The Lit­er­ary Pil­grim

Evergreen - - Contents - Martin Gosling

There have been many writ­ers whose pop­u­lar­ity as­cended then flick­ered into ex­tinc­tion in the decades be­fore most of to­day’s read­ers were born. Few of those who were once house­hold names have sur­vived the cur­rent surge of pop­u­lar, light­weight fic­tion, quickly down­loaded, read and for­got­ten. Mean­while, the clas­sic writ­ings of Hardy, Dickens, Maugham and Forster ( sadly, not Ki­pling) re­tain their place in pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion of­ten fol­low­ing adap­ta­tions for cinema or tele­vi­sion.

Of those who have, un­de­servedly, been ig­nored and for­got­ten, Jef­fery Farnol is amongst the fore­most. His first novel The Broad High­way was pub­lished in 1910 and was im­me­di­ately a phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess, sell­ing more than half a mil­lion copies in Eng­land and Amer­ica. To­gether with many oth­ers of his era, Farnol was a great ad­mirer of Ge­orge Bor­row ( see Ever­green, Win­ter 2016) and some of the flavour of Laven­gro and The Ro­many Rye can be found, par­tic­u­larly in his first suc­cess. Those of a cer­tain tem­per­a­ment, read­ers who re­spond to a tale of old Eng­land’s dusty roads, hedge tav­erns, deep woods and a yarn of dan­ger­ous ad­ven­ture, would cleave to what he of­fered.

Farnol’s early life is rel­e­vant to the tone of his writ­ing. Although born in Birm­ing­ham in 1878, he spent his boy­hood in ru­ral Kent, the county that forms the set­ting for The Broad

High­way. ( His younger brother and con­stant com­pan­ion, Ewart, was later killed in the sec­ond Boer War.)

Farnol re­turned to Birm­ing­ham to serve an ap­pren­tice­ship in the fam­ily iron foundry busi­ness but fol­low­ing a fight with a fore­man, he left in dis­grace. His in­nate predilec­tion for fisticuffs, to­gether with his knowl­edge and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of prize fight­ing, is ap­par­ent in sev­eral of his tales.

Re­turn­ing to Kent, for a while he re­mained at home, writ­ing sto­ries and po­ems but with lit­tle suc­cess. His fa­ther thought him no good for work but later sup­ported him when he at­tended the West­min­ster School of Art, hop­ing to ig­nite a mi­nor tal­ent for draw­ing. This came to noth­ing.

Then, aged 20, Farnol met and mar­ried an Amer­i­can girl who was hol­i­day­ing in Eng­land. Blanche Haw­ley was the daugh­ter of a suc­cess­ful New York artist. She was aged 17. The Farnol fam­ily were taken aback, more so when Blanche gave birth to a daugh­ter later the same year, 1903.

The cou­ple then trav­elled to Amer­ica, un­sure of the re­cep­tion they would face from Blanche’s fa­ther, Hugh­son Fred­er­ick Haw­ley ( in fact an English­man). How­ever, he was not un­sym­pa­thetic, hav­ing him­self mar­ried at the age of 16.

Hav­ing ar­rived in Amer­ica with no money and anx­ious to pro­vide for his lit­tle fam­ily, Farnol found work as a scene painter at the As­tor Theatre on Broad­way. This re­quired him to live in lodg­ings and so be­gan what he termed his “seven lean years”. Dur­ing this pe­riod he met many New York­ers of all types in­clud­ing crim­i­nals who be­friended him fol­low­ing an in­ci­dent in which Farnol had taken home and cared for a man whom he had stum­bled

across on the docks. The man had been badly in­jured and left to die.

Dur­ing this phase he in­creased his writ­ing out­put and had two full- length sto­ries, The Money Moon and Lady Caprice, pub­lished in se­rial form by mag­a­zines. Home­sick for his beloved Eng­land his cre­ative mind gave shape to The Broad High­way.

Af­ter a year he had had enough of scene paint­ing and re­turned to live in the home of his fa­ther- in- law where his spir­its re­cov­ered in the com­pany of his wife and lit­tle daugh­ter. This was the hey­day of Amer­i­can mag­a­zines and Farnol worked hard at writ­ing short sto­ries that be­gan to find favour. The sys­tem at that time re­quired writ­ers to hawk their sto­ries to pub­lish­ers, a process that in­volved them wait­ing in outer of­fices, clutch­ing their work. He later wrote that “At this pe­riod I of­ten sat in Ainslee’s ( pub­lisher) of­fice in com­pany with an Amer­i­can who was so quiet and re­tir­ing it seemed he must be an English­man. He turned out to be one of the great­est short- story writ­ers in the world, O. Henry. There we used to sit to­gether, wait­ing to go in and sub­mit our stuff and sev­eral times our sto­ries ap­peared si­mul­ta­ne­ously.” JF had by then com­pleted his draft of The Broad High­way. He of­fered it to sev­eral New York pub­lish­ers but for them it seemed not quite right. It was “too English” and too lengthy. Dis­ap­pointed, Farnol asked a favour of an ac­tor friend who was about to travel to Bos­ton. He per­suaded him to take the man­u­script with him and pass it to some­one JF knew at the pub­lish­ers, Lit­tle Brown. On his re­turn, the friend con­fessed that he had com­pletely for­got­ten his er­rand and handed back the pack­age. In low spir­its, as he con­fessed later, JF was minded to put the thing on the fire. In­stead he posted it home to his mother ( his con­stant sup­port and en­cour­age­ment) “for her own amuse­ment”. But she was so

im­pressed with the story that she per­suaded a fam­ily ac­quain­tance to show it to a Lon­don pub­lisher. It was ac­cepted by Samp­son Low, Marston and Co. and soon, for them and JF, be­came an as­ton­ish­ingly lu­cra­tive in­vest­ment.

The seven lean years had ended and he re­turned to Eng­land. Farnol was on his way and fol­lowed his ini­tial suc­cess with many other tales of ro­mance and ad­ven­ture which were read through­out the English- speak­ing world. Per­haps The Ama­teur Gen­tle­man and The High Ad­ven­ture both con­tain el­e­ments that made The Broad High­way the suc­cess it was, but other sto­ries were of com­pletely dif­fer­ent gen­res, no­tably Black Bartlemy’s Trea­sure and its grip­ping se­quel, Martin Con­isby’s Vengeance, a story of bit­ter, bloody in­ter- fam­ily ri­valry, set in the time of The Com­mon­wealth and Cromwell, although none of the back­ground his­tor­i­cal go­ings- on in­trude into the plot. Farnol was even­tu­ally di­vorced from his first wife. He later mar­ried Phyl­lis Clarke, who had been a friend of his sis­ter since child­hood. Once es­tab­lished as a suc­cess­ful writer, he main­tained a pro­lific out­put. Some of his sto­ries were adapted for fea­ture films, no­tably The Ama­teur Gen­tle­man that was pro­duced in two ver­sions. As an in­di­vid­ual he was well liked and ad­mired. He trav­elled widely,

act­ing as a cor­re­spon­dent for English news­pa­pers when he was abroad, once re­port­ing on a world- ti­tle box­ing match from Amer­ica.

Jef­fery Farnol had over 50 books pub­lished; the ma­jor­ity were his spe­cial brand of fic­tion that caught and held the imag­i­na­tions of a huge read­er­ship: de­cency, courage and hon­our over­com­ing for­mi­da­ble odds, def­er­ence to women and those in dif­fi­culty. Hope­lessly out of tune with to­day’s po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, these themes may nev­er­the­less strike a chord with read­ers who re­tain a la­tent yearn­ing for more spacious times.

Those who are cu­ri­ous may be moved to seek out his books on the in­ter­net or in char­ity shops. Should they do so, they will be well re­warded.


Jef­fery Farnol in his li­brary.

The sem­i­nal and de­tailed ac­count of Farnol’s life and lit­er­ary out­put can be found in Jef­fery Farnol — A Teller of Tales: The Up­dated Bi­og­ra­phy by Pat Bryan.

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