The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Olaf Svenson Adventures (1879-1881)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The three Olaf Svenson Adventures were written by Colonel Thomas Monstery: “Iron Wrist, the Sword-master. A Tale of Court and Camp” (Saturday Journal no. 484, July 9, 1879), “The Czar’s Spy” (Beadle’s New York Dime Library no. 143, July 20, 1881) and “El Rubio Bravo” (Beadle’s New York Dime Library no. 150, Sept. 7, 1881). Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery (1824-1901) was one of the more interesting characters of the nineteenth century, a fencing teacher whose life was colorful enough and whose reputation was impressive enough for Edgar Rice Burroughs to name Monstery as the fencing instructor in The Mad King (1914) and for Frederick Whittaker to write a dime novel about Monstery, “The Sword Prince” (Beadle’s Boys Library of Sport, Story & Adventure #28, 24 May 1882).1
Olaf Svenson is a wandering Danish sword master, fencing instructor, and mercenary. At different times of his life he is the sword master to the Czar, where he fights a Nihilist conspiracy; the instructor-at-arms to the King of Spain; the fencing instructor to the leader of Cuba; and a mercenary in Honduras, hired to kill off the Seven Deadly Brothers of Tabasco, an infamous family of bandits and “espadachins” (bullies). Svenson is a superior swordsman whose nicknames are “Iron Wrist,” because of his strength, and “El Rubio Bravo,” the “brave blond,” because of his white hair. (“El Rubio Bravo” was also Monstery’s nickname). Svenson’s skill at arms extends beyond the blade to guns; he is deadly even with the rifle and bayonet, but he is pure hell with the sword. Even in his old age he remains slim and muscular. His great love is Carmelita Ximenes, the daughter of a rich Spanish merchant, but she was a coquette who toyed with him and ended up marrying a dishonorable man, leaving Svenson more than a little cynical (though never unchivalrous) about women. He is not bloodthirsty, and usually does not kill men in duels, merely wounding them, but when pressed, as he is against the Seven Deadly Brothers, he will kill. (Each of the Seven Brothers has a different fighting style, which is an interesting though not difficult challenge for Svenson). He ends his days in San Francisco, teaching the sword to paying students.
The Olaf Svenson stories are better-written than most dime novels. They are colorful and adventurous, although they lack the gripping intensity of Monstery’s “The Demon Duelist.” Unfortunately, those Svenson stories set in Latin America allow Monstery to indulge his racism. In those stories Monstery writes about “greasers” and compliments the higher qualities of those with “pure blood,” that is, those of Castilian and not native Mexican descent—a typical bit of nineteenth-century American prejudice toward Mexicans (see: The Mexican Ranchero), and indicative of the continuing allure of royalty and Europe for Americans during the latter half of the century, a time when numerous wealthy American men sent their daughters to Europe to marry impoverished members of royalty, exchanging their wealth for noble titles. This was particularly common in England, where the flood of American heiresses gave rise to any number of jokes, stories, and novels, such as Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers (1938).2
The Olaf Svenson stories are an interesting example of a particular dynamic of late nineteenth century celebrity. Celebrity, of course, long predates the twentieth century—as Fred Inglis notes, celebrity dates back to mid-eighteenth century London, where “spontaneously the city bred its version of a new social figure, famous for his or her urban accomplishments,”3 and via theater and its celebration of its leading men and women
gradually effected the institutionalisation of the underlying forces which composed celebrity: first, the new consumerism of eighteenth-century London; second, the invention of the fashion industry with department stores to match in mid-nineteenth-century Paris; third, the coming of the mass circulation newspaper, its gossip columns, and its thrilled, racy transformation of city life in New York and Chicago into the glitter of publicity.4
But the nineteenth century saw the development of the modern mass media, a crucial element of modern celebrity. There was mass media of sort in the eighteenth century, but it was far more limited in reach than what appeared in the nineteenth century. “The industrialization of the publishing industry in the 1830s and 1840s gave rise to a mass culture,”5 a culture of celebrities who were famous as much for being famous as they were for their accomplishments.
Involving ‘a cultural apparatus, consisting of the relations between an individual, an industry and an audience, that took shape in response to the industrialised print culture of the late eighteenth century’ (Mole 2007, xi), celebrity culture encouraged and facilitated an obsessive fascination with a public figure’s personality and biography by mass producing and disseminating visual, verbal and material representations of such individuals designed to foster ever-closer forms of communication between the famous and the non-famous.6
There are numerous examples of these celebrities, but the one most relevant here is William Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill.” Originally an obscure cowboy, Cody was transformed into an international celebrity via the dime novel Buffalo Bill Adventures, begun in 1869 by dime novelist Ned Buntline in the Street & Smith dime novel New York Weekly. By 1879, when Prentiss Ingraham had taken over the authorship of the Buffalo Bill stories (see: Buffalo Bill Adventures), Cody, in his Buffalo Bill persona, was well on his way to becoming a nationally-known celebrity, just as the Deadwood Dick Adventures had made Deadwood Dick a nationally-known character. Colonel Monstery, at this point in his life middle-aged, past his more youthful exploits, and reduced to teaching fencing in Chicago and living off the stories of his past, no doubt had the idea that he could gain fame and celebrity status for himself via the dime novels in the same fashion that William Cody had. But despite the general quality of the writing of the Olaf Svenson stories and a similar imaginative flair as Prentiss Ingraham’s Buffalo Bill stories, Monstery did not gain fame through his dime novels, and he died impoverished.
1 John Adcock raises the question of Whittaker having ghost-written the dime novels which were published under Monstery’s name, but “The Demon Duellist” and the Olaf Svenson trilogy of stories have an intensity and vigor which Whittaker’s prose generally lacks. John Adcock, “Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery (1824-1901),” Yesterday’s Papers, accessed Dec. 11, 2018, http://john-adcock.blogspot.com/2012/01/colonel-thomas-hoyer-monstery-1824-1901.html.
2 Anne De Courcy’s The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018) is worth reading on this phenomenon.
3 Fred Inglis, A Short History of Celebrity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 12.
4 Inglis, A Short History, 13.
5 Bonnie Carr O’Neill, Literary Celebrity and Public Life in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 6.
6 Páraic Finnerty and Rod Rosenquist, “Transatlantic Celebrity: European Fame in Nineteenth-Century America,” Comparative American Studies 14, no. 1 (2016): 1.