Borrowing from the Great Bad Writer of Victorian Romances


$_35I hope to bring out my next novel, ‘The Villainous Viscount Or The Curse of the Venns’ within weeks. There’s been a long delay – over two years – between this and my last ‘Ravensdale’. That was only partly because I’ve written half of the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois as well.

This is the third version of this book I’ve worked on. I began to write this novel as comedy, and I wasn’t satisfied with that after 28,000 words. Cue, writers block…

Then I began to write it as tragedy, and I wasn’t satisfied with that after 56,000 words. Cue,  worse writers block…Yuk, Yuk, Yuk. I became horribly familiar with that. It went on for weeks. I did a blog post on it.

So then I wrote it as Gothic dark comedy with a tragic back story not written as comedy, and – no serious writer’s block to speak of, though  (I always get it for a few days near the end; that’ s nothing).

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I wrote that first comic version  partly as a spoof of the style of novel by the Victorian and Edwardian writer of romantic melodrama, Charles Garvice. This splendidly lurid work is called ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’ (1894).

In this, there is a wild viscount called Heriot Fayne who goes in drunkenness and pugilism and goes about dressed as a costermonger. He is also a talented musician. When he falls for an innocent girl, he vows to reform, and escapes the corrupting air of the city to be  a sort of country busker.

This sounds like the stuff of comedy, but sadly the story is written with deadly seriousness. Charles Garvice’s sense of the absurd in his novels can only be detected with a microscope.

However, I thought the idea of a pugilistic, drunken, musical social outcast of a viscount who sometimes went about dressed as a member of ‘the lower orders’ a purely brilliant idea. I was disappointed at how little Garvice explores the possibilities of this, and how flat a character he made Heriot Fayne, given  his outrageous habits.

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Intrigued by these contradictory features, I have borrowed them for my own version of this individual in Harley Venn, also a viscount and a social outcast by dint of his habits of keeping low company, brawling in the street, and other such disreputable habits. Harley Venn, however, has more problems than Heriot Fayne. He is plagued by a family curse and threatening visits by a cloaked and hooded and skeletal being,

In a previous post, I wrote about how I first came by the novels of Charles Garvice, this Victorian writer of bestselling romantic melodrama, so my apologies for anyone who remembers that, if I go into it again.

My parents used to renovate isolated country mansions before it became fashionable. To furnish these ludicrously outsized dwellings they used to go to auctions, and the job lots often contained crates of old books, ideal for filling up empty shelves.

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As I have said before, I first read this book , hooting with derisive laughter as teenagers do, when snowed up in the Clwyd Valley at the age of fourteen – raiding my mother’s Bristol Cream at the same time.

I came across all sorts of books through these job lots, many of them, in those pre-internet days, long out of print.  There were b ooks by Mrs Humphrey Ward and Helen Mathers, memoirs of nineteenth century rural vicars and collections of sermons  packed in with some of Shakespeare’s plays and copies of 1950’s science fiction and fantasy magazines.  Informative books on pig keeping, gardening, and engineering mingled with stories by Enid Blyton with appallingly racist titles, works by Arhtur Conan Doyle, a strange encyclopaedia like tome called ‘Everything Within’, paperback versions of Georgette Heyer and Mary Stuart and hardbacks of PG Wodehouse, and this one book by Charles Garvice.

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I re-read ‘ a couple of years ago. An online friend named Thomas Coterrall tracked it down for me. Thanks, Thomas!

Given that I took inspiration from a theme of Charles Garvice, it sounds highly ungracious if I say that when I re-read it, if anything, it struck me as being even more outrageously bad then when I read it the first time.

Still, I would be dishonest if I said anything else. There are a couple of good paragraphs, where Garvice lapses into good writing. Generally, however, with regard to Garvice’s love of wildly improbable co-incidences, lurid melodrama and purple prose, I have to agree with Laura Sewell Mater, on her article ‘Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist:

‘…I recognised, almost from the moment that I started reading, that I had found something amazingly, almost unbelievably, bad.’

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Yet, I have remained fascinated by the fascinating badness of Garvice’s novels. ‘The Outcast of the Family’ has remained my favourite, perhaps because it is the one I enjoyed first. I still maintain that it is probably his worst. I have read several others, including  ‘A Life’s Mistake Or Love’s Forgiveness’  ‘The Marquis’ , ‘Wild Margaret, Or His Guardian Angel’, ‘The Woman’s Way’ ‘Just A Girl’ ‘Wicked Sir Dare’ and ‘The Story of a Passion’. Yes, I’ve read all those, but they were rather a disappointment after the first. They didn’t provide the same amount of unintentional comedy.

I feel the same fascinated affection for the first Charles Garvice novel I read (despite the scene where the hero shows rebarbative anti-Semitism)  as Laura Sewell Matter felt about ‘The Verdict of the Heart’ . This was a Charles Garvice book which she tracked down after becoming fascinated by the lurid text in the pages she found washed up on a beach in Iceland.

Ms Matter says of Charles Garvice in her article ‘Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist’: –

‘The critics were merciless. His work was routinely dismissed by such highbrow publications such as The Athenaeum, which snidely acknowledged Garvice’s success: ‘The very thickness with which the colours are laid on will make the novels popular in circles which know nothing of artistry.

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‘The question which concerned the critics was not whether Garvice’s work was high art – it patently was not – but whether he was a calculating businessman who condescended to write for the newly literate female masses, or a simpleton who believed in the sort of twaddle he peddled. A fool or a cormorant. Either way, he was damned.’

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However, in my first post on Charles Garvice, I quoted a very telling point that Ms Matter makes towards the end of her article: –

‘ What Moult and the other critics failed to acknowledge, but what Garvice knew and honoured, are the ways in which so many of us live in emotionally attenuated states, during times of peace as well as war (during the First World War, Garvice’s novels had been favourite reading material for soldiers in the trenches). Stories like the ones that Garvice wrote may be low art, or they may not be art at all. They may offer consolation and distraction rather than provocation and insight. But many people find provocation enough in real life, and so they read for something else. One cannot have contempt for Garvice without also having some level of contempt for common humanity, for those readers – not all of whom can be dismissed as simpletons –who may not consciously believe in what they are reading, but who read anyway because they know: a story can be a salve’.

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