Francis Marion Crawford (August 2, 1854 – April 9, 1909) was an American writer noted for his many novels, especially those set in Italy, and for his classic weird and fantastic stories.
He was born at Bagni di Lucca, Italy, the only son of the American sculptor Thomas Crawford and Louisa Cutler Ward, the brother of writer Mary Crawford Fraser (aka Mrs. Hugh Fraser), and the nephew of Julia Ward Howe, the American poet. He studied successively at St Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire; Cambridge University; University of Heidelberg; and the University of Rome.
In 1879 he went to India, where he studied Sanskrit and edited in Allahabad The Indian Herald. Returning to America in February of 1881, he continued to study Sanskrit at Harvard University for a year and for two years contributed to various periodicals, mainly The Critic. Early in 1882 he established his life-long close friendship with Isabella Stewart Gardner.
During this period he lived most of the time in Boston at his Aunt Julia Ward Howe's house and in the company of his Uncle, Sam Ward. His family was concerned about his employment prospects. They suggested that he become a professional singer; he had a baritone voice and had entertained friends with recitals of songs by Franz Schubert. In January 1882, his family asked George Henschel, who was then conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to assess whether Crawford was capable of a professional singing career. Henschel told Crawford and his family that he would “never be able to sing in perfect tune. Crawford was distraught by the news; after a long silence, his uncle Sam then asked him, “Why don't you write down that little story you told me some time ago of that strange experience you had in India — don't you know?”
In December of 1882 he produced his first novel, Mr Isaacs, a brilliant sketch of modern Anglo-Indian life mingled with a touch of Oriental mystery. This book had an immediate success, and its author's promise was confirmed by the publication of Dr Claudius (1883). In May of 1883 he returned to Italy, where he made his permanent home. His residence at the historic Hotel Cocumella in Sorrento during 1885 moved him to settle permanently in Sant' Agnello, where in the Fall he bought the Villa Renzi that became Villa Crawford. Over one half of his novels are set in Italy. He wrote three long historical studies of Italy and was well advanced with a history of Rome in the Middle Ages when he died. This accounts perhaps for the fact that, in spite of his nationality, Marion Crawford's books stand apart from any distinctively American current in literature.
In October of 1884 he married Elizabeth Berdan, the daughter of the American Civil War Union Gen. Hiram Berdan. They had two sons and two daughters.
Year by year Crawford published a number of successful novels. Late in the 1890's he began to write the historical works. These are: Ave Roma Immortalis (1898), Rulers of the South (1900) renamed Southern Italy and Sicily and The Rulers of the South in 1905 for the American market, and Gleanings from Venetian History (1905) with the American title Salvae Venetia, itself reissued in 1909 as Venice; the Place and the People. In these his intimate knowledge of local Italian history combines with the romanticist's imaginative faculty to excellent effect. His shorter book Constantinople (1895) belongs to this category.
After most of his fictional works had been published, most came to think he was a gifted narrator; and his books of fiction, full of historic vitality and dramatic characterization, became widely popular among readers to whom the realism of problems or the eccentricities of subjective analysis were repellent. In The Novel: What It Is (1893), he defended his literary approach, self-conceived as a combination of romanticism and realism, defining the art form in terms of its marketplace and audience. The novel, he wrote, is “a marketable commodity” and “intellectual artistic luxury”, that “must amuse, indeed, but should amuse reasonably, from an intellectual point of view. . . . Its intention is to amuse and please, and certainly not to teach and preach; but in order to amuse well it must be a finely-balanced creation. . . .”.
The Saracinesca series is perhaps known to be his best work, with the third in the series, Don Orsino (1892) set against the background of a real estate bubble, told with effective concision. The second volume is Sant' Ilario [Hilary] (1889). A fourth book in the series, Corleone (1897), was the first major treatment of the Mafia in literature, and used the now-familiar but then-original device of a priest unable to testify to a crime because of the Seal of the Confessional; the novel is not one of his major works, having failed to live up to the standard set by the books earlier in the series. Crawford ended Rulers of the South (1900) with a chapter about the Sicilian Mafia.
Crawford himself was fondest of Khaled: A Tale of Arabia (1891), a story of a genie (genius is Crawford's word) who becomes human, which was reprinted (1971) in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series of the early 1970s. A Cigarette-Maker's Romance (1890) was dramatized, and had considerable popularity on the stage as well as in its novel form; and in 1902 an original play from his pen, Francesca da Rimini, was produced in Paris by his friend Sarah Bernhardt. Crawford's best known dramatization was that of The White Sister (1909). Its main actress was Viola Allen, whose first film was the 1915 film of this novel; it was filmed again in 1923 and 1933. In the Palace of the King (1900) was filmed in 1915 and 1923; Mr. Isaacs (1882) was filmed in 1931 as Son of India.
Several of his short stories, such as “The Upper Berth” (1886; written in 1885), “For the Blood Is the Life” (1905, a vampiress tale), “The Dead Smile” (1899), and “The Screaming Skull” (1908), are often-anthologized classics of the horror genre. An essay on Crawford's weird tales can be found in S. T. Joshi's The Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004); there are many other essays and introductions. The collected weird stories were posthumously published in 1911 as Wandering Ghosts in the U. S. and as Uncanny Tales in Gt. Britain, both without the long-forgotten “The King's Messenger” (1907). The present definitive edition is that edited by Richard Dalby as Uncanny Tales and published by the Tartarus Press (1997; 2008). Crawford's novella Man Overboard! (1903) is often overlooked, but belongs with his supernatural works.
In 1901 the American Macmillan firm began a deluxe uniform “edition” of his novels, as reprintings required. In 1904 the P. F. Collier Co. (N. Y.) was authorized to publish a 25-volume “edition”, later increased to 32 volumes. Around 1914 the subscription firm McKinlay, Stone, Mackenzie was authorized to publish an “edition” using the Macmillan binding decorations. In 1919 the American Macmillan firm published the “Sorrento Edition”. They also had issued some first American editions and reprints in a uniform binding from 1891 through 1899. The British Macmillan firm used two separate uniform bindings from 1889 until after 1910.
Crawford wrote numerous articles for major periodicals and a few contributions to books. See the section “Bibliographical History” in An F. Marion Crawford Companion (1981) by John C. Moran.
Crawford died at Sorrento on Good Friday of 1909 at Villa Crawford of a heart attack. It was the ten-year result of a severe lung injury that happened (inhalation of toxic gases at a glass-smelting works in Colorado) on his American lecture-tour during the winter of 1897-1898. He was gathering technical information for his historical novel Marietta (1901), that describes glass-making in late medieval Venice.
The F. Marion Crawford Memorial Society was founded in 1975 and published the literary review The Romantist from 1977 until 1997. In 1997 the Centro Studi e Ricerche Francis Marion Crawford was founded at Sant' Agnello di Sorrento. It is formally associated with the FMC Memorial Society and continues The Romantist in its annual review Genius Loci (1997-).
In 1988 at Sant' Agnello a Conference was held to commemorate Crawford. Its “Acta” were published as Il Magnifico Crawford (1990). In mid-May of 2009 the Centro Studi e Ricerche FMC, the Istituto Universitario Orientale (Naples), the FMC Memorial Society, and the township of Sant' Agnello organized another Conference – Francis Marion Crawford; 100 Anni Dopo – to remember him on the centenary of his death. Its “Acta” are forthcoming. Crawford and his works live on.