Friday, December 12, 2014
A VITAL VOICE: EDGAR JEPSON
A popular novelist and raffish man-about-town, whose novels are rarely read today, Edgar Jepson was also a loyal friend of writers less beloved by the public, including Ernest Dowson, Arthur Machen and Richard Middleton. He is a significant figure in the Realm of Redonda, for it was he who witnessed the document in which Shiel bequeathed his throne to John Gawsworth. He is listed as the Duke of Wedrigo in Gawsworth’s State Paper No. 1.
Years earlier, it is possible Shiel had honoured Jepson by deriving the name of his extraordinary character Adam Jeffson, in The Purple Cloud (1901), from his friend, with perhaps some of Jepson’s colourful, devil-may-care character too. This was not Jepson’s first association with the Caribbean: after Oxford, he spent a year at Barbados as a schoolmaster, a time recalled with mixed feelings in Memories of a Victorian (1933), the first volume of his entertaining autobiography.
Jepson wrote over seventy books, many of them formula thrillers of jewel thieves, smugglers and debonair villains; Ruritanian romances; or society amusements about charming aristocrats. A sportive and ingenious member of The Detection Club, he was amusingly candid about the commercial nature of much of this fiction. He achieved some early notoriety with Sybil Falcon (1895), a garishly violent West Indian adventure yarn, but had followed this with a more “serious” novel, The Passion for Romance (1896, from the daring publisher, Henry & Co.), which was well received by the artistic but did not sell well. The illustration above is of an inscription by Jepson to Gawsworth in a copy of this book.
He then made a conscious decision to give the public what they wanted, recalling that he “wrote The Dictator’s Daughter, and have gone on writing it ever since with considerable pleasure”. Years later, as Jepson drily observed, John Galsworthy (the Forsyte Saga man, not to be confused with John Gawsworth), “from the lofty height of a comfortable private income”, reproved him for giving in to mere storytelling. “I felt the truth of his words,” he conceded, but, had he tried to live on the proceeds of the higher art, “I could not see how...I could have contrived to be there to hear them.” Until the public began to reward him for his stories, he lived for a few years as a poker player.
Jepson was brought up near Leamington Spa, the town which also gave us Aleister Crowley and William Westcott, a founder of the Order of the Golden Dawn, besides other mystic luminaries (it must be something in the water). Beneath his bluff exterior, Jepson too was an explorer of the realms of the spirit, but in youth he formed his own philosophy derived from Schopenhauer and, more especially, Henri Bergson, whose theory of the élan vital he celebrated in The Religion of the Life Force (1922, under the pseudonym R. Edison Page).
His interest in mysticism also found expression in several of his novels. The Horned Shepherd is a particularly elusive work first published by A.E. Waite in Horlick’s Magazine, the unlikely forum which also featured several of Machen’s writings. Jepson later issued a hundred copies of the novel under the imprint “the Sons of the Vine” (1904) and this is exceedingly scarce. There was a later American edition which may still be found. Inspired by Frazer’s The Golden Bough the book deals with Pan worship in late classical times. Another work, Number Nineteen (1910), shows the influence of Machen’s The Great God Pan, as a black magician falls prey to a force of high evil which possesses a statue of the goatfoot god. Jepson returned to fantasy late in his career with Lucy and the Dark Gods (1936) and with his contributions to John Gawsworth’s Thrills anthologies, including, in collaboration with King Juan, the flippantly bizarre surgery story “The Shifting Growth”.
It was probably due to Gawsworth’s good offices that Jepson was able to place his second vivid volume of autobiography, Memories of an Edwardian and Neo-Georgian (1937), with The Richards Press. This provides important recollections of Dowson, Machen, Ford Madox Ford, Richard Middleton and Edith Nesbit, as well as the best chronicle we have of that splendid drinking and debating fraternity, the New Bohemians. Jepson’s sympathies are large and his enmities are expressed with sardonic understatement, so the book has all the vigour and freshness of his earlier work.
There is nothing about Shiel by name, which suggests that Jepson could not recall anything significant of their previous association and only renewed acquaintance with him in these late years, via Gawsworth; but there is a brief footnote: “Only a few weeks ago, on his attention being called to the beauty of my writings by the young poet, John Gawsworth, Matthew I, the exiled King of Rodundo [sic], created me Duke of Wedrigo.” This is useful third party evidence that Shiel did use his title (and interestingly that it was his first name, Matthew, he used, not Felipe), and did create some peers in his lifetime, albeit in this instance at Gawsworth’s instigation.
Edgar Jepson’s work does not seem to be much collected or appreciated today, perhaps because so much of it is frankly commercial. Yet it has a certain lively zest and wit, and his autobiographical volumes are certainly worth reading. Though by no means prepared to devote struggle to the perfection of literary craft or the expression of an original vision, as had Machen and Shiel, he was not wholly the professional purveyor of undemanding yarns that he liked to affect to be. The vivacity of his style and provocativeness of his opinions are always diverting, while in his excursions into fantasy and the macabre he is the equal of many better-known exponents.