A Forgotten Victorian Author and the Society He Knew

Article excerpt

It is well known that much can be learned about the past from the fiction of the period. The Victorian age in Britain is particularly well served in this respect from such writers as Trollope, the Brontes, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Dickens. Many of these, admirably though they portrayed their times, tended to do so from a particular standpoint. Who, for example, depicts Victorian low life better than Dickens, illuminates the genteel classes like Thackeray and Trollope?

Industry and commerce, an important swathe of Victorian society, embracing professional people, businessmen, industrialists, engineers of all disciplines and industrial workers do not appear to have had the attention they deserve for their role in building the industrial and commercial might of Britain of that time.

One author who did turn his attention to this sector in a number of his novels was George Manville Fenn (1831-1909), now remembered, if at all, as the author of stories for young people, but who also wrote adult novels in which he turns a surprisingly critical eye on all aspects of the Victorian scene, including the contemporary world of business and industry. Just why he should have tended to show a certain open disregard for many conventional views of the Victorian scene is not clear from his own life and careen There is little evidence on which to base a judgement. Sadly, he left no autobiography nor did any of his contemporaries write his biography. What is known of his background does little to explain his attitude to the world of his time.

Born in Pimlico, 3 January 1831, his education was a mixture of private tuition and private schools, followed by three years at St John Training College for Teachers, Battersea, leaving in 1854 to become master at the National School (Church of England), Alford, Lincolnshire.

Teaching, however, was not to his liking and, as he wrote later, he 'felt it necessary to go into business and was drawn towards printing as the most congenial'. After gaining experience in the printing trade in London, he set up as a printer and publisher in Crowle, in Lincolnshire. This appears to have failed and, in 1864, he became part-proprietor of Herts and Essex Observer, which was equally unsuccessful and he now turned to authorship. His first success was a short sketch, entitled In Jeopardy, published by Charles Dickens, no less, in his magazine All the Year Round. Although he was to continue to contribute to various journals throughout his life, to sit in an editorial chair for a time and even to write several quite successful plays, it was as an author of both adult novels and boys' stories that he was to make his mark on the contemporary literary scene. From these early days until his death some 170 novels, appeared in rapid succession, covering a wide range of different subjects, settings, characters and plots.

Once embarked on a literary career, he was very much a southerner, and, after living for some time on a Sussex farm, he moved to a London Garden Suburb in Bedford Park in 1880, before setting up home in Syon Lodge, Isleworth and remaining there until his death in 1909. He never travelled overseas, unlike many of his contemporaries, although he wrote numerous stories for young and old on foreign subjects. There appears to be nothing in his life to explain how he came to adopt his generally critical attitude to much of the accepted Victorian ethos. Nevertheless, despite what may appear to be a somewhat sheltered existence, all his novels, for young and old, display a surprisingly detailed knowledge of all the many industries, trades, commercial practices and the many other aspects of the scenes and events with which he deals. A voracious reader, it may well be that he derived much of his background information from his library of some 25,000 books on every conceivable subject which he accumulated during his life.

Typical of his novels dealing with the commercial and industrial world is The White Virgin (1894) where the plot centres round the re-opening of a long-derelict lead mine in Derbyshire. …