21 December 2009

Bought for Its Beauty

The March of the White Guard
Gilbert Parker
New York: Ferro, 1902

Does it not seem appropriate that Gilbert Parker's true first name was Horatio? His was, after all, an Algeresque life. Here we have a man, the son of rural Ontario storekeeper, who rose to become one of England's most powerful MPs. Parker was knighted by Edward VII, received a baronetcy from George V and became a member of the Privy Council; all while penning novels and short stories that made him one of the popular writers of his day.

I don't know that I've ever met anyone who has read anything by Sir Gilbert. Perhaps my great-grandparents did... who knows where their libraries ended up. This copy of The March of the White Guard was purchased seven years ago in a Vancouver bookstore. The price – one dollar – tempted, but what sealed the deal were W.E.B. Starkweather's illustrations. Artwork extends beyond endpapers and plates to elements that decorate each page, making an otherwise bland read an enjoyable experience.

What an anonymous 1902 New York Times review describes as "a stirring tale of life and adventure in the Hudson Bay district" begins hundreds of miles to the west with the receipt of a letter addressed to the Chief Factor of Fort Providence. Rose Lepage writes in desperation that her husband, Varre, has gone missing while exploring the Barren Grounds. Enter contemplative sub-factor Jaspar Hume, who shows considerable character and bravery in agreeing to lead what seems a futile rescue party. The reader's estimation of Hume grows considerably after a lengthy monologue (below), which Hume addresses – uncharacteristically, we're told – to his faithful dog, Jacques.

The next morning Hume sets off with a crew of four misfits: slow Scotsman "Late" Carscallen, Métis Gaspé Toujours, the perpetually grunting Cloud-in-the-Sky and Jeff Hyde, the bully of Fort Providence. Together they are the White Guard; so named for their decision to dress in "white blanket costumes from head to foot".

The modern reader will wonder that this was ever considered appropriate attire for a northern rescue party. Sure enough, the panorama of snow, ice, sun and white blanket costumes overwhelms, bringing on snowblindness, and very nearly felling Hume.

Most of The March of the White Guard takes place north of the 61st parallel during deepest winter, a landscape and time rendered with considerable skill by the appropriately named Mr Starkweather. Strange then, that the cover features five dandelions. Are these in some way meant to represent the five members of the White Guard? Dying weeds shedding seeds? I just don't get it.

Access: Common and cheap, Very Good copies of the 1901 first edition – as above, but with tawny boards – can be had for under US$10.

It's been some time since I criticized the less than reputable online booksellers, and even longer since my last real swipe at print on demand folk. Against the spirit of the season, I offer the following observations.

The cover of the Dodo Press edition features a summertime scene in which two buckskin-wearing men stand in a deciduous forest, while that of Read How You Want reproduces a painting of an unidentified cardinal. Both are just as mysterious as Starkweather's (though I will acknowledge that Parker twice refers to Gaspé Toujours as a "Papist").

Sadly – and inexplicably – the always interesting firm of Tutis Digital Publishing does not include The March of the White Guard amongst its sixteen Parker titles. That said, their cover treatments of Sir Gilbert's other works do not fail to entertain. My favourite is Tutis Classics' Michel and Angele, a historical romance of two Huguenot lovers during the reign of Elizabeth I. (Over at Caustic Cover Critic, JRSM points to the company's use of the same image on a couple of Jack London books.)

Kessinger Publishing always plays it safe by slapping on covers reminiscent of a no name corn flakes box. The company couples The March of the White Guard with The Trespasser, presenting what is, in effect, the eighth volume of the 23-volume Works of Gilbert Parker. For US$65.17, an American bookseller will happily sell you a "Brand New", "Never Used" copy identical to that which Amazon lists for US$21.24.

Merry Christmas, ExtremelyReliable of Richmond, Texas.

Update: Martin W kindly points out that the "unidentified cardinal" on the cover of the Read How You Want edition is actually Pope Innocent X, as painted by Diego Velázquez.


  1. In case you're interested the "cardinal" is Velázquez's "Portrait of Pope Innocent X".

  2. Ah, mystery solved. I thought it looked familiar. My thanks for this.

  3. Very funny. I'm currently researching Parker (my GrUncle). His is such an interesting story, and so very Canadian. I seldom find his books outside of University libraries, but your luck in BC(!) will renew my search! Thank you for all of your Parker-posts.

    1. You're right, of course, his is an interesting story. It seems a shame that there is no proper Parker biography - but then that means the door is wide-open for you to take on the task. Dare I hope?

      His books are very easy to come by in Southern Ontario, where I now live. Seems one or two titles invariably turn up at our public library's book sales. He's a perennial - much like Ralph Connor.

      Best of luck with the research!