Popular Fiction of the Past

Edwardian man with stiff collar holding hands across a desk or table with Edwardian lady, leaning towards each other as if about to kiss.

Image by No-longer-here from Pixabay

Popular fiction of the past has fascinated me since I was a child.

This has certainly intensified since I helped put together the 50th Anniversary Memoir of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. And many of those I have read since have, indeed, been romantic.

But the itch to read over the shoulder of my forebears was already there. It covered just about every genre, too.

I had access to three sets of bookshelves when I was a child. My parents, marrying late, also united their reading matter.

Gone With The Wind First Edition coverMy father brought a complete set of Dickens, H G Wells and Wisden to the marriage; my mother a rather wider selection, including Gone With the Wind and golden age mysteries. The extended family offered encyclopaedias, a lot of household tips (which I loved) and gloomily improving childhood literature, like The Water Babies, which I detested.

Then, when I was six or seven, a small municipal library opened at the end of the road and I encountered Harrison Ainsworth, Stanley Weyman, Baroness Orczy and a host of other exuberant oddities from the past best seller lists.

Looking back, I suspect some alert librarian had bought up a job lot of popular fiction in a house clearance sale, to kick start the new library.

I mean, even my father thought that The Last Days of Pompei was a bit old-fashioned.

He’d read it though, and knew how to pronounce the name of the heroine, Ione. Eye-own-knee, if you’re interested. Made me hoot with laughter, every time I opened that book.

From My Mother’s Bookshelf

One book that fascinated me on my mother’s section of the book case was a cloth bound hardback, with slightly yellowing paper. There was a signature, “Beatrice Chase”, on the flyleaf in fading blue-black ink. I had never seen or imagined a signed copy before. It gave me a little thrill to touch the page that The Author’s own hand had rested on.

What can I say? I was a romantic, even aged nine.

Woman in near silhouette sitting at an old fashioned typewriter with a carriage return handle towards the camera, in front of foggily lit barred crittal windows.

Image by Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

But who was Beatrice Chase? My mother only had one of her books and it didn’t look as if it had been read very often.

The explanation was obvious. They had encountered each other at some bookish event on Dartmoor, when my mother was on holiday with friends. It had proved impossible to get away without buying one of her books. Had my mother read it? She flicked through the pages. “Yes, I think so. It was very odd. A bit soupy for my taste.”

I read it. I was a child who regularly read aloud to my aunt, great aunt and grandmother serials from the Woman’s Illustrated magazine written by Barbara Cartland. “Soupy” held no terrors for me with that experience under my belt.

Dartmoor landscape with wild pony in foreground and another at a little distance.

Image by Linny from Pixabay

It was called Lady Avis Trewithen, a Romance of Dartmoor. As far as I remember, I galloped through it, in the same way I galloped through Jeffrey Farnol. (Thank you Hayes End Library for him.)

There wasn’t as much action as there was in Farnol, but I liked her description of the countryside. On the strength of that, I persuaded my parents to visit Dartmoor when we next took a holiday. I had done the same for Shropshire (Malcolm Savile’s Lone Pine series) and the New Forest (Children of, by Captain Marryat.) I didn’t look for any more Beatrice Chase books, though.

Popular Fiction of the Past: Our Lady of the Moor

Henry VII by Holbein


Beatrice Chase was the pen name of Olive Katherine Parr and she not only lived on Darmoor, but wrote about it with love and understanding and championed its interests all her life. She was born in 1874 and seems to have lived in London until she was 26, when she went to convalesce, probably after TB, in the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor on Dartmoor. In the ensuing years she and her mother discovered and then bought (1908) the nearby farm of Ventnor. They let out the working farm and made their home in a cottage.

Here she wrote her Dartmoor-set novels and, significantly, as Katharine Parr, books of spiritual contemplation, often inspired by Dartmoor. The family believed that they were descended from the brother of Catherine Parr, last wife to Henry VIII.

Sadly, she had more than a touch of the loopiness, and it was not just about her royal antecedents.

altar area, capella palatinaShe started a  sort of spiritual support group during the First World War, called the Crusade for Moral Living. Soldiers and their wives and girlfriends at home would write to her at Venton, promising to be “true and noble”. In return she undertook to pray for them in the chapel which she had built next to the house. She called the soldiers Knights of the White Crusade.

Around the same time she took to calling herself The Lady of the Moor. Or rather, she adopted the title after a book called My Lady of the Moor by John Oxenham. It was published in 1916. And it was about her. Even stranger, she seems to have returned the compliment with My Chief Knight John Oxenham: An Appreciation and an Appeal  One imagines he must have signed up to her Crusade.

Rather More Popular Fiction of the Past

Bachelor tax, Puck Magazine, late 19th century

Puck Magazine, late 19th century

Oxenham was the one of the pen names of William Dunkerley. He was a journalist, novelist and poet. He also wrote hymns and was a deacon and teacher in the Ealing Congregational Church. So maybe it was a shared belief, though not their chosen form of worship, which brought them together. In contrast to Chase’s overblown and hyper-sentimental Christian fiction, William Dunkerley’s writing was modern, sophisticated and often witty.

He was co-founder of The Idler, a respected illustrated monthly magazine, published from 1892 -1911. Contributors included Ridyard Kipling and for its first five years Jerome K. Jerome co-edited it.

As a novelist Dunkerley was prolific  (48 novels in 38 years ) and he led a full civic life as well, becoming the Mayor of Worthing in 1922.

A Mystery of the Underground

But what I love about William Dunkerley is that in 1897, when he was 45, he wrote his first novel – a murder mystery set on what is now the District Line of the London Underground. It is very short, hardly more than a novella. It first appeared as a serial. Indeed, it is mainly told in elaborate despatches from journalists for rival papers. He has a good deal of fun with their papers’ rivalry, too. It made me laugh anyway.

“Our contemporaries have published more or less garbled versions of the matter. They have done their best. The Link, however, was the only paper actually represented, and able, therefore, to give an absolutely exact account of what happened.” 

To begin with the Link man congratulates himself on being in the right place at the right time and even ends up helping the police set a trap for the perpetrator – until karma overtakes him. Shaken to the core, he decides to confine his journeys on public transport to buses in the future.

This is no whodunnit. We know there is a serial killer on the loose. He shoots a victim on a train somewhere between Mansion House and, mostly, Charing Cross,* every Tuesday night. There is no attempt to find a link between the victims. Everyone assumes, rightly, that they are chosen at random.

The murderer is not a character on the stage until he is apprehended, at some distance away.

Nor is this an irrational maniac. When detected, he turns out to be an efficient inventor who has solid grounds for resentment against the railway, his former employers.

In real life, the railway complained that the story was too realistic. It scared travellers away on Tuesdays while it was being serialised.

The story is, on the other hand, an excellent howdunnit. The perpetrator comes to a suitable end and the police – who stand up well in this story – emerge with credit. Excitingly, it gives an fantastic description of what it was like to travel on the underground at that time. There were first class and third class carriages. Who knew?

  • now Embankment station


Popular fiction of the past is a revelation – people thought so differently in some ways. And in others, they are so utterly recognisable. The details of the everyday are an absolute gift to any novelist who wants to bring in some flavour of the past to our own work.

Above all, it is salutary to remind ourselves that a number of narrative elements which we have come to expect from our fiction writers are a matter of fashion. We can still understand and enjoy what out Ever So Great Grandparents read and enjoyed.

And one day, our tricks and tropes will be out of fashion, just as theirs are today. But a good story will always stand up.


Sophie Weston Author


7 thoughts on “Popular Fiction of the Past

  1. Liz Fielding

    So interesting, Jenny. Last week I watched a TV doc about the first murder on a train and how it put people off train travel. As to my own early reading, we didn’t have a book case – post war our house didn’t even have electricity – but my mother was a member of Boots library and she signed me up aged 6. When I’d read everything age appropriate, I took myself off to the local library, which was wonderful. But one of my aunts had a bookshelf with all the books that she and her sisters had won at Sunday school and some Dickens. I read all of those and loved them. The first book I remember owning was The Water Babies. I couldn’t have been very old because I recall my mother warning me that it didn’t have pictures. Decidedly weird. Kingsley pops up in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series as someone who was seriously into magic.

    1. Sophie Post author

      We didn’t have many books either, Liz. Of course, in the days before paperbacks, which was most of my parents’ lives, books were really expensive. I’m pretty certain that books got passed around a lot more.

      I think I remember my mother keeping a list in the sideboard cupboard of who had borrowed which book and when. Unlike today, they were always returned, too.

  2. Joanna

    Fascinating. These authors were new to me, as to many others, I suspect. In my childhood home, there was a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in my father’s darkroom, plus a set of encyclopaedias. The bookshelf included the complete Scott novels, complete Burns poems, some Dickens etc and various books that were “forbidden” to children. One immediately thinks of racy, sexy books, but no. The one I particularly remember was J’Accuse by Emile Zola. My father worked in the rag trade and, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not at all antisemitic.

    1. Sophie Post author

      How marvellous, Joanna. We only had the one book case, which was really too deep. As I got older, I remember my father splitting it, to half the depth, and I got a bookcase in my bedroom! Best birthday present ever.

      I don’t think I was ever forbidden to read anything that was on any of my parents’ shelves. Though I do remember my mother getting a bit flustered when an over-enthusiastic neighbour lent her The Kama Sutra and I said, “What’s this?” (I was still at primary school.) “Boring”, she said firmly, and returned it the next day. I’ve often wondered how much of it she actually read herself.

  3. lesley2cats

    Oh, I did enjoy that! My parents’ bookshelves were many and crammed and, I suspect, mostly the work of my father. I tell everyone who will listen that reading Ngaio Marsh from the age of nine set me on my future career, also, at the age of nine, my mother bought me an old coy of Jane Eyre – with uncut pages! – from Foyles in Charing Cross Road. I read it, sitting by the kitchen fire, in three days. I went on to read everything they had – Jeffrey Farnol, Dornford Yates, Edgar Jepson, Jerome K Jerome – who reduced me to helpless laughter and still does – Thorne Smith – very racy! – and all the detective fiction, of course, Gladys Mitchell, Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers… I’ll shut up now. All those books are still on the shelves behind me as I write this. They are part of my family.

    1. Sophie Post author

      We owned a lot more books once paperbacks became ubiquitous. I remember at least 3 different covers for “Strong Poison”.

      You are so right, Lesley. Part of the family is exactly what they are.

  4. Yvonne Setters

    Once again very interesting and informative. I had wealth of books as my grandmother lived with us and she ws an avid reader – no romances for her just crime, detectives etc. My father had a wider range and had the Readers Digest 4 books in 1 every month. Also weekly visits to the local library with my Nan. Lovely memories.

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