Jeffery Farnol, Author
1878 - 1952
Last Summer, I was fortunate enough to find some eight pristine volumes of Jeffery Farnol's novels, complete with dust jackets, in a second hand shop. I won't tell you what I paid for them, but it wasn't a great deal.|
The find took me back to my schooldays when he, together with such authors as Anthony Hope and Stanley Weyman, provided not only schoolchildren but also an eager public with those historical tales of adventure and the open road, most of them set in the Regency period. I was also aware that he had at some time in his life lived in our town of Eastbourne. It was clearly meant that I should find out more.
John Jeffery Farnol was born at Aston, Birmingham, on the 10th of February 1878, the eldest son of Henry John Farnol, a brass founder. In 1888, when Jeffery was ten, the family moved to Lee in South East London from where the boy would explore the fields and roads of Kent which were to form the background of many of his romances. He was educated, with his two brothers Edward and Ewart, at Derwent House Prep School in Lee and excelled in Latin and History. He started writing as early as 1895 and soon had some of his short stories published. Urged by his father to 'get a proper job', he left home in a fit of pique to stay with an aunt. He did however take up the job with a firm of engineers and brass founders in Birmingham proposed by his father, leaving it when he knocked down a foreman for calling him a liar – showing a taste for fisticuffs which he later reflected in his books. Boxing was one of his passions; he also undertook a course of instruction in fencing and swordsmanship and would go on long cycle rides into Kent, Surrey and Sussex.. He attended the Goldsmiths Institute at New Cross and later the Westminster School of Art, but soon decided that he was not cut out to become an artist.
Thanks to his brother Edward, we have some finely drawn details of Jeffery Farnol. He was a small man, well proportioned, with dainty feet, grey eyes, a firm jaw and a fine physique. He always had an air of authority and assurance which he carried throughout his life. As a boy, he would carve fine model ships, some of which were exhibited at the Greenwich Royal Naval Museum. According to Edward, Jeffery had a magnetic attraction for the opposite sex and always had many dangling: 'they flocked around him.' A characteristic failing was his irascibility in the early part of the morning. It was only when he had had his breakfast and his first pipe that he became his normal self. He was a night bird, rising late and working at his writing until 3 or 4 in the morning. Every one of his books was written and revised by him personally in longhand in school exercise books, for he hated the typewriter and also dictating. From the evidence of his surviving ms, he obviously wrote freely and easily, without a great deal of correction.
In June 1903, unbeknown to his parents, he married Blanche Hawley, the seventeen year old daughter of a well-known New York painter, H.Hughson Hawley. Very short of funds, he returned home with her to live in the attic of his parents' house for more than a year. There was one daughter, Gillian, born 3 months after the marriage. In 1904 or 1905 Blanche's father paid for the couple to travel to New York and there he scraped a living painting scenery for the Astor Theatre. At the same time he had a number of short stories accepted and his first novel, My Lady Caprice, published in the U.S. by Dodd, Mead in 1907. This was republished later in Britain in 1915 as Chronicles of the Imp. He also wrote his magnum opus, The Broad Highway, into which he poured out all his homesickness for the fields and woods of England. Originally 200 pages longer than was eventually published, American publishers were not impressed; for them, it was too long and too English. However, sent by Blanche back to his mother in England, the book was eventually published by Samson Low, Marston in 1910 and led to his great popularity. Many believe that it was his best book. It followed a formula that Farnol was to use more than once. The hero, a scholarly young aristocrat, takes to the road in the manner of George Borrow, and has many adventures with other travellers, highwaymen, tinkers and ladies in distress before settling to earn his living as a village blacksmith. To his cottage comes Charmian, a maiden in flight from a villainous baronet, who happens to be the hero's cousin. There is love and fighting aplenty before all ends well.
Now back in England, Farnol soon followed this book with The Money Moon in 1911 and The Amateur Gentleman in 1913. For the next forty years, he regularly turned out his period romances in which the hero was brave and honourable, the heroine innocent and beautiful, and the villain properly villainous. In all, he wrote 46 books, though some of his later work was hurried and of a lesser quality. In 2002 a collected edition of his stories, poems and articles was published under the title The Privilege of the Sex, so raising the total to 47. This is available from amazon.co.uk.
Prevented by short-sightedness from serving in the forces during WW1, he worked instead as a war correspondent at various fronts, both home and abroad, writing articles, some of which were later published as 'Some War Impressions'. After the war he settled for a time at Patcham, near Brighton, where the churchyard contains the graves of his first wife, Blanche, his mother and other Hawley relatives.
His brother Edward had always helped 'Jack' Farnol with his research and his publishing contracts. Sadly they quarrelled when Edward opposed the appointment of a new (and ultimately dishonest) secretary, and they remained estranged.
In 1938 Jeffery Farnol and Blanche were divorced. Blanche died in 1955. In the same year he moved into the fine Victorian house, 'Little Dene', at 14 Denton Road, Meads, Eastbourne, and married his second wife, Phyllis Mary Clarke. He and Phyllis had one daughter, Jane, whom he greatly loved and for whom he wrote two children's books. Jane, a keen horsewoman, attended Moira House School and now, married to Brian Curtis, lives in Australia. Farnol's principal hobby was his collection of swords, pistols, chainmail and armour of the period about which he wrote, which he displayed on the walls of his house. Our illustration shows him with some of his collection. Some of our local topography is immortalised in the books, especially Sir John Dering, which is set against the Downs and the villages of Firle, Jevington and Alfriston, where the Smugglers becomes the Market Cross Inn, in which he stayed while writing the book.
A number of Farnol's books were made into films in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably perhaps The Amateur Gentleman, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1936.
Farnol fell ill while writing The Waif of the River and died, aged 74, after a two year long illness on Saturday the 9th of August 1952 at Little Dene. He never finishing Justice by Midnight and this book was completed by Phyllis after his death. Following a funeral service at St Johns Church Hall in Meads (St John's Church had not yet been rebuilt after WW2 bombing), his body was cremated in Brighton and his ashes scattered at the head of the Long Man of Wilmington. In 1955 Little Dene was converted into three flats and Mrs Farnol continued to live in one of them. She died in 1997, well into her nineties. Earlier she had placed at Wilmington a stone memorial seat to his memory, overlooking the Long Man, which may still be seen.
'Jack' Farnol gave a great deal of pleasure to a great many people for a great many years and he is recorded as having been exceptionally gentle, generous and hospitable. His books were escapist literature of a sort that is nowadays no longer fashionable, but which might well be worth revisiting. His plots were dramatic, his characters clear cut. Never was the reader left in any doubt as to where his or her sympathies should lie.
Accessing the internet, I found that there is a very lively interest in his work on both sides of the Atlantic, with a small but enthusiastic Jeffery Farnol Appreciation Society which met in Eastbourne in August 2002 on the 50th anniversary of his death. His books are highly sought after.
1. The Eastbourne Society, on behalf of the Jeffery Farnol Appreciation Society, is administering the erection of a commemorative 'blue plaque' at the house in Denton Road, with the permission of the present owners, Drs Nick and Sue Avery, who have restored it to a single dwelling. The plaque will cost about £1000 and individual donations, of any size, can be sent to Professor Stuart Malin at 30 Wemyss Road, Blackheath, London, SE3 0TG.
2. A recent inspection of the stone seat at Wilmington reveals that it remains in good condition but that the incised inscription is well-nigh illegible. Before it is lost forever, I will record it here:
IN MEMORY OF
JOHN JEFFERY FARNOL
BORN FEB. 10 1878 – DIED AUG. 9 1952
BELOVED DURING HIS LIFE AND THROUGH
HIS LITERARY WORKS.
THIS SEAT GIVEN BY HIS WIFE
"THE TRUTH OF LIFE IS GOOD WORKS
WHICH ABIDE EVERLASTINGLY"
THE BROAD HIGHWAY
4. There is a recent biography Farnol, the Man Who Wrote Best-Sellers by Pat Bryan, published in 2002, which can be ordered from amazon.co.uk for £12.99 plus postage.
5. I have placed my research file on Jeffery Farnol in the Society's library.
6. I suggest that this Society could consider voting a sum of money towards
Who was Who
The Dictionary of National Biography
Eastbourne Herald & Chronicle
I am also deeply indebted to Pat Bryan (see no 4 above) who, thanks to the magic of e-mail, has written from Canada to clarify a number of inconsistencies and inaccuracies that are to be found in the published records and to provide additional information.
A further article by Michael Partridge -
All Farnol information welcome -