The Various Volumes of Valentine Vox, Ventriloquist

A portmanteau post this morning, concerning two different men with a very real connection.

The first is English novelist Henry Cockton (1807-1853). I often opine that various public figures who have fallen into obscurity ought to be better remembered, but this is a case where it is really true, for Cockton was responsible for one of the larger literary triumphs of the 19th century, The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist (1839-40). This novel, originally published in serialized form, was Cockton’s first and yet sold nearly a half a million copies in its bound form. His model was quite naturally Dickens, who’s output only contained Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, and Oliver Twist at that point, and so, for a very brief time, the two were roughly peers. Yet another was Thomas Peckett Prest, co-creator of Sweeney Todd and Varney the Vampire, who also wrote several Dickens parodies, as well as the plagiaristic The Adventures of Valentine Vaux, or, the Tricks of a Ventriloquist (1840).

Valentine Vox concerns an ordinary fellow who takes up the art of ventriloquism, and uses it as an almost uncanny superpower, causing mirth, mischief, and mayhem wherever he goes. In Dickensian fashion, the chronicle also winds up being a kind of journalistic expose of the conditions in lunatic asylums, as part of the action is laid there. At any rate, one reason I’m not very well-versed in contemporary movements in publishing and literature is that I vastly prefer spending time with obscure and arcane volumes like this one.

Cockton was of the laboring class and self-educated. His other literary works included Stanley Thorn (1841, co-written with others), George St. George Julian The Prince (1842), The Sisters of England and France (1843), Sylvester Sound the Somnambulist (1844, his second most successful book), The Love Match (1845), The Steward: a Romance of Real Life (1850), Lady Felicia (1852), and Percy Effingham, or the Germ of the World’s Esteem (1853). His literary efforts provided little income. To earn his living his managed his mother-in-law’s inn in Suffolk, The Seven Stars, and engaged in a malt speculation which bankrupted him. He was imprisoned for debt for a time, and was only 46 at the time of his death. His poverty stricken family made public appeals for years afterward to obtain financial assistance.

“Valentine Vox” lives on, even if the name of Henry Cockton does not, for it was adapted as a stage name and literary pseudonym by British-born ventriloquist Jack Riley (b. 1939), very much as magician David Kotkin took the name of Dickens hero David Copperfield. The contemporary Vox is sort of a man of four countries: originally from London, he was a longtime resident of Canada and Switzerland, but has been based out of Las Vegas for around three decades. He has mentioned Peter Brough as one of his major influences. It is of course this Valentine Vox which led me to the original one.

This Valentine Vox is also attached to a book, for he is the author of I Can See Your Lips Moving: The History and Art of Ventriloquism, first published in 1983, with various subsequent editions since then, In 2020 he devised a traveling exhibition to go with a new edition of his book. It premiered in Las Vegas, but one can’t be too sure how it fared during the pandemic. There is a video presentation of the exhibit available at his web site here.

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To learn more about variety arts history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.