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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  1. I'd vote for 'The Magpie' by Douglas Durkin. Some deep thoughts there.

    1. Damn. When I was a student, the University of Toronto Press reissue seemed to be remaindered everywhere, and now I never come across a copy. Another to be considered is Hubert Evans' The New Front Line. I was hoping to read it in the before Remembrance Day, but haven't been able find my copy in the turmoil of our recent move.

      I was tempted to add Charles Yale Harrison's There Are Victories, but only the latter half is set in the post-war. It's a remarkable work - even more so than the King and Sinclair novels. There Are Victories is the book I'd most like to return to print from this time.

  2. I'll have to look out for the Harrison. I picked up an extra copy of the U of T Durkin reprint at a library sale just in case someone wanted it. Interested?

    1. The Magpie? After your high praise, how could I resist? Would you email me: brianjohnbusby[at]gmail[dot]com.