A self-experiment in administering the dangerous and morally corrupting poison of Victorian sensation fiction, not just the famous works like Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, but also obscure, long-forgotten gems of Victorian three-deckers, to see whether this drug still has potency in the 21st century.
Richard Arkwright (1835-1918) came from one of
the most illustrious families of the industrial revolution. His great-grandfather
was Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), the self-made industrialist and inventor
who manufactured a fortune out of spinning cotton yarn at his Cromford Mills in
Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792)
Richard’s grandfather, Sir Richard’s only son,
Richard Junior (1755-1843) was an even more capable a businessman and amassed a
vast family fortune, which he then distributed to his eleven children.
Richard Junior, his wife Mary Simpson
and one of the eleven kids
The fifth child John (1785-1858), Richard’s father,
took over the medieval house of Hampton Court near Leominster, Herefordshire, acquired by Richard Arkwright Junior in the early 19th
century. Richard Arkwright grew up there. He
graduated from Cambridge in 1857 and was called to the bar in 1859. He
practised as a barrister and served as a Conservative Member of Parliament for
Leominster 1866-1875. His uncle, another Richard (1781-1832), Richard Junior
and Mary’s second child, was the first member of Parliament in the family
(1813-1818 and 1826-1830) and Richard's nephew, John Stanhope Arkwright was
another Conservative MP (1900-1912). Richard Arkwright married Lady Mary
Caroline Charlotte Byng (1838-1933), the second daughter of 2nd Earl
of Stratford in 1862. Richard Arkwright died in 1918 in Windsor.
At the age of fifty-one, in 1886, Arkwright
published the first of his two sensation novels, Driven Home: A Tale of Destiny under the pseudonym Evelyn Owen.
Three years later came the second one: The
Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery (1889). No other published fiction has been
attributed to him. Arkwright belongs to the curious category of ‘unexpected’ sensation
novelists who seemingly wrote for fun, rather than to make a living or for
political purposes. He is far removed from professional novelists like Mary
Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins.
Arkwright, if anyone, was an establishment figure.
With his legal profession, Conservative politics, marriage to aristocracy and
family fortune, you would not expect him to indulge in the dubious pleasures of
penning sensation fiction. We cannot know what made Arkwright write and publish
these two novels (the second one under his own name): for fun, for a bet, for literary
ambition – to show he could do it - or simply to fill his spare hours in the
quietude of provincial England. Arkwright is part of an eclectic group of ‘semi-amateur’ writers, who only published
one or two novels, often under pseudonyms and who were drawn to the genre of
sensation fiction with all the freedom of expression and imagination
Richard Arkwright’s novels sit on either side of a
divide we have in retrospect come to view as a watershed moment in the
history of popular fiction: the arrival of Sherlock Holmes. Driven Home: a Story of Destiny came out
in 1886, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study
in Scarlet was published at Christmas 1887, and The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery appeared in 1889.
I am interested to see what kind of
sensational thrills a man with Arkwright’s background can offer – what flights
of fancy his imagination can provide for my entertainment. I am also curious to
see if I can discern any traces of Sherlockian influence in Arkwright’s
Holmes was a product of its time and gives us a
useful, even if artificial, marker to demarcate a change in the views and
interests of the reading public. His 'Science of Deduction' and the values it
reflects indicate a shift (not without its tensions pulling both ways) from
Romanticism towards Realism, from Victorian towards Modern.
I am interested in the changes that took sensation
fiction into detective fiction: what had to change in the way sensation fiction
saw the world and its workings in order to reach the very different outlook
expressed in detective fiction. This transition from traditional melodrama via
sensation fiction towards a more realist detective novel can be
observed in Arkwright’s two novels, written only three years apart.
The two novels are first person narratives
by two men who are both called George. It is clear that they are not the same
man, because both stories open with a description of each George’s childhood.
Before establishing a solid backstory for the protagonist, Arkwright indicates
George may be entirely trusted as a narrator.
opens with the narrator’s assurance:
“Those portions of them which
deal with what I saw with my own eyes, heard with my own ears, and felt with
unmistakable acuteness in my own person, I give as they actually occurred,
without concealment and without exaggeration.” (Driven Home, “Introduction”)
In the very next sentence, Arkwright undermines the
reliability of his narrator:
“It has been suggested that
either my lonely childhood, or the morbid consciousness with which I dwelt on
the painful circumstance connected with my parentage, or the brain-fever which attacked
me in California, may have predisposed me to hallucinations. I am willing to
leave the question to be settled by those who care to read my story.” (Ibid.)
There is much going on in these sentences. We will have a true-to-life (realist) narrative. We have a sincere and honest narrator who will conceal nothing. But this narrator is plagued with mental issues (he may even be mad). The events will be strange enough to resemble hallucinations. This is a promising start; we are dealing with a psychological thriller.
Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery also opens with an authorial
assurance and underwriting: