When the ceramicist William de Morgan fell into a depression in his sixties, he was advised to start writing fiction as therapy. His first book, Joseph Vance, was published in 1906 when he was sixty-seven years old.
The blurb of the book might have read something like this:
‘Mr Vance marries the housemaid, Serephina Dowdswell, familiarly known as “Feener” and more or less literally drinks himself to death.’
Not promising you might think.
However you’d be wrong – the book was a huge bestseller and six other novels followed.
Here are some quotes from a review by Olivia Howard Dunbar in the North American Review.
‘… unhurried amplitude of this old-fashioned book.’
‘… temperate, mellow, elderly enjoyment it affords.’
‘… it has a pleasant genuineness and the story is told with accomplished skill.’
‘Joseph Vance has not only a broad plan and lavish detail but a certain organic luxuriance which perhaps no soundly good novel will ever be found to lack.’
It may well have been that all those readers who had been struggling with Henry James seized the book with a sense of relief, as it was a throwback to the mid-Victorian writing of Dickens and Thackeray.
Good old William de Morgan had written a thoroughly old-fashioned book which found a huge audience. The moral of this tale may be that what the screenwriter William Goldman stated about the film industry is also true about publishing: ‘No one knows anything.’
My own personal theory for the book’s success is that it has one of the best names for a character that I’ve come across in a very long time – Porky Owls. With that name in your book how could you fail?
Now I’m off to tinker with my broad plan and consider my lavish detail. I’m not sure about organic luxuriance though, I think that would definitely be a step too far.