Alfred Moberly, army major and author of the sensation novel Lady Valeria, was born in Clapham in 1835, the son of William and Louisa Moberly. After attending Winchester College, where his uncle George Moberly was headmaster, Alfred joined the Royal Scots regiment and saw action in the Baltic in 1854. Five years later, he was appointed Instructor of Musketry at Hythe, a position he was to hold for eighteen years.
The School of Musketry was established in 1853 under the direction of Lord Hardinge to train soldiers in the use of modern weaponry. The introduction of the expanding Minie bullet, closely followed by the .577 Enfield rifle made shooting “a personal skill rather than a Drill movement” and an instructor of musketry was appointed in every regiment.
In August 1877, Alfred was appointed as Deputy Assistant Adjutant for Musketry and Quartermaster-General to the North British District, for five years, forcing a move to Scotland. His wife Frances, whom he had married two years earlier, was eight months pregnant and stayed at the family home, Tynwald, in Hythe where she gave birth to their first son weeks later. That Christmas, along with her cousin, Bertha Porter Frances joined the Persistent Scribblers Society, a manuscript magazine society established in Canterbury and continued to subscribe over the following year.
On reuniting with her husband in the January of 1878, Frances encouraged Alfred to join the Persistent Scribblers Society. Using the pseudonym ‘Dot’, his contributions were an instant hit with the Society and he gained twelve votes for his first story ‘Milly’s Wager’, about an army major who was ‘intelligent, kind-hearted, high-principled and popular in society’ but a failure as ‘ruler of his household’. Alfred retired from the army in 1879 and within a few years was contributing stories to the periodical press (with one of his first stories ‘The Mystery of the Major’s Monkey’ appearing in Temple Bar in August 1881). He wrote at least eighteen stories, possibly more, as some of his earlier ones are unattributed. For army men, like Moberly, retired on half-pay, literature could provide a much needed boost to their income. His stories of military life are not rumbustious tales of ‘derring-do’, rather they are set in middle class drawing rooms, country houses and at seaside resorts. They speak little of heroism, but of love and lost opportunities.
Alfred Moberly drew on the Kent landscape as a backdrop for many of his stories. The fictional town of Losthaven in ‘A ring and the red book’ is a ‘rambling little town, full of sleepy sunshine, with its one long street zig-zagging round the foot of the hill, the deserted pavements echoing the foot-fall of the borough’s one policeman’. It has a School of Musketry where officers who lounge under the spreading beech trees undertake a two-months course of instruction. The town is as lost as its name: ‘it was a real haven, before its river disappeared and its harbour silted up, and the heavy-woolled marsh sheep browsed on the low-lying pastures, where four goodly ships of war for the King once rode at anchor.’
Losthaven appears again in Moberly’s story ‘Number Twenty five’ (1883) when a London artist Paul Sherratt decides to escape the city fog and enjoy a “whiff of the salt sea-breeze”. He stays at the Imperial Hotel, which had been built in 1880, arriving in the hotel’s new omnibus which ‘rattled down a bran [sic] new road and discharged under the imposing new portico’. In the morning Sherratt goes out for a walk ‘out to a fresh, newly-washed, spray-besprinkled world’ along the sea-front: ‘The hotel stood at the commencement of a sea-wall and parade, extending at that time some two hundred yards westwards. The sea had scattered pebbles and sand over the asphalte, and tossed about the huge blocks of stone at the unfinished end, as if they had been brickbats.” Two years previously, Alfred’s sketches of ‘Improvements of the Kentish Coast’ had been published in the Illustrated London News. These had included a sketch of the Prince of Wales opening the Hythe Marine Parade and Embankment.
Hythe is not always Losthaven and in ‘The Last Elm of the Avenue’ (1882) it appears as Cinqhaven, named after its Cinque port status as one of the historic Medieval ports of Kent. In the story, Jones, one of the instructors from the School of Musketry takes a shy new recruit named Angus McLeish to study his drill manual on the Parade: “It was half past twelve on a bright autumn morning, the sun was shining, the sea dancing, bevies of pretty children frolicking on the shingle, and three of the prettiest girls in Cinqhaven taking a brisk turn after bathing. The very prettiest bowed to me, and looked as if we might come and talk to her if we liked; but all that MacLeish said was: “It was a bad place for working and that he wanted to go to the town and buy some red ink.” At the end of the story, Jones discovers that his companion is actually a ghost, a theme that Moberly returns to often in his stories. His wife Frances and her cousin Bertha Porter experimented with the planchette in 1884, revealing their interest in the supernatural.
In Lady Valeria, serialised in The Argosy in 1886 and later published as a three volume novel, the hero, Lieutenant Poynter describes the typical day at the school of Musketry: ‘I got the men paraded early, and just as we reached the ranges up came a sea-fog like a blanket, keeping us dodging about for half-an-hour waiting to see if it would blow off; and when it did the targets were wet, and well, I lost that morning.” (1886, p5 volume 1). Moberly described the ranges on the pebbled beach as “firing points backing on to the road, butts now silhouetting against the seascape.’ (Lady Valeria, 35)
Fashionable Folkestone also appears in Moberly’s writing and in his short story, ‘My deserter’ (1885) (which has been wrongly attributed to William Henry Moberly), Alfred describes it as ‘Folkestone! Fresh, breezy, bracing, sunshiny, frivolous! Down below, rippling water, brown-sailed fishing boats, white-hooded bathing machines, sandy-legged children, sea-sick arrivals. Up aloft, Bath chairs, pretty girls in fresh toilettes, amiable old gentlemen pottering about with telescopes, officers from Shorncliffe in light suits of bewildering similarity, and bands crashing merrily in the sunshine. How we enjoyed it all!’ In his stories ‘Number twenty-five’ (1883) and ‘Oh love! For a year, a week, a day!’ (1886), Folkestone is fictionalised as Boatstown.
At some time in the mid-1880s, the Moberlys moved from Kent to Bedfordshire. Alfred continued writing until at least 1898, but he did not publish any more full-length novels. Reviews for Lady Valeria had been on the whole unfavourable with one reviewer saying that ‘nobody will believe in the story of “Lady Valeria”, and that is a misfortune’ and another that it ‘was ‘awkwardly constructed, wasting enough material for several well-arranged novels and with an altogether over-crowded canvas’(Graphic, 1887). Although Moberly continued to write shorter pieces, there was a five and a half year gap between the publication of Lady Valeria and the serialisation of his novelette ‘The Late Mrs Vernon’ in All the Year Round, a story which included a railway accident similar to the Staplehurst disaster.
Moberly was born of an era of preferments and privilege. Schooling, the army and the church had taught him that who you know is important and this comes out strongly in his literature. Little is known of Moberly’s literary career after the turn of the century. It is possible that family life and his interests in politics and art took precedence or that with a changing society, changing tastes and the increasing professionalization of publishing, he was left behind. He died at The Hey, Murdoch Road, Wokingham, Berks, in 1912, aged 77.
This article was published: 4 March 2023.