28 July 2020

An Obstinate Virgin Turns Old-Fashioned Girl

The Obstinate Virgin
Sinclair Murray [Alan Sullivan]
London: Sampson Low, Marston [1934]
314 pages

In Essentially Canadian, his 1982 biography of Alan Sullivan, Gordon D. McLeod dismisses The Obstinate Virgin in two sentences:
The most devastating word applied to some of Sullivan's fiction is "ephemeral." It accurately describes The Obstinate Virgin, the only novel published by Sullivan in 1934.
And so, of course, I turned to The Obstinate Virgin as the next title in my exploration of things Sullivan.

The titular virgin is Mary Hellmuth, twenty-one-year-old step-daughter to Mr Henry Bentick, late of Kent. Step-dad is dead. His demise, quite recent, quite unexpected, must surely came as a shock, though no tears are in evidence. Mary's mother – known only as "Mrs Bentick" – had remarried for money, which is not to suggest that Mr Bentick wasn't most kind and considerate. "I wanted the right sort of home for you," she tells her daughter. "I don't complain about the last four years in any way at all, and you shouldn't either." "I'm not," replies Mary, "but naturally just at the moment I can't pretend to be overcome with grief, and equally naturally, I'm looking ahead."

This exchange takes place on the train to London, where they meet with family solicitor Mr Spillsbury of Spillsbury, Burkonshaw and Clewes. Mrs Bentick's expectation is that has inherited an annuity of £5000, the same amount enjoyed by her late husband. It is the solicitor's sad duty to inform that with Mr Bentick's death the entitlement has been transferred to another; the widow can expect no more than an annual payment of £250 drawn from investments made on her late husband's life insurance. This unpleasant news is coupled with the revelation that the grand Bentick house and estate were leased. Of a sudden, mother and daughter are without a home.

Mary takes the news much better than Mrs Bentick; where the daughter is disappointed in having to give up her dreams of a carefree life in London, the mother suffers the horror of having married for money that never existed. Sullivan shows kindness in not passing judgment on either woman.

Mrs Bentick retreats to a modest rooms in Bayswater, demonstrating little concern regarding the daughter for whom (she claims) she had (in part) married Mr Bentick.

Mary's initial searches for steady employment are not at all successful. However, fortunes turn – or do they? – when she responds to an advert placed by Mrs Hathaway, a middle-aged American woman in need of a secretary. It soon becomes clear that the obstinate virgin is hired for looks alone.

But why?

The location shifts to Monte Carlo, where it becomes clear that Mrs Hathaway hopes Mary's beauty might lure Hugo, her mentally unstable son, away from femme fatale Tonia Moore. Looking on is plain American girl Ann Mason who, being incredibly rich, has followed him across the Atlantic.

Monte Carlo, 1934
Mrs Hathaway holds slim hope that Ann might capture her son, though it's hard to see that there's much of a chance when compared to Tonia, "a sinuous, graceful, provocative creature who, when she moved, seemed to have no bones." Mrs Hathaway encourages Mary to chase Hugo, all the while making it clear that that she'd prefer wealthy Ann as a daughter-in-law:
"I've always been fond of her, and she's a fine girl, but she doesn't make any effort to attract, just thinks that it's enough to be natural. She was always like that. Of course, if you're a born beauty" – here she shot a different kind of glance at Mary – "no special effort is necessary, but believe me in Ann's case it is." 

Hugo never gives Mary so much as a second glance, though she does attract considerable attention from lively Italian Conte Guino Rivaldo and a rather serious Englishman named James Brock. The former can really cut a rug, and is recognized by all as Mrs Hathaway's gigolo (though no one suggests that they are lovers). Brock, who appears out of nowhere, somehow manages to attach himself to the group, despite being a right killjoy. As Guino woos the young virgin, Brock pooh-poohs her gambling, criticizes her use of make-up, advises her against swimming in cold water, and discourages her budding friendship with a certain Mme Gagnon. Within two weeks of arriving in Monte Carlo – and with considerable excitement – Mary accepts a proposal of marriage from one of these two men.

No points for correctly guessing which.

As a young woman who had expected an inheritance, had received nothing, and is left to make her own way, Mary Hellmuth is a familiar character. Her predicament is mirrored in Grant Allen's Juliet
Appleton (The Typewriter Girl; 1897) and Lois Cayley (Miss Cayley's Adventures; 1900), but Mary lacks their smarts and enterprise. She's more like the orphaned Monica Madden in George Gissing's The Odd Women (1893): a not-so-bright girl whose beauty tempts disaster. In short, Mary is a Victorian heroine moving through a Depression era novel. Reading The Obstinate Virgin, I kept having to remind myself that it was published the same year as Tender is the Night and The Postman Always Rings Twice. It is so old-fashioned that the passing of an automobile seems incongruous. Mention of a commercial aeroplane flight in the final pages was positively jarring.

This being 1934, Mary being twenty-one, I'll accept that she is a virgin – but obstinate? Mary, a free-spirit, is open to anything, which explains how she gets along with everyone, save spoilsport James Brock.

The last chapter is rushed. Should anything be made of the fact that the page count of The Obstinate Virgin and is nearly identical to that of What Fools Men Are!, Sullivan's previous novel for Samson Low, Marston?

Mary, loses all her money at the roulette table, and goes into debt to Mme Gagnon... who, it turns out, is a white slave trader. Just as she's about to whisk Mary off to Paris, using the promise of a position in a fashion house, the madame is arrested.

No points for naming the person who tipped off the police.

No points, either, for the naming the person who ends up saving Mary from drowning.

A half-point for naming the woman who is revealed as Guino's estranged wife.

As everything goes south, Mary flees north to London. Arriving at Victoria Station, she encounters Brock: "'Hallo!' said he, "'better come with me and have a cup of tea: you look a bit washed out.'"

In the nine remaining pages, Brock explains his motivation in being in Monte Carlo, justifies his actions in the principality, and insists they be married:
Already he was arranging everything for her and she had the complete conviction that he always would, and could see him standing on the hearth after dinner planning the day to come, but for some strange reason instead of vexing it now made her thankful. That practically, was all she knew about him; he would always arrange things, and she, just as regularly, would be glad he should.
As I've more than hinted, Mary is none too smart.

Bloomer: In speaking of Ann's devotion to her son Hugo, Mrs Hathaway has this to say:
"Why she still loves him – frankly, I don't know – but she does just the same. He's queer. Sometimes I think he's frightened of women."
Trivia I: The Bank of England informs that £5000 in 1934 is the equivalent of over £360,500 today. Mrs Bentick's more modest annuity of £250 amounts to something more than £18,000.

Don't know about you, but I'd be pleased as Punch with that kind of money.

Trivia II: Is it not interesting that Gordon D. McLeod describes The Obstinate Virgin as "the only novel published by Sullivan in 1934"?

The only novel? Should we have expected more?

Well, yes.

From 1925 to 1933, Sullivan published an average of nearly three novels a year:
The Crucible
The Jade God
John Frensham, K.C. 
Human Clay
The Days of Their Youth
In the Beginning 
Brother Blackfoot
The Splendid Silence
The Verdict of the Sea
The Whispering Lodge 
The Broken Marriage
Double Lives
The Story of One-Ear
The Training of Chiliqui 
A Little Way Ahead
The Magic Makers
Mr. Absalom
Queer Partners 
Golden Foundling
The Ironmaster
No Secrets Island 
Colonel Pluckett
Cornish Interlude 
Man at Lane Tree
What Fools Men Are!
I wonder what happened in 1928. McLeod provides no explanation.

Between 1934 and his death in 1947, Sullivan appears to have relaxed, publishing seven novels, one collection of short stories, and a translation of Félix-Antoine Savard's Menaud maître-draveur.

Object: An unremarkable hardcover, identical in design to Sullivan's What Fools Men Are! (1933). The novel itself is followed by eight pages of advertising for the publisher's "POPULAR CHEAP EDITIONS," consisting chiefly of titles by Jeffrey Farnol, E.C.R. Lora, Leonard A. Knight, Moray Dalton, Silas K. Hocking, Richard Starr, Henry St John Cooper, Donn Byrne, and Faith Baldwin. My copy lacks the dust jacket, but within its pages, I found what may be the rear flap. It appears to have been used as a bookmark.

Anyway, I used it for that purpose.

Access: If WorldCat is an indication, no Canadian library has a copy; the only copies it lists are held in the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, and Dublin's Trinity College Library.

As of this writing, just one copy, a later Sampson Low sixpenny paperback with paper cover (below), is being offered online. At £9.90, it's a steal. Heads up, Library and Archives Canada!

Related posts:

24 July 2020

Canada Reads 2020: "Shouts Out to Tara!"

After much delay, Canada Reads 2020 has come and gone. Congrats to Samra Habib, whose memoir We Have Always Been Here won the game show and was crowned "The One Book to Bring Canada Into Focus."

I listened with as much interest as ever, and was surprised to hear from people asking my opinion. This may have had something to do with "No Country for Old Books," an article I wrote last year for Canadian Notes & Queries. If so, the head doth swell.

As in other years, my thoughts take the form of complaints, like the 2014 decision to focus on the new.

Canadian Notes & Queries #104, Spring 2019

For those keeping track, all but one of the titles in this year's competition was published in 2019, the outlier being Eden Robinson's Son of a Trickster, which appeared in bookstores in 2017. The average age of a Canada Reads 2020 title was 13.5 months.

Canada Reads' preference for the front list was something I discovered through a letter CBC Books sent to publishers. An eye-opener, you can read it in "No Country for Old Books." In researching the game show, I've found CBC Books to be less than forthcoming. Imagine my interest when host Ali Hassan revealed, just yesterday, that Canada Reads has a style consultant named Tara Williams.

I remind that Canada Reads is a radio show.

My main quibble with Canada Reads remains. In its early years, panellists chose the books they wished to promote. In 2002, Leon Rooke, argued on behalf of The Stone Angel, a novel he'd read many times. The same can be said for Denise Bombardier, who in 2007 championed an old favourite in Gabrielle Roy's Children of My Heart.

This year, each of the "defenders" revealed that they had not read their respective books before being asked to participate.

We Have Always Been Here was a national bestseller before it made Canada Reads. It had won a Lambda and had been longlisted of the RBC Charles Taylor Award. The memoir was the subject of a Globe & Mail feature and a subsequent review. It was a 2019 "Globe 100" title. Published internationally, We Have Always Been Here was featured on The Next Chapter, and in the pages of  the Toronto StarNOW, Stylist, and something so distant as the Tampa Bay Times. CBC Books had been pushing We Have Always Been Here for more than a year, beginning with its excited 3 June 2019 article "10 Canadian books coming out in June we can't wait to read."

And yet... and yet, in making her case, Amanda Brugel, its defender, stated: "I wouldn't have been aware of this book until it had been brought to my attention via this competition."

Isn't this a sad state of affairs?

One last thing:

Ali, "The One Book to Bring Canada Into Focus"?

In 2020.

You're a comedian.

Was it too obvious?

Full disclosure: I wanted Eden Robinson's Son of a Trickster to win.

Related post:

13 July 2020

CNQ: Spring? Spring Ish

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

The same might be said of a magazine's Spring Issue landing in July. Something is seriously wrong, though I dare say we're getting used to it. Yesterday, I donned a mask, looked about, and felt good that others waiting to buy beer had done the same.

What a long, strange year this has been... and it's barely half-way done. I like to think the arrival of this new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries signals a return to better times. There's a whole lot to look at, like this issue's What's Old, which features:

Here I remind readers that my birthday is next month.

The Dusty Bookcase column in this issue concerns Robert W. Service's thriller The Master of the Microbe. Published in 1926, its hero, an American expat living in Montparnasse, stumbles over a plot to unleash a deadly virus that attacks the respiratory system. Its earliest pages are as interesting and entertaining as anything I've read this year.

You'll also find Bruce Whiteman on George Fetherling, whose The Writing Life (Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 2013) I edited:

I'm all in with Nigel Beale, who sounds off on the disregard this country demonstrates toward its literary heritage:

David Mason is spot on: There's no such thing as book hoarding.

The embarrassment of riches continues with Colette Maitland's contribution:

And then there's Cynthia Holz's memoir, 'Out of the Bronx':

Other contributors include:
Jeff Bursey
Page Cooper
Elaine Dewar
Meags Fitzgerald
Stephen Fowler
Ulrikka S. Gernes
Basia Gilas
Douglas Glover
Alex Good
Brett Josef Grubisic
Alex Pugsley
Kelly S. Thompson
Shelley Wood
editor Emily Donaldson

An unexpected treat, the copy I received included this insert:

Again, my birthday is next month.

06 July 2020

A Queer Thing, Nationalism

What Fools Men Are!
Sinclair Murray [Alan Sullivan]
London: Sampson Low, Marston, [1933]
316 pages

It's possible that What Fools Men Are! has the worst first sentence in Canadian literature:
Otto Banta, whose appearance gave no suggestion that he was a millionaire in dungarees, was running a lathe, the end one in a long row of warring machines driven by belts that ran from a shaft just under the ceiling and looking down the row one saw a dwindling line of men's heads, most of them young and dark, each very attentive to the mechanical creatures controlled.
The second isn't much better:
Heads, belts, lathes, the song of speeding leather, the low grunt of tool steel as it bit into the revolving thing it fashioned, the constant rain of bright thin cork-screws of sheared metal into the iron pan beneath the lathe; that was the perspective to which Otto was now accustomed.
This is a novel about men, their shafts, their leather, low grunts, and tool steel. Its hero, Otto Banta, earns respect by working next to other muscular fellows in the factory he will one day inherit from his father. When comes the "swelling, full-throated roar" that signals the end of the shift, he doesn't hesitate in joining them in the showers. However, on this day, he's interrupted when a man named Oster touches his arm:
Oster glanced around the room now filling with men peeling off their shirts, exposing bodies whose alabaster whiteness contracted sharply with the grime on faces, wrists, and hands. Their muscles had a smooth, silky play, the biceps buldging when their arms went up over their heads.
     "Can you come around this afternoon?"said Oster in a low voice.
He has something to show Otto – and it wasn't at all what I expected. On Oster's worktable is a new aeroplane engine that is lighter, more efficient, and more reliable than any other ever made. The inventor is set to happily hand it over to the Banta family in exchange for royalties and a brass plaque bearing his name on each engine... which, I couldn't help but note would add unnecessarily to the engine's weight. Why not aluminum?

Oster is a bachelor, as is Otto, but do not get the wrong impression. The millionaire in dungarees is engaged to a woman, Hilda Theres, whose "white breast" – which one? –  he longs to one day fondle. His fiancée's parents, Hugo and Mathilde, emigrated from the Republic of Sardosa some fifteen years earlier. They're now prominent citizens in Lunga, the capitol city of neighbouring Aricia, in which Hugo has established a remarkably successful import/export business. Forty years ago, his home country was involved in a terrible war with Aricia in which the Province of Modoris was lost. It's best left unmentioned.

Hugo and Mathilde are just as happy with the engagement as Otto's parents, John and Maria. "Yes, I think they'll hit it off," John tells Hugo. "Of course Maria is very pleased, and holds there might be more of these marriages between your people and mine. Queer thing, nationalism, isn't it? I used to try and persuade myself that the world was moving away from it, but now I have my doubts."

The seasoned reader will know to share John's apprehension.

What happens next is packed with incident:

Though sworn to secrecy, Otto tells Hilda that he's been asked to form a team of volunteer aviators meant to supplement the Arician Air Force. Without permission, Otto takes his betrothed up in his aeroplane, crosses the Aricia/Sardosa border, and lands on the grounds of the Sardosan mansion in which she spent her earliest years. Though welcomed, Otto and Hilda don't know that the lord of the manor happens to be a man named Hammon, owner and editor of the influential Sardosan Tribune. The couple then return to Lunga for a private dinner hosted by Hugo and Mathilde Theres. Otto's parents are in attendance, as are Boris Parka (President of the Arician Republic), General Mark Kekwich (Arician Minister of War), and Paul Constantine (owner and editor of the Lunga News). As the evening winds down, Otto's departs for the Lunga Club, where he chairs the first meeting of his secret squadron.

Otto has had a long day; the steel shafts, leather, and showers, must seem so long ago. On the way home from the meeting, he happens upon a street artist flogging paintings beneath the imposing marble statue of Sardosian hero Dimitri Collo, a gift from Sardosa to the people of Aricia. Though the consequence is unintended, their brief exchange encourages the artist to deface the statue, making a mockery of a man Sardosians consider a national hero.

And then the shit hits the propellor.

The front page of the following day's Sardosan Tribune is devoted to the defacement, the news of Otto's incursion into Sardosa, and his role as secret squadron leader. Oster's engine is stolen by suspected members of the Sardosian Secret Service, a Sardosian Air Force hanger is destroyed by a saboteur, rioting breaks out in Modoris, anti-Sardosian sentiment takes root in the Banta factory, and the Arician political and upper classes snub invitations to the Theres family's monthly reception. Meanwhile, Constantine and Hammon stoke the fires by printing speculation and fake news in their respective papers.

As might be expected, these tensions have ill-effect on star-crossed lovers Otto and Hilda. Still,  I couldn't help but feel that war would be averted and that all was heading toward a happy ending. I can't say why. Blantyne–Alien, the only other Sullivan novel I've read, ends in great tragedy.

In any case, I was right that things end happily, but wrong in my prediction that the last page, as tradition dictates, would belong to Otto and Hilda. Instead, it's given over to minor characters General Mark Kekwich and his wife Alicia. Poor Mark had been banished from the bedroom due to his treatment of Theres family, but all is forgiven:
On the second floor of the house of the Minister of War, a big bedroom glowed warmly in softened light, and Alicia, her back against a heap of pillows, wearing a very low cut and diaphanous garment, toyed idly with a magazine, smiling to herself in the manner of one who contemplated the immediate future with delicately malicious pleasure, and it might have been midnight when a knock sounded on the door.
     "Come in." She spoke sweetly, aware that she was the most seductive thing in all Lunga.
     On the threshold stood Kekwich in slippers and yellow pyjamas, his cheeks dusky, eyes a little glazed.
     "Darling," he breathed. "Oh, darling!"
     The magazine slid to the floor and two very white arms extended towards him.
     "Silly!" said she as they enfolded him. "Silly old Mark! Come along." Then, a little later, rosy and delicious. "Of course, I loved you all the time – I never stopped – but why did you men get so excited over nothing at all? 
It's a jarring conclusion in that it doesn't fit with the tone of the previous 315 pages.

The last sentence is a joke, right?

If so, am I wrong about the first?

Trivia concerning white breasts: Hilda is not the only woman in Lunga with a white breast or two. Alicia Kekwich's rare appearances in the novel are almost invariably accompanied by some mention of her own. The introduction to the character, at one of the Theres family's soirées, features this description: "a small, fair, blue-eyed woman who carried her headline a flower and had, it was agreed, the whitest bosom in Lunga."

That she is Alicia from Aricia did not escape my notice.

Trivia concerning bachelors: Sullivan populates the novel with a fair number of single men – including Oster, Constantine, and Air Commodore Pollak of the Sardinian Air Force – remarking on their disinterest in women. The most prominent is Boris Parka, president of the Arician Republic, "a lean, saturnine man, a bachelor to whom women in general were neither an objective or of interest." We first see Parka in conversation with the stunningly beautiful Mathilde Theres "saying little but smiling faintly and watching her with cool appraising eyes in which none of her sex had ever caught the least flicker of desire."

About the author: A forgotten son of Montreal, Alan Sullivan published forty-seven books in his seventy-eight years. He was awarded the 1941 Governor General's Award for his historical novel Three Came to Ville Marie, but I think Sullivan is better remembered, when remembered at all, for The Rapids (1922), a roman à clef inspired by the rise and fall of his former employer Francis H. Clergue. Though Sullivan started his writing career as a poet – his first book was The White Canoe and Other Verse (1891) – novels dominate his bibliography (thirty-nine in total; thirteen as "Sinclair Murray"). I've now read two. I'm happy to keep going.

Edward Alan Sullivan
29 November 1868 - 6 August 1947
Object and Access: A bland production bound in bland orange boards. Nothing is on offer by online booksellers, though Queen's University, the University of New Brunswick, the University of Toronto, and the Toronto Public Library have copies. Sadly, Library and Archives Canada fails.

The Sampson Low, Marston edition is the only one. I've found no evidence of a second printing.

Related post:

01 July 2020

Marjorie Pickthall's Canadian Hymn

On this one hundred and fifty-third anniversary of Confederation, patriotic verse by Marjorie Pickthall. This version is taken from The Complete Poems of Marjorie Pickthall (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1927), edited by the poet's father.


Canadian Hymn 
Out of the dust God called new nations forth,
The land and sea made ready at His voice;
He broke the barriers of the North
And bade our plains rejoice;
He saw the untrodden prairie hold
Empire of early gold.
Star of the North,
He bade thee shine
And prove once more the dreams of men divine. 
Ask of the seas what our white frontiers dare,
Ask of the skies where our young banners fly
Like stars unloosened from the hair
Of wild-winged victory.
God’s thunder only wakening thrills
The ramparts of our hills.
Star of the North,
No foe shall stain
What France has loved, where Britain’s dead have lain! 
Dark is the watch-fire, sheathed the ancient sword,
But sons must follow where their sires have led,
To the anointed end, O Lord,
Where marched the mighty dead.
Firm stands the red flag battle-blown,
And we will guard our own,
Our Canada,
From snow to sea.
One hope, one home, one shining destiny!
A Happy Canada Day to all!

Related posts: