17 January 2011

A Termination that Dare Not Speak Its Name

The Letter of the Contract
Basil King
New York: Harper and Brothers, 1914

The contract in question concerns the marriage of Edith and Chipman Walker of the New York Chipman Walkers. Theirs is a union in which happiness has "grown more intense every month, each week, each day", and yet all is shaken when a not so young woman is spotted gazing at their luxurious Manhattan home from the park across the street. Just who is this "pathetically unobtrusive" figure? Elegant Edith, who simply must know, approaches the coy voyeur one fine spring day and makes a shocking discovery. It seems that eleven years earlier, before the Walkers had so much as met, Chip and this woman, simple-minded actress Maggie Clare, had had a relationship that involved "everything"... well, almost everything – from the start, Chip had made it plain that marriage was not in their future.

The exchange between Edith and Maggie gives way to confrontation when Chip arrives on the scene. Poor bewildered Maggie is caught in the whirlwind, as captured wonderfully by illustrator James Montgomery Flagg.

Edith accuses her husband of breaking "the letter of the contract". But has he? After all, his trysts with Maggie took place years before the marriage. Or could it be... could it be that Chip continued seeing the actress as a married man? We really can't be sure. So much of the unpleasantness in The Letter of the Contract is cloaked and screened.

Divorce, the subject of this book, is mentioned by name on only one of its 210 pages – but it does take place, propelled by Edith's Aunt Emily. At the end of it all, Edith emerges dissatisfied; the whole degrading, painful process had failed to bring Chip "a realizing sense of what he had done to her." She takes the children to Europe, expecting that the move will have an effect. When that fails, Edith considers marriage to an unattractive, weedy Englishman:
If she did marry he would know at last to what he had forced her. He would have forced her to looking to another man for what she should have had from him – and then he would be repentant. Surely he would be repentant then!
Meanwhile, Chip contemplates turning to the bottle:
He had known fellows who drank themselves to death; and except in the last dreadful stages it hadn't been so bad. They had certainly got their fun out of it, even if in the end they paid high. He was paying high – and perhaps getting nothing at all. Wouldn't it be better if he went off this minute somewhere, and made a night of it? – made a night which would be the beginning of a long succession of nights of the same kind? Then when he was ruined beyond recovery, or in his grave, Edith would know what she had done to him.
And so they move through their separate lives, each obsessing over the other, neither particularly happy or satisfied.

There is a message in this misery, one the author, a retired Anglican clergyman, first hammered home in his 1901 novel Let No Man Put Asunder.

In The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, Ken MacKinnon writes that The Letter of the Contract illustrates how "King's clever plots were declining into mere formulae". I won't disagree. As with all bland novels, I found myself clinging to the curious and quirky. Here these come in the veiled allusions to lesbianism. For instance, we have Aunt Emily, a spinster who surrounds herself with a "little circle of adorers". Even more interesting are the Misses Partridge, whom we encounter playing host to the writers and poets of Europe. Though sisters, Rosamond – "who looked like a coachman" – and the "thin and angular" Gladys appear to be based on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.

They were then in their seventh year as a couple.

No contract, though.

The woman's tears began to flow again.
"It's because I don't know what to do. When he doesn't come anymore–"
"Oh, so he doesn't come."
"Not unless I make him."
Trivia: James Montgomery Flagg work is also found in Reverend King's 1917 novel The Lifted Veil. Though an accomplished book illustrator, he's best remembered for his wartime propaganda posters, including this:

Object: An unremarkable hardcover, enlivened by four Flagg illustrations, my weathered copy was bought for $2.98 eight years ago in a Vancouver bookstore that specialized in science fiction, sword and sorcery, and comic books. It lacks the uncommon dust jacket. Edward N. Zempel and Linda A. Verkler's First Editions: A Guide to Identifications would have me believe that I own a first edition. If so, I suspect my copy is a second issue, following this marginally more opulent variant.

Access: An old familiar story, The Letter of the Contract is found in university libraries across the country, but when it comes to the public only Toronto serves. It is not held by Library and Archives Canada. The reverend's work being in the public domain, the print on demand folks have moved in. Nearly all ask more than US$15, at which price one can find a Very Good copy of the 97-year-old Harper first edition. Only one bookseller offers a copy with dust jacket – pretty rotten condition, though at US$50 it seems a fair price. An Aberdeen bookseller holds the distinction of listing the lone copy of the more attractive English edition (Methuen, 1914) – at £20, it too seems fair. The unfair? Look no further than the New York bookseller that lists no less than fourteen different POD editions at prices ranging from US$33.95 to US$153.95 (pictured). Expect to pay a further US$10.50 in shipping .

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