- “The Prose Homer of the Great Ocean”: William Clark Russell
WILLIAM CLARK RUSSELL may not be well known outside Victorian scholarship on popular fiction, but as Andrew Nash explains, he was virtually a household name in his time. Sir Edwin Arnold described him as “the prose Homer of the great ocean,” and his works came to be among the favorite reading of King George V. In Britain, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Meredith admired his writing, while in America he enjoyed even greater popularity and was considered the worthy successor of Cooper and Melville. Yet today, a search in the MLA International Bibliography turns up but a single article on him (aside from those by Nash), compared with nearly a thousand entries for Stevenson, 1,300 for Cooper, over six thousand for Melville, and even 650 for Meredith. Nash’s William Clark Russell and the Victorian Nautical Novel, part of the Literary Texts and the Popular Marketplace series by Pickering & Chatto, takes a notable early step towards rectifying this relative dearth of scholarship. At the same time, this book demonstrates the potential rewards of studying noncanonical authors on terms kinder to authors such as Clark Russell, who was seen even then as a writer who churned out genre fiction according to a winning formula. As Nash shows, Clark Russell can be productively [End Page 122] reevaluated for what his writing demonstrates about changes in the literary marketplace, and the history of the novel, in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century England and America.
Nash’s account begins with some telling misunderstandings that took place on Clark Russell’s death. Obituaries misdated his death and failed to note the fourteen non-nautical novels that he had written before becoming a writer of sea fiction, and even his family was not fully aware of his early narrative work. The British Library catalogue misattributed several of his works to other authors. Other lists of his publications, then and since, included inaccurate dates and underestimated by half the amount of his nautical writing. Setting the record straight, while tracing the web of connections and influences tying Clark Russell into the world of Victorian publishing history and popular reader-ship, Nash proceeds by a set of chapters that revisit much of the same material each time, but from different perspectives. Early chapters describe Clark Russell’s biography (his eight years at sea, followed by nearly sixty novels over some thirty years) and how he searched for topics and moved from sensational novels to sea stories. Subsequent chapters address his nautical fiction along the lines of genre, theme, and gender. Nash presents Clark Russell as an author who both participated in fictional treatments of topical issues and stood apart from his contemporaries in the way that his narrative strategies pushed his work toward or beyond the boundaries of genre fiction and gender distinctions. Marketing comes more specifically under study in the latter part of this book, as Nash reexamines the events in Clark Russell’s writing life but in terms of publication history, income, and his relations with publishers.
Some of the especially interesting conclusions that Nash reaches have to do with the intersections of gender and market forces. As Nash explains, Clark Russell believed that the readership supporting circulating libraries was mostly female; consequently, he sought to break out of the library-only readership of his early non-nautical novels by tapping into a masculine audience—while he would later remain sensitive to the importance of female characters in his sea fiction and how women readers might receive his work. Accordingly, the second chapter foregrounds how Clark Russell focused on women’s experiences in his early sensation fiction. Those early novels featured young, orphaned women entering and then fleeing difficult marriages, including legally complicated instances of bigamy. It was on such efforts to render female psychology that Clark Russell initially staked his success, while [End Page 123] he apparently hedged his bets with reviewers and readers by publishing under the androgynous pseudonym of “Sydney Mostyn.”
The early novels...