01 June 2010

Wings of Delusion



Michael's Crag
Grant Allen
London: Leadenhall, 1893

There is only one fully realized character in Michael's Crag, but he is so interesting that the whole novel is carried on his nonexistent wings. Michael Trevennack is an elderly English civil servant who spends his holidays on the Cornish coast staring out at a rock formation known as St. Michael's Crag. Fifteen years earlier, a hundred or so feet below, he and his only son were stuck by falling rocks. The boy was killed, while Trevennack was left with a blood clot in the brain that has him convinced he is the archangel Michael. Irascible and egotistical, the one thing that prevents the paper pusher from revealing his true identity is the love and counsel of a good wife.

As the only person who is aware of her husband's descent into madness, Mrs Trevennack works hard to keep all hidden until their daughter Cleer is wed. After all, no one in their right mind would marry a girl whose father is in the madhouse. The novel opens at about the point where Cleer meets and becomes betrothed to young engineer Eustace Le Neve. Unfortunately, the fiancé just happens to be a good friend of Walter Tyrrel, the man responsible for the Trevennack boy's death. He confesses his guilt to Le Neve, describing what amounts to a boyhood act of misbehavior. Though Le Neve breaks no confidence, the faux archangel figures it out and comes to see Tyrrel as a pawn of the Devil. Or could it be that Tyrrel is the Devil? Mad Michael is a bit confused.

In actuality, Tyrrel is just about the finest person one could hope to meet. Haunted by the death of young Trevennack, he does everything he can to advance Le Neve's career, thus enabling his friend to marry Cleer. He even goes so far as to bribe respected engineer Erasmus Walker into supporting his friend's plans for a railway viaduct. In doing so, Tyrrel fairly mortgages his future to a mysterious man who is known to scramble after every penny. "What can a man like that want to pile up filthy lucre for?" Tyrell asks. The novel provides no answer; Allen teases, but he never delivers. After giving Walker the money, the now impoverished Tyrell is plagued with uncertainty: "Would Walker play him false? Would he throw the weight of his influence into somebody else's scale? Would the directors submit as tamely as he thought to his direction or dictation?" But no, all turns out just fine; Le Neve is awarded the contract without so much as a hiccup.

This happy news comes none too soon for Mrs Trevennack, who recognizes that her husband is becoming increasingly unstable. However, her hopes that Le Neve, now financially secure, will quickly marry Cleer are dashed when the engineer becomes entangled in work. Months pass. Tension builds. Will her husband manage to conceal his strengthening delusions? Yes. What about at the wedding? No problem. Even when Trevennack spots Tyrell hiding in the gallery? Nothing happens. Okay, but how about when the delusional man spots his enemy on the street? Nope, still nothing.

All these roads leading nowhere and still I expected the climax to feature a confrontation between Trevennack and Tyrell.

Never happens.

Trevennack, wandering the Cornish hills, encounters a ram he believes to be Satan. A long struggle ensues in which the old gent manages to kill the poor creature. Victorious, he throws himself off the cliff, trusting that his wanting wings will carry him home.

I didn't see that coming.

Object: A heavy, well-constructed hardcover, the publisher does not exaggerate in describing the book as being "FULL OF SILHOUETTE ILLUSTRATIONS". The work of Francis Carruthers Gould and Alec Carruthers Gould, they appear on every page. I count 357 in total.


A tipped-in 16-page publisher's catalogue features such intriguing titles as The Confessions of a Poacher, Splay-Feet Splashings in Divers Places and Lays of a Lazy Lawyer.


Access: Patrons of the Toronto and Vancouver public libraries and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, you are in luck – though all copies are non-circulating. Michael's Crag is also held at 25 of our universities. The American first, published in 1893 by Rand McNally, can be had in Very Good condition for as little as US$25. Leadenhall's edition, the true first, is much more scarce. The three copies listed online range from £15 to US$150. Condition is a factor, but does not explain the spread. An 1894 review in the Toronto Daily Mail refers to a paperbound Canadian edition published by "Allan", possibly "P.C. Allan". I've not been able to track down a copy, nor have I ever seen a book bearing this imprint.

Related post: Awful Allens

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