Saturday 17 August 2019

A Reclaimed Heroine for our Time

A Struggle for Fame, Charlotte Riddell, Tramp Press €16.00

Charlotte Riddell
Charlotte Riddell
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

Charlotte Riddell published no less than 56 books. She left Ireland for London with her mother when she was 25 in 1857. And yet for such a prolific author, she is hardly known on these shores. Tramp Press have re-issued her novel A Struggle with Fame as the first in their rediscovered voices series. Though it is not her best known or best work it has a certain resonance for the times we are in.

Glenarva Westley is a young woman with a lost fortune, who must find a means of maintaining herself and her ailing father. They leave the west of Ireland for London where she is determined to write novels and become a great success. London was the centre of publishing at the time and Riddell portrays a society where judgements are readily made on race, class, gender. Every turn is a challenge for her young heroine. The character of Bernard Kelly, another ambitious traveller from Ireland, provides the foil for access to places Glenarva cannot go. He too has come to London to achieve success and endures the rejections and pitfalls, with which Riddell was well acquainted.

In Victorian England the novel was distributed through libraries and a book such as A Struggle with Fame was written as a three-decker( a three-volume novel), the first instalment would help pay for publishing the remainder. As the writer was paid by the length, generally 180,000 words, this is the reason many have detailed descriptive passages and long introductions to characters and their lineage.

A Struggle with Fame is no different. The minutiae of London is captured vividly, meetings with publishers, arguments over copyright, Glenarva's efforts mirror those of the author's life. Riddell spent many years in grief over dead parents, dead husband and suffering penury. She had no children. After eventually achieving success, Glenarva falls into the hands of an unscrupulous publisher, who contrives to ruin her. This may well coincide with the trend when A Struggle with Fame was published in 1883, that the taste for the three-decker was waning and Mrs Riddell's style was falling out of favour.

She was a pragmatist who wrote to survive, but she also lost her income several times over by signing away her copyright to publishers. Just as Riddell would continue to pay off her husband's debts, so Glenarva, becomes the breadwinner and must support her husband. Riddell portrays the female Victorian writer in the very opposite light to that which we are accustomed - the lady in the drawing room.

The author has an astute knowledge of commerce, her husband was a bankrupt, in fact bankruptcy was so common at the time that court judgments from the late 19th century still form authority for our company and contract law today. Much of the novel's drama occurs in offices, the equipment and machinery of the time forms the backdrop, money is never far from the page.

Glenarva eventually meets a compassionate editor and seems to be on the road to success again, but you will have to read on to discover how the publishing world treats her this time.

The self-referential theme of the novel comes full circle in the reissuing of her work by an Irish publishing house at a time when publishing is under such economic stress.

As a contemporaneous account of a specific milieu this novel will be of great interest to aspiring writers, to publishers and to anybody who enjoys historic fiction; it is a rare treat to find a hitherto relatively unknown writer of the period.

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