18 January 2016

Falling Hard for May Agnes Fleming

The Midnight Queen
Mrs May Agnes Fleming
New York: Hurst, [n.d.]

This coming Friday will mark seven years since I set out on this exploration of our suppressed, ignored and forgotten, so how is it that this is my first post on May Agnes Fleming? Canada's earliest bestseller, no one has been so forgotten as her, right? What gives? The simple fact is that for all my hunting I just never came across any of Fleming's books. Oh, they're out there – loads are listed online – but they're not making their way into used bookstores. Not the ones I haunt anyway.

Patience lasts only so long. Last month I bid two Yankee dollars for this 19th-century copy of Fleming's seventh novel, The Midnight Queen. As it turned out, I was alone. Shipping set me back a further twenty-five.

A story of the Plague Year, The Midnight Queen takes place over the course of one remarkably eventful evening. It begins with a chance encounter between young Sir Norman Kingsley and his friend Malcolm Ormiston in a darkening London thoroughfare. Sir Norman has made preparations to flee the afflicted city and advises Ormiston to do the same. However, his friend has fallen in love and cannot otherwise be moved. The object of his desire is a woman of exquisite figure and great mystery. An enchantress, she is known only as "La Masque" – so named as her face is invariably hidden behind a veil of black velvet. Ormiston seizes upon any excuse to visit, and so encourages Sir Norman to make use of the lady's services as a soothsayer.

A servant serves as usher, introducing the pair to a room appointed with the very finest Goth fixings. La Masque enters and entreats Sir Norman to gaze upon the water held by an ebony cauldron sitting in the centre of the room. What follows delights and disturbs. He sees first an extravagant gathering presided over by a woman whose beauty surpasses any of his dreams. A dungeon cell is the setting of the next scene. The woman reappears. Sir Norman draws his sword and strikes her heart. This is followed by an image of two men lying on the street.
"Do you know those two last figures? asked the lady.
"I do," said Sir Norman, promptly; "it was Ormiston and myself."
"Right! and one of them was dead."
Sir Norman and Ormiston have no sooner left La Masque's abode – without paying, I note – when they witness a shrieking woman run from a nearby house. Inquisitive souls, the friends enter the building to find a lifeless figure in glowing bridal gown of white satin. Further inspection reveals a mark of the plague, but Sir Norman is more concerned by the dead woman's resemblance to the one he saw himself kill minutes earlier.

Most conveniently, a plague cart happens by. Sir Norman reluctantly assists in placing the bride upon the pile of other plague-ridden bodies. Such is the woman's beauty that Sir Norman detcides to follow the cart to the plague pit – the one in Finsbury Fields, to be precise – so that he might gaze upon her face one last time.

Ormiston proves what a good friend he is:
     "Oh! if you are determined, I will go with you, of course; but it is the craziest freak I ever heard of. After this, you need never laugh at me."
     " I never will," said Sir Norman, moodily; "for if you love a face you have never seen, I love one I have only looked on when dead. Does it not seem sacrilege to throw any one so like an angel into that horrible plague-pit."
Clearly, a rhetorical question.

Just as the nameless bride is being readied for the old heave ho, she comes to life. Unfortunately, upon seeing her surroundings, she again loses consciousness. With Ormiston's help, Sir Norman carries the woman back to his home. The pair then set out to fetch a doctor, only to return to an empty house.

In her Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry, Fred Cogswell praises May Agnes Fleming for plots "as ingenious and satisfying as those of Wilkie Collins". This one involves a secret court composed of highwaymen, an evil dwarf prince, handsome triplets and their disfigured half-sister, Charles II in disguise and the presidency of the yet to be born United States. One character will be beheaded, another will die of fright, a couple more will be run through, and as might be expected, many will be taken by the plague. Sir Norman is the unfortunate witness to the suicide of a woman who throws herself into the pit:
He saw her for a second or two heaving and writhing in the putrid heap; and then the strong man reeled and fell with his face on the ground, not fainting, but sick unto death. Of all the dreadful things he had witnessed that night there was nothing so dreadful as this; of all the horror he had felt before, there was none to equal what he felt now. In his momentary delirium, it seemed to him she was reaching her arms of bone up to drag him in, and that the skeleton face was mopping, and mowing, and grinning at him on the edge of the awful pit.
One hell of a ride, I didn't want to let go, and became wistful in reading the final page.

And so, flush with new love for an old author, I turn again to online booksellers – and throw buckets of money at postal services.

Trivia: First published under the title La Masque; Or, The Midnight Queen (New York: Brady, 1863).

In his memoir, The Pope's Bookbinder (Windsor: Biblioasis, 2013), bookseller David Mason references one edition I've not yet seen entitled The Midnight Queen: A Tale of Illusion, Delusion and Mystery. "Now this strikes me as one of the greatest titles for a book," he writes, "one so good that, as has been said of the first sentences of Johnson's Rasselas, there is no need to read any further."

I'm glad I did.

Coincidence: Whilst researching my long promised tome on the Maria Monk hoax I happened upon the novel serialized under the title Lady Leoline in Montreal's True Witness & Catholic Chronicle (28 November 1888 - 6 March 1889).

What with the elements of the occult and supernatural featured in the plot, I was quite surprised.

Object: A fragile 256-page hardcover printed on the very finest Hurst newsprint. A later Federal Press edition, also undated, uses the same plates, adding this entirely incongruous illustration:

Access: Our public libraries fail (here I include Library and Archives Canada). Six academic libraries have copies – The University of New Brunswick, the  University of Toronto, Brandon University and the University of Alberta, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria – but all are non-circulating.

Five copies are currently listed for sale online, ranging in price from US$12.50 (New York: Federal, n.d.) to US$385 (New York: Dillinger, 1888). The Brady first edition is nowhere in sight.

Print on demand vultures have been picking over The Midnight Queen for years, embarrassing themselves in the process. Dodo's edition calls on the talents of Claude Monet in casting Madame Gaudibert in mid-19th-century French dress as the Midnight Queen. Or is she meant to be the rescued bride? In any case, the hair colour is all wrong.

The book can be read online here through the good folks at the Internet Archive.


  1. I stopped by your blog today. What interesting finds you have.

    1. Thank you, Ann. Very kind of you to say. I like to think that in some cases I've rescued things from the landfill.

  2. Spending $25 shipping for a $2 used book--even a classic--is true devotion, Brian.

    I'm curious as what the POD "vultures" are doing badly besides getting the covers wrong?

    Appreciate the link to the free ebook.

    1. I'm not sure just how much more devotion my wallet can take, Mathew.

      I don't mean to suggest that all POD people are vultures - some provide decent editions at reasonable prices. I include here Dodo, despite their inept cover treatments. The very best I've encountered is Whisky Priest Books, the work of Caustic Cover Critic JSRM. He has clearly put a great deal of thought and time into each. Would that others showed the same care.

      The true vultures led by folks like Kessinger, who dare charge big money for ugly books comprised of poorly laid out text. Their 244-page edition of The Midnight Queen goes for $34.45 at Amazon.

      Internet Archive is doing God's work.

  3. Another name you have put on my radar.
    Thank you...

    1. You're welcome, Beau. Knowing your track record in coming across Packards, you should do better than me in finding her in bookshops.