03 January 2015

Romance Turns Russian Nihilist Reluctant

Under Sealed Orders
Grant Allen
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, [n.d.]

A nineteenth-century novel of espionage and intrigue, the beginning of Under Sealed Orders reads like a work of Victorian erotica. It opens in the studio of painter Sacha Cazalet as she studies her model:
Sacha looked up at him in his becoming running suit; he'd been sitting, or rather posing, for her as joint winner at the tape in her spirited picture of "A Dead Heat – the Finish," and she thought to herself as she looked, though he was her own brother, that a handsomer or finer-built or stronger-looking young man wasn't to be found that day in the length and breadth of England. She drew a deep breath, and added a delicate touch to the stiffened muscle of the straining forearm.
Balancing the scene is Aunt Julia, "a distributor of tracts and good counsel gratis," fairly acting the role of chaperone. The threesome is joined the following day by the mysterious Mr Hayward, a bachelor who encourages athleticism in Sacha's brother – name: Owen – and delights in seeing him race other fit young men. A photographer by trade, Mr Hayward is Owen's "affectionate guardian". Two times a year, he leaves business aside to take his ward off to some exotic locale or other.

This time, Morocco!

Mr Hayward informs the young man of the travel plans at the close of a chapter titled "Diplomatic Discipline". When next we see the pair they're standing together on the deck of a Cunard liner bound for Tangier.

The reader hoping for something akin to The Romance of Lust or A Night in a Moorish Harem will be frustrated. Mr Hayward's secret has naught to do with carnality; he is an exiled Russian prince who, having seen the suffering of the peasant, is ready for revolution. To this end he has been grooming Owen – the son of a Russian aristocrat and English mother, both two decades dead – for a position in the British foreign service. Once accepted, his ward is to await a time when he is afforded an opportunity to assassinate the Tsar.

Seems a real long shot, I know, but standing on the deck of the unnamed Cunard ship, Mr Hayward (né Prince Ruric Brassoff) has considerable confidence in his plan. Sadly, he hadn't anticipated his ward's urges.

During their travels, Owen is smitten by Ionê Dracopoli, an English-born Amazonian adventuress intent on making a solo expedition across Morocco on horseback. The guardian does his darndest to discourage, reminding his ward of his mission in life, but… well, Owen is twenty-one. He'd like to keep away, but sister Sacha just happens to count Ionê as a BFF.

Strange that brother and best friend hadn't met before.

Sacha sells a painting for a magnificent sum, enabling her to take a London apartment with Ionê and a very odd young woman they've nicknamed Blackbird. Try as he might, Owen can't help but visit. It's not long before he declares his love for his sister's roommate (not the peculiar one).

Ah, youth.

In embracing Ionê, Owen rejects the mission laid out by Mr Hayward. Well, you can imagine the turmoil!

From here Allen strikes out in directions that would spoil in the telling. Tempted as I am, I'll hold back.

In the author's œuvre, Under Sealed Orders is average, which is to say that it is much better than most put forth by his contemporaries. Whether it's worth a read has a whole lot to do with one's interest in Russian history and politics. I don't much care for the topics myself, though I was very much interested in the dynamics of the flat shared by "New Woman" adherents Sacha, Ionê and Blackbird.

There's a part of me that is still twenty-one.

Object: A 321-page hardcover with six plates by H.C. Edwards and a further eight pages of publisher's advertisements. I bought my copy last spring from an Illinois bookseller for US$6.95 (plus US$10 shipping). On the surface it seems a very attractive book, but look inside and you'll see poorly printed, cramped type that is hard on the eyes. Edwards' illustrations leave much to be desired.

Access: Serialized in People during the latter half of 1894, the novel first appeared in book form the following year. That first edition, published in three volumes by Chatto & Windus, can be read online at the Internet Archive. The earliest copy I've found being sold online is the 1898 Chatto & Windus reissue (right) offered at US$125 by L.W. Currey.

Pretending that it dates from 1896, a New York State bookseller offers the same Grosset & Dunlap edition as mine. It's not in the greatest shape but at US$9.00 might be worth it had he not decided to charge US$22.00 to ship.

Other than those two copies, all you've got is garbage issued by a venue of print on demand vultures.

The novel is held in one edition or another by ten of our university libraries. No public library has a copy – that serving Kingston, the author''s hometown, included.

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  1. I give you credit for going to great lengths to obtain these books.
    BTW, I just did a write-up on Toronto's on "Golden Amazon":http://www.spysafehouse.com/pulp/golden-amazon-world-beneath-ice-john-russel-fearn.php
    Never new before there was such a hero pulp!

  2. Nice to have the effort recognized, Tim. I like to think the collection will one day be worth a tenth as much to a university library as it does to me.

    And my thanks for bringing your piece on the Golden Amazon to my attention. I first became aware of her through the early Harlequins - The Golden Amazon, The Golden Amazon's Triumph and The Deathless Amazon - but have more or less ignored her because she was created by a Brit. Not that there's anything wrong that, but Canadian literature is my thing. There's just so much I can keep track of.