Titles From Victorian Romantic Melodramas to Make You Smile

The news generally being fairly grim – again – and there being nothing like a laugh to raise the spirits, I thought I’d write some more about looking through the titles of best sellers of  the Victorian and Edwardian  era.

And what better way than to begin with some of those by the subject of my last blog post, the writer of Victorian romantic melodramas, Charles Garvice. His titles can raise a smile, at least.

For instance, there is one of his earlier listed novels, the 1887, ‘Twixt Smile and Tear’, and the 1893 tile, ‘’’Twas Love’s Fault’. Then there is ‘The Ashes of Love, Or Fickle Fortune’ (1901?) ‘So Fair, So False’ (1902), and ‘Wicked Sir Dare’ (1911).  There is the best seller that led to his worldwide success, ‘Just a Girl Or The Strange Duchess’ (1898).

His 1908 novel, ‘In Wolf’s Clothing’ (1908) is sadly, almost certainly not a werewolf romance. He did, however, seemingly write at least one historical romance, by the title of ‘The Call of the Heart: A Tale Of  Eighty Years Since’ (1914). That, presumably, would be right at the end of the Regency era, and might even feature a Regency version of his usual Victorian Wild Young Earl (Or Earl’s Heir) Hero…

Astonishingly, given Garvice’s ‘traditional’ – not to say regressive — views on women’s role,  there is one actually called ‘The Female Editor of the Manchester Trumpet’. I can’t find the date for that one at the moment, but I have a ludicrous vision of some official  mistaking that last word for the old term ‘strumpet’ .

‘Mr. Garvice: I always understood that your books maintain an irreproachable moral standard, and are distributed as Sunday School prizes. This one sounds –well, I hesitate to say ‘improper’, but…’

Another best selling author of the late Victorian era who lived into the 1920’’s was Marie Corelli. The sales of her novels exceeded those of  HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling combined. These days, like Garvice, she is largely forgotten.

She thought up some rather fine titles. ‘The Sorrows of Satan’ (1895) perhaps being the best. This, of course, was made into a film in 1925, and reflected her interest in spiritual matters. Another is, ‘Innocent: Her Fancy and His Fact’ (1914). These stories seem to be as melodramatic as Garvice’s –and unlike his, sometimes having a supernatural theme.

While they are concerned with love affairs, they would not pass the definition of a romantic novel these days, not generally having ‘upbeat’ endings. In fact, ‘The Sorrows of Satan’ has a Faustian theme.

It is an intriguing fact that the Victorian precursor of the modern romance novel was not required to have a happy ending at all – in fact, as they often dealt with (delicately portrayed) ‘irregular’ relationships, the censorship would have demanded an unhappy outcome for many of the ill starred lovers.

Other wonderful titles I have found with a cursory glance over the introductory pages of Garvice novels include: ‘Love at the Loom’ by Geraldine Fleming; ‘A Woman Without Mercy, Or A Heart of Stone’ by Mary Agnes Fleming and ‘Maid, Wife or Widow?’ by Mrs. Alexander.

Intriguing, that particular writer being only known by her husband’s surname. I think that indicated that she was a widow.  Respectable married women of this era were expected to subsume their whole identity into that of their husband, to the point of being known by his first name as well as his surname.

I have commented before how my mother used to buy job lots of assorted books at auctions to fill the bookshelves in the houses in which we lived, which is how I came across Charles Garvice in the first place. She came by books by Mrs. Humphrey Ward and Mrs. Henry Wood in this way, and I used to wonder why these women had male names…

Mrs Georgie Sheldon was another writer of the same era. Her titles include, ‘Thrice Wed: Only Once a Wife’ and ‘Earl Wayne’s Nobility’. I can’t date these, as one of the problems with much publishing at the time was that the publisher often did not trouble to state the date of publication.

Helen Mathers, whom I know from my mother’s bookshelves as well, wrote a  melodramatic tale called ‘Comin’ Thru’ the Rye’ (the title being based on the song by Robert Burns). This is reputedly based on fact. I assume that it is loosely based on fact, the villainess  Sylvia being an impossible character.

She also wrote, “Sam’s Sweetheart: in Three Volumes’ . This seems an odd subtitle to me. I thought that Victorian novels were always published in the three volume format, so that readers would be satisfied that they were getting their money’s worth.

Another title of hers based on a traditional song is ‘T’Other Dear Charmer’ (from MacHeath’s song of that name in ‘The Beggar’s Opera’). ‘A Wastrel Redeemed’ sounds as if it is intended to be uplifting maerial, while, ‘Found Out’ seems a title guaranteed to stir feelings of anxiety in those up to no good on the sly.

Finally, ‘The Unseen Bridegroom’ by Mary Agnes Fleming and ‘The Fatal Wooing’ by Laura Jean Lippey sound like wonderful pieces of melodrama.

Books in the late Victorian era, even the mass market ones, were very well made. My 1900 copy of the Charles Garvice novel ‘The Outcast of the Family’ (1894) has no loose pages and intact covers, I suppose because they were stitched rather than glued. The price of this particular edition was three shillings and sixpence – fifteen and a half new pence, only we don’t have half pences any more.

That would have been quite expensive for someone on the low wages of that time to buy. Most people who weren’t living in downright poverty no doubt found it worthwhile to join one of the ‘subscribing libraries’ which lent out books for sixpence (two and a half new pence).

This book has another intriguing detail. It has a stamped detail on it, stating that it was awarded as a Sunday School prize in January 1901 by St Dennis’ to Arthur Buldrick. It would hardly be likely to appeal to a boy. I wonder if he ever read it through?

Georgian Romance Revolt by Lucinda Elliot Out on 17 September

Following on from my last post about servant lead characters, my own dark comedy ‘Georgian Romance Revolt’ is out on 17 September and is available for pre-order here .

Without wanting to write a spoiler, one of the lead characters is incongruous in his role as a servant…

The story follows the adventures Elaine Young, a young woman living in near the future, who goes on a ‘Cyber Escape Break’ into the early Georgian world of her favourite novel by the renowned historical romance writer Charlotte Cray, only to find it alarmingly warped.

For a start, her coachman Johnnie – certainly a minor character in the original novel – is exactly like one of Charlotte Cray’s ‘Golden and Reckless’ hero types.

Then, the anti-hero -the disgraced earl turned highwayman known as Erl Lawless, and wholly a Dark, Mean and Moody Type of male lead – steals Elaie’s escape device in the form of her engagement ring, trapping her in this cyber world adventure.

…Or is this a cyber world?

Erl Lawless keeps on talking about a ‘scribbling dame’ who has somehow gained control of his actions. Meanwhile, the characters begin commenting upon their own roles in the most alarming way.

Tired of being taken for granted by a part time boyfriend, Elaine only wanted to enjoy a trip to Charlotte Cray’s version of early Georgian England. Now, trapped in this unpredictable world, she is desperate to escape back to mundane reality…

Interview of Emile Dubois (The Eponymous ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’) By Laura Lee

 

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I am very pleased with my new cover done by Ebook Launch.The eponymous scoundrel – and he really is one, no half measures here – and the virtuous Sophie are about to be drawn into the time warp…

Here’s an interview with one Émile Dubios…

Laura Lee: Come in. Sit down. Would you like something to drink?
Émile Dubois: Thank you, Madame. The red wine for a certainty. Georges – my right hand man, you know, though some might spread the rumour that he was my companion in crime – organized this interview. You do things very differently to how we went on in the late eighteenth century – and I speak not only of your strange inventions.
Laura Lee: Which is the first region your eyes would wander to if you were to ever see (gf/bf/wife/husband) naked?
Émile Dubois: I confess myself astonished, Madame, by the familiarity of that question, and from a lady, too. Bien sûr,  the secrets of the bedchamber –
Georges (springing out from behind a curtain). Hoighty Toighty, Monsieur, as my Agnes would say. I can answer that one; he has ever been enslaved by his wife’s derrière and for sure, it is ample enough to attract attention.
Émile Dubois: (leaping up) Tais toi, you insolent lout, how dare you speak so of my angel?
Georges: I am fond indeed of Madame Dubois too, but facts is facts.
Laura Lee: Have you ever been caught naked by someone?
Émile Dubois: I do not clearly remember, Madame –
Georges: Of course he has. Biggest rake in all London society at one time.
Laura Lee: What is the one word in your vocabulary that you use excessively?
Émile Dubois: You will not be surprised to learn that I use three most often: ‘Tais toi Georges’.
Laura Lee: Personally, do you think size matters in reality?
Georges (sniggers vulgarly): Size of what?
Émile Dubois: If you refer to height and width of the whole body, Madame – and I can scarce credit you refer to anything else, liberal as your age is – then for a man in a mill – that is the term for a fist fight of our age, for sure size does matter. If you speak of the ladies, then our age appreciated female curves as you will see from the paintings. As for a man’s most intimate proportions – I am silent on that point, however nature has endowed me.
Laura Lee: Who is the biggest jerk/bitch you’ve ever come across in your life and why?
Émile Dubois: As a gentleman, Madame, I would not refer to a member of your sex by such a term, whatever the provocation, even That Jade Mistress Ceridwen Kenrick.
Georges: You can answer about old Kenrick, though.
Émile Dubois: For sure Goronwy Kenrick qualified as this ‘Jerk’ of whom you speak. A most rebarbative man. He set his siren wife upon me with her hypnotic powers so as to draw me into his schemes for time travel. He tried to sink his disgusting fangs into ma chere Sophie and forced me into co-operating with him by threatening to attack the human members of my household. Besides that, he tortured me by showing me visions of the tragedy that had overtaken my younger siblings. I have never wanted to kill anyone so much.
Georges: Tais toi, Monsieur! Madame will believe the rumours about our violent past to be true.
Émile Dubois: Impossible – the blather about our being Gentlemen of the Road was mere idle chatter.
Laura Lee: Have you ever accidentally and yet intentionally kissed someone or tried kissing someone?
Émile Dubois: Under a trance, yes. Ceridwen Kenrick made me do so. Her beauty was possibly an excuse, but ma pauvre Sophie took a dim view of the business.
Laura Lee: What is your favorite color of socks to wear?
Émile Dubois: Madame, in my age we do not wear these how you say, socks. Stockings, yes.
Laura Lee: Women/Men or Cars?
Émile Dubois: Ah, those horseless carriages that create such disruption? Horses are by far a better mode of transport and a good form of exercise, enfin. As for which of the three I find most interesting, as a young man about town, I was fascinated by your sex for a certainty.
Laura Lee: If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?
Émile Dubois: You have stabbed yourself in the foot, perhaps? Your pardon, Madame; in our age we do not go in for what you call introspection. Life is much more comfortable so, especially for a scoundrel such as myself.
Laura Lee: When was the last time you felt possessive?
Émile Dubois: You saw it in me, minutes since, when Georges had the audacity to speak of my wife’s wonderful derrière.l
Laura Lee:  What is the most embarrassing moment you’ve experienced in your lifetime?
Georges: (guffaws) I will respond to that on Monsieur’s behalf – it was when, against all advice, he would go to Kenrick’s evil household in search of diversion with Madame Kenrick from his obsession with Sophie. Of course, he was bitten – and in the Most Compromising Circumstances, what we call en flagrant délit, at that. He had to fight his way out of the house besides, and came back in a fever to spew upon the most magnificent pair of boots that ever I owned.
Émile Dubois: (wearily) Georges, would it cause you great anguish firstly, never again to mention those boots and secondly, not to reveal any more of my most humiliating secrets to Madame?
Laura Lee: Thanks for your time today!
Émile Dubois: (rising and bending over her hand to kiss it). Your servant, Madame.
Georges: Had he ever truly been a servant, he would not say he was yours with such a flourish.

Purple Prose and a Rapist ‘Hero’: The Original Bodice Ripper: Review of ‘The Flame and the Flower’ by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

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Marty-Stu rapes Mary-Sue and then they find a love so true…
I am so glad that I have finished this (by the way, I read it for research: honestly!). I detested reading it; and it was epic length. The only reason I am not giving it one star is because an online friend of mine said that it had helped her in dealing with memories of sexual abuse.
It has been argued that the whole ‘rape to love’ theme so beloved of the Bodice Rippers of the 1970’s developed from the fact that the US was many decades behind the UK and parts of Europe in accepting a woman’s right to sexual pleasure; this being so, readers of this age group were attracted by the comforting fantasy of a man who is at first a sexual aggressor coming to love and treat the object of his lust with tenderness and respect.
This being so, I will give it two stars. This is the most acid review that I have written about any book. As I have often said, I don’t like giving low star, savage reviews and only award them for novels which romanticise rapist so-called heroes or the brutalisation of women.
Even so,being a softy, I doubt I would have been able to bring myself to write it, had the author still been alive.
This story seems to be a verison of Georgette Heyer’s ‘Devil’s Cub’ meets Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind’.
From ‘Devil’s Cub’ there is the abduction on a ship by a seemingly wicked man who misunderstands the female lead’s purpose and mistakes her for ‘a light woman’, the male lead making a rape attempt (in this case, after earlier successful ones) with the words: ‘Be damned, I’ll take you’ , the male lead’s murderously violent temper, his showing unexpected kindness to the female lead when she is seasick, etc.
Birmingham is also as a sea captain from Charleston, like Rhett Butler from ‘Gone With the Wind’, though Rhett Butler has the ability to laugh at himself that this ‘hero’ does not, and is far likable and intelligent generally. Birmingham’s late mother and the female lead are obviously based upon Scarlett O’Hara’s mother Ellen; the countless other similarities include a version of the sharp-tongued Grandma Fontaine, who in this case becomes one of a chorus devoted to singing the female lead’s praises and running down other women.
I have to find some positive things to say about this. I suppose the writing can be described as vivid; in some passages, it is even striking if overburdened with adjectives and adverbs. For instance, this description of a storm: –
‘Horse and rider entered a forest gone wild. Once lazy branches lashed and stung and whipped and clawed. The trees bent and swayed in what seemed a frenzied determination to snatch her from the horse and failing, moaned their frustration to the wind.’
In its day, it was a phenomenal success.
Views about rapist ‘heroes’ have changed, and I am frankly disturbed that it still receives glowing reviews.
On the writing style, unfortunately, this is far more typical:–
‘To her he appeared as some splendid, godlike being. Murmuring her love to him, she slid her arms about his neck, pressing her soft breasts into the mat of hair that covered his chest …’
For someone who is supposed to be devout, the female lead doesn’t seem very troubled by the First Commandment. Elizabeth Gaskell would have pointed the moral to that.
Purpose prose abounds. Such tautologies as ‘He laughed at her with mirth, throwing his splendid head up high’ are typical. I felt that if I read once more about her, ‘looking up at him timidly’ or the muscle in his jaw ‘twitching spasmodically in his anger’, or ‘the elderly ******* grinning from ear to ear’ I would turn into a dung beetle. Sometimes, the ‘hero’s’ eyes are like ‘flames of fire’ or ‘burning with passion’s fire’. At other times, he ‘chuckles softly’. He is very fond of doing that.
I lost count of the number of times the allure of these ‘soft breasts’ is mentioned, or of descriptions of Heather’s ‘ flowing dark tresses’, or her other charms. Possibly more often than we hear about his ‘dark, handsome face’.
There is no man who meets Heather who doesn’t fall for her, and all the women long for Brandon Birmingham, which surely qualifies the pair as fully paid up, card-holding members of the Mary-Sue and Marty-Stu club .
All men are seized by violent desire the minute they set eyes on Heather. Fat, repulsive ones are stimulated to unusual athleticism in trying to rape her, and as a result are thrown out of windows or knocked flying into bushes by the male lead.
Interestingly, fat people in this are invariably evil, with the exception of Hatti , rightly described in a Goodreads review as a ‘Cringeworthy Mammy stereotype.’

Here
And after all, she is merely, ‘ample’. She is the black domestic tyrant slave wholly devoted to the interests of her white owners. A typical speech from her is: – ‘Oh Lordy, Master Bran, we done thought something bad had happened to you.’
Interestingly, by contrast, none of the black men in this are given any personality or indeed, any sort of distinguishing personal characteristics at all.
At least, the racism of Margaret Mitchell in ‘Gone With The Wind’ had the excuse that was published in 1936, and begun ten years earlier. This novel was published in 1972, long after the Civil Rights movement. Yes, of course there was slavery in the US of 1799; but should it have been portrayed wholly uncritically?
Everyone regards the ‘hero’ with admiration, even those who suspect the rape, though a couple express misgivings over it . All the single local women swoon over this fellow. In fact, his jilted former fiancée continues to pursue him shamelessly. Just why everyone admires him, when he is depicted as being as callow and insensitive as a boy of fourteen at the age of thirty-five or six, isn’t explained, except by his being handsome and rich and something of a bully. Neither does he have the excuse of having lost his mother early; she died when he was twenty-five.

KEW
*Warning: spoilers follow*
This fiancée is understandably humiliated when the ‘hero’ turns up with a bride at the port where she comes to greet him back to the US. Here, one wonders at his total lack of social graces. Even given that overseas post would be disrupted by the French Revolutionary Wars, he might have had the sense to send one of his men with a note ahead of him before coming ashore, asking his brother to get his former fiancée out of the way. No, such delicacy is beyond him, and all of a piece with his performance as a rapist.
This rejected fiancée makes a point of aiming cruel barbs at the poor, helpless Heather (her late nineteenth century name being one anachronism among many concerning the late eighteenth century UK).
This woman, Louisa, is referred to as a ‘blonde bitch’ (off topic: as one born with light coloured hair, I find the way two terms are commonly casually linked in light novels to be wholly unfair).Strangely enough, the ludicrously named ‘Brandon Birmingham’ -it may be that the author had never taken note of what an unromantic city the Birmingham in England is- though he is portrayed as a macho man, shows a feminine streak of spite in his replies to these taunts.
For instance, this exchange, when the ‘hero’ is seen by his ex- fiancée carrying the now heavily pregnant Heather upstairs, is typical:
‘”Do you do this every night, Brandon?” she enquired jeeringly, with a raised eyebrow. “It surely must put a strain upon your back, darling…’
‘His face was expressionless as he made his reply, “I’ve lifted heavier women in my life, including you…’
Louisa keeps walking into these put-downs as if she can’t see them coming, though she is supposed to be so socially confident. In fact, she is, like most of the characters, wholly unbelievable.
Credible characters can make a wholly incredible plot seem believable, but these are as unreal as the events in the story. These characters are caricatures.
Though the story begins in England, the author shows a remarkably blasé attitude towards the need for any familiarity with the topography, language or customs of the UK of the late eighteenth century.
In fact, the action begins in ‘the English countryside’, with no county specified. The description is apparantly much admired, and is certainly striking, but it is set in a geographically impossible location of moorland which is nevertheless within a day’s journey of London on the appalling roads of 1799. Also, here, there is apparently a climate so dry that on a hot summer’s day dust hangs continually in the air. Even when roads were only partly paved, there could be no place in England, even in a prolonged drought, dry and hot enough to create that effect.
These anachronisms are so numerous that it is not worth listing more than a couple.
Heather presumably has lived through the terrible winter of 1794-5, when birds fell dead out of the trees, and in fact, even the mildest winter in the UK is decidedly cold and damp. Despite this, she does not think to order any flannel petticoats or warm underwear to take with her on a winter’s voyage across the Atlantic. This gives the male lead an opportunity to show he cares by having fashioned for her some quilted underwear.
Then, why does Brandon Birmingham (whose father was apparently ‘an English aristocrat’ who during the American War of Independence renounced his citizenship and therefore, any title he had, though we are never told exactly what his was) think that he would be entitled to ‘the axe’ for rape and abduction? It would have been a short drop hanging for him along with the hoi polloi.
There are myriad misunderstandings following on not, it seems, from Birmingham’s raping Heather three times on board the ship, or for his Dominic Alistair impersonation in the inn. No, none of that matters; what does come between them is that Birmingham has told Heather that as he suspects she was in the plot along with her aunt and the others to force him to marry her. Accordingly, he vows to punish her by treating her as an upper servant, allowing her no money, and refusing to consummate the marriage.
For months, he is tormented by desire for her soft breasts and firm youthful body, and finally he resolves on another rape as a way of solving their problems. This, however, proves unnecessary. Heather is already waiting for him in a provocative nightdress of the sort they definitely did not wear in the late eighteenth century.
This, apparently, is very romantic and exciting.
I think what outraged me most is that the rapes that take place when first they meet are recalled by both as finally a good thing, a fit subject for joking, and even a topic for sentimental recollection (by the by, Heather has no ambiguous feelings, no distaste, about having a pregnancy as the result of the rape).
For instance, Heather reflects at once point that she ought to be grateful to him for ravishing her, as her life was so hard before with her abusive (and naturally, obese) aunt. At another time she says, ‘I was nothing before he met me.’
He is sentimentally attached to the dress that she was wearing when he first raped her – regarding it as ‘Their Dress’. He sternly admonishes her for bartering it for some cloth which she uses to make him a Christmas present. She sheds tears and apologises.
At the end, before a wholly improbable piece of love making – though the ‘hero’ is pale from blood loss from a shooting, he can always rise to the occasion – he and Heather have this exchange. He says of one of the many would-be rapists in her life: –
‘”He got what he deserved for trying to rape you.”
She looked at him slyly. “You were the one who raped me. What were your just deserts?”
He grinned leisurly. “I got my just deserts when I had to marry a cocky wench like you.”’
He then threatens to spank her. The timid Heather shows some apprehension. Then he reassures her smugly, ‘”Madam, you amaze me. Never once have I laid a hand to you and yet you still act as if you expect me to.”’
As a critic said of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: ‘It is sentimental and obscene. The obscenity lies in the sentimentality.’

Christmas Ghost Stories: ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen: A Classic Ghost Story as Comedy

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I wish everyone Season’s Greetings.

I wanted to add a post about a ghost story at Christmas. Last year, I recommended Mari Biella’s ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ as a Christmas ghost story.  That’s a  fine Christmas read, available on https://maribiella.com/free-stuff/.

But which Christmas ghost story to choose this year?

I am in fact recomending – again, as I did two years ago – a  ghost story that is about as light as could be, and written from a wholly conventional perspective. The only eccentricity is the fact that the protagonist is content to be that figure of horror and ridicule for previous generations,’The Old Maid’.  Still, as that was generally associated with comparative penury and economic dependence, perhaps the fact that she is a successful business woman – an unusual thing for the early twentieth century – has something to do with it.

I think for spooky humour,  ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen takes a lot of beating.

And here’s my former post on it:

Marjorie Bowen seems to have been an intriguing author. I was astonished to find out on Wickipedia that she wrote under six names:

‘Her total output numbers over 150 volumes with the bulk of her work under the ‘Bowen’ pseudonym. She also wrote under the names Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye and Margaret Campbell. After The Viper of Milan (1906), she produced a steady stream of writings until the day of her death.Bowen’s work under her own name was primarily historical novels.’

To say that she came from a ‘difficult’ background would be an understatement. Her alcoholic father deserted the family, and was later found dead of drink on a London street. Her mother was seemingly a far from fond parent, and so she (Marjorie Bowen) was obliged to support the whole family by her writing for many years.  She was married twice – her fist husband died early, and both their children died in infancy. Her two children by her second husband survived, anyway…

From this, I had to be the more struck by the light, playful tone of ‘The Crown Derby Plate’. Although this is available on project Gutenberg and on Amazon as a Christmas story, the original publication date is not stated.

220px-ImariCI would guess, from the feel to it – and the fact that the heroine for her drive to the isolated house across the marshes uses as a matter of course, a pony and trap – that it was written no later than the 1920’s, before the car became common enough to have such a disastrous effect on our landscape (couldn’t possibly be an environmentalist, could I? But no ranting from me at Christmas)

It is not written as great literature, but as an effective ghost story which, unlike some of the others, is not intended to arouse deep emotion or raise questions. It could almost be used as an example of ‘How to write an entertaining ghost story with the use of humour and economy of style’.  It is set over the Christmas period, so was presumably written for some Christmas Annual or magazine for those days. Accordingly, the vocabulary is simple, and the tone is upbeat, even on such a topic as – for the women of the early twentieth century  a nightmare possibility  for themselves – the image of the Spinster Who Must Earn Her Keep:

‘Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a selection of delightful days.’

She is a collector of valuable china. Staying with her cousins in Essex for Christmas, she remembers that years ago she bought a set of Crown Derby plate from an auction at a local house, which unfortunately had one plate missing.

Her cousins remark that that house has a reputation for being haunted, its former owner, old Sir James Sewell, a collector of antique china, having been buried in the garden.

Martha Pym drives over to see if she can find out if the current owner, who she met and forgot two years ago, has found that missing plate.

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The description of the wintry scene is evocative:

‘Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon; the olive brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost.  The air was cold but not keen; everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes…’

I quote that at length because so fine a word picture seems incongruous in such a light piece of writing. Marjorie Bowen obviously had exceptional talent, but wrote for the market, which often does not give much opportunity to show it to advantage.

‘The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall…It was a square built, substantial house with “Nothing wrong with it but the situation,”  Miss Pym decided…She noticed at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the colourless grass’.

The person who answers the door presents a startling appearance: ‘Her gross, flaccid figure was completely shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp from where Miss Pym supposed that she had been doing some futile gardening…another ridiculous touch about the poor old lady was her short hair.  (In that era, women were not expected to cut their hair at all).

An absurd conversation follows between Martha Pym and the owner:

‘“…I generally sit in the garden.”

“In the garden? But surely not in this weather?”

“You get used to the weather. You have no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully…’

Later on, the person whom Martha Pym assumes to be the last owner Miss Lefain informs her visitor that she frightens people away from the house:

‘”Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult; people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

‘Miss Pym suddenly remembered that Hartleys had the reputation of being haunted – perhaps the queer old thing played on that. “I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly.  “I’d rather like to see one, you know –”.’

The reader doesn’t have a great talent for solving mysteries to begin to have suspicions about the house’s owner.

This is as excellent an example of the ghost story as light entertainment, as distinct from the ghost story which makes a profound impression and is written as literature, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There is no particular moral to ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ – unless it is the very obvious one that if you are too attached to material objects, then your spirit will be unable to move on.

I am astonished by the output of some of these late nineteenth and early twentieth century authors. Even given that they wrote for a living, however did they manage to get so much writing done – particularly when this was in an era when most of it was done in longhand?

The Delights of Good Bad Writing

 

Picture_of_Jeffery_FarnolI am run off my feet at the moment in real life with family responsibilities – as always happens during July and August – so I haven’t been able to keep up with writing at all these past few weeks.

That’s a good thing in a way; real life events should always take precedence over our imaginary worlds, as long as one has writing time over the year. Anyway,the last editing of my latest novel, that sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’’, must wait until the autumn. Still,  I do feel that I have been neglecting my blog for too long.

Apropos my last post, which commented on the similarities between the the poet and spokesman for the days of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling, and the writer of historical romances and detective novels Georgette Heyer, I was reflecting that I must explore the writings of Jeffrey Farnol, who has something in common with either:

Here he is summed up by Wickpedia:

‘Jeffery Farnol (10 February 1878 – 9 August 1952) was a British writer from 1907 until his death, known for writing more than 40 romance novels, some formulaic and set in the Georgian Era or English Regency period, and swashbucklers. He, with Georgette Heyer, founded the Regency romantic genre.’

The synopsis of the plot for ‘ Martin Coninsby’s Vengeance’ made me laugh out loud. Here it is, in all its glory:

‘Jeffery Farnol brings back the pirate days of the Spanish Main in this stirring book with a company of picturesque characters. It is a full-blooded, wholesome novel that captivates the reader.
Martin Conisby, sour from his five years of slavery on the Spanish galleon Esmeralda, escapes during a sea fight on to an English ship and makes his way back to England. Seeking revenge on Richard Brandon, who was the cause of his father’s death and his own imprisonment. Broken both in body and spirit, he arrives home disguised as a tramp, just in time to save a beautiful girl from the hands of robber, Lady Jane Brandon, the daughter of the man whom he has sworn to punish.
In the tavern he meets an old friend, Adam Penfeather, who tells him the tale of Black Bartlemy, the infamous pirate, with his treasure buried on a desert island–treasure of magnificent value.’…

I see. I simply have to read that one. It sounds as if it must be a classic following the ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ blood and thunder So Bad Its Good type of reading.

The titles alone are a delight. Here are a few:

The Amateur Gentleman (1913)

The Jade of Destiny (1931)

John o’the Green (1935)

Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer (1940)

The Fool Beloved (1949)

Sorry about the uneven print size.

I have not yet explored the contents of any of Jefferey Farnol’s novels, but from those titles and that synopsis alone, I am willing to take a bet that regarding purple prose and stereotypical characters, they have something in common with the novels of Charles Garvice, writer of  best selling Victorian and Edwardian romantic melodramas.

I may be proved entirely wrong, of course, and they may contain brilliant writing along with the bad – many novels do.

Charles Garvice, to my mind, wrote the worst prose, and created the most cardboard characters, of any writer I have ever encountered. I must admit that Barbara Cartland may be a strong runner up. However, I could only endure reading two of hers. Both were terrible and full of unintentional comedy.

One was about a disguised courtier turned highwayman in the court of Charles II. The other was about an obese, drab haired girl who went into a coma for a year and emerged as a slender ash blonde creature who came over to the UK to work for her own estranged husband, with whom she had been forced into a marriage of convenience, and who didn’t recognise her.

These gave me a pretty good  idea about the value of her literary output. However, as I read these many years ago, and have been unable to track them down,  I don’t feel that I have recently read a fair enough sample of hers to claim to be properly informed.

Regulars of this blog will know of my fascination with Garvice’s works, and how Laura Sewell Mater’s article more or less summed up my own reaction, that she had only to read the few paragraphs on the pages of that Charles Garvice novel she found washed up on a beach on Iceland, to know that the writing was ‘incredibly, almost uniquely, bad’.

Many writers combine both good and bad writing – that is certainly true of Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters –  but they include too much excellent writing ever to come close to vying for the title of a Good Bad Writer, unlike Vulpius with his ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’, Kipling in much of his poetry, Georgette Heyer, and Charles Garvice.

 

 

 

Criticism and Romantic Novels

I am a bit perturbed (I’m good at being perturbed, aren’t I?) at a New Age view which has infiltrated popular thinking.

A recent blog post by Mari Biella on free speech

Free Speech, Fake News and the Internet

inspired me to write this one.

This ‘New Age’  view that has to some extent infiltrated popular thinking is the  ‘No Negativity’ mindset that equates ‘criticism’ with something bad and unfair – in effect, with ‘negative criticism’.

This seems to me a worrying trend.  Criticism is surely equal to having an intelligent awareness of ones surroundings – towards having an active sense of discrimination. Without that we will have, surely, no intellectual life and also, no moral awareness.

Certainly, criticism can sometimes be harsh and unfair. Nobody exactly enjoys being on the receiving end of a scathing attack, however amusing it may be for others to read.

For instance, literary critics can be savage.

Then, with the rise of the internet, anyone can set buy a book and leave a review, even if it is of the ‘Boring – didn’t get past the third paragraph’ one star variety, up there on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and so on.

For my own part, I avoid giving one star reviews unless the topic is really offensive – ie, a rapist or otherwise really abusive hero, say, and I avoid giving up on any book until I’ve read the first three chapters, while I never review a book unless I’ve read it through.

But that’s just me; a lot of readers take a different approach: that is their right .

And surely, the alternative of a non critical attitude, is far worse all round.

Unfortunately, this ‘New Age’ ‘All criticism is bad and unfair’ is an attitude prevalent amongst the ‘Romance Community’, and that does bother me.

What that amounts to, is to adopt the attitude of the cults – disseminating received information, the value and veracity of which it is an outrage to challenge – so that any critical response is attributed to supposed personal malice and psychological shortcomings, if not downright inspiration from evil spirits (glances uneasily about in search of said evil spirits).

There is a  sort of ‘keeping ranks’ attitude amongst writers and readers of romance – who often seem to know each other through blogs, etc – which adheres to unspoken rules, one of which seems to be that being under attack from outside means that they must not express any discontent between themselves. Any outspoken, hard hitting criticism is seen as being infra dig (Sarah Wendell has been to some extent an exception).  I recently came across a series of fulsome comments agreeing with a blogger who had objected to critical dismissal of the blogger’s idol’s literary ability. The blogger later described that series of agreements  as ‘a stimulating discussion’.  I didn’t quite see where the ‘discussion’ part came in? What was her view of a non-stimulating discussion?

Seriously, I truly did encounter this on a cosy little blog, the purpose of which seemed to be to give glowing reviews to historical romances,’intimate’ and sentimental biographies of monarchs, etc.

I can see how this approach has come about. Romantic novels have been traditionally derided as being unworthy of serious consideration as literature. While genre fiction generally is seen in this light, it is particularly true of romance, which has been especially targeted as absurd. Certainly, there is an element of sexism in this.

A lot of romance writers and readers point out, and with some justification, that male adventure stories and fantasy are just as far fetched;  it is merely that the unrealistic elements in those are different to those in romantic novels.

However, to take the attitude that it is permissible to write what is supposed to be literary criticism, in which a writer or student proffers no objective analysis of general weaknesses among examples the genre, and of particular weaknesses amongst the authors discussed, is surely not  literary criticism worthy of the name. Unfortunately, there are examples of so-called ‘literary criticism’ of romance as a genre which reflect this attitude.

I am sorry to say that this is true of a renowned book of literary criticism of the romance novel written by a Professor of English at McDaniel College in the US – often solemnly quoted as a brilliant defence of the genre in various articles about the web – ‘The Natural History of the Romance Novel’  by Pamela Regis.

This struck me as containing no criticism either of the genre, or of the authors’ work the author purports to analyse. Rather it was a glowing series of expositions of various novels.

At no point during the whole of the book does Regis admit that any of the novels she ‘discusses’ have weaknesses. It reads more like a panegyric on the various authors. She sets out a structure she has devised to which the ‘pure’ romantic novel is meant to a adhere, comprising eight points. She then goes on to define various classic novels as having these points and therefore, by definition, belonging to the category of romantic novels, ie, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ (whether or not these last two are in fact romantic novels is, of course, highly debated; anyway, Regis is confident that according to her approach, they are).

When I came to the chapter ‘The Limits of Romance’ , I thought, ‘Ah; now we shall have some objective analyses worthy of the name’ but no such thing. The phrase merely means that certain novels which are, generally, regarded as belonging to the romance genre are excluded – ie, ‘Gone With the Wind’, which is excluded by not having the necessary HEA.

Where there is any criticism, even of highly contentious subjects – for instance, of Samuel Richardson’s making a happy ending between the heroine and the ridiculous but supposedly romantic would-be rapist hero Mr B in ‘Pamela’ – then rather than engage herself, the author quotes opinions by other critics, never stating her own opinions except in defence of the genre.

Discussion of varying points of view should indeed be used to extend the scope of an argument; but when it is used as a substitute for any real investigation of structural and stylistic weaknesses by the author herself, when she is supposedly an expert on literary criticism – that strikes me as extraordinary.

My own review of this book can be found here:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/182152.A_Natural_History_of_the_Romance_Novel?ac=1&from_search=true#other_reviews

I found some of the comments on the book made by a journalist called Noah Berlatsky in this blog highly apposite:

http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/12/romance-and-the-defensive-crouch

‘Regis’ difficulty is that she wants to defend all romance. She is fighting for the honor of romance as a genre, or as a whole. She never, once, in the entire book, admits that any single romance, anywhere, might be formulaic, or badly written. ‘

…An impossible position to maintain, but somehow the author does it. But then she makes a truly astounding claim about the ‘first romantic novel’  ‘Pamela’, of which, it seems, for all its glaring faults, she as a defender of romantic novels is determined to admire as having a hidden feminist message.  She maintains that:  ‘The story can be called oppressive, I think, only if one believes that marriage is an institution so flawed that it cannot be good for a woman.’

I wrote an answer answer to that bizarre attempt at defence of the distasteful and sentimental outcome (as critics say, the obscenity of ‘Pamela’ lies in its sentimentality)  in my Goodreads review of her book. This would take us too far off topic here for me to quote…

So, to move back to the general…

I remarked in my own review of Regis’ work:

‘The author, in fact, puts herself in an impossible position; in arguing that there have been some romances written which are great literature, pointing to the ‘canonical’ texts of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, she never admits that comparison means just that. If there have been excellent romances written, then by definition there have to have been some far from excellent ones churned out. But as a defender of romance, who seems to make it a point of honour to eschew all criticism, this is an admission that she cannot make. All that she can do, is to maintain a deafening silence on the topic.

This ‘closing ranks’ out of defensiveness and equating all criticism with negative criticism is an attitude of the romance community which contradicts the desire of its members for their genre to be taken seriously. Criticism by definition cannot all be positive.’

If romance readers and writers want their favourite genre taken seriously as literature, then surely one of the first steps must be for romance writers to accept criticism without automatically maintaining the ‘defensive crouch’ that Noah Berlatsky analyses in his blog.

To move forward, surely the ‘romance community’ must also  be prepared to extend hard hitting analysis worthy of the  name about ‘classic romantic novels’ and others  – particularly in works of supposed literary criticism.  Free speech should operate here as elsewhere; for romance writers and critics to adopt the attitude that it is somehow unfair and not nice  makes them seem weak in a stereotypically ‘feminine’ way, and reinforce those sexist interpretations they so rightly resent.

Christmas Reading and Enjoyable Escapism

dickens-christmas-walkSometimes I can be sceptical about  people going in for a massive amount of escapist reading. For instance, I’ve met people who read an average of five male adventure stories or fantasies or romances a week, fifty-two weeks a year. That – even with my just-prior-to-Christmas just ticking over brain – amounts to 260 a year, and when someone is doing that amount of escapist reading, that might indicate avoiding some serious problem in real life that needs urgent attention.

But perhaps that problem is insoluble – or one that will resolve itself in a few years but currently must be endured – in which case, a retreat into escapism is surely sensible.

And I have to admit, if I’d written 260 books I would find it hard to criticise anyone who spent every evening with his or her nose buried in them…

And I have to admit, too, that there is some justice in the argument that authors spend too much time immersed in our fantasy worlds.

But a bit of escapism is refreshing.  It’s nice, sometimes, to be completely uncritical and self-indulgent, particularly at this time of year. In the New Year, we can leap up to tackle the world’s problems with new enthusiasm. Well, possibly we will waddle along to confront them, given that we will have gained on average three pounds.

I like settling down with a book and a mince pie and either a cup of tea or a glass of sherry, or even of mulled wine, while the wind howls outside. I no longer live in the isolated old houses in which I grew up, but I do live on a hill, anyway, where it’s often windy. I don’t have a real log fire these days – but a radiator will do as well (and having been brought up with open fires, while I miss them I know all too well how tiresome they are to light and clean up after day after day).

I was reading Mari Biella’s excellent recommendations for Christmas reading. She’s beaten me to it with ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Christmas Crackers: The Best Festive Reads

Well, as I have often jeered at the insipid nature of Dickens’ heroes and heroines, and commented with disgust besides on his treatment of his wife, it seems only fair to show a flash of Christmas charity and recommend one of his books; besides, sentimental as it is, I do like that one.

christmas-tree-old-fashioned
For sheer escapist fun, I don’t think you can beat Sherlock Holmes short stories at Christmas. For instance,  there is the first collection I ever read, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’. My favourite is ‘The Speckled Band’.  There’s a Christmas story in it too, ‘The Blue Carbuncle’. That one is also interesting as a reminder that in the UK, goose was traditionally the fowl eaten at Christmas – by those who could afford it, anyway.

the_adventure_of_the_blue_carbuncle_07

Then, for short ghost stories, I highly recommend ‘The Old Nurse’s Tale’ by Elizabeth Gaskell.gothic-tales-elizabeth-gaskell

That one is truly alarming. Then, ‘Mr Jones’ by Edith Wharton is another fine spine chiller.

For something both fun and spooky – with the borderline between the psychological and the supernatural there, but only just –last year I read the fine novella by the above quoted Mari Biella: ‘Wintergreen’.

wintergreen-cover-ebook-2I recommend it for seasonal enjoyment, and for another atmospheric winter read,  her vampire story, ‘Pietra’.pietra

Or, for a full length tale of terror, there is, of course, Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’.

 

Seasons Greetings to everyone. Now, where is that heated mince pie and that glass of sherry?

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