The Literary Pilgrim
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.