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.