15 November 2011

A Communist's Bodice Ripper?

The Governor's Mistress
Warren Desmond [pseud. Dyson Carter]
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

Oh, yes, a bodice is ripped, but I'm not so sure that this novel quite fits the genre. There's little romance in The Governor's Mistress, and passion, though present, is not as pervasive as cover copy would have you believe.

VIRILE - VIOLENT - WARM - WICKED - This was Angeline

Virile? Can a woman be virile? The OED answers in the negative. But then Angeline isn't violent either. She is warm though... and, it is implied, wicked in the sack.

Angeline – referred to as "Angel" on the book's back cover (and nowhere else) – is Angeline Paradis, a beautiful English spy who is sent into the heart of 17th-century New France. Hers, cover copy tells us, "is a tale kept out of school-books". Makes perfect sense; after all, Angeline was the creation of the author, and exists nowhere outside this book. She moves through pages populated by figures from our history... and it is here that this novel begins to falter. There is a supposition that the reader will know these men – they are all men – that is misguided. Frontenac? Yes. Radisson? Yes. But how many of us are familiar with the scandal and intrigue surrounding François-Marie Perrot, who served as Governor of Montreal from 1669 to 1684?

This Montrealer recognized his name.

That's all.

Pity the poor American reader, who I'm assuming has been taught little of the political machinations of New France. After all, it was to these folks that The Governor's Mistress was marketed. Its author, Dyson Carter, a card carrying member of the Communist Party of Canada, hid behind the pseudonym Warren Desmond only so that the novel might be sold south of the border.

The Governor's Mistress isn't so much a bad book as an irritating one. Stuff happens... but so often this takes place off-stage. When Radisson is put on trial for treason, an event that never actually occurred, he escapes the courtroom by painting his face with ghoulish features: "Thus had Radisson used the phosphorus oil he brought with him from Rupert's workshop." And thus we hear for the first and last time of Rupert's workshop.

Ultimately, The Governor's Mistress is a grand disappointment. The Harlequin set will find little in the way of romance, those seeking something spicy will be left dangling, and readers like myself who'd hoped for an oddball Marxist reading of life in New France will be met with nought but paper, ink and glue.

Object and Access: One of the publisher's more competent productions, the type is actually quite legible. I counted only two typos, which might just be a NSL best. Twelve copies are currently listed for sale online at between US$4 and US$18.29. All appear to have significant flaws, which leads me to think that mine could be the best copy out there. One copy – one – is housed by the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. After that: rien.


  1. The title suggested to this American a story ripped from the headlines: NY Gov. Eliot Spitzer's dalliance that led to his fall. Dyson's "Secret Weapon" seems to be the insidious undermining of pop-fiction with subliminal Commie messages, i.e. Better Red than read.

    BTW: No, I'm not familiar with the French writer you recently suggested.(Email got lost with others I'd planned to respond to but got distracted).

  2. Couldn't detect any subliminal Commie messages, which just goes to show how clever they are. I remain on guard.

    The French writer I suggested reading is Nelly Arcan - who was, I believe, the second Canadian (after John Glassco) to be published by Black Cat. I, of course, aim to be the third.

    More on the late Mlle Arcan here.