Acton Bell

The Three Brontë Sisters from Left to Right: Anne, Emily, and Charlotte

No family anywhere had three such eminent novelists, though they wrote at a time when women novelists were looked down upon. Consequently, they published under the names of Acton Bell (Anne), Ellis Bell (Emily), and Currer Bell (Charlotte).

I have read and enjoyed the work of the two elder sisters, but until this week I had never read anything by Anne Brontë. I was delighted to find that she was as competent a writer as her sisters and perhaps a bit more modern in her outlook. Her novel Agnes Grey tells the story of a young governess dealing with the spoiled children of the well-to-do.

When one of her former charges (Rosalie) denigrates her eminent husband in front of a footman, she shows Agnes exactly what she thinks of servants:

Oh, no matter! I never care about the footmen; they’re mere automatons: it’s nothing to them what their superiors say or do; they won’t dare to repeat it; and as to what they think—if they presume to think at all—of course, nobody cares for that. It would be a pretty thing indeed, it we were to be tongue-tied by our servants!

Four Images of Anne Brontë Drawn by Her Brother Branwell

Rosalie is nothing, however, compared to the little monsters of her first experience as a governess:

My task of instruction and surveillance, instead of becoming easier as my charges and I got better accustomed to each other, became more arduous as their characters unfolded. The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me: my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild, unbroken colt. The habitual fear of their father’s peevish temper, and the dread of the punishments he was wont to inflict when irritated, kept them generally within bounds in his immediate presence. The girls, too, had some fear of their mother’s anger; and the boy might occasionally be bribed to do as she bid him by the hope of reward; but I had no rewards to offer; and as for punishments, I was given to understand, the parents reserved that privilege to themselves; and yet they expected me to keep my pupils in order. Other children might be guided by the fear of anger and the desire of approbation; but neither the one nor the other had any effect upon these.

This is quite different from the angelic Victorian children depicted in most novels, especially in those of Charles Dickens. So I was quite pleased to see that the youngest Brontë has some sand in her, and she was an excellent writer to boot—as good as her older siblings.

Sherlock Holmes et al

A Book That Introduced Me to Some Great Writers

Sherlock Holmes was never the only game in town. Granted, he was easily the best of the Victorian and Edwardian detectives; but there were a number of others worth reading. When I came upon the above book years ago, I was introduced to a whole constellation of British crime-fighters. The book was edited by Sir Hugh Greene (1910-1987), brother of novelist Graham Greene and director-general of the BBC during the 1960s. In all, he produced four books honoring lesser-known British and American detectives:

  • The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
  • Cosmopolitan Crimes: Foreign Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971)
  • The Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1973)
  • The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1979)

The original volume was by far the best of the series. The only author I followed from the three later volumes was Jacques Futrelle, creator of the Thinking Machine detective stories, who drowned in the Titanic disaster of 1912.

For a number of years, I sought collections of several authors recommended in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. The ones who interested me the most were:

  • Arthur Morrison, who, in addition to his Martin Hewitt stories wrote the very Dickensian The Hole in the Wall and the excellent Dorrington Deed Box
  • Clifford Ashdown, author of the Romney Pringle stories
  • Baroness Orczy, the Hungarian woman author who gave us The Scarlet Pimpernel also wrote a series about a lady journalist in London named Polly Burton (The Old Man in the Corner stories)
  • R. Austin Freeman’s Edwardian Doctor Thorndyke forensic investigation stories appeared in several volumes
  • William Hope Hodgson wrote a series of stories about a ghost investigator named Carnacki
  • Ernest Bramah, a tea merchant, gave us a blind detective named Max Carrados, who was actually able to read newspapers by feeling the ink on the newsprint

My favorites from the above list are Bramah and Morrison, with Orczy and Freeman not far behind. Unfortunately, most of their books are devilishly hard to find.


Victorian Genre Fiction

Sherlock Holmes Was Not the Only Game in Town

Sherlock Holmes Was Not the Only Game in Town

The paperback whose cover is illustrated above first came out in 1972, followed by three other volumes of non-Sherlock detective stories written during the same period. Edited by Hugh Greene, brother of Graham Greene, the books were a revelation to me. I started Reading Richard Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories; Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados stories (Carrados was blind, and could read the London Times by feeling the elevation of the ink on the paper); the novels and stories of the vastly underrated Arthur Morrison; Jacques Futrelle’s “Thinking Machine” stories (Futrelle died on the Titanic); and Baroness Orczy’s The Old Man in the Corner Stories.

And that was only the beginning! I also noticed that the Victorians and Edwardians wrote excellent horror stories as well, and that many of them were available from Dover Publications, including such luminaries as Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Arthur Machen, Mrs. J. H. Riddell, and Wilkie Collins. Now, in the age of the Kindle and other e-books, one could pick up virtually all of Blackwood’s short stories in two “megapacks” for a mere $1.98. There are even two well-known “psychic detectives” investigating hauntings and possessions, namely Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, the self-styled “psychic doctor,” and William Hope Hodgson’s Max Carnacki, the ghost detective.

The stories are, for the most part, available readily and inexpensively now that their copyright protection expired years ago. It may still be difficult to find some Arthur Morrisons such as the Martin Hewitt detective stories and the stories in The Dorrington Deed-Box.

Even G. K. Chesterton got into the act somewhat later with his Father Brown stories, which are in a slightly different vein, but which owe much to Arthur Conan Doyle and his “rivals.”

A good way to start is to find Hugh Greene’s collections on eBay or Amazon.Com and, if you like them, dig around in used book stores, or, if you are on a budget, Amazon Kindle and its “rivals.”