Monday, November 30, 2009

Callum James's Literary Detective Agency, Case #1: Why was Richard Marsh?

Usually, when it comes to literary detection, the question is ‘who was?’ Most of the time in this line, one is trying to crack open pseudonyms or to discover more about an author, dedicatee or the origins of a character in a roman a clef. However, in my latest case, ‘the mystery of Richard Marsh’, the questions have been a little different.

Richard Marsh was a writer of over eighty novels, in the late 19th and early 20th century, which ranged from crime and detection to horror and the supernatural. He wasn’t the greatest writer of his generation but his breathless, action-packed style and wild imagination have made him something of a cult figure among the cognoscenti of bizarre literature. The one book for which Marsh is remembered, if he is remembered at all, is The Beetle a gothic tale of horror that was issued in the same year, 1897, as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and which outsold it into the 20th century. However, Richard Marsh was, in fact, only a pseudonym. In 1966, Marsh’s grandson Robert Aickman, also an accomplished writer of horror fiction, wrote an autobiography in which he revealed that Richard Marsh was born in 1857 as Richard Bernard Heldmann. As Bernard Heldmann he wrote a number of ripping yarns for boys both in novel form and serialised in boys’ newspapers. He was rather good at it and soon became the protégé of G. A. Henty at The Union Jack where he was quickly promoted to co-editor. Then, suddenly, he drops from view. There is a simple, terse statement in The Union Jack of 1883: “Mr Heldmann has ceased to be connected in any way with The Union Jack”: and Heldmann doesn’t publish another thing for a decade until he turns up as Richard Marsh with an entirely different style and subject matter. So, the question in this case is not Who? but Why?

There has been speculation. Aickman describes his grandfather’s marriage to a young girl named Ada Kate as “slapdash” and mentions the family story that there were “incidents with women”. Richard Dalby in a truly excellent article in The Book and Magazine Collector way back in 1997 suggested that it was some “incident” of this nature which resulted in Heldmann’s fall from grace, even suggesting that Ada Kate may have been attached to The Union Jack and that the relationship might have been seen as improper in some way. It has also been suggested that the scenes of prison life in some of his novels are just a tad too realistic to have been written by someone without real inside knowledge. In fact, this turns out to be correct, Heldmann did get himself into trouble with the law, but it wasn’t because of an incident with a woman. With the growing availability of electronic databases, today it is easier to be lucky when engaging on this kind of research. It is unsurprising that Heldmann’s crimes haven’t been unearthed before now since they seem to have been distinctly provincial in their purview. Although the “incidents with women” appear to have been a false lead, there was actually a clue in Aickman’s memoir of his grandfather’s character. Aickman remembers a man who, once he became successful at the turn of the century, put a lot of energy into enjoying the fruits of his pen. Heldmann/ Marsh travelled abroad at least three times a year, enjoyed luxury hotels and he “would go every day for a week to watch cricket, and watch all day, from stump in to stump out, strengthened only by wine and salmon. Several times in a week he would dine, go to the play or the opera, sup, and proceed to the Covent Garden Ball, which followed the performance”. It transpires that, enjoy this high-life as he might at this point in his life, Heldmann was, in the 1880s, unwilling to wait for success and earnings before plunging into it.

The first indication of trouble comes from the testimony of Arthur Brocking, a clerk at the Acton Branch of the London and South Western Bank. Early in 1883 Brocking opened an account for Heldmann and, although Brocking hadn’t previously known Heldmann, he did know Heldmann’s brother “who had an account and was very respectable” and it seems that a reference from the brother enabled Brocking to issue a cheque book with 100 forms. By May, Brocking was forced to write to Heldmann about the conduct of his account and insist that funds be paid in before any more cheques were written. The charm and slightly blasé tone of a letter from Heldmann to Brocking, also in May, was obviously intended to disarm and might be taken as an indication of what was to come with more people than just the bank: “Dear Sir, I drew a cheque in favour of Mr A. S. Young on Saturday. I have not now my pass-book with me. I have not seen it for some time, and it has just occurred to me that my cash may not be enough to meet it. Should that be so, kindly clear it. I shall not be able to come down to Acton to-morrow, but will pay in cheque for £100 on Wednesday. Yours very faithfully.” Needless to say the clerk did not clear the cheque and the £100 was not paid in.

Later in the year it becomes clear what kind of life young Mr Heldmann has been living. Calling himself, Captain George Roberts of the Indian Army, or Doctor Green, or Henderson, Or Captain Martyn or Doctor Wilson, etc. Heldmann had been travelling around the country and gaining credit on the face of his outward respectability, living well, socialising, ordering food and goods, all against a promise of a cheque or against cheques he had written which he had to know would never be honoured by his bank. Things began to come apart at the end of the year. On December 21st Heldmann turned up in Tunbridge Wells and presented himself at a lodging house run by a Mr and Mrs Thrift (yes really!) He told them that he was Captain George Roberts, a military man on leave whose luggage had been detained at Dover. He took rooms for a week and left them on the 28th. During that time he was fed and watered and even on one occasion he asked for a room to be made for a visitor he was to have, a Captain Crow, who never appeared. Heldmann even pointed up his need for a hard bed as military men do not like soft beds. At the end of his stay in Tunbridge Wells Heldmann, as Roberts, managed to convince a local butcher, who had already supplied him with meat on credit, to cash a large cheque, and take his bill out of the balance. Things being about to become a little too hot in Tunbridge Heldmann then fled, probably via other towns en route, to Llandudno where he acted in much the same way:

“The gossips of Llandudno have had a rare time of it recently recounting the
adventures of a swindler of the “high-toned” sort. It appears that about a week
ago a fashionably dressed, good-looking young man arrived at Llandudno. From the
hour of arrival he put on the airs of a gentleman; by general deportment, not
less than by elaborate get-up, seeking to impress upon the public that he could
behave as one “to the manner born”. He went to the Imperial Hotel but
subsequently engaged apartments for a time at a very respectable house in Chapel
Street. Having made sundry enquiries he intimated the fact that “my luggage will
come over from the Imperial – aw, and please give the portah this shilling.
Where can I purchase the best wines?”... his custom was to take breakfast at
eleven in the morning and dine at 6.30pm. For several days he “lived like a
Lord”, ordering in plenty of “stuff” from various tradesmen and had dinner
parties ad libitum as some of the young gentlemen in the town can testify.” –
North Wales Chronicle, February 23rd 1884.

This kind of fraud is only good for a week or so of course, until people begin to realise that cheques aren’t being paid. So Heldmann skipped town, but Sergeant Morris of the Llandudno police was on his tail and followed him to Barmouth, then on to Tenby. By the time we get to Tenby the gig is most definitely up because Sergeant Morris arrived to arrest ‘Captain Martyn’ at almost exactly the same time as the even more tenacious police from Tunbridge Wells. When challenged, Heldmann admitted his real name and went quietly into custody. He was transported back to Tunbridge Wells and the whole story was thrown into the courts where it transpired he had, in the course of the year, written cheques to the value of nearly £2,000. He was charged with and found guilty of two counts of obtaining goods and money by false pretences and was sentenced at the Kent Quarter Sessions on the 9th April 1884 to 18 months imprisonment. It seems quite likely that this lifestyle had been going on for some time and that he had defrauded a great number of people in a great number of towns.

And that is why Richard Marsh was born. It may also be of interest to those who read his many, many books which are choc full of people living with dual-identities. As Richard Dalby put it, “ranging from the cross-dressing homicidal (female) psychopath in The Mask (1900) to the hero of A Metamorphosis (1903), in which ‘the ingenious Mr Marsh manages to transform a millionaire into a penniless and hunted vagabond, and in nearly 400 pages of close type gives us a wonderful medley of sensational adventure,’(TLS)” The rags and riches theme is also a recurrent one and it is clear that money was an almost overwhelming motivation in his life and literature. In A Man With Nine Lives (1915) his main character has been plucked from near destitution and made clerk to a mysterious business man who then dies and wills an unthinkable fortune to him. In Marsh’s best known book, The Beetle, one of the narrators is a man who has fallen into destitution from a respectable job and finds himself walking the streets of London, penniless and alone. Marsh even wrote a novel titled, A Master of Deception (1913). Courts and prisons also feature quite heavily in his work and as had already been noted by others, the knowledge displayed is clearly detailed and from first-hand experience.

Marsh’s books are not uniformly good. The Beetle is perhaps his best, (although I can’t claim to have read all 80) and deserves to be much better known, but it is a quintessentially late Victorian book with late Victorian concerns that do not translate easily outside that milieu, which is clearly why Dracula, so similar in many ways, stood the test of time much better. Marsh’s first editions in good condition will now cost you anywhere from £40 to £200, with a hefty premium for those which can be classed as horror or occult fiction. The Beetle is in a price category of its own. An immaculate copy went up for sale on Ebay some months ago (pictured above) and was sold within hours at the bargain price of £1500: it would easily fetch twice that at a good book auction.

Dalby, Richard. ‘Richard Marsh’ The Book and Magazine Collector No. 163 October 1997, pp.76-89
Vuohelainen, Minna. ‘ Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897): a late-Victorian popular novel’
The North Wales Chronicle, February 16th 1884 and February 23rd 1884
The Western Mail, February 12th 1884
The Tunbridge Wells Journal, 14th and 21st February 1884
The Kent and Essex Courier, 20th and 22nd February 1884

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Roden Noel Ganymede & Bacchus

Roden Noel was a prolific but minor poet of the late nineteenth century who gets an honorable mention in histories of gay literature for his occasional homoerotic poem. My friends at the Old Stile Press have printed two of these, The Waternymph and Boy and Comrade, My Comrade (now out of print). It was the first of these which introduced me to the press when R bought me a copy he had found in a secondhand bookshop for Christmas some years ago. To say Noel's style is idiosyncratic is probably understating things and this is certainly why he remains somewhat overlooked (unjustly IMHO).

Later on I found a copy of Noel's Collected Poems with the family armorial bookplate inside and I slowly supped my way through it and identified two other poems with a strong homoerotic tone. I have had the text of these edited and introduced for what seems like an age. Years ago I gained permission to include Noel's 'Case history' from Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion as an appendix. And way back then I also had a good friend create a number of illustrations to go with the poems. All that has been done and sitting in a drawer for aeons. I'm not quite sure why except that every time I tried to design a format to publish it all in, it was never quite right.

Finally, it's almost ready to go. I decided to create it in the same format as my recent Six Poems by Jocelyn Brooke (also pictured above). The copy above is the proof copy and there is just a little tweaking to do but this also marks the first title I will have created with some element of printing, in the form of printing the illustrations directly from the artist's blocks.

More Patterned Paper - J & J Jefferies

Two more wonderful paste papers from the Edinburgh based J & J Jeffery arrived recently. Expect to see new titles covered in one or other in the near future. One lovely touch is that they are delivered in a hard cardboard tube which is covered in yet another pattern.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Areas of Collection

The current issue of The Book and Magazine Collector has a fascinating article about New Paths in Book Collecting which was a seminal collection of essays published in 1930 which suggested a number of completely new and untrodden areas of book collecting. The book turned out to be prescient. One of the areas it was suggested that you might want to try was detective fiction which, up until then was simply not even defined as a genre let alone collected as avidly as it is today. Victorian Yellow Backs were another area identified as potentially enjoyable and profitable. Also, this must be the first place, in the chapter on collecting American First Editions, that the idea of a book collector being interested in 'ultra modern' books was suggested. The Book Collector article goes on to discuss the New Path approach: building a collection that no one else has built before. Next month apparently, the author of the article will suggest nine new areas in which to start work. I have been musing all afternoon on what New Path collection I could launch into but for the time being inspiration escapes me. Instead I thought I would share some thoughts I've had on what areas of collecting might make a reasonable return in years to come.

2nd World War Poetry.

Not an untrodden path I admit, but I think there's still room for improvement. Prices for first editions of First World War poetry are already high in many cases, but there's room for the collector of modest means to create a decent shelf or two of Second World War poetry and I have a hunch that those prices might start rising in the forseeable future. For most of the time I've been alive there has been an almost unhealthy focus on the countdown of First World War Veterans with 2009 seeing the UK count go from 3 to zero. Amongst all that I think the fact that Second World War veterans are now in their late eighties and nineties has been overlooked and it won't be long before they too are an endangered species. There's room too in such a collection for specialisation: based on service (Navy, Army, RAF) for instance, or on Theatre of War. WW2 submarine poetry might be a little limiting but I just have this feeling that WW2 poetry might be on the up.

Anglo-Catholic Books.

Lots of scope here but I suggest the general subject because Anglo-Catholicism in the UK at least is pretty much dying on its feet (or on its knees I suppose) but that only makes the faithful remnant more fervant and there is a very strong market for Anglo-Catholic liturgical material in particular in the US.

A collection of Ango-Catholic liturgical books would be quite an expensive undertaking unless you are friendly with a lot of old priests who can be convinced to will you their own bookshelves. The standard volumes in such a collection would have to be the various manuals which might be gathered under the heading 'pimp my liturgy': books like Ritual Notes and Anglican Services, which explain in excruciating detail how to make the Book of Common Prayer work like the Missal, the Alcuin Club liturgical manuals would also be a must and then you would be onto various prayer books and altar copies of various rites. But liturgical books are not the only facet of Anglo-Catholicism which could be gathered together into a collection. There's always the great originals, collecting the works of Newman and Manning et. al. and then onto other major figures like Edward King if you like your authors episcopal or perhaps the auto/biographies and writings of the great slum priests of the Nineteenth century who probably deserve more credit than they'll ever get for dragging the UK towards a liberal democracy where social care is a universal right.

But I also wonder if the most fun would be had with a collection of fiction which features Anglo-Catholic characters and settings. It probably wouldn't suprise you to know that many of these are also novels about homosexuality in one way or another. From A. N. Wilson to Susan Howatch, the field is a surprisingly large one.

When I say 'etc' at the end of that list I mean it: I'm sure there must be many more which fall into this category. For me, the category is 'books my dad used to read', but it feels as though there ought to be some way of bringing all those writers together into some kind of group that I can't quite put my finger on at the moment. The first and most famous books of some of them are already very expensive and highly sought after but by hunch is, that in the next 20 years or so the 60s/70s/80s books of these writers, currently averaging about £10 each secondhand in very good condition with jackets, will become much harder to find. Also, I think there's a job for someone in forging them together as a group of writers: perhaps something along the lines of those whose experience of fighting in or growing up during the war was then used as fodder for thriller writing - that doesn't quite work for the whole group but there might be something in it. It strikes me that, although not necessarily for those on a budget that John le Carre, Dennis Wheatley, and Frederick Forsyth might also be loosely associated with this group.

Faber and Faber Jacket Design.

Collecting a particular publisher for the quality and qualities of their book design is an established strategy now that Penguin collectors have come out of the closet and begun to rave about their enthusiasm, publish books, start collector's clubs and so on. Regtular readers of this blog will know that I, rather idosyncratically, have a collection of yellow-covered Gollancz sci-fi, largely for its typographical brilliance. Faber & Faber is, of course, another great British publishing house reknowned for its book design work. Even the very early manifestations of the company, Faber & Gwyer, showed a little more interest in the design of the outside of the book than there contemporaries, but it was in the late 1920s when Faber Diredtor Richard de la Mare took the helm that the design direction was set for nearly a century. The first artist to make an impact with cover designs for Faber was Barnett Freedman (whose jackets I've accidentally started a small collection of) but the list of artists who worked for Faber in those early years reads like a who's who of the British neo-romantic movement: John Piper, Rex Whistler, McKnight Kauffer, Gilbert Spencer, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravillious, Paul and John Nash, Ewdard Ardizzone Reynolds Stone, Daivd and Jones and Eric Gill all worked with Faber & Faber in those early years. The pictorial work was supplemented by a real interest in new type faces and soon evolved into a Faber 'style'.

Another major, though largely unknown influence was Berthold Wolpe who joined the company at the beginning of the war and was in charge of the design of the firm's jackets for nearly thirty years. It was Wolpe, with a background in typography and lettering, who devised and used the Albertus type to such effect. He was followed in the 1960s by Shirley Tucker who respeted the house style but brought a slightly more modern touch to bear from her background at Penguin.

Clearly, Faber is no fine press producing five to ten books a year, the completist collector probably shouldn't apply for this particular gig. Equally, because of the callibre of author that Faber has worked with, many of their books, especially with their jackets, are already worth hefty sums on the secondhand market. I still can't help thinking though that there is real scope here for an intelligent, design-savy collector to put together something very special.

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