04 November 2009

Not Very Occult

The Inner Shrine: A Novel of Today
Anonymous [Basil King]
New York: Grosset & Dunlop, n.d.

On 28 July 1912, the New York Times published a letter from one Parker Mann of Nestlewood. Under the heading "WHO WROTE IT?", Mr Mann reports: "A friend has told me of a lady who gave her a most circumstantial account of the writing of 'The Inner Shrine' by the lady's uncle, a gentleman named Wilson. This gentleman, it seems, is now dead."

Coming four years after the novel first appeared in Harper's, the letter just added to a very large, ever-swirling mass of misinformation, speculation and rumour. From the start, the publisher played it all up, at one point announcing that no less than 34 names had been mentioned in print as the possible author. In the United States, The Inner Shrine became the biggest selling book of 1909.

I imagine publishers of The Calling would be envious.

Two weeks after Mann's letter, the truth was out – the anonymous novelist was not a man named Wilson, nor was it Edith Wharton or Henry James, but Basil King, a retired clergyman from Canada's Maritime provinces.

The reverend wasn't a complete unknown. Once a popular pastor, he'd turned to writing novels when his failing eyesight forced early retirement. The first three, published under his name, were well-received and had achieved modest sales, but nothing like that enjoyed by The Inner Shrine.

Well-crafted, if wordy, the novel is a drawing room drama of the sort familiar to readers of William Dean Howells (whose daughter, Mildred, was amongst those named as the author). Like the reverend's previous works, it focusses on matters moral; in this case the trials of a woman whose reputation is sullied by a boastful, self-centred aristocrat. Really, what it all comes down to is some guy saying he slept with a girl, when he didn't.

This was, of course, a different time; one in which stepping into a motor is to invite accident and these are words of woo: "I've become even more deeply conscious than I was before of the ineradicable nature of what I feel for you."

Ah, yes. There's also a minor scandale that devolopes when a suitor displays effrontery in touching a young lady's muff.

No ribald comments, please.

The Inner Shrine is an entertaining, if disappointing, read. King was known as a writer with a great interest in spiritualism, and so, I was expecting a good deal of weirdness. All starts off well, with a very strong first chapter in which a mother is kept awake by a seemingly inexplicable "presentiment of disaster".

She soon learns that her son is dead.

At a lighter moment, one character tells another of her belief that "there are forces at work here that you and I don't see."

"How very occult!" is the response.

Yet, there's otherwise no evidence of the reverend's interest in the otherworldly.

Or am I wrong? Could it be that the author had a preminition that his anonymity would be a big deal? The novel includes this brief passage, apropos of nothing:
Do you remember what Sir Walter Scott said, in the days when the authorship of Waverley was still a secret, to the indiscreet people who asked him if he had written it? 'No,' he answered 'but if I had I should give you the same reply.'
Oh, those indiscreet people... always so curious to know who wrote that book they so enjoyed.

Object: My copy, a Grosset & Dunlop reprint, owes its look to the 1909 Harper and Brothers first edition. Cheaper paper, black cover type instead of gold, it drops four of the eight plates, but has the advantage of some interesting adverts for other Grosset & Dunlop offerings. Much as I enjoyed The Inner Shrine, I can't help but think that these two would've been more fun:

Access: The time has come to take yet another swipe at the polluted world of POD publishing. I direct the back of my hand at booksellers who clutter the online used sites with "brand new" copies of public domain titles like The Inner Shrine. One English bookseller, located in Exeter, claims to have an inventory of 18 copies, published by the very fine firms of ReadHowYouWant, IndyPublish, Bibliobazar, 1st World Library, the Echo Press and two others that he seems unable to identify. Prices range from C$24 to C$84 – for the very same POD copies that can be purchased through Amazon for C$14 to C$36. I recommend the first edition, which is readily available in Very Good condition from more reputable sellers for as little as C$8.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I am so happy to have found this review. I just got the 1909 copy as a gift and was worried I wouldn't find any information, especially because it never mentioned the author's name anywhere. It is so wonderful to learn about the book's history! Thank you so much!