Formulaic Writing: Romantic Melodrama and Charles Garvice, ‘The Great Bad Novelist’.

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I have written before on this blog about the terrible allure of bad writing, both good bad writing, that is, writing that is so bad it’s good – like ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini: Captain of Bandetti’  and frankly terrible writing.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading another late Victorian best seller by that writer of melodramatic romances, Charles Garvice. The very title reveals how bad the subject matter is going to be:  ‘Leslie’s Loyalty:  Or His Love So True’.

Dreadful stuff; and horribly compelling.

I would like to add that this isn’t the only reading material I have been getting through in these last couple of weeks. I have also reading a science fiction novel by an indie author which is fascinating, but heavy going, intellectually.  In fact, to appreciate it, I find that I can only read about five per cent at a time. I am also getting to the end of E P Thompson’s  wonderfully insightful masterpiece on the suppressed history of working class radical organisation in the UK from the 1790’s on ‘The Making of the English Working Class’.

But to ask what might seem a glaringly obvious question: why is it so easy to read escapist nonsense– whereas challenging novels are not by definition an easy read?  Of course, it is partly that the latter may be introducing unfamiliar concepts, or a whole new way of looking at the world, which can be stimulating but tiring to read about. But it goes beyond that, and  beyond the fairly simple sentence structure and vocabulary that usually go with light reading –though these are important.

I suppose it is also that in formulaic, escapist writing no demands are made on the imagination either – because the reader knows with these stories where things are going. We know that there is going to be a happy ending, however improbable it may be. The hero may have fallen off a cliff  (this does in fact happen to the hero in one of his within the first two chapters) or been seemingly shot dead in front of the heroine’s eyes, but all will be well.

In her article on Charles Garvice, Laura Sewell Matter puts the lure of Garvice’s novels succinctly: ‘I had found something amazingly, almost unbelievably, bad…This was melodrama..The outcome was never in doubt… The characters were caricatures…the plot…was ludicrously improbable. I wanted confirmation that I had correctly inferred what would happen…I wanted both the expected outcome and surprise.’

She, of course, came across Garvice’s writing in a singular way, thorough picking up some water drenched pages on a beach in Iceland. It became to her a challenge to discover from what book of yesteryear this incredibly bad piece of writing came (she eventually was able to track it to the Iclandic translation of ‘The Verdict of the Heart’).

She sums up there the appeal of all formulaic writers who make a huge success of writing recognisably the same story over and again. The appeal of this sort of writer is that the reader knows where s/he is.

Garvice’s stories are always about young, wild, aristocratic young men. The extent of this wildness varies between novels and according to the requirements of the plot. The hero of ‘Only One Love Or Who Was the Heir’ is still welcome in society despite his brawling and gambling proclivities, but the male lead of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , through drinking before breakfast, fighting in music halls and dressing as a costermonger has made himself an outcast from society as well as the family in question (I borrowed these and other qualities for my anti-hero in ‘The Villainous Viscount  Or the Curse of the Venns’).

Often these young men have gambled away a fortune. They have usually have, or recently had, ‘a disreputable connection’ with one or more dancers or music hall singers, but they are immediately ashamed of these the minute they find true love with the innocent flower of a heroine and break things off.

Quite often another women  is in love with the handsome hero, but he cannot return her passion, although she is a desired by all other men and has a fortune.

Very often a Conniving Cousin is introduced into the mix. He also falls in love with the heroine and/or covets the hero’s title or his being heir to a title, or has some other motive for conspiring against the hero getting together with heroine. Sometimes, he conspires with the scorned ex-mistress, though not inevitably. Sometimes, he conspires with both she and the love stricken society belle.

The hero is framed for various wrongdoings ranging from faithlessness to seduction of innocents to bigamy and fraud and occasionally murder, and the heroine is broken hearted. However, after a few months or weeks, a series of co-incidences result in the villains and villainesses being unmasked (sometimes they have committed suicide or been killed off even before that). Then  all ends happily, with the hero and heroine brought together.

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Interestingly, when I began to read ‘Leslie’s Loyalty: Or His Love So True’ it didn’t seem to compare in badness to ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , ‘The Marquis, ‘A Life’s Mistake’ or other favourites of mine.  The writing style was mediocre rather than appalling. There were even an astute couple of remarks, and there were also some flashes of the humour ususally singularly lacking in Garvice’s books, in the description of the dreadful art work done by the heroine’s father, who considers himself a neglected genius (as I also wrote about a similarly deluded individual in ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’ I appreciated this).

I need not have worried; this was a glitch. Very soon the purple prose, the stereotypical behaviour and the hectoring authorial style reasserted themselves; wildly improbable co-incidences were happening; faces became taut with passion; plots were hatched between baddies, and it all turned into a typical Charles Garvice novel.

Laura Sewell Matter comments: ‘It is hard to imagine how a writer could be so prolific and widely read less than a hundred years ago, and totally forgotten today…The critics who found his work so risible that they would rather rend the pages from the spine and toss them into the drink have had their way in the end.’

I do find that one Charles Garvice style novel every few months is enough for me.

Even if I had the good fortune to be apolitical, and therefore could read such works without thinking about the ‘reactionary function’ which they must have played with regard to social class and women’s role, they are anyway rather like ready meals; it might be possible to get by on them, but it must be highly unsatisfactory. There is something intolerably bland about them; there’s nothing to get your teeth into.

So, it’s back to that science fiction novel for me…

But I will leave the last words to Laura Sewell Matter:

‘The formula that Garvice so successfully exploited – virtuous heroine overcoming numerous obstacles to attain happiness – is a predictable one, which any author might employ. His readers are now dead, and their Garvices – if they exist at all – moulder in the attics of the Western world where books like them, by authors who have learnt the same lessons and applied the same patterns to their fiction, are being read on the beach today.’

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Borrowing from the Great Bad Writer of Victorian Romances

$_35I hope to bring out my next novel, ‘The Villainous Viscount Or The Curse of the Venns’ within weeks. There’s been a long delay – over two years – between this and my last ‘Ravensdale’. That was only partly because I’ve written half of the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois as well.

This is the third version of this book I’ve worked on. I began to write this novel as comedy, and I wasn’t satisfied with that after 28,000 words. Cue, writers block…

Then I began to write it as tragedy, and I wasn’t satisfied with that after 56,000 words. Cue,  worse writers block…Yuk, Yuk, Yuk. I became horribly familiar with that. It went on for weeks. I did a blog post on it.

So then I wrote it as Gothic dark comedy with a tragic back story not written as comedy, and – no serious writer’s block to speak of, though  (I always get it for a few days near the end; that’ s nothing).

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I wrote that first comic version  partly as a spoof of the style of novel by the Victorian and Edwardian writer of romantic melodrama, Charles Garvice. This splendidly lurid work is called ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’ (1894).

In this, there is a wild viscount called Heriot Fayne who goes in drunkenness and pugilism and goes about dressed as a costermonger. He is also a talented musician. When he falls for an innocent girl, he vows to reform, and escapes the corrupting air of the city to be  a sort of country busker.

This sounds like the stuff of comedy, but sadly the story is written with deadly seriousness. Charles Garvice’s sense of the absurd in his novels can only be detected with a microscope.

However, I thought the idea of a pugilistic, drunken, musical social outcast of a viscount who sometimes went about dressed as a member of ‘the lower orders’ a purely brilliant idea. I was disappointed at how little Garvice explores the possibilities of this, and how flat a character he made Heriot Fayne, given  his outrageous habits.

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Intrigued by these contradictory features, I have borrowed them for my own version of this individual in Harley Venn, also a viscount and a social outcast by dint of his habits of keeping low company, brawling in the street, and other such disreputable habits. Harley Venn, however, has more problems than Heriot Fayne. He is plagued by a family curse and threatening visits by a cloaked and hooded and skeletal being,

In a previous post, I wrote about how I first came by the novels of Charles Garvice, this Victorian writer of bestselling romantic melodrama, so my apologies for anyone who remembers that, if I go into it again.

My parents used to renovate isolated country mansions before it became fashionable. To furnish these ludicrously outsized dwellings they used to go to auctions, and the job lots often contained crates of old books, ideal for filling up empty shelves.

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As I have said before, I first read this book , hooting with derisive laughter as teenagers do, when snowed up in the Clwyd Valley at the age of fourteen – raiding my mother’s Bristol Cream at the same time.

I came across all sorts of books through these job lots, many of them, in those pre-internet days, long out of print.  There were b ooks by Mrs Humphrey Ward and Helen Mathers, memoirs of nineteenth century rural vicars and collections of sermons  packed in with some of Shakespeare’s plays and copies of 1950’s science fiction and fantasy magazines.  Informative books on pig keeping, gardening, and engineering mingled with stories by Enid Blyton with appallingly racist titles, works by Arhtur Conan Doyle, a strange encyclopaedia like tome called ‘Everything Within’, paperback versions of Georgette Heyer and Mary Stuart and hardbacks of PG Wodehouse, and this one book by Charles Garvice.

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I re-read ‘ a couple of years ago. An online friend named Thomas Coterrall tracked it down for me. Thanks, Thomas!

Given that I took inspiration from a theme of Charles Garvice, it sounds highly ungracious if I say that when I re-read it, if anything, it struck me as being even more outrageously bad then when I read it the first time.

Still, I would be dishonest if I said anything else. There are a couple of good paragraphs, where Garvice lapses into good writing. Generally, however, with regard to Garvice’s love of wildly improbable co-incidences, lurid melodrama and purple prose, I have to agree with Laura Sewell Mater, on her article ‘Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist:

‘…I recognised, almost from the moment that I started reading, that I had found something amazingly, almost unbelievably, bad.’

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Yet, I have remained fascinated by the fascinating badness of Garvice’s novels. ‘The Outcast of the Family’ has remained my favourite, perhaps because it is the one I enjoyed first. I still maintain that it is probably his worst. I have read several others, including  ‘A Life’s Mistake Or Love’s Forgiveness’  ‘The Marquis’ , ‘Wild Margaret, Or His Guardian Angel’, ‘The Woman’s Way’ ‘Just A Girl’ ‘Wicked Sir Dare’ and ‘The Story of a Passion’. Yes, I’ve read all those, but they were rather a disappointment after the first. They didn’t provide the same amount of unintentional comedy.

I feel the same fascinated affection for the first Charles Garvice novel I read (despite the scene where the hero shows rebarbative anti-Semitism)  as Laura Sewell Matter felt about ‘The Verdict of the Heart’ . This was a Charles Garvice book which she tracked down after becoming fascinated by the lurid text in the pages she found washed up on a beach in Iceland.

Ms Matter says of Charles Garvice in her article ‘Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist’: –

‘The critics were merciless. His work was routinely dismissed by such highbrow publications such as The Athenaeum, which snidely acknowledged Garvice’s success: ‘The very thickness with which the colours are laid on will make the novels popular in circles which know nothing of artistry.

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‘The question which concerned the critics was not whether Garvice’s work was high art – it patently was not – but whether he was a calculating businessman who condescended to write for the newly literate female masses, or a simpleton who believed in the sort of twaddle he peddled. A fool or a cormorant. Either way, he was damned.’

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However, in my first post on Charles Garvice, I quoted a very telling point that Ms Matter makes towards the end of her article: –

‘ What Moult and the other critics failed to acknowledge, but what Garvice knew and honoured, are the ways in which so many of us live in emotionally attenuated states, during times of peace as well as war (during the First World War, Garvice’s novels had been favourite reading material for soldiers in the trenches). Stories like the ones that 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 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: 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
and
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.

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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 .

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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.’