A few years ago, I posted about having found the worst written novel I have ever come across. This was ‘The Outcast of the Family’ by Charles Garvice, a romantic novel published in 1894.
I had first read it at fifteen, when bored by being snowed in at the Vale of Clwyd in North Wales. My mother had come by this as part of a job lot of Victorian articles in an auction, along with other books, some of rather more value, for instance, she also got a complete set of the first edition of Scott’s ‘Waverley Novels’.
The writing style in this book was so purely terrible that it startled me at the time. I had recently read Sax Rohmer’s ‘The Drums of Fu Machu’ with its flat characters, excessive use of exclamation marks, etc, and this struck me as being even worse.
When I re-read it a few years ago, I found it as fascinatingly bad as I had remembered. The plot, which revolves around a wild young viscount who drinks, brawls and dresses as a costermonger, was so purely risible that I borrowed these details, including his talent for music, for my Gothic satire ‘The Villainous Viscount Or The Curse Of The Venns’.
In ‘The Outcast of the Family’ Lord Fayne is cured of being bad by two conversations with the innocent heroine Eva, who looks upon him and his ‘wasted life ‘ with tenderly compassionate eyes.
Why she does not turn such a gaze upon the villain of the piece, Stannard Marshbank – who is even worse- is not explained. Perhaps it is because he has pale eyes and a furtive manner, unlike Lord Fayne, who is built like a Greek god and with the profile of one, and who saves her life in passing when, dressed as a tramp, he stops her bolting horse.
Having declared his love for her, Lord Fayne empties his glass of brandy onto the fire, sells his racehorses, discards his costermonger garb and takes up busking on the country roads as a form of rehabilitation. Apparently after a few weeks ‘he feels a change’ inspired by the country air and the company of ‘simple country folk’.
This is only part of the plot, which involves a murder, for which Lord Fayne is unfairly accused, and the seduction of an innocent, for which he is also wrongly blamed, Lord Fayne’s short career working on a ranch in Uruguay, and his return, ravaged by malaria, to confront Stannard Marshbank – who has meanwhile forced the heroine Eva to agree to marry him .
When I had read the last page of this melodrama, and stopped laughing, I marvelled at what sort of author could have written such a story in all seriousness. I investigated Charles Garvice, partly through an article on Wickpedia, and partly through one kindly supplied to me by Laura Sewell Matter, in her delightfully humorous ‘Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist’ (2007). She too, marvelled at his ‘incredibly, almost unbelievably bad’ writing style.
He was the best selling writer of the late Victorian and Edwardian era, writing over 150 books and by 1913 selling over 1.75 million annually.
I have since read several of his other books, and find them all as lurid, as devoted to purple prose and as full of ludicrous melodrama as his critics asserted. However, none of them to my mind was as appalling as ‘The Outcast of the Family’. I thought that stood alone: but now I have found a rival for it.
‘The Marquis’ was in fact, published by Garvice in 1895, a year after ‘The Outcast of the Family’. That it is about a wild, careless aristocrat who becomes a solid citizen through the love of a virtuous young girl is not surprising, as more or less all of his stories are about that. However, the Marquis , who is decidedly mature for a Garvice hero, being about 35, has taken his wildness to an unusual level, and has lived not only as an outcast, like Lord Fayne, but as an outlaw.
In fact, over in Australia, as ‘Gentleman Jack’ he has been the leader of a group of bushrangers, whom it is hinted he joined not in order to make money – as a marquis he hardly needed to – but to keep from their worst violence. Like Valentine in ‘The Two Gentleman of Verona’, he imposes on them a moral code, and the exploits of Gentleman Jack become well known throughout Australia.
In one of their last raids before he stops being their leader, he calls on the isolated dwelling of Professor Graham who lives with his daughter Constance, who has violet eyes and is ‘as graceful as a fawn’ in a glorified hut in the outback. A near neighbour is a man called Rawson Fenton, instantly recognisable as the villain by his evasive glance and the coldness with which Constance treats him. We may be sure that, like all of Charles Garvice’s villains, he kicks dogs as a hobby.
Professor Graham has bought a piece of land on which there are many precious gems, surrounded by rock. He has been seeking of a way of making money by freeing the jewels of the stone, becoming meanwhile deranged and fanatical about the topic. Unknown to Constance, he finds it – and the success drives him mad – just before the bushrangers arrive on a raid. Naturally, their leader, who seems a ‘superior’ sort of man, arranges for the grieving Constance to be escorted to the nearest town. The sneaking Rawson Fenton remains behind. Finding a written copy of the formula, and understanding its meaning, he pockets it. He also finds a ring with a family crest that the lead outlaw has dropped, which he pockets also.
Professor Graham considerately dies some months afterwards. Constance returns to the UK to take up work as a governess. Naturally, Charles Garvice being wholly addicted to improbable co-incidences (or synchronicity, if one wants to judge his use of them generously) she is offered post as governess to the Marquis’ young nephew at Breakspeare Castle in Buckinghamshire. Of course, he returns on the very day she takes up her new post, having wearied both of wandering about the globe and life as an outlaw.
Despite the Marquis and Constance having met before and not needing glasses, neither recognises the other. To be fair to Constance, she does think, when being shown his portrait earlier by the Marchioness, that his handsome face, with its ‘audacity and recklnessness, an air of ‘devilry’ and wildness’ is familiar. But she has no idea from where.
Naturally, they fall in love. But a sly cousin who stays at the house, Lady Ruth, has her own plans for the Marquis – who incidentally is called the astounding name of Wolf Breakspeare – and joins forces with Rawson Fenton, now returned to the UK to foil matters. Soon, one of Gentleman Jack’s old gang members named Long Ned turns up, too, singularly hard up – but unlike Constance, capable of recognising the Marquis as Gentleman Jack — and given to saying such things as ‘Lor bless you, guv’nor.’ Will he descend to blackmail?
There is a good deal more in the way of a plot, but it really is too ridiculous to repeat, save to say that Rawson Fenton finds out the Marquis’ dark secret and blackmails Constrance into agreeing to accept his proposal.
During the course of the 350 odd pages, Constance ‘reddens and then turns pale’ on more or less on every other one; Ruth constantly looks and speaks sharply; the Marquis is repeatedly masterful and sometimes a dark look passes across his handsome face as he regrets his past ; Rawson Fenton’s face writhes with passion; everyone admires both Constance (save Lady Ruth) and the Marquis (save Rawson Fenton), and the Marchioness constantly ‘speaks placidly’.
This book also contains a cringe making love declaration, in which I reproduce the punctuation exactly :
‘But for you I should have dared that man (Long Ned) to do his worst! But for you, I should have left this house never to return! But I could not –Girl” his hand clutched as if in a wild rage at some weakness that mastered him – “girl, what have you done to me? Ever since I saw you, the night that I returned, you have exerted an influence over me. You have robbed me of my strength of will, the strength I gloried in – the strength which, once gone, renders me weak and helpless! Constance” and he used her hand to draw her to him, “what have you done to me? What is it? Constance, I cannot get you out of my thoughts day and night. Is it that I love you?”
Oh dear: purple prose, anybody? This book truly has to take equal first place with ‘The Outcast of the Family’ as the worst that I have ever read.
Fascinatingly, the hard backed copy that I read, which was a cheap book in the days before paperbacks, has been so well bound, using the old sewing methods, that it has held this dreadful piece of writing together for 124 years.