Stanley John Weyman (1855-1928):

Novelist and Man of Letters


By John Williams

Published in 1994 in Transactions

Of the Denbighshire Historical Society


All Rights Reserved, published here by permission of the author, John Williams



     Stanley Weyman lived for the last thirty years of his life in Plas Llanrhydd, Ruthin and it seems entirely appropriate that the Denbighshire Historical Society should remember him in 1994 as it is the 100th anniversary of his most successful year during which no fewer than three of his twenty five novels were published including Under the Red Robe which has had thirty four reprints over the years and which is generally considered to have made his reputation.  In his book British Literary Magazines 1837-1913 the biographer Reginald Pound includes Stanley Weyman (pronounced ‘Wyman’) with Arnold Bennett, Anthony Hope, Aldous Huxley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Somerset Maugham in a group whom he calls ‘Strand’ writers.  He goes on to describe them as ‘pedestrian in a non-derogatory sense.  Their feet were planted firmly on a common ground.  Mostly they remained content with the surer profits to be earned by toiling on the lower slopes’.


     Although hugely successful in his day Weyman has not lasted.  One can accept the description ‘a lesser novelist’, but he fully deserves a tribute from this Society because he was also a historian who devoted much time and money to conscientious research.  He had a passion for accuracy of background.  This was recognized by the Municipal Authorities of Geneva in 1904 (the year in which he was elected a member of the Athenaeum Club) when they made him a handsome presentation in the form of an illuminated address and a marble and bronze statuette of John Calvin as a tribute to the historical accuracy of his novel The Long Night published in 1903.  In The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Hugh Walpole ventured the opinion in 1924 that Weyman had written ‘the finest historical novels since Scott’.  Weyman has not perhaps received the attention he deserves.  He has had no biographer.  Later, we shall try to suggest why he was so successful and why he is seldom read today.


     Stanley John Weyman was born on 7 August 1855 in Ludlow, Shropshire, the second son and the fourth child of Thomas Weyman, a Solicitor.  His school record was unremarkable.  At the age of sixteen, he moved to Shrewsbury School but did not matriculate until he was nineteen by which time he had entered Christ Church, Oxford where he obtained a Second Class B.A. Degree in Modern History in 1877.  In 1878 he obtained a post as History Master at Kings School, Chester under the Rev. George Preston, who was to become his brother-in-law and who had previously been Headmaster of Ruthin School from 1871 until 1875.  Obviously, teaching was not for him for after four terms he returned to Ludlow in December 1879 to read for the Bar and to make his home with his widowed mother until his marriage 16 years later.  He was called to the Bar in 1881.


     There then followed ‘ten wretched years’.  He had joined the Oxford circuit but with so little material result that when challenged by the tax authorities he produced a fee book showing an income of 130 pounds.  He was a nervous and shy in Court and was a poor cross-examiner.  One judge shouted at him in his exasperation.  His voice was too highly pitched to be effective and his small statue must have been a disadvantage.  A scanty income and too much leisure compelled him to try his hand at writing short stories.  Three of these were accepted by the Editor of the Cornhill Magazine, James Payn, who encouraged Weyman to more ambitious work.  Roughly half-way through his unsuccessful period as a barrister he suffered from a ‘weakness of the lungs’ which led to an extended stay in the South of France in the company of his younger brother Arthur.  In December 1885 they were both arrested as spies for sketching and had to spend 24 hours in a police cell before the intervention of the British Ambassador.  This long sojourn in the South of France was to increase his already wide knowledge of the by-ways of French History and proved invaluable in researching the background of his best known novels of his early ‘cloak and hood’ period.  He made a habit of traveling in and over any foreign country which was to be the scene of one of his books, often in the company of another successful novelist who is seldom read today, H. Seton Merriman.


     He resigned from the Bar in 1891 and was firmly established as a widely read novelist when he was married on 1 August 1895 (six day before his 41st birthday) to Charlotte, the daughter of the Rev. Richard Panting, formerly Head of Shrewsbury School.  The exact date of the move to Ruthin is not known.  His name first appears in the local Electoral Roll in 1898.  It is probable that the move to the Vale of Clwyd was made at least partly on health grounds.  Many of us can recall two Sanatoria for the treatment of chest infections on the western slopes of the Clwydian Range.  He was careful not to overwork, as his output was never more than 1000 words per day.  In Who’s Who, he gives his hobbies as cycling and riding.  He was briefly a County Councillor from March 1913 until April 1914 but was obliged to resign for health reasons.  He died at his home after a brief illness on 10 April 1928 in his seventy-third year.


     Mrs. Weyman survived him by four years.  There were no children.  They are buried in Llanrhydd Churchyard, the entrance to which is immediately opposite the decorative wrought-iron gates at the entrance of Plas Llanrhydd, the early 18th Century work of Robert Bakewell of Derby or his successor, Benjamin Yates.  Plas Llanrhydd was built around 1620.  Although he made a fortune as a novelist, Stanley Weyman never owned it.  He made many additions.  The prominent red brick wall around the large orchard cost him 1,000 pounds or around 23,000 pounds in present day terms.  He was Chairman of the Ruthin Bench for fifteen years and was active with all the local charities that had to do with hospitals and schools.  He was much involved with the Ruthin War Memorial Fund.  A Churchwarden at St. Meugan’s Llanrhydd, he read the lesson there Sunday after Sunday for many years.  He was a Governor of Ruthin School and of Howell’s School, Denbigh, and was also a Commissioner of the Inland Revenue.  His fellow Governor and friend, Dr. A. G. Edwards, the first Archbishop of Wales, officiated at his funeral.


     Each year but one from 1890 until 1908 brought at least one Weyman novel.  Then at the age of fifty three, he resolutely laid down his pen after producing twenty volumes.  In 1919 when he was sixty four, a second phase began and this ‘Indian Summer’ saw the publication of five novels.  Weyman’s assessment of his own work as a novelist was modest enough.  He called his books ‘pleasant fables’.  In a rare interview published in the August 1908 edition of The Bookman, he said:  ‘I began my career as a novelist at a lucky moment. . .When I started nobody was writing the kind of novels I wrote.  Ten years later there were many more in the field’.  The interviewer described Weyman as ‘still playing to a full house’.  He wrote:  ‘He is no egotist.  He is one of the most modest, most genially unassuming authors I have ever met’.  When he began to write a new interest in the historical novel had been aroused by the publication in France of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.  He was perhaps also fortunate in that although three films were later to be made from two of his novels, when he wrote them the printed word provided the only source of exciting escapist fiction.  Whether or not we regard Weyman as lucky there is no denying his worldly success.  In his Will he left the equivalent of 2,273,286 gross pounds, 2,198,850 net pounds.


     His books deal with widely different periods in the history of England, France, Italy, Holland, Ireland and Switzerland.  He was once asked why he had not been able to find a suitable subject in his adopted country, the land of the Tudors with all its history of strife and its wealth of legend and tradition.  He replied that in his opinion an author writing of a specific country should be able not only to read and write but to think in the language of that country.  ‘I am now too old to learn Welsh’, he went on, ‘and in any case a superficial knowledge would be of no advantage’.  (This did not prevent him from placing one of his novels namely The Wild Geese (1908) in a part of Western Ireland where the Erse was the predominant language in the year 1714.)  He continued, ‘In the case of my knowledge of France, I never remember reading Dumas except in the original French.  I must, of course, have been influenced by him though no more than by Sir Walter Scott who was my favourite author.’  Another influence was that of Anthony Trollope whom he greatly admired.  He rightly prophesised that the best of Trollope’s books would secure for him a niche among the immortals beside Jane Austen.  Among his contemporaries, Weyman’s favourite authors were Kipling and Stevenson.


     Although thirteen of his twenty five novels were published after 1897, he was essentially a nineteenth century novelist.  All his books have happy endings and they nearly all have good beginnings.  One can readily agree with H. Ellis Hughes (Eminent Men of Denbighshire, 1946) that the best known were A Gentleman of France, The Red Cockade and Under the Red Robe, published respectively in 1893, 1895 and 1894.  His most prolific and best-selling period was therefore already behind when he came to live in the Vale of Clwyd.  A Gentleman of France (1893) was to be one of his most successful.  For ten weeks after publication nothing happened.  Suddenly, it achieved a roaring popularity.  It became ‘the novel of the day, the talk of the town’.  It achieved no fewer than twenty reprints in four years and a further five between 1925 and 1935.  It won the admiration of Robert Louis Stevenson, then living in Samoa.  Stevenson was a firm believer in the healing virtues of a good story.  Not that the story is everything, as with Jeffrey Archer for example.  Even in the ‘cloak and hood’, Weyman novels of the early years there is often a successful creation of atmosphere with historical characters strongly drawn from authentic sources.  Oscar Wilde wrote to the Home Office from Reading Gaol expressing the view that Stanley Weyman novels were ideal reading for convicts.


     Weyman seemed happiest in his selection of sixteenth and seventeenth century France for his imaginative efforts.  His knowledge of French history was exceptional.  He was fascinated by the Huguenots who feature in several of his books, including the most successful of all in terms of sales, namely Under The Red Robe (1894), the first of his novels not to be serialised in a magazine.  The last of its thirty four reprints was a Peacock/Penguin edition in 1962.  It was adapted for the stage at the Haymarket Theatre in 1896 and was made into a film in 1923 and again in 1937.  The later was directed by Victor Seastrom of Sweden and featured three well-known stars namely, Conrad Veidt, Raymond Massey and the French actress Annabella.  Set in the reign of Louis XIII, it deals with Cardinal Richelieu’s hounding of the Huguenots and Conrad Veidt’s attempts to square his role as a mercenary with his conscience and his eventual salvation in love.  We read in the American Film Institute Catalogue that Raymond Massey attacks the menacing role of the Cardinal with relish and the ‘Time Out’ Film Guide tells us that the photography is stunning.


     We must mention two of his English historical novels.  Chippinge published in 1906 was the first of his ‘social-political’ books, and was the author’s favourite.  Weyman was much interested in the social revolution which took place in England and Wales in the early years of the nineteenth century and in the clash between the old landowning class and the new commercial interests.  It deals with the period of the 1832 Reform Bill and the consequent riots in Bristol.  There is some snobbery in the book as there is in nearly all the Weyman novels.  He believes in ‘breeding’.  The hero is a young Welshman named Arthur Vaughan, who ‘has a small estate in South Wales’.  He falls in love with a young governess on the coach from London to Chippenham.  Of course, much later he discovers she is an heiress and of good birth and all is well.  In the meantime, he turns to politics.  Chippinge’ is the name of a small ‘Rotten Borough’ in the Bristol area which, with only 1800 souls, returned two Members of Parliament, whereas neither Birmingham nor Sheffield were represented.  After two World Wars and John Major’s talk of a classless society, it is perhaps a little disconcerting in this day and age to come across quite so often words such as:  ‘scum’, ‘rabble’, ‘ragamuffin’ and ‘hobbledehoy’.  The dialogue is not always credible, but the description of the Bristol riots is excellent and the story holds our interest to the end.


     My own favorite Weyman novel is Ovington’s Bank published in 1922.  It is the only one of his books with a local setting.  Again we see Weyman’s fascination with the clash between old money and new money.  The year is 1824.  It was serialised BBC TV in the late sixties under the title ‘Heiress of Garth – Garth being Garthgynan, which is some half a mile from Llanfair D.C. on the Llanbedr D.C. to Graigfechan road.  Squire Griffin of Garth fights hard for the old way of life and is against the coming of the railways to North Wales.  The book had some unflattering reviews.  This is what the Ruthin novelist Grace Roberts wrote in the Denbighshire Free Press for 13 August 1955:--‘This is a somewhat dull piece of writing with English characterization on a pseudo-Welsh background. . . the author himself did not care for it.  It is the story of a small country Bank in the town of Aldersbury, which is Denbigh.  In the novel it is described as ‘a proud town looking over a proud county, . . .a county still based on ancient tradition on old names and great estates, standing solid and four-square against the invasion that, even in the Squire’s day, threatened it—the invasion of new men and new money of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester’.  The Huguenots again make an appearance as we find a character with the surname Bourdillon living in or near the village of Garthmyle which is obviously Llanfair D.C.   At least one reviewer of note has shared my fondness for this book, E. E. Reynolds writing in the Fortnightly Review in July 1929 prophesised that Ovington’s Bank would probably be regarded as his greatest achievement.


     It is not too difficult to think of reasons why Stanley Weyman is seldom read today.  Fashions change.  His books lack humour.  He was not strong on dialogue.  He would not or could not develop a character.  Had he lived a few more months, he would have read the following comment by an unknown writer in The Times for 17 August 1928; ‘Stanley Weyman never saw deep or subtly into the human mind, but what he saw he could describe with vigour’.  And I could imagine him saying:  ‘Perfectly true, of course,’ and he would perhaps smile ‘All the way to the Bank’, to use a hackneyed phrase.  On 7 August 1955, the hundredth anniversary of his birth, a memorial erected by his nephew, Lt. Col. Arthur Weyman, was unveiled beneath a window on the south side of the Church in Llanrhydd by the Rt. Rev. Dr. D. D. Bartlett, Lord Bishop of St. Asaph.  It is in the form of a large open book of Broughton Moor sea-green stone resting on two smaller books of Portland stone.  These smaller books are replicas of two novels from his earlier period.  One shows in green, the head of a wolf to represent his first novel, The House of the Wolf (1890), published after six rejections.  The other shows a bookmark in red in the form of a Cardinal’s Robe to represent Under the Red Robe (1894).  The supporting ledge is of Purbeck marble.


     S. J. Weyman brought pleasure to countless thousands who read and enjoyed his work.  This Society can be rightly proud of this highly successful novelist who lived in the county for thirty years, for in all that he wrote he showed a sense of scholarship and a well-trained imagination.  We salute his memory.




D.N.B. (article by T. E. Welby).


The Cornhill Magazine (June 1928).  Article by L. Huxley


The Bookman (May 1900 and August 1908).


The Fortnightly Review (July 1929).  Article by E. E. Reynolds.


Lecture Notes by Reginald Le Scrope of Ruthin.


London Mercury (April 1933).  Article by Grace Chapman.


Manchester Guardian Quarterly (1933).  Article by T. Cann Hughes, M.A., F.S.A.


John O’London’s Weekly (30 August 1919).


Denbighshire Free Press (4 June 1904, 21 July 1928, 13 August 1955).


The Athenaeum (10 May 1890, 23 November 1901, 24 October 1903).


Country Quest (February 1975).  Article by Oswald Edwards.


H. Ellis Hughes, Eminent Men of Denbighshire (1946).


Owen Williams, Denbighshire Authors and their Works, 1895-1928 (1937).


The Times (17 August 1928, 12 October 1928).


The ‘Time Out’ Film Guide, (Penguin Books, 1991).


American Film Institute Catalogue.