18 September 2019

A Literary Vampire Alights upon an Impoverished Poet; or, A Newer New Grub Street in Manhattan

The Silver Poppy
Arthur Stringer
New York: Appleton, 1903
291 pages

Educated Englishman John Hartley has seen much sadness in his young life. Four or five years ago, his father, Sir Harry Hartley, was killed in the Dunstable Hunt. John next suffered through the illness and death of a fiancée, Connie Meredith, to whom he had dedicated his debut volume of verse. These tragedies rendered John directionless until celebrated portrait painter Repellier suggests that he set sail for a new life in New York.

The city isn't quite as welcoming as was hoped. Unable to sell his literary efforts, and short of funds, John takes a job in the grimy offices of the United News Bureau, where he's reduced to toiling amongst hacks and exhausted, alcoholic has-beens. And yet, John holds no ill will. Standing on the rooftop of Repellier's studio, as one of the painter's Bohemian parties draws to a close, John chances to meet Kentucky girl Cordelia Vaughan. He doesn't recognize her, though he should; Cordelia is the author of The Silver Poppy, a literary debut that is being touted not only as the novel of the season novel, but a novel for all time. A blonde beauty with a penchant for yellow and gold dresses, blouses and skirts, pictures of Cordelia are everywhere. The celebrated author expresses interest in John's writing, does a kindness in offering an exclusive interview, and two become fast friends.

Not long into their relationship, Cordelia shares her frustration in writing a second novel, The Unwise Virgins. The poet offers to read the manuscript, and finds it a failure. The Unwise Virgins has "none of the power and movement of The Silver Poppy, none of those whimsical tendernesses and quaint touches of humor and pathos that had half muffled the razor edge of her earlier satiric touch." John had never found Cordelia to have a great sense of humour, and so wonders if "she had not drained off, as it were, her vanished reservoirs of mirth; if her mental blitheness had not been lost with the too labored advent of her firstborn."

The poet is gentle in suggesting changes that might improve the novel, but the authoress has had enough of it. Her mood improves when he offers to make the changes himself. In return, the frustrated novelist suggests they share the royalties. When John refuses the offer, she insists that he send her some of his short stories. Though they've been rejected by numerous magazines, Cordelia rightly believes that her support will help in getting them published. John's stories sell, which makes it easier to leave the United News Bureau. Cordelia next offers John an apartment she'd intended for her father (he was reluctant to leave his old Kentucky home) and the poet ramps up his work on improving The Unwise Virgins.

Months pass, during which Repellier finally finds time to read The Silver Poppy. He finds it identical to a work in progress read to him by a friend not three earlier. This friend, one of "the brightest and most scholarly editorial writers on all Park Row," had been sickly. He'd sought a cure in fresh air of the hills of Kentucky, where he'd subsequently died. Repellier threatens to share his knowledge of the true author of The Silver Poppy unless Cordelia breaks things off with John.

Repellier presumes. Up to this point, Cordelia and John have been not much more than friends. True, two of their meetings featured kissing and petting, but they ended quickly and were of the oh-dear-I don't-know-what-got-into-me kind. But, after Repellier's threat, when they're next alone:
The two white arms came together and folded over him and drew him in like wings.
     Time and the world were nothing to her then; time and the world were shut out from him. It was the lingering, long-delayed capitulation of the more impetuous, profounder love she had held back from him, of the finer and softer self she had all but famished in the citadel of her grim aspirations. She no longer allured him, or cared to allure him; she had nothing to seek of him thereafter; she had only the ruins of her broken life to give him.
     And he, too — he felt those first thin needles of bliss that crept and projected themselves over the quiet waters of friendship, and he knew that a power not himself was transforming those waters of change and unrest and ebb and flow into the impenetrable solidity of love itself.
For "capitulation" read "copulation."

I've done a disservice in quoting this particular passage, though it is an example of the work's greatest flaw. A first novel, The Silver Poppy – Stringer's, not Cordelia's – so often falls victim to verbosity, but not so often that it ruins a really good story. The worst aspects of the writing life, as it was at the dawn of the last century, are exposed. The United News Bureau seeks funds from eminent men looking to guarantee a favourable obituary, and feeds off material outside of copyright:
An English novel or any less substantial publication which came to it unprotected by the arm of the law was pounced on at once, rapaciously and gleefully. It was renamed, abridged or expanded as the case might require, and in less time than it took the original author to indite his first chapter, it was on the market as a new and thrilling serial, “secured by special arrangement.”
Cordelia's novel is bought by Broadway. Though two playwrights are brought in to adapt it for the stage, only her name is credited. Sent out on lecture tour, Cordelia reads words written by a speechwriter hired by her publisher. She encourages John to submit one of his poems, 'The Need of War,' to a newspaper that is offering a great deal of money for her thoughts on armed conflict:
“But it’s not what newspapers print or care to print.”
     “It’s a beautiful thing,” she cried. “They’d jump at it.” And then she added, as an afterthought, “ If it had been written by any one with a name.”
     “That’s just it,” he explained. “ The offer hasn’t been made to me, you see.”
     “Yes, I know,” she began. “And that’s why I hesitated about suggesting the thing.”
     He seemed to be weighing the matter, and she waited for him to speak.
     “Of course it’s awfully good of you to extend the offer to me at the last moment, and all that sort of thing. But I know well enough this paper would never think of offering me any such sum for the lines.”
     She looked at him steadily.
     “They would if it appeared over my name.”
     “But I couldn’t ask you to do that—and for a mere matter of money,” he cried.
     “I would gladly, for you.”
     “But it would scarcely be fair, either to you or to me.”
     She almost hated him, she felt, when he stood so proudly behind that old-time integrity of character of his. Even as she argued, though, she secretly hoped against hope that he would hold out, that he would defeat her where she stood. Then remembering again more than one scene of inward humiliation over what he seemed to have accepted as her womanly proneness to tangle the devious skeins of ethics and expediency, a touch of the tyrant came to her once more.
     “I want you to have this money,” she pleaded. “It’s only right that you should."
Cordelia is alive! A country girl caught up in literary New York, she quickly learns to navigate, becoming all too familiar with the fabrication, hypocrisy, and deceit of its publishing houses.

Arthur Stringer: Son of the North
Victor Lauriston
Toronto: Ryerson, 1941

In his very short biography of the author, friend Victor Lauriston writes: "Newspaper identification of a prominent woman writer of that period with Stringer's 'Cordelia Vaughan' precipitated a controversy, and the book startled the author by going through five editions."

The Kentucky New Era
19 September 1903 
My own investigation confirms the validity of Lauriston's statement. Newspapers did indeed liken the character to a famous authoress of the day; frustratingly, I've yet to find one that names the lady in question. And so I put it to you, who is Cordelia Vaughhan?

Trivia I: The word "plagiarism" does not feature in the novel.

Trivia II: Five years after publication, Stringer accused George Sylvester Viereck, Edgar Allan Woolf of plagiarizing The Silver Poppy in their play The Vampire. The latter is based on Viereck's 1907 novel The House of Vampire, in which American Reginald Clarke feeds off the literary and artistic work of others.

The New York Times
31 January 1909

The working title of The  Silver Poppy was "The Yellow Vampire." The word "vampire" exists six times in the text, used by Repellier in a too subtle tale to warn John about Cordelia.

I've found no evidence that Viereck and Woolf followed through on their threat.

Object: A very attractive hardcover, typical of its time, except that it features no illustrations. The book's final six pages are given over to adverts for titles by Anna McClure Sholl, Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, Arthur Stirling, Julien Gordon, Frank T. Bullen, J Aubrey Tyson, Elisa Armstrong Bengough, Mrs Burton Harrison, and Mrs Poultney Bigelow.

I didn't make up one of those names.

The image at the top of this post does not do justice. Those poppies really are silver! I purchased my copy, a first edition, four years ago from Attic Books, not one kilometre from the author's childhood home. Price: $10.

Access: The Silver Copy is held by the Chatham-Kent Public Library, the London Public Library, and twenty-one of our academic libraries. The novel may have had five printings, but only three copies are listed for sale online. As of this writing, at US$18, the cheapest is an Appleton first. I'm intrigued by the offer of a later A.L. Burt cheapo because it features a fontispiece. A Canadian edition as published in 1903 by William Briggs. A UK edition was published in 1904 by Methuen.

The print on demand vultures are all over this novel. My favourite cover is this one, presumably put together after misreading the title:

No dogs feature in the book

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  1. " Repellier threatens to share his knowledge of the true author of The Silver Poppy unless Cordelia breaks things off with John."
    Is Repellier after Cordelia or John or has he gone down with moral concerns?

    1. My wife asked the very same question, Roger. Repellier isn't concerned about Cordelia's relationship with John until he reads The Silver Poppy. It's likely - though in no way spelled out - that he would've also read 'The Need of War,' the poem published under Cordelia's name, and wondered that she wrote verse.

      The painter could've been given more flesh. Is he feeling regret in encouraging John to come to New York? It certainly hasn't panned out as Repellier had promised. I would argue that he feels some responsibility for the poet.

  2. This looks just like my cup of tea. I will, of course, be buying the edition with the chihuahua.