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Monday, January 10, 2011

Fanny by Gaslight: enough said.

The booky detective in me has been on fire of late. It all started when I was re-reading Barbara Comyns’ almost completely forgotten memoir Out of the Red into the Blue and found the following passage about the author’s arrival in Ibiza in 1956:

“among them I saw something that I couldn’t believe was true. It was a little girl of about ten dressed like a woman, her face heavily made-up. She was walking with some respectable looking black-clad women. Then I distinctly saw a little boy of about the same age dressed as a woman. His cheeks were all rouged and he was holding a parasol over his head, while a stout pair of boots were showing below his flounced skirt. I wished I had never read Michael Dadler’s Forlorn Sunset, and turned to my companion in horror”.

I had never heard of Forlorn Sunset but that was nothing that a quick google could not cure and I soon discovered that the author was in fact called Michael Sadler. If there was some confusion about his name, he had only him self to blame, since he had apparently changed it from Sadler to Sadleir in order to distinguish himself from his father, who was also an author. As regular readers of this blog may remember, I sought out Forlorn Sunset and raved at length about it.

The preface to Forlorn Sunset mentioned another book by the same author, the amusingly titled Fanny by Gaslight and so my Michael Sadleir mission continued. A quick spot of research reveals that Fanny was first published in 1940, made into a film in 1944 and enjoyed a renaissance in 1981 when it was the subject of a TV miniseries starring Chloe Salaman in the title role.

The cannon of popular and remembered literature is a funny old thing. Both of these novels are now almost completely lost to the reading public but I think that of the two, it was Fanny by Gaslight rather than Forlorn Sunset which has enjoyed the most acclaim and publicity in the past. The reason that I think this odd is that Forlorn Sunset is a much better novel than Fanny.

Fanny by Gaslight is the tragic life story of a young girl born to two lovers and brought up in the seediest possible corner of Victorian London. Her early life as well as her adulthood is littered with pimps, prostitutes, drunkards and schemers but she herself stands apart from the degeneracy around her. She does not judge but she is very separate. Sadleir has set up a series of binary opposites which he explores in the story. Firstly, and most prominently, there is the opposition between honesty and hypocrisy. Fanny is an honest girl as are both of her parents and all of the various allies she picks up in her life. However “low” they may seem to the outside world, they are honest about themselves and to others. They contrast sharply and are oft injured by the battalion of hypocrites in the tale. The aristocratic drunkard who dabbles in paedophilia; the glamorous society lady who meets her lovers in a high class brothel; the list is endless.

In this polarised world “sex” is part of the “honest” section and “marriage” is presented as a deeply hypocritical state. As Fanny’s father comments: “I have some reason for not regarding marriage as the element of a love affair that is made in heaven. Heaven comes at an earlier stage if it comes at all”. Fanny herself identifies with this non conformity and refuses to marry the man that she loves, a steadfastness for which she pays in heavy coin. I understood her best when she says to her lover: “I am an outside person. I always have been, and I am too proud to come inside – at any rate at present”.

It is all very anti-Victorian to an extent which I find rather patronising and simplified and somehow imbued with snobbery. Fanny is dated without being charming and I think that maybe my Sadleir sojourn ends here.


  1. Oh dear what a pity. I'm still sufficiently intrigued by your review of Folorn Sunset to keep an eye out for his books though.

    But what I'd really like to know is - where did you find a copy of Out of the Red, Into the Blue, you lucky beast! I've been searching for a copy of that and Birds in their Tiny Cages for years and years - well done!

    And sorry to go on, but I don't generally comment - have I ever commented on here before? - so when I do I get a bit carried away, but did I read somewhere that you're writing a biography of Barbara Comyns? I do hope so.

    Best wishes, Helen

  2. I wass becoming intrigued, too. But, I shall perhaps stay with Barbara Comyns, whose work you introduced me to amnd which I love. And is it? Is it true that you are writing a biograpy of her??? If so, I shall be snatching a copy as it comes off the printing press.

  3. Thank you both so much for your kind comments!

    Helen - I think that is indeed your first comment - but a very exciting one it is. First - getting hold of copies of Our of the Red and Birds in Tiny Cages is incredibly tricky. Where do you live? If you are anywhere near London you can read them in the British LIbrary. You would need to join but you can join if you say you want to read those specific books. I don't think it costs anything. The other copyright libraries in the UK that I know about are the UL in Cambrisge and the Bodlein in Oxford but I am not sure how one would go about getting access to those without being a student. All this and i don't even know what country you are in....
    Yes - I am writing a biography of Barbara Comyns and it is most heartening to know that people are interested in it. If you would like to know more you are most welcome to email me at: hannah [at] hannahstoneham [dot] com.

    Aguja - you are such a faithful reader - thank you! As mentioned above - yes the biography rumour is a true one.... Thanks so much for your comments.


  4. I am also interested in the Barbara Comyns biography.

    Both books mentioned are new to me so I have read your post with much interest.

  5. Mystica - how wonderful to know that. I am so pleased to hear that some people are interested. It is a wonderful story and I hope that I can do justice to it.
    Also pleased that the post interested you. Out of the Red and into the Blue is probably Comyns' most obscure book and is alost impossible to get hold of outside copyright libraries unless you are really fortunate but if you ever do see it I very much recommend it!
    Thanks for visiting and leaving such a heartening comment

  6. I have been searching for Forlorn Sunset ever since you wrote about it here. Then Fanny by Gasligh cropped up and I thought to make that an acquisition too, but now I think I will just try to get Forlorn Sunset. It is proving to be too difficult as it is! I am sorry you did not like the book better.

  7. Such an interesting review - it's a pity that it doesn't seem to live up to your expectations. I am still interested to read Fanny by Gaslight however, bit will read it with lowered expectations (that way if it is as you found I won't be disappointed, and if it is better than expected, I will be plesantly suprised).