08 January 2018

A Winter's Tale of a Dry Summer

'Nemesis Wins'
Grant Allen
Phil May's Illustrated Winter Annual
London: Haddon, 1894

I often start the New Year with something by Grant Allen. Something to do with the letter A, I suppose, or that his work dominates the top shelf of the bookcase. Whatever the reason, Allen's "Nemesis Wins," which arrived by post late December, seemed a good way to kick off 2018. A short story, it appeared in the advert-heavy 1894 edition of Phil May's Illustrated Winter Annual...  and then never again. This fleeting appearance in print had me expecting little, and I was neither surprised nor disappointed.

"Nemesis Wins" starts as a love story, but ends in murder and devastation on a massive scale. The two lovers at the centre emerge unscathed and, one concludes, oblivious as to what actually transpired.

To think it all might've been avoided had it not been for the Elementary Education Act of 1870.

Education, particularly that of women, often plays a role in Allen's fiction; here it serves to open young Miriam Stanley to all kinds of possibilities, not the least of which is a life with handsome Jim Sladen. The two come from very different backgrounds; Jim is a gamekeeper for Squire Ponsonby of Hurtwood, while Miriam is the daughter of Septerius Stanley, king of the West Surrey gypsies. The relationship between the two lovers is the stuff of local gossip – gamekeepers and gypsy families being typically at odds. The worst of it, from Septerius's point of view, is that Jim is honest, and is known to refuse bribes. The gypsy king, who has done a stints for poaching in the past, and is in the habit of cutting gorse on the common for his horses, believes he'll soon be forced to move the royal van.

He seeks temporary respite from his problems at the local inn, where the chief topic of conversation is the state of the heath. "Been powerful hot o' late," says Sam Walters, the broom-maker. "Heather's dry as tinder. Surprisin' if Squire Ponsonby's heath don't get lighted somehow." Talk next turns to gamekeeper Jim, and speculation as why he hasn't arrived to raise a pint or two. Sam Walters and "half-wit" Dick know the answer, having seen Jim on his way to meet Miriam. Septerius is enraged, but not so much that he can't formulate a plan that will see the common go up in flames, Dick framed, and result in Jim's dismissal.

"Nemesis Wins" is a slight story, but opening mention of the "school-board and its fixed stern eye even on gypsie lasses" had me curious. Minutes after finishing, I was deep into reading about the Romany and the history of education in the British Isles... which is how I came to know everything worth knowing about the Elementary Education Act.

Ultimately, like the Winter Annual's advertisements, "Nemesis Wins" is one of those things made more interesting by the passage of time.

There's hope for me yet.

Object and Access: A 114-page paperbound book, loaded with illustrations and adverts. Allen's story takes up roughly four two-columned pages. I first spotted this copy at an online auction this past summer, and then kicked myself for forgetting to bid. Fortunately, it reappeared a few months later as a sale item. I paid US$4.88.

The University of Toronto has a copy. It can be read online here through the Internet Archive.

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