31 December 2018

An Old Year's Audience with Our Lord



Post-war verse for a year's end by Ida Randolph Spragge, wife of Maclean's editor Thomas B. Costain, from the magazine's January 1919 issue.

THE GIFT OF 1918
            The hour had struck and through the hall
            Echoed the summoning angels call:
            "Enter, your race is run. O year,
            The Lord awaits your presence here." 
            Hastening then to his command,
            Before the Throne to take his stand,
            The old year, tattered, thorn and grim,
            But yet triumphant, knelt to Him. 
            "I laboured long, O God to find,
            The door to Peace for all mankind,
            That hideous war on earth should cease
            And freedom, bound, find swift release. 
            "My task is done Thou bidd'st me do,
            A world from chaos springs anew,
            A world where people worship Thee
            I love and deep humanity. 
            "For when the thundering guns were hushed
            And evil beast were beaten, crushed,
            With bursting heart and brimming eye
            The earth game thanks to Thee on high.
            "So take this gift I bring to-day,
            Nor from it turn Thy face away—
            The hearts of men who worship Thee
            In love and deep humanity."

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27 December 2018

Best Book Buys of 2018 (four of which were gifts)



Twenty-eighteen was a year of great change. In April, we sold our home of ten years and started packing up our belongings. We moved in early July, settling several hundred kilometres to the northeast. The books that once surrounded now lie boxed in the dark basement of the house we're renting on the banks of the Rideau Canal.

Living in a house without bookshelves is disorienting. Where I once knew where everything was, passing by the same books day after day, month after month, year after year, I now spend hours hunting. This past summer I bought a copy of James M. Cain's Serenade because I wanted to reread it. There's a copy in the basement... but where?

I purchased fewer books this year. Why add to the confusion? This annual list of ten best buys – best acquisitions, really – was made strong through the generosity of friends.

Philistia
Grant Allen
London: Chatto & Windus, 1901

"A NEW EDITION" of Allen's first novel, published two years after his early death, this copy is well travelled. It began life in a Boots Booklovers Library, and somehow made its way to a British Columbia bookseller's shop. The book now sits on my desk, one hundred or so kilometres from Allen's birthplace.
Brother, Here's a Man!
Kim Beattie
New York: Macmillan, 1940

This birthday gift from my friend James Calhoun is the only biography of Joe Boyle. An extraordinary man, had Boyle been born south of the border, there would've been a movie and and a two-part American Experience documentary. We Canadians are so bad at these things.
Murder's No Picnic
E.L. Cushing
London: Wright & Brown, 1956

The first and only English edition of Cushing's 1953 debut novel, it vies Margerie Bonner's The Shapes That Creep as the worst mystery read this year. And yet my research into this forgotten Montreal mystery writer continues.
Maid-At-Arms
Enid Cushing [and Andre Norton]
New York: Fawcett, 1981

A curious romance about a closeted, corseted, petticoated poet and his masculine twin sister, written by an unsuccessful mystery writer in collaboration with a Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame member. Need I say more?

Rebound
Dick Diespecker
Toronto: Harlequin, 1953

After years searching for the great – only? – Vancouver post-war pulp, I asked my friend bowdler of Fly-By-Night if he might have a spare copy.  He did... and gave it to me as a gift. It didn't quite live up to expectations... but that cover!


The Magpie
Douglas Durkin
Toronto: University of Toronto
   Press, 1974

Reviewing Basil King's The Empty Sack here last month, I wondered whether it might just be the Great Canadian Post-Great War Novel. Beau not only suggested The Magpie, but gave me a copy. To be read after the holidays.


The Arch-Satirist
Frances de Wolfe Fenwick
Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard,
   1910

A first novel by a journalist and elocutionist who once served as secretary to fellow novelist Sir Andrew Macphail. Described as a "clever novel" in the April 1910 Canadian Bookman.


The Complete Poems of
   John Glassco
John Glassco
London, ON: Canadian
   Poetry Press, 2018

A gift from Brian Treherne, who worked for over a decade editing this monumental work. Invaluable to any Glassco scholar.
The Street Called Straight
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1912

I read two Basil King novels this year, both of which made my annual list of three out-of-print books deserving reissue. This book was purchased in error from Babylon Revised Rare Books for US$75. What I'd meant to buy was their signed copy, listed at US$100. Je ne regrette rien
Christie Redfern's Troubles
[Margaret Murray Robertson]
London: Religious Tract Society,
   [c. 1866]

The most popular novel ever written by an instructress of the Sherbrooke Ladies' Academy, Sherbrooke, Canada East. Despite its commercial success, used copies are uncommon. I was fortunate in spotting this one being offered online from a UK bookseller.

Bonne année!


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25 December 2018

'When Christmas Comes' by Virna Sheard



Verse for the day by Virna Sheard (née Stanton), daughter of Cobourg, Ontario, from her collection The Miracle and Other Poems (Toronto: Dent, 1913). 

WHEN CHRISTMAS COMES
            For thee, my small one—trinkets and new toys,
            The wine of life and all its keenest joys,
                 When Christmas comes.
            For me, the broken playthings of the past
            That in my folded hands I still hold fast,
                 When Christmas comes. 
            For thee, fair hopes of all that yet may be,
            And tender dreams of sweetest mystery,
                 When Christmas comes.
            For thee, the future in a golden haze,
            For me, the memory of some bygone days,
                 When Christmas comes. 
            For thee, the things that lightly come and go,
            For thee, the holly and the mistletoe,
                 When Christmas comes.
            For me, the smiles that are akin to tears,
            For me, the frost and snows of many years,
                 When Christmas comes. 
            For thee, the twinkling candles bright and gay,
            For me, the purple shadows and the grey,
                 When Christmas comes.
            For thee, the friends that greet thee at the door,
            For me, the faces I shall see no more,
                 When Christmas comes. 
            But ah, for both of us the mystic star
            That leadeth back to Bethlehem afar,
                 When Christmas comes.
            For both of us the child they saw of old,
            That evermore his mother's arms enfold,
                 When Christmas comes.
A Merry Christmas to all!

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20 December 2018

Best Books of 2018 (none of which are from 2018)



I'm right now reading Thomas Jerome Seabrook's Bowie in Berlin, a book that has nothing at all to do with Canadian literature. The next up on deck is The Great Gatsby, which I'm in the habit of rereading every three, four or five years. Given this busy season, it's doubtful that I'll read another Canadian book before year's end. And so, the time has come for my annual reading obit, beginning with the three out-of-print books most deserving of reissue:



The Thread of Flame
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1920

The first novel the reverend wrote after the Armistice, this is the story of a man who, suffering from shell shock, loses his identity and memory. Essential reading for anyone studying the depiction of PTSD in literature.

The Empty Sack
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1921

A tale of two families, both trying to make sense of the post-Great War world. Murder features, rather unexpectedly. I dare not spoil, but I have reason to think that it influenced Ben Hecht's The Front Page.


Blencarrow
Isabel Mackay
Toronto: Allen, 1926

The last of five novels penned by a woman known more commonly as Isabel Ecclestone Mackay, its depiction of failed promise and domestic abuse had me wondering how it is that she is so forgotten.



Between this blog and my Canadian Notes & Queries column, I read and reviewed twenty-five forgotten and/or neglected Canadian books this year, five of which are actually in print:


It's rare that I let a year go by without tacking a Grant Allen novel. Miss Cayley's Adventures is one of the most popular, but not with me. Oh, I liked it well enough... but there are much better. In the midst of reading the novel I posted a list of my ten favourite Grant Allen novels. Revising that list, I would place Miss Cayley's Adventures at number eight, between The British Barbarians and Recalled to Life.


What fun! Last year, Robert Barr's Revenge! made my list of three books most deserving of a reprint. The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont would've been a shoe-in for this year had it not been available from the good folks at Gaslight Crime of Harpenden, Herts. Their edition features "The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs" and "The Adventure of the Second Swag," two Sherlock Holmes parodies not included in the original. The most entertaining read this year.


The Invisible Worm, Margaret Millar's 1941 debut had been long beyond both my financial reach and that of Ontario's interlibrary loan system. At long last, I was able to read it thanks to Syndicate Books' Collected Millar. Or is it called The Complete Margaret Millar? Either way, I'm appreciative. Collectors should take note that a copy of the first UK edition (above left), published in 1943 by John Long, is still available from Dacobra Books, Belleville, NSW, Australia. Price: US$520.


The Lively Corpse is Rose's Last Summer under another name. Margaret Millar's tenth novel, it closes The Dawn of Domestic Suspense, the second volume in the Collected Millar. The third volume is titled The Master at Her Zenith. This is Millar ascending.


The author's second novel, The Box Garden was published fifteen years before The Stone Diaries made her a household name. I'm embarrassed to admit – yet I must admit – that it is the only Carol Shields novel I've ever read. On the other hand, does her work really have a place in a blog devoted to forgotten, neglected, and suppressed writing?

This year I was involved in returning John Buell's Four Days to print. The author's second novel, it isn't so well known as his debut, The Pyx, but I think it is his best (and here I acknowledge that I haven't yet read his 1976 novel Playground). A Ricochet Book from Véhicule Press, the new edition features an introduction by Trevor Ferguson (aka John Farrow).


I didn't publish a book this year, but did contribute a few photos, ticket stubs, and a handbill to my friend Jim Dooley's Red Set: A History of Gang of Four. This is what comes from being a pack rat.


Praise this year goes to American Frank L. Packard scholar Michael Howard, who has begun reissuing the Jimmie Dale/Grey Seal novels in annotated editions.


The next, featuring The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale and Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue, will be released in the New Year. True labours of love, they can be purchased through American online booksellers.

Resolutions, I have a few:
  • I resolved last year to read more books by women. And I did! Eleven of the twenty-five I reviewed were by women writers. Let's see if I can't improve on that number.
  • I resolved last year to read more books by French language writers... and failed miserably. What I'd thought was an all-time low in 2017 – one! – was surpassed with a zero count in 2018. I hang my head in shame.
  • I resolve to finish one of the two books I'm currently writing.
  • Finally, as always, I resolve to continue kicking against the pricks.
How 'bout you?

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17 December 2018

The Globe 100 179 of 1918



One month after the Armistice, the post-war world is in many ways unrecognizable. Consider this from the front page of the December 7, 1918, Globe:


The Austro-Hungarian Empire is gone... and so too is "The Season's Best Books in Review," the Globe's annual gathering of the year's finest titles. I was a fan of the latter (not the former), writing about it here, here, and here.


"Recent Books and the Outlook," the successor to "The Season's Best Books in Review," made its debut in that same December edition of the Globe. Though similar in appearance and length – five pages – there is a marked difference in tone, as evidenced in this early dig at our tardy allies to the south: "Of war books there is still a large output, but the situation has changed. Those dealing with actual fighting, on either great or small scale, have had their day in Canada, but they are still at high tide in the United States, which entered the war about three years later and consequently are so much behind in that respect."

A second dig follows from someone described only as a "competent critic," who notes that war verse hasn't nearly so plentiful as in previous years: "War became a mere business when the United States entered into the arena with their slogan, 'We've got four years to do this job.' No poet could become enthused over a job. This cessation of singing was inevitable, for the war had gone on long enough and had deteriorated into a debauch of mutual slaughter."

And yet, the war dominates Poetry, the first of the ten "Recent Books and the Outlook" sections:

The Volunteer and Other Poems - Herbert Asquith
Fighting Men of Canada - Douglas Leader Durkin
Canadian Poems of he Great War - John W. Garvin, ed.
Spun Yarn and Spindrift - Norah M. Holland
In the Day of Battle (revised) - Carrie Ellefscottn Holman, ed.
Poems and Plays, Volume 1 - John Masefield
In Flanders Fields and Other Poems - John McCrae
War - Ronald Campbell Mcfie
The Little Marshal and Other Poems - Owen E. McGillicuddy
Gitanjali and Fruit Gathering - Rabindranath Tagore
Songs of an Airman and Other Poems - Hartley Munro Thomas
Canadian Twilight and Other Poems - Bernard Freeman Trotter
Rough Rhymes of a Padre - Woodbine Willie

"Special attention should be paid by all lovers of poetry to the work of the late Lieut. Bernard Trotter of Toronto," writes the competent critic. This may explain how it is that Trotter's book, published in in 1917 and praised in that year's "Season's Best Books in Review,"  holds a spot in this 1918 list.

Miss Holland's collection is described as "a distinct advance in Canadian literature, both in craftsmanship and haunting charm," but my eyes were drawn to this relatively lengthy review of Douglas Durkin's The Fighting Men of Canada:


To be perfectly fair to Durkin, "hell" appears eighteen times in The Fighting Men of Canada, but only once does it follow "yell":


Nevertheless, this review is something new. "The Season's Best Books in Review" was all about the Best Books, but here the Globe is including what its critic thinks is one of the worst. Of the 179 books cover in "Recent Books and the Outlook," not one is given nearly so savage a beating as The Fighting Men of Canada.

The anonymous critic does have his prejudices, as exposed in his praise of War by crazy* Scottish eugenicist Ronald Campbell Macfie, M.A., M.B., C.M., LL.D.:


We Canadians dominate the Poetry section – eight of the thirteen titles! – but falter horribly in other categories. Just two of the twenty Children's titles are Canadian, and we're completely shut out of Biography, Art, Travel and the newly-minted Reconstruction section. Our second best showing comes in Fiction, in which we manage just twelve of seventy-two titles:

The Unknown Wrestler - H.A. Cody
Battles Royal Down North - Norman Duncan
Harbor Tales Down North - Norman Duncan
The Three Sapphires - W.A. Fraser
The Fugitive Sleuth - Hulbert Footner
The Chivalry of Keith Leicester - Robert Allison Hood
The Romance of Western Canada - R.G. MacBeth
Three Times and Out - Nellie L. McClung
Willow, the Wisp - Archie P. McKishnie
The Islands of Adventure - Theodore G. Roberts
Beautiful Joe - Marshall Saunders
The Cow Puncher - Robert J.C. Stead

No word of explanation is given for the inclusion of Marshall Saunders' 1897 novel Beautiful Joe. You'll note that Norman Duncan weighs in with two titles, despite being two years dead.

RIP
Of the seventy-two  Fiction titles reviewed, the only one I've read is Robert Allison Hood's The Chivalry of Keith Leicester:


Not exactly a glowing recommendation.


Ah, hell, I didn't think all that much of it either.

Nineteen-eighteen wasn't exactly a banner year for Canadian books. No wonder our competent critic was so grumpy:
The problem of Vers Libre has fallen into neglect of late, but this mongrel form of expression has left its mark upon even some of our most orthodox poets. It is to be hoped that with the cessation of German atrocities, the atrocities committed on the fair muses by the super-vers-librists will go to the junk-heap of junkerdom.
He'd have been grumpier still had he known what the post-war would bring.

* An excerpt from Macfie's 1917 essay "Some of the Evolutionary Consequences of War":
(cliquez pour agrandir)
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10 December 2018

This Necessary Read



This Necessary Murder
Frances Shelley Wees
London: Jenkins, 1957
191 pages

When buying this book I chose to ignore several significant clues: This Necessary Murder is the only Frances Shelley Wees novel that did not attract a North American publisher. The Jenkins edition was limited to a single printing. There has never been a paperback.

It begins:
Jane Merrill (our young Jyne, as Patch the gardener called her), ran joyfully down the broad polished stairs her brother Jonathan's ancient Toronto house and flung open the door. The birds were out of their minds with excitement over the fat worms hastily digging themselves underground on the dewy lawn, and the great variety of perfectly wonderful spots for new one-room homes. The air was heavy with flowers, budding leaves, new grass...
My heart sank.

Before reading those words, I'd hoped This Necessary Murder might make it as a Ricochet Book, the Véhicule Press imprint for which I serve as series editor.

And why not?

I'd liked the author's previous mystery, The Keys of My Prison, going to far as to liken it to the domestic suspense and psychological dramas of the great Margaret Millar. Ten months after reading the novel, The Keys of My Prison was back in print as a Ricochet Book.

This Necessary Murder isn't nearly so strong a work, but it's also not quite as awful as its publishing history and opening scene suggest.

Our young Jyne or Jane (we never do encounter Patch the gardener) is twenty-four years old. A single woman of indeterminate means, she lives with and dotes on her much older bachelor brother, renowned specialist in criminal psychology Doctor Jonathan Merrill. Dutiful Police Constable Henry Lake, “Jonathan’s extra right arm,” also lives in the ancient Toronto house, though this is a temporary arrangement.

Read nothing into Jonathan’s bachelorhood.

Backstory informs that the doctor has recently put his skills to use in taking down the notorious Barnes Gang, and was shot through the shoulder for his efforts. Now, with leader Jed Barnes and the rest of his gang locked away in the Don Jail, the threat posed to the small Merrill household appears over. Henry Lake stays on only to care for Jonathan as he recovers from his shoulder wound.

You know, instead of a nurse or Jane or Patch the gardener.

The morning of the fat worms brings a letter from Allie March, wife of Jonathan’s old college friend Danny:
We need Jon in Tressady just now. We have an odd little problem… an emotional business, nothing more. I wish Jon could come but I don’t dare write him. It’s only a small storm in a Wedgwood teacup, but there are possibilities of the sort of unpleasant gossip and long-term suspicions that are bad for a small town.
Justice being swift in This Necessary Murder, Jon isn’t able to help because he has to stay in Toronto to testify at the Barnes Gang trial. He suggests Jane go in his place:
“Me? In your place? Are you out of your mind?”
     “Quite sane. You have often acted as an observer for me before now. You could see what is troubling Allie… send me reports… get out of the city as you wish to do, and as soon as I am free I will come.”
     “How long will that be?”
     “Not long, I think,” Jonathan said quietly.
Again, justice is swift in This Necessary Murder; investigation, on the other hand, moves at the pace of a particularly fat worm.

But is there really anything to investigate?

The small storm in a Wedgwood teacup is being caused by Bill Edwards, the fiancé of Ann Elliott, small town dress-designer and heiress to a family fortune built on the lumber industry. It is assumed that the two would’ve wed by now had it not been for the recent deaths of Ann’s mother and sister. The old lady – well, she was in her fifties – died of heart failure. The sister, Myra, followed a few months later during a Toronto shopping spree. A vain asthmatic with an allergy to just about everything, she was discovered dead in her car smelling of a perfume she'd been advised to avoid. At the time, no one thought anything suspicious about either death, but Bill has begun to suggest that both women were murdered.

Jane doesn't get much of a chance to do much before the body of a real estate agent named Marina Thorpe is found just outside the gates of the Elliott estate. Jonathan and Henry Lake fly in from Toronto and things get strange.

Jonathan holds sway over the investigation... but why? Sure, he's worked with law enforcement in the past (see: Barnes, Jeb), but the doctor isn't in the employ of any law enforcement agency. As a Toronto Police constable, Henry Lake is well outside his jurisdiction. And yet, the Ontario Provincial Police allow both free rein. Meanwhile, Jane steals what she believes to be evidence from an innocent woman, and then accompanies Jonathan as he removes articles from murder victim Marina Thorpe's hotel room. In doing so, the doctor learns that the OPP sergeant standing guard has a pass key, and so asks him to keep watch as he goes through a room belonging to a man is known to have spoken to the murdered woman:
The sergeant looked at him sharply. “I got no orders, Dr. Merrill.”
     “Nor have I. We are definitely out of bounds. But I think that under the circumstances we could be allowed the latitude.
     “Well you wouldn’t do no harm,” the sergeant agreed.
Idiots!

"What right have you big-shot snooping outsiders got to come here and show up the regular officers?"   says the murderer, when caught. "A smart-alecky girl... an armchair thinker with his arm in a fancy black sling, a tin-horned cop with a notebook... and how do you think our Provincial men are going to look, going into court with all the credit going to you?"

Good questions. Of course, Jane, Jonathan, and Henry have no right at all. The Provincial men won't look at all good. What's more I'm betting that the evidence Jane and Jonathan collected will be thrown out of court.

And so, This Necessary Murder joins Wees's Where is Jenny Now? in being considered and rejected as a Ricochet Book.

Next up: M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty.

Here's hoping it's better than its title.

Most boring sentence:
The day moved on.
Most boring passage:
Bill Edwards, Allie and Danny had gone to Ann Elliott's. Jonathan had called Henry Lake to give him the news of Jed Barnes, and Henry had said at once that he would like to come in and see Jonathan, if suitable replacements could be found for him. There had been two more reporters, he said, and in any case Miss Elliott had been shut up in her room most of the day, alone, and it might be that she would soon waken and wish for company. There had been a special note in his voice that Jonathan recognized. So Allie and Danny had been encouraged to go out there, and Bill had insisted on going too.  
Trivia: Though Jane is the main character in This Necessary Murder, her name isn't so much as mentioned in jacket copy.

More trivia: Ottawa is spelled "Ottowa." I blame the British editor.

Still more trivia: The Herbert Clarence Burleigh fonds at Queen's University features a good amount of writing on Wees, including "MURDER IN MUSKOKA," a piece on This Necessary Murder clipped from the Toronto Telegram. Sadly, the fonds do not record the date, nor the writer, nor the artist who contributed this illustration:


The anonymous hand behind "MURDER IN MUSKOKA" writes that "This Necessary Murder starts out in Toronto and moves to Muskoka" (the novel places Tressady as being north of Toronto, but gives no specific location). Jonathan Merrill is described as a psychologist who lectures at the University of Toronto (something not mentioned in the novel). According to this same anonymous hand, Wees has confirmed that the Boyd Gang inspired the Barnes Gang (which plays a role only in the backstory). She reveals that Jonathan Merrill is modelled on a "Toronto public relations man (who is in on the secret)."

Object and Access: A compact hardcover in pristine dust jacket. The rear flap features an advert for The Keys of My Prison. I purchased my copy of This Necessary Murder from bookseller Stephen Temple this past summer. He was kind enough to knock off a few dollars from the asking price.

As of this writing one – one – copy is listed for sale online. Jacket-less and ex-library, it's being offered at $17.50 by a Chatham bookseller. It may well be worth the price.

Library and Archives Canada, the University of Calgary, and the University of Victoria have copies. C'est tout.


Despite disinterest from the Americans and paperback houses on both sides of the pond, the novel was published in German translation: Der Duft von Permaveilchen (Munich: Goldmann, 1962).

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03 December 2018

Robert W. Service's Revised Christmas Miracle (with the poet's forgotten reading instructions)





Much of this past weekend was spent in preparation for Christmas, but I did manage a couple of hours with the December 1918 edition of Maclean's. The first to hit news stands after the Armistice, it makes for very interesting reading. The opening piece, a column titled "The Business Outlook," reminds that Maclean's started out as The Business Magazine. It begins:
Peace came with a suddenness that has left the world a little breathless. Men of discernment had predicted from the very first that, when Germany once began to crack, the end would follow within a short period. But who was there bold enough at any time before September of the present year to stand out and say that the break-up would have come before the New Year?
I doubt Maclean's editor Thomas B. Costain saw the break-up coming. How else to explain American John J. Pershing instead of, say, Sir Arthur Currie, on the magazine's first post-war cover? Even the advertising department appears to have been caught off guard:


"Now That the War is Won" by Lieut-Col J.B. Maclean, is the only article that looks to have been commissioned après la guerre. And it's very short. Other articles include "An Unsolved Mystery: A Story of Warfare Under the Earth" by Lieut C. W. Tilbrook and an interview with the U.S. Secretary of War conducted by Pvt Harold R. Peat (Mrs Peat has an article of her own in the "Women and Their Work" section). Fiction fairly dominates the issue, with short stories and serialized novels by W. Victor Cook, W.A. Fraser, Allan C. Shore, Arthur Stringer and Alice Muriel Williamson. Sadly, Shore's "Santa Clause in Petticoats" isn't nearly as titillating as its title, but Stringer's story is fantastic.


All this fiction! As the advert suggests, something to take a soldier's mind off the grim realities that he faces:


The same could be said for those on the home front, though neither would've found escape in 'The Wife' by Robert Service, the issue's only verse. I thought I knew the poem, but I was wrong. An unfamiliar note at the end had me hunting for my copy of Service's Ballads of a Bohemian (1921), in which 'The Wife' was reprinted. Sure enough, the note isn't there – and there are other significant differences:


THE WIFE
[Maclean's, December 1918]
"Tell Annie I’ll be home in time
To help her with her Christmastree."
That’s what he wrote. . . Now hark the chime
Of Christmas bells—and where is he?
And how the house is dark and still!
And Annie’s sobbing on my knee. 
The page beside the candle flame
With cramped and cruel type was filled;
I read and read, until a name
Leapt at me. . . Oh! my heart was stilled!
My eye crept up the column, up
Unto its hateful heading: KILLED
And there was Annie on the stair:
"And will he not be long?" she said.
Her eyes were stars and in her hair
She’d tied a bit of ribband red;
And every step was Daddy’s sure;
Till wearied out, she stole to bed. 
And in the quiet of the night
Alone I decked the Christmas tree.
On every little ticket bright,
My tears were falling bitterly;
And in the street I heard them call.
"Another Splendid Victory." 
A Victory! What care I now?
A thousand victories were vain.
Here in my ruined hearth I vow
From out my black abyss of pain,
I’d rather, rather red defeat,
And have my man, my again. 
Aye, cowering by my cold fireplace,
My orphaned child upon my knee,
What care I for their Empire's pride,
Their pomp and power beyond the sea?
I'd gladly see it lost and lost
Could that bring back my dead to me. 
"But come, my dear; we will not wait.
Each tiny candle pink and white.
We'll set aglow—he may be late,
And we must ave all gay and bright."
(One makes mistakes. I’ll tell myself
I did not read that name aright.) 
"Come, Annie, come, We two will pray
For homes bereft of happiness;
For husbands fighting far away;
For little children fatherless.
Beside the shining tree we'll pray:
"'Oh, Father dear, protect and bless. . . Protect and bless. . .'" 
*  *  *  * 
What’s that? A step upon the stair!
A rush! The door thrown open wide!
My hero and my love! He's there,
And Annie’s laughing by his side. . .
I'm in his arms. . . I faint. . . I faint. . .
"Oh, God! Thy world is glorified."
NOTE.—The author wishes it understood that the sentiments expressed with reference to duty and the war are to be taken as an uncontrollable outburst in the first moments of bereavement, and not as in any sense an expression of opinion.

THE WIFE
[Ballads of a Bohemian, Toronto: McLeod, 1921]
"Tell Annie I’ll be home in time
To help her with her Christmas-tree."
That’s what he wrote, and hark! the chime
Of Christmas bells, and where is he?
And how the house is dark and sad,
And Annie’s sobbing on my knee! 
The page beside the candle-flame
With cruel type was overfilled;
I read and read until a name
Leapt at me and my heart was stilled:
My eye crept up the column—up
Unto its hateful heading: Killed. 

And there was Annie on the stair:
"And will he not be long?" she said.
Her eyes were bright and in her hair
She’d twined a bit of riband red;
And every step was daddy’s sure,
Till tired out she went to bed. 
And there alone I sat so still,
With staring eyes that did not see;
The room was desolate and chill,
And desolate the heart of me;
Outside I heard the news-boys shrill:
"Another Glorious Victory!" 
A victory. . . . Ah! what care I?
A thousand victories are vain.
Here in my ruined home I cry
From out my black despair and pain,
I’d rather, rather damned defeat,
And have my man with me again. 
They talk to us of pride and power,
Of Empire vast beyond the sea;
As here beside my hearth I cower,
What mean such words as these to me?
Oh, will they lift the clouds that low’r,
Or light my load in years to be 
What matters it to us poor folk?
Who win or lose, it’s we who pay.
Oh, I would laugh beneath the yoke
If I had him at home to-day;
One’s home before one’s country comes:
Aye, so a million women say. 
"Hush, Annie dear, don’t sorrow so."
(How can I tell her?) “See, we’ll light
With tiny star of purest glow
Each little candle pink and white."
(They make mistakes. I’ll tell myself
I did not read that name aright.)
Come, dearest one; come, let us pray
Beside our gleaming Christmas-tree;
Just fold your little hands and say
These words so softly after me:
"God pity mothers in distress,
And little children fatherless." 
"God pity mothers in distress,
And little children fatherless." 
*  *  *  * 
What’s that? – a step upon the stair;
A shout! – the door thrown open wide!
My hero and my man is there.
And Annie’s leaping by his side. . .
The room reels round, I faint, I fall. . .
"O God! Thy world is glorified."

The original is better, don't you think? The note's disappearance speaks volumes to the differences between wartime and peacetime.

A note of my own: Lest anyone complain that the title of this post spoils the final stanza of 'The Wife,' I point out that this C.W. Jefferys illustration accompanied it's appearance in Maclean's:


26 November 2018

A Man Forgets His Identity (but not his manners)



The Thread of Flame
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1920
351 pages

I raced through this novel, caught up in its plot and hungry for the solution to the mystery surrounding its main character. He's first introduced as Jasper Soames, though he and the reader are well-aware that this is not his true identity:
It was a name that to me meant nothing. Referring it to my inner self, nothing vibrated, nothing rang. It was like trying to clink a piece of money on wool or cork or some other unresponsive material.
Soames, as he's known through most of the novel, remembers nothing of his life before awakening to find himself aboard a ship bound for New York. His cabin-mate, a blind boy named Drinkwater, is of no help as the two are strangers. Soames's search through his modest belongings yields nearly four hundred dollars, but no clues as to his true identity.

For the remainder of the crossing, Soames does his best to hide his amnesia, speaking in vague terms about his past and deflecting questions about himself. In doing so, he becomes a man of mystery and a subject of significant interest amongst the shipboard well-to-do: Boyd Averill, his wife Lulu, and his sister Mildred. Those of the working class accept Soames as is. They do not pry, do not judge, and readily accept him as one of their own. But Soames is not one of their own. Aware that he belongs to a different class, he is offended by their friendliness and gross familiarity, and looks forward to shedding the acquaintance of each just as soon as the ship docks. This doesn't happen as quickly as planned – Soames feels obliged to escort Drinkwater to the boy's new lodging – but soon enough he sets off on a new course.

Soames recognizes New York, and is certain that someone in the city will recognize him. To this end, he passes his days in the lobbies of the finest hotels, hoping that he will encounter an old, forgotten friend:
At any minute I might feel a clap on the shoulder, while some one shouted, "Hello, old Brown!" or, "Why, here's Billy Robinson! What'll we have to drink?"
These daily expeditions are undertaken with some trepidation, because he fears that he may have adopted the Soames name in fleeing some horrible crime.

When finally it comes, the clap on the shoulder is more of a tap:
In the interval too brief to reckon before turning round two possibilities were clear in my mind. The unknown crime from which I was running away might have found me out – or some friend had come to my deliverance. Either event would be welcome, for even if it were arrest I should learn my name and history.
Soames is disappointed in that the man who tapped his shoulder is Boyd Averill, a man who knows our hero – is he a hero? – only as Jasper Soames. Boyd is pleasant enough, but has growing suspicions about his mysterious acquaintance. Meanwhile, Boyd's sister Mildred grows close. She's attracted to Soames, recognizing him a man raised in privilege who is now on some sort of quest. In this way, he is a kindred spirit. The daughter and inheritor of great wealth, Mildred is searching desperately for a purpose in life.


Though the attraction is mutual, Soames begins to distance himself from Mildred:
Falling in love with anybody was no part of my program. It was out of the question for obvious reasons. In addition to these I was in love with some one else. That is to say, I knew I had been in love; I knew that in the portion of my life that had become obscured there had been an emotional drama of which the consciousness remained. It remained as a dream remains when we remember the vividness and forget the facts – but it remained. I could view my personality somewhat as you view a countryside after a storm has passed over it. Without having witnessed the storm you can tell what it was from the havoc left behind. There was some such havoc in myself.
Soames's decision is made all the easier because his "program" is failing. The days sitting in hotel lobbies are proving fruitless, and funds are running thin. With winter setting in, and no money to replace his summer suits, he cuts himself off from the Averill family, and moves into squalid lodgings alongside the very class of people he'd sought to reject.

There's more, much more, of course. I spoil nothing in revealing that Soames never quite regains his identity. Sure, he eventually learns his real name, and the nature of the "emotional drama," but he is forever altered by the event that caused his amnesia and his experiences living amongst the working class.

A wild ride, I very nearly finished The Thread of Flame in one sitting. What slowed my progress were a dozen or so pages near the end in which Soames tries to make sense of the Great War and the new world it created.

There's no fault in this.

I dare say we're trying to make sense of it still.

Favourite passage:
Ernestine, to do her justice, was as tolerant of me as she was of any one who wasn't a flag. The Flag having become her idol and she its high- priestess, she could talk of nothing else. The nation had apparently gone to war in order that the cult of the Flag should be the more firmly established; and all other matters passed outside the circle of her consideration. She knew I had been dead and had somehow become alive again; but as the detail didn't call for the raising of a flag she couldn't give her mind to it. As she could give her mind in no greater measure to Minna's canteen-work or Vio's clothes, I profited by the generous nature of her exclusions.
A mystery quickly solved: The Thread of Flame first appeared as a serial in Maclean's (December 1919 through 15 May 1920), accompanied by twenty illustrations by Charles L. Wrenn.

Maclean's, 1 February 1920
Ten months after publication of the concluding chapters, the magazine included this very strange piece:

Maclean's, 15 March 1921
I admit to having been mystified. The words the con quotes do not appear in the novel, nor do they appear in its serialization. A bit of sleuthing reveals that they come from an introduction that King wrote for Charles E. Chapin's Story: Written in Sing Sing Prison (New York: Putnam, 1920). I haven't read the book, but do remember it being described in The News Game (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1966) by Toronto Star reporter Roy Greenaway as "one of the best descriptions of nerve-shattering newspaper toil ever written." The tragic results of this toil are described in the opening sentences of the publisher's note appended to Chapin's Story:


Object: A bulky hardcover in red boards with white type, the book is made bulkier still by four John Alonso Williams illustrations. My copy, a first edition lacking dust jacket, was purchased just last month for US$9.00 from an Illinois bookseller. As is so often the case, I paid much more in shipping than I did for the book itself.



Access: Library and Archives Canada and fifteen of our academic libraries hold copies of the novel, but not one is found in any library in Prince Edward Island, the province of the author's birth.

Other than the Harper first, the only edition of which I am aware is a cheap Grosset & Dunlop.

The Harper edition can be read online here thanks to the University of Toronto and the Internet Archive.

Related post: