25 November 2011

Sex, Betrayal and the Scars of the Great War

The Hidden Places
Bertrand W. Sinclair
Toronto: Ryerson, 1922

With H. Bedford-Jones and Thomas P. Kelley, Bertrand W. Sinclair must surely rank as one of the most prolific Canadian pulp writers. I know of 246 magazine appearances, and I'm betting there are many more. Whether or not his short stores are worth reading I can't say, but I think The Hidden Places is the best Canadian novel published on the heels of the Great War.

This is not a war novel, but a post-war novel; for its tortured hero, the conflict changed everything. Born raised and educated in Eastern Canada Robert Hollister, was once a man of more than modest means. Before the war, he shared his life with wife Myra, whom he "loved with a lover's passion." But war creates the very worst of long distance relationships. Two years into the fighting, Robert receives a "Dear John letter". Days later, he becomes one of the 24,029 Canadian casualties at the Battle of the Somme, "lying just outside the lip of a shell-crater, blind, helpless, his face a shredded smear". He's saved by German surgeons, and spends the remainder of the war in a prison camp. Upon his release Robert learns that he'd been reported killed in action; Myra, meanwhile, has remarried, taking his money with her.

And that's just the backstory.

We catch up with Robert in the winter of 1919, just after his arrival in Vancouver as "a single speck of human wreckage cast on a far beach by the receding tides of war." Though intelligent, educated and healthy, his disfigured face limits opportunity; it's a challenge to rebuild one's life when others will not so much as look at you. Walking city streets, he is "a disagreeable spectacle" from which people turn with brief annoyance. Robert retreats to Toba Inlet, 150 miles up the coast. There, on his lone remaining property, he attempts to make a modest living through logging.

Coincidence features big in pulp fiction, but I found it difficult to pass this off as mere chance: Myra and her new husband, an Englishman, live on the neighbouring land. Certainly, I thought, something sinister is afoot; after all, Myra is supposed to have known nothing of the Toba Inlet property. But no, it all ends up as a great coincidence. Much more believable is Robert's chance meeting with Doris, a pretty woman who had years earlier lost her sight after being struck by a falling tree on, yes, his Toba Inlet property. Following a whirlwind courtship, the disfigured man and blind woman marry and move into a new house overlooking Myra's modest cabin.

The Hidden Places features a frankness about marriage and sexuality that is foreign to Canadian literature of the time. Never having divorced, Robert is tormented by the secret knowledge that he is a bigamist. He suspects that he has an "overstimulated sexuality" and wonders whether Myra suffers from the same. She left him for another, but this was not the man she married. Now, Robert watches from afar as other men visit in her new husband's absence. Sinclair never paints Myra in anything but a sympathetic light. A woman who is coming to terms with, as she puts it, "the nature I was born with", Myra struggles to remain faithful to her second husband, while nearly running off with another man. Ultimately, she offers herself again to Robert.

Tittilating to be sure, but what I find more interesting about The Hidden Place is its detailed condemnation of the British War Office as an impersonal machine that "would neither know nor care nor tell." Greater still is the indictment of Canadian society, as represented by the men and women who seek to avoid Robert on Vancouver's streets:
A great many men had been killed. A great number had lost their legs, their arms, their sight. They had suffered indescribable mutilations and disabilities in the national defense. These people were the nation. Those who passed him with a shocked glance at his face must be aware that fighting involves suffering and scars. It appeared as if they wished to ignore that. The inevitable consequences of war annoyed them, disturbed them, when they came face to face with those consequences.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that The Hidden Place first appeared in an October 1921 issue of The Popular Magazine. Thus, less than three years after the armistice, comes the damning accusation that Canada has turned away from its veterans.

Plus ça change.

Betrayal by a woman is one thing, betrayal by one's county is quite another.

Trivia: The author errs in placing the Battle of the Somme in "the fall of '17". In fact, it took place the previous November.

Object: A hardcover in dark blue boards, it is typical of its time. The Marshall Frantz frontispiece, a black and white reproduction of the cover image, is meant to depict Doris and Robert at Vancouver's Jericho Beach.

Access: A book by a British Columbia author, The Hidden Places is found only in Ontario libraries: the Toronto Public Library, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Guelph and the University of Toronto. Over eight decades out of print, those looking to buy the book will wade through over one hundred print on demand monstrosities. The most expensive comes from our old friends ExtremelyReliable of Richmond, Texas, which offers an ugly IndyPublish copy credited to "W. Bertrand Sinclair". Cost: US$199.27. Shipping and handling are not included.

As of this writing, no copies of the Ryerson edition – the only Canadian edition – are listed online. One copy of the equally scarce first English edition from Hodder and Stoughton is on offer for US$9.99 from a bookseller in Gateshead, Australia. Two awful copies of the first American edition, published by Little, Brown, can be had for under ten dollars; a third, with dust jacket, is going for US$75. Need I add that this is the one to buy?


  1. Looks like another one to keep my eye out for.

    Have you ever read "The Magpie" by Douglas Durkin? It's another Canadian post-great war novel.

  2. Funny you should mention Durkin. I only just bought his Mr. Gumble Sits Up (1930) from an online bookseller. I still haven't read The Magpie, though I've been meaning to since - ahem - my student days.