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.’