26 November 2018

A Man Forgets His Identity (but not his manners)

The Thread of Flame
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1920
351 pages

I raced through this novel, caught up in its plot and hungry for the solution to the mystery surrounding its main character. He's first introduced as Jasper Soames, though he and the reader are well-aware that this is not his true identity:
It was a name that to me meant nothing. Referring it to my inner self, nothing vibrated, nothing rang. It was like trying to clink a piece of money on wool or cork or some other unresponsive material.
Soames, as he's known through most of the novel, remembers nothing of his life before awakening to find himself aboard a ship bound for New York. His cabin-mate, a blind boy named Drinkwater, is of no help as the two are strangers. Soames's search through his modest belongings yields nearly four hundred dollars, but no clues as to his true identity.

For the remainder of the crossing, Soames does his best to hide his amnesia, speaking in vague terms about his past and deflecting questions about himself. In doing so, he becomes a man of mystery and a subject of significant interest amongst the shipboard well-to-do: Boyd Averill, his wife Lulu, and his sister Mildred. Those of the working class accept Soames as is. They do not pry, do not judge, and readily accept him as one of their own. But Soames is not one of their own. Aware that he belongs to a different class, he is offended by their friendliness and gross familiarity, and looks forward to shedding the acquaintance of each just as soon as the ship docks. This doesn't happen as quickly as planned – Soames feels obliged to escort Drinkwater to the boy's new lodging – but soon enough he sets off on a new course.

Soames recognizes New York, and is certain that someone in the city will recognize him. To this end, he passes his days in the lobbies of the finest hotels, hoping that he will encounter an old, forgotten friend:
At any minute I might feel a clap on the shoulder, while some one shouted, "Hello, old Brown!" or, "Why, here's Billy Robinson! What'll we have to drink?"
These daily expeditions are undertaken with some trepidation, because he fears that he may have adopted the Soames name in fleeing some horrible crime.

When finally it comes, the clap on the shoulder is more of a tap:
In the interval too brief to reckon before turning round two possibilities were clear in my mind. The unknown crime from which I was running away might have found me out – or some friend had come to my deliverance. Either event would be welcome, for even if it were arrest I should learn my name and history.
Soames is disappointed in that the man who tapped his shoulder is Boyd Averill, a man who knows our hero – is he a hero? – only as Jasper Soames. Boyd is pleasant enough, but has growing suspicions about his mysterious acquaintance. Meanwhile, Boyd's sister Mildred grows close. She's attracted to Soames, recognizing him a man raised in privilege who is now on some sort of quest. In this way, he is a kindred spirit. The daughter and inheritor of great wealth, Mildred is searching desperately for a purpose in life.

Though the attraction is mutual, Soames begins to distance himself from Mildred:
Falling in love with anybody was no part of my program. It was out of the question for obvious reasons. In addition to these I was in love with some one else. That is to say, I knew I had been in love; I knew that in the portion of my life that had become obscured there had been an emotional drama of which the consciousness remained. It remained as a dream remains when we remember the vividness and forget the facts – but it remained. I could view my personality somewhat as you view a countryside after a storm has passed over it. Without having witnessed the storm you can tell what it was from the havoc left behind. There was some such havoc in myself.
Soames's decision is made all the easier because his "program" is failing. The days sitting in hotel lobbies are proving fruitless, and funds are running thin. With winter setting in, and no money to replace his summer suits, he cuts himself off from the Averill family, and moves into squalid lodgings alongside the very class of people he'd sought to reject.

There's more, much more, of course. I spoil nothing in revealing that Soames never quite regains his identity. Sure, he eventually learns his real name, and the nature of the "emotional drama," but he is forever altered by the event that caused his amnesia and his experiences living amongst the working class.

A wild ride, I very nearly finished The Thread of Flame in one sitting. What slowed my progress were a dozen or so pages near the end in which Soames tries to make sense of the Great War and the new world it created.

There's no fault in this.

I dare say we're trying to make sense of it still.

Favourite passage:
Ernestine, to do her justice, was as tolerant of me as she was of any one who wasn't a flag. The Flag having become her idol and she its high- priestess, she could talk of nothing else. The nation had apparently gone to war in order that the cult of the Flag should be the more firmly established; and all other matters passed outside the circle of her consideration. She knew I had been dead and had somehow become alive again; but as the detail didn't call for the raising of a flag she couldn't give her mind to it. As she could give her mind in no greater measure to Minna's canteen-work or Vio's clothes, I profited by the generous nature of her exclusions.
A mystery quickly solved: The Thread of Flame first appeared as a serial in Maclean's (December 1919 through 15 May 1920), accompanied by twenty illustrations by Charles L. Wrenn.

Maclean's, 1 February 1920
Ten months after publication of the concluding chapters, the magazine included this very strange piece:

Maclean's, 15 March 1921
I admit to having been mystified. The words the con quotes do not appear in the novel, nor do they appear in its serialization. A bit of sleuthing reveals that they come from an introduction that King wrote for Charles E. Chapin's Story: Written in Sing Sing Prison (New York: Putnam, 1920). I haven't read the book, but do remember it being described in The News Game (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1966) by Toronto Star reporter Roy Greenaway as "one of the best descriptions of nerve-shattering newspaper toil ever written." The tragic results of this toil are described in the opening sentences of the publisher's note appended to Chapin's Story:

Object: A bulky hardcover in red boards with white type, the book is made bulkier still by four John Alonso Williams illustrations. My copy, a first edition lacking dust jacket, was purchased just last month for US$9.00 from an Illinois bookseller. As is so often the case, I paid much more in shipping than I did for the book itself.

Access: Library and Archives Canada and fifteen of our academic libraries hold copies of the novel, but not one is found in any library in Prince Edward Island, the province of the author's birth.

Other than the Harper first, the only edition of which I am aware is a cheap Grosset & Dunlop.

The Harper edition can be read online here thanks to the University of Toronto and the Internet Archive.

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19 November 2018

The Adventures of a Globe-Trotting Girton Girl

Miss Cayley's Adventures
Grant Allen
Richmond, VA: Valancourt, 2016
230 pages

Men come off particularly poorly in this novel. The first mentioned is Jack Watts-Morgan. He married Captain Cayley's widow, used her small fortune to pay off his gambling debts, and then carried her off to Burma. The poor woman is dead now, as is Watts-Morgan. The brief account of the widow's ill-advised second marriage is backstory, explaining how it is that Miss Lois Cayley, Captain and Mrs Cayley's only child, finds herself with nothing more than twopence in her pocket.

Miss Cayley's Adventures was first published between March 1888 and February 1899 in the pages of The Strand. Its heroine and narrator, Lois Cayley bears great similarity to Juliet Appleton, heroine and narrator of Allen's 1897 novel The Type-Writer Girl.* Both recent graduates of Girton College, Cambridge, each finds herself suddenly orphaned and next to penniless. Of the two, Lois Cayley is the more adventurous. Where Miss Appleton first thought is to seek office work, the high-spirited Miss Cayley finds liberation in her new, impoverished state, and determines to set out on a voyage that will take her around the globe. "I submit myself to fate," she tells her friend Elsie Petheridge. "I shall stroll out this morning, as soon as I've 'cleaned myself,' and embrace the first stray enterprise that offers. Our Bagdad teems with enchanted carpets. Let one but float my way, and, hi, presto, I seize it."

Lois's Bagdad being London, she soon finds herself in Kensington Gardens, where she happens to overhear two elderly grand dames in conversation. The "eldest and ugliest" complains that she has had to dismiss Célestine, her lady's maid, an action that jeopardizes her approaching trip to Schlangenbad. Lois dares approach the crusty old old woman – Lady Georgina Fawley – suggesting that she might take Célestine's place.

Titled "The Adventure of the Cantankerous Old Lady," the opening chapter is followed by "The Adventure of the Supercilious Attache," in which our heroine, now en route to Schlangenbad as the cantankerous old lady's companion thwarts a jewel thief. Ten more adventures follow. Lois does make her way around the world – slowly at first, sprinting in the final stretch. Along the way she wins a bicycle race, exposes a quack doctor, scales down a mountain, rescues a kidnapped woman, kills a tiger, and draws the adoration of Harold Tillington, Lady Georgina Fawley's nephew.

Lois Cayley is frequently cited by academics as an early female detective. I don't quite agree. Like Harold Tillington, I was smitten by Miss Cayley, but am not so blinded by love to give her too much credit. The thwarted jewel thief (M le Comte de Laroche-sur-Loiret) and the charlatan doctor (Dr Fortescue-Langley) are one in the same. Anticipating Lemony Snicket's Count Olaf, he shows up again and again, under various guises. What is meant to be his greatest coup, is again thwarted by Lois, but she does this not through deduction but "intuition."

I hesitate in describing the man pretending to be M le Comte de Laroche-sur-Loiret and Dr Fortescue-Langley – his real name is Higginson – as a cardboard character because the others are so very well realized. Lady Georgina Fawley, the cantankerous old lady, was a favourite. Such are her ample dimensions that the reader readily accepts Lois's growing love for the grand dame. It may say something about the Lady Georgina's family that my second favourite is Viscount Southminster. Another nephew, Southminster is after the fortune of her brother Marmaduke Ashurst:
"Marmy's doing very well, thank yah ; as well as could be expected. In fact, bettah. Habakkuk on the brain: it's carrying him off at last. He has Bright's disease very bad – drank port, don't yah know – and won't trouble this wicked world much longah with his presence. It will be a happy release – especially for his nephews."
Like Lois, I saw though Southminster, though I did enjoy his "baronial drawl" and talk of Newmarket, Ascot, and music halls. A simpleton, in his effort to secure Marmy's fortune, he follows a brilliant plot that was put together by Higginson.

At the end of the novel, Southminster is exiled, while the mastermind is sentenced to fourteen years. Given a choice, I would have preferred the reverse. Of the two, Southminster is the more dangerous. As evidence, I present this exchange between Miss Cayley and Viscount Southmister that took place in India, where both had ben guests of the generous and loyal Maharajah of Moozuffernugger:
" So you've managed to get away? " I exclaimed, as he dawdled up to me at the hot and dusty station.
     "Yaas," he drawled, fixing his eye-glass, and lighting a cigarette. "I've –  p'f – managed to get away. Maharaj seems to have thought – p'f – it would be cheepah in the end to pay me out than to keep me."
     "You don't mean to say he offered to lend you money? " I cried.
     "No; not exactly that: I offahed to borrow it."
     "From the man you call a nigger?"
     His smile spread broader over his face than ever.
"Well, we borrow from the Jews, yah know," he said pleasantly, "so why the jooce shouldn't we borrow from the heathen also? Spoiling the Egyptians, don't yah see? – the same as we used to read about in the Scripchah when we were innocent kiddies. Like marriage, quite. You borrow in haste – and repay at leisure."
That the country Southminster is exiled to is South Africa only lends to the injustice.
* I'm indebted to my friend wollamshram for this observation. As he notes, bicycles and typewriters are key to the plots of both novels. No pun intended.
Trivia: Miss Cayley's Adventures is the second Allen novel I've read in which Canada figures as a setting. Blink and you'll miss it:
I cannot describe to you that journey across a continent I had never before seen. It was endless and hopeless. I only know that we crawled up the Rocky Mountains and the Selkirk Range, over spider-like viaducts, with interminable effort, and that the prairies were just the broad Pacific over again. They rolled on for ever. But we did reach Quebec – in time we reached it; and we caught by an hour the first liner to Liverpool.
Object and Access: A trade-size paperback on bright white paper with introduction by Elizabeth Foxwell. My copy follows the 2008 as the second Valancourt edition. The cover draws on the 1900 Putnam edition.

The true first edition (right) was published in 1899 London by Grant Richards. Both it and the Putnam edition feature eighty – eighty – illustrations by George Brown. I see three copies of the Richards first listed for sale online; priced from US$250 to US$675, condition is a factor. The Putnam edition is nowhere in sight. Both edition can be read online here thanks to the University of Alberta and the Internet Archive.

Library and Archives Canada and just ten of our university libraries hold copies. It is one of the gaps in the Kitchener Frontenac Public Library's Grant Allen collection.

Miss Cayley's Adventures holds the distinction of being Allen's more translated novel: Danish (Frk. Cayleys Eventyr), Dutch (Met een dubbeltje de wereld door), German (Miss Cayleys Abenteuer), French (Les Aventures de Miss Cayley), Indonesian (Mengembara dengan oeang sepoeloeh), and Sudanese (Ngalalana mekel saketip). The novel appears to have done particularly well amongst the Dutch; I count at least three different editions.

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18 November 2018

James Montgomery Flagg Does Reverend King

On this Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, an addendum to

Of all the Basil King books I own, my favourite by far is The Contract of the Letter (New York: Harper, 1914)It's not the author's best novel, but it is his most beautiful. Credit goes to James Montgomery Flagg, who provides the illustrations.

I've sung Flagg's praises here before; he was, I think, the finest book illustrator of his day. Where I a wealthy man, I would reissue Arthur Stringer's The Wine of Life – by far his best novel – in an edition featuring the two-dozen illustrations Flagg provided when it was published in syndication.

Flagg's artwork also graces King's 1917 novel The Lifted Veil, but with The Empty Sack the honour goes to lesser-known artist J. Henry, about whom I can find nothing.

It pains me to write that Henry was the right choice. Comparisons are easily made as Flagg was commissioned to illustrate The Empty Sack in its initial six-month run in Cosmopolitan. Gone are the artist's fine lines, often replaced by a cartoonish crudeness.

Curiously, one of the weakest illustrations depicts an artist, Hubert Wray, urging Jennie Follett to pose nude.

I can't account for this change in style, though I do wonder whether it was imposed by the magazine. Either way, despite the disappointment, it is interesting to to see the novel's characters, settings, and situations through another mind's eye. The living who have read The Empty Sack will find the following of interest. The living who have not read The Empty Sack will find spoilers.

I'm told that Cosmopolitan no longer publishes fiction in serial format.

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14 November 2018

The Great Canadian Post-Great War Novel?

The Empty Sack
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1921
446 pages
"We're all different. Life as we used to live it begins to seem so empty. We weren't real; we people who spent our time entertaining and being entertained. It's all very well to say that we're much the same since the war as we were before, but it isn't so. I know I'm not."
— Junia Collingham in Basil King's The Empty Sack
In September 1918, two months before the Armistice, the Pictorial Review published "Going West," a new work of fiction by Basil King. The writer was then at the height of his popularity, with novels appearing regularly on Publishers Weekly bestseller lists; the magazine had recognized King's The Inner Shrine, as the bestselling novel of 1909. A retired Anglican clergyman from Prince Edward Island, King's books focussed on fidelity, honour, the sanctity of marriage, and the tragedy of divorce. "Going West" was something altogether different. A long short story, it concerns two enemy soldiers – one American, the other German – who kill each other on the battlefield, and then reunite to visit their respective families in the afterlife. The more spiritual of the dead men – interestingly, the German – finds he can communicate with his loved ones, while his agnostic companion cannot.

The story's popularity ensured its republication as a book, which was in turn followed by a second altogether different King title: The Abolishing of Death.* Because I like the reverend, and don't doubt his honesty and good intentions, I accept his presentation of The Abolishing of Death as a work of non-fiction. I'm sure he believed it to be true. Published first in Cosmopolitan (July-October 1919), it is very much a book of its time – that time being one of significant interest in communion between the living and the dead, spurred on by the war, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle believed his strongest contact with the spiritual plane to be Lily Loder-Symonds, his children's nanny, while King relied on a young woman identified only as "Jennifer." Through her, the clergyman was able to communicate with a dead man who, amongst other things, spoke of the "mission of sex" for which Canadians had been "specially selected."

I await my orders.

Of King's novels – the five I've read, anyway – The Empty Sack features the most profound expression of the spiritual beliefs he'd come to adopt during the Great War. Dark and distressing, the only rays of hope come in the penultimate chapter with evidence of an afterlife in which we will all be reunited with loved ones.

I've spoiled little here, because The Empty Sack doesn't unfold anything like the reader might expect. The novel begins with wealthy New York banker Bradley Collingham's dismissal of employee Josiah Follett; the latter is approaching old age, and his work isn't turning quite the profit it once did.  Focus then shifts to painter Hubert Wray's studio, where Jennie Follett poses "in a Greek peplum of white-cotton cloth." Josiah's daughter, Jennie's work as a model helps maintain the Follett family's modest middle class lifestyle in New Jersey's Pemberton Heights. Hubert has an obvious thing for her – and she him – so why doesn't his friend Bob see? "Listen, Hubert. I'm going to marry that girl," Bob tells his pal. Incidentally, coincidentally, Bob's father is Bradley Collingham, the man who had just kicked Jennie's dad to the curb.

Two chapters in, I thought The Empty Sack would be all about Jennie Follett, but it is really a tale of two families.

The Folletts are devastated by the news of the sacking. Josiah hopes that his forty-seven years' experience in the banking industry will win him some sort of position with another financial institution, but at sixty-three he's considered too old. Jennie's modest contribution to the family ends when she refuses to pose in the nude for Hubert. She looks for other work, but finds that stores, factories, offices, and dressmaking establishments aren't much interested in a young woman whose only skill is the ability to stand still. Sister Gussie gets a low-paying job in a department store, but nearly everything comes down to brother Teddy, who has a lowly position in the very same bank from which his father was dismissed.

Meanwhile, Bradley Collingham and wife Junia, sequestered in their Marillo Park mansion, try to make sense of the post-war world and the strange behaviour of privileged offspring:
There were the Rumseys, whose twin sons had refused an uncle's legacy amounting to something like three millions, because they held views opposed to the owning of private property. There were the Addingtons, whose son and heir had married a girl twice imprisoned as a Red and was believed to have gone Red in her company. There were the Bendlingers, whose daughter had eloped with a chauffeur, divorced him, and then gone back and married him again. These were Marillo incidents, and in no case had the parents found any course more original than the antiquated one of discarding and disinheritance. 
Against their wishes, son Bob – you remember Hubert Wray's friend – had gone off to fight overseas, even though the United States was then neutral. Not a year later, he returned with a bad limp, scarred forehead, and some rather unorthodox views on Christianity.

Bob Collingham figures greatly in the plot, but doesn't have nearly the influence of Teddy Follett. The weight of the Follett family's misfortune falls on his shoulders, and he begins stealing from the Collingham Bank in order to keep the gas on. Young Teddy is immature, impulsive and, frankly, none too bright. He remembers news stories of a teller at rival bank who managed to pocket $23,000 for five years before he was caught. Teddy banks – sorry, couldn't resist – that he too won't be caught for five years, by which time the Jennie and Gussie will surely be married and the family finances will be on more steady ground.

The greatest tragedy here is that Teddy's stealing is wholly unnecessary in that Jennie has more than enough money to stave off the Follett family's financial ruin. In a moment of weakness, recognizing the desperate need for money, she'd secretly wed Bob Collingham. Jennie never cashes the cheques he sends for her support because she believes Teddy's stories explaining his sudden change in income. The model regrets her decision to marry Bob, and hopes that she'll somehow wriggle out of the situation so that she might be with Hubert.

As I say, nothing in this novel unfolds as the reader expects. The aforementioned penultimate chapter of light is proceeded by hundreds of pages detailing how the avarice and prejudices of the wealthy threaten the middle class, writing that the reader of King's previous fiction would've found foreign.

Returning to the beginning of the novel, we find this exchange between Bradley Collingham and the soon to be dismissed Josiah Follett:
"What do you think, Follett? I told you then that you were not earning your salary. You haven't been earning it since. What can I do?"
     "I could work harder, sir. I could stay overtime, when none of the young fellows want to."
     "That wouldn't do any good, Follett. It isn't the way we do business."
     "I've been five years with you, sir, and all my life between one banking house and another, in this country and Canada. In my humble way I've helped to build the banking business up."
     "And you've been paid, haven't you? I really don't see that you've anything to complain of."
In fact, Josiah Follett had been earning his salary. The real issue is that Bradley Collingham is able to pay "young fellows" much less.

Not much has changed.

"Wasn't it one of the things we fought for in the war – to wipe out the lines of caste?" Bob asks his mother.

Sadly, no.

The Empty Sack is not a great work, but it's by far the best King novel I've read to date – and I do enjoy reading the reverend. With Bertrand W. Sinclair's The Hidden Places, it is essential reading anyone looking to understand the post-war world – that which followed the War to End All Wars – of our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Curiously, hauntingly, so many of their struggles are our struggles.
* I've written more on The Abolishing of Death in The Dusty Bookcase book.
An aside: As this post was getting long, I cut all mention of the Follett family history. Josiah began his banking career at age sixteen in Nova Scotia. He was still a bank clerk when he married stunningly beautiful clergyman's daughter Lizzie Scarborough, UEL:
The Scarboroughs had been great people in Massachusetts before the Revolution. The old Scarborough mansion, still standing in Cambridge bears witness to the generous scale on which they lived. But they left it as it stood, with its pictures, its silver, its furniture, its stores, rather than break their tie with England. Scorned by the country from which they fled, and ignored by that to which they remained true, their history on Nova-Scotian soil was chiefly one of descent. 
All the Follett children were born in Nova Scotia. After the family's move to the United States, Josiah bought a house in Pemberton Heights because of "the presence there of other Canadians."

Little Canada, I guess.

Object and Access: A bulky brown hardcover with three plates by J. Henry. My copy, a first edition, was purchased in 2014 at the Antique Mall in Strathroy, Ontario. Price: $2.00.

A year earlier, I'd bought an undated Hodder & Stoughton reprint – also $2.00 – in a London bookstore. Canadians who can't stand to read "check" for cheque and "color" for colour will want this edition. As far as I can tell, the novel was last published sometime in the 'twenties in a cheap Grosset & Dunlop edition.

Only seven copies are currently listed for sale online, the least expensive being a library discard of the Harper edition. Price: US$3.68. The one to buy is the most expensive: a second printing with dust jacket going for US$25.00.

While Library and Archives Canada and over a dozen of our universities hold copies; the University of Prince Edward Island does not.

The Thomas Fisher Canadiana Collection copy can be read here – gratis – thanks to the good folks at the Internet Archive.

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11 November 2018

Remembrance Day

On November 11th at eleven in the morning the bells of London rang out their joyous peals, for the armistice had been signed and the war was over. There was wild rejoicing in the city and the crowds went crazy with delight. But it seemed to me that behind the ringing of those peals of joy there was the tolling of spectral bells for those who would return no more. The monstrous futility of war as a test of national greatness, the wound in the world's heart, the empty homes, those were the thoughts which in me over mastered all feelings of rejoicing.
— Canon Frederick George Scott, The Great War As I Saw It
The Great War was the war of my grandfathers. Edward Maurice Busby, my father's father, was a medical student at McGill when the fighting began. He left his studies, enlisted, was shipped overseas, and performed surgery before he'd earned his medical degree. My grandfather survived the war, returned to McGill, and lived what was by all accounts a happy life for a further forty-four years. He died within days of what would have been his seventy-first birthday. I'd been born over a month earlier, but we never met.

Edward Maurice Busby
I remember William Horace Humphreys, my mother's father, very well. He took me to Mary Poppins, my first experience as a movie-goer. After my father died, leaving my mother a widow at forty, he stepped in to care for me and my sister so that she could return to McGill, the university from which she'd graduated a quarter-century earlier.

William Horace Humphreys
Bill Humphreys was a wonderful man who had witnessed wondrous things. He'd been seen the early days of flight, and would six decades later jet across the Atlantic on BOAC. He owned the first colour television I'd ever seen. We sat together watching news coverage of the first steps on the moon.

My clearest memory of my grandfather has nothing to do with Julie Andrews or Neil Armstrong, but a die-cast Wild Wings Sopwith Camel model I'd received as a Christmas gift.

Mine was painted purple.

At six, I somehow knew the Sopwith Camel had flown in the war my grandfather had fought, and so was keen that he should see it.

"Tell me about the bad guys!"

"There were no bad guys," he replied.

My grandfather's response shook me then, as it does still. This gentle, smiling man, looked suddenly sad and troubled... and then he walked out of the room.

That response – of a man who had experienced real war, not the ones sold by toy makers and politicians – has stayed with me this last half-century. Years after his death, I learned that William Horace Humphreys had received a Distinguished Conduct Medal. He never told his wife and children how he'd earned the honour, and kept it hidden away – with the other medals – in his desk drawer.

Today, on the one hundredth anniversary of the end of The War to End All Wars, I think of my grandfathers. I think of my fellow Quebecer, Frederick George Scott, who dug through the bloodied mud of Courcellette until he'd found the body of his son, Henry Hutton Scott.

I think of my fellow Canadian George Lawrence Price, killed by a sniper two minutes before the Armistice.

Monstrous futility indeed.

Would that their families had been so fortunate as mine.

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05 November 2018

Starting in on Grant Allen: A Top Ten

Over pints this past weekend, I remarked to a friend that I'd just begun reading my thirteenth Grant Allen novel. This friend responded that he'd never heard of the man, but was very interested. I think it was the drink.

"Where's the best place to start?" my friend asked. Where indeed! Allen published over seventy titles in his fifty-one years. My good fortune was that the first I read, Michael's Crag, was so good that I wanted more.

Describing Grant Allen as nineteenth-century Canada's greatest novelist may seem a bit much, but who else did we have? Robert Barr is very nearly as good, May Agnes Fleming is wonderfully entertaining. Who else? Sir Gilbert Parker? Sir Charles G.D. Roberts?

Allen was a writer of great imagination; he created memorable characters and had a dab hand at clever, intricate plots. What's more, he never hesitated in introducing social commentary to his fiction (see: The Woman Who Did and The British Barbarians). I think so much of the man that I devoted the first section of my most recent book, The Dusty Bookcase, to Allen.

With twelve Allen titles tackled – and nearly sixty to go – my interest in Allen remains strong. I have no doubt that I'll read every novel the man wrote before I leave This Mortal Coil (title of the first of his three 1888 novels). What follows are the ten best Allen novels tackled to date, in order of preference. Five of the ten are covered in The Dusty Bookcase book. Links to my online reviews of the other five are provided.

The Devil's Die (1888)

The story of upstanding Muslim doctor Muhammed Ali and his gradual realization that friend and fellow physician Harry Chichele is a psychopathic murderer. The novel shocked George Bernard Shaw, influencing his 1893 play The Philanderer.

For Maimie's Sake (1886)

Of Allen's "commercial" novels, For Mamie's Sake stands as the only one he wouldn't dismiss in conversations with friends. Am I wrong in thinking it a satire? For Mamie's Sake is not recognized as such. Either way, it's the most humorous Allen I've read to date. Black humour, of course.

Michael's Crag (1893)

A civil servant is struck on the head by falling rock and comes to believe he is the Archangel Michael. His suffering wife struggles to keep him in check until their daughter can be married off. It all ends very badly, but not in a way that anyone could've anticipated.

What's Bred in the Bone (1891)

Identical twin brothers of unknown origin embark on very different paths, one of which leads to forgery and fraud. What's Bred in the Bone was awarded £1000 as best serial story by Tit-Bits magazine. If that doesn't entice, I'll add that it is the most sexual Allen book I've read this far.

Under Sealed Orders (1895)

A child is groomed to be a self-sacrificing political assassin only to fall in love with a New Woman adventuress as a young man. Murder is now out of the question, which isn't to suggest that it doesn't happen just the same.

Hilda Wade (1900)

Grant Allen's last novel. On his deathbed, the author told the conclusion to his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, who then wrote the final chapters.  The resulting book, profusely illustrated, was published posthumously with obvious affection. But don't think its appearance swayed my judgement; Hilda Wade is a strong novel, centred on the strongest of Allen's women.

The British Barbarians (1895)

The story of a time traveller's visit to Victorian England, this novel is short on plot but long on acute, clever, and cutting social commentary. I'm beginning to wonder whether it shouldn't be higher on the list. Perhaps so. At the very least, it's worth rereading and reconsidering.

Recalled to Life (1891)

A mystery in which a significant advancement in photography plays a key role, like so very many Allens its protagonist is a young woman. Moved up a notch because it is one of the few Allens that takes place in Canada. Quebecers and British Columbians will be the most satisfied.

The Type-Writer Girl (1897)

Late in his brief life, Allen wrote several novels narrated by New Woman protagonists. Of these, The Type-Writer Girl holds a special  place in having been published under a female pseudonym. This slight novel concerns a Girton girl who looks to support herself through office work. Agrarian anarchists feature.

The Cruise of the Albatross (1890)

An adventure story for boys, complete with cannibals, human sacrifice, sea travel, and a twist that owes everything to Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. I remain thankful that I didn't read it first.

Why have I not included The Woman Who Did, the scandalous novel for which Allen is best remembered?

The answer is simple: I ain't read it yet.

A bonus: The two novels that didn't make the Top Ten:

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