Thursday, December 22, 2016

Eccentric Personages - W Russell, LL.D.

When I first caught sight of the book, I at first mis-read the title as Eccentric Parsonages. That might have been even more interesting, but Eccentric Personages (1865) by William Russell, LL.D, in its old crimson leather with faded gold ornaments, was still enticing enough.

I suppose there are about twenty subjects and some of them are still well-known today – the magician Cagliostro; the transvestite Chevalier d’Eon; the doughty traveller in the Levant, Lady Hester Stanhope. Others are from the 18th century’s bright cavalcade of bucks and rakes and dandies, with their amusing (or otherwise) foibles and antics.

The author has a sceptical and worldly tone, but his manner softens somewhat when he comes to tell of a figure perhaps otherwise lost to us, so far as I can see. He calls her “The Lady-Witch”. Her name was Helen Royston and she lived near the now unromantic town of Doncaster, in southern Yorkshire, in the late 17th century. She was the daughter of a Cromwellian trooper, Valiant-for-Truth Royston - a name which rather makes one wonder how his friends addressed him - but did not follow in her father’s puritanical zeal: rather, she acquired the reputation of a sorceress.

W. Russell, LL.D., airily says that her wonders were too many for him to relate: which is a great pity, for it is likely these cannot now be recovered. I have not seen her story before and it is not in the usual folk-lore compendiums. Her beauty, it seems, captured first the younger, then the elder, son of the local squire, who was averse to any such match: and the younger son pined away in consequence. She was thought to take the form of a swan, a well-known European folk-lore motif, but not particularly found in England; this may be the most striking example of the myth here.

The practical Mr Russell explains how it came about. He says she liked to repair to a hidden bower by a lakeside at evening and there sing to herself. The credulous rustics, hearing a lady’s voice, but seeing only swans, made a pardonable inference and supposed that she had been transformed. And their suspicions were confirmed – here is another popular folk motif – when a hunter maimed a swan, which, though winged, flew away: the lady was not then seen for some weeks afterwards; and she was presumed to be tending her wounds. That swans are indeed said to sing at evening, but only when pining for their mate, adds another curious dimension to the tale.

All ends well, for the lady does indeed marry the squire’s eldest son, and an enquiry by local magistrates into her reputed witchery is discreetly put aside. The local rural folk suppose that the marriage will mean an end to her spells and wonder-workings, but Mr Russell is slyly not so sure and implies it was not so.

The author is described somewhat vaguely by the British Library as a “miscellaneous writer”. In fact, he seems to have specialised in biographies of the peculiar. His other books include, as well as some romances, Extraordinary Women (1857) and Extraordinary Men (1864), and a series presented as "real life" stories, including Leaves from the Diary of a Law Clerk (1862) and Leaves from the Journal of a Custom-House Officer (1868), Charles Oldfield, the autobiography of a staff officer (1871) and Military Life, tales (1871).

However, his most successful title appears to have been his Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer (1856), under the pen-name of “Waters”, reprinted by the Covent Garden Press in 1972. These were sketches that had first appeared in Chambers’ Journal, Edinburgh, and must be among the earliest detective stories. They have the leisured and rather mannered tone of their time, and the investigatory element is often fairly rudimentary, but the stories are still quite vividly done and suggest a versatile imagination.

One, ‘The Monomaniac’, has a macabre aspect. Henry Renshawe, a gentlemanly but reclusive lodging-house-keeper has in his room the portrait of a mournful young woman, inscribed ‘Laura Hargreaves, born 1804; drowned 1821.’ He becomes obsessed by the idea that she has returned in the form of the wife of a lodger of his, an embroiderer of fine gold lace for epaulettes and similar, whom she in some ways resembles.

This almost leads to a further tragedy, and the story includes one or two distinctly Gothic touches: there is something of the theme and plot of Rodenbach's rather later melancholy novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892). It is tempting, also, to link the story to that of the Swan Lady and infer some particular fascination on the part of the author for images of young women and still water, perhaps inspired by Millais' painting Ophelia, renowned around this time.

Mark Valentine


  1. Is Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer supposed to fiction or based on real cases? And how do you constantly discover such interesting books?

  2. Waters' "Recollections" is, in fact, a landmark book in the early history of the detective story. As for eccentric personages, I remember reading as a boy Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics with much pleasure. I bought a copy a year or two back, but haven't revisited it yet. I don't suppose anyone reads the Sitwells any more, though I once knew a professor at American University who collected their work and donated his exhaustive collection to the University of Virginia. In this same vein, I enjoy the Daily Telegraph obituaries collected by Hugh Massingberd in five volumes and the extensive diaries of James Lees-Milne, chronicler of distressed aristocrats. --md

  3. Bill, the detective book is presented as an account of authentic cases, but is presumably fiction. As to finding books, I like looking, in bookshops, book fairs, catalogues and charity shops, for the book I did not know I wanted.

    Michael, the Sitwells do still have some readers: Edith's poetry and Osbert's memoirs have much to commend them, and I think Sacheverell's fantasias, a curious mix of autobiography, history, travel and fiction, were ahead of their time and written with elegance. The journals of James Lees-Milne are perfect bedside reading. Mark

  4. "Eccentric Personages, by a Miscellaneous Writer" is a tragically lost opportunity.