13 May 2019

Grant Allen's Breezy Read



An Army Doctor's Romance
Grant Allen
London: Raphall Tuck & Sons, [1893]
113 pages

The publisher lowers expectations with a note presenting this novella as part of its Breezy Library, "an attempt to dissociate a shilling from a shocker." Rafael Tuck & Sons would like the reader to know that this is no Shilling Shocker, rather it is a "Shilling Soother." The unpleasant elements of other Grant Allen tales – adultery (A Splendid Sin), fraud (Miss Cayley's Adventures), arson (The Devil's Die), rail disasters (What's Bred in the Bone), suicide (Under Sealed Orders), assassination (For Maimie's Sake), poisoning (A Terrible Inheritance), and cannibalism (The Cruise of the Albatross) – will not feature. No man will be butted off a cliff by a savage moorland ram (Michael's Crag).

I don't believe I've read so slight a story as An Army Doctor's Romance since childhood. We open on "fresh English rosebud" Muriel Grosvenor, the object of affection of two men serving in the Royal West Badenochs. Oliver Cameron, the first we meet, is a handsome doctor of modest means. His rival, Captain Wilfred Burgess, is just as handsome, and has the advantage of being enormously wealthy. Of the two, Muriel's mother prefers the latter, but the heart wants what the heart wants. During an English garden party on an idyllic English summer's day, the army doctor professes his love and proposes marriage. Muriel in turn declares her love, but stops short of accepting the proposal for the reason that she promised her mother she would not. Her promise to Oliver Cameron is that she will accept no other proposals.

Thwarted by scheming widow Mrs Talbot, who threw Muriel and the doctor together, Capt Burgess has no opportunity to make his own play for Muriel's hand, and so has to resort to a proposal sent by Royal Mail. Mrs Grosvenor pressures her daughter into accepting by post. After the response has been sent, Muriel writes a quick follow-up, breaking off the engagement and "blaming herself not a little for her moral cowardice." But she misses the postman! To make matters worse, Dr Cameron, Capt Burgess, and the rest of the Royal West Badenochs have shipped out to deal with the Matabeles in Matabeleland!


Curiously, surprisingly, in something touted as a "Shilling Soother," there is unpleasantness in the form of a Matabele attack on the Badenochs. Cameron is captured and Burgess is injured horribly. Each thinks the other has been killed. The doctor is released by the enemy and eventually makes his way back to England. Meanwhile, the captain is nursed back to health by Miriam, the beautiful daughter of a famous missionary. Burgess falls in love... but what to do about his engagement to Muriel? The situation is resolved with ease, and everyone goes off happily.

Breezy indeed, An Army Doctor's Romance passed before my eyes without once causing me to pause and give thought. Following Eden Phillpotts'  Summer Clouds and Other Stories (1893), it was the third volume in the Breezy Library. Only three more followed.

I'm not surprised.

Trivia I: By far the least imaginative of the fourteen Allen novels and novellas I've read to date, I was surprised to discover that An Army Doctor's Romance was well-received by contemporary reviewers.

The Publishers' Circular (Christmas 1893)
The most puzzling was a review in The Speaker (25 November 1893), which describes the plot as "distinctly ingenious."

Trivia II: In reading this novel – written for the money, surely – I came to believe that Allen was having some fun with the Breezy Library name because the words "breeze" and "breezy" appear four times in the text. However, research revealed that the words appear no less than nineteen times in the The Devil's Die (1890), my favourite Allen novel.

Object and Access: An attractive, somewhat unusual volume, the image and writing on the flexible chromolithographic cover are raised. The image is of Dr Oliver Cameron. His actions are a mystery to me. The interior features seven more images. All are by military artist Harry Payne.

Six of our university libraries hold copies, but not Library and Archives Canada. I've found five copies listed for sale online US$70 to US$250. I won my copy for US$16.99 in an online auction. As is often the case with things Allen, I was the only bidder.

The novella can be read online through this link thanks to the University of Alberta and the Internet Archive.

I don't recommend it.

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