ShrewsburyOn Stanley Weyman,
Greatest of the Yellow Nineties Swashbuckling Romancers

Jessica Amanda Salmonson

   

Stanley John Weyman was born at Ludlow in Shropshire on 7 August 1855, the second son of an English county solicitor. He went to Shrewsbury School, then to Christ Church, Oxford, graduating in 1877 with a degree in, what else, history. With this degree he was not able to make much of a living for himself & prospects were discouraging. He was called to the Bar in 1881 & practiced law for "eight wretched years" never making more than 200 in any given year, & frequently angered judges with his nervous incompetence in court.

Novelist & Cornhill Magazine editor James Payn convinced him to undertake fiction. Weyman began publishing in 1883 with his short "The Story of a Courtship" for The English Illustrated Magazine, But not until his first novel The House of the Wolf, set in 16th Century France, was he catapulted to fame in 1890. Wolf after serialization had a book edition only at the insistence of another early supporter, Andrew Lang, who persuaded Longmans Green of the author's excellence. From 1890 onward, he was the lion of a very special & elegant literary form. His best books, including From the Memoirs of a Minister of France (1893), A Gentleman of France (1893), Under the Red Robe (1894) & The Red Cockade (1895) are all but without parallel in excellence.

Swashbuckler collector Jesse Knight has written, "Weymen really is a brilliant historical novelist who has been unjustly neglected." And I must say I am truly amazed that he is not to this day a household name with one or two of his books as widely known as one or two of Stevenson's. He was one of only two authors Rafael Sabatini explicitly claimed to have been an influence on his work; the other was mystic historical novelist Mary Johnston. Knight says, "Sabatini spoke highly of the older novelist, maintaining vigoriously that Weymen had advanced the field of historical fiction writing."

Weyman's great contribution to perfecting the historical romance in it's purest "swashbuckler" mode was to take all that was most thrilling about Alexander Dumas & Sir Walter Scott & get rid of everything that was tedious. That is not to say he made it simpler; he evaded stating the obvious, he used correct history as background without lecturing about it, he was never a blow-hard. He depended on environment & momentous occasion to guide the characters through a story. This resulted in a swift, forward-moving & suspenseful plot punctuated with action, heroism, witicism, & romance both of the high adventure-sort & the sort that requires a leading lady.

Red Cocade

Without Weyman there might never have been a Sabatini or a Jeffery Farnol. Robert Louis Stevenson was his only absolute peer & it is no surprise that Stevenson counted Weyman among his favorite writers. As a Yellow Nineties giant Weyman was praised even by Oscar Wilde, & has impacted such well-read moderns as George Macdonald Fraser, whose "Flashman" books owe only slightly less to Weyman than they do to Farnol.

It seems to me women as well as men should love these books, as I've found is certainly true of Jeffery Farnol's works. The women in the stories aren't often the focus but they're great characters with real power of their own. The men, for all their athleticism, are aesthetes at heart & tend toward the dandified -- with powdered wigs, ruffled sleeves & hosiery, how could they be anything else -- & this character type was borrowed by Orczy & Farnol to a startling degree. The tension inherent in a character who before the intrigues-rife royal court or at the gambling tables is the male equivalent of a painted hussy, but is nevertheless prone to highminded acts of valor, retains a degree of cosmopolitan modernity for feminist & tavern brawler alike.

The classic age of the swashbuckler might well be said to begin with Weyman, later hitting a certain stride with Sabatini's Italian & Jeffery Farnol's Elizabethan swashbucklers, but also with such more-or-less adult series as featured Baroness Orczy's Pimpernel, Garston Crosby's Owls' House, & David Graeme's Monsieur Blackshirt. Later still, what I would call post-Farnol authors -- i.e., Lawrence Schoonover, Samuel Shellabarger, Frank Yerby -- brought little new to the form though they certainly continued it admirably, whereas pre-Weyman historical romancers like William Ainsworth, George Menville Fenn, Sabine Baring-Gold, were comparative primitives still in the thrall of gothicism. Scott, Dumas & Blackmore were the mid-century grandfathers rather than the century's end fathers of those delightsome swashbucklers that were to thrive up to the second world war when, perhaps, the sadness, brutality & waste resulting from actual "heroism" made a gallant pirouetting with sword just a little less believable.

Weyman represents the perfection of the form. It was he that birthed an entire school of such romances composed in the Yellow Nineties, a coterie of authors who frankly constitute the highest highwatermark for the genre, whether or not little known, & exceeded even the later, better-remembered Orzy, Sabatini, & Farnol in excellence. These disciples/contemporaries of Stanley Weyman included John Edward Bloundelle-Burton, S. Levett Yeats, Standish O'Grady, Owen Rhoscomyl, & Robert Neilson Stephens, among so many others. S. R. Crockett was more a disciple of Stevenson but Weyman can be detected as well. They all had in common high color, action & romance, without losing sight of historical credibility. If they are to be distinguished from the more purely "historical" novelist, the distinguishing factor for swashbucklers per se is a greater naive power & belief in the beauty of heroic action & of humanity's capacity for great evil & great goodness -- an artful attitude that makes the pirate or an alley bravo or a gentleman robber an appropriate hero more often than with historicals generally.

Weyman was evidently a trifle pained that by having the majority of his greatest works set in France far from the realities of his own time & nation, he was all the more to be regarded purely a Romancer & not a serious observer of life. He admired Trollop & had a hankering to extend his storytelling skills to areas other than adventure fiction. The New Rector (1891) was his first Trollopian effort, pretty much rejected by critics & the public alike. By & large his domestic rural dramas, such as Starvecrow Farm (1905) & Ovington Bank (1922) were not as popular with a public who knew exactly what they wanted from him. It was just that the glamour of costume & beauty, the idealism of action & noble cause, were what his public required; leave it to others to show them themselves. Only in Shrewsbury (1897) set in the region where he grew up, but in William & Mary's day, did he expertly blend home & action in a way his public admired, resulting in one of his best sellers.

Even apart from collectors of swashbuckling historicals, who tend to place him foremost of all such writers, there does seem to be a small budding revival of interest in Weyman. His admirer George MacDonald Fraser edited a collection called Five Classic Adventure Novels (Collins, 1995) including not only Haggard, Doyle, P. C. Wren & Anthony Hope, but also Weyman's Under the Red Robe. And Weyman is properly represented in Michael's Cox's short story anthology The Oxford Book of Historical Stories. The Gutenberg Project has made a few of his works accessible free as e-texts. While e-texts are a terrible way to read Weyman, it does mean his name now has a "web presence" where new fans can encounter him for the first time. I say a terrible way to read Weyman because his style has an aesthetic ingredient that was reflected in book design. Many of his editions had ornate bindings & pleasing illustration plates that in no way disagreed with the texts. The act of holding these treasures & reading these thrilling tales is deluted when resorting to a computer screen or print-out instead of a finely made book.

Weyman died 10 April 1928 & was laid to rest in the parish kirkyard at Llandrhyd, Wales, as he had long been involved in the Welsh church. Even after his death he would remain in print through the 1940s, when his posthumous popularity at last waned. No concerted modern reprint project has been undertaken since the 1970s when a brief craze for historicals in the mass market brought several classic authors like Marjorie Bowen & Stanley Weyman into popular editions. The easy sampling of his writing that the web today makes possible may induce some wise publisher to bring out proper modern editions. Otherwise, Weyman seems likely to remain, now & for the perceivable future, best known to a specialized & discerning audience that has made a point of seeking out antiquarian editions.

See also the illustrated &
Annotated Stanley Weyman Bibliography
for a complete overview of his books.





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