08 August 2017

The Parents of the Children of the Revolution

Edith Percival; Or, Her Heart or Her Hand
May Agnes Fleming
New York: Street & Smith [c. 1917]
215 pages

Published not long after the United States entered the Great War, my copy of Edith Percival features a request from the publishers. It seems Street & Smith were struggling with unspecified wartime conditions – paper shortages most probably – but were bravely soldiering on in trying to supply titles by bestsellers Bertha Clay, Charles Garvier, Nicholas Carter, Mary J. Holmes, Harriet Lewis, Horatio Alger, and New Brunswick's own May Agnes Fleming. And so, the request: "In short, we are asking you to take what your dealer can supply, rather than to insist upon just what you want. You won't lose anything by such substitution, because the books by the authors named are very uniform in quality."

I won't say that one May Agnes Fleming book is as as good as the next because Edith Percival pales beside The Midnight Queen, the only other I've read.

On the surface, the two are similar: historical novels with action, romance and a touch of the supernatural. The Midnight Queen takes place over the course of a particularly eventful evening in 1666 London; though a much shorter book, Edith Percival, spans many months, perhaps years, during the American Revolution. It begins with two handsome young men, good friends Fred Stanley and Gus Elliott, on the deck the Mermaid, a schooner bound from Paris to Boston. "Well, Fred," says Gus, in the novel's first line of dialogue, "since, as you say, you neither have a lady-love in America nor expect a legacy there, I confess it puzzles me to know what inducement could have been strong enough to make you quit Paris."

Clearly, Gus doesn't know all that much about his pal. Happily, Fred's response brings Gus and the reader up to speed. He and we learn that Fred is the son of Sir William Stanley, a bigamist with wives in both the Old and New Worlds. Though born in the Thirteen Colonies, he was raised and educated in England. The young man is now returning to the New World so as to confront his father, who expects his help in quelling disent. Fred's is an extreme case of nature over nurture: "Am I not an American by birth – an American in heart and soul – a thousand times prouder of the glorious land in which I was born than of my father's broad acres in merrie England?"

I don't know. Are you, Fred? After all, you've spent nearly all of your life in merrie England. Might your feelings have something to do with the way your father treated your late mother? As an orphan, friend Gus doesn't have mommy and daddy issues, though he does tend to go on about about the feelings he has for his cousin.

Enter Edith Percival!

No, wait. Before this happens the Mermaid goes down in an terrible storm. All hands are lost save Fred, Gus, and the ship's captain. The trio endure days of agony aboard a raft crafted in the maelstrom before being rescued by American privateers. "Yours was a narrow escape, Mr. Stanley," says Captain Dale, the commander of the privateer.

Indeed, it was! No sooner has Dale uttered the words than a burning ship is spotted on the horizon. Fred leads a team of men intent on saving souls – and then breaks away from the group, risking his life to rescue the only woman aboard.

Enter Edith Percival!

The Midnight Queen has an evil dwarf, whores playing at being aristocrats, and a seductive masked woman who at the end of the novel is revealed to have nothing but a skull for a head. Edith Percival is more restrained. Fred falls in love with Edith, but has a rival in Ralph De Lisle, to whom Edith has been betrothed since childhood. There
are uncomfortable encounters and things are left unsaid. After thirty pages of this, I had all but lost interest, until Nell, Edith's cheeky little sister, suggests a visit to the Hermit of the Cliffs.

Dismissed by Nugent, Edith's brother, as "some unfortunate, whom the cares of the world have made an idiot," the hermit is something of a mystic. Not only is he aware of the last meeting between Fred and his father, which ended with Sir William disowning his rebel son, he has can see something of the challenges the young man must meet in the future. The hermit is the most interesting character in Edith Percival – as recognized in the title publisher F.M. Upton gave its edition (c. 1865). Though we don't see much of the man, he plays a pivotal role in saving Fred's life. Mere seconds before our hero is to be executed as a traitor at the hands of his terrible father, the mystic man appears and whispers something in Sir William's ear:
The effect was appalling. Sir William staggered back, with ghastly face and straining eye-balls, then with one wild cry: "Oh, Great Heaven!" the strong man fell stricken to the ground.
All were bewildered, amazed, terrified! Several rushed forward to raise the prostrate man, whilst the others surrounded Fred, who had risen to his feet, under the vague impression that he was in some way about to escape. The hermit, as he passed him, whispered "Fear not, you are safe!" And a moment after he was gone.
What did the hermit whisper to Sir William? I couldn't wait to find out! But in reading the remaining eighty-six pages I became increasingly concerned. I recognized the story arc, and so came to wonder where all this was leading. The trajectory was ever upward:
  • Fred angers Major Percival by telling him that he's in love with Edith;
  • Edith declares her love for Fred and refuses to marry De Lisle;
  • De Lisle kidnaps Edith so as to force her into matrimony;
  • Fred, Gus, and Nugent attempt to rescue Edith, and are captured in the process;
  • De Lisle delays killing Fred because he wants him to witness his marriage to Edith.  
Things become dark, and darker still. I was riveted right up to the very last until sentence:
In No. 1036 of the NEW EAGLE LIBRARY, there will be found a sequel to "Edith Percival," under the title "Caught in the Snare."

Fortunately, my dealer was able to supply a copy.

To be continued, I guess.

About the cover: The work of an unknown artist who seems to have been unfamiliar with the text. Edith is described as a woman with "golden hair."

"That cover is gorgeous," writes a friend. "But why are her cheeks so red? Must be a food allergy."

Object: A fragile 215-page novel printed on cheap newsprint, bulked up by eight pages of adverts for other Street & Smith books. Mrs Fleming is well represented with thirty-three titles. It is one of the very oldest paperbacks in my collection.

Access: Edith Percival first appeared in 1861 editions of the New York Mercury. As The Hermit of the Cliffs, the Upton edition appears to mark its earliest appearance in book form. In 1893, New York publisher G.W. Dillingham issued the novel under its original title. I believe Street & Smith's Edith Percival and Caught in the Snare editions are the only to divide the novel in two. In whole or in part, it would seem that the novel has been out of print ever since.

Whether whole or divided in two, the only copies of Edith Percival listed for sale online are products of print on demand vultures. Prices range from US$13.01 to US$66.20. I won my century-old copy on eBay last summer for US$2.24.

The novel is held by twelve of out university libraries, but not in the Street & Smith edition. Library and Archives Canada fails entirely.

It can be read online here – gratis, in its entirety – thanks to the good folks at the Internet Archive.

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  1. The book sounds awful but your write up was great.

    1. Thank you, Gerard. Now that I've read the second half, I can report that it is awful in a good way.