Jeffery Farnol [1878-1952]
by Arthur St. John Adcock [1864-1930]
Had it been, as some believe it is, an irrevocable law that a man's mind & temperament are naturally moulded by his early environment, Jeffery Farnol ought to have been an uncompromising realist. Plenty of good things come out of Birmingham, but they are solid things; you would not suspect it was the native city of any pedlar who had nothing but dreams to sell.
Scott, Ballantyne & Stevenson were all born in Edinburgh, a very haunt of romance; Mayne Reid came from Ireland which, though Shakespeare does not seem to have known it, is where fancy is bred; Stanley Weyman hails >from just such a quaint little country town as he brings into some of his stories; Manchester nursed Harrison Ainsworth, & even Manchester carries on business as usual against a shop-soiled background of fantasy & the black arts. But Birmingham well, Birmingham forgets that it was visited by the Normans & sacked by the Cavaliers; it has made itself new & large & is as go-ahead & modern as the day after tomorrow; a place of hard facts, factories, practical efficiency, profitable commerce, achievement in iron & steel, & apparently has no use for fancy & imagination except on strictly business lines, when it manufactures idols for the heathen & jewellery that is not what it seems.
Nevertheless, a fig from a thorn, a grape from a thistle, in Birmingham Jeffery Farnol was born, & it would not have been surprising if he had grown up to put present-day Birmingham & its people into his novels, as Arnold Bennett has put the Five Towns & their people into his; but instead of doing that he has perversely developed into one of the most essentially romantic of modern novelists. He was writing stories when he was nineteen, & some of them found their way into the magazines. For a while, feeling after a source of income, he coquetted with engineering, & there is some romance in that, but not of the sort that could hold him. He experimentalised in half a dozen trades & professions, & presently looked like becoming an artist with brush & pencil rather than with the pen. In those uncertain years, when he was still dividing his leisure between writing tales & painting landscapes & drawing caricatures, he came to London & spent his spare time at the Westminster Art School, where the now distinguished Japanese artist, Yoshio Markino, was one of his fellow pupils.
Then, in 1902, he cut the painter in one sense, though not in another, & grown more enterprising went adventuring to America; where, having married the youngest daughter of Hughson Hawley, the American scenic artist, he took to scene-painting himself & did it diligently for two years at the Astor Theatre, New York. When he was not busy splashing colour on back-cloths, he was working strenuously at the writing of fiction, & if his first novel smacks somewhat of the conventions & artificialities of the theatre in whose atmosphere he was living, his second, The Broad Highway, is as untrammelled by all such influences & as breezily, robustly alive with the wholesome, free air of the countryside of eighteenth century England & the native spirit of romance as if he had never heard of Birmingham or been within sight of a stage door.
With The Broad Highway he found himself at once; but he did not at once find a publisher with it. Often enough an author who has been rejected in England has been promptly received with open arms by a publisher & a public in America; then he has come home bringing his sheaves with him & been even more rapturously welcomed into the households & circulating libraries of his penitent countrymen. But in Farnols case the process was reversed. America would have none of The Broad Highway; her publishers returned it to him time after time, as they had returned Mr. Tawnish, which he had put away in despair. It had taken him two years to write what is nowadays the most popular of his books, & for three years it wandered round seeking acceptance or slept in his drawer between journeys, until he began to think it would never get out of manuscript into print at all.
It was looking travel worn & the worse for wear, & had been sleeping neglected in his drawer for some months, when his wife rescued it and, on the off chance, sent it over to England to an old friend of Farnols, who, having read it with enthusiasm, passed it on to Sampson Low & Co., & it came to pass that The Broad Highway was then published immediately & as immediately successful. That was in 1910; & in the same year Jeffery Farnol came back to his own country & settled in Kent, which has given him so many scenes for the best of his romances.
Strange, you may say, that a novel so wholly & peculiarly English should have been written so far away from its proper setting & in such unpropitious surroundings, especially while Farnol had all the glamorous adventure & lurid, living romance of the American outlands waiting, as it were, at his elbow. But"The mind is its own place, & in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven"
And an eighteenth century England of a twentieth century New York; otherwise he might have been among the pioneer revivalists of the riotously romantic novels of the Wild West. Stranger still that when The Broad Highway recrossed the ocean it was no longer rejected & had soon scored an even larger success with American than with English readers. The magazines there opened their doors to the author without delay & made haste to secure the serial rights in his next stories before he had begun to think of them. Within the next three years, The Money Moon & The Amateur Gentleman had increased & firmly established his reputation, & the earlier Mr. Tawnish came out on the strength of their abounding popularity, which was more than strong enough to carry the tale of that elegant & honourable person much further than it might have gone if it had not had such best sellers & long runners to set the pace for it.
Romance is Farnol's native air, & he does not breathe happily in any other. When he tells a story of the trousered, railway-riding life around him he is like a wizard who has turned from his spells & incantations to build with mundane bricks & mortar instead of with magic he does the ordinary thing capably but in the ordinary way. The Chronicles of the Imp is an entertaining trifle, & The Definite Object is a clever, exciting story of a young millionaires adventures in New Yorks underworld, but they lack his distinctive touch, his individual manner; he is not himself in them. He is the antithesis of Antaeus & renews himself when he reaches, not the solid earth, but the impalpable shores of old romance. He can do no wonders of picaresque realism with such charming latter-day fantasies as The Money Moon, but give him the knee-breeches or strapped pants & the open road & all the motley, thronging life of it in the gallant days of the Regency & he will spin you such virile, breezily masculine, joyously humorous romances as The Broad Highway, The Amateur Gentleman & Peregrines Progress; give him the hose & jerkin, the roistering merriment & rugged chivalries of the Middle Ages & he will weave you so glowing & lusty a saga as Beltane the Smith; & you will have far to go among recent books before you find more fascinating or more vigorously imaginative romances of piracy & stirring adventure on land & sea than Black Bartlemys Treasure & its sequel Martin Conisbys Vengeance.
He gives away the recipe for his best romance in that talk between Peter Vibart & another wayfarer which preludes The Broad Highway:
As I sat of an early summer morning in the shade of a tree, eating fried bacon with a tinker, the thought came to me that I might some day write a book of my own; a book that should treat of the roads & by-roads, of trees, & wind in lonely places, of rapid brooks & lazy streams, of the glory of dawn, the glow of evening, & the purple solitude of night; a book of wayside inns & sequestered taverns; a book of country things & ways & people. And the thought pleased me much.
But, objected the Tinker, for I had spoken my thought aloud, trees amd suchlike dont sound very interestin leastways not in a book, for after all a trees only a tree & an inn an inn; no, you must tell of other things as well.
Yes, said I, a little damped, to be sure there is a highwayman
Come, thats a little better! said the Tinker encouragingly.
Then, I went on, ticking off each item on my fingers, come Tom Cragg, the pugilist .
Better & better! nodded the Tinker.
A one-legged soldier of the Peninsula, an adventure at a lonely tavern, a flight through woods at midnight pursued by desperate villains, & a most extraordinary tinker.
The tinker approves of all these things, but urges that there must also be in the story blood, & baronets, and, above all, love & plenty of it, & though Peter Vibart is doubtful about these ingredients because he lacks experience of them, as he goes on his journey he makes acquaintance with them all, & they are all in the story before it ends. The Tinker was only interpreting the passion for romance that is in Everyman when he pleaded for the inclusion of picturesque or emotional elements that Peter was for omitting, & the instant & continuing popularity of "The Broad Highway" shows that he was a correct interpreter.
Born no longer ago than 1878, Farnol is younger than that in everything but years. If he is seldom seen in literary circles it is simply because the country draws him more than the town; he is the most sociable of men, & his intimates will tell you that the geniality, the warmth of feeling, the shrewd, humorous philosophy that are in his books are also in himself; that his love of romance is as genuine & inherent as every other sense belonging to him, and, consequently, when he sits to write on the themes that naturally appeal to him he merely follows Samuel Daniels counsel & dips his pen into his heart.
The above article is a chapter from A. St. John Adcock's Gods of Modern Grub Street: Impressions of Contemporary Authors (1923). The text was transcribed by Stuart R. Malin for Violet Books & put into html code by Jessica Salmonson.
You will find a lovely array of Jeffery Farnol dustwrappers depicted in The Jeffery Farnol Gallery.
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