Violet Vane Sata Prescott
Northern Illinois University
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Violet Vane (1889) Spotlight

About the novel

Violet Vane, the Velvet Sport; or, The Jubilee at Jacktown was the first story to feature Violet Vane, a detective dandy character with implicit homosexual overtones.

Violet Vane, the velvet sport, or, The jubilee at Jacktown

"Baste 'im, Violets! Hain't thet deelightful! Oh, Moses! Hain't this a jubilee!"

The novel follows the exploits of the titular “Violet Vane.” The dandy-ish, well-dressed, well-spoken man is a stranger to Jacktown, and arrives just before a major jubilee. The townsfolk are derisive of the his dress and manner, and a local hooligan called Wagg dubs him “Sweet Violets,” assuming that he would "wilt" in a fight. However, in a scuffle with bullies from the neighboring Jasper City, it is revealed that despite his soft-seeming exterior, Violet Vane is a capable brawler. His abilities lead him on a quest to rescue a kidnapping victim as he tries to clear his name of murder and reunite with his beloved.

The character of Violet Vane is an example of the “dandy detective,” a character trope that became more common as detective fiction gained in popularity. (Arguably, the famous detective Sherlock Holmes belongs in this category, too.) Elements of the story also echo something akin to a gay experience in an assumedly heterosexual world. Reading with a sense of dandyism as a symbol for homosexuality can open questions of masculinity and homophobia in the late 19th century.

Velvet Vane, the Violet Sport was published June 9, 1891 in Beadle’s Half-Dime Library no. 629. The character would re-appear in seven stories written by William G. Patten

About the author

William Gilbert Patten was one of the most prolific dime novel writers. His pseudonyms included Herbert Bellwood, Frederick Gibson, Gordon MacLaren, Julian G. Wharton, William West Wilder, and, perhaps most famously, Burt L. Standish. Under that name he wrote more than a hundred stories featuring the famous characters Frank and Dick Merriwell for Street & Smith in Top Top Weekly.

William Gilbert Patton

William Gilbert Patten (1866-1945)

Patten was born on October 25, 1866 in Corinna, Maine, where he came from a working class background. After grammar school, he spent a short amount of time employed as a machinist before attending a local secondary academy. Patten's first published story was a sketch for Banner Weekly published in 1885 and titled "A Bad Man." He wrote several dime novels for Beadle & Adams, including the seven “Violet Vane” stories, but found his broader fame writing for Street & Smith under the more well-known name “Gilbert Patten,” and then “Bert” or “Burt L. Standish.” Albert Johannsen writes that in his real life, Patten dropped "William" from his name at this time in an effort “live down his dime-novel days.”

For seventeen years, Patten would turn in a new Merriwell story every week. The character was a major hit, and was turned into a radio show, films, a series for boys, and other formats.

Patten was married three times and divorced twice. One of the longest-living dime novelist, he died on January 16, 1945 in Vista, California, having lived and worked throughout most of the dime novel era.

Discussion questions

  • Violet Vane encounters derision and insult in most of his first meetings with others. What are the insults used against him? What are the common themes used against him? What does that tell you about what is a valued characteristic to have?

  • How does Miss Howard’s quest shape the actions of the male characters in the story? How does Violet Vane treat her? Dandy Dirk? Wagg? Does their behavior toward her change how her search goes?

  • What causes the strife between the “old-time lovers”? Why does Ione act coldly toward Violet Vane? Why might she seemed distressed to be “more” in love with him?

  • What is the role of violence in the story? Why does Violet Vane fight so often? What are the expectations of those watching?

  • At the end on the novel, what has changed to make the townspeople proud of “the Velvet Sport?” 

  • Examine the article “Black Dandyism: When dressing got political.” How does the concept of dandyism in a marginalized community relate to dandyism in the frontier of the 19th century? Think particularly about the early responses to Violet Vane in the story.

  • In dime novels, dialect sometimes is used to alienate or include characters in different groups, usually racial or ethnic minorities. How does dialect include or exclude characters in this novel? Who is not written with dialect?

Further Reading

Discusses the history of gender and sexual queering of the American West, particularly dime novels featuring women adventurers.

Discusses homoerotic text and subtext in dime novels and other early American popular literature, and in particular how “low” culture materials expressed social mores on topics of sexuality more clearly than “high” culture materials.

Examines transgressed gender in dime novels, specifically focusing on lady detectives and the trope character of the “dandy,” which includes Velvet Vane.

  • Adams, James E. Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Discusses Victorian dandyism, but focuses primarily on England. However, this book does an excellent job of discussing masculinity and how dandyism weaves in and out of society.

An article about slang terms describing masculine positioning. It offers examples of levels of respectability for “dandies” and “dudes.”