16 October 2019

A Dog's Life and Then Some

Beautiful Joe: The Autobiography of a Dog
     [New and Revised Edition]
Marshall Saunders
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, n.d.
266 pages

Like The Woman Who Did, I thought I knew this novel.

I did not.

My wife didn't want to hear me talk about Beautiful Joe because she thought she knew the novel and would find its story too upsetting. The inspiration for this "autobiography" has a park named in his honour in Meaford, Ontario. Because we've found his story so disturbing, we've never visited.

There are disturbing things in Beautiful Joe – many, many things – but they don't always concern its hero. The worst of it comes in the earliest pages. A nameless cur, he enters this world as one of a litter of seven. His owner, a brute of a dairy farmer named Jenkins, lives in near poverty because he is too lazy to attend to his cows. One of his own children falls ill from his contaminated product, and one of his customers dies, but neither event causes Jenkins to change his ways. Then comes a passage that is not for the sensitive reader:
One rainy day, when we were eight weeks old, Jenkins, followed by two or three of his ragged, dirty children, came into the stable and looked at us. Then he began to swear because we were so ugly, and said if we had been good-looking, he might have sold some of us. Mother watched him anxiously, and fearing some danger to her puppies, ran and jumped in the middle of us, and looked pleadingly up at him.
     It only made him swear the more. He took one pup after another, and right there, before his children and my poor distracted mother, put an end to their lives. Some of them he seized by the legs and knocked against the stalls, till their brains were dashed out, others he killed with a fork. It was very terrible. My mother ran up and down the stable, screaming with pain, and I lay weak and trembling, and expecting every instant that my turn would come next. I don't know why he spared me. I was the only one left.
Nothing prepared me for that hellish scene, but I knew enough about the novel to brace myself for more blood and violence.

Beautiful Joe with his mother, brothers, and sisters,
as depicted by John Nicholson in the Jerrold's edition (c. 1907).

The grieving mother never recovers from the loss of her pups. Though only four years old, poor nutrition has worn her down and made her weak. Beautiful Joe brings his mother scraps, but she only turns them over with her nose... until one day, she licks him gently, wags her tale, and dies:
As I sat by her, feeling lonely and miserable, Jenkins came into the stable. I could not bear to look at him. He had killed my mother. There she lay, a little, gaunt, scarred creature, starved and worried to death by him. Her mouth was half open, her eyes were staring. She would never again look kindly at me, or curl up to me at night to keep me warm.
The milkman gives Beautiful Joe a kick. When the dog fights back, Jenkins calls for an axe:
He laid my head on the log and pressed one hand on my struggling body. I was now a year old and a full-sized dog. There was a quick, dreadful pain, and he had cut off my ear, not in the way they cut puppies' ears, but close to my head, so close that he cut off some of the skin beyond it. Then he cut of the other ear, and, turning me swiftly round, cut off my tail close to my body.
     Then he let me go and stood looking at me as I rolled on the ground and yelped in agony.
A cyclist hears the dog's cries, comes upon the scene, and beats Jenkins to a pulp. This passerby, Harry, takes the maimed creature to the home of his uncle and aunt, Rev and Mrs Morris, where he is slowly nursed back to health.

To be frank, I wasn't sure I could take too much more, but then I didn't know Beautiful Joe. I had thought it was the story of a maimed dog, who after a near lifetime of trials, tribulations, and adventure finally finds a loving home. I did not expect the manse be that home. An enlightened couple with five children, Rev and Mrs Morris believe that care for the lower creation teaches kindness, generosity, empathy, selflessness, and all sorts of other good things. Our hero joins a menagerie, consisting of rabbits, canaries, goldfish, pigeons, bantams, a guinea pig, a cat, and another dog. He's given the name Beautiful Joe because he's so ugly.

In many ways, Beautiful Joe's story ends in the third of the novel's thirty-five chapters, with his arrival at the Morris home. While he does experience a few moments of adventure – a train derailment, the rescue of abandoned farm animals, an encounter with a burglar (who turns out to be Jenkins!) – the great dramas of his life are in the past. The dog leads a quiet, uneventful life, largely in the company of Miss Laura Morris, devoting the bulk of his autobiography to relaying conversations he's heard regarding the proper and improper treatment of animals.

Beautiful Joe is at its heart a work of propaganda, written with the hope of winning an 1893 contest sponsored by the American Humane Education Society. In this Saunders was successful. I wonder whether this dedication would've featured had the novel lost:

As old novels go, Beautiful Joe offers the twenty-first-century reader a particularly focused glimpse of another time. I'll take away some knowledge of Bands of Mercy, organizations that were entirely new to me. I'll also remember the distaste shown fox hunting.

(I have a hard time these days listening to "Slave to Love.")

The novel ends abruptly with Beautiful Joe as an old dog: "I thought when I began to write, that I would put down the events of each year of my life, but I fear that would make my story too long, and neither Miss Laura nor any boys and girls would care to read it." The last adventure Beautiful Joe describes begins when he hears an amusing account of a man named Bellini and his performing animals. Curious, he visits the troupe – monkeys, dogs, ponies, goats – who are penned in a stable adjacent the town's hotel. Beautiful Joe s on his way home when he learns of a fire at that same hotel. He runs back:
In front of me I heard such a wailing, piercing noise, that it made me shudder and stand still. The Italian's animals were going to be burned up, and they were calling to their master to come and let them out. Their voices sounded like the voices of children in mortal pain. I could not stand it. I was seized with such an awful horror of the fire, that I turned and ran, feeling so thankful that I was not in it.
The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature informs that the version I read was revised so as to make it less violent.

I don't have the fortitude of an nineteenth-century child.

Object and Access: One of the biggest selling Canadian novels of all time, there are over eight million copies out there. Mine was obtained in 2017 through a small donation to the St Marys Public Library (a two hour and fifteen minute drive from Meaford's Beautiful Joe Park). Most of the twenty-two uncredited illustrations have been coloured in by a previous owner. Might it be Georgie, who in 1944 received it as a Christmas gift?

Beautiful Joe entered the public domain decades ago, and the print on demand vultures have moved in. Formac publishes the only one of the few editions coming from a real publisher. Part of its Fiction Treasures series, it features an introduction and notes by Gwendolyn Davies. Price: $16.95.

Prices for used copies of Beautiful Joe are all over the place. Three booksellers are offering true first edition, published in 1894 by the American Baptist Publication Society, beginning at US$250; of these, at US$500, the one to buy is a copy inscribed by Saunders to "a fellow Nova Scotian."

The most expensive copy is a print-on-demand edition offered by a crooked Texas bookseller at US$1207.17.

Addendum: Karyn Huenemann of Canada's Early Women Writers points out that Broadview publishes an illustrated edition edited with an introduction by Keridiana Chez. Price: $18.95. The cover suggests Beautiful Joe before Jenkins reached for that axe.

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12 October 2019

An Old Thanksgiving Ode by James McIntyre

For the weekend, Thanksgiving verse from James McIntyre, the poet who gave us 'Ode to the Mammoth Cheese'. This version, taken from Poems of James McIntyre, published in 1889 by the Ingersoll Chronicle, serves to remind that Canadian Thanksgiving was once celebrated in November. It was moved forward after the slaughter of the Great War and the recognition of Remembrance Day.

We Canadians have so much for which to be thankful.

                 September came and with it frost
                 The season's pasture it seemed lost,
                 And the wondrous yield of corn
                 Of its green beauty it was shorn. 
                 Frost it came like early robber,
                 But gentle rains came in October,
                 Which were absorbed by grateful soil;
                 With green once more the pastures smile. 
                 And cows again are happy seen
                 Enjoying of the pastures green,
                 And flow of milk again they yield
                 From the sweet feed of grassy field. 
                 And we have now a fine November,
                 Warmer far than in September;
                 The apple, which is queen of fruits,
                 Was a good crop and so is roots. 
                 The rains they did replenish springs,
                 And it gratitude to each heart brings,
                 When we reflect on bounteous season,
                 For grateful feelings all have reason.

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10 October 2019

Celebrating Constance Beresford-Howe

McGill student Constance Beresford-Howe had just received her BA when word came that she'd won the Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship Prize.

Old McGill, 1945
The accomplishment was duly recognized in the 12 May 1945 edition of the Montreal Gazette:

Beresford-Howe was back at McGill working on her MA when The Unreasoning Heart (1946) was published. That same academic year she wrote Of This Days Journey (1947), her second novel.

Eight more novels followed, the most celebrated being The Book of Eve (1973), the first volume in her Voices of Eve trilogy.

Tomorrow evening, the Writers' Chapel in Montreal will be holding an event in celebration of the life and work of Constance Beresford-Howe, culminating in the unveiling of a plaque in her memory.

Collett Tracey and Jeremy Pressnell, the author's son, will speak.

A wine and cheese reception will follow.

The Writers' Chapel
St Jax Montréal
1439 St Catherine Street West (Bishops Street entrance)

Friday, October 11th at 6:00 pm

This is a free event.

All are welcome!

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07 October 2019

George Segal Gets His Man

Final words on Tom Ardies' Kosygin is Coming (aka Russian Roulette).

It's a rare thing for a Canadian thriller to be adapted to the screen. To think that two from 1974 – Charles Templeton's The Kidnapping of the President and Tom Ardies' Kosygin is Coming – reached that great height! Is the better known The Kidnapping of the President? I ask because the novel sold more copies and I remember it being broadcast on CFCF, Montreal's CTV station.

It starred local boy William Shatner.

I don't remember CFCF airing Russian Roulette, the adaptation of Tom Ardies' Kosygin is Coming,  but I'm betting it did.

Of the two novels, Kosygin is Coming is by far the superior. The adaptation is better, too, in part because it throws out the silliness and lazy writing of the final chapters.

Lazy writing?

I didn't address this in my review of last Tuesday. How's this for an example?
McDermott got out of the car and called the constable over. He questioned him as to whether a drunk in a stolen car had been taken into custody recently in the vicinity of the hotel. The officer replied that some sort of arrest had been made around the corner on Burrard. McDermott decided he should check there first before going into the hotel.
Ardies is one of three names credited with the screenplay, the others being Stanley Mann and Arnold Margolin. Mann was known for adaptations of The Collector and The Eye of the Needle, and would go on to write Conan the Destroyer. Margolin is best remembered for episodes of My Mother the Car, The Andy Griffith Show, That Girl, and Love American Style. He also co-wrote Snowball Express, which I enjoyed at a friend's tenth birthday party.

As far as I know, Ardies never wrote another screenplay. Our loss, because he has a knack for dialogue. The first line between RCMP Special Branch man John Petapiece (Denholm Elliott) and protagonist Timothy Shaver (George Segal) is lifted straight from the book:

"Still pissing down?"
Shot in the winter, Russian Roulette doesn't show Vancouver at its best. The city comes off as a dreary, depressing place – so very different from the one in which I lived during the nineties and aughts.

Elliott's presence speaks to the casting. Segal is great as Shaver, the self-assured RCMP officer who has no idea of his limitations. Entrusted by Petapiece to take political agitator Rudolphe Henke out of circulation during  the upcoming visit of the Soviet Premier, he walks up to the man's apartment building with length of rope in hand.

Was he intending to tie Henke up for the duration?

I guess. 

Henke is portrayed by Val Avery. It's a non-speaking role, but he's established as a villain by tormenting kids playing street hockey.

The scene is one of the few that isn't in the novel.  For the most part, Russian Roulette is faithful to Kosygin is Coming. The departures come in the pages that didn't make it to the movie.

In Russian Roulette, Richard Romanus' role is Raymond Regalia.

Louise Fletcher plays RCMP switchboard operator Midge, in the very same year she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Film buffs will find a flawed film with some of the best casting of any movie. Vancouverites will appreciate Russian Roulette for what it captures of the city as it was in the mid-seventies. Students of the Cold War will be interested for its depiction of the conflict.

Remember when the Russians couldn't be trusted?

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01 October 2019

A Russian is Coming! A Russian is Coming!

Russian Roulette [Kosygin is Coming]
Tom Ardies
Toronto: PaperJacks, 1975
207 pages

Tom Ardies' thrillers fall into two categories: those published under his own name, and those written under the nom de plume "Jack Trolley." The latter books had a far better time with the critics. Balboa Firefly, his first Trolley thriller, received a star review in Publishers Weekly (31 October 1994), with the uncredited reviewer lamenting that it had been sixteen years since Ardies' last novel. Kosygin is Coming, filmed and reissued as Russian Roulette, received a lesser welcome in the pages of Kirkus (11 January 1973):
Some rather indeterminate idiocy about Timothy Shaver, temporarily suspended from the Mounties, who is assigned to keep Kosygin safe when he comes to Vancouver on an official visit by maintaining the surveillance of a professional protester (also possibly CIA). He disappears. So will this – essentially a cheerfully nonstop non sequitur.
I share this because Russian Roulette reads much like the work of two different hands. The first 155 pages promise the great Canadian Cold War Thriller, while the final fifty-two read like an uninspired parody.

Alexai Kosygin
1904 - 1980
Corporal Timothy Shaver, RCMP, is our hero. Suspended without pay for slugging a superior, he's called to a dank Vancouver bar run by war amputees. There he meets a Special Branch man named Petapiece, who offers the corporal a means of keeping his job. Soviet premier Alexai Kosygin will soon be making an eight-day visit to Canada, and the KGB is concerned about the Vancouver stop. Shaver's assignment, should he choose to accept it, is to make scarce a small-time agitator named Rudolphe Henke, whom the Soviets consider a security risk. It's hard to understand their concern. An ageing drunk, Henke's days are consumed by reading newspapers, attending demonstrations, and masturbation.

Petapiece could have been more forthcoming about Henke. Unbeknownst to the Soviets, there's a reason why the Special Branch doesn't take the threat seriously – it is for this reason that they've thrown it to a disgraced low-level like Shaver.

And yet, the assignment proves too much. Shaver's initial plan is to befriend his target by passing himself off as a sympathetic ex-Toronto Telegram reporter. but Henke sees through the ruse and spits in his face. Plan B is to simply show up at Henke's rooming house, flash his badge, take the man into custody, and hope that the Civil Liberties Union (read: Civil Liberties Association) isn't made aware. He breaks in, only to find evidence of a kidnapping. Shaver lies in his next visit to the war amps bar, telling Petapiece that he's got Henke hidden away somewhere.

Shaver's subsequent desperate search for the shit-disturber is interrupted by an attempt on his own life by an assassin imported from Detroit... because, you see, things aren't quite as Petapiece portrayed.

There are no spoilers in my criticism of the final chapters. Vancouverites know that theirs are not the streets of San Francisco. The long, slow crawl over the Lion's Gate Bridge is nothing like the chase scene in Bullit. Would gunshots and a car set alight by incendiary devices divert a foreign leader's motorcade? I suggest they would. The final two pages, in which a wedding is announced, are particularly painful.

I haven't given this novel its due. The premise is strong, the plot is clever, and the intrigue high. It's easy to understand the interest in bringing it to the screen, just as it's easy to see why PaperJacks brought out a movie tie-in. Sadly, the novel has been out-of-print ever since. The Kirkus reviewer was right –the novel has disappeared. Despite the flaws, it deserved a much longer life. It deserves to be read today.

Trivia: Kosygin did indeed come to Canada. A reformist, his 1971 eight-day visit was seen as an effort to thaw the Cold War. Ardies may have taken some inspiration from an assault on the Soviet Premier, which took place while walking with Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau on Parliament Hill.

Object: A poorly produced mass market paperback, the best that might be said is that it held together in the reading.

But then our new puppy got a hold of it.

Access: The 1974 first edition, Kosygin is Coming, was published in Toronto and New York by Doubleday. The following year, Angus & Robertson published the novel in the UK. Under the title Russian Roulette, movie tie-in editions were published by PaperJacks (Canada) and Panther (UK). I can find no evidence of any American edition after the Doubleday.

Library and Archives Canada and eight of our academic libraries have copies of Kosygin is Coming. The Vancouver Public Library does not. For shame.

Copies of Kosygin is Coming are plentiful and cheap. Ignore the New Hampshire bookseller asking US$80. Russian Roulette is cheaper still. Pay no more than three dollars.

Interestingly, the only translation has been to the Chinese: 最危險的一日 (1977). It would appear the Russians weren't interested.

27 September 2019

NB New Brunswick

A bit quiet here owing to a late summer/early autumn visit to St Andrews, New Brunswick. I brought along a couple of books, but read little apart from menus and historical plaques. Still, I couldn't escape things literary. We stayed at Dominion Hill Inn (above), once the summer home of Mary Louise Curtis, lone child of Cyrus H.K. Curtis, owner of the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal, amongst several dozen other publications.

An old Loyalist town, St Andrews' population is small – 1786 according to the most recent census – which is not to suggest that it doesn't have a significant, somewhat depressing, claim to CanLit fame. This plaque, affixed to the outside wall of the post office, tells all:

On our third day, we ventured one hundred kilometres west to St John, where I spotted this tribute to Alden Nowlan over an empty parking stall.

I was introduced to Nowlan's poetry in university. I'm ashamed to share that I'd never heard of Daphne H. Paterson. Drivers in search of parking spaces will find portraits of Walter Pidgeon and Donald Sutherland to the right.

St John being the hometown of my not-so-secret crush May Agnes Fleming, I was hoping that some literate soul might point to a house – or footprint of a house – in which she'd lived.

No such luck.

Sadly, the name of our bestselling novelist of the nineteenth century brought blank stares. Despite best efforts, I could't find one of her novels in the city's bookstores.

Am I wrong to think that her portrait and name belong over a parking stall?

Addendum: Our drive to St Andrew was divided in two. The first leg took us to Montreal, where we rested overnight in the home of my mother-in-law. The second leg – ten hours when travelling with a puppy – sent us through Quebec's Eastern Townships and the State of Maine. Our route took us close to Stephen King's Bangor home, but nothing frightened us so much as this sight in Madison:

18 September 2019

A Literary Vampire Alights upon an Impoverished Poet; or, A Newer New Grub Street in Manhattan

The Silver Poppy
Arthur Stringer
New York: Appleton, 1903
291 pages

Educated Englishman John Hartley has seen much sadness in his young life. Four or five years ago, his father, Sir Harry Hartley, was killed in the Dunstable Hunt. John next suffered through the illness and death of a fiancée, Connie Meredith, to whom he had dedicated his debut volume of verse. These tragedies rendered John directionless until celebrated portrait painter Repellier suggests that he set sail for a new life in New York.

The city isn't quite as welcoming as was hoped. Unable to sell his literary efforts, and short of funds, John takes a job in the grimy offices of the United News Bureau, where he's reduced to toiling amongst hacks and exhausted, alcoholic has-beens. And yet, John holds no ill will. Standing on the rooftop of Repellier's studio, as one of the painter's Bohemian parties draws to a close, John chances to meet Kentucky girl Cordelia Vaughan. He doesn't recognize her, though he should; Cordelia is the author of The Silver Poppy, a literary debut that is being touted not only as the novel of the season novel, but a novel for all time. A blonde beauty with a penchant for yellow and gold dresses, blouses and skirts, pictures of Cordelia are everywhere. The celebrated author expresses interest in John's writing, does a kindness in offering an exclusive interview, and two become fast friends.

Not long into their relationship, Cordelia shares her frustration in writing a second novel, The Unwise Virgins. The poet offers to read the manuscript, and finds it a failure. The Unwise Virgins has "none of the power and movement of The Silver Poppy, none of those whimsical tendernesses and quaint touches of humor and pathos that had half muffled the razor edge of her earlier satiric touch." John had never found Cordelia to have a great sense of humour, and so wonders if "she had not drained off, as it were, her vanished reservoirs of mirth; if her mental blitheness had not been lost with the too labored advent of her firstborn."

The poet is gentle in suggesting changes that might improve the novel, but the authoress has had enough of it. Her mood improves when he offers to make the changes himself. In return, the frustrated novelist suggests they share the royalties. When John refuses the offer, she insists that he send her some of his short stories. Though they've been rejected by numerous magazines, Cordelia rightly believes that her support will help in getting them published. John's stories sell, which makes it easier to leave the United News Bureau. Cordelia next offers John an apartment she'd intended for her father (he was reluctant to leave his old Kentucky home) and the poet ramps up his work on improving The Unwise Virgins.

Months pass, during which Repellier finally finds time to read The Silver Poppy. He finds it identical to a work in progress read to him by a friend not three earlier. This friend, one of "the brightest and most scholarly editorial writers on all Park Row," had been sickly. He'd sought a cure in fresh air of the hills of Kentucky, where he'd subsequently died. Repellier threatens to share his knowledge of the true author of The Silver Poppy unless Cordelia breaks things off with John.

Repellier presumes. Up to this point, Cordelia and John have been not much more than friends. True, two of their meetings featured kissing and petting, but they ended quickly and were of the oh-dear-I don't-know-what-got-into-me kind. But, after Repellier's threat, when they're next alone:
The two white arms came together and folded over him and drew him in like wings.
     Time and the world were nothing to her then; time and the world were shut out from him. It was the lingering, long-delayed capitulation of the more impetuous, profounder love she had held back from him, of the finer and softer self she had all but famished in the citadel of her grim aspirations. She no longer allured him, or cared to allure him; she had nothing to seek of him thereafter; she had only the ruins of her broken life to give him.
     And he, too — he felt those first thin needles of bliss that crept and projected themselves over the quiet waters of friendship, and he knew that a power not himself was transforming those waters of change and unrest and ebb and flow into the impenetrable solidity of love itself.
For "capitulation" read "copulation."

I've done a disservice in quoting this particular passage, though it is an example of the work's greatest flaw. A first novel, The Silver Poppy – Stringer's, not Cordelia's – so often falls victim to verbosity, but not so often that it ruins a really good story. The worst aspects of the writing life, as it was at the dawn of the last century, are exposed. The United News Bureau seeks funds from eminent men looking to guarantee a favourable obituary, and feeds off material outside of copyright:
An English novel or any less substantial publication which came to it unprotected by the arm of the law was pounced on at once, rapaciously and gleefully. It was renamed, abridged or expanded as the case might require, and in less time than it took the original author to indite his first chapter, it was on the market as a new and thrilling serial, “secured by special arrangement.”
Cordelia's novel is bought by Broadway. Though two playwrights are brought in to adapt it for the stage, only her name is credited. Sent out on lecture tour, Cordelia reads words written by a speechwriter hired by her publisher. She encourages John to submit one of his poems, 'The Need of War,' to a newspaper that is offering a great deal of money for her thoughts on armed conflict:
“But it’s not what newspapers print or care to print.”
     “It’s a beautiful thing,” she cried. “They’d jump at it.” And then she added, as an afterthought, “ If it had been written by any one with a name.”
     “That’s just it,” he explained. “ The offer hasn’t been made to me, you see.”
     “Yes, I know,” she began. “And that’s why I hesitated about suggesting the thing.”
     He seemed to be weighing the matter, and she waited for him to speak.
     “Of course it’s awfully good of you to extend the offer to me at the last moment, and all that sort of thing. But I know well enough this paper would never think of offering me any such sum for the lines.”
     She looked at him steadily.
     “They would if it appeared over my name.”
     “But I couldn’t ask you to do that—and for a mere matter of money,” he cried.
     “I would gladly, for you.”
     “But it would scarcely be fair, either to you or to me.”
     She almost hated him, she felt, when he stood so proudly behind that old-time integrity of character of his. Even as she argued, though, she secretly hoped against hope that he would hold out, that he would defeat her where she stood. Then remembering again more than one scene of inward humiliation over what he seemed to have accepted as her womanly proneness to tangle the devious skeins of ethics and expediency, a touch of the tyrant came to her once more.
     “I want you to have this money,” she pleaded. “It’s only right that you should."
Cordelia is alive! A country girl caught up in literary New York, she quickly learns to navigate, becoming all too familiar with the fabrication, hypocrisy, and deceit of its publishing houses.

Arthur Stringer: Son of the North
Victor Lauriston
Toronto: Ryerson, 1941

In his very short biography of the author, friend Victor Lauriston writes: "Newspaper identification of a prominent woman writer of that period with Stringer's 'Cordelia Vaughan' precipitated a controversy, and the book startled the author by going through five editions."

The Kentucky New Era
19 September 1903 
My own investigation confirms the validity of Lauriston's statement. Newspapers did indeed liken the character to a famous authoress of the day; frustratingly, I've yet to find one that names the lady in question. And so I put it to you, who is Cordelia Vaughhan?

Trivia I: The word "plagiarism" does not feature in the novel.

Trivia II: Five years after publication, Stringer accused George Sylvester Viereck, Edgar Allan Woolf of plagiarizing The Silver Poppy in their play The Vampire. The latter is based on Viereck's 1907 novel The House of Vampire, in which American Reginald Clarke feeds off the literary and artistic work of others.

The New York Times
31 January 1909

The working title of The  Silver Poppy was "The Yellow Vampire." The word "vampire" exists six times in the text, used by Repellier in a too subtle tale to warn John about Cordelia.

I've found no evidence that Viereck and Woolf followed through on their threat.

Object: A very attractive hardcover, typical of its time, except that it features no illustrations. The book's final six pages are given over to adverts for titles by Anna McClure Sholl, Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, Arthur Stirling, Julien Gordon, Frank T. Bullen, J Aubrey Tyson, Elisa Armstrong Bengough, Mrs Burton Harrison, and Mrs Poultney Bigelow.

I didn't make up one of those names.

The image at the top of this post does not do justice. Those poppies really are silver! I purchased my copy, a first edition, four years ago from Attic Books, not one kilometre from the author's childhood home. Price: $10.

Access: The Silver Copy is held by the Chatham-Kent Public Library, the London Public Library, and twenty-one of our academic libraries. The novel may have had five printings, but only three copies are listed for sale online. As of this writing, at US$18, the cheapest is an Appleton first. I'm intrigued by the offer of a later A.L. Burt cheapo because it features a fontispiece. A Canadian edition as published in 1903 by William Briggs. A UK edition was published in 1904 by Methuen.

The print on demand vultures are all over this novel. My favourite cover is this one, presumably put together after misreading the title:

No dogs feature in the book

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13 September 2019

Constance Beresford-Howe Memorial Plaque

Four weeks from today, Montreal's Writers' Chapel will be celebrating the life and work of Constance Beresford-Howe. The event will end with the unveiling of a plaque in her honour. A Montrealer, Beresford-Howe's earliest writing was published as a McGill  student in the pages  of the Daily and the Forge.

Old McGill 1945

During her studies, she was awarded a Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship, which resulted in the publication of her first novel, The Unreasoning Heart (1946). Nine novels followed, the most celebrated being The Book of Eve (1973), the first in her Voices of Eve trilogy. Beresford-Howe's last novel, A Serious Widow, was published in 1991.

This is a free event and will be followed by a wine and cheese reception.

The Writers' Chapel
St Jax Montréal
1439 St Catherine Street West (Bishops Street entrance)
Friday, October 11th at 6:00 pm

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03 September 2019

Where to Begin with Margaret Millar: A Top Ten

I got off to a bad start with Margaret Millar. Of the twenty-six books published during her lifetime, the first I read was Fire Will Freeze, sent me by a friend who was working for Harold Ober Associates, Millar's literary agents. This was back in the 'eighties, when her novels – some anyway – were being reissued in inelegant editions by International Polygonics. I didn't think much of Fire Will Freeze, in part because I couldn't accept its setting. The dust jacket to the 1944 first edition describes it as a "run-down Quebec chateau," but I knew better. Fire Will Freeze takes place the province's ski country, and there are no chateaus in the Laurentians.

The cover of the International Polygonics edition, depicting a scene and character not found in the novel, is no better.

Twenty-four years passed before I gave Margaret Millar a second chance. I chose a pristine first edition of An Air That Kills I'd found buried in a bin at a Toronto Goodwill. It won me over. I've been pushing Millar ever since. Can you blame me? Margaret Millar was easily one the most talented Canadian writers of the last century, and yet she's almost entirely ignored in this country.

Because I go on so, a friend has asked that I do with Millar what I had done with Grant Allen:
Starting In On Grant Allen: A Top Ten
Though I've read only thirteen Margaret Millar books – half of her total output – I'm happy to advise. What follows, in order of preference, are my ten favourite Millar novels. Titles with links point to blog posts. Titles without links are reviewed in The Dusty Bookcase, the book born of this blog. It's sold by the very finest booksellers.

An Air That Kills (1957)

Two favourite topics, infidelity and murder feature in many Millar novels, though the two aren't always linked. Both come into play here. That An Air That Kills is set in Toronto and Ontario's cottage country, both of which I know all too well, may have elevated it a notch or two in my estimation. As in so many of her novels, recognition that a crime has taken place comes quite late.
The Fiend (1964)

Anthony Boucher described The Fiend as something quite extraordinary. If anything, this is an understatement. Here is a novel about a registered sex offender, whom the author dares us to view with sympathy. He is loved by a woman who is unloved, and we – this reader anyway – come to hope that she gets her man.

Vanish in an Instant (1952)

Set in the fictional town of Arbana (read: Ann Arbor, Michigan). A wealthy, married playboy has been stabbed to death, and an equally wealthy married woman is fingered for the crime. The novel is spoiled somewhat by the intrusion of a love story, but that comes in late and passes soon enough.

Wall of Eyes (1943)

The once well-to-do, dysfunctional Heaths are at the centre of this, Margaret Millar's first Toronto murder mystery. Because it is so entangled in family, an argument may be made that it is her greatest domestic drama. The opening, in which a young woman with sight leads a seeing eye dog through city streets cannot be forgotten.
The Iron Gates (1945)

The novel that paid for Margaret and Kenneth Millar's Santa Barbara home. The Iron Gates was adapted for what was meant to be – but wasn't to be – a Bette Davis film. A psychological thriller (see cover) set in Toronto, at one point the murderer imagines a talking sugar bowl. Perfect for David Cronenberg, right?

Do Evil in Return (1950)

After The Fiend, this is Millar's boldest novel. Bad things happen, but the worst occur after protagonist Dr Charlotte Keating turns away a woman seeking an abortion. I liked this novel when I read it, and was complimentary, but was not complimentary enough. I may be making the same mistake in placing it sixth.

Wives and Lovers (1954)

This is the second of Millar's non-mysteries, which is not to say that there isn't mystery. The first concerns dentist Gordon Foster and his niece's friend. Why is he uncomfortable when her name is mentioned? It's a novel in which one expects a murder, but it never happens.

Beast in View (1955)

The short work for which Millar won the 1956 Edgar Award for Best Novel. Adapted to the small screen in a 1964 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Do not watch the 1986 version, which is Beast in View in name only. Another of the author's psychological novels, I'd like to see Cronenberg give this one a go, too.

Rose's Last Summer (1952)

The only other Millar novel adapted and broadcast on the small screen, this one, appropriately, concerns a faded film star named Rose French. Reduced to living in cramped room, surrounded by her memorabilia, she surprises her landlady by taking a housekeeping job in San Francisco. The next day, her death makes the papers.

The Listening Walls (1959)

Wilma Wyatt is at the tail end of a very bad year in which she suffered  the loss of her parents (plane crash) and husband (divorce), so the idea of a girls' getaway with old friend appealed. One of the pair ends up dead after a fall from their hotel room balcony, and then the other goes missing.

Of the other three that didn't make the cut, Experiment in Springtime is the only one I can recommend. Another non-mysteries, anyone at all interested in the depiction of mental illness in fiction will find it essential reading. The Invisible Worm, Millar's debut, also failed to make the cut, as did Fire Will Freeze – and you know how I feel about Fire Will Freeze.

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