In my last post, I admitted to a terrible thing – I have actually been able to read four more of the novels of Charles Garvice after re-discovering that one I snorted through at fourteen – ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’.
Since then I’’ve read ‘His Guardian Angel Or Wild Margaret’ , ‘Only One Love Or Who was the Heir’, ‘The Woman’s Way’ and ‘Just a Girl’. Admittedly, I’ve done it when suffering from migraines, but still, Laura Sewell Matter’s inability to get through one after the first surely shows a more respectable taste in reading material; frequent migraines only excuse so much.
I’m sorry to say, I’ve always had a weakness for the tacky, the melodramatic, the lurid and the ridiculous ( that’s why I write spoof Gothic). I revel in badly written ghost stories ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ by Marjorie Lawrence, anyone? ) I loved the Hammer House of Horror films. I love too absurd epics with cardboard characters, anachronisms and dramatic lines delivered in flat voices. I rather envy people whose tastes are rather more elevated, and who have no desire to pursue such stuff.
I said in my last post how there are several characteristics that unmistakably define a Charles Garvice hero. These include: –
1. Astounding good looks and wiry physique
2. Skill as a boxer
3. An ‘indefinable air of command’
4. Being closely related, usually the heir, to an Earl
5. Being a fully paid up, card holding member of the Anti
Dog Kicking Society.
6. The open hearted fellow is almost always afflicted with
an underhand relative or friend, often after his inheritance or
lady love or both and secretly working against him.
I’ve even become blasé about recognizing these, and other of Garvice’s Devices – for instance, the Heroic Sacrifice: here either the hero agrees to sacrifice himself for the heroine, perhaps in taking the blame for some piece of caddishness done by the sneaking fellow above (typically, ‘ruining’ a young girl) or even, a crime (in ‘The Woman’s Way’ the hero takes the blame for a forgery).
Often this leads to his flight from the country and a series of Boys Own type adventures abroad (working on a ranch, joining a circus).
Anyway, in ‘Just a Girl’ (written in 1898 and Garvice’s first international bestseller) I was startled when the author seemed to be straying from his normal rigid rules. The heroine, Esmeralda, who lives in the wilds of Australia, happens to come upon an obviously aristocratic, reckless and gallant young man with striking blond good looks; he’s fallen from his horse in a fainting fit after being shot in the leg by a caddish opponent to whom he gave a drubbing after – naturally, seeing him kick a dog.
This of course, set off the levers in his brain, and he had to punish the mean spirited coward, who then proved himself even more despicable by staggering from the floor to shoot at his back as he galloped off.
‘Ah, here we are. The hero…’ I said to myself; but I was puzzled when he was slower than Esmeralda at shooting and firing at the coward, who’s been following him (Esmeralda, brought up in a mining camp, is very gung-ho for a Garvice heroine, and can shoot and ride with the best of ‘em).
The cad, obviously a passionate defender of his right to ill treat dogs, had sneaked after young Lord Norman to kill him off. As he had was still fairly dizzy, perhaps Garvice had excused him from not being the first to see and shoot down the enemy, but this seemed to me an interesting reversal of sex roles, and I even began to wonder if I had done Charles Garvice an injustice, and he was capable of doing this. After all, this had to be he hero- he’d defended a dog.
But then , I realised, he couldn’t be – unless Garvice was breaking all the rules – as the miners in the camp all take to him, but though young Lord Norman is strong in the arms, refer to him as ‘Rosebud’ on account of his almost girlish golden haired good looks.
Surely a man subjected to this humiliation couldn’t be the hero – surely none of Garvice’s heroes could ever be mistaken for a girl – though a scene follows where Lord Norman shows astounding pluck when they get out the bullet from his leg, not even wincing. When he runs a fever, Esmeralda has only to place one cool hand on his fevered brow, and that soothes him into sleep.
Yet, despite these telling scenes, I couldn’t believe that anyone nicknamed ‘Rosebud’ could ever be a Garvice hero, and here I was right. Soon, Lord Norman is telling Esmeralda (with whom the poor fellow has fallen wildly in love) of his cousin, Trafford the Marquis, who is tall, dark, capable of knocking down a man with a straight one from the shoulder, all muscle and not an ounce of fat, with whom all the ladies are madly in love.
That could only be the hero – whom no man would dare to call a girlish name, or indeed, any sort of name without incurring one of those stunning blows straight from the shoulder – and I realised my mistake; I’d allowed myself to be diverted from the standard requirements of a Charles Garvice hero by the episode of canine championship and reckless courage; this only shows that Lord Norman is a pretty good sort and can be prepared to do the right thing in the end, which he does, in putting his aside his love for Esmeralda when he sees that she can’t return his feelings.
Esmeralda, as a missing heiress, soon ends up in England and in love with Lord Trafford herself, while he wonders if he can bring himself to do such a shabby thing as marry so fresh a girl for her money…
I was disappointed after that beginning! I actually thought Garvice was going to go in for some gender role reversal, and give us a wiry and impulsively brave, but rather effete looking hero who didn’t always shoot first. No such luck…
Ah, and I do have some sort of excuse for reading Garvice. You see, like Laura Sewell Matter’s pursuit of the missing pages of ‘The Verdict of the Heart’, it’s a form of research (looks about guiltily). I’m interested in the history of the development of the modern romantic novel.
I’ve said before how I came to read Garvice and a number of old historical romances when cut off for some time b y bad weather as a teenager, and forced to ransack the bookshelves. Even when I was an unreflective fourteen, I could see that Charles Garvice had written an earlier form of the romantic novel of the twentieth century. During that period of being snowed in at home in isolated rural North Wales, I also read, as I have said, one Barbara Cartland novel about a Disgraced Earl turned Highwayman (I’ve forgotten the title of that). I also read two early Georgette Heyer novels ‘The Black Moth’ and ‘The Talisman Ring’ – about respectively a Disgraced Lord turned Highwayman and a Disgraced Earl turned Smuggler .
In both the influence of Charles Garvice (who was the best selling novelist of their youth) was immediately obvious.
The bold, careless, swaggering young scapegrace hero, the innocent heroine, the mean attempts of the underhand relative to frame the said hero for his own crimes, the sentimental tone to the courtship of young lovers, are all there. I’d say the ‘Byronic’ heroes of Regency Romance owe something to the pen of Charles Garvice. In these early Heyer novels, there are even,albeit in a far less crude form, those elements of adventure to be found in Chalres Garvice.
Georgette Heyer didn’t, so far as I know, admit her debt to so low brow an influence as Charles Garvice. She preferred to point to the influence of Jane Austen – but Jane Austen didn’t write about Disgraced Earls turned Highwayman (Willoughby in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ is the nearest thing to that, and he doesn’t have a title or take to the road). By contrast, Garvice’s heroes, though they can’t become Gentleman of the Road as the time had passed for that, do sometimes become outlaws. When not outlaws, they are sometimes virtual social outcasts by dint of their disgraceful reputatons – again a frequent characteristic of the Regency Romance hero.
Charles Garvice is the unacknowledged ancestor, so far as I can see, of a substantial element of the tradition of the Historical and Regency Romance . However, my researches continue, and I may be able to add another name to the list of these; I think there was a writer of singularly lurid novels of the eighteenth century called Eliza Heywood, whom I intend to investigate next.
I said in my last post that I hoped that the outlook of women, their tastes and aspirations had developed just a little since 1890. I still do; but I can empathize with a wish to delve into foolish, predictable escapism.
Laura Sewell Matter in her witty and perceptive article on Charles Garvice ‘Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist’ says of the ‘attenuated state’ which Thomas Moult suggested was the cause of the craze for Garvice’s novels in the trench warfare of World War One: –
‘What Moult and the other critics failed to acknowledge, but what Garvice knew and honoured, are the ways so many of us live in emotionally attenuated states, during times of peace as well as war. Stories like the ones Garvice wrote may be low art, or they may not be art at all. They may offer consolation or distraction rather than provocation and insight. But many people find provocation enough in real life, and so they read for something else. One cannot have contempt for Garvice without also having some level of contempt for common humanity, for those readers – not all of whom can be dismissed as simpletons – who may not consciously believe in what they are reading, but who read anyway, because they know that a story can be a salve.’