Lucinda Elliot

Writing 150 Novels with Different Versions of the Same Plot

I ordered a copy of Balzac’s ‘The Black Sheep’ (in translation, naturally; my French isn’t up to that!) from an online bookstore, and it didn’t turn up, so I have been thrown back on what unread books I have to hand…

I am dismayed about the price of second hand paperbacks online. Before the pandemic, you could often pick up one in good condition for less than fifty pence (plus postage). Now, you’ll be lucky to get one for under six pounds. The problem is that it costs more to order a library book from outside your county.
These unread books I have to hand include is a copy of Edison Marshall’s 1951 novel, ‘The Viking’ – the one that epic film was based on – I have had for years.

I also read another dreadful romance by Charles Garvice: the one that Barbara Cartland resurrected at some point in her ‘library of love’ ‘Only A Girl’s Love’. This will make the ninth I have read through.
Laura Sewell Matter would admire my persistence. She, who became fascinated by the few pages of ‘incredibly, almost unbelievably bad’ writing she found from ‘Veronica Or The Verdict of the Heart’ (I can’t find the date of publication) on an Icelandic beach so that she tracked their down to a solitary copy in the British Library. Still, after reading ‘The Verdict of the Heart’ she was unable to finish any of his others.
She comments in her article ‘In Search of the Great Bad Novelist’ that little varies in the plots apart from the heroine’s hair colour (and that hair, in fact, is usually black; only rarely do we have a fair or red haired heroine, and almost never a brown haired one).

I remain fascinated by the way that Garvice was able to write over 150 novels while retaining such similar plots. This was, of course, part of the reason for his productivity (in this, Barbara Cartland, who lived far longer, exceeded him by publishing about 700 similar books).
These plot mechanisms and stock characters usually involve, first of all, a wild young earl or heir to an earldom (occasionally this character can be really low-born and only a baronet). He is usually ‘as lean as a greyhound’ but muscular, and very handsome. His hair colour does vary, as does the extent of his wildness.

An extreme is Lord Heriot Fayne in ‘The Outcast of the Family’. He given to going round dressed as a costermonger, not through any sympathy with the working class (he remains politically a conservative) but to disgust and annoy the respectable. In fact, nobody in society speaks to him. He seems to have a drinking problem, and also likes brawling and has thrown away a fortune on betting. There are hints that he has been a libertine, although the only time we see him in bed, he is, this being a novel offered as a Sunday school prize, sleeping alone and no doubt wearing pyjamas, even if he does begin the day with a stiff drink. He is described as sneering at the idea of falling in love. He is, however, musically gifted with a talent for playing the violin and for singing. As an aside, and for any who are interested, I was so tickled by this that I used these characteristics for my own anti-hero in ‘The Villainous Viscount’.

Generally, these heroes are not quite so debauched as that and are likable if thick headed. They are usually relieved to put their wastrel lives behind them. Jack in ‘Bound by Love’ was ‘the next thing to a brigand’ but behaves totally honourably the minute he sets foot in England.

The heroine is, these being Victorian, an ingénue, usually twenty-one or under. She is far less well born than the male lead – for instance, Margaret in ‘His Guardian Angel’ is the hero’s uncle’s housekeeper’s niece; Constance in ‘The Marquis’ is a young lady fallen on hard times, and the Marquis’ nephew’s governess.

She is described as ‘high spirited’ but usually this means very little. For instance, the Maida in ‘Maida: a Child of Sorrow’ is holding a burning brand when the villain of the piece decides to go in for a bit of false imprisonment. She never thinks of threatening him with it, though some hours later it does occur to her that she might be able to escape through the window. Charles Garvice thinks this proves her exceptional spirit.

To be fair to Garvice, he does occasionally portray a more active sort of female lead – Esmerelda in ‘Just a Girl’ shoots a man who fires on the hero’s hanger on – but she is Australian, and has been brought up to do unladylike things like that: the English heroines are far more typically Victorian.

Eva, the girl who captures the wicked Lord Fayne’s heart in ‘The Outcast of the Family’ does so by looking on him compassionately on two occasions (it seems no other respectable woman lingers long enough in his company to look at him at all). We are told that Eva is brave and spirited, but she spends most of the novel going pale and fainting at being forced into an engagement with the villianous Stannard Marshbank.

This forced engagement to the villain of the piece is another almost invariable aspect of the novels. This baddie is sometimes a cousin or occasionally, a so-called friend of the wild young hero, and he is invariably conniving and untrustworthy. Sometimes he covets the hero’s earldom; invariably, he covets his girlfriend and through cunning and a series of lucky co-incidences, manages to trick her into having to accept his proposal.

Usually, he has soft and ingratiating ways, but a certain sort of shiftiness betrays his villainous tendencies. Sometimes, he is guilty of seducing an innocent – not the heroine, naturally – and sometimes he is guilty of forgery; sometimes he is a lawyer, who finds out that a relative of the heroine is guilty of forgery and blackmails her into promising to marry him through that; sometimes he murders someone, and frames the hero, as happens in ‘The Outcast of the Family’. Uusually he is recognisable as the villain of the piece from the start, when he indulges in his favourite hobby of kicking dogs.

Unluckily for him, he doesn’t even gain so much as a kiss by forcing the heroine to the engagement, for she is invariably able to keep him at bay by surrounding herself with ‘an impenetrable air of reserve’ under which his pale eyes flash and he gnashes his teeth.

Another stock character is the aristocratic, or glamourous showgirl rival for the hero’s love. She often rashly agrees to enter into some low plot with the villain to break up the hero and the heroine. Invariably, of course, this fell plot is exposed and usually she is disgraced.

However, the showgirl rival in ‘His Guardian Angel’ falls through a trapdoor in the stage and becomes bedbound. This causes her, harbouring a guilty secret as she does, to turn into another of Garvice’s stock characters (and in fact, a favourite among Victorian writers) the Saintly Invalid.

There are numerous ones of these about, including the one in ‘Only a Girl’s Love’ who befriends the heroine and often works on her behalf.

Sometimes, the villain of the piece dies through some fitting accident, as when Stannard Marshbank, wandering about the fields in the pitch dark as you do, falls into the copper mine where he pushed another man in a fit of murderous rage.

The hero in disguise as a working man is another plot device from Garvice – the hero of ‘Bound by Love’ even takes up work as a servant on the estate where he is the rightful heir and then works on the docks.
Lord Fayne in ‘The Outcast of the Family’ of course, went round disguised as a costermonger anyway, though everyone knew who he was, and hurried in the opposite direction. He does a spell with his violin as a sort of wandering minstrel or itinerant busker and his wicked heart is softened by contact with the ‘simple country folk’, besides, of course, Eva Winsdale gazing on him compassionately. Accordingly, he no longer wants to drink whisky before breakfast and start fights at the Frivolity theatre.

Another plot device is the hero rescuing the heroine from some accident involving a bolting horse. When Lord Fayne does this, Eva Winsdale assumes he is a tramp, as he is wearing his cap and kerchief. Lord Trevor in ‘Only a Girl’s Love’ unseats the villain, who is riding recklessly along the river path for no particular reason, when he endangers the heroine.

These recurring plot devices and stock characters in Charles Garvice make me reflect that in fact, a writer with an eye to productivity can use these rather like building blocks, rearranging them just slightly to alter the appearance of the whole. This can be done in an almost infinite variety, though whether custom stales that infinite variety, is another matter.


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