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Monday, August 29, 2016

W Keppel Honnywill

Between 10 and 11 o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, 21 September 1909, pedestrians passing over Holborn Viaduct were horrified to see a poorly-clad, middle-aged man mount the parapet close to one of the statues on the western side of the bridge and throw himself into Farringdon Street, 40 feet below.

He went straight down and his head struck the kerbstone with terrific force, fracturing his skull; one of his legs also suffered a compound fracture.

The police conveyed him to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where he was seen by the house-surgeon, who pronounced life to be extinct. The body was then taken to the City mortuary, where it remained until an inquest could take place.

The tragedy was witenessed by a large number of foot passengers both in Farringdon Street and on the viaduct. In the dead man's possessions were a large number of documents, including various letters and a chequebook from which the last cheque had been drawn.

Later that day, the police announced that the dead man had been identified as songwriter Wilfred Keppel Honnywill, a 38-year-old son of a clergyman.

The inquest took place two days later at the City Coroner's Court, which returned a verdict of 'Felo de se'.

Wilfrid Keppel Honnywill was born on 14 June 1871 and christened on 27 July 1871 at Sompting, Sussex. He was the son of Reverend John Blake Honnywill (c.1825-1883) and Anne Jane Montague (nee Stephenson, c.1839-1901), the third of six children born in the small coastal village between Lancing and Worthing where his father had been vicar since 1863. His middle name was a link to his famous uncle, Admiral Keppel.

Educated at King's School, Sherborne, Honnywill served as a midshipman in the Royal Navy but was removed from the active list in 1888. On 29 February 1888, he became a Mercantile Marine and was rewarded by the Privy Council for Trade with a Certificate of Competency as Second Mate of a foreign-going steamship on 16 October 1890. After travelling abroad for a number of years, he returned to England and set up a local newspaper in Bromley, but failed to make it a success and sold it.

After the failure of his newspaper venture, Honnywill published a book of verse (Irene and other poems, London, "South Eastern Herald" Office, 1900) and penned two successful novels, The Master Sinner and The Curse of Eden. The former, published in February 1901, received mixed reviews, as one would expect of a book that mocked, or appeared to mock, religion:
Little is to be hoped for from "a well-known author," who does not care to reveal his name, and the author of "The Master Sinner" has done wisely to remain anonymous. The book contains two letters purporting to have been received from Hell, and a brief and ill-constructed story which has to do with their reception and its consequences. Hell is described as a delightful place, and the devil as a charming person, honoured and beloved by his subjects. They are not more particular in Heaven as to whom they admit, and there are certain sins which, if unatoned, set a man outside the limits of damnation, and leave him, a rejected wastrel, to drift about the universe at large! The Master Sinner has committed such a sin, and he dies howling in the assured conviction that Hell is for ever closed against his entrance. The subject is sufficiently lugubrious, and the style does little to recommend it; but the book is not without merit, and the reader will be grateful for its brevity." (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 27 February 1901)

Whoever wants to frighten a child into fits will find the instrument to his hand in "The Master Sinner: By a Well-known Author" (John Long). What further purpose the writer had in view is not so clear. To hazard a guess, he may judge it more prudent to exploit theological speculations in the form of a parody that may excite a smile or a shudder than to a treatise that could but provoke a stare or a yawn. Should anybody—as some will&msash;take too seriously the letters of Thomas Trelawny, in hell, to Anthony T. Grigg, in Drury Lane, he will be able to accuse his critic of wanting the sense of humour; but we cannot think he would be vexed with some such remark as "It's all nonsense of course—but—but who knows if there mayn't be something in it, after all?" For our part, we regard him as between the horns of a dilemma. So far as "The Master Sinner" is a jest, it is a jest upon the subject which is of all subjects the least proper for jesting. So far as it is meant for serious suggestion, it can but encourage the boldness which according to the most familiar of quotations, is  not that of angels. At any rate, there is, or should be, no jest in the ghastliness of a close which fits the volume for the purpose noted in our first sentence, and for no other in the world. (The Graphic, 30 March 1901)
The reviews were, however, not all negative, some noting a context to the novel—to satirise the rise of religious novels—that some reviewers appear to have missed:
It is a debatable question whether the religious novel exerts any influence over the ordinary reader. The work under notice—"The Master Sinner"—is a palpable hit at Marie Corelli's latest novel, "The Master Christian." The dedication is apt and cutting—"To those inspired persons who quarrel amongst themselves whilst attempting to instruct the world by means of religious novels." This is a thrust at Miss Corelli's recent disagreement with Hall Caine. The author of "The Master Sinner" has not given his or her name to the public, which is a pity, for the book will rank as one of the cleverest and best written skits ever presented. While the purpose of the author is to ridicule Miss Corelli and other writers who make copy out of religion, there is no stooping to undue liberties or gutter backbiting. We have a connected narrative—much more so that in Miss Corelli's "Master Christian"—and in the pleasure of following out the destiny of the principal character one almost forgets the travesty until a sweeping indictment breaks in at the very end of the work. For the purpose of showing the absurdity of religious novels, the author makes a philosopher on earth receive letters from a friend in Hades. Anthony T. Grigg and Thomas Trelawny were philosophers and searchers after truth regarding the name "Hell" as an instrument of blackmail perpetually in use in the unscrupulous hands of the ecclesiastics. They had lived very ordinary lives, but becoming associated in a dual solitude they attempted to solve the hitherto unsoluble. They become Agnostics—for they wanted truth. None being forthcoming, they remained in the state of Agnosticism. Thomas Trelawny in jest said to his brother seeker after proof, "When I die I will send you a series of letters from Hell." He was found dead the next day, and upon the anniversary of his friend's death Anthony Grigg found a scroll of manuscript upon his table at break of day.
    The letter is powerfully written, in beautiful and convincing language. No hysteria or imaginative flights of fancy—save perhaps when the author steps aside to have a sly did at his or her butts. Necessarily Anthony Grigg has a terrible fit, even biting through his tongue, and as a climax his coal black hair turned white; in fact, he had made a general wreck of himself by tearing out whole handfuls from his scalp. The letter is dated from Hell, and the first real point is the sentence after Trelawny tenders the information that there is a future state. "We howled for truth, and because it was not forthcoming we would not believe. Nevertheless, we in our Agnosticism were but little further from the truth than the believers in the hundred and one different religions on the face of our planet." Passage after passage appears blasphemous, for the author has left nothing unsaid to heap ridicule upon the religious screamers. Miss Corelli makes the Pope figure prominently in her book, so His Eminence is made to read the extraordinary letters, but he did not shrivel up till be appeared as a mummy. He merely remarked, "This is not the first time that a fictionist has attempted to base a tale of lies upon old truths. The Holy Mother Church still lives." (Dundee Courier, 6 March 1901)

Marie Corelli apparently has set the craze of trying to whitewash Satan. Prince Lucio Rimanes was not at all a bad sort of character, much misconceived and misrepresented, a tempter, no doubt, but overwhelmed with sorrow when his temptations proved successful. But he has undergone a considerable evolution since "The Sorrows of Satan" was published. Indeed, his evolution has been surprisingly rapid. He is here "a great and omnipotent Presence" who has rebelled against the arbitrary wilfulness of the Deity, and now provides in hell an asylum for those happy souls who have the good fortune to be rejected of heaven. The great aim of a human life is to secure a safe entrance into the blissful abodes of hell, the greatest misfortune to be relegated to eternal unrest in space. The sins that debar a soul from hell are thus tabulated—"The slanderer, the hypocrite (this means one who has led a life of hypocrisy, and not one who has acted the hypocrite upon occasions), the blackmailer, the extortioner, the wrecker of a human life, and the whoremonger, unless in mortality they have repented, and have done that which is good in the sight of the great omnipotent Presence, are for ever debarred an entry through these portals." The romance turns on the item, "the wrecker of a human life." One of the characters in the story, by an act of self-sacrifice, atones for his sin, and is welcomed to the halls of Diabolus; the other realises his danger through two letters from hell from his dead friend, but too late to make reparation, and his hapless soul shivers forth, to be driven ceaselessly to and fro by "the wind that blows between the worlds." It is not at all artistic, however, to misrepresent the character of the Deity, and invest Satan with a good many of His attributes. The author has probably read "Letters from Hell," Marie Corelli's "Sorrows of Satan," and Rudyard Kipling's "Tomlinson," in which most of his ideas may be found, in embryo at least. His ideas are frequently very crudely conceived, and the literary quality of the story is not altogether what one would expect from a well-known writer. But, all the same, the book is very readable. (Aberdeen Journal, 18 March 1901)
The book proved to be eminently readable, and John Long, its publisher, announced within a month of its appearance, that a large third edition was being printed. James Bagnall Stubbs, in his "Literary Notes," claimed that, whilst imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, "apparently the aim here is not true imitation from a literary point but from a desire to reap a rich harvest peculiarly," and the St James's Gazette (21 March 1901) felt that John Long's advertising of the book was "a little artless" and that its author "if he takes our advice, will lie low, with a copy of Mr. John Long's appreciative review under his pillow."

Given its success, it's no surprise that Honnywill penned a second novel, which appeared the following November. The Curse of Eden appeared as By the Author of "The Master Sinner".
If this book does not attract the same attention as did "The Master Sinner," it will withal be hailed by many as a work worthy of more than passing interest. It must be confessed that in its early stages the story is a bit wordy, but this prolixity can be tolerated in respect that as the plot develops the attention of the reader is more tightly arrested. Muriel Temple is the daughter of a Dorsetshire medical practitioner, an old gentleman so well-to-do that he gives no attention to what must be admitted is a very shadowy practice, devoting his life to the production of a book by which he hopes to startle the medical world and to bring fame to himself. While Dr William Jones, who comes from no other town than Dundee, is acting as assistant he falls in love with Muriel, and his suit is likely to succeed, when in an ill-fated moment Emile Flaubert, an operatic singer, insinuates himself into Muriel's favour. Will Jones is driven to despair, and curses Muriel. When she is dishonoured Muriel discovers that Flaubert's existing family ties prevent their marriage, and the final scene between her and the Frenchman is a powerful one. Years afterwards, and while she is living quietly in Sussex, Will Jones traces her, and notwithstanding her shame he renews his suit, and with ultimate success. Taken as a whole, "The Curse of Eden" is a splendidly-constructed story, and readers will have a tender feeling towards Dr Jones. it is to be feared that in this world today there are few so self-sacrificing as Dr William Jones, of Dundee. (Dundee Courier, 13 November 1901)
In the run-up to publication, John Long announced that they would be publishing a large first edition as they expected the novel to be even more popular than the author's first. This allowed some reviewers a chance to take pot-shots at the promotion once again:
Despite the astonishing panegyrics of the preliminary announcement, we must frankly admit that "The Curse of Eden" leaves us comparatively cold. We are very far, indeed, from conceding that it is "one of the strongest novels of human interest ever published." The story, which relates a girl's misplaced affection and consequent misadventure, has a certain pathos inseparable from the subject, but we fail to detect its power. It is lacking, moreover, in style or finish or any sort of distinction, nor can it escape altogether the stigma of melodrama. A few scattered scenes, however, amongst which we may count the closing, are conceived in more pleasing and natural vein. The present tense, so marked a mannerism of a certain "sentimental" school, and to which (especially in conjunction with the first person singular) we have a deep-rooted objection, is adopted all through the book, which is a distinct strain on the nerves. We are unacquainted with the anonymous author's previous production, "The Master Sinner," a species of satire apparently which recently had some sort of vogue—not, unfortunately, an infallible criterion of merit. We cannot, therefore, raise a comparison. "The Curse of Eden" is of earnest intention, and we should not be surprised if it also found a considerable public. (The Daily News, 14 December 1901)
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph (26 December 1901) thought it an advance on "The Master Sinner", but "Such merits as the book may have are independent of the plot; but we are not sure wherein they lie, though they suffice to maintain a languid interest in the story." "Gloriously sentimental," was the opinion of St James's Gazette (27 December 1901), while The Scotsman (18 November 1901) thought the author relied "to a large extent on an inconsistency of character" to drive the plot. "It is a good story in its way," the paper concluded, "but there is a perpetual straining after an interest of a not very desirable kind."

The Curse of Eden proved to be Honnywill's final novel and his success as a novelist may have been his undoing. In early 1901, his mother died, leaving Wilfrid an inheritance. Anne Jane Montague Honnywill was the daughter of the Rt. Hon. Lady Stephenson of Rutland Gate, Hyde Park, and grand-daughter of William Charles Keppel, 4th Earl of Albemarle.

According to his brother, Hubert Francis Honnywill (1874-1952), a tutor, "He was a curious man. He usually drank to excess when he had money." This may explain why his brother had drifted into miscellaneous journalism and writing advertisements in verse. At times he had considerable wealth, the inquest revealing that Wilfrid had received a total of £3,800 in inheritances since 1901. At other times he was in poverty. Often he was drunk. "I had known him for many years," said Mr. C. T. Wilkinson, a solicitor, " and I did all I could to stop his drinking habit. I think he went without food a good deal of late. Drink was his weakness." Wilkinson said that Honnywill was bad-tempered and violent under the influence of drink. Perhaps it was drink that had caused him to meet with an accident in February 1909, when he jumped from a motor bus, which led to him spending some time in Guy's Hospital.

Shortly before his death, Honnywill had been paid £20, yet he was living at a Rowton House (a hostel for low-paid or  down and out men) in Newington Butts, under an assumed name. Mr. Bertram Cox said that Honnywill had called on him on the Monday evening and, although sober, he had seemed slightly delirious. "I am not responsible for what I am saying," he told Cox. He seemed to think that the police were after him.

A police constable said that a number of pawn tickets were found on his body. Also, there was a mysterious note: "I did not commit any act with or did not know the girl; but I thought it best to go." A post-mortem examination revealed evidence of drink, but not to an excessive extent, and the jury expressed no opinion as to the state of his mind when they returned their verdict. The coroner described it as Felo de se, a Latin phrase meaning "Felon of himself," a legal term for suicide.

As early as 22 March 1901, within weeks of The Master Sinner's appearance, there was speculation about the identity of the "well-known author". The Cambridge Daily News noted: "The authorship of "The Master Sinner"—the novel written by way of a satire on the works of Mr Hall Caine and of Miss Marie Corelli—is now attributed to Mr. Herbert Vivian. These guesses, as has been shewn in the case of "An Englishwoman's Love Letters," must not be taken too seriously." However, in this instance it was, and the The Master Sinner has been widely (and, it would seem, wrongly) attributed to Vivian (1865-1940), a journalist and author... a guess that shouldn't have been taken seriously.

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