03 January 2014

No Nurture, Just Nature

A Splendid Sin
Grant Allen
London: F.V. White, 1898

Scandalous in its day, time and changing mores have rendered the shocking tame, laying bare a very weak plot. The soft centre is occupied by wealthy Englishman Hubert Egremont and his betrothed, Fede, Marchesa Tomabouni. What fiancée sees in fiancé is a bit of a mystery, though it may have something to do with physique and athletic ability. Handsome Hubert can climb mountains using only his bare hands, but you wouldn't want him at your dinner party. Upright, uptight and boorish, he fancies himself a physiologist and, at age twenty, a leading authority in all matters pertaining to heredity.

Hubert's is a privileged life built upon pedigree. Sadness lies only in that he never knew his father, Colonel Egremont; sustenance is found in stories that his sire was "one of the finest built-soldiers in the British army… a man to be proud of." And yet, Hubert wants more:
"I only wish I could ever have seen my own father. One would like to know what noble characteristics, what intellectual traits one has a chance of inheriting; for to a physiologist, of course, heredity's everything."
As if in answer to Hubert's wish, Papa reappears, seemingly from the grave, intruding on a pre-nuptial meeting of the Egremonts and Tomabounis in a fancy Swiss hotel. A "creature" – Allen uses the word thirty-one times – the elder Egremont is revealed as a bloated, vulgar, drunken villain with an uncanny ability to show up at the very worst time for all involved save himself. Physiologist Hubert is horrified. "I am what I hate", he tells himself. "I am, potentially, all that in my father revolts and disgusts me." He then runs to Mother, who relates an awful story of abuse she'd suffered as a child, culminating in forced marriage. Still, Hubert is unmoved:
"It was a dishonour to yourself and a wrong to me. Epilepsy, insanity, drunkenness, paralysis – how could you burden your son with such legacies as those, mother?… And even if you once married him, how could you continue to live with him? And how could you bring children of your own into the world for him – half his, half yours – hereditary drunkards, hereditary madmen?"
It's next off to newfound Father, so that he may "burst out bitterly": "How dare you reproduce your own vile image?"

Then it's back to Mother, to deliver another lecture: "Every woman is the guardian of her own purity. To live with a man she loathes is a dishonour and degradation to her own body."

I was enjoying that self-important prick Hubert's suffering, so was greatly disappointed when his mother rescues him from torment by revealing that Colonel is not his father, rather he is the result of an affair with an American poet now dead.

I shouldn't have been surprised; there was much talk of the poet, an intimate of Marchese Tomabouni, earlier in the book. Where Colonel Egremont is a creature, the poet is invariably described as a "Man" – who stands with Giuseppes Mazzini and Garibaldi in having "so deeply stirred the soul of Italy".

Of course, he also stirred something within Hubert's mother:
"He was beautiful and noble-hearted," Mrs Egremont went on – "a leader among men; a teacher and thinker; and there, in those glorious streets, among those glorious churches, he taught me new lessons – oh, Hubert, dare I say them? He taught me it was wrong for me to remain one day longer under the same roof with the husband whom I loathed – told me in almost the self-same words as those you used to-day, that in yielding myself up to a man I despised, I profaned and dishonoured my own body."
The poet, it seems, restored honour to Mrs Egromont's body:
"One evening at Venice," the mother continued, "he pressed me close to his heart – his great beautiful heart – oh, close, so close; and he cried aloud to me, in a sense I had never before realized, those beautiful words, 'Whom God hath joined, let not man put asunder.'"
A simple "Oh, God!" is a more common cry at such moments, but then he was a poet.

The climax of the book, the sixty-one pages that follow aren't really worth the effort. The reader is given reason to believe that the creature Colonel is hatching some sort of clever scheme, but this turns out to be nothing more than a simple break and enter in search of incriminating letters. Caught in the act, he goes mad.

"This collapse is final," Hubert informs those witnessing the pathetic sight. "I knew it was coming."

Oh, that Hubert! Every bit his father's son.

An excerpt from Hubert's 'Philosophy of Love':
With the savage, almost any one squaw is as good as another; he discriminates little between woman and woman. The rustic begins to demand, at least, physical beauty; higher cultivated types are progressively fastidious; they ask for something more than mere ordinary prettiness – they must have soul, and heart, and intelligence, and fancy.
A query: If the tale of the abuse Mrs Egremont suffered at the hands of her cruel mother are true, why is Hubert not concerned that he has inherited similar traits?

Object: A bulky hardcover numbering 244 pages, sixteen of which take the form of a publisher's catalogue. While F.V. White has no more Allens to offer, there are many worthwhile titles, including: Naughty Mrs Gordon by "Rita", Mrs Edward Kennard's Guide Book for Lady Cyclists, and a wealth of novels by John Strange Winter (pseud. Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Stannard).

The endpapers and back cover feature advertisements of a less literary kind.

Access: First published in 1896, the F.V. White edition enjoyed three printings. That same year, George Bell & Sons issued an edition for we in the colonies. It was last published in 1899 by New York publisher F.M. Buckles. So, how is it that this novel is so scarce? My copy, purchased last year from a Mancunian bookseller, is the only I've ever seen for sale. The lone copy listed on WorldCat is found in the Kingston-Frontenac Public Library, a few kilometres from the author's childhood home. Not even the British Library has a copy.

To those tempted by the offerings of print on demand vultures, I offer Nabu's cover for this tale of romance and revelation amongst the Swiss Alps.

Caveat emptor!

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