Book V--The Scarlet Pimpernel

Chapter XI

And then it all happened. Everything happened when I least expected it. I didn't know it was coming. Three months before I didn't know that it was coming. But it came. And in such funny ways. Step by step. Silly steps, that did not seem of any importance as they occurred. Links in the chain of life! That is what they were, but I didn't know it. I didn't as much as feel that the chain was nearing its completion with all those links so closely connected one with the other, the first in the plains of Hungary and the last in a London suburb.

Our lease of the studio flat had come to an end. The block was about to be pulled down to make room for more commodious flats. Anyway, we would have to move if not this year at any rate soon, and in the meanwhile my husband had a lot of work on hand and needed a studio. Residential studios were not easy to find. But there was a house, a dear little house at the back of High Street, Kensington, a house with a bit of a garden and in the garden a really good studio. Well! that was going to be all right, but the house would not be vacant for another year.

Worth waiting for? Why certainly. It was quite ideal, and we would manage somehow, though we really had to move out of the studio flat right away. Our plans were quickly made. This was the last year of the century, and it was nearing its end. In six month's time the great exhibition in Paris would be full on and we had long ago made up our minds that we would go to Paris and see the exhibition. There were only six months in which to be uncomfortable and homeless. No matter. We would go as p.g.'s to some nice people and take a separate studio somewhere close by. Go as p.g.'s to some nice people! Little did either of us guess what we were going to owe to that inspiration.

The 'nice people' we hit upon, thanks to an advertisement in The Times, were Derbyshire folk. These were father and mother and two girls: well-bred, well educated the lot of them. Soon we discovered that the mother and both the daughters had literary ambitions. They wrote stories which they sent round to magazines on the principle that 'hope springs eternal' . . . always in the hope that these stories would be accepted for publication.

We became quite friendly with the family after a week or two and presently they told us about their literary ambitions and asked us to give our opinion of their authorship. Taking our consent for granted they took to reading their stories out loud to us on the rare evenings when we happened to be in. We listened patiently, feigning an interest we were far from taking, and gave as favourable an opinion of these amateurish productions as we possibly could without perjuring ourselves too flagrantly.

And then one day great excitement in the house. A story by one of the girls had been accepted for publication by a magazine belonging to the Aldine Press. The payment for the story was to be £5. And that is how it all came about. That same evening I said to my husband: "Think of these people who have come from the wilds of Derbyshire, who know nothing of life, and never have spoken to anyone who might have taught them something, and yet able to write stuff good enough for publication!" and I added with a funny kind of twirl in my heart, half shame-faced and half-appealing: "And here I am who have known so many brilliantly clever people, who have travelled and seen and appreciated so many marvels of this wide, wide world, who have studied art and music, history and drama, why shouldn't I try to write something I would like to know." And my beloved simply replied: "Why shouldn't you?"

And that was the genesis of my literary career.

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My first effort was a story which ultimately developed into that popular novel and film The Emperor's Candlesticks. My husband, who was doing a lot of work at the time for various Pearson publications, took it to Mr. Everett (as he then was), one of their principal editors. Of course, like all beginners I had not taken the precaution to find out anything as to the technical requirements of magazines: the question of length for instance. My story was 25,000 words long--too short for a book and too long for a magazine story. And so my first effort came back, but not with that hateful slip, 'Returned with thanks', but with a well-gilded pill, a message of encouragement from kind Mr. Everett. I was of course too inexperienced to contemplate the lengthening of my story, nor perhaps sufficiently ambitious to think of it as a work of fiction. What I did do and should have done from the first was to buy a number of popular magazines and read their stories, not only for length but for the style and type of narrative that would answer to their requirements. If only young aspirants to success would take this precaution how many disappointments, how many rejection slips would they be spared. (I have known young writers send a detective story to a religious publication or a 'pussy-foot' propaganda one to the Bystander.)

Anyway, common-sense kept me from committing that kind of error. I felt somehow that Mr. Everett would give me a chance if I could give him the type of story which his readers liked to find in Pearson's various magazines. I wrote two, 'The Red Carnation', and 'Juliette: a Tale of the Terror', and sent them to him--by post this time. Three days later I had his reply. He accepted both the stories for publication, one for Pearson's the other for the Royal, and his letter ended with a charming invitation to lunch with him and talk over the future. Both stories accepted and an invitation to lunch to talk over the future! My future! My joy was unconfined. When I remembered lunches with the great ones of this earth, with Franz Liszt and Sir Frederick Leighton, with diplomats and plutocrats various, they faded into insignificance beside the honour of being asked to lunch by the editor of a popular magazine who thought I had a future.

Well! the primary result of that never-to-be-forgotten lunch was firstly a promise from me that I would submit everything I wrote to Pearson's in the first instance, and secondly that, at any rate for the time being, I would be paid £10 for every contribution accepted for publication. I was in the seventh heaven of delight: and so was my darling husband, whose joy in my initial success was as great as mine. How true is the proverb: 'A joy shared is twice a joy!' Now we could go to Paris with a happy heart--and we went.

My husband collected a plentiful supply of orders for illustrations, both black and white and coloured illustrations, among others for my story 'Juliette' to be published in the Royal. Editors liked the idea of these being done, and of course inspired in Paris. "Send us something, Mr. Barstow," they said, "that is really Parisian. Just get your inspiration from that exhibition we hear so much about and put some of your beautiful touch into the work." That was as encouraging for my dear one, as Mr. Everett's final words to me: "Send us as much stuff as you care to write."

My first reaction to Mr. Everett's encouraging words began on one dank and foggy evening. We had spent a happy afternoon (weren't we always happy?) in the National Gallery, where we had gone to see the Velasquez recently purchased by the nation: the exquisitely painted nude figure of a woman's back (flippantly dubbed by the impertinent: 'One good stern deserves another'). We came home by 'bus--the good old horse 'bus it was then--which took us past Westbourne Park Station, over the bridge on the canal known in those parts as 'The Cut'.

It was while we were lumbering over the bridge that I had an inspiration, I simply can't call it anything else for it meant a great deal to me for some time after that. The fog had descended in all its grim-faced abomination. The horses were going at foot-pace. Through the darkness and the fog one could just vaguely distinguish the turbid water of The Cut, and the dim outline of a barge slowly drawing out from under one of the arches. All so dark, so gloomy, so silent and mysterious, and the thought came to me of the many deeds of darkness that could be (that were probably) accomplished under this cover of fog and of gloom.

It was out of that first thought and from that grim background of murkiness which could almost be felt, that the whole concept of a series of stories of detection and crime came to my mind. I had never thought of crime and detection before, but I did then. All I knew of the subject was what I read in the newspapers; the crime, the coroner's inquest, the police court and all the rest. But as soon as I got home I broached the matter to my husband, as I always did. He liked the idea and thought that if written in not too 'sanguifulminous' a way the stories might be very successful. He was nothing if not practical, and the first advice he gave me was to try and think of an original character--yes, original, he insisted, around whose personality I could build my stories of crime.

That personality must in no way be reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, that at the height of that interesting gentleman's popularity. And I must 'say it as shouldn't', that 'Old Man in the Corner', as I conceived him, was in no way reminiscent of any other character in detective fiction. I thought of him even before I embarked on that popular series of stories, of him and his big checked ulster, of his horn-rimmed spectacles, his cracked voice and dribbling nose, but above all of his lean, bony fingers, fidgeting, always fidgeting with a bit of string.

That was my first reaction to definite encouragement. The second was my determination to reconstruct my story, 'The Emperor's Candlesticks', which had been found to be too long for a magazine story and too short for a book. As a matter of fact this did not turn out to be as difficult as I had anticipated. My brain was then seething with all sorts of ideas, and the nucleus of 'The Emperor's Candlesticks' was a good one! It had been written in a hurry, avoiding all explanations and descriptions which I then thought would be irrelevant and unnecessary. I thought that brevity was an invaluable asset in the armoury of short story writing. The work of making the story a suitable length did not take me more than a fortnight. In its revised form I sent it to Mr. Everett, who was kind enough to approve of it and recommend it to his firm for publication.

The Emperor's Candlesticks was duly published in the autumn of 1899. Its appearance coincided with Kruger's ultimatum to Great Britain, immediately followed by the outbreak of the Boer War. My first effort, like many first efforts during that eventful year, fell quite flat. I believe that only ninety copies were sold. Somehow I did not break my heart over that initial failure. I was interested in my stories of detection and crime and in my funny old man with his piece of string, and ready to give my whole mind to the proposed series.

And so we were both of us well-armed with work that would keep us busy for some time and we went off to Paris gay and happy.

 

©Blakeney Manor, 2001