29 August 2009

Dedicated to the One I Love

Fetish Girl
Sylvia Bayer [pseud. John Glassco]
New York: Venus Library, 1972

I usually don't pay much attention to dedications, but the one in Up the Hill and Over has got me thinking. Isabel Ecclestone Mackay dedicated the novel to her mother Priscilla, adding, 'who might have liked the book had she lived to read it'. A bit odd, it becomes stranger still when one reads the novel and discovers that a mother and a step-mother serve as the two villains. I'm probably making too much of this, but in my defence, I point out that dedications are usually such bland things – any small display of eccentricity or emotion stays in the mind. Here, for example, is the dedication in The Woman Who Did (1895) by our forgotten countryman Grant Allen:

Allen's once controversial 'New Woman' novel seems fairly tame today; not so John 'Buffy' Glassco's pseudonymous Fetish Girl, the story of Ursula, a 'pretty long-legged bitch of wide and varied experience'. A sympathetic figure, the poor girl lives in frustration, due entirely to her inability to find a man who shares her fixation on things rubber. This, the reader is reminded, is in the days before the World Wide Web. Fortune changes, as it often does, when on vacation. Lounging beside a motel swimming pool, Ursula spots Adrian, an effeminate man sporting black latex trunks. The die is cast when he dons a tight fitting rubber bathing cap. Let the fun begin!

Glassco placed Fetish Girl with Harriet Marwood, Governess as his favourite piece of writing, in part, due to ease of composition. However, as publication approached, he struggled with the dedication. Glassco's desire was to pay tribute to Marion McCormick, who would become his second wife, but he knew that she would not appreciate having her name associated with a work of pornography. He ended up dedicating the book to himself, because, as he wrote friend Leon Edel, 'I am getting on in years and no one ever dedicated a book to me.'

Object: Paper and binding are typical of 'seventies mass market paperbacks; were it not for the contents and cover image it might well have been published by Bantam. And about that cover, Glassco hated the thing before he ever set eyes on it, complaining to a confidant: 'A friend in New York tells me it has a rather stupid illustrated cover of a girl in wet clothes coming out of the ocean – which is not what the book is about at all!'

Access: The novel was reissued – sadly, sans dedication – by Blue Moon in 2001, but is again out of print. That said, it can be bought 'as new' for under US$3. Queen's University holds Glassco's personal copies, one of which is inscribed in his hand: 'And once again to Buffy from Sylvia'. Really, libraries aren't much help – just two others, Library and Archives Canada and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have copies of the first edition, while the reissue is held only by the Library of Congress. My hunt for the first edition lasted several years, reaching a successful conclusion last December. The bookseller, who asked US$25, appeared to have no idea as to the true identity of the author.

Further Fetish Girl: Fraser Sutherland's highly entertaining and informative 'Sylvia Bayer and the Search for Rubber' looks not only at the novel, but the debt owed by Margaret Laurence, Marion Engel and, above all, Margaret Atwood. Also recommended is Stephen J. Gertz's history of the Venus Library imprint.


  1. This looks intriguingly peculiar. I have to admit to being a bit of a Grant Allen fan, though my cheapo copy of 'The Woman Who Did' doesn't include the dedication. I especially enjoyed 'The Typewriter Girl' and 'The Thames Valley Catastrophe', and have his 'The British Barbarians' on the way in the post.

  2. Strange, I live in the province in which Allen was born and raised, yet the only people I've encountered who know his work are Australian. Added to this, the best website I've found on the man comes courtesy of an associate professor at Flinders University.

    Can't let this opportunity pass without drawing your attention to
    the Tutis cover for The Great Taboo, which Allen set in Polynesia.

  3. That Allen site looks great--he produced so much it's hard to know what to read next, so this will be most useful.

    That Tutis book... bloody hell. Is that He-Man of the Masters of the Universe?

  4. Re the Allen site: I love some of the one-line summaries of his short stories...

    "Joe kicks his wife to death for selling his prized lilies."

    "A naturalist in Africa secures a rare orchid in the jungle but has it taken from him and eaten by a gorilla."

    "Murderous doctor is haunted by the apparition of the feet of his dead wife."

    "An African chief is converted to Christianity, and finds it necessary to murder his latest 'wife' to meet the missionary's requirements."

  5. I'd always meant to include Allen in the blog at some point, but you've convinced to do so sooner rather than later. And so, I've just placed an order for a fine first edition of Michael's Crag (1893), which the Allen site tells me concerns 'Michael Trevennack, a public servant of proud Cornish ancestry, [who] suffers from an intermittent belief that he is the Archangel Michael.' Who can resist?