08 April 2016

The Busiest Man in England Lays Down His Pen

Hilda Wade: A Woman With Tenacity of Purpose
Grant Allen [and Arthur Conan Doyle]
New York: Putnam, 1900

A novel written by a dying man, Hilda Wade ends in reconciliation, redemption and a deathbed scene. Arthur Conan Doyle tells us that this is just as the author intended. I don't doubt it. A good friend, Doyle completed the novel Allen could not, following the story the stricken author sketched from his own deathbed. "He was much worried because there were two numbers of his serial, 'Hilda Wade,' which was running in 'The Strand' magazine, still uncompleted," Doyle writes in his Memories and Adventures. "It was a pleasure for me to do them for him, and so relieve his mind, but it was difficult collar work, and I expect they were pretty bad."

Such modesty.

Doyle's chapters are every bit as good as the average. The best of Hilda Wade comes in the first half of the  book, in which narrator Doctor Hubert Cumberledge introduces our heroine. Hilda Wade is a nurse at
London's St Nathaniel's Hospital. Not the finest of institutions, she left the more prestigious St. George's for the opportunity to work with the world-famous Professor Sebastian, a man who has done more than any other to advance the science of medicine. In Nurse Wade's words, she wants "to be near Sebastian." Cumberledge understands fully – then he doesn't understand at all. Our narrator, who sees Sebastian as the greatest of men, a godlike presence in a milieu in which death threatens, is bewildered that Hilda does not share his unquestioning admiration.

There is mystery about Hilda. She reveals nothing of herself, yet knows much about others. Blessed with an eidetic memory and "so large a  measure of the deepest feminine gift – intuition," she proves her character exemplary in several dramas that play out in St. Nathaniel's
and amongst Cumberledge's family members and friends. Hilda's powers are boosted by her creator's theories about evolution and high regard for Furneaux Jordan's 1896 Character as Seen in Body and Parentage (acknowledged incorrectly as "Character in Body and Parentage" in the novel's first edition). Nowhere is this more evident than in third and fourth chapters – "The Wife Who Did Her Duty" and "The Man Who Would Not Commit Suicide" – in which Hilda predicts correctly that Cumberledge's gentle friend Hugo Le Geyt, QC, will kill his newlywed wife. The nurse goes on to forecast the murderer's suicide, which she is certain will be made to look like an accident. No clairvoyant, Hilda cites the actions of several of Le Geyt's ancestors and relatives as providing a template:
"Another, Marcus, was said to have shot himself by accident while cleaning his gun – after a quarrel with his wife. But you have heard all about it. 'The wrong was on my side,' he moaned, you know, when they picked him up, dying, in the gun-room. And one of the Faskally girls, his cousins, of whom his wife was jealous – that beautiful Linda – became a Catholic and went into a convent at once on Marcus's death: which, after all, in such cases, is merely a religious and moral way of committing suicide..." 
My favourite passage in the book.

The doctor comes to play Watson to Hilda's Holmes. I like to think Doyle was amused. Midway through the novel, the secret of Hilda Wade – true name: Maisie Yorke-Bannerman – is revealed to both reader and villain. That villain is, of course, Sebastian. The professor tries to murder the nurse, but his ingenuity is no match for that of our heroine. He fails because hers is the greater mind; indeed, Hilda – Maisie, if you prefer –  is the most intelligent character encountered in the ten Allens I've read thus far.

Given the circumstances of composition, it might be unseemly to complain about the novel's weaknesses, but regular readers know I will. After Sebastian's botched attempt on her life, Maisie flees for Africa, seeking refuge until it is safe to return return to London. A besmitten
Cumberledge uses Maisie's methods of detection and, taking advantage of a lucky break, manages to find her in South Africa. Though the seven (of twelve) chapters that follow, narrator and heroine wander, as does the novel itself. Rhodesia, India, Tibet and the Mediterranean feature as the narrative shifts, rather abruptly, from one of Victorian mystery and detection to a series of adventure stories set in the colonies. Each is interesting in its own way – one features escape from a Matabele uprising by bicycle – but the reader recognizes that there was serialization to consider. Twelve numbers were demanded and, thanks to Doyle, twelve numbers were delivered.

I've noted before, because I believe the claim to be true, that Allen considered himself "the busiest man in England." He died at the age of fifty-two, leaving behind dozens of articles, poems, short stories, and a greater number of books than years lived. Had they been bad, the numbers would mean nothing, but Allen is easily the finest novelist born in Victoria's Canada.

He is a writer worth knowing.

Certainly, Doyle thought so.


Object and Access: A 383-page novel with ninety-eight – ninety-eight! – illustrations by Gordon Browne and five pages of advertisements for other Putnam titles, including Allen's Miss Cayley's Adventures (also illustrated by Browne).

The stuff of academic libraries, though residents of Allen's birthplace are served by the Kingston Frontenac Public Library. The Canadian Museum of History Library and Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec succeed where Library and Archives Canada fails.

The dreck produced by print on demand vultures aside, Hilda Wade is not at all common. The novel made its debut in the pages of The Strand (March 1899 - February 1900). The true first edition was published in 1900 by London's Grant Richards (right). The first Canadian (Copp, Clark) and American (Putnam) followed that same year.

Follow the flag? I'd say so. Of the three, Copp, Clark's is easily the most rare; there isn't one listed for sale online. Of the few that are in other editions, a £30 defaced copy of the Grant Richards offered by a Goring-by-Sea bookseller is by far the cheapest. Ignore him and you're left with three other copies priced at £452,  £495 and £500. Pictured right, the £500 copy was listed  for sale (not auction) on eBay just two days ago. The copy to own, I say, it's inscribed by the author's widow, Nellie.

The Putnam edition is offered by a couple of Yankee booksellers, but they're no bargains: US$224.25 and US$250. I won my copy on eBay for US$6.00 at the beginning of February. It might be a good idea to watch and wait.

The novel was last published in 1902 by George Newnes as part of his Popular Sixpenny Novels series. Not a sign of that edition, either.

The Grant Richards, Putnam and Copp, Clark editions can be read and downloaded gratis at the Internet Archive.

I'm aware of two translations: Polish (Hilda Wada, 1900) and French (La Vengeance de Hilda Wade, 2013). Michael Wynn's brilliant and invaluable Grant Allen website raises the possibility of an  Italian text.


  1. If the world-famous Professor Sebastian "has [or is supposed to have - presumably as a villain he hasn't actually] done more than any other to advance the science of medicine" why is he at St Nathaniel's Hospital, not the finest of institutions, rather than the more prestigious St. George's? Or do we have to read the book to find out?

    1. A fair question, Roger. Perhaps I should have chosen different words. St Nathaniel's is depicted as a hospital that serves the working class and impoverished. I can't recall whether it is stated outright, but there is at least an implication that Sebastian finds more interesting ailments amongst the poor. Of course, that he devotes his life in this way only bolsters the public's admiration.

      I may as well add that it becomes very clear to Cumberledge and Maisie that Sebastian doesn't care much about his patients, seeing them merely as cases through which he will be able to advance medical science. In this way, he resembles to Dr Harry Chichele in Allen's 1888 novel The Devil's Die (my favourite to date).