09 July 2009

Chivalry Pays (Eventually)

The Chivalry of Keith Leicester:
A Romance of British Columbia
Robert Allison Hood
Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1918

Born in Scotland, raised in England, a son of privilege, Keith Leicester lives on a ranch near the banks of the Fraser River. He is not to be confused with a remittance man; Keith's troubled past is entirely the fault of former fiancée, femme fatale Patricia Devereux, who threw him over a few years earlier. Now a solitary figure, he's taken refuge in our westernmost province, where he spends his leisure hours with his pipe, paper and dog. This quiet routine is disrupted by the unheralded arrival of the beautiful, mysterious Miss Coon – in actuality, an English heiress named Marjorie Colquhoun. Having run off on a forced engagement, she takes refuge at the homestead of her old nurse.

To misquote Elvis Costello: Chapter One, they didn't really get along. But then they don't get along in chapters two through twenty either. This despite the transplanted Scot's many chivalrous acts. Keith, who considers himself a misogynist, has 'no desire to play squire to distressed damsels', yet finds himself coming to Marjorie's aid time and time again. True to the genre, each good deed is negated by a silly misunderstanding, leaving the long-suffering reader to wonder which act of kindness will stick.

The novel takes its most dramatic turn after Hood moves the action to Vancouver, where Marjorie looks to sell her jewellery in an effort to save her former nurse's farm. She walks through a city that is entirely unrecognizable to today's reader:
Down Granville Street she went to the Post Office and then east along Hastings Street as far as the B.C. Electric Station, but although she saw all kinds of stores and many attractive windows, there was no sign of what she was in search of. There were barbers' poles and electric signs of every description, but the three golden balls were nowhere to be seen. at last she decided that she must ask some one, and she picked out for the purpose a benevolent looking old gentleman with a white beard. For anything else she would have asked a policeman, but she felt instinctively that for this it was best not to consult one of the Force.
'Why bless my soul, what did you say - a pawnbroker?' he sputtered in astonishment, evidently distrusting his ears.
Marjorie repeated her query to reassure him. He looked at her amazed.
'A pawnbroker, miss!' he repeated after her. 'No, I'm afraid not; I never heard of one here...'
Marjorie is eventually successful in her quest, only to be fingered as Slippery Sal, a 'female diamond thief that has been operating in the Eastern cities'. Once again, Keith comes to the rescue. The next chapter finds the heiress dining in 'a gown of pink' as our hero goes on and on about his adopted home.
'You've never known the charms of English Bay at sundown,' he said, waxing eloquent, 'the shimmering tints of crimson and violet and yellow and gold; the opalescent splendours as the radiance gradually dies away; the dark blues and purples of the hills outlined against the sky; the flickering lights of the fishing boats sway out near the horizon; and then, landward, the beach full of people and behind, the town all cheery with its street lamps and its countless gleaming windows.'
'It is everything you said for it and a hundred times more,' Marjorie later tells him.

Vancouver's English Bay, c. 1920.

I've spoiled very little here. Harlequin readers know that matters of the heart are never so simple. Before long several members of the English aristocracy descend on Vancouver, bringing with them a whole new set of complications.

Object: A hardcover, fairly bland for the time, it was published just before Frederick Goodchild left John McClelland and George Stewart to set up his own house. The MG&S edition uses the plates of the American published by fellow Torontonian George H. Doran.

Access: Only one copy of this 'Romance of British Columbia' is found in the province's public libraries. Non-circulating, it rests on a metal shelf at the Central Library in Vancouver. Fifteen more library copies are scattered about the country's universities and in the Toronto Public Library. One of the earliest novels set in British Columbia, it isn't to be found at Library and Archives Canada – a ludicrous situation that, given the shameful moratorium on new purchases, won't be rectified anytime soon. The good news is that used copies sans dust jacket are very cheap. I bought mine three years ago in Vancouver, certainly the centre of interest in things Hoodian, for a buck. Good copies in their 91-year-old dust jackets are often listed in the US$30 range. For about the same price, print on demand publisher Waddell Press offers an ugly 'new' edition with with a cover designed by an illiterate. One Vermont bookseller is offering a copy inscribed by Hood to Isabel Ecclestone Mackay, who is described in their sales pitch as 'another well-known author'. As well-known as Hood, I suppose. The US$298 price tag adds insult.


  1. I apologize if you've answered this elsewhere on your blog, but are all the books you write about here from your own library?

  2. Mark,

    So far. I almost called this thing 'My Dusty Bookcase', but that would've covered everything. (No pun intended.) I should own up to this bit of deception: I have no bookcase dedicated to the obscure, forgotten and ignored; all are housed together. Robert Allison Hood is sandwiched between Hugh Hood and Harold Horwood.