A Struggle for Fame – Charlotte Riddell

A Struggle for Fame is the story of a young woman’s journey from obscurity to fame & the price she pays for it. Two young people, Bernard Kelly & Glenarva Westley, are passengers on a ferry ride from Ireland to England. Barney Kelly is looking for opportunity & thinks he’s sharp enough to take advantage of any chance he gets. He is going to stay with a relative, Mat Donagh, who has the reputation in the family of being a literary lion & who is going to give Barney a start. Glen Westley is traveling with her father & their journey is a last-ditch attempt to salvage a life from financial disaster. The story follows both Barney & Glen &, although they come across each other in literary London, they follow very different paths.

Barney & Mat don’t get on. Mat is pompous & very superior, regretting the invitation to Barney almost as soon as he arrives because Barney isn’t taken in by his manner as Mat’s sister & aunt are. Barney is at rock bottom, ready to give up on his literary dreams after accidentally antagonising his rich, influential uncle, & take a position as a clerk if he can get it, when he meets the Dawton family. Mr Dawton is an actor, past his best now but still living on past glories. His sons work at the Galaxy, a literary magazine that Mat Donagh works for but failed to get Barney an introduction. Barney does start writing for the Galaxy although he doesn’t have the touch & the Dawton boys have to discreetly edit his work to make it acceptable.

Glen Westley’s childhood in Ireland was idyllic until the death of her mother & the financial troubles of her father meant that they had to leave the family estate & move to a cottage on the coast. Mr Westley had inherited the property late in life but without the money to keep it up & his financial speculations have only made matters worse. Glen is happy in their cottage, playing with the local children, including her particular friend, Ned Beattie, & writing. She’s a natural writer & writes because she can’t do anything else. She hasn’t had anything published &, when the family finances are at their lowest, she decides that they must move to London, the heart of the literary world, where she can find a publisher for her work.

Glen suffers many knockbacks & dismissals as she trudges around London visiting publishers & magazines. Mr Vassett, owner of a small publishing house, gives Glen some advice on rejecting her manuscript,

‘My dear young lady,’ he said, in his best manner, ‘how can I tell you what I do not know myself? There is no Royal road to fame. Those who have achieved it tell me the path is rough, and hard to find; that it is lonely, often dark, always toilsome; while for those who never reach the goal – ‘
‘They have attempted, at any rate,’ she finished, as he paused, and there ensued a dead silence.
It was Mr Vassett who broke it.
‘Literature,’ he began, speaking in a general and didactic manner, ‘is, so far as I am aware, the only profession in which persons imagine they can embark without the smallest training or preparation, or the remotest idea of the labour involved in producing an even moderately successful work.’
‘I am not afraid at all of any trouble,’ came from the special ‘person’ for whom this rebuke was intended. ‘If you only tell me what I ought to do I will try to set about it at once.’

This is no fairytale. Glen works hard & gets nowhere. She finds she can’t write at all in London, she needs the fresh air & beauty of her Irish home. No one wants Irish stories & she doesn’t know enough about England to adapt her work. Her father’s health declines & the only luck he has is in collapsing in the street & meeting a man who helps him home & then becomes interested in Glen & tries to help. Mr Logan Lacere falls in love with Glen & she eventually agrees to marry him. He turns out to be kind & adoring but just as ineffectual as Mr Westley, with a grasping set of relatives who depend on him financially & despise Glen for her background. Eventually Glen finds a measure of success with her novels but she wonders if the price she has paid has been worth it. Glen is a strong, determined woman & the challenges she faces inevitably change her.

It was a miserable experience, one bad for soul and body, which left ineradicable traces on Glen’s face and mind. For ever the calm, peaceful look of youth left her brow, and though her character strengthened, there grew at the same time a mental irritability as well as a weary unrest, foreign to her original nature. To anyone who had known her at Ballyshane, the change would have seemed most marked; indeed, when, after the lapse of two long years, Edward Beattie saw his old friend again, he asked himself in astonishment if this grave, cynical, self-contained woman could ever have been light-hearted, frank-spoken Glen Westley.

This is such an interesting novel. I loved the details of Glen’s struggle, which are obviously based on Charlotte Riddell’s own experiences. Riddell was a prolific & successful novelist but she, like Glen, had moved from Ireland to England with an invalid parent to try & earn a living by her writing. Riddell married but had to support her husband when his health broke down. She edited magazines as well as writing short stories & novels & experienced the highs & lows of such a precarious life. She is scathing about publishers & the difficulties of getting adequate payment. She is also very funny, especially in the story of Lady Hilda Hicks, one of Mr Vassett’s authors. Lady Hilda is a society woman, separated from her titled husband & writing scandalous bestsellers libeling him which upsets Mr Vassett & his reader, Mr Pierson. Although she’s his bestselling author, Mr Vassett can’t cope with her high-handed demands & total disregard for the libel laws.

A couple of months ago, I read Charlotte Riddell’s Weird Stories, reprinted by Victorian Secrets. I was very excited to see that another small press, based in Ireland, Tramp Press, was reprinting A Struggle for Fame as the first of their Recovered Voices Series. I look forward to seeing what other gems they find. Apart from the contents, the book itself is beautiful. Almost trade paperback size, it has French flaps, good clear print & a hot pink spine with yellow endpapers as well as that gorgeous portrait on the cover.

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