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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