Marion Marlowe in New York;
Urban Images in Street & Smith's My Queen Dime Novel Series

By Deidre Johnson

(Originally published in Dime Novel Round-Up 60 [1991])

In September, 1900, Street & Smith launched a new dime novel series, My Queen: A Weekly Journal for Young Women. Written by Laurena Sheldon under the pseudonym Grace Shirley, My Queen's first thirty issues chronicle the experiences of Marion Marlowe, "a beautiful and ambitious farmer's daughter who goes to the great metropolis to seek her fortune."[1] The "great metropolis," at least for the first thirteen issues, is New York; the stories follow Marion's first year there, as she experiments with a number of jobs and acquires beaux, some wealth, and a knowledge of city life, before finally joining a theatrical company and going "on the road."[2] The episodes are a blend of melodramatic romances and working girl stories, reshaped to appeal to adolescent readers and to conform to a dime novel format—in this case, one twenty-five to twenty-nine page adventure or mystery per week, featuring a regular cast of characters and a near-perfect, ever-triumphant series heroine. Although My Queen focuses more on Marion and her exciting adventures than on New York, it still offers readers glimpses of urban life, seen through Marion's routine activities and social pastimes, through descriptions of and references to buildings and services, through recurring references to transportation and communication, through comments about and characterizations of city inhabitants, and through Marion's reactions to the city. The picture that emerges is an uneven and often distorted one, yet it serves to illustrate one dime novel series' attitudes towards New York. In general, My Queen has a tendency to deemphasize the glamour and allure of the city, while highlighting its squalor and misery; it also often slights the landscape and the city's businesses, industries, and government, but is somewhat impressed with transportation and communication systems, and concerned about social inequalities. This paper looks at four elements of city life in My Queen: the government, the roles of transportation and of communication, and the city's social classes. In its treatment of these elements, My Queen offers examples of the types of urban images and ideas about New York that one dime novel series presented to its readers.

My Queen's selection of government services and institutions emphasizes those associated with human suffering or vice, often among the city's poor. Although Marion has numerous encounters with city and state government institutions, the series never mentions politics. City Hall, or many of the branches of state and local government (except for a passing reference to the Board of Health). In stead, readers are introduced to other types of city institutions: Marion visits several police stations; attends police court; works as a nurse at the Charity Hospital—and later, as an unofficial factory inspector; tours the city morgue and the prison on Blackwell's Island; and occasionally refers to Bellevue Hospital and Potter's Field.

In almost all of these settings, Marion is exposed to the indigent and the unfortunate. On Blackwell's Island, working as a nurse, she realizes that: "Inside [the hospital] were the sick, the deformed, the crippled. Women whom shame had driven from the sight of the world, others whom care, abuse, over-work and under-pay had reduced to that condition known as invalid vagrancy.

"Outside, in the numerous buildings, were other classes—criminals, 'crooks,' 'scapegraces' and prodigals and careworn men and decrepit women —paupers, homeless and penniless at the close of life and dependent upon what some have called a city's charity." In police court, she observes "the poor, the wretched and the vicious... assembled together, and for what? To bear evidence for some crime of another." As a factory inspector, she is told she will meet people "who are grinding the very blood out of the bodies of their human slaves," and on her first full day at work, sees "little children who should be in the nursery or in school... working like slaves in those human beehives [the factories]."

Not only is the government seen in conjunction with human misery, but it is also often shown as corrupt or impotent, allowing suffering to go unabated. As a factory inspector, Marion watches the regular inspector overlook child labor and learns the inspector accepts bribes "for not reporting the condition of [certain] factories." On occasion My Queen includes vague references to "law makers"; these are generally unflattering, as when Marion suggests to a Bible reader that perhaps she ought to read to the lawmakers rather than to the prisoners on Blackwell's Island, or when Marion wonders why the lawmakers are unable to prevent child labor. And in police court, Marion notes that "case after case was disposed of promptly, so promptly that [Marion] found herself questioning the justice of these extraordinary proceedings." Even the police, who help Marion several times and regularly escort her adversaries to jail, don't emerge untainted: they often manage to lose at least one criminal, who reappears in a later issue, and they are sometimes negligent in their duties. When Marion is almost kidnapped outside her sister's home, she tells her brother-in-law: "it is very evident that there was no officer on the beat tonight... for I screamed as loudly as I possibly could, and I only succeeded in awakening the echoes." His response? Oh, the cop was probably in the corner saloon,' [he said], disgustedly.'"

Overall, My Queen's treatment of New York's government, business, and entertainment facilities tends to focus on the city's more sordid side.

Marion's survival and successes in the city are exceptions to the norm; all about her are misery, sin, and toil.[3] There are perhaps several reasons for this attitude. It may have been echoing contemporary trends in urban literature, or reflecting Laurena Sheldon's attitudes towards the city; it could also have been designed to discourage young readers from emulating Marion's example and moving to New York; and, at least in part. It simply serves to spotlight Marion's purity and sensitivity when confronted with the vice and suffering in the city.

TRANSPORTATION—and, as a corollary, mobility—is a key aspect of New York in My Queen. Transportation is an ever-present part of urban life, as well as a way to link all areas of the city and a way to separate the urbanites from the newcomers. Interestingly, although My Queen usually slights its landscape descriptions, it often includes details about transportation—even such items as whether Marion has to wait for a street car or whether she has to change cars to reach her designation. And although My Queen's treatment of the workings of the city often omits more types of businesses than it includes, its references to transportation mention almost all types of vehicles—and they are shown as functional, not merely as decoration.

Marion travels about the city frequently, encountering a number of different types of vehicles. In "Marion Marlowe's Noble Work; or, The Tragedy at the Hospital," for example, Marion enters the tale when she walks into a lawyer's office; from there, she walks to the Astor House, is almost run over by "an express wagon with two powerful horses" and by a street car is struck by an "automobile carriage," and taken by ambulance to the Chambers Street Hospital, and, later, by carriage to an unidentified apartment and then to her home in Harlem; soon after, another carriage takes her to the docks, where she boards a ferry for the Charity Hospital on Blackwell's Island—all in the space of fourteen pages. As can be seen from this example, Marion actually makes use of different forms of transportation; they are more than immobile backdrops. In other episodes, Marion travels by train, by carriage, by street car and electric car, by elevated train, by taxi, by boat, and on foot. All parts of the city are shown to be accessible with the proper transportation.

Transportation—and a knowledge of locations in the city—also distinguishes city dwellers from country visitors and newcomers. Experienced urbanites are not only familiar with most locations in the city and able to readily give directions, but they are also adept at dealing with mass transportation and city traffic. Inexperienced folk are not—and are often placed in jeopardy because of their ignorance. Marion's own experiences best illustrate these points. When she first arrives in New York, she is regularly in need of directions. Even this type of naivete can be dangerous, as My Queen reminds its readers in "Marion Marlowe's Courage; Or, A Brave Girl's Struggle For Life And Honor": "On [Marion's] arrival [in New York] she had been sent to the wrong address by Emile Vorse, a friend in the attire of a gentleman...and only a Miss Ray, who was kept almost a prisoner in the apartments to which Vorse sent Marion. For Marion, ignorance of city locations catapults her into a near-compromising situation—and she is only rescued by Miss Ray, an experienced New Yorker, who finds her safe lodgings. Transportation is even more hazardous for the newcomer. In the second episode, Marion and her sister Dollie learn of a young boy who was "run over by a cable car...[and] killed almost instantly." Dollie immediately remarks, "Poor chap...He may have been a country boy who was not familiar with the city," and Marion responds, "The cars are awful... I always hold my breath when I start over a cross ing." When a man from the country learns of the boy's death, in the third story, he tells Marion, "I reckin he got tew smart with them cable cars— thet's usually the end of country boys and gals thet think they're smart enough tew git on in the city." And in the fourth episode, Marion, for getting her "customary caution" at crossings, steps out into the street and is hit by an automobile carriage. Yet by the seventh story, Marion has learned about the city and is seen giving directions to a farmer and remaining calm when there is a malfunction in the electric car in which she is riding. And by the ninth episode, when Marion is in a hurry: "A [street] car was passing, and she swung herself onto it cleverly, not so much as saying 'by your leave' to either gripman or conductor.

'"That was a pretty risky thing to do miss,' said the conductor, sharply.

"Marion smiled and handed him her nickel without speaking. She was too amused at her own action to bother with the conductor." Marion has, by then, made the transition from country girl to experienced city dweller and is able to cope with the city's geography and transportation.

A corollary of transportation seems to be movement—of all types. Life in the city, as seen in My Queen, entails an almost constant stream of movement. Before arriving in New York, Marion had lived on the same farm for seventeen years, but once she reaches the city, things change rapidly. In one year, she moves from temporary lodgings, to the "top floor of a cheap boarding house," to "furnished rooms," to "a little flat in Harlem," to the Hotel Rosedale, to Mrs. Denison's "'first-class' boarding house," to her sister's home, and finally to Mrs. Stetson's "mansion." Marion changes occupations almost as frequently, going through six jobs in the first ten issues. And, of course, she is almost perpetually in motion in the stories (as are a number of her friends), journeying from one location to another. Indeed, when a character stops moving about, she virtually disappears from the series: Marion's sister, for example, marries a bookkeeper and settles down. She no longer changes residences; she no longer travels to and from work; and soon she no longer participates in the stories.

COMMUNICATION-like transportation, links diverse parts of the city in My Queen. It reaches different areas of New York and different types of people, and it provides information about city inhabitants and current events. Although My Queen shows several methods of communication, the most popular form (other than speech) is newspapers. Telephones are used infrequently, mostly for relaying information in emergencies; letters appear more regularly, often as a means of learning the locations of characters as they move about, the city; newspapers, however, appear in almost every story, serving a number of people and purposes.

All types of characters in My Queen read or refer to the newspapers: the very wealthy, like Mrs. Stetson; the moderately wealthy, like Marion's aunt and uncle; the middle class, like Marion or her friend Alma Allyn; the poor, like Marion and her sister in their early days in the city, or Terence O'Connell. The newspaper provides information about people's activities and situations: when Mrs. Stetson wants a visiting Duke to marry Marion (temporarily her protege), she has a paragraph placed in the society notes "declar[ing] that she will settle a cool million on her young charge if, at the end of the season, she has married with [Mrs. Stetson's] approval." Mrs. Stetson knows that the Duke—and almost everyone else in so ciety—will see the item and realize Marion has entered the competition for the Duke's interest.

The role of the newspaper in spreading information is seen a number of other times in My Queen. In the second episode, soon after Marion and her sister take rooms under an assumed name (in an attempt to escape the notoriety occasioned by their first adventure in New York), their landlady appears at their door and rages: "Did you think because you gave your names as Miller that the truth wouldn't leak out? Well, that shows how much you know, you little ninnies! Why, I'd have caught on myself if I ever read the papers. The description of you would've given me the tip at once if I'd happened to see it!" The implication seems to be that it is impossible to hide when the newspapers are about, for once they have reported a story, the world knows about it. And on another occasion, when Marion asks a man how he has heard of her charitable work, he responds, '"Faith, wasn't it in all ther papers, miss?...Wasn't all yer noble deeds told in glowin' letters, miss, and wasn't it Terrence O'Connell himself who read every wurrd of It?'"

Because of their wide readership, newspapers can serve as a means of locating people in the city. The methods can be fairly direct, and be intended for business purposes, as when Marion learns "there is a personal in the paper for Ila de Parloa [her stage name]," placed by the "manager of [a] theatrical troupe," who is trying to get her address. Or, in other cases, the methods can be more indirect, and the results—aside from news paper sales—quite fortunate. During her time as a reporter, Marion is assigned to gather material for a story reexamining the disappearance of a young heiress, now presumed dead. Marion meets with the girl's mother, Mrs. Townsend. Touched by the mother's grief, Marion is concerned about interviewing the woman: "'Our editor thought of reviving the story of your poor child's disappearance, but I hope he will not do it now, for I fear that it will pain you" [said Marion].

"'No! So!' cried Mrs. Townsend, plaintively, 'I thank him for his interest... I feel that [my daughter] lives, and it is this publicity that will rescue her!"' Mrs. Townsend's response shows her faith in the press as a means of reaching the public and locating her missing daughter. (And, indeed, the girl is found—though it is the investigation rather than the publicity that brings about her rescue.)

The newspapers also relay current information, as is shown in several cases. For example, the morning after Marion escapes from a burning building: "[Marion's friend, Alma] handed Marion a morning edition of the New York Star, and there, sure enough, was a full account of the fire...

"Then there were pictures of the fire... Although it was an array of information which almost staggered her.

"'How in the world could they do it so quickly?' she asked..." Marion's question isn't answered, but it is clear she can rely on the news papers for a source of reliable, detailed information on recent events— "an array of information," complete with pictures.

The newspapers are also seen providing other types of useful in formation. Marion and her friends read reviews of Marion's theatrical performances, use the "help wanted" listings to look for jobs, read about their own perilous adventures in print, are alerted to dangerous characters at large in the city and wanted by the police, and even learn of the recent activities of friends and relatives who have been out-of-touch. Communication in My Queen thus seems to be a means of coping with the size of the city and the mobility of its inhabitants, by providing a variety of current, accurate information. In addition, newspapers seem to be a way of turning the city into a community: inhabitants share the same stories about each other's activities and backgrounds, even though the information is from printed sources rather than word-of-mouth.

The city's inhabitants are, of course, a central part of New York and of My Queen. They are crucial to the plots, they inspire social commentary, and they are even a regular part of the scenery. Even close relations serve as examples for study.

In the second episode of the series is a brief scene designed to stress Marion's pathos in contrast to great wealth and lack of compassion:

"One night, when the winds were biting and the sky was laden with chilly mist, Marion was hurrying home from another day of fruitless searching [for employment].

"A carriage passed her with its lanterns glowing brightly, and, as Marion gave a sharp glance into the vehicle, she saw her aunt and uncle leaning back in the cushions.

"'Oh, this is horrible! horrible!' she whispered to herself. 'They are fairly rolling in wealth while their own nieces are starving."'

Marion's aunt and uncle never do provide Marion and Dollie with assistance, or even friendship. But, in the eighth episode, when Marion's uncle is murdered, Marion is asked to stay with her aunt for a time and is able to observe Mrs. Stanton more closely. Again, she sees that her aunt is self-centered and almost emotionless, except as concerns her status in society. At one point, Mrs. Stanton seems to be more gratified over the number of sympathy notes and condolences she has received than grieved over her husband's death. During another conversation, Marion asks Mrs. Stanton if she would like to see her sister, Marion's mother, again. Her response? "Mrs. Stanton sniffed a moment and then moved a little uneasily.

'"I suppose she dresses as dowdy as ever,' she said slowly. 'Dear, no, it wouldn't do. Martha would only disgrace me if she came here.'" Relatives are not important, reputations are.

If My Queen seems scornful of the rich, it is also troubled by so cial inequality, or, as Marion wonders, "Why was it that some should have so much and others so little? Why should she be so utterly destitute of even the necessaries of life, while others were basking idly in the sun shine of luxury?" The contrast between rich and poor, or between the beauty of the city and the misery of some of its inhabitants, appears often in My Queen, especially in the early episodes, when Marion and Dollie are struggling to earn an adequate income. Working at the Charity Hospital, Marion is often reminded of social conditions in the city: "[the hospital's] windows overlooked a scene of magnificence as well as much that was less inspiring.... The great cities of Brooklyn and New York made a magnificent background to the scene. Spires towered from expensive churches, and at sunset the plate-glass windows of the many noble structures gave back a glow which was almost glorious.

"Thus the city's grandeur and luxury was before her eyes, while its misery was in even closer proximity, for was she not caring for its victims, its slaves and its outcasts in the very wards of this isolated building?

'"Oh, to think that such wretchedness should exist!' [Marion] sighed over and over. 'To think that with all the wealth and luxury of New York, these poor, poor creatures should drag out such an existence!'"

At this stage in the series My Queen is very sympathetic to almost all of the city's poor and unfortunate, even those who have committed crimes. They are victims of society, to be pitied and helped. Shortly before the passage contrasting the city's luxuries with its victims, Marion becomes involved in a long conversation with a Bible reader, as the two ride the ferry to Blackwell's Island. Marion volunteers her thoughts about criminals: "'...there are many classes of criminals. There are those who sin through weakness and those who are deliberately vicious. Then, of course, there are the others who sin almost from necessity.... Society is all to blame. If conditions were right, there would be very few criminals, and none, I am sure, of the last class I mentioned...When a man's strength is deficient he is not to blame for it...To me [the prisoners] look like poor creatures who never had a chance. No doubt they would all have been honest if they could have earned decent livings.'" These at titudes change in later stories. As the series progresses, it seems to become less sympathetic to criminals and to the city's lower class. They are not always pictured as victims of society, but as wrongdoers, deserving justice. This change in attitudes is reflected in several aspects of My Queen— the characterization of the poor, for example. In the first episodes, My Queen's major villains and scoundrels are primarily from the middle and upper class, but later stories use more and more criminals from the poorer parts of the city. The characterizations also seem to become more brutal, until, in the eleventh episode. My Queen paints what is perhaps its harshest picture of the indigent. In this story, out of compassion, Marion accompanies a beggar woman to her home; once there, Marion quickly discovers the woman has lured her to her home to rob her; she is soon "surrounded by a group of the inmates of the building, blear-eyed, low-browed men and women, who seemed to spring up from the very floor of the passage....

"Just one breathless moment passed and the whole pack was upon her... "[They capture her and] without releasing the hold which they had kept upon her wrists, these human monsters set about to rob her of her jewelry." Marion escapes—but only because after the first attack, the group "fell to fighting among themselves like so many tigers...their eyes glittered like those of maddened brutes and they fairly growled with rage as they...clawed at each other." In these passages, Marion's attackers almost cease to be humans; they are virtually reduced to animals, "monsters" and "tigers," growling and clawing. The episode is hardly designed to inspire sympathy for the city's downtrodden.

My Queen does still show some good and honest people in the working class, though they appear infrequently after the first six episodes. There is some difference by gender: generally, when they are shown as a group or as minor characters, poor women are usually pictured sympathetically; poor men, unfavorably. The later My Queen stories also often tend to associate many of the lower class with some form of vice—dishonesty, theft, drunkenness, and/or lechery—along with some degree of rudeness and/or brutality. Throughout the series, Marion, bewails the misery in the city, but in later episodes that misery seems to be attributed more to crime and vice than to social conditions.

It would be unfair to say My Queen's attitude towards the lower class is totally unsympathetic, for it is not. Indeed, the choice of setting for the thirteenth episode—the city's factories and "sweat shops" —seems almost a way of atoning for some of its earlier criticisms, a way of balancing the treatment by again presenting many scenes sympathetic to the working class. But even in this episode, two attitudes emerge. The factory girls are trapped by circumstances and deserve help, but their male counterparts are seen singing "maudlin songs" In the corner saloons. In all, the treatment of the poor seems to suggest a certain ambivalence towards them, mixed with some compassion for their living and working conditions.

After one of her many adventures, Marion stops for a moment to think about New York: "'Oh, you great, wicked city!' she said to herself, with a smile. 'How beautiful you look in this golden sunlight! Still, if it were not for the sunlight, I should wish to die. There must be some bewildering glamour to deceive the senses, for a true glimpse of all the misery would drive one to insanity."' To Marion, the "ambitious farmer's daughter," New York is an overwhelming experience, offering both opportunity and tragedy. In the first thirteen issues of My Queen, it is also portrayed as a place of indistinct architecture, a city dotted with government institutions, businesses, factories, and entertainment facilities, many of which are connected with human suffering or vice. It is a city filled with vehicles and people perpetually in motion, a place linked by transportation and communication, where the poverty-stricken coexist alongside the wealthy. Or, as Marion puts it, a "great, wicked city," containing both sunlight and misery.

1. Street & Smith advertisement for My Queen, back cover My Queen, no. 1.

2. Issues 14-26 follow Marion's adventures as the company travels across the US, giving performances in different cities (one per issue); nos. 27-30 bring Marion back to New York for a final round of weddings and reunions. According to the Street & Smith ledgers, the final issues (31-37) reprinted unrelated romances by Bertha M. Clay [pseud.], mostly reprints from Half- penny novelette. The format for issues 32-37 was changed to story paper size. ("Dime Novel Sketches No. 72: My Queen," Dime Novel Round-Up, 34, no. 12 [December 1965], 125.)

3. The picture of women in the working world often shows them as tired. and/or thin. One of Marion's first reactions to the clerks in a depart ment store is pity: "'Poor things!' she thought, as she noticed how tired the clerks looked." "Marion Marlowe's Skill," p. 12; conditions in the factories, of course are even worse: "As [Marion and her companions] climbed the stairs up to the sixth story, Marion noticed a continual wirring of sewing machines, and in the hallways they squeezed past poor, pale-faced young girls, whose frail arms were fairly piled up with pieces of silk and satin.

"'This... is one of the best places in the city. The firm on this floor treats its employees far better than the average' [her companion said].

'Why don't they open the doors and windows? The place is stifling,' gasped Marion.

'Why, the wind might blow the [material] about, and minutes are precious here. Time is much more valuable than human comfort.'" ("Marion Marlowe's Christmas Eve," p. 4).

Copyright 1991 by Deidre Johnson

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