|In the year
1910, Jeffery Farnol seemed to achieve popularity at one stride with The
Broad Highway ; and a few days ago we had an assurance that his fame
in 1924, with Sir John Dering, has not only been maintained, but
extended ; for in a quiet street of a small, remote town we were talking
to the owner of a little suburban circulating library, and she said that
almost all her subscribers were asking for Sir John Dering, and
were having their names put down to borrow the book as soon as it should
be available, though the charge per day was as high as the charge per week
for the other books. She has stocked three times as many copies of
Sir John Dering as she has of other books, and yet there is still
a long waiting list of readers.
Thus do we learn that a name unknown in 1909 is now a household word, even in that sequestered place, and that each story that Jeffery Farnol writes is most eagerly read.
As The Broad Highway, Mr. Farnol's first book, took the world by storm in the year 1910, readers may harbour the notion that the author had nothing to do but sit at his ease writing the romance, and then to send it to the first publisher whose name occurred to him. It is easy to be wise after the event, so that readers will find it hard to believe that a number of publishers in the United States refused to issue it, and that The Broad Highway falls into that long list of rejected masterpieces.
The romance of The Broad Highway was written when Mr. Farnol was enduring hard times in New York; and when he offered the manuscript to three leading publishers in America, they showed no hesitation in rejecting it, one of them remarking that the book was " too long and too English."
An actor acquaintance of the author offered to take the manuscript to Boston, to show it to a publisher there ; but though actors usually have good memories, this one forgot his errand, and at the end of a year returned the parcel to the author unopened. It occurred then to Jeffery Farnol to put the manuscript in the fire ; but he remembered in time that if no one else cared to have it, his mother might like to read it, so he posted it off to her in England. She enjoyed the tale, but wondering how far this love of the book was caused by her love for the author, she passed it on to her friend Mr. Shirley Byron Jevons, at that time
editor of the Sportsman. He read it, recognised its merits, and having faith, moreover, that it would be popular, he sallied out to ace the publishing firm of Messrs. Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd., and infected them with enthusiasm for the romance. One of the directors smelt the bacon in the story, and popularity in the book. To him it made a double appeal, to the romantic man and to the business man. His long familiarity with the book trade had taught him that here was a possible " best seller." The literary adviser for the firm at that time recommended publication, but in more guarded terms.
Other opinions were taken, including the views of Mr. Clement K. Shorter, who, recalling the incident in later years, wrote, " I read The Broad Highway with avidity, and recognised at once -as who would not have done ? - that here was a striking addition to picaresque romances, that the author had not read Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and the best stories by Defoe and Fielding for nothing, nor had he walked along the broad highways of England without observation and profit any more than had the creator of Lavengro and Romany Rye. For the vast multitude of readers of each epoch the dictum of Emerson stands : ' Every age must write its own books.' It is of no use for the pedantic critic to affirm, with pontifical fervour, that Cervantes and Le Sage and Defoe are masters of literature and that our contemporaries are but pigmies in comparison. The great reading public of any age will not be bullied into reading the authors who have reached the dignity of classics. The writer who can catch some element of the spirit of the ' masters ' and modernise it, is destined to win the favour of the crowd. And thus Mr. Jeffery Farnol has entered into his kingdom."
The success of The Broad Highway was not immediate; but when the sales hung fire, the firm applied themselves to the task of making the book known, bringing to bear the fruits of their long experience, and urging the bookseller& to do their part, until in a short time the run upon the story commenced, and Mr. Jeffery Farnol woke up one morning, like Byron, and found himself famous.
The period of which this masterpiece treats is the early nineteenth century. The scene is laid in Kent, within a radius of thirty miles from London. The story treats of that broad hiihway which is life, and of its unexpected windings and turnings which yet lead ever to an ultimate goal ' which some call Death, and some, the Fulness of Life. The action is rapid-the incidents abundant and absorbing and the book is full of cleverness and freshness, passionate love and fierce hate, and all the elements of moving life.
There are two creations in the story that did much to carry it into fame. One is an old man, designated by the author " the Ancient " ; the other is a golden-haired blacksinith, known as " Black George." Both these characters have become great favourites with the reading public. The fresh, crisp style of the author, too, is most pleasing ; it reminds one of all that is best in George Borrow.
Soon afterwards came that charming story, The Money Moon, and here we had JefFery Farnol " with a difference " as Ophelia might have said. Instead of dealing with the rollicking Georgian times, like The Amateur Gentleman, and The Broad Highway, it is a modern story. One critic described this book as " the sweetest story ever told."
Readers were delighted when The Amateur Gentleman appeared, especially as it reminded them of their first love, The Broad Highway. As the Pall Mall Gazette said,"Some of the exploits are magnificent, and the style in which they are related rings with the true metal of manliness and heroism."
Mr. Farnol is a careful, conscientious worker who will not be hurried ; and yet by close application he managed to maintain a steady procession of books for the delight of his numerous following. A cordial welcome was given to The Honourable Mr. Tawnish. In this charming story Mr. Farnol tells how Sir John Chester's daughter Penelope and a fine London gentleman fell head over heels in love with each other, thus arousing Sir John's ire - for he despised the Honourable Horatio Tawnish for an effeminate dandy and a writer of sentimental verses. " The Lady Penelope Chester," said Sir John, hitting himself on the chest, " must marry a man-not a clothes-horse or a dancing master." So to try his worth young Mr. Tawnish was set three difficult tasks by Sir John and his two friends, Mr. Bentley and Sir Richard Eden. How he accomplished them, proved himself a brave man and a gentleman, and won pretty Penelope to wife, is told in a story possessing just the qualities to which The Amateur Gentleman and The Broad Highway owe their extraordinary popularity.
Remembering the iron worker in The Broad Highway, readers gave an eager reception to Beltane the Smith, and were charmed with The Chronicles of the Imp (My Lady Caprice). Also in this steady stream of romance came The Definite Object, Our Admirable Betty, Black Bartlemy's Treasure, Martin Conisby's Vengeance and Peregrine's Progress.
Of The Chronicles of the Imp, The Tatler said, ". . . This is the plot of Mr. Jeffery Farnol's charming story, The Chronicles of the Imp. It is a fairy tale with every fairy but one grown up. For Lisbeth is no less a fairy because her hair is up, nor is Dick any the less a fairy prince because he is in trousers, nor the Imp any less Puck because he is in the disguise of the dearest, naughtiest, most lovable little boy in the world. These, then, are the fairies. The ' humans,' of course, do the deeds usually left for humans to do. They try to separate young lovers, marry charming girls against their will, and possess no sense of humour. Happily, they do not count-at least, not at the end. All who matter are the lovers and the little boy, and these make the happiest, pleasantest, most adorable little trio of romantics with whom to pass a few hours of an April day. There is about The Chronicles of the Imp that indescribable quality called ' charm.' What matter if you can easily guess the end the moment you have grasped the beginning ? The story is not important. It is the way Mr. Farnol tells it that will place The Chronicles of the Imp among those few books with which every reader falls immediately in love."
In Peregrine's Progress, the author returns to the scenes and times of The Broad Highway. He tells, as only Farnol can tell, of quickly moving scenes, of lovely summer mornings when the birds are singing and the brooks are rippling; of great adventure, and-of love itself. He tells of Diana, a gipsy maid, feared by all and tamed by none, in whose company Peregrine travels whilst learning the tinker's trade and the meaning of the " brotherhood of the roadside."
So far the latest work of Jeffery Farnol is Sir John Dering, and here he is at his best. The action takes place in his favourite period in Paris, London, and Sussex ; and duels, smugglers, maidens in distress, and ladies in disguise pass across the scene with a delightful rapidity that rivets our attention and carries us triumphantly through to a satisfactory conclusion. To those who love this author's dainty ladies and gallant gentlemen there is no need to recommend the romance, and to those others, possibly few in number, who have not yet come under his spell, this book will come as a welcome relief from the drab outlook of every day life and the dull pessimism of so many modern novels.
In writing all these books, how much has Mr. Farnol drawn upon his own experiences ? Although he has written much of the Georgian period, our author has put more of his own life into his books than would be expected, for we know that Mr. Farnol did not live during that age ; and yet we are apt to forget that in England we have many survival & from past periods ; and that in spite of railways, and even of motor cars, we have an England that belongs still to the era of the water wheel and the wind mill ; so that with even a little imagination it is possible for a man, especially if he reads, to transport himself into any age.
To the last, Dickens deplored the neglect which, during his childhood, committed him to poverty and hardship, to mean streets and warehouses ; but we, who look at his life as a whole, know that his bitter experiences yielded a rich harvest.
In a similar way, although Jeffery Farnol was spared the fate of having negligent parents, it happens that he, too, passed through periods of hardship and anxiety, and lived a life full of variety before he began to write. He knew romance and encountered adventures before he wrote of them.
Mr. Farnol was born in the Six Ways region of Birmingham, on February 10, 1878, and he enjoyed a happy childhood, with kind parents, and indulgent friends. When he was ten years of age, his parents moved to London ; and he spent some years at Lee, in Kent, where he began to reveal those traits that have caused him to be compared with George Borrow, for he became both a rural wanderer, and a reader of romance ; but a time came all too soon when he was sent back to Birmingham, to learn the prosaic craft of engineering.
Like other good tempered people whom we have known, Jeffery Farnol had yet a very pugnacious side, a part of his delight in many forms of sport. This zest for fisticuffs, developed at school, came out strongly in the rough crude world of the engineering shops, and the future author of The Broad Highway was soon engaged in a most dogged series of fights. On one day he fought a man three times; and though he was badly beaten and battered during the two first struggles, in the end he conquered. It was this fighting that brought his career as an engineer to a close. A foreman called him a liar, whereupon Jeffery knocked him down ; and as the foreman's head struck a piece of iron, he became unconscious. A serious view of the incident was taken, so that jeffery was dismissed, and he returned to his parents in London.
As Jeffery Farnol had shown some talent for sketching, it was thought that perhaps he might succeed as an artist. Not far away was the Westminster Art School. To this institution Jeffery Farnol was sent. There is an illustrated account of Mouat Loudan's work in the volume of The Artist for the year 1899, from which it is clear that Jeffery Farnol studied under a good master; but he felt that though he enjoyed the work, he could not hope to aspire to front rank, and so, abandoning his brushes for a pen, he achieved a few small successes with short stories.
With that disdain for prudential considerations which is to characteristic of the romantic temperament, Mr. Farnol married at twenty years of age. Mrs. Farnol was an American, and she and her husband went to New York, where Jeffery began to work hard to make a living. Here his art training helped him, for he eked out the scantiness of the income that he derived from the writing of short stories by painting the scenery at the Astor Theatre. It was during this period that he often saw O. Henry, who afterwards became a famous author. He admired his shy, retiring, gentle ways, and regrets now that he never spoke to him.
Still harder times banished Jeffery Farnol to a sojourn amongst the poorest of the New York population, with residence in the notorious " Hell's Kitchen " for a spell ; and though this experience was bitter and depressing, it had its uses when Mr. Farnol made the writing of romances big chief occupation.