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 )
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." 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."
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.
WORKINGS OF THE CITY—GOVERNMENT:
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. 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 rescued...by 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,
"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
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
'"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
'"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
"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
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
"'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
'Why don't they open the doors and windows? The place is stifling,'
'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