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  • Black Englishness and the Concurrent Voices of Richard Marsh in The Surprising Husband
  • Johan Höglund

"You are a freak—a sport—a white nigger. You haven't always been white; it does not follow that you will always stay white."

—Richard Marsh, The Surprising Husband

A concern that virtually all late-Victorian and early-Edwardian writers had to negotiate, explicitly or implicitly, is the nature of Englishness. In the face of intense colonisation, sexual anarchy and class upheaval, the turn-of-the-century writer is often assumed to either resist all challenges to sexual, racial or social hybridity by insisting that Englishness is firmly male, white and upper-middle-class or allow a certain, often gothic or colonial, manipulation of this category. For example, in the novels of Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad there is a sense that Englishness can be either benevolently adapted or catastrophically altered through its confrontation with the native. Similarly, in the writing of Oscar Wilde or Virginia Woolf, English sexual identity is directly or furtively dislocated, allowing a limited transformation of the category of Englishness. From this perspective, it is tempting to view British writers as either mapping hybridity or conservatively resisting all forms of cultural transformation. However, as this article seeks to demonstrate through a reading of Richard Marsh's provocative novel The Surprising Husband (1908), some British writers negotiated these two positions without resolving either.

Richard Marsh's Concurrent Voices

Richard Marsh was one of the most productive British authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, producing more than 80 novels before his death in 1915. Until recently, he has been known almost exclusively for his gothic novel The Beetle (1897), a text that [End Page 275] has remained in print almost since its first publication and which is frequently read alongside Dracula as an entertaining and harrowing example of the many forms turn-of-the-century imperialism, xenophobia, sexism and racism assumed in writing.1 However, Marsh was not primarily a gothic writer and his work comprises a multitude of genres. Christopher Pittard has discussed Marsh's crime fiction in '"The Unknown! with a capital U!': Richard Marsh and Victorian Popular Fiction" and Minna Vuohelainen, who has published extensively on Marsh and whose doctoral dissertation surveys most of his massive oeuvre, has demonstrated that Marsh contributed novels and short stories to several different genres and frequently mixed them in the same text.2

As we know through The Attempted Rescue (1966), one of two autobiographies by Marsh's grandson Robert Aickman, Marsh started writing under his given name, Bernard Heldmann.3 He spent a few years in the beginning of the 1880s working for G. A. Henty's boy's paper Union Jack. For unknown reasons, Heldmann was removed from the Union Jack in early 1883. Heldmann's subsequent history has been researched by Vuohelainen and described in her introduction to a reprint of Marsh's 1900 novel The Goddess, and the following account of his life is heavily indebted to her investigation.4 Heldmann spent the latter part of 1883 travelling Britain and parts of France. Armed with a chequebook belonging to a closed account, Marsh successfully dressed up and posed as respectable captains and doctors, faking the accents and mannerisms of the moneyed upper class and forging checks to keep afloat. The law caught up with him in Tenby in South Wales in February 1884. He was sentenced to eighteen months of hard labour that he served at Maidstone Jail in Kent. He appears to have met his wife, Ada Kate Abbey, shortly after having been released from prison. Virtually disinherited by his mother and without great prospects due to his criminal record,

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Richard Marsh
Marsh rarely allowed photographs.
November 1915 The Strand

[End Page 276]

Heldmann had to turn to writing to support his rapidly growing family. Taking his mother's maiden name, Heldmann became Richard Marsh and this identity switch may have gone unnoticed had it not been for Aickman's autobiography. No doubt, Marsh's preference for the impostor figure, which features prominently and in interesting ways in The Surprising Husband and in many other of his...


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pp. 275-291
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