The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Captain Ravenshaw, or, the Maid of Cheapside (1901)   

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Captain Ravenshaw, or, the Maid of Cheapside was written by Robert Neilson Stephens (1867-1906), an American author of swashbucklers and historical novels as well as plays.

Captain Ravenshaw is an entertaining example of the novel of roguery, and although it is set in England in the late sixteenth century Captain Ravenshaw is not so much a swashbuckler or a historical romance as it is a picaresque novel. Captain Ravenshaw is a roarer, a noisy, riotous roisterer, and a noted bully, but he is really not a bad sort, once you get past his bluster, brawling, and boozing. No bawding, though; he is an avowed enemy of women. Ravenshaw is notorious across London for his bar brawls, his roistering, and his swaggering of the taverns. When the novel begins he is down on his luck, not wanting to hold a real job and having been cheated of his inheritance and swindled out of a position, both situations due to women's cozening him. (Hence his hatred for the sex). Ravenshaw befriends a young scholar, similarly down on his heels, and the two have a memorable series of adventures across the city: earning food and clothes by teaching four young nobles how to be roarers, swindling gamblers out of their gold, skipping out on their rent, picking fights after nightfall just for the sheer fun of it, and so on. It is all great roguish fun.

And then, of course, a woman gets involved. She is Millicent Etheridge, and she is a sweet seventeen-year-old who has been engaged to marry a vain old knight quite against her will. Ravenshaw is initially recruited to be the liaison between Millicent and Jerningham, the villain of Captain Ravenshaw. Jerningham wants to court Millicent, “if only for an hour,” and is willing to kidnap and rape Millicent if she won't accede to his requests. But Ravenshaw falls for Millicent's charms, and so ensues the requisite and predictable though still entertaining alarums and excursions, disguises, late night flights down the Thames, sword fights, and sweet talking, until by novel's end Jerningham has fled for the New World and Millicent and Ravenshaw, now happily in love, are intending to be wed, and pretending to all that they are already wed.

Captain Ravenshaw is wonderful lighthearted entertainment, a perfect companion for a cold, blustery Sunday evening by the fire. The novel is amusing and entertaining, if tending more toward broad amusement than wit, but Stephens never skips over the descriptions of the hunger to which poverty brings Ravenshaw. Captain Ravenshaw is a novel of the picaresque, but with a serious undertone which never lets the reader forget that those who laze during harvest time starve during the winter. Ravenshaw himself is Falstaffian, though not fat and not quite so witty. But he is clever and gets in a number of good lines.

Stephens was best-known for An Enemy to the King, which was filmed in 1916, but his fame was generally high during his short life; he was “considered the American equivalent of Robert Louis Stevenson”1 and was a vocal member of the dispute in the 1880s and 1890s between historical novelists like Stevenson, Stanley J. Weyman, and himself, and those authors who disdained novels with the slightest hint of romance (in the old meaning of the term) and emphasized Realism and Naturalism.

In America...Robert Neilson Stephens...labeled himself and his literary colleagues as “neo-romanticists” in the preface to the historical novel Captain Ravenshaw, or, The Maid of Cheapside (1901) censuring William Dean Howells’ distaste for the romance and admonishing Howells with a number of rhetorical invectives. “Who shall deny,” Stephens wrote, “that all kinds of fiction have equal right to exist? Who shall dictate our choice of theme, or place, or time? Who shall forbid us in our faltering way to imagine forth the past if we like?”2 

Stephens ultimately lost that battle, as after his death, despite the ongoing popularity of his work and the work of Stevenson, Weyman, and the best historical romance authors, “realistic fiction continued its climb to respectability, as illustrated by the reception of Henry James and his followers, while the historical romance continued to fall into greater disrepute as World War 1 approached.”3 

But Stephens, Weyman, et al. can take comfort in this: while their names are known primarily by connoisseurs of swashbucklers and historical romance, the great mass of realist authors of the 1900s and 1910s are not remembered at all. This is as it should be; there will never be any shortage of realist novels about today’s reality–and these novels will be more topical and relevant to modern readers than the realist novels published a century or more before now–the best historical romance novelists combined both genius and the goal of giving the readers what they wanted rather than what the author thought they needed. The entertainment of the past still has the ability to entertain the present, while the instructive fiction of the past is simply outdated.

Stephens deserves to be read today, and Captain Ravenshaw is a great place to start.

Recommended Edition

Print: Robert Neilson Stephens, Captain Ravenshaw, or, the Maid of Cheapside. Nashville, TN:, 2012.



1 Hoppenstand, Perilous Escapades, 55.

2 Hoppenstand, Perilous Escapades, 55.

3 Hoppenstand, Perilous Escapades, 55.

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