Welcome to my blog. I am not a very regular blogger, but I try to keep this site updated with news and information. If there's none of the above I may just share my random ruminations.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Appeal of the Knave?

....or, what influenced me to become a writer? 

In my view writers are born not made. But I imagine there is always a spark, perhaps a book read at a particular moment, that gets under the skin and turns the vague "if only" into a need.

So many books captured my imagination when I was a young reader. But if I am really honest, the first book that inspired me to try to write romantic fiction was not Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre, or even one of Georgette Heyer’s sparkling Regency Romances, all of which I read and enjoyed at a ridiculously young age.

I must have been around 12 - a critical moment for girls, when hormones are on the rise. At that age I was actively looking for someone or something to feed the romantic impulse which was blossoming inside me. I fixated first on a boy who lived a few houses up from ours and who travelled on the same train as me in the mornings to go to school - him to Dulwich College, me to Bromley Girls Grammar. The crush lasted for a year or so, but I never even spoke to him.

Ethel and her older sister, Ella - known as Nettie and Sissie 
A more reliable source of sustenance was the dusty old hard back I found on the book shelves at home. ‘The Knave of Diamonds', by Ethel M Dell, had belonged to my grandmother (maybe even my great grandmother originally). Although she didn’t try to stop me, my mother did try to dissuade me me from reading this book. Looking back, I don’t think it was the subject matter or the sexist attitudes that worried her so much as the critical disdain then prevalent about the quality of Ethel's writing.

My Book Shelf
Prolific, and a huge bestseller, Ethel M Dell was (arguably) the first writer of romance, as we understand the term. Born in 1881, in Brixton (or Steatham - the accounts vary) she was shy and reclusive, and lived with her older sister, Ella. The two women even adopted a baby girl together. She had begun to write while very young and had many stories published in magazines. Most were stories of love and passion and, for those times, were considered very racy. Her cousins would count the number of times she used the words - passion, tremble, pant and thrill. By the time she met and married her own hero, Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Tahourdin Savage, she was in her forties and very successful. He gave up his commission.

The Knave of Diamonds was her second novel - published in 1912. In this story Nap Errol, the hero, is of questionable lineage. As far as I recall, he is the product of a liaison between a “white” American and a “red” Native American. This flaw is physically represented by his one blue eye and one brown, and it also accounts for the fact that he’s a womaniser and a cad. He even refers to himself as 'a savage'.
The heroine, Lady Anne, is unhappily married to a drunken brute, considerably older than she is.  Nap falls for Lady Anne, and does all in his power to seduce her but, although she is miserable and quite obviously fancies Nap, she is bound by honour and duty to fend him off and stay true to her marital vows. I can’t recall precisely how we get from this dilemma to the happy ending, but in between are all the ingredients of a good melodrama - drunkenness, beatings, abduction, near rape and redemption. What I do recall is that Nap, when on the point of ravishment, was brought to his senses by her high-mindedness and purity of heart.  One could be forgiven for inferring that had he had a woman of less obvious rectitude in his clutches, he would not have stopped at a fierce embrace.  It goes without saying, however, that all ends well with the timely death of the horrid husband.

Even when I first read it I knew it was very old fashioned, with a strong sermonising moral tone, but I loved it. These days it would be considered shockingly un-PC. But I now believe the influence of this book was seminal in my early attempts to write romance. I can see in it so many of the ingredients that informed my own writing in those early teenage years. The bad-boy hero and the good-girl heroine - throbbing with unexpressed physical passion - who tames him.

Ethel M Dell was a trail-blazer, and I still admire the woman for her output and her imagination. But I do not recommend her books as a style guide. The emotions are over-wrought and melodramatic. The heroines are always tired and in need of lie-down, but the headaches and exhaustion they suffer is certainly not the result of hard, physical work. This was a time when well brought up ladies of a certain class - and all of EMD’s heroines are well brought up ladies of a certain class - had servants. What wears them out is the expenditure of so much breathless emotion.

 PB reprint - undated, but 1950s I guess
By the time I acquired the second book in my collection, ‘Charles Rex’- bought second-hand in Bantry, on a family holiday to Ireland when I was seventeen - I still enjoyed it immensely, but my critical faculties had sharpened considerably. Though still a teenager my appreciation was now a far more complex mix. I’m afraid that the bizarre plot, outlandish antics and overwrought (but never physically expressed) passions made me laugh.  I do not possess the complete canon, but I have something like 20 Ethel M Dell books in the place of honour on the shelf above my computer. Including that original copy of Knave of Diamonds I read when I was a girl. I love them all, but they are of their time, a window onto a world long gone, when a heroine's feelings of desire and longing were “unutterable”.


Jill Barry said...

Thanks for this, Gilli. Oh those crushes! Worshipping from afar while convinced I was far too gawky or shy to attract a boyfriend. I found your blog post fascinating.

Gilli Allan said...

Thanks Jill. The boy's name was Stuart Ollerenshaw!!!! I then went on to fancy a boy called Richard Early, who went to the same school as an older boy cousin of mine. Part of the appeal was that he had a racy reputation (the appeal of the knave again!). I never spoke to him either - I was far too shy and lacking in self-confidence. Oh, the agonies of youth. xx

Jane Risdon Author said...

Crikey so interesting, thanks so much for sharing this. I loved it.

Gilli Allan said...

Thanks Jane. I appreciate your bothering to have a look. gx