‘Martin Coninsby’s Vengeance’ by Jeffrey Farnol: Swashbuckling Adventure From a Former Era

conisby

Jeffrey Farnol, who wrote ‘historical swashbucklers’ and was a huge infuence in historical novels in the early twentieth century, had a writing career spanning from 1907 until his death in 1952, but now his reputation has now largely sunk into obscurity.

Historical swashbucklers intended largely for a male audience seem – unless I am  missing some new development – to have fallen out of favour. Meawhile, ‘historical romances’ catering for an overwhelmingly female audience have taken over from them in popularity. I don’t quite know why.

I can see why the swashbuckler type of story is less likely to appeal to a modern female readership, because it concentrates largely on male experience, and female characters in this genre were given largely traditional and subsidiary roles.

I heard somewhere that Farnol was notorious for his dialogue, of the ‘Marry, thou art a saucy rogue’ type.  – In fact, this seems unfair; his historical dialogue is nothing like as bad as that.

I was originally attracted by the lurid blurb for his 1921 ‘Martin Coningsby’s Vengeance’:

‘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 have to say, I expected the worst of this, the first book I have ever read by Farnol. I thought for sheer badness it might even rival the work of that writer of Victorian romantic melodramas, Charles Garvice -and that really would be something. I have Charles Garvice up on a pedastal for, as Laura Sewell Mater puts it, ‘Astonishingly, almost unbelievaby bad writing’.

In fact, Jeffrey Farnol turned out to be a better writer than I expected. His style can even be evocative.

True, the plots are far fetched and the actions and speeches of the characters melodramatic. Also, the views of the author are obviously as reactionary, unfortunately racist, and as given to conventional sex roles as can be, despite the appearance of a rather wonderful female pirate in this story – Joanna, otherwise Cap’n Jo – who comes to fall hopelessly in love with the hero, who shows superhuman indifference to her manifold charms, being determined to be faithful to his first love.

She, having been a heartless mistress to several savage pirates, wastes away for love of Coninsby, who is disgusted by her previous colourful history. In the end, she dies saving him from the murderous plot she had intended for him.

Here, as in a good many other places, the writing takes off: as Coninsby sails away from the desert island where he has left her buried, he reflects:

‘And with my gaze thus fixed, I must needs wonder what became of the fiery, passionate spirit of her, that tameless soul that was one with the winds and stars and oceans, even as Resolution had once said. And thus I presently fell a praying, and my cheek wet with tears that I thought no shame.’

Coninsby is motivated by a burning desire for vengeance on his old enemy Brandon. He even – this is one of the wildly improbable parts of the plot – engineers to be taken by the Spanish Inquisition in order to be brought into contact with his old enemy, who has fallen into their hands himself.

However, here he finds that Brandon has been so changed by the tortures of the Inquisition that he is no longer the callous, arrogant enemy in the prime of life. He has turned into an old man broken in body, but transformed in spirit.

I was impressed by this feature of the plot – how Coninsby finds that, having lived for vengeance, it has lost all its appeal:

‘God had given to my vengeance at last no more than this miserable thing, this poor, pale shadow.’

Gradually, Coninsby comes to forgive his once pitiless enemy, and to value him as a friend. Together, they escape from the Inquisition by boat, only to encounter further and wilder adventures:

‘And now, we were admit the breakers; over my shoulder, through whirling spray, I caught a glimpse of sandy foreshore where lay our salvation; then, with sudden rending crash, we struck and a great wave engulfed us.’

Despite the author’s addiction to adjectives and adverbs, his tendency to purple prose and his conventional outlook,  there is often a strength to the writing that I hadn’t expected.

However, I gather that the female pirate Joanna is not a typical female for Jeffrey Farnol, Coninsby’s virtuous sweetheart Joan being the sort of woman he approved, and that he likes to portray coy, lash batting wenches more often than combatative ones. If I sample other novels of his, I can see myself becoming irritated by that and his reactionary views generally.

This sort of swashbuckling historical novel has, as I said, gone out of fashion, while historical romances with a plot catering for ‘feminine’ tastes, with an emphasis on the love story, have conversely developed a large following.

I think this is a loss, but then, I enjoy an adventure story with the love story as part, rather than the pivot of the plot.

To finish, here’s another of those wonderfully lurid covers.

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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.