14 November 2018

The Great Canadian Post-Great War Novel?



The Empty Sack
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1921
446 pages
"We're all different. Life as we used to live it begins to seem so empty. We weren't real; we people who spent our time entertaining and being entertained. It's all very well to say that we're much the same since the war as we were before, but it isn't so. I know I'm not."
— Junia Collingham in Basil King's The Empty Sack
In September 1918, two months before the Armistice, the Pictorial Review published "Going West,"  new work of fiction by Basil King. The writer was then at the height of his popularity, with novels appearing regularly on Publishers Weekly bestseller lists; the magazine had recognized King's The Inner Shrine, as the bestselling novel of 1909. A retired Anglican clergyman from Prince Edward Island, King's books focussed on fidelity, honour, the sanctity of marriage, and the tragedy of divorce. "Going West" was something altogether different. A long short story, it concerns two enemy soldiers – one American, the other German – who kill each other on the battlefield, and then reunite to visit their respective families in the afterlife. The more spiritual of the dead men – interestingly, the German – finds he can communicate with his loved ones, while his agnostic companion cannot.


The story's popularity ensured its republication as a book, which was in turn followed by a second altogether different King title: The Abolishing of Death.* Because I like the reverend, and don't doubt his honesty and good intentions, I accept his presentation of The Abolishing of Death as a work of non-fiction. I'm sure he believed it to be true. Published first in Cosmopolitan (July-October 1919), it is very much a book of its time – that time being one of significant interest in communion between the living and the dead, spurred on by the war, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Doyle believed his strongest contact with the spiritual plane to be Lily Loder-Symonds, his children's nanny, while King relied on a young woman identified only as "Jennifer." Through her, the clergyman was able to communicate with a dead man who, amongst other things, spoke of the "mission of sex" for which Canadians had been "specially selected."

I await my orders.

Of King's novels – the five I've read, anyway – The Empty Sack features the most profound expression of the spiritual beliefs he'd come to adopt during the Great War. Dark and distressing, the only rays of hope come in the penultimate chapter with evidence of an afterlife in which we will all be reunited with loved ones.


I've spoiled little here, because The Empty Sack doesn't unfold anything like the reader might expect. The novel begins with wealthy New York banker Bradley Collingham's dismissal of employee Josiah Follett; the latter is approaching old age, and his work isn't turning quite the profit it once did.  Focus then shifts to painter Hubert Wray's studio, where Jennie Follett poses "in a Greek peplum of white-cotton cloth." Josiah's daughter, Jennie's work as a model helps maintain the Follett family's modest middle class lifestyle in New Jersey's Pemberton Heights. Hubert has an obvious thing for her – and she him – so why doesn't his friend Bob see? "Listen, Hubert. I'm going to marry that girl," Bob tells his pal. Incidentally, coincidentally, Bob's father is Bradley Collingham, the man who had just kicked Jennie's dad to the curb.

Two chapters in, I thought The Empty Sack would be all about Jennie Follett, but it is really a tale of two families.

The Folletts are devastated by the news of the sacking. Josiah hopes that his forty-seven years' experience in the banking industry will win him some sort of position with another financial institution, but at sixty-three he's considered too old. Jennie's modest contribution to the family ends when she refuses to pose in the nude for Hubert. She looks for other work, but finds that stores, factories, offices, and dressmaking establishments aren't much interested in a young woman whose only skill is the ability to stand still. Sister Gussie gets a low-paying job in a department store, but nearly everything comes down to brother Teddy, who has a lowly position in the very same bank from which his father was dismissed.


Meanwhile, Bradley Collingham and wife Junia, sequestered in their Marillo Park mansion, try to make sense of the post-war world and the strange behaviour of privileged offspring:
There were the Rumseys, whose twin sons had refused an uncle's legacy amounting to something like three millions, because they held views opposed to the owning of private property. There were the Addingtons, whose son and heir had married a girl twice imprisoned as a Red and was believed to have gone Red in her company. There were the Bendlingers, whose daughter had eloped with a chauffeur, divorced him, and then gone back and married him again. These were Marillo incidents, and in no case had the parents found any course more original than the antiquated one of discarding and disinheritance. 
Against their wishes, son Bob – you remember Hubert Wray's friend – had gone off to fight overseas, even though the United States was then neutral. Not a year later, he returned with a bad limp, scarred forehead, and some rather unorthodox views on Christianity.

Bob Collingham figures greatly in the plot, but doesn't have nearly the influence of Teddy Follett. The weight of the Follett family's misfortune falls on his shoulders, and he begins stealing from the Collingham Bank in order to keep the gas on. Young Teddy is immature, impulsive and, frankly, none too bright. He remembers news stories of a teller at rival bank who managed to pocket $23,000 for five years before he was caught. Teddy banks – sorry, couldn't resist – that he too won't be caught for five years, by which time the Jennie and Gussie will surely be married and the family finances will be on more steady ground.

The greatest tragedy here is that Teddy's stealing is wholly unnecessary in that Jennie has more than enough money to stave off the Follett family's financial ruin. In a moment of weakness, recognizing the desperate need for money, she'd secretly wed Bob Collingham. Jennie never cashes the cheques he sends for her support because she believes Teddy's stories explaining his sudden change in income. The model regrets her decision to marry Bob, and hopes that she'll somehow wriggle out of the situation so that she might be with Hubert.

As I say, nothing in this novel unfolds as the reader expects. The aforementioned penultimate chapter of light is proceeded by hundreds of pages detailing how the avarice and prejudices of the wealthy threaten the middle class, writing that the reader of King's previous fiction would've found foreign.

Returning to the beginning of the novel, we find this exchange between Bradley Collingham and the soon to be dismissed Josiah Follett:
"What do you think, Follett? I told you then that you were not earning your salary. You haven't been earning it since. What can I do?"
     "I could work harder, sir. I could stay overtime, when none of the young fellows want to."
     "That wouldn't do any good, Follett. It isn't the way we do business."
     "I've been five years with you, sir, and all my life between one banking house and another, in this country and Canada. In my humble way I've helped to build the banking business up."
     "And you've been paid, haven't you? I really don't see that you've anything to complain of."
In fact, Josiah Follett had been earning his salary. The real issue is that Bradley Collingham is able to pay "young fellows" much less.

Not much has changed.

"Wasn't it one of the things we fought for in the war – to wipe out the lines of caste?" Bob asks his mother.

Sadly, no.

The Empty Sack is not a great work, but it's by far the best King novel I've read to date – and I do enjoy reading the reverend. With Bertrand W. Sinclair's The Hidden Places, it is essential reading anyone looking to understand the post-war world – that which followed the War to End All Wars – of our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Curiously, hauntingly, so many of their struggles are our struggles.
* I've written more on The Abolishing of Death in The Dusty Bookcase book.
An aside: As this post was getting long, I cut all mention of the Follett family history. Josiah began his banking career at age sixteen in Nova Scotia. He was still a bank clerk when he married stunningly beautiful clergyman's daughter Lizzie Scarborough, UEL:
The Scarboroughs had been great people in Massachusetts before the Revolution. The old Scarborough mansion, still standing in Cambridge bears witness to the generous scale on which they lived. But they left it as it stood, with its pictures, its silver, its furniture, its stores, rather than break their tie with England. Scorned by the country from which they fled, and ignored by that to which they remained true, their history on Nova-Scotian soil was chiefly one of descent. 
All the Follett children are born in Nova Scotia. After the family's move to the United States, Josiah bought a house in Pemberton Heights because of "the presence there of other Canadians."

Little Canada, I guess.

Object and Access: A bulky brown hardcover with three plates by J. Henry. My copy, a first edition, was purchased in 2014 at the Antique Mall in Strathroy, Ontario. Price: $2.00.


A year earlier, I'd bought an undated Hodder & Stoughton reprint – also $2.00 – in a London bookstore. Canadians who can't stand to read "check" for cheque and "color" for colour will want this edition. As far as I can tell, the novel was last published sometime in the 'twenties in a cheap Grosset & Dunlop edition.

Only seven copies are currently listed for sale online, the least expensive being a library discard of the Harper edition. Price: US$3.68. The one to buy is the most expensive: a second printing with dust jacket going for US$25.00.

While Library and Archives Canada and over a dozen of our universities hold copies; the University of Prince Edward Island does not.

The Thomas Fisher Canadiana Collection copy can be read here – gratis – thanks to the good folks at the Internet Archive.

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11 November 2018

Remembrance Day


On November 11th at eleven in the morning the bells of London rang out their joyous peals, for the armistice had been signed and the war was over. There was wild rejoicing in the city and the crowds went crazy with delight. But it seemed to me that behind the ringing of those peals of joy there was the tolling of spectral bells for those who would return no more. The monstrous futility of war as a test of national greatness, the wound in the world's heart, the empty homes, those were the thoughts which in me over mastered all feelings of rejoicing.
— Canon Frederick George Scott, The Great War As I Saw It
The Great War was the war of my grandfathers. Edward Maurice Busby, my father's father, was a medical student at McGill when the fighting began. He left his studies, enlisted, was shipped overseas, and performed surgery before he'd earned his medical degree. My grandfather survived the war, returned to McGill, and lived what was by all accounts a happy life for a further forty-four years. He died within days of what would have been his seventy-first birthday. I'd been born over a month earlier, but we never met.

Edward Maurice Busby
I remember William Horace Humphreys, my mother's father, very well. He took me to Mary Poppins, my first experience as a movie-goer. After my father died, leaving my mother a widow at forty, he stepped in to care for me and my sister so that she could return to McGill, the university from which she'd graduated a quarter-century earlier.

William Horace Humphreys
Bill Humphreys was a wonderful man who had witnessed wondrous things. He'd been seen the early days of flight, and would six decades later jet across the Atlantic on BOAC. He owned the first colour television I'd ever seen. We sat together watching news coverage of the first steps on the moon.

My clearest memory of my grandfather has nothing to do with Julie Andrews or Neil Armstrong, but a die-cast Wild Wings Sopwith Camel model I'd received as a Christmas gift.


Mine was painted purple.

At six, I somehow knew the Sopwith Camel had flown in the war my grandfather had fought, and so was keen that he should see it.

"Tell me about the bad guys!"

"There were no bad guys," he replied.

My grandfather's response shook me then, as it does still. This gentle, smiling man, looked suddenly sad and troubled... and then he walked out of the room.

That response – of a man who had experienced real war, not the ones sold by toy makers and politicians – has stayed with me this last half-century. Years after his death, I learned that William Horace Humphreys had received a Distinguished Conduct Medal. He never told his wife and children how he'd earned the honour, and kept it hidden away – with the other medals – in his desk drawer.

Today, on the one hundredth anniversary of the end of The War to End All Wars, I think of my grandfathers. I think of my fellow Quebecer, Frederick George Scott, who dug through the bloodied mud of Courcellette until he'd found the body of his son, Henry Hutton Scott.


I think of my fellow Canadian George Lawrence Price, killed by a sniper two minutes before the Armistice.


Monstrous futility indeed.

Would that their families had been so fortunate as mine.

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05 November 2018

Starting in on Grant Allen: A Top Ten



Over pints this past weekend, I remarked to a friend that I'd just begun reading my thirteenth Grant Allen novel. This friend responded that he'd never heard of the man, but was very interested. I think it was the drink.

"Where's the best place to start?" my friend asked. Where indeed! Allen published over seventy titles in his fifty-one years. My good fortune was that the first I read, Michael's Crag, was so good that I wanted more.

Describing Grant Allen as nineteenth-century Canada's greatest novelist may seem a bit much, but who else did we have? Robert Barr is very nearly as good, May Agnes Fleming is wonderfully entertaining. Who else? Sir Gilbert Parker? Sir Charles G.D. Roberts?

Allen was a writer of great imagination; he created memorable characters and had a dab hand at clever, intricate plots. What's more, he never hesitated in introducing social commentary to his fiction (see: The Woman Who Did and The British Barbarians). I think so much of the man that I devoted the first section of my most recent book, The Dusty Bookcase, to Allen.

With twelve Allen titles tackled – and nearly sixty to go – my interest in Allen remains strong. I have no doubt that I'll read every novel the man wrote before I leave This Mortal Coil (title of the first of his three 1888 novels). What follows are the ten best Allen novels tackled to date, in order of preference. Five of the ten are covered in The Dusty Bookcase book. Links to my online reviews of the other five are provided.


The Devil's Die (1888)

The story of upstanding Muslim doctor Muhammed Ali and his gradual realization that friend and fellow physician Harry Chichele is a psychopathic murderer. The novel shocked George Bernard Shaw, influencing his 1893 play The Philanderer.



For Maimie's Sake (1886)

Of Allen's "commercial" novels, For Mamie's Sake stands as the only one he wouldn't dismiss in conversations with friends. Am I wrong in thinking it a satire? For Mamie's Sake is not recognized as such. Either way, it's the most humorous Allen I've read to date. Black humour, of course.



Michael's Crag (1893)

A civil servant is struck on the head by falling rock and comes to believe he is the Archangel Michael. His suffering wife struggles to keep him in check until their daughter can be married off. It all ends very badly, but not in a way that anyone could've anticipated.


What's Bred in the Bone (1891)

Identical twin brothers of unknown origin embark on very different paths, one of which leads to forgery and fraud. What's Bred in the Bone was awarded £1000 as best serial story by Tit-Bits magazine. If that doesn't entice, I'll add that it is the most sexual Allen book I've read this far.


Under Sealed Orders (1895)

A child is groomed to be a self-sacrificing political assassin only to fall in love with a New Woman adventuress as a young man. Murder is now out of the question, which isn't to suggest that it doesn't happen just the same.





Hilda Wade (1900)

Grant Allen's last novel. On his deathbed, the author told the conclusion to his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, who then wrote the final chapters.  The resulting book, profusely illustrated, was published posthumously with obvious affection. But don't think its appearance swayed my judgement; Hilda Wade is a strong novel, centred on the strongest of Allen's women.


The British Barbarians (1895)

The story of a time traveller's visit to Victorian England, this novel is short on plot but long on acute, clever, and cutting social commentary. I'm beginning to wonder whether it shouldn't be higher on the list. Perhaps so. At the very least, it's worth rereading and reconsidering.


Recalled to Life (1891)

A mystery in which a significant advancement in photography plays a key role, like so very many Allens its protagonist is a young woman. Moved up a notch because it is one of the few Allens that takes place in Canada. Quebecers and British Columbians will be the most satisfied.



The Type-Writer Girl (1897)

Late in his brief life, Allen wrote several novels narrated by New Woman protagonists. Of these, The Type-Writer Girl holds a special  place in having been published under a female pseudonym. This slight novel concerns a Girton girl who looks to support herself through office work. Agrarian anarchists feature.




The Cruise of the Albatross (1890)

An adventure story for boys, complete with cannibals, human sacrifice, sea travel, and a twist that owes everything to Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. I remain thankful that I didn't read it first.





Why have I not included The Woman Who Did, the scandalous novel for which Allen is best remembered?

The answer is simple: I ain't read it yet.

A bonus: The two novels that didn't make the Top Ten:

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01 November 2018

A Curious Romance about a Closeted, Corseted, Petticoated Poet and His Masculine Twin Sister



Maid-At-Arms
Enid Cushing [and Andre Norton]
New York: Fawcett, 1981
221 pages

Twins Lady Jennifer and Lord Jonathan Welland are alike in body, but not in mind. Jenny's chief interests are guns, horses, and war. As a little girl she would sneak out of bed to eavesdrop on her grumpy guardian, the Duke of Burghley, as he regaled dinner guests about his fight against Napoleon in the Peninsular War. Jonnie never joined her; his interests lay in poetry, the pianoforte, and petticoats. Throughout their young lives, the twins would secretly trade identities. Jenny, as Jonnie, joined the men on a fox chase, while "a skirted and beruffled Jonathan toyed with tea and cakes and exchanged titters with delicately nurtured maidens at the Manor."


The one person not taken in by their masquerade was Lord Rufus Randall; Jonnie aside, he knows Jenny better than anyone alive. Randall first met Jenny when she was a newly orphaned girl of eight – he was eighteen – and they've been good friends ever since. Twelve years have passed, and the first of this novel's twenty-four chapters finds Lady Jennifer in a nostalgic mood:
"Rufus, do you remember the time Sir Peter Davies over at the Lodge had that party three years ago? They all played those forfeit for a kiss games – or maybe you don't remember, because you stayed off in the trophy room with Sir Peter – anyway, Jonathan was the belle of the party and was always being caught on purpose. You must have heard about it"
     "I also recollect that the Jonathan of the evening also made quite a name for himself as well," "Lord Rufus said dryly. "Fine pair up to no good – that was the two of you."
     "We used to have fun," Jennifer nodded at the memories of mischief successfully carried through. "Nobody could ever tell the difference.
     "The only noticeable difference was that fair Jonathan displayed a fine sense of more maidenly conduct than his sister appears interested in showing," Lord Rufus pointed out.
     "I should have been a boy," Jennifer sighed, not for the first time.
Jenny gives expression to her desire in midnight rides through the English countryside dressed in male drag: riding boots, black breeches, dark shirt and black jacket. She never forgets to carry a gun.

Does Jenny's twin think he should have been a girl? Jonnie doesn't say, but the Duke of Burghley has long been concerned about interests he associates with women. Fearing his ward is getting to be a "damned sissy," he hunts him down in London. "Gad, do you know where I found this brother of yours, my dear?" the Duke says to Jennie. "At Lady Ashbury's salon, listening to a fop reading poetry. Poetry! And he was ready to spout off verses, too. Imagine that for your brother! I tell you, at that point I had enough. I told him to come with me. I'm not going to have my ward behaving like a pampered pimp, reeling around in ladies' salons and boudoirs, listening to poetry."

The Duke decides to make a man of Jonnie through military service. He purchases a commission in the Rifle Brigade, and makes certain that the newly-minted Captain Jonathan Welland will be posted far from Lady Ashbury's London salon.

Where exactly?

Jonnie tells Jenny:
"Halifax," he said gloomily.
     "Halifax? Where's Halifax? she repeated blankly. "What on earth are you going to do there?"
     He made a sweeping, oddly feminine gesture. "Place's in Canada – I'm for garrison duty."
Jenny manages to convince their guardian – she calls him "Guardie" – to let her accompany her brother; it helps that Lord Bradbury, the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, happens to be one of the Duke's old war pals. The very next week, the twins board the Cambria, bound from Liverpool to Halifax. Sadly, predictably, they're not two days out when delicate Jonnie collapses in Jennie's bunk with mal de mer. There he remains for the remainder of the voyage "rolled in one of her dressing gowns." Meanwhile, hardy Jennie dons Jonnie's military uniform – "fortunate, she considered, that padded fronts to an officer's uniform had become a recent military style" – so as to pass as her brother and be allowed on deck in rough weather.

View of Dartmouth and Halifax (c 1850)
L. Crepy
The twins' arrival in Halifax poses a problem in that Jonnie, under guise of Lady Jennifer, remains deathly ill. So as not to arouse suspicion amongst the other passengers, he disembarks in whalebone corset, petticoats, bell-skirted dress, and bonnet, and is whisked away to the Colonial Hotel. Once there, however, he declines to take up his commission. Jennie is annoyed, but at the same time all too willing to take his place as a captain in the Rifle Brigade:
"I'll make a deal with you, Jonathan, and you'll abide by it. Your place for my place; my skirts for your trousers."
     Jonathan fiddled with the arm of his chair. "Jennifer, I don't think..." he began hesitantly, but his sister cut in.
     "You're quite right, Jonnie, you don't think. You make a choice, now. Either you promise to stay in my skirts, most of the time anyway, or you get into this uniform right away. Which will it be? One or the other Jonnie. There's no other choice. You're a Welland, and I don't propose to have to blush for the name."
     "Oh, all right," Jonathan was goaded by beyond his endurance. "I'll be Lady Jennifer and you can go on playing soldier."
What could go wrong? I expected plenty, particularly after Lady Bradbury, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor, insists "Lady Jennifer" reside at Government House.

Government House from the S.W. (1819)
John Elliott Woolford

Surprisingly, things go quite well for the twins. Jenny proves to be an excellent soldier, and is quite popular with the men under her command, while Jonnie has no difficulty in passing as a woman while staying with Lord and Lady Bradbury and their two daughters. This is not to suggest Jonnie is altogether happy; he complains about corsets, but his chief source of frustration lies in not being able to live the life he'd enjoyed in England. "You've always liked the female's role better than the man's," observes Jenny. "Oh yes, I've heard stories of your London exploits – don't worry."

This depiction of Jonnie as someone who has never "flirted with the girls" changes abruptly with the arrival of Lord and Lady Bradbury's English niece, Miss Matilda Markham, at Government House. Jonnie is immediately smitten by her feminine, yet dominant ways, and longs to end his masquerade so that he may court her.

Why the change in Jonnie? I suggest this note appended to the novel's page at Andre-Norton-Books.com may provide an explanation "Andre Norton's name is Not On This Book – however she did complete the story for Enid Cushing when Enid became ill."

Of course, being a romance novel, Maid-At Arms is more Jenny's story than Jonnie's. She may be the less interesting character, but this is not to suggest that she isn't loved. Remember Rufus Randall? You know, the English Lord who befriended Jenny when she was a girl of eight? Well, Rufus isn't fooled by stories of Lord Jonathan's success in soldiering coming across the pond, and so he sets out for Halifax. I'm sure I spoil nothing in reporting that Rufus rescues Jennie from a situation that she can't handle. In fact, he saves her life.

And then church bells ring.

Jonnie does not serve as maid-of-honour.

About the author(s): Maid-At-Arms marks the beginning of what I've described as Enid Cushing's second act. Her first consisted of five mystery novels, stretching from Murder's No Picnic (1953) to The Girl Who Bought a Dream (1957). What accounts from the twenty-eight-year silence that followed is a real life mystery, as is how she came to collaborate with Andre Norton.

The contract signed by Cushing and Norton can be found here, courtesy of Andre-Norton-Books.com.

In 1983, the year of Cushing's death, she published one last novel. This time, Norton's co-authorship was acknowledged on the cover:


Bloomer: You knew there'd be one. Coming in the very first chapter, it provides a good example of the novel's poor writing and editing:
"Tell me, Jenny, did your guardian ever become aware of the numerous occasions on which you, er, diddled him. I believe such was the term you used – in the past?"
Object: A typical 'eighties mass market paperback, complete with five pages of adverts for other Fawcett titles. Bil Keane's Daddy's Little Helpers"More laughs from the Family Circus Crew" – appears under the header "GREAT ADVENTURES IN READING."


As far as I've been able to determine, there was no second printing.

Access: WorldCat suggests that not one Canadian library holds Maid-At-Arms. The good news is that used copies are plentiful and cheap. Do not be taken in by the Massachusetts bookseller who describes the book as "Very rare," and claims it is by Norton "Writing As Enid Cushing." He's out to make an easy fifty bucks, but is not so bad as the New Hampshire bookseller who asks US$85.97, adding a further US$24.99 for shipping.

I purchased my copy for one American penny.

Well worth it, I think.

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