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.




Writing, Real Life Events, and the Works of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Georgette Heyer and Louisa M Alcott

3f2d6d5a693742ecd2ef850e8192b69eWriters, of course, would not be human if many of the circumstances of their lives did not affect their fiction. Even writers of the fantastic must combine these impressions with the imaginative creations in their books.
The authors world of fantasy is to some extent part of his or her particular ‘take’ on reality, his or her attempt, often, to make sense of it.

This connection between real life events and themes in a writer’s fiction is often obvious when reading a little of the biography.

This is so, for instance, the writing of Louisa May Allcott, writer of ‘Little Woman’ and the rest (and also of some lesser known and wonderfully lurid gothic pieces such as ‘A Fatal Love Chase’). She went through the tragedy of losing a younger sister to a long and painful decline – how she reconciled that, and the other suffering and injustice she saw all about her, with her faith in a God of mercy was clearly to some extent one of the themes of ‘Little Women’.Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

Outrage at witnessing the suffering and injustice all about was, of course, one of the motivating factors of Victorian writer Charles Dickens. It is well known that his miserable personal experience of being confined to a debtor’s prison on his father’s bankruptcy, and being forced to work in a blacking warehouse at the age of twelve, forever shaped his attitude towards the dispossessed, inspiring such works as ‘Oliver Twist’ ‘Hard Times’ and ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’.

It is lesser known – though still fairly well known – that in middle age he outraged the family values he notoriously voiced in his magazine ‘Household Words’ by separating the wife by whom he had fathered ten children due to his obsession with the eighteen year old actress Ellen Ternan.200px-Ellen_Ternan

The character of Lucie Manette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and of Estella in ‘Great Expectations’ are reputedly based on Dickens’ perception of Ellen Ternan. This is intriguing, as while Lucie Manette has in common with her husband Charles Darney a good deal of insipidity – Estella certainly has not. She is cold and heartless, brainwashed by the embittered and jilted Miss Havisham into being a man hater.

Though then, and for some time afterwards, Dickens insisted that Ms Ternan was as ‘innocent as one of my own daughters’ – his unfeeling treatment of his wife appalled many fellow literary figures, including WM Thackeray, who remarked tersely, ‘Poor matron’ and the devout Elizabeth Gaskell, who regarded him very coldly thereafter.
Elizabeth Gaskell was always admired as – unlike her contempary George Elliot – a wholly respectable, devout and exemplary female author.

I have always thought this was to underestimate her subtlety  and her irony – ‘Mrs Gaskell’ was a sharp commentator on and social and moral issues. Her novels ‘Mary Barton’ on the industrial poor of Manchester and ‘Ruth’ on a seduced seamstress aroused some outrage among contemparies.

Calm as Elizabeth Gaskell’s domestic life was, her biographer Winifred Gerin notes a connection between her personal life and her writing, and it is an intriguing one for a Gaskell Geek like myself.Cousin-Phillis

In 1857 the daughter with whom she was closest, Meta, had become engaged to a charming and dashing Captain Hill of the Madras Engineers. Some months later, she came by information that made her question his character, and as he made no attempt to defend himself against the charges, while his sisters were forced to concede that the stories were true, Meta broke off the engagement.

The Gaskells never revealed to anyone else what these charges were. Perhaps they were womanising, for the romantic interest in Elizabeth Gaskell’s next novel ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is certainly a Lothario. Winifred Gerin suggests that in ‘The first long novel that she wrote after the event, “Sylvia’s Lovers”, the plot is deeply and sustainedly concerned with the subject of the suffering and perils of ill-judged love’ while she writes of ‘The extrovert Kinraid, whose rattling talk and easy manners with women is both entertaining and convincing, while most subtly conveying the hollow core within. Could Kinraid have been based on Captain Hill?’

Meta, while maintaining a cheerful and busy appearance, long mourned the loss of an admired love object in Captain Hill, so that her health eventually suffered a prolonged lapse. Elizabeth Gaskell’s novella ‘Cousin Phyllis’ also concerns the love of an deeply feeling young girl for a charming and emotionally shallow young man.

On a lighter note – both literary and emotional – a couple of years ago, I was amused to read in Jennifer Kloester’s biography of the novelist Georgette Heyer that she was largely ignorant of what was then termed ‘homosexuality’, even overt, let alone repressed.georgette-heyer_new2

This seems astonishing to modern understanding, but Heyer seems, for a twentieth century author, rather out of touch from modern thought about sexuality and the unconscious. Of course, according to the description of her son, using the jargon of the time, she was ‘Not so much square as cubed’.

By the account of her younger brother, she was so appalled when she realised in the 1950’s that one of her novels, ‘The Great Roxhythe’, was being interpreted as portraying the romantic love of the male narrator for the hero Roxhythe that she withdrew the book. It may also account for why, in her novels, there is a strong gay seeming relationship between some of the male characters. I have commented in another post,for instance, on the emotionally intense relationship between the hero Sir Tristram Shield and the secondary hero, his rebellious much younger cousin Ludovic Lavenham in ‘The Talisman Ring’.67bbfdae95268c648ca5903e441dd883

I was also amused to read in this biography that the ‘straight’ in all senses of the word Heyer routinely dosed herself with a combination of dexedrine and gin, so that she could write through the night. This, apparently, was part of the secret of her remarkable productivity.

Intriguingly, one of the well known side effects of the amphetamine dexedrine (besides increased alertness and performance) are mild hallucinations – and isn’t that just, if we are honest, what authors may well need?

That was in the days when drugs now perceived as potentially hazardous, and only available on prescription or on the street were easily obtainable from a chemists.

I quite envy her constitution in being able to do that routinely without a terrible headache…

Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ Protagonists and Antagonists and More Farce

Clarissa and LovelaceCaricature-1780-press_gangLucinda Elliot, ascending platform:

OK, so I am back again after escaping the clutches of that press gang in that time warp occasioned by my last post; here I am, restored to being a blogger sitting at my pc and typing up a geeky post and planning on making a cup of tea…

On protagonists and antagonists in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ then –(glances nervously about; no sign of anyone in old fashioned dress in the cyber hall). I have bored on about this before a fair amount.

Why does Gaskell have two male leads, and unsatisfactory ones at that, both a bit too inclined to the stereotypical, though in opposite ways? Why is one a cardboard hero type, one his shadow image?

It is almost as if Gaskell had drawn up a balance sheet and listed qualities on either side of it for Kinraid (clearly meant to be Sylvia’s notion of her ideal man) and Hepburn, something like this: –

Credit and Debit

Kinraid  (credit) Handsome

Hepburn (debit) Plain

Kinraid (credit) Recklessly brave

Hepburn (debit) Cautious

Kinraid  (credit) Sociable

Hepburn (debit) Withdrawn

Kinraid (questionable credit) Womaniser

Hepburn (debit) Invisible to women

Kinraid (credit) Jolly life and soul of the party

Hepburn (debit) Wallflower

Kinraid (credit) Raconteur

Hepburn (debit) Can’t tell a tale to
save his life

Philip Hepburn, then, is (in so far as past centuries understood these terms) totally uncool and a complete nerd.

And so on, with Hepburn’s only plus points being:

Kinraid  Light minded (debit)

Hepburn Serious and some (questionable credit)

Kinraid Reputation for fickleness (debit)

Hepburn Unswervingly constant (credit)

These latter qualities are the ones that swing it for Hepburn with Sylvia in the end and lead to their reconciliation on his deathbed.

Here, however, I don’t want to explore that (general sighs of relief from small cyber audience impressed into cyber room). I’ve done that often enough in past posts)  – but the question of why Gaskell, having posed the problem of having two opposing male leads, then went on to develop Philip Hepburn enough for him to come alive in the reader’s eyes, and left Charley Kinraid an oddly unrealised character.

12618f13I personally do not find Hepburn’s protestant ethic oriented, sexually repressed and grimly humourless persona remotely congenial; but I do concede the author makes a good job of bringing the character to life in the author’s eyes. I find his silence about his rival’s impressment, and not passing on his love message to Sylvia, so dismal that I could never bring myself to like him, but again the author does a clever job of providing excuses for him (Kinraid’s reputation as a heartbreaker as related by Coulson, etc; Bessy Corney’s insistence that she was engaged to him at the same time that he became engaged to Syvia, etc).

Graham Handley comments: –

‘Seen in terms of depths and sympathy, Philip is Kinraid’s superior on every count. It must be admitted that the amount of space devoted to each is uneven, and that we know and live with Philip as we do not know and live with Kinraid; we see Kinraid, his tenderness and his heartiness, his stance and his impact, from the outside. We share Philip’s reactions, temptations, frustrations, anguish and later physical agony from the inside.’

This is the crux of the problem. Philip Hepburn is given vivid life through internalisation; Charley Kinraid is not.

This might be because, as Jane Spencer suggests, the whaler is not cerebral or given much to original thought anyway (even if he can spin a fine yarn), so that Gaskell does not think his mental processes would be of much interest to the reader.

Or it may be, as Graham Handley suggests in his excellent ‘Oxford Notes’ on the novel, because mystery, about his motivations, history and his thought processes ends an element of fascination to the character: –

‘His colourful appeal is more important than the qualities of his mind…Gaskell does not give him depth; what she does do, with tamtalizing art, is to leave us always in doubt about him.
Nothing stimulates an interest in character so much as mystery; the mystery of half knowing the characters we meet. Is Kinraid’s reputation justified? Is Sylvia the real love of his life? Is he, in fact, a man whose eye is always on the main chance? His career, and advantageous marriage, would tend to reinforce this view…’

John MacVicar (the literary critic, not the ancient villain) suggests that Charley Kinraid was in fact Elizabeth Gaskell’s original hero, as is indicated by the fact her original title was ‘The Specksioneer’ but that her focus of interest changed over time (especially as it took her an unusually long time to write this novel; perhaps so much as three and a half years) to Philip Hepburn, the original antagonist.

As nobody who reads this blog can fail to know, I find this novel particularly fascinating for many reasons; but it is also intriguing as one where the antagonist has in fact, taken over through having too strong a voice.

I know from my own experience that giving the antagonist too vivid a voice can be a danger.highwayman_body

While I make no claims to have depicted in the antagonist of my spoof historical romance ‘Ravensdale’ as vivid an antagonist as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Philip Hepburn, I did, nevertheless, depict his consciousness.

This was partly because I found the motivation of pure greed of so many of the villains of historical romances using the clichéd theme I satirized – Wild Young Viscount is framed for murderer by machinations of a Conniving Cousin and next in line to an Earldom –-unsatisfactory; why shouldn’t unrequited love play a part, battling with envy?

But, here I encountered a problem; a number of readers tell me that they find my antagonist Edmund Ravensdale, despite his duplicitous behaviour, more sympathetic, precisely because they had access to his thoughts as they did not for those of the frequently insensitive but generally straightforward and open-hearted Reynaud Ravensdale.

There is of course, that cliché , ‘to know all is to forgive all’. This is fascinating food for thought.

End of Sane Bit of Post: Now for some absurdity…

[A familiar figure in eighteenth century naval captain’s uniform enters at the back of the hall.]

Lucinda Elliot [Turns, outraged]: Well, would you credit it! Here’s that Charley Kinraid back again. After I had ripped his character to shreds last week. Some of these fictitious creations have got an incredible nerve!..[waxes thoughtful].But in line with ‘To know all is to forgive all’ come and have that tot of rum…

Charley Kinraid: Now, that is more civil, I’ll take that kindly… And what’s more, so will t’other Seven Most Annoying Heroes you used such hard words of in yon post, namely: – Georgette Heyer’s  Marquis Vidal, Mary Renault’s Theseus, James Bond, Heathcliff, Charles Garvice’s Heriot Fayne, Viscount of Somewhere I’ve Forgotten and not forgetting Georgette Heyer’s Ludovic Lavenham, Earl of Somewhere Else…Rinaldo in pub

James Bond: Bond, James Bond, 0000007 [I’m in semi-retirement].

Theseus [strides in, followed by half a dozen adoring war prizes]: By the Great Lord Zeus, not a robber left on the Corinth Peninsula.

Heathcliff [goes over to kick in window to make the decor resemble that at Wuthering Heights] Curse it all, I have no pity! Let the worms writhe!

Vidal: Damme, by Hell and the Devil! A Plague Take Me! What was I saying? Clean forgot what I was saying…Many hands make light work, mayhap?

Ludovic Lavenham: [shoots out lights in chandelier] Whose for a game of cards? [throws down talisman ring]

Heriot Fayne: I’ll play in the dark. Give me a gargle of whisky…What am I saying? I promised What’s-her-name – the heroine in my book, that’s right, Eva –-I’d reform.

Lucinda Elliot [shouting over racket]: I can only apologise to the reader for these continual interruptions; normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Escapism and Empowerment

The Female EunuchToday, I’m going to rant a bit (did I hear you say ‘So what’s new?).

I came across some criticism in a feminist ezine that really dismayed me because it took the same sort of line as overtly sexist males.


Now, I know full well that there are all sorts of extreme opinions expressed on the web, and no doubt there are blogs out there advocating wife beating. If these comments had been made on an individual blog, I’d have passed them by with shrug. It’s because they were published on a feminist ezine that I am unpleasantly surprised.

As this remark – which seems to have gone unchallenged for two years – is part of a criticism of some opinions about literature expressed by Germaine Greer in ‘The Female Eunuch’, published some forty-five years ago, no less, I’d better explain why I think it matters, and the background to my interest in the issue.

I’ve been doing some research on romance reading and women’s oppression. I’m sure regulars will have noted that my own view is steadily moving towards a conviction that it is a contributory factor, at least in its curernt format. Should it embrace conditional Happy Ever Afters, and more realism, then there might yet be room for a lot of optimism.

Now, when I get into something, I out-Geek all Geekishness. I go into things deeply, even if it’s torture (and believe me, some of the reading I’ve had to  do for this has been; still, it’s self inflicted; I’ve only myself to blame).

So, I began my background research by reading some of the late Victorian and Edwardian romances of Charles Garvice. Virtually forgotten today, he was a best seller in his time. I remembered him initially because, when snow bound in the Clwyd Valley for some weeks in my teens, I ransacked the bookshelves in the house, and came across a copy of a melodramatic romance ‘The Outcast of the Family Or A Battle Between Love and Pride’ (1894) which my mother had acquired as part of a job lot in an auction. I read it and never forgot the sheer badness of the writing. About a year ago, I got through five of his.

I then moved on to Georgette Heyer. I’d read several of these during the same snow bound period, including, ‘Powder and Patch’ ‘Devils’ Cub’ ‘The Convenient Marriage’ ‘The Talisman Ring’ (the subject of my last post) ‘The Toll Gate’ ‘Friday’s Child’ and ‘The Foundling’ so I only needed to refresh the remains of what was once a good memory regarding those, and to read a few more, to have a fair working knowledge of Heyer.

Literary criticism of romantic novels is decidedly thin on the ground. This is unfortunate, as the few books I have come across on it seem to be recent, and are often  somewhat abrasive defences of the genre by its proponents rather than anything in the nature of an objective analysis. Some even claim that romantic novels have a long and respectable history going back to Jane Austen; I’d dispute myself that Jane Austen was a writer of romance, even in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, though she has certainly been interpreted that way. No  writers on romance seem eager to claim the obvious influence of Charles Garvice – or maybe nobody has heard of him.

In plodding about the web (I don’t regard it as surfing) I came on the said article in an ezine with the startling name of ‘The Ladies Finger’. It’s about Germain Greer’s well-known discussion of romantic literature, and of Barbara Cartland and Georgette Heyer in particular, in ‘The Female Eunuch’.

The author, who thinks that Heyer is ‘the best writer in the world’ (or in the next?) and has read each of her novels no less than five times, takes great exception to Ms Greer’s satirical treatment of Heyer’s 1935 novel, ‘Regency Buck’.

Greer says of the heroine, who is spirited within strict limits of ladylike behaviour: ‘Her intelligence and resolution remain happily confined to her eyes and the curve of her mouth, but they provide the excuse for her naughty behaviour toward Lord Worth, who turns out to be that most titillating of all titillating relations, her young guardian, by an ingeniously contrived mistake.’

She mocks the ‘Alpha male’ hero: –
‘Nothing such a creature would do could ever be corny. With such world-weary lids! With the features and aristocratic contempt which opened the doors of polite society to Childe Harold, and the titillating threat of unexpected strength! Principally, we might notice, he exists through his immaculate dressing–Beau Brummell is one of his friends…’

In this part of her ground breaking book on female oppression, Germaine Greer is investigating the masochistic, sublimating and passive elements of women’s romantic fantasies that are catered for in novels with ‘Alpha’ males who define the female leads’ destiny.

In this chapter, with acid wit, she analyses a story published in the teenage girls’ magazine ‘Jackie’, a novel by Barbara Cartland, and the one by Georgette Heyer.

The blogger in the ‘Ladies Finger’ article – who protests that she becomes impatient with theoretical debate because she ‘doesn’t have a college education’ takes the view that all opinions of romantic novels must be fueled purely by personal taste rather than any objective analysis, let alone so abstract an issue as moral principle, and writes: –

‘When I read Greer’s criticism I’m reminded of my second-wave self at 17, and I feel kind of sorry for her. The “ingeniously contrived mistake” is called a plot device, you! And it sounds perfectly natural! And now I’m going to say something more offensive than the entire genre put together: This scale and breadth of offense (sic) at the sexual fantasy reeks of deep and unwilling arousal…’

This is descending to the level often adopted by openly sexist men, and explaining any objection to sexual stereotypes by slighting references to the protestor’s psyche and supposed sexual orientation or frustrations.

While this can be a piece of fun with characters in books (as in my post touching on the unconscious passions of Sir Tristram Shield and Ludovic Lavenham in ‘The Talisman Ring’ by Heyer) for an article published by a feminist ezine to make such comments about another woman,and a bold feminist innovator at that, is dismal. It was published without a disclaimer from the editorial board.


Earlier in the piece, the writer of the article complains that Ms Greer’s research appears not to have gone beyond reading one book by either Heyer or Cartland, and that she would have changed her mind had she read more.

While it is true that Ms Greer only mentions one book, it isn’t clear how many she had in fact read, and going purely on anecdotal evidence, most women of her generation seem to have read more than one novel by Heyer at least. To object to only one book by each author being analysed is reasonable, though as ‘The Female Enuch’ is not primarily a work of literary criticism, this was presumably done through lack of space.

Now, as I have ploughed through a dozen novels by Georgette Heyer, I can hardly be accused of sketchy research. I was open to be persuaded that they have a feminist slant, as some argue, but I have yet to find it. I have to agree with all of Germaine Greer’s analysis in ‘The Female Eunuch’ (for all I know, she may have modified her position since).

I began my researches on women and romance literature with far more of an open mind on the issue than I could have had a couple of decades ago. Sadly, I am coming increasingly back to the conclusion that romantic fantasies to be found in the works of historical and other romantic novelists such as Heyer do serve to keep a significant element of women’s energies focused on fantasy rather than action, escapism rather than the will to implement change, and therefore play a part in women’s (sadly, often partly self-inflicted) oppression. This is especially true as part of this fictive dream is a wish to be taken care of and to have one’s destiny controlled by a man, and usually, an impossibly strong and devoted one.

The vague talk of ‘empowerment’ through female fantasy I have come across in several books and articles strikes me as nonsensical; nobody ever challenged the status quo by indulging in escapist dreams.

I would say that at the moment there is a significant reaction against the strong line of ‘Second Wave Feminism’. To some extent, this is understandable.

As a young girl I often fell out with purists who objected to my refusing to kit myself out in  the baggy dungarees and cropped haircut that so many ‘good’ feminists of the eighties wore. I pointed out that the image of feminism they projected was one which the majority of the female population would find highly unappealing, and so it has proved.

Some of their ideas were simplistic, others extreme; as with all revolutionary movements, humourless fanatics were often in the forefront.

Yet, these forebears gave modern-day feminists insights and a theoretical groundwork on which to build. It is impossible to explore, let alone to challenge, the mechanics of oppression unless one is able to define it.

One of their brilliant insights was to criticize the ideology of romance.

To dismiss all of the ideas of ‘Second Wave Feminism’ as outdated or in any way superseded is premature and foolish. Advanced patriarchal capitalism has a habit of incorporating all rebellious social protest movements into its status quo. Rather than hang on gibbets, it absorbs. Feminism is in danger of becoming an anodyne part of the establishment.

I remarked (under my real name) on that post in ‘The Ladies Finger’: ‘Do I normally have a sense of humour? Well, I think it sometimes wobbles under patriarchal advanced capitalism’s ability to transmute all threatening social movements into window dressing and vague talk of ’empowerment’.

I’m concerned that this is increasingly what is happening to a feminist movement which embraces sex roles, girly toys, pornography and pole dancing. That this post on a feminist ezine has aroused so little contention (I was one of four women to comment) serves to strengthen my concern.

A Successful Cross-Genre Novel Without a Clear Protagonist; Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Talisman Ring’

OTheTalismanRing.jpgIn the last post I was waffling on about protagonists and main characters. I gather that according to some writing advice, it’s meant to be fatal not to have a clear protagonist. What a tiresome man I know calls an ‘Absolute No-No.’
I rambled on to points of view, remarking that  some writing advice insists that there is a shift to writing from one person’s point of view, following YA novels (goodness knows why adult novels are following YA novels, but…).

I also commented that a fair number of classic novels, notably ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ don’t have a clear protagonist and depict multiple viewpoints.
Now I’d like to analyze a highly successful and enduringly popular novel that breaks all the rules above, besides the slight matter of being cross genre. Admittedly, it’s old, published in 1936, though it doesn’t count as classic English Literature unless you are a romance addict.

It’s by an author I’ve mentioned before in a post about authors who didn’t believe in what they wrote, yet who made a massive success of writing it anyway.
That’s right – it’s by none other than Georgette Heyer and I’ve mentioned before in this blog how I read it at fourteen, and re-read it when I was doing research on traditional historical romances that use the theme of Disgraced Earl, Framed for Murder by Conniving Cousin, Turns Outlaw.
I didn’t enjoy it myself, but I gather that ‘The Talisman Ring’ is a great favourite among Heyer fans. I couldn’t be drawn into the plot, though I admired the slickness of execution, because I still found the romantic pair, though I could see that they were meant to be something of a spoof, downright annoying.

I found the Earl turned outlaw, Ludovic Lavenham, too tiresome in his combined stupidity and arrogance to be sympathetic, and his love interest Eustacie de Vauban must be one of the silliest heroines I have ever encountered. However, I believe many Heyer fans find them charming and empathize strongly with their attempts to clear his name.

Anyway, my point here is that this enduringly successful novel has no clear protagonist and has in fact, what would be seen today as structural faults with points of view.
Purists about the need for a clear protagonist might argue that it is only because Heyer is so famous, and because it was written decades before these rigid requirements come into fashion, that this book is as popular as it is, and it wouldn’t be if it was published now.

I’m far from sure, myself.

Now I’ll do some geeky analysis (those who have no interest in analyzing light novels are entirely welcome to sneak off or go to sleep).
The action begins with a man with a truly amazing name – Sir Tristram Shield, no less- arriving at the Sussex castle of Sylvester, Lord Lavenham, who’s eighty and dying without an obvious heir, as his grandson is living abroad in exile in disgrace. Sir Tristram is his great-nephew; Sylvester’s got an heir presumptive, the effete Basil ‘Beau’ Lavenham, another great-nephew, but he doesn’t like him for sporting lilac pantaloons with ribbons, and a quizzing glass (not politically correct, the old lord).
His grandson is the equally astoundingly named Ludovic Lavenham, a wild youngster who had to be rushed abroad two years since, suspected of murdering a dishonourable fellow gambler in order to get his prized ring back.
This bounder had taken this priceless talisman ring as surety at a gaming table, wouldn’t give it back, and was in the ill-advised habit of wandering at night in deserted spinneys, though he knew that Ludovic was a hot-tempered crack shot, full of vengeful spirits and regularly three parts drunk on the other sort of spirits.
Tristram Shield was in the spinney too and heard a shot ten minutes after he’d last seen his enraged cousin. The cheat’s body was found the next day, minus the ring and complete with a handkerchief of the heir to the earldom’s.
Tristram Shield and his grandfather hurried the miscreant out of the country. Basil Lavenham, despite the damning evidence against him, advised him to stay and stand trial. Now why might that be?
Sylvester is eager for Sir Tristram to marry his other grandchild, a girl he’s taken out of France because its 1794. She’s a great romantic and doesn’t think much of the acid and prosaic Sir Tristram, who’s thirty-one besides, even if he is muscular and gung ho. After Sylvester duly passes away, she decides to run off to be a governess rather than marry him on the grounds that if she is a governess, there is bound to be a grown-up son in the household who will fall in love with her (that’s the way her mind works).
highwayman_bodyInevitably,on her setting off through the snowy night, she runs into a group of smugglers who are led by her exiled cousin Ludovic Lavenham. He insists she has to accompany him; they are chased by Excise men, Ludovic is shot and they end up hiding in an inn run by a friend of the Lavenham family.
Here, a woman called Sarah Thane, staying there with her bizarrely self-absorbed brother, and clearly meant to be highly sensible, comes on the scene of their arrival and helps them, taking an immediate and intense liking to the pair, and resolving at once to assist them in clearing Ludovic’s name.
He and Eustacie have already fallen in love, needless to say.
They suspect the jewellery collector Sir Tristram (who incidentally, is supposed to have a sour view of women, having been disappointed in love many years ago) as the villain of the piece. But, when he turns up he protects Ludovic from law enforcers, and says that he suspects none other than Basil Lavenham as the murderer. Well, he’s a second cousin, after all.
The rest of the story is taken up with the attempts to evade incompetent thief takers and the machinations of Basil Lavenham, who has the ring (possession of which will show he is the murderer) concealed in his house.
As there are only approximately six or seven pages of love scenes in a novel of nearly three hundred, as regards genre, this seems more of a mystery story than an historical romance.
Also, if Ludovic and Eustacie are meant to be the hero and heroine, then the romance between them is singularly devoid of the plot driving conflict romance writers insist is indispensable. He says he wants to marry her – she’s quite agreeable – the morning after they meet. The only conflict is that provided by external forces, which doesn’t make for much interest in the relationship.
It is arguable that they are not in fact the hero and heroine, but the ‘romantic’ foils to the down-to-earth and bantering Sir Tristram and Sarah Thane.
Certainly, Tristram Shield has the hallmarks of a Heyer hero; he’s dark, saturnine, skilled at the manly arts of boxing, shooting and riding, and carries with him scars of an emotional nature.
Yet, it is also true that Heyer does have another, less frequently used sort of hero, a callow young man with the right ideas but who needs to mature, who is wild, thoughtless, headstrong, and generally tall and athletic, with fair hair and blue eyes. He is to be found as Sherry in  another of her novels ‘Friday’s Child’. Ludovic is more or less the same character as this one, save he’s quicker on the draw.
Then again, with regard to heroines, Sarah and Eustacie conform to the types Heyer often uses, the witty, independent, slightly older, tall and statuesque woman, and the spirited ingénue of few inches. What we seem to have is a set of two possible heroes and heroines.
So, then, ‘Spot the Protagonist’: whoever is that?
It might appear to be Sir Tristram, who is the one who solves the mystery and traps the villain. But this can’t be so according to the most popular definitions, as the story is not bound up with his fate, unless that is, to clear himself of the others’ suspicions that he is the thief and murderer. Yet after all, his fellow conspirators quickly acquit him of that when he sets about trying to expose the real villain.
As Tristram doesn’t deny that he has never liked Ludovic (they are reconciled two-thirds of the way into the novel), it is certainly to his credit that he exerts himself so determinedly to clear his name. It is never made clear why he devotes himself to this task with quite such single mindedness, except possibly through a sense of justice and a desire to clear the whole family’s name as well.

There does, however, seem to be an strong bond between the two male and rivalrous cousins, all the more smouldering for being unstated.
In fact, if there is emotional intensity in this novel, it is not between the opposite sex couples, but between Tristram Shield and Ludovic, a passionate sort of love hate relationship which seems to hint at strong elements of repessed desire: –
‘”Damn you, take your hands off me,” Ludovic whispered.
Sir Tristram paid no heed to this, but obliged him to drink some of the water. He laid him down again, and handed the glass to Miss Thane. “Listen to me,” he said, standing over Ludovic, “I never had your ring in my hands in my life. Until this moment I would have sworn that it was in your possession.”
Ludovic had averted his face, but he turned his head at that. “If you have not got it, who has?” he said wearily.
“I don’t know, but I’ll do my best to find out,” replied Shield.’
When he does find the famous talisman ring – in Basil’s quizzing glass, where else-
Shield’s graceless younger cousin breaks into an emotional speech of thanks intriguing in its implications: –
‘‘There is nothing I can say to you, Tristram, except that I could kiss your feet for what you have done for me.”’
As Ludovic Lavenham’s fate is what the story is about, he must surely be the protagonist, according to common definitions of that role. But he is a singularly thinly drawn main character. He is roughly sketched in as a reckless young man, supposedly charming and handsome with ‘a commanding air’ (shades of Heriot Fayne in Garvice’s The Outcast of the Family). We don’t even know the names of his late parents or what his relations with them were (for convenience, all the parental generation in this story have been killed off save Tristram’s widowed mother).
The reader is clearly intended to find him charming, just as she is meant to find Eustacie sweetly ingenuous, but that requires much patience.

For instance, the Conniving Cousin obligingly tells Tristram Shield that his house will be empty on a certain day, and that the library window needs fixing. Tristram laughs at the crudity of this ploy, but Ludovic rushes into the trap, with his protector close on his heels to rescue him.

Again, protagonist or otherwise, at the climax of the story Ludovic is locked in the cellar in a sort of symbolic imprisonment (where for his security the landlord and Sir Tristram have insisted on keeping him for several days), and in fact the story ends before he even emerges. Given that there are such strong undercurrents of unexpressed desire between him and Sir Ttristram (and that brings me on the possible hidden motives of the Beau), it is highly appropriate that he should lurk in a Freudian manner in the basement, while Sir Tristram proposes to Sarah Thane.

All this seems odd in a protagonist, when the Wicki definition assures us that we must empathize deeply with one, while the main character is intended to provide mainly interest and excitement.

Again, he is the only character who is purely ‘seen from outside’. Although it is certainly true that we have little access to the inner lives of any of the characters in this book, we have some insights into the thoughts of the other three main characters (though mercifully few in the case of Eustacie). Still, we are never told what is taking place in Ludovic’s head at all.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to draw a main character and not to give any access to his or her mental processes, thereby enhancing mystery, but there is nothing mysterious about Ludovic, and one is forced to conclude that Heyer wisely refrains from giving the reader access to the inside of his head largely because it is empty.
The reader, however, is clearly meant to sympathize with him and Eustacie, and to care about their fate; how far this is true for most readers I don’t know, but I found myself unequal to that.

Sir Tristram, then, seems to be the hero – not the ‘False Hero’ I have read of, but a ‘False Villain’. We never get to know him particularly well, partly because some of his actions are designed to take the reader by surprise.

We are not told, in fact, what the unromantic pair makes of each other until the end, although of course, the reader is lead to guess.

These, then, are some of the issues that intrigue me about this perennially popular ‘Regency’ (in fact, late Georgian) romance. The peculiarities of the plot, the confusing combination of seemingly two heroes and two heroines, the high proportion of mystery to the romantic detail, all seem to indicate something shocking – dare I say it of so polished, professional and detached a writer as Georgette Heyer – that she had done what is regarded as literary critics as ‘An Absolute No No’ and ‘Lost Control of Her Material’.

This is, of course, practically a literary equivalent to  a teacher losing control of a classroom. Still, Heyer is in distinguished company. The charge has been leveled at Elizabeth Gaskell in the melodramatic third volume of ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ and at Pushkin in the second half of his robber novel ‘Dubrovsky’.

To me this seems the only explanation for the strangely unsatisfactory balance in this story; it is as if Heyer set out to write a vaguely Gothic spoof of romantic themes (both romantic in the modern sense of he word and the eighteenth century one which incorporates adventure). Perhaps, Jane Austen admirer as she was, in the contrasting two pairs of lovers she envisaged a sort of adventurous equivalent to ‘Sense and Sensibility’. Possibly she started the novel intending to focus most of her attention on the romantic couple, but subsequently lost interest in them, and allowed the down to earth ones to take over the action and resolve the plot.

I found these issues a far more interesting mystery than the one concerning the whereabouts of talisman ring.

One thing is certain; despite the lack of a clear protagonist, and whatever might be seen by modern literary pundits as structural faults, ‘The Talisman Ring’, at seventy-nine years old,  is number fifty in the historical romance category on

A writer who wrote what she didn’t believe in- and created a genre

All ‘How To’ books on writing always say that you must write ‘What you believe in’ on the grounds that if you don’t believe in the worth of your writing, who will?

This seems to make sense; I need only think of the contrast between the early works by the (now obscure, but once famous) master of dark comedy Patrick Hamilton, to know how much this is true.

The works by the younger Hamilton – particularly those in the trilogy, ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky’, though they have technical faults ironed out by the time of his classics ‘Hangover Square’ and ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ are full of exuberance, of sheer delight in the ridiculous.

His last works, ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’ and ‘Unknown Assailant’ have lost that joyful quality; his powers failing (though flashes of brilliance still remain) through his increasing despair and alcoholism, Hamilton’s writing has lost all it’s delight in the ridiculous. His characters have become, as his publisher gloomily commented, unsympathetic marionettes displaying contemptible qualities. In ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ we may have had the altogether contemptible Nazi sympathizers Mr Thwaites and Vicki Kugelmann, but they were offset by the invariably honourable, if grudge bearing, Miss Roach – and the basic decency of the totally unreliable American Lieutenant Pike. In Hangover Square, the tortured amnesic George Harvey Bone, though a double murderer by the end, never loses the reader’s sympathy.

Post Holocaust generations have grown up knowing just what dreadful things people can do. Accordingly, we’re unlikely to find reading about the mean-spirited fraud of Gorse, the anti-hero of Hamilton’s last trilogy, as shocking as his publishers and public seemingly did. Though we might also agree that there are a lack of sympathetic characters in these later stories, I think the main criticism would be the flat quality in the writing. Tragically, it seems likely that Hamilton never believed fully in himself as a man, though he did believe in himself as a writer; finally, he seized to be able to do that either.

Of course, one doesn’t need to have sympathetic characters to write a successful novel; there aren’t a lot in two novels I’ve mentioned several times in recent posts, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. But there has to be that quality of vigour. The writer has to draw the reader into her world, and keep her so engrossed she doesn’t want to leave it.

Thackeray, too, seems to have suffered a decline in powers in is later novels, though for different reasons. We don’t find the lively social criticism and humour again in his works after ‘Vanity Fair’. It’s as if he made his peace with the society that lionized him, and stopped pointing out its flaws.

Dickens isn’t a writer I have ever been able much to appreciate; I’ve only ever read five of his novels and a few of his short stories, and one of these was for an exam. Personally, I find the cardboard souls of his heroes and heroines too great a defect to be able to enjoy the other strengths of his writing, the lively delight in grotesques, the keen eye for social injustice. I gather it’s generally considered that his writing shows no sign of falling off in later years; and he certainly never lost his faith in it (he even extended his faith in his own powers to the point of wishing to continue to write espousing what might be termed ‘family values’ in his magazine ‘Household Words’ after he had outraged these by deserting his wife and mother of his twelve children for a much younger woman).

A writer who writes what she or he believes in and can transfer that enthusiasm to others can achieve wonderful success, change definitions of genre, and overthrow those dull ‘predicted market trends’.

Yet, there are writers who don’t write what they believe in, but who are an outstanding success anyway.

The most obvious example is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ve written before of how he never thought that they ‘brought out the best in him’ or had any literary merit; he preferred his historical stories, ‘Sir Nigel’ ‘The White Company’ and so on, which he considered far superior.

He churned out the Sherlock Holmes stories to make money. He is, so far as I know, the only writer who became so hostile to his character that he actually killed him off, and then was forced to bring him back through public demand. Hardly anyone reads those of his works he regarded of major literary importance today, while in an age of ebooks and technical innovation, Sherlock Holmes continues to hold his own.220px-Strand_paget

There’s another case of a writer succeeding against the ‘write what you believe in’ advice, and that’s one rarely thought of in this sort of context – Georgette Heyer, creator of a genre all of her own – the Regency Romance. Slipping into comparative obscurity in the decades following her death in 1974, her work has experienced a strong revival with the development of the web and ebooks. Threads can be found in any readers’ sites eagerly recommending the books and discussing the merits of this or that hero.

Readers of this blog will gather that I’m not exactly a great admirer of traditional historical romances, Heyer’s included. I admire the extent of Heyer’s historical knowledge and the light humour of the stories, but – let me just climb onto my soap box – I dislike the essentially consensus oriented depiction of late eighteenth century and  early nineteenth century society (a time actually of social upheaval, when the authorities went in terror of a revolution breaking out in the UK ) and the author’s unquestioning acceptance of rigid sex roles. In fact, I dislike two of her swaggering heroes – one a bully and one stupid – so much, that they feature respectively as first and last on my Most Annoying Heroes List.

It would dismay the avid fans of Heyer’s ‘Regency World’ to know that the author herself  despised her historical romances and, by all accounts, her readers (‘they always prefer my worst work’). She generally threw fan mail into the waste paper basket, and said of her novel ‘Friday’s Child’ (1943): ‘Judging from the letters I’ve received from obviously feeble-minded persons who do so wish I would write another These Old Shades, it ought to sell like hot cakes. I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense, but it’s questionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter, or recovering from flu. Its period detail is good; my husband says it’s witty—and without going to these lengths, I will say that it is very good fun.”

She was an intelligent (if politically extremely right-wing) woman, and in outlook, wholly unromantic. It seems typical of her that her romances were composed at a desk in a study in a fug of tobacco smoke – she was an eighty-a-day woman. Her real aspiration was to write serious historical fiction, and on her death she was still composing her ‘magnum opus’ a series of novels on the fortunes of the House of Lancaster.

However,  circumstances led to her having to support first her younger brother and later, her whole family through her writing. She put her son through public school, and like Conan Doyle with the Sherlock Holmes short stories, felt that she had no choice but to go on with churning out one Regency Romance a year.

Heyer may have despised her readerships’ taste, and as one who takes a dim view of the ‘empowering’ aspects of romantic novels, I sometimes find it difficult not to sympathize; but here I think that I should practice a little humility, and think about Laura Sewell Mater’s wise words in her article on the ridiculous sentimental love stories of the Victorian best seller, Charles Garvice : –

‘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 and distraction rather than provocation and insight. But many people find provocation enough in real life, and they read for something else. One cannot have contempt for Garvice without having some level of contempt for common humanity – for those readers, not all of whom can be dismissed as simpletons, who may not consciously believe in what they are reading, but who read anyway because they know: a story can be a salve.’

Charles Garvice as an Influence on the Modern Romantic Novel – and Caught out by Garvice’s Devices

220px-Charles_Garvice_-_The_MarquisIn 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.

Also –
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.’

Flat and Rounded Characters in Fiction: Part One

Garvice coverHolmes

I believe EM Forster in an article somewhere wrote of ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters, which is an intriguing definition. I must seek it out (after finishing ‘Clarissa’ and re-reading ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ for the Goodreads discussion and reading  Francis Franklin’s ‘Suzi and the Monsters’ and reading up on a bit of literary criticism of ‘King Lear’ that is- oh yes, and doing a bit of writing, almost forgot that bit…).

Presumably both sorts of character have their applications, depending on the genre. Flat characters serve a very useful function in detective stories – for instance, in Poirot and
Sherlock Holmes.

The slightly vain,  cold but  basically decent, seemingly law-abiding but occasionally law breaking  Holmes (who despises the blundering official police force)  is in fact, less of a ‘thinking machine’ than his dismissive creator believed – but more of that in a later post.

Here, more or less cardboard characters serve the best function where any individual quirks would clutter up the plot, save where they are useful in adding a useful twist to it or to foreshadow later developments – ie Major Sholto’s phobic terror of men with wooden legs in ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Then, in straight adventure stories, flat characters serve a good purpose, or in short stories- I mean, the really short ones, say 1,500 to 2,000 words – not much room for character development in that word length (still, it would be interesting to have a competition to see if it could be done alongside a separate plot – a huge achievement, surely!).

James Bond is number one of Heroes I Abhor – so it’s hard for me to describe the jerk –sorry,  whatever was I thinking – character – with any detachment – but he’s a fairly obvious example of a flat character.

He’s always meant to be heroic and never makes a fool of himself and never has any problems with – ahem his libido – and is an athlete despite his constant drinking and smoking.

To be fair to Ian Fleming – not as if I want to be – James Bond does in fact have a form of nervous breakdown at some point, showing a startling humanity for a brief space.

I’ve forgotten the name of the novel where this occurs, but after he falls in love with and marries the Countess Tracey Something Or Other who gets shot by SMERSH, he takes to drink, so that when he comes the worse for wear to an appointment with M the ever devoted Miss Moneypenny has to straighten his tie.

M promptly sends him off to a health farm, arriving in a taxi driven by an insolent youth with Teddy Boy characteristics – no doubt everything that the author considered bad about the youth of his own particular today.

I don’t remember what happened after that as I stopped reading. I think this was one of the many books I had recourse  to (OK – grammatically that should be ‘to which I had recourse’ but I ask you!) during that snowed in period in my teens in an isolated house in North Wales I’ve mentioned before where I read so much more than usual, even venturing into historical novels and nineteenth century romances, ie, ‘The Talisman Ring’ and ‘The Black Moth’ by Georgette Heyer, ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’ by Charles Garvice (1894) and even some Fu Manchu. Perhaps the thaw finally came and I could once more venture out again riding hell for leather  on my bicycle, looking for trouble and failing to find it…

In fact, right there are two incredibly successful novelists – Heyer and Garvice – who specialised in flat characters. My recollection of Heyer’s characters – and my acquaintance with her was short – was that she wrote of two sorts of males.

There is the young, hot-headed, wild, but basically good-hearted young buck (sometimes he’s a disgraced Earl) who needs to be civilized by a loving female; he’s usually fairly stupid, though Heyer is very tolerant of these macho young men’s idiocies. Then there’s the cynical, slightly older man who is too calm for the heroine’s liking, and has to be roused to a passion he struggles against.

The heroine is either an ingénue or a slightly older woman who’s got a (not too) independent streak – I think one of these was even rumoured to be a ‘bluestocking’.

In Charles Garvice, the heroes are a nineteenth century version of the same thing – as often as not they’ve squandered away a fortune. Heriot Fayne in ‘The Outcast of the Family’ takes decadence to the point of having a whisky and soda for breakfast (it being a Victorian novel, he has to be alone in bed as he orders this from his man). He is made a good deal less lovable than average by having a liking for threatening to throw Jewish moneylenders out of windows – one can imagine him, thirty years later, joining the Blackshirts – but generally the heroes are honest hearted and rather confused by a conflict between duty –(they’re usually heir to an Earldom) and their natural wildness.

The heroines are a very dull lot. As Laura Sewell Mater comments in her article on this most prolific of late Victorian/Edwardian writers, the only thing that distinguishes one from another is their hair colour, although I do recall that one – I think Margaret in ‘Wild Margaret’ is slightly less of a lay figure – she actually pokes fun at the hero, making him look a fool and bringing about his reformation through acid criticism as much as angelic example.

Most intriguing, I think, are characters who are halfway between the flat and the round; and in my next post I’m going to enjoy writing about a perplexing example of this – none other than Charley Kinraid, the dashing, opportunistic (second?) hero of ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by my favourite Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell.

Plasticity and Evolving Characters

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall (2).jpgA year or so ago I took some time off from reading a selection of the classic robber novels -ie ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ and ‘Rob Roy’ – for a change of genre with Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’.

What interested me particularly about this book – though it’s a good read anyway, all about the terrible conditions in cotton manufacturing in mid Victorian Manchester – was how it illustrated how character types can be used and reused by the author.

They are an awkward lot, these characters! Quite apart from the fact that they take on a life of their own in one story (I don’t mean in the Aleks Sager’s Demon sense, Aagh! I mean within the pages of the novel) they can resemble viruses – they can mutate, and split into many.

I recognized two types in this book which Elizabeth Gaskell was to use again.

The first is the Handsome, Brave, Spirited, Slightly Rebellious,Yarn Spinning Sailor who always has long dark ringlets and flashing white teeth.

I suspect this character type was largely based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s beloved brother John, who tragically went missing either on or immediately after a voyage – it’s not clear which – when she was still very young. Some of his letters to her survive, and from their teasing, affectionate, observant tone it is obvious what an adorable brother he must have been for her and why she must have been so devastated by his loss.

For sure she was haunted by the image of a lost sailor who returns – he comes up in ‘Cranford’ in the form of Poor Peter, as Frederick n ‘North and South’ and as Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

It seems clear to me that she had difficulties in treating this character with the necessary objectivity, and always felt obliged to give him a happy ending (the happy ending she no doubt hoped that her lost brother had somehow come by, though lost to her in real life).

This fellow starts off quite simply as the guiless Will Wilson, the hero Jem’s cousin and Mary’s friend in ‘Mary Barton’ (1847). We read he has the said dark ringlets, is merry, tells tall tales and doesn’t like having them challenged, and his foster mother praises him for having the ‘steadiness’ his parents lacked. He falls in love sincerely with a plain girl in danger of losing her vision and they later marry.

This basic character has developed a little more complexity and sophistication when he turns up as Margaret Hale’s brother in ‘North and South’ (1856). He’s still got those dark ringlets, but this time with blue eyes – and is merry, but he is a fugitive from justice – having instigated a mutiny as a young Royal Navy Lieutenant. He’s generally lovable – impulsive, given a lurking capacity for violence but sunny natured, always doing things for other people, fond of his sister, risking capture to see his dying mother, devoted to his fiancée.

He makes a delightful contrast to Mary’s admirer, the serious, striving, sober and stark ‘I Pulled Myself Up By My Bootlaces Why Can’t Others Do Likewise’ entrepreneur John Thornton .

After this novel, Elizabeth Gaskell used this sailor character type again to good effect – in Charley Kinraid, the heroine’s romantic love interest in her 1863 novel ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ .

This character, however, is anything but ‘steady’. His womanizing is a by word when he pays court to the protagonist Sylvia, while his moral convictions are equally mutable – in the course of the novel he goes from shooting dead two press gang members as Specksioneer of a whaler to inevitable collusion with them when, having been impressed into the Royal Navy, he has risen through the ranks to be Captain (I’m sure Thomas Cotterill, if he’s reading this, will still completely disagree with me about Kinraid’s character).

He does, however, have a flashy charm, dark ringlets, and like Othello, wins the heroine’s heart with his stories.

Unlike the other two main characters in this melancholy tale, Charley Kinraid comes by a (in my opinion undeserved) extremely happy fate. On finding out that he cannot marry Sylvia Robson, he storms off and is married to a doting heiress in no time.

This, like Frederick Hale’s happy marriage to a doting wife and successful career (outside the UK) no doubt is just what Gaskell would have wanted for her own beloved sailor brother.

This transmutation of characters by an author is inevitable; there are all the stories that we might have told, using a particular character type, and all the traits which we didn’t develop in the story we ended up writing.

For instance, in my own first novel I had the aristocrat literally Turned Bandit in Émile Dubois, ex- smuggler and highwayman (leaving aside his running an eighteenth century protection racket in revolutionary Paris). Émile Dubois, when not in a mood for violence, is ,agnostic, cynical and wise cracking, good humoured and self mocking, while his love interest Sophie de Courcy is devout and romantic, with ‘Clarissa’ her favourite reading.

In my third  the protagonist Reynaud Ravensdale (a distant cousin of Émile’s) is also an Aristocrat Turned Bandit, but by contrast he is the romantic one, in fact adopting what would later be called a Byronic pose. In opposition, his love interest Isabella Murray is decidedly cynical, and finds Ravensdale’s histrionics purely ridiculous…

Some writers are notorious for re-cycling  an extremely limited variety of characters and their plots, and it has no effect on their sales while massively helping their productivity. The late Victorian writer of best selling romantic melodramas, Charles Garvice, made a fortune from this.  I also wrote a post recently about another writer of romances, who possibly emulated him,  Georgette Heyer.  She was notorious for writing about two sorts of heroes, dividing them ‘into two basic categories: the Mark I hero, who is “The brusque, savage sort with a foul temper” and the Mark II hero, who is “Suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip….’

What is less well known is that she based her heroes characters, slang, dress, activities and all the rest on the anti heroes of Pierce Egan’s 1823 book ‘Life in London’. Corinthian Tom and his ‘Coz’ Jerry Hawthorn. The dashing  ‘Corinthian Tom’ is a notorious rake and whip who ‘drives to the inch’, as comfortable in the prize ring or buying the ‘Prime Articles’ at the opera a treat at the gin shop, as he is dancing with heiresses at Almack’s.  His rustic ‘Coz’ Jerry is unsophisticated, but ‘game till he’s floored’ and eager to become as debauched as Tom, who strides through their ‘day and night sprees’ in his cloaked great coat and top boots.

Her heroines also divide into two basic types; the innocent (often with romantic notions) and the more knowing, witty and assertive and usually slightly older woman.

She, of course, made a huge reputation partly through re-cycling these basic character types as heroes and heroines in different settings.

Of course, the shade of Mr Darcy hovers here, who was reputedly, down to his habit of not dancing, based to some extent on Lord Byron, who in turn may have modeled his own behaviour on earlier, Gothic heroes… Vulpius’ ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini, Captain of Banditti’, anyone?

With characters, as with plots, there can’t be originality; there can only be originality in how they are depicted.