The British Barbarians: A Hill-top Novel
London: John Lane, 1895
I'm not typically one for novelists' Introductions, particularly when they seek to explain, but I readily dove into that appended to The British Barbarians. This had everything to do with what I knew of its history. Allen wrote the novel in 1889, sent it to Andrew Chatto – he of Chatto & Windus – and was promptly advised that it be put in a drawer. The publisher was certain that The British Barbarians would poison Allen's career.
I won't say he was wrong.
Nothing of this history appears in Allen's Introduction; his focus is the market and concessions made to survive as a writer in late-Victorian London:
I have never said a thing I did not think; but I have sometimes had to abstain from saying many things I did think. When I wished to purvey strong meat for men, I was condemned to provide milk for babes.This is Allen liberated, if only briefly. In Lane, he believed he'd found a publisher who "would consent to aid me in introducing to the world what I thought most important for it."
Wait, there's more: "I propose in future to add the words, 'A Hill-top Novel,' to every one of my stories which I write of my own accord, simply and solely for the sake of embodying and enforcing my own opinions."
All this builds the promise of a tiresome read, yet I found myself enjoying The British Barbarians every bit as much as The Devil's Die, What's Bred in the Bone, Michael's Crag and other older non-Hill-top novels.
On his second morning in Brackenhurst, a Sunday, Bertram shows up at the Monteith home wearing the very same suit as the previous day. Philip suggests that his guest avoid going out as his clothing might attract attention.
"Now, that 's awfully kind of you. But it's curious, as well; for two or three people passed my window last night, all Englishmen, as I judged, and all with suits almost exactly like this one – which was copied, as I told you, from an English model.There is action, but as one might expect in a work written simply and solely for the sake of embodying and enforcing Allen's own opinions, conversation dominates. Topics include marriage, war, religion and property, all discussed by Bertram with the keen interest of an outsider:
"Last night; oh, yes," Philip answered. "Last night was Saturday; that makes all the difference. The suit's right enough in its way, of course, – very neat and gentlemanly; but not for Sunday. You're expected on Sundays to put on a black coat and waistcoat, you know, like the ones I'm wearing."
Bertram's countenance fell. "And if I'm seen in the street like this," he asked, "will they do anything to me? Will the guardians of the peace – the police, I mean – arrest me?"
Frida laughed a bright little laugh of genuine amusement.
"Oh, dear, no," she said merrily; "it isn't an affair of police at all; not so serious as that: it's only a matter of respectability."
"I see," Bertram answered. "Respectability's a religious or popular, not an official or governmental, taboo. I quite understand you. But those are often the most dangerous sort. Will the people in the street, who adore Respectability, be likely to attack me or mob me for disrespect to their fetich?"
"Your taboos, I foresee, will prove a most valuable and illustrative study."Just who is this Bertram Ingledew fellow?
"I beg your pardon," Philip interposed stiffly, now put upon his mettle. "We have no taboos at all in England. You're misled, no doubt, by a mere playful façon de parley, which society indulges in. England, you must remember, is a civilised country, and taboos are institutions that belong to the lowest and most degraded savages."
But Bertram Ingledew gazed at him in the blankest astonishment. "No taboos!" he exclaimed, taken aback. "Why, I've read of hundreds. Among nomological students, England has always been regarded with the greatest interest as the home and centre of the highest and most evolved taboo development. And you yourself," he added with a courteous little bow, "have already supplied me with quite half a dozen."
The question frustrates Philip so that he can't help but push against the boundaries of propriety in pursuit of the answer. Bertram's claim to be "Secretary of a Nomological Society at home" fails to satisfy for the simple reason that he won't reveal just where "home" is. The answer – hinted at early early in the novel, and revealed at its climax – is that Bertram is a time traveller from the 25th century come to study the taboos of primitive societies.
What I've yet to see recognized in writings on The British Barbarians – in fairness, there's not much – is the obvious fact that the author himself was not of fin de siecle England. Alien Allen was born, raised and educated in Kingston, Ontario. The myriad of taboos in his Canada would not have been markedly different from those of England, but what little distance there was surely provided perspective and inspiration.
Andrew Chatto was probably right in thinking that The British Barbarians would harm Allen's career. It's hard to say for certain; Allen died not four years after publication.
There were no more "Hill-top" novels. Chatto rejected Allen's intended follow-up, The Finger Post. The work is lost, presumably destroyed.
Would that I could go back in time to rescue it.
This is a Hill-top Novel. I dedicate it to all those who have heart enough, brain enough, and soul enough to understand it.Object: A very attractive, well-produced hardcover issued sans jacket. Cover and frontispiece are by Aubrey Beardsley. My Near Fine copy is a second printing, won for 99p from a British bookseller in an ebay auction this November past.
Access: Held by pretty much every university library in the land, Toronto Public Library, the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationals du Québec and the Canadian Museum of History,
Not a dozen copies are listed for sale online. Descriptions are vague, but from what I've been able to determine at least four are true firsts. They're priced between US$150 and US$350. Condition is not a factor.
The British Barbarians returned to print in 1904, then reappeared briefly seven decades later. It has been out of print ever since, though it can be read online here thanks to the Internet Archive.
As always purveyors of print on demand are to be ignored.