25 June 2019

Love, Love, Love, Love, Love, Tiresome Love

The Side of the Angels
Basil King
London: Methuen, 1917
316 pages

Thorley Masterman is another of Basil King's good young men. A son of wealth, he has chosen to devote his life to others as a medical doctor. Such is Thor's dedication that he has purchased a runabout in order to reach patients with the greatest of speed. Thor borrowed money to purchase the automobile, but that wouldn't have been necessary had he waited a year or so. The novel opens in 1910 with the doctor approaching his thirtieth birthday, on which day he will inherit his maternal grandfather's vast fortune.

Thor's need for speed is unwarranted. He hasn't managed to attract so much as a single patient until eccentric Uncle Sim puts him on to Mrs Fay. The Fays were once the Mastermans equals. A couple of generations back, they worked neighbouring fields, and often lent each other a hand. Now, Mr Fay operates a gardening centre of sorts on land he rents from Thor's father. Mrs Fay isn't so much ill as fed up. She's tired of the struggle. The city encroaches, the rent rises, and Fays fall farther and farther behind the families who had once been their peers.
Faced with impending defeat, Mr Fay has retreated into book reading. Matt, the son, is doing time for stealing money he'd intended for the rent.  Hardworking daughter Rosie is the only thing keeping their failing operation together.

Thor doesn't quite fall in love with Rosie Fay at first sight, but he is shaken. Since boyhood, he'd intended to marry Lois Willoughby, daughter of Mr and Mrs Len Willoughby, whose considerable investment had aided in making his father's banking and broking house a real concern. Now, leaving the Fays to call on Lois, something has changed:
It did not escape his eye, quickened by the minutes he had spent with Rosie Fay, that Lois lacked color. For the first time in his life he acutely observed the difference between a plain woman and a pretty one.
The doctor begins frequenting the Fay home, ostensibly to care for the ailing Mrs Fay, but really in hopes of seeing Rosie. What Thor doesn't know is that for months she has been sneaking away for moonlight trysts with his caddish half-brother Claude. Because this news, delivered by his father, is too much to be believed, Thor confronts Rosie. In the ensuing exchange, the doctor allows it to slip that he is in love with her. Rosie, in turn, reveals that she'd have married Thor to save her family from financial ruin.

It's all a bit uncomfortable.

Thor decides to use part of his inheritance to enable Claude to marry Rosie, while he, of course, follows through with his decades-old plan to wed plain Lois Willoughby. But Claude, cad that he is, puts off marrying Rosie. And then Lois discovers that Thor was in love with Rosie, Claude learns the very same thing, and the novel dissolves into a very long treatise on the nature of love. For the most part, this takes the form of letters exchanged between Thor and his now estranged wife:
"You ask me what love is, and say you don't know. I'm more daring than you in that I think I do know. I know two or three things about it, even if I don't know all.
     "For one thing, I know that no one can do more than say what love is for himself. You can't say what it is for me, or isn't, or must be, or ought to be. That's my secret. I can't always share it, or at any rate share it all, even with the person I love. But neither can I say what it is, or isn't, or should be, or must be, for you. You have your secret. No two people love in the same way, or get precisely the same kind of joy or sorrow from loving. Since love is the flower of personality, it has the same infinite variety that personalities possess. We give one thing and we get back another. Do not some of our irritations – I'm not speaking of you and me in particular – arise from the fact that, giving one thing, we expect to get the same thing back, when all the while no one else has that special quality to offer? The flower is different according to the plant that produces it. When the pine- tree loved the palm there was more than the distance to make the one a mystery to the other.
     "Of the two things essential to love, the first, so it seems to me, is that what one gives should be one's best – the very blossom of one's soul. It may have the hot luxuriance of the hibiscus, or the flame of the wild azalea in the woods, or no more than the mildly scented, flowerless bloom of the elm or the linden that falls like manna in the roadway. Each has its beauties and its limitations; but it is worth noticing that each serves its purpose in life's infinite profusion as nothing else could serve it to that particular end. The elm lends something to the hibiscus – the hibiscus to the elm. Neither can expect back what it gives to the other. Perfection is accomplished when each offers what it can.
     "Which brings me to the remaining thing I know about love – that it exists in offering. Love is the desire to go outward, to pour forth, to express, to do, to contribute. It has no system of calculation and no yard-stick for the little more or the little less. It is spontaneous and irrepressible and overflowing, and loses the extraordinary essence that makes it truly love when it weighs and measures and inspects too closely the quality of its return. It is in the fact that love is its own sufficiency, its own joy, its own compensation for all its pain, that I find it divine. The one point on which I can fully accept your Christian theology is that your God is love. Given a God who is Love and a Love that is God, I can see Him as worthy to be worshiped. Call Him, then, by any name you please – Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, Christ – you still have the Essence, the Thing. Love to be love must feel itself infinite, or as nearly infinite as anything human can be. When I can't pour it out in that way – when I pause to reflect how far I can go, or reach a point beyond which I see that I cannot go any further – I do not truly love."
The most tedious Basil King novel I've read to date, it says something that its most passionate characters are those who don't philosophize.

Object: A poorly produced book in light brown boards, my copy was published in 1917, during the Great War. The "New and Cheaper Issue," it lacks the eight Elizabeth Shippen Green illustrations (above) found in the older and richer issue. The novel is followed by a 31-page list of other books published by Methuen. Basil King favourites The Wild OliveThe Street Called StraightThe Way Home, and The Letter of the Contract figure, as do novels by fellow Canadians Robert Barr and Gilbert Parker.

Access: The Side of the Angels first appeared serially in Harper's Magazine (August 1915 - April 1916). The first edition was published in January 1916 by Harper & Brothers, followed nine months later by Methuen's first British.

The novel is held by Library and Archives Canada and most university libraries. Once again, our public libraries fail.

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12 June 2019

The True Crime Book That Spawned an Industry

The Black Donnellys
Thomas P. Kelley
Toronto: Harlequin, 1962
158 pages
Oh you who hail from Ontario
Know the tale of the Donnellys Oh
Died at the hands of a mob that night
Every child and man by the oil torch light

                         — Steve Earle, 'Justice in Ontario' (2002)
Because I hail from Quebec that I didn't know much about the Donnellys until well into adulthood. My introduction came through a work colleague when I was living in Toronto. Together, we made up a very small department in a very large book retailer – so large that it had its own publishing arm.

We were it.

After a few months working together, he suggested we reprint Orlo Miller's The Donnellys Must Die. I nodded in agreement, though Miller meant nothing to me, and I'd never heard of the book. The new edition of The Donnellys Must Die we ushered back into print sold twelve thousand copies in twelve weeks. Its success led us to consider reviving Miller's next book, Death to the Donnellys. We joked about commissioning a third book to be titled Die, Donnellys, Die!

What Steve Earle refers to as "the tale of the Donnellys" is infused with bloodshed of a sort that we Canadians like to think of as foreign. It begins with the 1842 arrival of Irish farming couple James and Johannah Donnelly in what is today Lucan, Ontario. They had with them a son, who had been named after his father. Six more boys and a daughter would follow, all born on Canadian soil their parents had cleared. The respective births were punctuated by violence and murder. First to be killed was neighbour Patrick Farrell – "John Farrell," according to Kelley – whom patriarch James hit on the head with a handspike. The murderer then hid in the woods, and dared work his fields disguised in his wife's frocks:
Johannah was almost as tall and heavy as her husband; appareled in her clothes, Donnelly was taken for her by those traveling the road and seeing him in the fields, and he was able to get in the seeding. Later, still dressed in women's clothing, he brought in the crops, working with his sons, and did the fall plowing.
Murder by handspike aside, this episode is the lightest part of the Donnelly story. Kelley doesn't do as much with it as I thought he might, though he does go for laughs here and there throughout the book. Poor Johanna receives the brunt:
She looked like and should've been a man; her sex undoubtably robbing the bare-knuckle prize ring of a prospective champion. In later years she sprouted a miniature Vandyke, wore red flannels, and told of never having been "much of a beauty." Her picture proves the words to be an understatement.
In Kelley's account, the matriarch directed many of the misdeeds attributed to her offspring. Beginning in 1855, various members of the Donnelly family were charged with larceny, robbery, assault, and attempted murder, amongst other crimes. The events that most troubled this reader concerned animal mutilation. It all came to an end on February 4, 1880, when a mob descended on the Donnelly farmhouse, beat its residents to death, and set the building alight. They then moved on to the home of second son William Donnelly, where they killed third son, John Donnelly. 

Steve Earle is wrong. Not every child and man died that night. There was a survivor in John O'Connor, a hired farm boy, who hid under a bed when the mob broke in. No doubt that mob would've murdered him, too, just as they did Bridget Donnelly, James' twenty-two year-old niece, who was newly arrived from Ireland. No one was ever convicted of the slaughter.

That Kelley records John O'Connor's surname as "Connor" is typical. He made his living as a speedy magazine and paperback writer. He had a reputation as a man who could be relied upon to fill pages in a pinch. The Kelley technique is on full display in this passage:
The writer first heard of the Donnelly feud – bits of it, at least – more than twenty years ago when travelling around the Lucan area. Twenty at the time – ah, my lost youth – the history of Lucan and its violences of bygone years did not interest him. A pair of blue eyes in the nearby village of Exeter, did. Eventually marrying the owner of the eyes, and as time went on, learning more of the feud, it became apparent at last, however, that mere hearsay, a thorough knowledge of the Lucan district or even the tales of oldtimers, would not be enough to write the true story of the Donnellys.  Seemingly endless hours of research were and did become necessary – the reading of old files, old newspapers, police and court records, etc.
It's unlikely that the seemingly endless hours Kelley spent researching the Donnellys were many, but they were lucrative. They resulted in "The Donnelly Feud," a 1947 article written for New Liberty Magazine. It was reprinted in his book Famous Canadian Crimes (Toronto: Collins White Circle, 1949) and then reworked as "The Terrible Donnelly Feud" for his next book, Bad Men of Canada (Toronto: Arrow, 1950). The Black Donnellys, which followed four years later, is said to have sold more than a million copies.

The Black Donnellys is not the best place to begin reading about the family and its fate; I recommend The Donnellys Must Die or, better still, The Donnelly Album by Ray Fazakas. Kelley's book is a fun read, but is wholly unreliable – which is not to say that it is without value. What I find most remarkable about the book has less to do with its contents than it does its impact. Sure, those who hail from Ontario know the tale of the Donnellys, but this wasn't always so. I don't doubt that Kelley (1905-1982), an Ontario boy who toured the province with his medicine man father, claims he hadn't heard of the family until "travelling around the Lucan area" at the age of twenty. After they faded from the headlines, very little was written about the Donnellys. Published a full seventy-four years after the bloody events of February 4, 1880, The Black Donnellys was the first book about the family and its fate. It's inaccuracies and – here I'm betting – commercial success encouraged Miller to write The Donnellys Must Die. More than a dozen Donnelly books have followed.

In this way, it is Kelley's greatest achievement as a writer. Would that we could all have such influence. He's owed a debt of gratitude.

Postscript: I left the very large book retailer in 2001, and began writing books that were published under noms de plume. Eight years later, when living in the Ontario town of St Marys, roughly twenty-five kilometres east of Lucan, I was commissioned to write a YA book on unsolved Canadian mysteries. A chapter on the Donnellys – "Who Killed the Donnellys?" – seemed a given. The St Marys Public Library then held seven books on the family, each of which was represented on the shelves by a block of wood bearing its title. Patrons interested in checking out a volume brought the appropriate block to the front desk. This system had been put in place to prevent theft.

Object: A paperback original, The Black Donnellys was first published in 1954 by Harlequin. My well-read copy, a seventh printing, was won for $7.50 in a 2009 auction at a St Marys, Ontario, thrift store.

Access: A 2002 Globe & Mail story reported that The Black Donnellys had to that point sold over one million copies in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. I point out that that same article refers to The Black Donnellys as a novel. The only American edition (right) is a 1955 paperback published by Signet. I've found no trace of a UK edition.

The Black Donnellys helped build Harlequin. The original 1954 printing was followed by fourteen others. The last was in April, 1968, long after Harlequin had (otherwise) come to focus exclusively on romances. Subsequent editions have been published by Greywood, Pagurian, Firefly, and Darling Terrace (it's current publisher).

Unsurprisingly, dozens of used copies are listed for sale online. Prices begin at US$2.99.

Easily found in academic libraries, but uncommon in the public. I suggest instituting the St Marys Public Library block system.

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