.




This is a most entertaining book − though perhaps I should start by saying that it wasn’t quite as gothic in tone as I had expected it to be. Its title could just as well have been Screams from An Hysterical Woman – with the woman in question being Severel Stanroyd, whose unusual Christian name results from one of many twists and turns contained within the novel’s plot.

Severel is the charming narrator whose story − told through her diary − reminds me of plots and characters to be found in old Ealing black comedies, such as Kind Hearts and Coronets. I also found myself thinking of the creation of Flavia de Luce, the precocious young female sleuth in the 1950s crime novels written by Alan Bradley.

But Severel is older than Flavia, and she lives a hundred years before, being more naive in many ways, and yet in others more aware than might be expected of a girl growing up in the mid-nineteenth century. However, dark passions, rapes and seductions were the core of Victorian Penny Dreadfuls − as were the settings of country houses where skeletons rattled in all of the cupboards.

And in one such house the young Severel lives, surrounded by overgrown gardens with elm trees in which rooks screech and roost, and beyond, the bleak and stormy moors upon which thunderstorms unleash more than one sort of electrical charge. 

And then there is THE MURDER, and not a conventional one, with Severel’s elderly father found hanged (and by whose hand?) at the very start of the novel. But was he already dead before being so violently strung up? And why did the crime occur just then, with the old man about to try and secure his daughter’s future prospects − and also those of her younger twin sisters − by arranging suitable marriages?

Quite who he expects his three daughters to wed is yet another mystery, with no obvious ‘young blades’ around − unless we consider the mill manager. But Mr Dobcross is not deemed to be suitable marriage material, and not attractive either, being described by Severel as ‘like a giant daddy longlegs, his hair untidy, slightly bent and careworn for his twenty-nine or so years’.

What Severel writes and what Severel thinks may not always be quite the same thing, and her reticence to tell the whole is cleverly alluded to when she looks the word up in the dictionary: ‘Reserve in speech, avoidance of saying all one knows or feels, holding back some of the fact, disposition to silence’.

A reticence to face the truth concerning matters of the heart become even more confusing when the Madeira-drinking Cousin Bertie turns up − ‘a dandified, cigar-smoking man of the world’ who ‘looks so fantastically handsome all the time?’

Cousin Bertie is rapidly exposed as being intent on debauching all three of the Stanroyd sisters. He also claims to be the son of their long-lost Uncle Eli, the rogue once transported to Australia, whose male kin may have a claim upon the girls’ inheritance.

While Bertie insinuates himself into the life of the family, Severel must find a way to discover the truth about her father’s death, and also to withstand the allure of her handsome cousin’s bushy beard and the deep red lips that lie within − and whatever lies those lips might tell.

Will she succeed? My lips are sealed! But I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the story Severel tells in Screams from a Penny Dreadful.

Joan Fleming is one of The Murder Room’s featured authors for June’s Historical Crime Fiction month. Essie Fox’s The Goddess and the Thief is published by Orion and is available in hardback and ebook.