Hot Victorian Nonsense

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The Fate of Fenella, collaborative, 1892

Collaborative novels are a Victorian literary trend too weird to be ignored. I picked one, The Fate of Fenella, essentially at random. There was no reason to think that it would be any good. Twenty-four authors agreed to write one chapter each with no preconceived outline. The next author read the preceding contributions and added on. The result is predictably chaotic. I did not mean to do an oxymoron there. It just happened. Of the twenty-four authors, I am pretty sure you have only heard of Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker.

I have summarized each chapter so you can judge the merit of each contribution for yourself.

  1. Helen Mathers. “Her hair, gloves, and shoes were tan-color, and closely allied to tan, too, was the tawny, true tiger tint of her hazel eyes.” Wow. I mean. It’s original. I have never heard the phrase “closely allied to tan.” I never needed to. The first chapter only goes downhill from this alliterative description of our monochromatic leading lady. The n-word appears in the first paragraph. Very gratuitously. It is quite assaulting. Anyway, beautiful young mother, Fenella, is posing as a widow at an English watering spot when she unexpectedly encounters her estranged husband. Fenella is hoydenish, wild and immature, yet charming.
  2. Justin H. McCarthy MP. Not content with the existing characters, author number two conjures up a young lawyer named, of all things, Clitheroe Jacynth. CJ is so enamored with Fenella that he proposes to her. She refuses.
  3. Eleanor Francis Trollope. Some bloke called Lord Castleton decides to “save” his friend CJ from his suffering by sharing the sordid details of Fenella’s life. The tea: she has been a flirt since birth. (Hard eyeroll.) She had an entanglement with a German count while her husband carried on with a woman, Lucille. They quarreled. Fenella left him. Society blames her, because men aren’t expected to be faithful, duh.
  4. Arthur Conan Doyle. Femme fatale Lucille shows up claiming that Fenella was with the Count again last week. Fenella encounters Frank talking to Lucille, gets angry and rushes off to CJ to beg him not to abandon her.
  5. Mary Crommelin. To further rile her husband, Fenella calls for the Count. He wants to duel.
  6. C. Phillips CJ offers to introduce Fenella to his respectable sister, hoping some of that respectability will rub off on her. The sister refuses. This chapter is wholly unnecessary.
  7. Rita Frank heads to Fenella’s room to slip a letter under her door. He sees the Count entering her boudoir. He sinks into a state of stupor. (Yeah, I dunno.) In the morning he decides to get away from it all and leaves the country. In his distraction, he doesn’t notice the newspaper headlines about the mysterious death of a foreign count.
  8. Joseph Hatton Stuck having to explain the nonsense in the last chapter, author eight declares that the Count entered Fenella’s room without permission. Immediately after retreating to his own room, Frank fell asleep and somnambulated back to F’s room. F was threatening to stab the Count if he didn’t leave, but before she could get around to it, her sleeping husband strangles him. Yep, he murdered a guy in his sleep. When the police come, Fenella takes the fall for Frank.
  9. Lovett Cameron The jury returns a verdict of justifiable homicide. To keep her bloodtaint off of his child, Frank gives little Ronny into CJ’s aunt’s care. Fenella seeks anonymity in the Channel Islands, but cannot escape her past. Frank randomly arrives in her hideaway.
  10. Bram Stoker Frank finally hears about the murder and believes that Fenella did it. He is glad, because at least she wasn’t cheating on him. Lord Castleton figures out that Frank is the real killer, but says nothing.
  11. Florence Marryat Lucille marries a buffoonish American (we’re all like that) and gets her revenge on Frank for loving Fenella more by kidnapping their child and taking him to the U.S. Yeah. She straight-up kidnaps him.
  12. Frank Danby Worst chapter so far. Believing that she is a murderer, not an adulterer, Frank rushes to forgive his wife. Fenella, who has withstood many hardships with great fortitude, upon hearing this good news suddenly becomes so weak that she falls into a swoon. The doctor says that Frank must bring her child to her. Or she will die. Or go mad.
  13. Edward Kennard Frank discovers that his son has been abducted and hires a detective to find him.
  14. Richard Dowling Frank goes to America in search of his boy.
  15. Hungerford Fenella sends CJ to America too. On the same errand.
  16. Arthur à Beckett Frank discovers that Lucille has sent Ronny off somewhere. Then he sleepwalks into her house somehow. Just cuz.
  17. Jean Middlemass Frank attacks Lucille. She gets her doctor friend to shut him away in a mad house.
  18. Clement Scott With no explanation of how they manage it, Lord Castleton and CJ spring Frank from the asylum and put him on a boat back to England. Somehow they also have Ronny. And Lucille is on board in police custody. Author 18 is whacky.
  19. Graves Fenella has a bad dream. Also, what does “Clo.” stand for? Clorence? Clothilde? Carlo? British for colonel?
  20. W. Lucy Shipwreck.
  21. Adeline Sargeant Obviously, Lord Castleton dies. It was kind of the other authors to include this redundant character who could easily be killed off. Ronny, CJ and Frank survive. Lucille is presumed dead. Gee, I wonder if she’s really dead?
  22. George Manville Fenn Her husband, not the American, some other guy, has escaped from prison and wants revenge for something. He tries to kill her.
  23. Tasma Frank is sick.
  24. Anstey Lucille re-reappears. Apparently, Frank saved her life while in a trance. This man is a very productive sleepwalker. She gets arrested for some past bank heist. Frank suddenly dies of a heart problem, leaving the way clear for CJ and Fenella.

Final thoughts: So very silly. It’s notable that when compared to other literary giants, Arthur Conan Doyle is not exceptional for stylistic brilliance, but when compared to this collection of lesser-knowns, his chapter is absolutely the best written. His is refreshingly direct. Far less florid.

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