Friday, 19 September 2014

Richard Arkwright - Barrister, Conservative MP and a Dabbler in Sensation Fiction

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 Derbyshire.

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 it offered.

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 writing.

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 that neither George may be entirely trusted as a narrator.

Driven Home 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.

The Queen Anne’s Gate Mystery also opens with an authorial assurance and underwriting: