Servant Heroes in Historical Romance: A Rarity Compared to Servant Heroines

IX: Pamela is Married 1743-4 by Joseph Highmore 1692-1780
IX: Pamela is Married 1743-4 Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 Purchased 1921

It is interesting that one of the unwritten rules of historical romance is that the hero must never be a working class man, let alone a manservant.
This is the more intriguing, because a fair amount of heroines are maidservants. Of course, in that, they follow the steps of the heroine of one of the first romantic novels – Samuel Richardson’s 1748 Pamela.
As a matter of fact, this heroine spends almost no time in doing what a lady’s maid normally did, which was to sew and run errands for her mistress, for the simple fact that her mistress dies in the first paragraph. Instead she spends most of her time winning debates about sexual morality with her arch hypocrite of a master, being abducted, fending off his attempts by fainting, or solemnly writing down the compliments she receives.
However, her status is that of a servant, and that is the point. It is a version of the Cinderella motif, where a powerful man is won over by the physical and moral attributes of a fair damsel of lower social status, and ultimately marries her.
This reward of the virtuous drudge rewarded by a grand marriage was an old theme even in the eighteenth century – but Richardson’s heroine was a new version in that she really was born into the servant class, not a well born girl reduced to being used as one by a wicked stepmother, or whatever.
It is very relevant here to note that in Richardson’s time, a woman took on the status of the man she married: he was her ‘head’. Therefore, a man who married a low born woman elevated her in status. The reverse was not true, however much money the woman might have. In the eyes of the eighteenth century, where women had no separate legal identity after marriage, a woman could not elevate a low born man by marrying him. She would in fact lose her previous status in society’s view, even if she was originally from the gentry.
This is the – probably not generally understood – reason why there cannot be a male Cinderella equivalent in English novels. There can be no fairytale ending with one. A low born hero could work his way up in the world, of course, and such a man might rise from being of the servant class, and even eventually crown his rise in status by marriage to a woman of ‘genteel birth’, but he must put in the effort himself.
There is another aspect, of course: while all romantic heroes do not have to be Alapha males, they do have to have some element of power about them. Working men were historically cut off from power throughout the world. In Britain, where so much of historical romance is set, they did not have the vote until 1870.
This makes for difficulties, at least with the Alpha type of male lead. A romantic hero is supposed to be impressive, to dazzle the heroine not only with this looks and charm, but also with his influence, his status among his peers and all the rest of it. That is rather easier to do if he can fill her with awe as the titled owner of a rambling mansion with a team of devoted servants, with attractive and eligible women throwing themselves at him and a thousand connections…
…Whereas, if he can only offer her a broken chair by a smoky fireplace in a leaky cottage and a nice slice of pease pudding, it becomes a little harder to dazzle…
The working class hero, then, is that much harder to depict as a romantic figure. It can be done, but it takes more work, and it does frankly lead to a level of realism in the story that that many romance readers might find offputting.
When I wrote The Peterloo Affair, my main interest was in recreating the historical injustice of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. However, I hoped to show as well that romantic love is not incompatible with poverty.
For those interested, you can buy the novel here

Peterloo Affair thumbnail

A manservant is even more of a difficult subject for a hero , because of the indignity of serving a master. Heroes are not meant to kowtow to anyone. A footman, for instance, was employed to make life easy for his masters, to wear a fine uniform and wait at table, to bring up the coals, and solemnly to deliver the mail to the master or mistress on an ornamental tray. This is hardly work of the sort that is generally seen as fitting for hero material.
It might be easier to make a hero out of one of the footmen of the first part of the eighteenth century, when they were in fact ‘running footmen’ and a sort of professional athlete. In this era of terribly maintained or non-existent roads, they were hired to run errands at great speed, and at other times, to run in front of the master’s carriage to clear the way. Gentlemen staged races between their footmen, with high stakes placed on them.
It remains true a background of poverty and overcrowding ( even Richardson is realistic to make Pamela usually share a bed – though not willingly with Mr. B) hardly fits in with the fantasy aspect of the story demanded by romance readers.
The Cinderella motif remains perennially popular. From the wildly improbable trials of Pamela at the hands of the would-be rapist Mr. B , on through the haughty but decidedly non-rapist Mr. Darcy’s humbling by the spirited and vulgarly connected Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice onwards, the theme of the socially inferior heroine being courted by a wealthy, aristocratic and hopelessly besotted man is a staple theme in romance.
There are, of course, exceptions. There is, of course, the excellently written former bestseller, Jo Baker’s 2013 varient on Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn.
I haven’t read the criticism, so I couldn’t say how far that is accepted as an historical romance as such. In so far as it is a love story with an upbeat ending, I believe it qualifies as one according to one of the ‘official’ definitions. Still, it is decidedly lacking in the form of romantic gloss, the escapism so beloved of readers of ‘Regency Historical Romance’.
There have been many variants of Pride and Prejudice, invariably from the point of view of characters belonging to the gentry. Longbourn shows the point of view of the servants. As I have noted elsewhere, unlovely realistic details abound. The female lead’s hands are reddened and coarsened by cleaning and by washing soiled laundry. When she first sees the male lead, who is taken on as a general servant, he is wearing a pair of broken shoes with ludicrously flapping soles.
All Pride and Prejudice readers know that Lizzie’s petticoat was ‘three inches deep in mud’ when she went on her hike over the fields to look after Jane at Bingley’s house three miles away –but few have probably bothered thinking about the person who had to launder it. In Longbourn, this is Sarah: ‘If Elizabeth Bennett had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’
And I suspect this brings out the whole problem, presumably, about romance writers centring their novels about servants. A servant performed squalid tasks, and had little privacy and less leisure in which to pursue romantic entanglements. Should s/he be sexually approached by the mistress or master, it was not usually through true love…
Clearly, a servant’s situation varied between households and between posts. Higher servants in wealthy households led a very different life from that of lower housemaid’s in ones of limited means. Eighteenth century commentary is full of resigned references to insolent, underworked footmen.
Exaggerated as these no doubt were, as so often, male servants were still usually better off than the women, if only because they earned more money and did not have to do the washing. A footman who had the luck to be tall and strapping could demand a better wage.
In fact, some young, handsome footmen could live almost as a sort of part time gigolo rather than a menial, if the reminiscences of the vain John MacDonald, as reported in The Life and times of John MacDonald (1790), are to be believed. This is, so far as I know, the only autobiography published by a manservant.
Which brings me round full circle to the love lives of manservants…
While there are far more dukes than drudges featuring as romantic leads in historical romance – a comment on the escapist nature of the genre, given that excluding royals, there were only about 28 dukes in Great Britain in 1790 out of a population of about 10,000,000 – there are exceptions to this.
I did come across this list of romantic novels featuring servants on Goodeads. However, as it includes maidservants as well as manservants , I am not sure how many actually feature a manservant for the male lead. There is also a fair sprinkling of governesses, which is odd, as governesses were never classified as servants, though they were hirelings.
Of course, a certain best selling romance writer of the late Victorian and Edwardian era, a writer of contemporary rather than historical romance – one Charles Garvice –did write about servant heroes in several of his novels. These stalwart, muscular, stoic young men with a reckless gleam in the eye in due course either turn out to be a man of title or heir to one.
That is certainly true of Love, the Tryant (1900), where the heroine Esther Vancourt engages her distant relative, the disguised Sir John Vancourt, as a foreman on the home farm of Vancourt Towers – which is of course, part of his estate. It is also true of Wicked Sir Dare (1917), where the hero disguises himself as a gamekeeper in order to be nearer to his estranged bride. Neither of these, of course, demeans himself by taking on a post that requires servile courtesy. Both work outside, as befits their hale, hearty temperaments.
And on my earlier comments on the social fate of the upper class woman who married a man from the servant class, there is in the classic love story by DH Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the fate of Mellors, who having seduced and impregnated Lady Chatterley, is left at the end training to be a farmer, a rise in social status for him, and a decided drop for Connie.

More Comedy for Testing Times: An Extract from ‘Ravensdale’ (Now Free on Amazon ): Morpeth the Thief Taker, on the Trail of Reynaud Ravensdale, Calls in to Question the Landlord of the ‘The Huntsman’.


“If this ain’t a Bow Street Runner or some other thief taker, then I’m a Dutchwoman,” Kate told Suki, as they watched the short, stocky, dapper man came up to the Inn door. “Good morning, Sir. What will you have?”

They knew he was staying with their rivals in The King’s Justice up the road. The landlord there prided himself on running a respectable house. The tenants of The Huntsman knew he was jealous, because he didn’t have such open-handed customers. The man was even applying for a licence to have his premises made into a gaol, possible future lodgings for some of the regulars at The Huntsman.

The customer glanced about with hard pale grey eyes, fixing them on the baby, who let out a wail.

Kate picked him up. “Serve the gentleman, Suki.”

“A tankard of porter. A fine infant; is he your only one?”

“Seeing as I was only married fifteen months come Saturday, yes, Sir.” The man wetted his moustache. “Has Reynaud Ravensdale been in lately?”

“Ravensdale?” Kate laughed. “You can’t mean that Lord? The gentleman has high notions of our patrons, Suki. Yes, Sir, him and the Prince of Wales, they came in together.”

The man’s eyes hardened still more. “Exercise your wit, Mistress, if you will, but Lord or no, now he’s an outlaw, and lower than the merest farm hand, a wanted murderer with a price on his head for highway robbery. I hear tell he’s been seen hereabouts.”

“By who?” Kate looked outraged. “That old harridan over the way, I’ll be bound. There’s so many sightings of that Ravensdale in different places, he must have a better horse than Turpin’s Black Bess to get about the way he does, is all I can say. What did they say he looked like?”

The man took some swallows of his drink before he pulled out a printed bill. “Here’s the official description, and not so helpful, with him having medium colouring, and no distinguishing features, save it does say, ‘noticeable eyes’ whatever that means. Tall, it says, and spare though strongly made, and he has a fair trick in disguise. When he stayed with you, I think his hair was dyed and unpowdered and it was described as brown.”

“Could be anyone,” Kate gazed at him with her jaw slightly dropped. “Does he have the trick of adding pock marks to his face, makes him look fair ugly? Remember, Suki? There was a man stayed who looked like that, brown hair and so on, said he was going Reading way.”

“Or maybe,” Suki looked struck, “It could’ve been that stout man that would never take off his coat? He could have stuffed in pillows underneath his waistcoat. I remember thinking his thinnish face went ill with his body. I mind he rode a dun coloured horse and went up north.”

The man snorted: “Do you take me for a fool? Have a care, mistress; the magistrates don’t like to renew licences for those who harbour known highway robbers. Where’s the master of the house?”

“This is a respectable house, and I’ll give my mind to anyone who says different,” Kate said angrily, while Suki tossed the bright blue ribbons Flashy Jack had given her in defiance. “The master’s away on business; he ain’t due back till tomorrow at the earliest.” Kate looked squarely into those judgmental eyes, which seemed to know the purpose of that trip.

The baby let out a furious wail.

“Now see what you’ve done! They understand more than you think, and he don’t like you coming in here making out we ain’t fit to run a decent establishment.”

Suki clicked her tongue.

The man actually looked abashed, before draining his porter with a business-like slurp. “I play my part in keeping the world safe from marauding thieves and murderers like His Lordship Reynaud Ravensdale, and if you’ve nought to hide you won’t mind my questions, nor your baby neither.”

They all turned about at a crash. The one time librarian at Wisteria House tottered into the yard to collapse on the bench.

The thief taker nodded to the women. “I may call in again.”

“Do, Sir, and we promise to keep a sharp look out for His Lordship.”

The man paused in the door, saying to Suki, “Look out for his fellow robber John Gilroy too: tall, fair hair, quite the swell and a ladies’ man. He’d have an eye for a pretty wench like you, miss; you and half the girls in London if I hear right.”

He must have been disappointed at her indifferent shrug. Kate snorted: “Be serious, Sir! As if we don’t get young men in here all the time, making up to her, and half of them called Jack or John.”

‘Ravensdale’ is free on  here

and on here

and on Kobo here

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


That Scoundrel E_mile Dubois 001 M-1
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.

A Little Escapism for the Good of the Morale…



Sometimes, when life is stark, the only thing for me is one of Shakespeare’s plays: I suppose it is those ‘universal themes’ that bring things back into perspective.

But sometimes, conversely, I feel like reading some escapist nonsense.  Intentional comedy or often, ridiculous melodramatic stories which can make for wonderful unintentional comedic scenes, and that is nearly as good.  Then there is good dark comedy. Also, I do enjoy a well written fantasy.

So, these being times when even those given least to worrying could do with some light relief, here are some amusing pieces of escapism.

‘The Fourth Universe’ by Robert Wingfield (2015).

In my opinion, the funniest of all the books in the saga of ‘Dan Chronicles’, and a wonderful spoof of all sorts of genres. Here is one of my favourite paragraphs: –

‘The Magus stood in a small odorous group of soaked doku in the rain outside the spaceport. “Where do I go now?” he wondered as he tried to shoo them away. To his surprise, no helpful taxi drivers arrived to take him to solve his mission, no mysterious snipers attempted to end his life, in a fact, nobody even attempted to shine his shoes. At least he took comfort in the fact that it was raining, so it must be in the right place. It was always raining in films when you were close to mission end.’

There follows in due course a ridiculous and decisive confrontation between the Magus and his unfeeling nemisis.

You can buy the print version of this book at a distount from INCA here

Or the Kindle version from Amazon here

A long time favourite of mine is the second of the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves series, the 1934 novel, ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’, which I have always thought the funniest.

For dark comedy, I don’t think one can do better than the currently unfashionable writer Patrick Hamilton, who was at the height of his fame between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. His 1947 novel ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ generally considered to be his masteriece, is set in Henley-on-Thames (renamed Thames Ditton) in a genteel boarding house ridiculously called The Rosamund Tea Rooms: –

‘…One’s responsibility in regard to the black out had been the occasion of one of Mrs Payne’s famous notes. ‘N.B. Visitors will be held personally responsible for completing their own black outs in their bedrooms.” – This being pinned, sensibly enough (Mrs Payne was nothing if not sensible), under the light switch. Mrs. Payne left or pinned up notes everywhere, austerely, endlessly – making one feel, at times, that a sort of paper-chase had been taking place in the Rosamund Tea Rooms – but a nasty, admonitory sort of paper chase. All innovaatins were heralded by notes, and all withdrawals and adjustments thus proclaimed. Experienced guests were well aware that to take the smallest step in an original or unusual direction would be to provoke a sharp note within twenty-four hours at the outside, and they therefore, for the post part, abandoned originality.’

Here, the quiet and fair-minded Miss Roach refuses to be intimidated by the boarding house tyrant, the idiotic Mr Thawaites. In the words of the blurb on my Oxford Paperback edition, ‘Disturbing the blighted resignation of (the guests’) lives come the vulgar and coquettish Vicki Kugelmann, and Lieutenant Pike, the American serviceman…’

A different sort of dark comedy is to be found in another classic story, the short ghost story ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen. In this, a collector of antique china named Martha Pym is staying over the Christmas period with some relatives in a remote part of Essex. A few years ago, she bought a Crown Derby set at a local auction held in one of the isolated local houses, only to find a plate missing. She goes to collect the missing one from the new owner of the house, and becomes involved in a grotesque adventure.

‘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 –”.’

This story can be found on project Gutenbeburg and various other sites for classic stories.

Then again, fantasy stories, whether comic, tragic, or both, are often an enjoyable form of escape from everyday concerns.Rebecca Lochlann’s ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series is excellent for that. I have expressed my admiration for the series before, and here is the link on amazon here

Then again, there is nothing like a fairy story for a temporary escape from reality, and when it is funny, then it is perfect. Here is one of my all time favourites, ‘The Blackwood Crusade’ by Jo Danilo. here

And finally, how about vampires for a way of getting away from everyday troubles? Lauryn Apirl’s ‘Unearthed After Sunset’ is horrifying and funny at the same time.

Review of the 1993 study ‘The Historical Romance’ by Helen Hughes: Fascinating and Insightful.

Scarlet Pimpernel


I have commented in previous posts – some will say ad nauseam – that it is unfortunate that light historical fiction, and historical romance especially, has long been afflicted by a disproportionate focus on the upper class. While this is particuarly so with the genre of Regency Romance, which seems to offer a world largely peopled by aristocrats, it is also largely true of stories set in other eras.

There are many reasons why this should be so. One obvious one is that the writers writers of the early historical romances were themselves from the upper middle class or even the lower echelons of the upper class. In an era of limited public education most authors would invariably come from that sort of background,and their bias would be natural.

‘Baroness Orczy’, author of the 1905 best seller ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ was a great believer in arisctocratic superority, while the views of such writers as Sir Arthur Conon Doyle were generally that power was best left in the hands of those who had been raised to wield it.

Another reason for this contentration on the ruling class is, of course, the obvious appeal of writing about the glamourous and remote lifestyles of the powerful. When Georgette Heyer adpated the format of the historical romance of Dumas, Conan Doyle, Weyland and Farnol so as to appeal to a female readership, though regarding herself as true to the tradition of Jane Austen, she in fact wrote about a world far higher in social status than Jane Austen’s gentry. While the most highborn of Jane Austen’s heroes is Mr. Darcy,the untitled grandson of an earl, most of Heyer’s heroes are by contrast earls themselves. Her later followers have taken this further, beocming obsessed with dukes and even the odd prince, to the extent that one might think that every second person to be met with in the Regency UK had a dukedom.

Regency Romance has, of course, no interest in portraying the real Regency UK, with its ruinous extended war with France, its failed harvests, Corn Laws, poverty and social turbulance culminating in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The influence of Georgette Heyer and her followers has been such that (unless I am missing something, and I am qite capable of that) there have been no famous writers of serious fiction on the late Georgian/ Regency era since the rise of the Regency Romance. Popular understanding equates the age with the frivolous.

I believe that there will be an eventual move away from this – but it is, like overall improvements in public transport in the UK, a long time coming.


Having these particular views, I was delighted to find that Helen Hughes 1993 study ‘The Historical Romance’ had been done on this very topic, investigating the historical romance generally, exploring its upper class bias and consensus based depiction of society, and providng some penetrating insights into the writing of Georgette Heyer and the development of the Regency romance genre.

Here is my Goodreads review:

This traces the genre from its origins with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the male adventure novel as typified in such works as his ‘The White Company’ through the writings of such authors as Jeffrey Farnol’s ‘The Broad Highway’ and ‘Baroness’ Orczy’s 1905 best seller ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ to the modern change into historical romance as primarily one aimed at a female audience as in Georgette Heyer’s adaption of it.

She makes reference to a Weyman novel that must surely have been an influence on Georgette Heyer, Stanley Weyman’s ‘Stavecrow Farm’ (1905). This book , set shortly after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, has many of the features that distinguish the later ‘Regency’ (or late Georgian) romances, the unfeeling, contemptuous aristocratic hero, the spirited but innocent and vulnerable heroine rebelling against the artificial constraints placed upon her by society, the run away ingénue, an attempted elopment, the rescue of the heroine by the hero, morally contemptible lower class subversives, and much more.

The only complaint I have to make about this study is an entirely unfair one; I wish the book had been updated to take into account the new developments in the genre that have arisen with the rise of epublishing and the Indie author and the wide availability of older and out of print works online. As it is, as a book published in 1993, it inevitably deals with traditional print publishing only.

I have long been of the opinion that the ‘historical past’ depicted by popular historical romance is in fact, a highly artificial construction, though this is often obsucred by a detailed depiction of certain aspects of historical reality, ie, historically accurate and lengthy depictions of dress and manners, social venues for particular parts of society etc.

Faro's Daughter Georgette Heyer

I have also long argued that unfortunately, the form of popular romance made popular among female readers by Georgette Heyer and continued by the form of current Regency Romance, is also a highly consensus based and upper class biased depiction of UK and European history in particular. This is especially true with regard to the treatment of working class radicalism in the UK or – folllowing on from Dickens and Orczy – the French Revolution.

That being so, I have always found it startling how little attention is paid to the treatment of history in historical romance in the various books I have read analysing romance. For instance, Pamela Regis in her ‘Naural History of the Romance Novel’ seems to see history as oddly static and a wholly uncontentious area.

Therefore, I found it really refreshing to come across Helen Hughes’ analytical approach which accepts nothing as self-explanatory.

It is an excellent study. I cannot do better than give a few quotes from the author.

‘Historical romance thus provides a useful subject for the study of the ways in which an artificial ‘past’ can gain ‘mythical’ signifcance, confirming attitudes or highlighting fears and hopes which arise from the nature of contemporary society.’

‘Even an account of historical ‘reality’ which seems neutral is actually – through selection of ‘facts’ of their interpretation – an ideologically charged construction.’

From Conan Doyle and Orczy through Farnol and Georgette Heyer, there has been an overwhelming emphasis on the ruling class in the historical novel. This goes along with an often nostalgic, if vague, depiction of pre-industrial England. For instance, with Geoffry Farnol:

Jefffrey Farnol

‘Farnol uses the past as a nostalgic frame for a world which never existed in fact: an impossible Old Engalnd’ untouched by the industrial revolution. He is not concerned to depict an accurate picture of pre-industraliszed Britain; his England is simply what the modern world is not, a gentle, countrified background for private adventure.’

He uses, ‘A wealth of picturesque detail, but anything which might suggest poverty, hard work or filth left out…Farnol portrays a world which may contain indididual, private conflicts, but no social conflict. The villagers respect the genry, but do not envy them.’

In historical romance generally, revolt – and particularly the French Revolution – follows from Dickens’ model in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in being inchoate, based on a brutal desire for revenge rather than inspired by any thought out ideology and leading inevitably to a bloodbath and failure, unless properly lead by the natural leaders, the ruling class.

However, rebellion against the unjust and oppressive abuse of power by corrupt members of the upper class – if contained and directed by principled and far sighted members of it – is seen as acceptable.

Intriguingly, this depiction of a partial social rebellion as being acceptable, is not only true of the later historical romances, the ones aimed at a female audience from Georgette Heyer’s time onwards, but also encapsulates the relations between the male and female leads.  Her heroines are well aware that the restrictions placed on marriageable young girls from moneyed and landed backgrounds by society are unfair, and often stage a minor revolt against them and against the attitude of the domineering, patriarchal hero, but in the end they are prepared to surrender their freedom in exchange for the prize of his true love.

Among other approaches, Helen Hughes discusses Tanya Modleski’s 1982 study ‘Loving with a Vengeance’ on the mechanics by which a woman reader of historical romance is drawn into acceptance of the inevitable plot feature of the heroine ending up in the arms of the hero through a sort of ‘revenge motif’ whereby the reader gains a vicarious feeling of power through this previously impervious male’s increasing emotional vulnerability as regards the heroine.

Well researched, and thought provoking, this book is full of fascinating insights – my short quotes do not in any way do justice to it.

One of these insights Helen Hughes makes, is that a different approach to a given text can give rise to a different interpretation of the plot. She leaves us with this thought:
‘If the mythical quality of an historical setting carries a potent ideological charge, which it clearly does, the ideological element may not always be received uncritically at every reading.’

I do hope not.


Formulaic Writing: Romantic Melodrama and Charles Garvice, ‘The Great Bad Novelist’.


I have written before on this blog about the terrible allure of bad writing, both good bad writing, that is, writing that is so bad it’s good – like ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini: Captain of Bandetti’  and frankly terrible writing.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading another late Victorian best seller by that writer of melodramatic romances, Charles Garvice. The very title reveals how bad the subject matter is going to be:  ‘Leslie’s Loyalty:  Or His Love So True’.

Dreadful stuff; and horribly compelling.

I would like to add that this isn’t the only reading material I have been getting through in these last couple of weeks. I have also reading a science fiction novel by an indie author which is fascinating, but heavy going, intellectually.  In fact, to appreciate it, I find that I can only read about five per cent at a time. I am also getting to the end of E P Thompson’s  wonderfully insightful masterpiece on the suppressed history of working class radical organisation in the UK from the 1790’s on ‘The Making of the English Working Class’.

But to ask what might seem a glaringly obvious question: why is it so easy to read escapist nonsense– whereas challenging novels are not by definition an easy read?  Of course, it is partly that the latter may be introducing unfamiliar concepts, or a whole new way of looking at the world, which can be stimulating but tiring to read about. But it goes beyond that, and  beyond the fairly simple sentence structure and vocabulary that usually go with light reading –though these are important.

I suppose it is also that in formulaic, escapist writing no demands are made on the imagination either – because the reader knows with these stories where things are going. We know that there is going to be a happy ending, however improbable it may be. The hero may have fallen off a cliff  (this does in fact happen to the hero in one of his within the first two chapters) or been seemingly shot dead in front of the heroine’s eyes, but all will be well.

In her article on Charles Garvice, Laura Sewell Matter puts the lure of Garvice’s novels succinctly: ‘I had found something amazingly, almost unbelievably, bad…This was melodrama..The outcome was never in doubt… The characters were caricatures…the plot…was ludicrously improbable. I wanted confirmation that I had correctly inferred what would happen…I wanted both the expected outcome and surprise.’

She, of course, came across Garvice’s writing in a singular way, thorough picking up some water drenched pages on a beach in Iceland. It became to her a challenge to discover from what book of yesteryear this incredibly bad piece of writing came (she eventually was able to track it to the Iclandic translation of ‘The Verdict of the Heart’).

She sums up there the appeal of all formulaic writers who make a huge success of writing recognisably the same story over and again. The appeal of this sort of writer is that the reader knows where s/he is.

Garvice’s stories are always about young, wild, aristocratic young men. The extent of this wildness varies between novels and according to the requirements of the plot. The hero of ‘Only One Love Or Who Was the Heir’ is still welcome in society despite his brawling and gambling proclivities, but the male lead of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , through drinking before breakfast, fighting in music halls and dressing as a costermonger has made himself an outcast from society as well as the family in question (I borrowed these and other qualities for my anti-hero in ‘The Villainous Viscount  Or the Curse of the Venns’).

Often these young men have gambled away a fortune. They have usually have, or recently had, ‘a disreputable connection’ with one or more dancers or music hall singers, but they are immediately ashamed of these the minute they find true love with the innocent flower of a heroine and break things off.

Quite often another women  is in love with the handsome hero, but he cannot return her passion, although she is a desired by all other men and has a fortune.

Very often a Conniving Cousin is introduced into the mix. He also falls in love with the heroine and/or covets the hero’s title or his being heir to a title, or has some other motive for conspiring against the hero getting together with heroine. Sometimes, he conspires with the scorned ex-mistress, though not inevitably. Sometimes, he conspires with both she and the love stricken society belle.

The hero is framed for various wrongdoings ranging from faithlessness to seduction of innocents to bigamy and fraud and occasionally murder, and the heroine is broken hearted. However, after a few months or weeks, a series of co-incidences result in the villains and villainesses being unmasked (sometimes they have committed suicide or been killed off even before that). Then  all ends happily, with the hero and heroine brought together.


Interestingly, when I began to read ‘Leslie’s Loyalty: Or His Love So True’ it didn’t seem to compare in badness to ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , ‘The Marquis, ‘A Life’s Mistake’ or other favourites of mine.  The writing style was mediocre rather than appalling. There were even an astute couple of remarks, and there were also some flashes of the humour ususally singularly lacking in Garvice’s books, in the description of the dreadful art work done by the heroine’s father, who considers himself a neglected genius (as I also wrote about a similarly deluded individual in ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’ I appreciated this).

I need not have worried; this was a glitch. Very soon the purple prose, the stereotypical behaviour and the hectoring authorial style reasserted themselves; wildly improbable co-incidences were happening; faces became taut with passion; plots were hatched between baddies, and it all turned into a typical Charles Garvice novel.

Laura Sewell Matter comments: ‘It is hard to imagine how a writer could be so prolific and widely read less than a hundred years ago, and totally forgotten today…The critics who found his work so risible that they would rather rend the pages from the spine and toss them into the drink have had their way in the end.’

I do find that one Charles Garvice style novel every few months is enough for me.

Even if I had the good fortune to be apolitical, and therefore could read such works without thinking about the ‘reactionary function’ which they must have played with regard to social class and women’s role, they are anyway rather like ready meals; it might be possible to get by on them, but it must be highly unsatisfactory. There is something intolerably bland about them; there’s nothing to get your teeth into.

So, it’s back to that science fiction novel for me…

But I will leave the last words to Laura Sewell Matter:

‘The formula that Garvice so successfully exploited – virtuous heroine overcoming numerous obstacles to attain happiness – is a predictable one, which any author might employ. His readers are now dead, and their Garvices – if they exist at all – moulder in the attics of the Western world where books like them, by authors who have learnt the same lessons and applied the same patterns to their fiction, are being read on the beach today.’


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


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

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.


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?