The Life & Times
of Jeffery Farnol, gent.
Jessica Amanda Salmonson
On 10 February 1878, in Birmingham, England, John Jeffery Farnol came forth from his mother Katherine's womb.
He was soon infected with the family's love of books. His father, Henry, nightly read aloud to his wife as she sat sewing, after the boys had been put to bed. But Jeffery & his younger brother Ewart would creep silently down the stairs in their nightshirts & sit outside their parents' door listening to their father's beautiful, sonorous voice enacting all the characters while reading Alexander Dumas, James Fennimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens or Sir Walter Scott.
Educated at home, & being unable to afford a university, Jeffery came of age with no formal education. When he insisted to his father, "I shall be a writer," the elder Farnol invariably replied, "Nonsense! You have no education at all. You couldn't possibly know how to write." His mother, who read his first efforts rather critically, was more supportive of his storytelling proclivities, but she did not make the family decisions, & in either case could not imagine it was a skill that could earn her son a living. As the lad would stay up all night writing, then not rise from his bed until noon, his father came to regard Jeffery as a layabout, & for that reason sent him, at age seventeen, to serve as an apprentice to a Birmingham brass foundry.
It wasn't that he was lazy, no. But he was not going to cave in to the general expectation that his future must be defined & constrained by class. Jeffery evaded all lothesome duties other than the duty of winning fistfights & sneaking hours to write. The characters of Black George in The Broad Highway & the poetically inclined titular character in Beltane the Smith owe everything to his experiences in the foundary, but he still would not master the work if it must stifle imagination. Before long he was summarily dismissed, with a note sent to the failed apprentice's father which read, "No good for work, always writing."
His parents softened somewhat toward their son's love of the arts. As he was often sketching & carving & building furniture as well as writing, he was sent to London to attend the Westminster School of Art. His parents thought he might make a living as a newspaper & magazine illustrator. But his gift for drawing was not half so great as his storytelling prowess & once again he could not bring himself to pursue what he could do competently when he knew there was something else he could do in complete originality & perfection. He returned to the family accepting a job in his father's business, all the while writing short stories, occasionally selling one. Fate being the comedienne that she is, even his father had to fire him after a while, since he would attend to few of the tasks he was paid to do, while forever jotting down new stories or poems.
He was an athletic young man who loved tennis, boxing & football, enrolled in fencing classes, & went on long cycling journeys learning all the byways & side-roads of Kent, Surrey & Sussex such as became so integral to his fiction. The roadside inns in those days were not yet spoilt by tourists, & he knew the tavern rooms in all of them, lifting cups of good brown ale with true country rustics whose humor & rowdy natures lent authenticity to the characters that would eventually populate his reconstructions of Elizabethan & Georgian England.
As an older teenager he'd been quite the lady's man with many girlfriends in Lee & Blackheath. But at age twenty he was undone. He met golden-haired Blanche Victoria Wilhemina Hawley, the 17 year old daughter of Jennifer & F. Hughson Hawley. Hughson, an Englishman by birth, had long lived in America & achieved considerable success in New York as an artist. Blanche had come to England to visit relatives in London & found herself swept away & wedded at an awfully tender age, trusting her father not to kill anyone over it. They soon had a daughter, Gillian.
Jeffery had not a cent to his name. Blanche bought her own wedding ring. Jeffery borrowed from his youngest of two brothers, Edward. For the first year they lived in his brother's attic & Blanche bore their only child, a daughter, Gillian. Eager to meet Jeffery & Gillian, Blanche's father sent his daughter sufficient funds to bring her family to New York. Shortly after their arrival, the strong personalities of Jeffery vs. Hughson clashed. Not wishing to subject Blanche to hardship, Jeffery acquired a rat-infested garret near the job he had taken, while his young wife still lived with her parents in Englewood, New Jersey.
His training in art school came in handy when he began scene paintings for the Astor Theater, a position obtained for him by his father-in-law. He did the portraits seen hanging in baronial halls on the stage, & painted tapestries for moody haunted chambers. At the same time, in his Hell's Kitchen garret, he attacked with renewed vigor his ambition to write for a living, producing short stories, poems & essays, commonly writing clear through the night. Some of his early tales were eventually collected in The Shadow & Other Stories, & a superb collection it is too, a mix of historical fiction & supernatural horror. He was soon selling enough to get by without fear of starvation, & even did some magazine illustration work to make ends meet. Just as he felt a nostalgia for England while he was in America, so too the tables would turn when some few years later, home in Kent, he would write The Definite Object based on his actual friendship with a notorious Hell's Kitchen gangster whose life he saved & of whom he said, "I've never known a finer chap."
His father-in-law was not at the very beginning won over by the young man who'd stolen his little girl's heart, because Hawley respected stability & success, & did not immediately forgive this apparent ne'er-do-well. But Hughson being himself an artist, & Jeffery being indeed a decent & good man, Hawley utlimately encouraged his son-in-law's talents, so that Jeffery finally stayed as often at Englewood as in the dangerous but thrilling Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. Hawley would return from his art studio very late to find a light meal awaiting his midnight arrival, & Jeffery would be present, writing. Joining his father-in-law at table, Jeffery would reveal to attentive ears the ins & outs of every hedgerow & sword battle written that day -- until both men turned in at three a.m.
It was during this time, too, in 1907 to be precise, that he completed his longest work to date, a 200,000+ word epic called The Broad Highway drawing on all his youthful nostalgia for the Kentish countryside far away, & for an earlier era of his dreams.
The New York publishers didn't think much of it. It was "too long & too English" for the popular American market. The Century Company & Scribners were among those who rejected it outright, while Dodd Mead asked for abridgements without following through on their tepid interest. After a year of that, Jeffery in despair was ready to consign the manuscript to the flames. But Blanche would not let him. She took it upon herself to send the manuscript to her mother-in-law in England, & Katherine in turn got it into the hands of a publisher. It was issued in London by Sampson Low, Marston & Co., in 1910. It had its American edition the following year from the Boston firm of Little Brown; they paid $5000 for rights they might've had for a kick in the pants a couple years sooner.
Not that they regreted the price. It was the number one bestselling book of its decade.
From the British sale Jeffery had a scant 250 pound advance. His youngest brother, having real business savvy, had not been able to squeeze more than that from a stingy publisher for a first novel which is always a risk. But he won from them extremely good contract terms that provided for rapid leaps in royalty percentages with subsequent editions. Doubtless Sampson Low didn't think they were conceding much since few such books had more than one or two printings anyway. Ho ho.
Yet even that small initial sum was sufficient to get Jeffery home. By the time the American edition was sewn up, Jeffery, Gillian & Blanche were on an ocean liner heading for England. The portrait of young Jeffery shown here at the right was taken about this time. Before two more years elapsed he & Blanche owned their own house on Eltham Road, at Lee, in Kent. The house was called "Sunnyside," surrounded by acres of fruit trees, vegetable gardens, a bowling green & tennis court. Jeffery now possessed an upstairs den wherein to work unmolested by the world outside his imagination. There, as had so often been his habit, he would work from midnight to breakfast. His growing personal library of English classics & reference works lined two walls of his refuge. On another wall were displayed old pistols & sabres (he was a skilled swordsman having studied fencing, sabre, cutlass, Scottish Claymore, & rapier). On his desk lay a dictionary of slang dated 1812.
Authorly friends who would drop in at the Farnol residence included Antony Hope Hawkins, Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, Pinero, A.E.W. Mason, & Dubliner St. John Ervine -- not to mention the many artists, actors, pugilists, & assorted athletes Jeffery so easily befriended. He kept a good wine cellar & Blanche (assisted by her spinster companion Bess) set a lavish table. Edward remembered his brother's charming & beautiful wife at these occasions as always appealingly dressed, tremendously beautiful, & requiring no hint of make-up. "Alhough she had lived most of her life in the United States she had no 'accent' but was, I think, blessed with a delightful lisp being unable to pronounce the letter 'R.' To persuade her to recite 'Around the rugged rocks' & so on, as I often did, was a sure means of raising general laughter." Yes, theirs had become a life filled with as much friendship, joy & laughter as humans dare dream of possessing.
The Farnols loved the seashore at Brighton in good season. When the weather turned, they would go to Ospedaletti on the Italian Riviera. Yet for all this fantastic success, things were not quite eternal perfection. Jeffery had many hangers-on. His fondness for gangsters & dandies did not always serve him well. He took into his employ a certain cad who robbed him of thousands of pounds over many years. His own brother Edward warned him the fellow was a rotter, yet Jeffery so loved him that he let the man poison his mind & cut off all contact with Edward. Not until the rotter died a deservedly painful death by blood poisoning was the true state of Jeffery's affairs found out, & even then he would not accept Edward back into his arms, forever unable to admit error. A sad thing considering Jeffery had never quarreled with either of his brothers throughout their youth. He seems also to have been an unfaithful husband. In 1938 he divorced Blanche & that same year married Phyllis Clarke; they lived at Eastbourne in Sussex until Jeffery's death. Jeffery adopted Phyllis's daughter Charmian Jane, whom Jeffery greatly loved & for whom he wrote two childrens books & for whom the titular character in Charmian, Lady Vibart was named & to whom additionally The Glad Summer was dedicated.
But mainly the strongwilled Jeffery -- who in youth would not do his father's bidding if it meant he could not write -- was more than proven right in his convictions about himself. Many of his judgments & choices a more careful man would never have made; but a careful man would not have achieved so much.
Many a critic can never imagine a popular author is really any good. Some were annoyed rather than captivated by his ornate style punctuated with "Zounds!" "Oho!" "Egad!" & "Verily," nor would they forgive the lack of realism. A London Times critic jibed, "It is difficult to understand why, in an effort to achieve an eighteenth century style, Mr. Farnol should so often leave off pronouns & definite & indefinite articles" [Literary Supplement, September 2, 1928]. But he never went begging for supporters since just as many critics well comprehended the wit & charm on every page, & his public were legion.
Even during a two-year illness until his final breath in 1952 he would continue to produce novels of the highest merit. His last would need to be completed by his widow, Phyllis, adhering to her husband's outline. By his imagination & talent he greatly enriched the world with prose that presents an admixture of jollity, adventure & beauty, spiced & blended to perfection.
You will find a lovely array of Jeffery Farnol dustwrappers depicted in
The Jeffery Farnol Gallery.
And there's another portrait of him & other illustrations with the
Annotated Jeffery Farnol Bibliography.
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