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Thursday, 4 August 2011

A Little About Edmund Yates

I've been mentioning him in passing for months now. Yates is one of the authors I'm looking at for my thesis, although you can be forgiven for not knowing his fiction. Posterity - if it has remembered him at all - has placed him (justifiably) in the category of journalist. He is better known as a friend of Dickens and enemy of Thackeray than as a writer. Yet he wrote around nineteen novels between 1864 and 1875, serialising them in prominent journals of the day, such as Temple Bar, All the Year Round and Tinsley's Magazine. His first novel, Broken to Harness (1864), was described by Mary Elizabeth Braddon as a domestic novel but from Black Sheep (1867) onwards he was firmly a sensation writer.

His literary connections with people like Dickens were formed partly because of his parents. He was the son of Frederick and Elizabeth Yates, successful and very popular actors. They were on tour in Scotland when he was born. However, his parents were eager that he should not follow them into the theatre life and tried to prevent him getting too involved in that life. Consequently, he started work at the Post Office before his sixteenth birthday. This work would bring him into contact with Trollope, who became a bitter enemy later in life. Yates was also admitted to the Garrick Club aged only seventeen as a mark of respect for his parents. This ended badly when he offended (probably deliberately) Thackeray in a journal and was excluded from the prestigious club. It was likely that the publication of this unflattering article was deliberately timed to coincide with Dickens's announcement of his divorce - as a great friend of Dickens, Yates was probably trying to dilute the public gossip on that day. Thackeray, like Trollope, became a lifelong enemy, all the more upsetting for Yates because he had particularly admired Thackeray in his youth. Yates may have cultivated friendships with many literary powerhouses of the period but he was also prone to arguments with them. This led to a rumour after his death, perpetuated by Trollope and William Tinsley, that Yates was not responsible for writing some of his best novels. Yates's bibliographer, P.D. Edwards, has investigated this to the best of his ability, concluding that, while nothing can be confirmed, it is unlikely that the allegations are true.

The list of journals Yates contributed to - and, in some cases, edited - is almost never-ending. To name a few: Court Journal, Leader, Daily News, Illustrated Times, Morning Star, Comic Times (editor), Temple Bar (editor) and Tinsley's Magazine. He was a prolific journalist but it's also interesting to note that he continued working at the Post Office for twenty-five years. Where he found the time to write his articles and novels is difficult to comprehend. His first completed novel, Broken to Harness, was written out of desperation to fill a hole within Temple Bar after another contributor let him down. It would be followed by popular novels such as Black Sheep, Land at Last (1866) and Wrecked in Port (1869). As was usual with the period, anything remotely sensational was panned by the critics and gobbled up by the public.

To date I've read six of Yates's novel: Broken to Harness, Black Sheep, The Rock Ahead (1868), A Righted Wrong (1870), The Impending Sword (1874) and The Silent Witness (1875). His plots are sometimes flimsy and rely on coincidence and suspension of disbelief. But, then again, so did Wilkie Collins's sensation novels and they have been defined as classics. Yates utilises his journalistic tendency of observation in character sketches and humorous asides and, generally, I find him to be an enjoyable read. What has struck me most in his works is the treatment of so-called 'villains' in a way that inverts the expected conventions. Although allowing the reader to 'live dangerously' by enjoying the exploits of villains was a staple of sensation fiction, Yates took it further by making these villains sympathetic. One character who has stayed with me is that of Harriet Routh from Black Sheep. Her devotion to her husband is the heart of the plot and Yates effectively portrays her as a 'good' woman because of this devotion.

I'd recommend Yates's novels to anyone interested in sensation fiction. Unlike some writers I've come across, I was rarely bored reading his novels. Some are rushed, of course, and some were written in response to publisher demands. But, on the whole, he was very enjoyable to read and his journalistic endeavours are as interesting as his novels. There are plenty of little anecdotes out there about him for anyone willing to look. I'll leave you with a quote from a review of A Righted Wrong, written in the Saturday Review in 1870. Criticisms like this usually mean the novel lacks taste and literary merit but is a decent read nonetheless:

"We cannot honestly congratulate Mr. Yates on the appropriateness of his title, for novels like this are wrongs which there is no righting. The reader slips down in blank boredom between a couple of stools. There is nothing to interest, and there is just as little to amuse... It is simply colourless, and totally devoid of all marked characteristics. It reminds us of nothing so much as an excursion train of badly-coupled carriages, jolting among, without any apparent object, by badly-made loop-lines. The train has a destination certainly, known, we may presume, to the persons who despatch it; and you turn up somehow at the journey's end. But in the meantime the slowness of the pace, the frequent stoppages, and the general uncertainty make the travel martyrdom. Readers of course get tired of it, and get out as they please; but the conscientious critic must yawn and resign himself."

Well... I liked it!

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