The Royal Twins: Or, The Sisters of Mystery
Author: Thomas Peckett Prest
Publisher: G. Purkess
Publication Year: 1848
Book Dimensions: 14cm x 21.5cm
University of Virginia Library Call Number, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2 .P74 Ro 1848
This 1848 Thomas Peckett Prest novel tells the tale of twin girls who endure kidnapping, fire, and secrecy, all as a result of the 1772 Royal Marriage Act.
The Royal Twins; Or, The Sisters of Mystery is a gothic novel by Thomas Peckett Prest. The title appears regularly throughout this particular book in various forms. Embossed in gold down the spine of the tightly-bound, brown leather cover, the title, shortened to The Royal Twins, is also printed at the top of each page in the novel, including the pages of illustration. There are two separate title pages: one with the full title centered against an otherwise blank page and one accompanied by a full-page black and white illustration that depicts a scene from the beginning of the story.
Originally, the author’s name was not printed anywhere in the book; there was only indirect indication of the author—mentions of his previous works are printed in small letters underneath the book title on the two title pages. These other works include Ela the Outcast, The Smuggler King, and The Old House of West Street, suggesting a well-published author. The author’s name that appears in the book now on a blue sticker as “Thomas P. Prest” has been pasted on the first title page and on the spine of the book, most likely after the book’s publication.
At first glance, this particular volume seems extremely well-kept and well-preserved. The novel, being only 148 pages in length, makes for an overall slim and neat book. Measuring from the cover, the book is 14 cm wide and 21.5 cm tall. The two-toned leather cover is smooth and unworn, the corners only showing the slightest bit of wear and tear. Upon opening it, the binding still feels tight, almost as if it were not read much in its past life. There are no marks or stamps of previous ownership in the book. The paper, though yellowed, has not softened much, retaining a brittle sharpness, and its thin quality enables the reader to see through to what is printed on the other side of the page. The only other obvious signs of age are various spots that have arisen from impurities in the paper and chemical reactions to being kept in a humid or damp environment.
An anonymously written preface precedes the story, mentioning that the following text has already been “well-received” by the public. This suggests that this book may not be the story’s first edition or publication, although no other officially documented publications of this story have been found from before 1848. The preface also goes on to include a little bit of background knowledge to events and ideas related to the story, such as the Royal Marriage Act. At the very end, a date and location indicate where and when the book was published: London, April 1848.
The pages contain a simple, squiggly border surrounding the body of text with the title of the novel printed inside the border at the very top. The font is small, neat, and closely set, filling up the interior of the page and leaving little white space. The sixteen chapters are not spatially separated; each picks up right where the last left off. They are numbered in Roman numerals, and while they are not titled, they are accompanied by a succinct, one-line description underneath the chapter number of what plot events occur within each respective chapter. Pages of illustration feature rather frequently throughout the book, about one for every few chapters. Nineteen in total, these inked, black-and-white line drawings go along with story events. Illustrations are numbered at the bottom right-hand corner, and are also accompanied by the full book title, split to border the top and the bottom of the illustration, a layout unlike the other pages that contain only text. Watered down red ink, flecked onto the edges of the pages with a brush, add a decorative touch to an otherwise plain book.
Published during the rise of penny dreadfuls, The Royal Twins was only one of the many such novels that prolific British penny periodical writer Thomas Peckett Prest wrote. Other works include: Ela, the Outcast (1839), The Hebrew Maiden (1840), and The String of Pearls (1846), perhaps more famously known in the form of the later rewritten Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, although to whom the credit for this last work should be given is rather ambiguous and debatable (Smith 26–28).
Ela, the Outcast, in particular, became Prest’s most successful novel, featuring prominently on the classified advertisement sections of nineteenth-century British periodicals, such as Cleave’s Gazette of Variety and The Penny Satirist, that boasted the current popular penny dreadfuls (Cleave’s 4; Penny 4). Prest, who seemed to rather frequently adapt his prose works to the stage, wrote a version of Ela for stage as well, and it was well-performed by The Queen’s Theatre in 1842. Newspapers like The Age and The Satirist; or, the Censor of the Times ran advertisements for showings of this Prest play, describing it as “successful,” “highly interesting,” and “a tale of most thrilling interest” (Age 1; Satirist 41; Cleave’s 4). Prest wrote a few more major plays towards the end of his career: The Miser of Shoreditch, performed by the Standard Theatre in 1854; Lucy Wentworth, a prize-winning play performed by the City of London Theatre in 1857; and “the highly successful romantic drama” The Idiot Boy, performed by City of London Theatre in 1858 (James and Smith; Northampton Mercury; The Era).
Prest’s talents were very widespread; not only did he make a name for himself as a novelist, but also as a songwriter, a performer of his own songs, and a general literary hack for minor independent publishers, most notably Edward Lloyd. The two rose to prominence in the realm of ephemera together. Prest, originally working as Lloyd’s factotum, started writing satirical penny weekly serial versions of Charles Dickens’s works and later branched out into original fictional works that Lloyd edited and published as quickly as possible (James and Smith). In fact, an article on the editor’s publishing legacy written in the 1904 edition of The New York Times Book Review describes Lloyd as “sinning in good company” with Prest (Williams 566). This established Lloyd as a popular publisher of this sort of cheap fiction, and, in turn, established penny dreadfuls as a genre that held massive potential, tapping into the rapidly expanding reading population and love of sensational stories.
This New York Times article, actually a reader’s submission to publication, features an abundance of glowing praise for the Lloyd publishing house, speaking to the high esteem and approval that the British masses had for the man and his purpose. Edward Lloyd became known as “the father of the cheap press” and was among the first to devise new techniques of printing and advertising to achieve his success in production and distribution of these publications (Humpherys). His advertisements for new titles were accompanied by strings of other recent and popular works as assurance of known quality for the reader—a technique seen within this particular copy of The Royal Twins as well. He issued advertisements for his serial and book publications in his own newspapers as well. The Penny Sunday Times and its Companion contained much of his own fiction, and Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper listed the contents of his fictional periodicals, announced new titles, and advertised important reprints in special columns of their own. Additionally, Lloyd would include a complete list of current Lloyd publications that was compiled anew every six months, serving years later as one of the best resources for bibliographers (Smith 10).
The Sadleir-Black copy of The Royal Twins includes a preface, referencing the Royal Marriages Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1772. The act reveals itself as central to the plot of the novel at the end of the story, when all the revelations regarding the titular twins’ parentage occur. The Royal Marriages Act required the consent of the reigning monarch before any marriage of a descendant of George II could be seen as legitimate. Without consent, any marriage contracted was void. This act was a way to guard the royal family from diminishing their status through unbalanced marriages. It is also precisely the reason that the twins in the book, born of an unapproved and unmatched marriage, had to be raised in secret, separate from their noble parents. In the preface, the unknown author criticizes the act for its cruelty. The act was repealed in 2011.
It is interesting to note that while The Royal Twins dealt with political issues at the time, was popular with the public, according to the text’s preface, and several other works by Prest were recognized enough to be adapted into play versions, there are no reviews, subsequent versions or editions, or further adaptations of this story in particular.
Narrative Point of View
The Royal Twins: Or, The Sisters of Mystery is primarily told in the third person by an omniscient narrator. However, the narrator does address the audience directly throughout the novel as “reader,” and occasionally refers to him or herself using the collective “we.” Because of the narrator’s omniscience, character’s feelings are often stated explicitly for the audience, leaving little room for confusion towards the characters’ emotions in any given scene. Much of the characterization is told rather than shown. Additionally, the narrator gives the reader prior knowledge that the characters themselves do not know yet through use of parentheses. The narrator often precedes the main action of an event with a warning statement that alerts the reader of upcoming plot twists. The narration is at once entertaining and vigorous, even as it is filled with many winding, descriptive sentences. Although wordy at times, the diction is quite standard, reading rather easily.
Charlotte, in spite of herself, and notwithstanding she could not understand the feeling found it impossible to conquer a sensation of sadness and regret when Mr. Milford made use of these observation; and she was surprised to find the strong impression on the stranger had made on her even on their first meeting; and she was very dull and less talkative for the rest of the evening than she was accustomed to be; and in spite of all her efforts to the contrary, notwithstanding she really felt vexed with herself, she could not banish the form of the handsome and interesting Henry Stirling from her imagination She could not but also entertain a secret wish that he would fulfill his promise and visit them again shortly. Pure and innocent as it is possible for mortal to be, Charlotte could not for a moment suppose that there was any harm or danger in encouraging these thoughts; but alas, woful [sic] experience was destined to teach her otherwise.
Never was a man more deceptive or dangerous that he who called himself Henry Stirling (for that was not his real name), handsome, accomplished, wealthy, and nobly connected, he possessed the most unbounded power wither for good or evil, and unfortunately his, vices predominated over his good qualities. […] The reason of his assuming the name by which we have introduced him to the reader will be explained in the course of the narrative. (93-94)
The omniscience of the narrator, combined with consistent addressing of the audience in The Royal Twins, serves to create an overall objective and intimate storytelling effect. With the narrator holding the collective knowledge of all the characters thoughts, and directly revealing this insider knowledge, the narrator holds the audience in confidence. This invites the reader to come to more certain conclusions regarding the coding of the various characters: George, the corrupted villain; Charlotte and Augusta, the virtuous sisters; Milford, the self-sacrificing hero. The clear descriptions and long periodic sentences often hold conclusions in suspense until the very end of the sentence or paragraph, delivering heavy impact on the reader. This form of suspense parallels the uncertainty and mystery surrounding the twin sisters that reign throughout the story until the final revelation at the novel’s conclusion.
A married couple, James and Mary Milford, along with their infant son, live on the most impoverished, filthiest street of an English town called Whitechapel after a serious downfall in fortune. In a chance encounter one day, Milford meets a strange man on the road. When the stranger calls Milford by his true name, James Clavering, Milford recognizes him as a man that his late grandfather used to be friendly with (the novel never explains why Milford decided to go by this name instead of Clavering). As the two men catch up, the stranger offers Milford a proposition that would catapult his destitute position to one of comfort and independence. This offer piques Milford’s curiosity, and the man, who insists on remaining unnamed, arranges for a second meeting the next night at the Milford home to discuss the details of his unique offer if he were to accept.
The following night, the stranger arrives at the Milford’s house and persuades Milford and his wife to accept the proposition. He elaborates a little upon it, saying if the couple were to do a task for him, they would be placed in much better conditions than Whitechapel. Milford and his wife accept, and they, along with their son and the stranger, leave their current home immediately. Despite asking, the stranger refuses to tell the couple the destination of their journey, saying everything would be explained in due time.
Mr. and Mrs. Milford are blindfolded upon arrival, and find themselves in a well-furnished apartment. The stranger makes the two swear an oath of secrecy before bringing in a middle-aged woman, holding twin girls in her arms. The man finally explains the proposition in full: the Milfords are to take in the two infants and raise them as their own children until an undisclosed time. In return, the Milfords would receive enough money to give them an education and a place to live. The man does reveal that the twins are named Augusta and Charlotte and that they are of noble descent; however, they must not know the truth about their heritage until the proper time. He further tells them that if anyone knows the truth about the twins and the events of this night, lives would be at stake. The Milfords take the infants from the woman, and they, their own infant son, and the stranger travel once more to their new home. At their new home, the stranger takes his leave of the couple, saying he does not know when they will be able to meet again. Before bed, Milford notices that Augusta is wearing an extremely valuable locket necklace. Inside the locket is a miniature portrait of a woman whom the Milfords notice extremely resembles the infant girls.
The next morning, Mr. and Mrs. Milford meet two female servants, Mrs. Morton and Martha, whom the stranger hired to assist in childrearing and housekeeping. They also explore the house, and in the drawing room, discover a portrait of the same woman in Augusta’s locket, which they conclude must be the twins’ mother.
The narrator then tells of the Clavering family’s past history, revealing how Mr. and Mrs. Milford arrived at their state of severe poverty. Milford’s uncle had stripped Milford of his share of his grandfather’s inheritance out of jealousy and malice, reducing him and his wife to homeless beggars before meeting the stranger.
The months pass rather peacefully. The stranger continues to send letters and money to support the Milfords and to remind them of the importance of their secrecy. The twins Augusta and Charlotte grow to be beautiful and intelligent young children under the couple’s care. A few years later, Martha accompanies the young twins on an outing. When Martha arrives back home, she is crying and agitated, and recounts how a woman stole the girls from her and carried them away in a carriage. She describes the lady as resembling the one in the portrait in the drawing room. Mr. and Mrs. Milford are thrown into worry. On the third day of the twins disappearance, the Milfords are surprised to see them delivered back home by the strange man. He leaves soon, and Milford asks the girls to tell them everything that happened during the kidnapping. The sisters reveal that the woman who snatched them away was very kind yet showed extreme emotion towards them. The stranger also acted very kindly towards them, and had taken them home from the woman’s house on the third day. The Milfords are certain now that this woman is the twins’ mother, and suspect that somehow, the woman and the stranger are related as well. From his kindness in delivering them back to Mr. and Mrs. Milford, they suspect that the stranger is also somehow related to the twins.
More years pass, and while Augusta and Charlotte grow ever more beautiful, intelligent, and virtuous, the Milfords’ own son, George, develops an angry temper and associates with gamblers and criminals. He grows sullen towards their parents and jealous of the twins for stealing most of his parents’ affections. He begins to suspect the twins are not actually his sisters until one night, he overhears the entire truth as Mr. and Mrs. Milford are talking, and begins to plan his parents’ downfall.
A series of misfortunes fall upon the Milfords in quick succession. Mrs. Milford dies from illness, casting her husband into grief and an illness of his own. Additionally, his money supply runs dangerously low; the stranger had not kept in contact with the Milfords for a period of time. This resulted in having to let go of Martha and Mrs. Morton’s services, as well as moving to a new, poorer location with a different landlord. Augusta and Charlotte must work as maids in neighboring houses to provide money for the family. In order to keep up his extravagant gambling life, George uses his knowledge of the truth about the twins to blackmail his father into supporting his spendthrift lifestyle, knowing if his father refused, he would be endangering the secrecy he vowed to keep.
One day during this period of time, Milford takes the twins on a walk, and they witness a man fall off an uncontrollable horse. They quickly take him to their home and tend to his injuries. The entire family become quite taken with the man; Charlotte especially is struck by his good looks and falls in love. Before he leaves, he tells them he is named Henry Stirling and hopes to return to see the family soon, for he had also noticed Charlotte and desired to take her as his wife. However, Milford soon receives a letter from the stranger, warning him that Stirling’s character is dangerous and not to let him too close. To the disappointment of Charlotte, Milford tells Stirling they cannot associate with him any longer because of class differences and not to come again. Stirling departs upset and likewise disappointed. Stirling meets George on the way back from the Milford’s, and they make a deal in which George would help Stirling obtain Charlotte for a price.
One night, the twins wake up to their house on fire. Struggling to find any way out of the burning house, they are finally rescued out by Stirling, who happens to be passing by. The fire leaves the family homeless once more, and they are forced to rent in an extremely poor area. Charlotte’s love for Stirling burns stronger than ever after seeing him again, and George becomes a messenger for Stirling and Charlotte, communicating for them without Augusta or Milford’s knowledge. Stirling continues to woo Charlotte until he receives her consent to elope with him when Augusta and Milford are away on a walk.
When Milford and Augusta learn about Charlotte’s disappearance from a witnessing neighbor, Milford’s health takes a drastic turn for the worse, rendering him too weak to get out of bed. Days pass, and his health continues to decline until he feels the day of his death. He laments that he will not get to see Charlotte one last time before he dies. He is in the process of revealing to Augusta the secret of her birth before he dies, when Charlotte bursts through the door, having run from Stirling, apologetic, regretful, and terrified for her father’s health. Milford rejoices at getting to see both twins before he goes. He finally tells them that he and Mary are not actually their parents, and dies.
A funeral is held for Milford a few days later. The next day, the stranger surprises the twins and reveals himself as their uncle and the Duke of M—. He tells them the entire truth of their birth: the twins are, in fact, the Ladies Charlotte and Augusta, and their parents are the Countess of C— and the Prince of Wales, the second most powerful man in England. Because of passage of the Royal Marriage Act, the marriage of the twins’ parents, unapproved of by the king, was considered illegal, and therefore illegitimated their birth, thus the reason for their secret upbringing. The twins then realize the strange woman who had kidnapped them as children and the woman depicted in the drawing room portrait and locket miniature was their mother, the Countess. The next day, the Duke takes the twins to be reconciled with their mother, and a joyful reunion ensues. Charlotte is eventually officially married to Henry Stirling (revealed to be an Earl), and Augusta to another distinguished nobleman. Meanwhile, George squanders away all his money and property and lives a miserable life.
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James, Louis and Helen R. Smith. “Prest, Thomas Peckett (1809/10–1859).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, May 2008, doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/41042
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The Penny Satirist [London, England], Issue 153. March 21, 1840.
Prest, Thomas Peckett. The Royal Twins: Or, The Sisters of Mystery. London, G. Purkess, 1848.
The Satirist; or, the Censor of the Times [London, England], February 06, 1842.
Smith, Helen R. New Light on Sweeney Todd, Thomas Peckett Prest, James Malcolm Rymer and Elizabeth Caroline Grey. Bloomsbury: Jarndyce, 2002.
Williams, Henry Llewellyn. “Henry Llewellyn Williams’s Reminiscences of the Famous Old English House of Lloyd.” New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1904.
Researcher: Melissa Zhu