04 October 2011

A Ninteenth-Century What's Bred in the Bone

What's Bred in the Bone
Grant Allen
London: Tit-Bits, 1891

Two Canadian writers, both with strong ties to Kingston, Grant Allen and Robertson Davies each wrote novels entitled What's Bred in the Bone. I remarked on this in Character Parts, but don't see that anyone else has thought it worth the ink. Not even Judith Skelton Grant's massive biography, the 787-page Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, mentions the curious connection.

Perhaps I make too much of this. Davies was attracted by the neglected past, and had an appreciation of the peculiar, but he never exactly dwelled on Allen in his own writing. In fact, the Kingstonian's name appears only once in Davies' published work. The mention – fleeting – is found in "Canadian Literature: 1964", an essay that was written when Fifth Business was no more than a gleam in author's eye: "...if a Canadian novel is not a novel written in Canada by a resident of the country, what is it? There were a few, like Sara Jeannette Duncan, who wrote of the land they knew, and achieved reputation; others, like Grant Allen and Gilbert Parker, were Canadians by birth but Englishmen by choice."

Allen's What's Bred in the Bone is very much an English novel. At its core are Cyril and Guy Waring, identical twins of uncertain parentage and independent, if modest means. Cyril, a landscape painter, is our hero; he shows his stuff very early in the novel by saving the life of beautiful Elma Clifford after a railway tunnel collapse. Guy, much the weaker figure, is under the influence of Montague Nevitt, a London bank clerk. Nevitt uses his position to bet on sure things in the stock market, pressuring his friend to likewise. When one investment goes sour, the clerk exercises a near hypnotic influence over Guy, getting him to commit forgery in "borrowing" £6000 from his brother's account.

How handsome Cyril came to have such a large sum, though believable, is very complicated. The same might be said for much of What's Bred in the Bone; hidden marriages, mistaken identities and multiple misunderstandings carry the plot. It says much about Allen's talent that no matter how tangled the web, the reader is never confused. This particular reader was caught up in it all, curious as to how everything would unfold, racing toward what was ultimately an overly melodramatic conclusion.

What's Bred in the Bone was written was an eye on a prize; that being £1000 offered by the English weekly Tit-Bits for the best serial story. If the magazine's hype is to be believed, the novel won out over 20,000 entries. However, the strive for the commercial was not nearly enough to hold Allen's quirkiness in check. No surprise here – we are, after all, considering the work of a man who would one day write a novel about an elderly civil servant who believes himself to be the archangel Michael. I focussed at first on the twin brothers; they were so much alike, had both experienced a toothache "in the self-same tooth on the self-same night" and each had dealt with the problem in the very same way. But Guy put an end to this early on: "There's nothing of the Corsican Brothers sort of hocus-pocus about us in any way. The whole thing is a simple caste of natural causation."

The freaky comes out of left field when prim, proper and virginal Elma retires to her bedroom after her escape from the tunnel. Her bosom heaves, her heart beats violently and she feels "a new sense aroused within her." She begins dancing wildly, rhythmically, and yet this release does not satisfy. "She hadn't everything she required for this solitary orgy", Grant tells us. "Her hands were empty. She must have something to fill them. Something alive, lithe, curling, sensuous... Cyril Waring! Cyril Waring! It was all Cyril Waring. And what on earth would Cyril Waring think of her?"

The cause of Elma's behaviour is not so obvious; the reader soon learns that a "Roumanian ancestress" has passed on an attraction to snakes, and Cyril has a pet snake, and... well, maybe it is obvious.

Trivia: In 1916, the novel was adapted for the silent screen as What's Bred in the Bone Comes Out in the Flesh.

More Trivia: What's Bred in the Bone was published in England, the United States and Denmark (Hvad i Kodet er baaret, 1893), but only once in Canada, when in 1911 Winnipeg publisher Heimskringlu issued Ættareinkennið, an Icelandic translation. A century later, it remains the only Canadian edition.

Object: An odd-looking, yet attractive hardcover, the slightly fragile first edition disappoints only in that it, like all subsequent editions, features no illustrations.

Access: Print-on-demand monstrosities all but overwhelm online listings. Seek and ye shall find a few copies of the first edition going for about $100. The Toronto Public Library and just four of our universities have copies – of any edition – in their collections. Three copies of Ættareinkennið, all offered by the same Winnipeg bookseller, are currently listed online at an even US$300 each. No Canadian libraries hold copies.

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