11 September 2013

Grant Allen's Wicked Novel

For Maimie's Sake: A Tale of Love and Dynamite
Grant Allen
New York: F.M. Lupton, [1889?]
"For Maimie's Sake" is equally bad as art and as morals. "Maimie" is a young woman who has a penchant for falling dead in love with all the married men she comes across. This is called "innocence" by Mr. Allen, but it would be very easy to call it something else. Our opinion of "For Maimie's Sake," briefly, is that it is a mischievous and nasty book, unrelieved either by mental insight or humour.
The American, 13 February 1886
It's said that Grant Allen forbade friends from speaking of his commercial fiction, with the exception of For Maimie's Sake which he considered superior to the rest. True, the novel was written with an eye on filthy lucre, but it was just one eye. Allen, who knew the market better than anyone, recognized that it was too off-colour for serialization or lending libraries. Writing publisher Andrew Chatto, he described For Maimie's Sake as a "wicked novel," one that young women would find both shocking and appealing. I break with conventional criticism to suggest that it was written with tongue in cheek. 'Tis a farce... For goodness sake: For Maimie's Sake? A Tale of Love and Dynamite?

Maimie is Maimie Llewellyn, the bewitchingly beautiful, forever flighty product of an English seaside town. The locals see her as an innocent child, despite her twenty years. That Maimie gives kisses so freely to Oxford tutor Adrian Pym and his visiting students only confirms their belief that she is naive and pure. In short, Maimie knows no better.

Unconventional upbringing is meant to account for her behaviour. Allen, the atheist son of a clergyman, tears a strip off his fellow non-believers with Maimie's father, a half-cracked sea captain who believes only in Reason and worships at the alter of Thomas Paine. In this early scene, the captain reacts to his daughter's declaration that a visit to London would be "just heavenly":
     "Just what?" the Captain cried, in a sharp tone of astonished exclamation.
     "Just heavenly!" Maimie repeated, unconscious' of her crime.
     "There's no such thing," the Captain burst out, reddening in the face. "There's no such place. There's no such land at all on the Admiralty chart. There's no such world; there's no such existence anywhere as heaven. And even if there were, it wouldn't in the least resemble London."
Maimie does make her way to London, but only after her father drowns at sea. Now adrift, so to speak, she ends up living in lovely Regent Park with celebrated painter Jocelyn Capriani and his wife Hetty. What the young women of two centuries past made of this arrangement I cannot guess, but these worldly and somewhat jaded eyes quickly recognized the Capriani marriage as "open" with "kisses" used as euphemism. Eventually, Maimie and Jocelyn's smooching becomes a cause of concern for Mrs Capriani. For the first time in her marriage, she fears losing her painter husband to a paramour, and insists that he sever ties.

But who will care for innocent Maimie?

The Caprianis set their sights on Sydney Chevinix, the very same man Adrian Pym Remember him? The Oxford tutor? – suggested Maimie marry.* And why not? What with his wealth, education and breeding, Sydney is pretty much the most eligible bachelor in the country. There is, however... well, privileged Englishmen do have their eccentricities, don't they?

Once a surgeon, since inheriting his uncle's vast estate Sidney has devoted time and fortune in the obsessive pursuit of a silent explosive. To this end he he's hired a Polish Nihilist as his assistant. On the very day of their long sought breakthrough, whilst walking on Primrose Hill, Maimie chances upon Adrian. Passion is rekindled:  
"Adrian," she said, "dearest Adrian, I have loved a great many men in my time  almost every man I've ever met with: but I've never loved anybody yet as I love you, my darling."
There will be kissing.

Maimie returns home, where Sydney shows off the product of his many years work in the form of a silent pistol. She shoots once at a target, then accidentally on purpose at her husband:
"Sydney!" she cried, looking straight in his face, simple and truthful and direct as ever. "You will never forgive me. You can't forgive me..."
Of course he can. As life leaks out of Sydney, and Maimie tells him of her chance meeting with Adrian, he takes pen to paper and composes a suicide note, then turns to his wife:
"There's nothing to forgive, Mamie! It was the impulse of a moment. I know what you are, darling! A child, a dear little simple, innocent child, Mamie. If everyone else would only look at it as I look at it, they'd kiss you, so, and forgive you easily." 
For Maimie's sake, for Maimie's sake... the phrase appears more than three dozen times in this 232-page novel. The title is apt. Sydney's faux suicide note is just one example of the lengths to which its characters will go. For Maimie's sake a servant drives herself to an early grave, a hospital ward is set ablaze, a man kills himself in the Thames, and a nation is denied a discovery that would've secured world dominance.

Allen was correct in describing his novel as wicked; it is also wickedly funny. Should further evidence be required, I point out that one character dies by exploding cigar.
* Adrian himself can't marry Maimie because as an undergraduate he wed secretly – a buxom barmaid named Bessie. Made "bloated and unwholesome from much drink," she dies before the novel's mid-point.   
An observation: "A woman's sympathy is always grateful to a man in adversity, even though the woman herself who gives it be an adamantine communist."

A coincidence: The leader of the Nihilists is a ruthless Russian named Vera Trotsky. Né Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, Leon Trotsky adopted his nom de révolution in 1902, sixteen years after For Maimie's Sake first saw print.

The Nation, 11 February 1886
The critics disagree:
The work is altogether unnatural in tone and action, but one's interest never fails and it is a capital means of an hour's relaxation from more serious reading.
– The Chronicle [University of Michigan], 13 March 1886
Lately we had occasion to commend a recent novel by Mr. Grant Allen. Of his For Maimie's Sake nothing good can be said. It is flashy, coarse, and even ungrammatical.
– The Literary World, 17 April 1886
Object: A survivor of the publish and crumble house of F.M. Lupton, my copy was purchased earlier this year for US$5.99 from an American online bookseller.

Access: Dedicated Allen biographer Peter Morton informs that For Maimie's Sake enjoyed no fewer than nine editions, the last being in 1900, the year after the author's death. Only two copies of any are currently listed for sale online: this Lupton edition and its 1900 reprint. Both in pretty rough shape, and at US$28.44 and $49 are overpriced. Patient souls are advised to try their luck on eBay, where various editions turn up with surprising regularity. The impatient and frugal are directed to the Internet Archive, which provides the 1886 Chatto & Windus first edition onlinegratis.

As always, print on demand copies are to be scorned. Just look at this piece of dreck served up by Miami's Book on Demand. Yours for US$51.49 (plus shipping).

Can it really be that only Kingston Frontenac Public Library, the University of Toronto and University of Manitoba have the book? All others are in microform – presumably the same used by Book on Demand – but no one wants to read that. Suddenly, US$28.44 seems a small price to pay.

1 comment:

  1. The fact that I grew up with an elderly Aunt Maimie makes this all the more amusing to me.