In a previous post, I mentioned how I’d done some exploration of the novels of that most mawkish and critically lambasted, but outstandingly popular of the romance writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Charles Garvice.
This writer interested me, because he seems to me to be at least in part the inspiration for many of the plot devices and character types of later romance writers.
I first came across a novel by Charles Garvice which my mother had got as part of a job lot of other Victoriana in an auction. This book, wonderfully named ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’ I skim read in between pacing the corridors during a spell of being snowed in at fourteen in rural North Wales. I was astounded even then by the sheer badness of the writing, the wonderful combination of sentimental love scenes and wild melodrama, the cardboard characters, the wildly improbable co-incidences and the solemn, moralising tone.
Recently, I remembered it, and my fellow writer Thomas Cotterill was kind enough to track it down for me, and I read it through, guffawing now and then. Since then I have been sampling more of this most prolific of author’s output. I’ve found a page on Charles Garvice on Wickipedia, with some wonderful covers posted (that one for ‘Lord of Himself’ is particularly lurid).
I also found a very amusing article ‘Pursing the Great Bad Novelist’ by Laura Sewell Matter on how she became intrigued by the output of this shamelessly commercial writer. In it, she comments on the astoundingly predictable nature of the plots: – ‘Little beyond the heroine’s hair colour differentiates one from another’. But they sold incredibly, making Garvice a fortune; his readership swallowed his predictable twaddle and begged for more. During the horrors of trench warfare in World War One, it even found a wide male readership in soldiers, for whom any form of tenderness, of a story with a predictably happy ending, must have been comforting.
A fellow writer assured Garvice that he would be forgotten; this has proved true; almost nobody has heard of him today; but he replied by pointing to a seaside crowd on a beach; ‘They’re all reading my novels.’ This was true as well.
One reader, though, may have literally torn his writing apart, for Laura Sewell Matter found some pages of one of his books, washed up on a beach in Iceland…
Ms Matter found it impossible to finish another one after being initially fascinated by the absurd melodrama on the few sea washed and seaweed covered pages of ‘A Verdict of the Heart’ which she found on that beach . To finish it, she had to travel to the British Library. On looking into others, though, she discovered that they are tediously similar, with the same stock characters and clumsy plot devices churned out again and again.
Yet, she finishes her article by remarking that on beaches today, women will be reading the works of romantic novelists who use the same plot devices and weary formulas (laughing all the way to the bank).
As someone who had hoped that women had moved on a little in their world view, aspirations and tastes since 1890, I find that a little disturbing. But I have to admit the truth of it.
I’m either proud or ashamed to admit that I have actually managed to read through three more of Garvice’s ‘predictable melodramas’ since rereading, ‘The Outcast of the Family’, which as an impatient teenager I skimmed through. I’ve been able to do this through suffering from migraines, when anything of a fine literary nature would be beyond me, anyway.
So, I’ve explored the purple prose and melodramatic joys of ‘Wild Margaret Or His Guardian Angel’ (I couldn’t resist a book with a title like that) ‘Just a Girl’, ‘Only One Love, Or Who Was the Heir’ and ‘The Woman’s Way’.
I’ve also dipped into a good few more. There’s some delicious titles, and it’s only a shame that the lurid dust jackets have largely been lost. There’s ‘A Heritage of Hate’, ‘Her Humble Suitor’ ‘A Life’s Mistake Or Love’s Forgiveness’ and ‘Her Heart’s Desire’. I mustn’t forget ‘Edna’s Secret Marriage’.
I wouldn’t write reviews on these ones I’ve only dipped into, as (pulls a prissy face) while I’m about ninety-nine point five per cent sure of what my opinion of them would be if I read them through, I can’t be sure. In those missed out pages they might surprise me yet…
On this unlikely surprise, more in the second part of this post. For the moment I’d like to write of Garvice’s Plot Devices. While I wouldn’t comment on their individual merit without reading them through, I think it’s fair enough to comment on some similarities I have found in the text of the ones I have read through, which are all startlingly alike.
These invariably include an innocent heroine, and a wild spendthrift of an heir to an Earldom who is manly and open hearted, but has a sad reputation. He is greatly disapproved of as a rule by the currrent incumbent of the title, and has often been cast offf. Often he’s in disguise as someone of a lower status (in ‘The Outcast of the Family’ Heriot Fayne is even mistaken by his true love for a tramp, but he takes this disguise further than the others).
Anyway, you’ll know him as the hero by four things; he’ll be very handsome, a skilled boxer,he’ll have an ‘indefinable air of command’ and he won’t tolerate any sort of ill treatment of dogs (a shame he didn’t come across Heathcliff when he was hanging that spaniel). If he sees any of that, he’ll roll up his sleeves and give the perpetrator a drubbing, and then apologise to the heroine for brawling in front of her.
There is the scheming relative after this true specimen of British manhood’s prospects or his true love, sometimes both. This nasty piece of work gets up to all sorts of mean tricks, and sometimes isn’t even a relative, but a so-called friend. He sometimes, but not invariably, ill treats animals and has pale eyes, but he can be quite nice looking. One thing, however, gives him away; unlike the open hearted hero, he is calculating and thinks too much. By contrast, when the hero of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ spends the afternoon thinking, his handsome face is haggard with the unaccustomed effort.
In ‘The Outcast of the Family’ the villain frames the hero for a murder he did himself; in ‘The Woman’s Way’ likewise for a forgery; in ‘His Guardian Angel’ he sets him up as a bigamist…
Sometimes, he’s in collusion with another of Garvice’s stock characters, the scorned woman who loves the handsome, dashing hero obsessively. Sometimes she’s a distant relative and society catch who’s intended for him until he casts himself at the feet of the innocent heroine; sometimes she’s an actress of shady character who is eager to claim he seduced her or married her and left her. Sometimes, there’s both of these types persecuting the happy pair at once, led on by the villiain of the piece. Not as if the said hero has acted caddishly by any women of dubious reputation, of course; he’ll have paid them off handsomely; but she can’t bear to let him escape from her clutches into married bliss with the sweet young girl, who is almost invariably his social inferior.
Often the hero may save the heroine, or the heroine’s dog (who needs the RSPCA with such men about) from a bolting horse. He is often placed lying in the heather for just such a fortuitous appearance.
Quite often the hero tries to escape his financial problems following his squandering of a fortune – or his tormented love for the heroine – by going to seek a different sort of fortune abroad. Both Jack Carter in ‘Only One Love’ and Heriot Fayne in ‘The Outcast of the Family’ work their way to South America as sailors, where they contact malaria and arrive back home looking very unwell, but still eager to denounce the villain of the piece, rescue the sweet heroine from his clutches, and give him a drubbing, if necessary.
Heriot Fayne leaves his devoted manservant waiting for him in his London house while he goes on this adventure, and we never hear about him again; it is to be hoped he didn’t eke out the rest of his days waiting for his master’s return. Such oversights seem to be rare in Garvice; usually, he winds up the loose threads neatly, and through a series of wild co-incidences, the main characters are all brought together for a final dramatic confrontation. Poetic justice dogs the villains, so that Stannard Marshbank, as high as a kite on ‘chloral’, falls into the very quarry in which he pushed his victim, and some of the dishonest women who have duped the hero and heroine alike sink into an unspecified decline, presumably triggered by shame.
So, when I turned to the novel that confirmed Garvice’s reputation as a best seller in the US, ‘Just a Girl’ I expected to be able to predict the plot. But I didn’t, quite.
Garvice actually surprised me! But more of that in my next post.