One can’t help but be excited at the prospect of a fin de siecle novel featuring chapters written by 24 different authors. The Fate of Fenella was first serialised in the illustrated weekly The Gentlewoman in 1890 and then published in three volume format two years later. Contemporary reviewers described it as a “curious mosaic”, as it was a collaborative work written with no consultation between the myriad writers. They included Helen Mathers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Florence Marryat and Adeline Sergeant. The plot involves the adulterous Fenella Ffrench, her husband’s affair with an evil temptress, a brutal murder, a sensational trial, bigamy, altered states of consciousness, false imprisonment in a lunatic asylum, and a shipwreck. Phew. It’s a plot in which you could stand a spoon.
Each chapter, unsurprisingly, ends with a cliffhanger, and the subsequent author is tasked with resolving the twist and then coming up with their own. Although obviously a thoroughly sensational tale, the themes with which it encompasses makes it a particularly interesting and important work. Fenella’s trajectory deals with the sexual double standard and the deeply-contested notion of femininity. The authors are all writing from different perspectives and Fenella’s behaviour is handled differently according to their opinions, thereby providing the reader with a panoramic view of the attitudes within the literary marketplace of the 1890s.
The Spectator thought the plot “ridiculous” and concluded that too many cooks did, indeed, spoil the broth. However, this is an experimental piece of fiction that is more than a sum of its parts. The text itself is enhanced by explanatory notes, biographies of all the authors, and a scholarly and illuminating introduction from Andrew Maunder. Thank you to Valancourt Books for such a welcome release.