Leon Garfield

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Roni Natov

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Leon Garfield has been hailed as one of the best contemporary writers for adolescents for his lively and unmistakable style, his ability to weave a series of endlessly fascinating plots, and for his quirky and unforgettable characters. He draws richly and with originality from our great masters of fiction: Fielding, Smollett, and Dickens. His debt to Fielding and Smollett is most obvious in terms of the settings of his novels, all of which take place in the 18th century. Many of them make use of the picaresque episodic structure and the complex combination of comedy and violence found in those early works. Encounters with all kinds of rogues, kidnappings, attempted and actual murders are not unusual in a Garfield novel. In fact, his own particular use of the adventure story, varied and expansive as it is, involves exploring and indulging in melodrama, which allows, of course, for suspenseful plots and characters that undergo extreme states of feeling.

But while any Garfield novel uses all the conventional melodramatic devices, his sense of humor tempers, refines, and adds complexity, so his novels don't feel corny or staged. Like Fielding, Garfield seems to embrace humanity in all its pettiness and smugness, and is appreciative of man's ingenuity. He is interested in exploring what we do to survive—and how, in the direst of circumstances, we are often deprived of the luxury of being moral, upright, and clean. While Garfield takes us through slums, onto pirate ships, into prisons, his touch is always lightened by humor, and therein lies his chief debt to Dickens. It is obvious that at least two of his novels draw their style and format from Dickens' work. Smith is as much like Oliver Twist and Prisoners of September like A Tale of Two Cities as they could be without being actual copies or parodies of those earlier works. But chiefly Dickens' pervasive comic sense of character is what Garfield borrows and makes his own. His characters explode with idiosyncratic verbal tics and gestures, which become their signatures, though the characters rarely lose their complexity.

So Garfield comes to adolescents as a particularly rich writer, and one who defies categories…. Garfield's adventure stories stand apart…. They are romances—sea stories, picaresque adventures, historical novels—which confront the same problems that all the "relevant" adolescent novels hinge on: the quest for identity, coming to terms with one's roots and heritage, learning to distinguish between authenticity and artifice, and finding a place for oneself in the world. Yet the use of the 18th century, which for Garfield is "more of a locality than a time," allows a fresh look at these essential themes. The reader is glued to his seat, much in the way 18th and 19th century novelists held their readers in suspense, while Garfield plunges into these issues. He feels compelled to write about the quest for identity because, as he says, "I have a passion for secrets and mystery. And the secret and mystery of another individual seems to me the only mystery one can unravel endlessly…."

So while his readers can revel in the sheer joy of good storytelling, Garfield is one of the few writers of adolescent novels who doesn't cheat them by ending his responsibility with suspenseful narration. Nor does he simplify the world in an attempt to satisfy the adolescent impulse toward closure. In other words, he does not make the world sweeter, or the obstacles in his stories darker, uglier, more or less threatening than they are. In his warmth and humor he urges an acceptance of humanity and a tolerance of ambivalence which is unique to...

(This entire section contains 2559 words.)

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the world of adolescent fiction. And it is this tolerance that allows for an honest, substantial, and mature point of view.

Garfield's first novel, Jack Holborn …, is a sea adventure, and the plot is constructed out of the traditional motifs of the genre: sailing to strange and faraway places, ship-wreck, treasure hunting, mutiny and piracy. It is often cumbersome, melodramatic, and unconvincing, but it is exciting. We are drawn into the story immediately as Jack, the young hero, stows away in the hold of the ship, the "Charming Molly," while it is taken over by pirates and the original crew murdered. This dramatic and violent opening is described through the eyes of the child, Jack, who is about the same age Stevenson's Jim Hawkins was when he set sail for Treasure Island. But Garfield's hero, though he remains relatively undeveloped at the end of the novel, is a far more interesting character. Unlike Jim, he is a waif and has the cynical viewpoint of an abandoned child. (pp. 44-6)

[Jack's quest] involves learning who to trust, how to distinguish between good and evil, and how to detect deception. And the adults in this novel are certainly difficult to decipher.

In Stevenson's Treasure Island, on which this novel draws heavily, Jim's maturity can be plotted by noting his responses to Long John Silver. Tossed between trusting and fearing him, Jim must sift out what Long John appears to be from what he really is. And just as Jim confronts a series of father figures after the death of his own father, culminating in the confrontation with Long John, Jack goes through a similar process in which he comes to terms with a gallery of strange and ambiguous male figures. (p. 46)

However, the man who figures most centrally in Jack's quest is the Captain, and it is his identity which is most mysterious…. We learn that the Captain is really two men, identical twins: the distinguished judge, Lord Sheringham, and the vicious, deceptive Captain Rogers. Explaining away the Captain's paradoxical behavior with a case of mistaken identity is, as John Townsend points out [in his A Sense of Story, see excerpt above], a crude device, but the portraits of most of the characters are vivid and complex. Through them, Jack comes to understand how two seemingly opposing traits can and do coexist. The sinister pirate captain has a real sense of integrity and dignity, and Trumpet becomes a kind and loving friend. (p. 49)

[The question of Jack's] identity is solved with a surprising little twist. Instead of discovering, in typical fairy tale fashion, or in the tradition of Tom Jones, that the foundling was really of noble birth after all, we discover, as the name Holborn suggests, that we needn't look to be what we aren't and that we need only to be ourselves to develop whatever is already within us….

Trumpet's message to Jack—"'So d'you see, Jack, right from the beginning you've been yourself without knowing it!'"…—could also be said to be the underlying theme of Garfield's next novel, Devil-in-the-Fog…. The democratic impulse that characterizes much of Garfield's work is more fully and concisely developed in this Dickensian adventure story. (p. 50)

Devil-in-the-Fog takes a real leap from Jack Holborn. Garfield's humor is more developed here than in the earlier novel, and his use of the first person narrative more sophisticated. But the resolution to the question of identity is similar. In the end George reclaims Treet as his father and rejects the aristocrats' offers to adopt him as their son and heir. Though the aristocrats are presented as generous and affable, it is another victory for the lower-middle classes and for ordinary people.

This is also true of Garfield's next novel, Smith …, which is reminiscent of the Newgate or crime novels of [William Harrison] Ainsworth and [Edward] Bulwer Lytton, popular in Dickens' time. Actually, it is most like Dickens' own attempt at this genre, Oliver Twist, particularly in its plot. It is the story of the adventures of a young street urchin who is taken in by a rich old gentleman and his devoted daughter. Like Oliver Twist, it contrasts the criminal life of the slums of London with the comfortable safety of the old gentleman's world…. This hero has none of the choir boy markings of Oliver. The portrait of Smith is less sentimental and more realistic. (pp. 54, 57)

[Although] the novel is always suspenseful, it is often unconvincing in its machinery and detail. What is convincing, however, is the child-terror of Smith's many narrow escapes and betrayals. The world is depicted, as it was in both Jack Holborn and Devil-in-the-Fog, as a dangerous place, where children must develop extra sharp senses to ward off violence. This vision never gets too threatening, however; it is offset by a series of comic incidents and satiric jokes. (p. 57)

There seem to be two visions of life that control the novel. One is cynical and is presented by the criminals…. (p. 58)

However, a more optimistic, romantic feeling presides, particularly in the relationship between the blind magistrate and Smith, whose growing bond and affection is able to work great changes in them…. And Smith stays with the blind magistrate, risking his own life, and is rewarded with the protection of a good home for himself and his sisters. All this, of course, suggests a sentimental happy ending. (pp. 58-9)

In Black Jack …, Garfield's next adventure story, the predominant Garfield themes prevail. The young hero straddles the two opposite worlds of the lower and upper classes. As he matures, he is reconciled with his humble origins, though he gains security and comfort from exposure to the aristocracy. But in this novel, these themes are transformed: they seem to have been sunk beneath the surface. The settings are dream landscapes and the themes are surrealistically played out. There are two main story lines and two important relationships, with Tolly, the young hero, at the center of the opposing poles. The first, Tolly's relationship with the criminal, Black Jack, seems to dominate; however, the developing love between Tolly and Belle, the young daughter of the wealthy Carter family, absorbs our interest and, at times, threatens to take over the novel. This is the first Garfield novel in which romantic love plays a part. As in the previous novels, the hero goes through an identity crisis which involves coming to terms with parental figures. But here it is the love relationship that helps the hero to mature. (p. 59)

This novel is the most satisfying of Garfield's work thus far. It is a suspenseful picaresque adventure, a rich tapestry into which Garfield weaves a variety of fascinating characters. His satirical portraits of the many hypocritical doctors are reminiscent of Dickens' lawyers, and the scenes of the inmates and their keepers at the madhouse are hilarious and piercing. Out of this gallery of quacks and eccentrics, Belle, the mad child, emerges, dazzles us, and captures our hearts. And even though this view of madness (fitting as it may be for an 18th century historical novel) is erroneous and romantic, Garfield's depiction of Belle's erratic behavior convinces and fascinates us. (p. 61)

Belle grows stronger and more coherent through persistent love and understanding: by loving her, Tolly comes to accept the forces of the irrational in himself; and the union of Belle and Tolly suggests a harmonious balance. As always, Garfield ends his novels with a bonding. In the earlier novels, it is between parent and child. Here, as in the later novels, two lovers are united. In this sense Black Jack is a turning point. But, as in the earlier novels, the message is the same: order is restored but characters maintain their ambiguous qualities and human frailty is accepted. (pp. 61-2)

With The Sound of Coaches …, Garfield expands his picaresque adventure novel to include the kind of psychological probing found in the modern domestic novel. The hero here is a fuller, more complex young man and we watch him grow from infancy to manhood. We observe his adopted parents closely, and establish the motivation behind the characters' actions. While The Sound of Coaches is another story of a young man in search of his identity, the problems of growing up are here more accurately described. Garfield exposes the underlying competition and jealousy between father and son, the impulsiveness of adolescent sexuality, and the illusions of youth and inevitable disillusionment with parents and lovers. (p. 62)

Throughout,… Garfield never loses the hard edge of honesty. He remains true to his characters. He understands that noble acts are done for less than noble motives. (p. 64)

Garfield's last adolescent novel and his most complex is The Prisoners of September…. It is his first full-blown historical novel, a fictionalized and personalized account of the French Revolution and its effect on the lives of two young men. And it is about the illusions and the inevitable disillusionments of adolescence.

In many ways this work is a departure from Garfield's other adventure stories. For one thing, it has two heroes. They function dialectically, each providing a context for the other. And they are older than the typical Garfield hero; rather than searching to reclaim a mysterious heritage, they define themselves within their larger society and actively participate in the outside world, in this case, in a specific event in history. Garfield explores the psychological motivation behind individual choices and their larger political context. The movement is from the personal to the political and back to the personal. For one of the heroes, the results are tragic; for the other, they are conventionally comic. At the end, one of the heroes is killed and the other is about to marry. If the marriage does not suggest an overwhelming sense of society's regeneration, there is at least for the couple a personal sense of acceptance.

The story is in many ways reminiscent of Dickens' historical novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. In The Prisoners of September, however, there are no simple solutions, no wholly moral characters. (pp. 64-6)

The characters collide with each other demonstrating Garfield's golden principle—that no one is pure. (p. 66)

The two young women in this novel, Henrietta and Gilberte, are counterparts in the same way that the heroes are. Their experiences of the world have been diametrically opposed and they assume opposing viewpoints. But both are courageous and both are flawed. In order to survive, Gilberte has had to calculate and deceive. Henrietta resents Gilberte's ability to manipulate her brother with her aristocratic manners…. Each character's pretensions are revealed and each is in some way justified.

This balance between characters is one example of the order that pervades this novel. It is a carefully structured work, divided into three sections, each prefaced with a slogan from the French Revolution. The first subtitle, "Liberté," ironically describes the two young men's visions of their own liberation…. The middle section, "Egalité," follows suit. The kind of equality hinted at here is doubly ironic. The aristocrats are imprisoned and beheaded so that death and degradation seem to be the true equalizers. In that sense Garfield's view of the Revolution is close to Dickens'. (pp. 67-8)

In the final section, though "Fraternité" is not achieved, a softer note is struck. The Revolutionary government survives, though we are not encouraged towards great optimism. (p. 69)

That everything is not resolved and all ends tied is a testament to Garfield's loyalty to the truth. Ideals do go astray and we live most of our moments filled with ambivalence. (p. 70)

Roni, Natov, "'Not the Blackest of Villains … Not the Brightest of Saints': Humanism in Leon Garfield's Adventure Novels," in The Lion and the Unicorn (copyright © 1978 The Lion and the Unicorn), Fall, 1978, pp. 44-71.


Ann A. Flowers


Gordon Parsons