Ada, the Betrayed, James Malcolm Rymer (ca.1845)

A penny dreadful circa 1845, Ada, the Betrayed or The Murder at the Old Smithy is the story of a young woman cheated out of her inheritance and used as a bargaining chip in a blackmail scheme. The story is set in the mid-18th century, and begins with a fire in a smithy in the village of Learmont. A bloodied man runs from the conflagration and hands a small child to a woman in the crowd watching the fire. The next day, however, both the woman and child have disappeared. Moving forward a number of years, the child, Ada, now a young woman, is living disguised as a boy named Harry, by order of Jacob Gray, who purports to be her uncle. Staying in a lodging house in London, Ada has befriended a young man named Albert Seyton. She reveals her true identity to him, what she knows of it, before being whisked away to another location by Gray. Ada is essentially held prisoner, the promise of riches and reward dangled in front of her for her compliance.

Jacob Gray and Andrew Britton, the smith from Learmont who’s also moved to London, are blackmailing each other over their involvement in a murder at the smithy years before. In addition, they’re separately blackmailing the third accomplice, the Squire of Learmont, who’s also moved to London and is seeking a baronetcy. Albert, meanwhile, desperate to find his beloved Ada, appeals to Sir Francis Hartleton, a magistrate who originally hails from Learmont and has long suspected foul play was afoot the night of the fire. In a side story, a woman referred to as Mad Maud (who is, indeed, mad) is dogging Britton, declaring she won’t die until she sees him dead for his evil deeds.

This is one of Rymer’s lengthy penny dreadfuls and in novel form, it could have been reduced by half and been a better story. Concessions, however, have to be made, as it originally appeared in serialized form, and by its length, Ada, the Betrayed was a popular one, they just kept milking it. There aren’t many surprises here. Ada is as virtuous as she is beautiful. Pure of heart, imbued with kindness, she’s perfection personified. She’s not, however, a completely helpless damsel in distress. She does what she can to stand up against her captor, Jacob Gray. The more firm and steadfast she is, the more it bothers him.

Although he’s supposed to be, Albert isn’t exactly hero material. He’s often a whiny drama queen, especially when pining after his lost love. After his father dies, his angst intensifies, and when Hartleton questions his intentions (Albert’s begun working for the squire), Seyton’s snotty attitude and impudence tells me Ada could do better. Hartleton, of course, is a rare breed, an honest magistrate.

As for the villains, Jacob Gray is patently loathsome. Sleazy, greedy, and black-souled, I wanted him to die a miserable, gruesome death, the sooner, the better. Andrew Britton is a loud, rude, violent brute of a man, referred to as the savage smith, especially by poor, crazy Maud. A drunken lout keen on physically abusing people, he’s only slightly more palatable than Gray. Britton’s a crude thug, but Gray’s avarice, cowardice, and weasel-like behavior makes him more revolting. Learmont is the easiest to take of the unholy trinity, perhaps because he’s focused on the least. Prone to inner monologues and musings, it seems his conscience plays upon him quite a bit, but he’s still a bastard.

Everything plays out satisfactorily in the end, even if takes a while to get there. Most of the characters in this don’t seem as richly developed as some other penny dreads, but they fit the necessary tropes well enough. This isn’t one of Rymer’s best works, the intriguing The String of Pearls and the rollicking epic Varney the Vampyre hold that distinction, but it’s still a decent read if you’re willing to invest the time. *** out of 5 stars.

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