22 May 2023

Petticoat Discipline, Please

The Tempestuous Petticoat [A Chicago Princess]
Robert Barr
London: Collins, [1908]
200 pages

Proper Englishman Rupert Tremorne serves as protagonist and narrator. If he is to be believed – I see no reason why not – Tremorne once held a good position in the diplomatic service, only to resign after receiving an inheritance of £100,000 (roughly £9.9 million today). Ten months later, he lost the entire fortune to an unscrupulous American businessman. 

The Tempestuous Petticoat opens in Nagasaki, where Tremorne had hoped to revive his career. Sadly, his best efforts failed. The reader finds him heavily indebted to Yansan, the sort of patient, polite landlord found only in fiction. The two are discussing their relationship when Tremorne spots a yacht and announces that his "ship has come in." Here I note that yachts aren't ships. In any case, a vessel sails into Nagasaki's harbour, and Tremorne's life is forever changed.

The yacht belongs to Chicago industrialist and investor Silas K. Hemster. Tremorne climbs its rope ladder, makes for its owner, and begins selling himself as a jack of all trades. This does not impress. “You spread yourself out too thin, my son," says Hemster. "A man who can do everything can do nothing. We specialise in our country. I hire men who can do only one thing, and do that thing better than anybody else.”

Recognizing Tremorne's true talents, Hemster makes him his personal secretary. The Englishman's first task is to accompany gorgeous Gertrude Hemster, his new employer's sole heir, on a tour of Nagasaki's finest shops. The two get along famously, particularly after Gertrude learns that Tremorne has met with the Emperor of Japan. Unfortunately, she takes this to mean that her father's new hire and the Mikado are fast friends.

How to explain this misunderstanding? Wishful thinking perhaps?

At twenty-one – "every one says I don't look more than seventeen" – Gertrude has enjoyed a great many privileges: exclusive schools, the best hotels, and the finest restaurants. She has met British lords, French counts, German barons, and Italian princes, but as Hemster explains:

"Gertie got tired of them, and, as she is an ambitious girl and a real lady, she determined to strike higher, and so, when we bought this yacht and came abroad again, she determined to go in for Kings, so I’ve been on a King hunt I ever since, and to tell the truth it has cost me a lot of money, and I don’t like it. Not that I mind the money if it resulted in anything, but it hasn’t resulted in anything; that is, it hasn’t amounted to much."

Upon realizing her mistake, Gertrude sets the crockery flying. The following day, she confronts Tremorne for daring to play the yacht's piano. Miss Hilda Stretton, orphaned daughter of Silas Hemster's closest friend, tries to defuse the situation:

Miss Hemster whirled around like an enraged tigress, and struck her companion a blow that would have landed on her cheek had not the victim suddenly and instinctively raised an arm to protect her face. Then with the viciousness of a harridan of Drury Lane Miss Hemster grasped the shrinking girl by the shoulders, and shook her as a terrier does a rat, finally forcing her down into a seat by the side of the table.
The scene ends in gunfire.

A Francis P. Wightman illustration from the 1905 Methuen edition.

Understandably, any interest Tremorne had for Gertrude shifts to Hilda. But do not be confused, Gertrude is the titular character.

A confession: I purchased The Tempestuous Petticoat for its title, taken from Robert Herrick's 17th-century poem 'Delight in Disorder':

from Elizabethan Songs "in honour of love and beautie"
Edmund Henry Garrett, ed
London: James R. Osgoode, McIloine & Co., 1891

I'd hoped that the novel might prove ribald and naughty; something unique in Victorian Canada. Sadly, The Tempestuous Petticoat is typical Barr, as recognized in the pages of The Bookman (April 1905): 

There are some authors whom it hardly seems necessary to review. They are definitely "placed" by their previous work. The reader knows exactly what to expect; a particular book may be a little above or below the general average, but it is unlikely either to surprise or disappoint. Among the number of these writers whose works may be taken on trust, Mr. Barr may certainly claim a place. It must be years since he wrote a bad novel, if indeed he ever wrote anything approaching a bad novel, but it is equally unlikely that he will ever produce any work much above the average level of its predecessors. The faithful reader can go to the circulating library and ask for Mr. Barr's "latest" with the comfortable assurance that he will not be disappointed. In a now famous phrase, "those who like this sort of thing will find the sort of thing they like," or in other words, those who like Robert Barr will like "The Tempestuous Petticoat." This may sound like faint praise, but in deference to Mr. Barr's numerous admirers we hasten to add that we ourselves are amongst that number.

Not a bad novel, The Tempestuous Petticoat is very much on par with the Barr's other work; Revenge! rises above, In the Midst of Alarms is a touch below, while 'One Day's Courtship' and 'The Heralds of Fame' rest on the very same plane. This means that it is superior to most Canadian novels of the time. Anyone looking for a silly, well-written diversion with plenty of flirtatious banter will be satisfied; anyone looking for sweet disorder in the dress will not.

Still, I do like the title.

Object: An unassuming petite edition in dark blue boards, ideal for a lady's handbag or gentleman's waistcoat pocket, my copy is the eighteenth title in Collins' "'Handy' Modern Fiction" series. According to the publisher, "'Handy' Modern Fiction" was "the greatest revolution the world has ever witnessed."

Robespierre, Washington, Lenin, and Mao Zedong take note.

Surprisingly, for something so cheap, the title page (top of post) and frontispiece (below) are in full-colour on glossy paper.

Object and Access: I've yet to find evidence that this novel was ever serialized. If true, The Tempestuous Petticoat first appeared in June, 1904 as A Chicago Princess (New York: Stokes). Methuen's first British edition followed the next year. My Collins' "Handy" Modern Fiction copy was published in April, 1908. It has been out of print ever since.

If you see them, buy the Stokes or Methuen editions; they have better bindings, clearer type, and each has four colour plates by Francis P. Wightman. 

Sadly, as of this writing, no Stokes or Methuens are listed for sale online. One copy of the Collins edition is on offer at £25.00. Mine was purchased two years ago from an Oxfordshire bookseller. Price £2.00.

Several editions of the novel can be accessed – gratis – at the Internet Archive. I recommend the Methuen.

12 May 2023

That Only a Mother: The Best of the Best

'That Only a Mother'
The Best of Judith Merril
Judith Merril
New York: Warner, 1976
254 pages

The Best of Judith Merril sees an anthologist anthologized. Consisting of nine short stories and two poems, the cover suggests that the selection was made by Merril herself; friend Virginia Kidd provides the introduction and notes.

The first story is "That Only a Mother." Judith Merril's greatest hit. By my count, it has appeared in more than three dozen anthologies. Curiously, its status is downplayed in Kidd's short introductory note:  

A buried newspaper item on Army denial and post-Hiroshima rumors engendered Merril's first sf story. ("Even in those days some of us automatically read certain kinds of official U.S. releases backwards.") John Campbell bought it for Astounding — October, 1948.
In fact, the story first appeared in the magazine's June issue.

In 1948, Merril herself was like something out of science fiction. She was the only woman included in the the June issue. I've gone through dozens of previous issues without finding another female contributor. Here's how Astounding – more accurately,  Astounding Science Fiction - presented Merril's story:

From start to finish, 'That Only a Mother' is an uncomfortable read. It begins with main character Margaret reaching across her bed to "where Hank should have been." Husband Hank has been absent many months. There's a war going on. Hank's not cannon fodder; he's a cog in the military industrial complex. 

Margaret is pregnant. Her mother sends letters via "facsimile machine" expressing concern: "I'm thrilled, of course, but, well, one hates to mention theses things, but are you certain the doctor was right? Hank's been around all that uranium or whatever it is all these years..."

Margaret's mother's worries are understandable. The year is 1953 and malformed infants are an issue. Infanticide is common. Margaret and Hank's baby arrives early. The hospital assures that all is well, though staff won't let the mother or father see their child. Margaret and Hank name her Harriette.

Margaret's mother never visits; she makes no effort to see her grandchild. Hank isn't granted leave until ten months after the baby's birth, by which time she speaks fluently and has begun questioning her mother.

Margaret, Hank, and Harriett form a nuclear family, but not as Bronisław Malinowski imagined.

I read the other stories and poems in The Best of Judith Merril, but not one was nearly so good as this. 

If you have nothing more than a half-hour to spare, 'That Only a Mother' is the story for you.

If you have a few hours, the best of Judith Merril is Shadow on the Hearth, her first novel. 

It too is about a mother.

Object: A mass market paperback original. The text is followed by a two-page advert for twenty-four other Warner science fiction, including The Frankenstein Factory, The Dracula Tape, When Worlds Collide, and After Worlds Collide (each twice mentioned).

American illustrator Gray Morrow, whom I remember as a co-creator of Man-Thing, provided the cover art. Much as I admire the artist's technique, I can't help but note that it in no way reflects the contents.

Access: The Toronto Public Library, which houses the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, has a copy. The book can also be found at Library and Archives Canada and in nine of our academic libraries. 

I count two printings, which is not to suggest that it can be found on the cheap. A Michigan bookseller offers a copy online at US$6.00, but wants US$25.00 for postage and handling. Prices really take off after that. In the stratosphere, you'll find a US$107.50 copy requiring US$33.00 shipping.

01 May 2023

L.R. Wright Before She Became L.R. Wright

Laurali Wright [L.R. Wright]
Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1979
258 pages

There's so much wrong with this jacket illustration. Set aside the eyes for a moment and focus on the houses. They're nearly identical, right? The one on the left is a mirror image of the other two, yet the neighbours in Neighbours live in dwellings of differing designs separated by spacious lawns. The figure standing before the open garage in Clement Clarke Moore sleeping cap does not feature.

Returning to the eyes: I thought they belonged to a man, but Neighbours is a novel about three women. Betty Coutts is the first we meet. She lives with husband Jack and daughter Heather in a Calgary subdivision. As a travelling salesman, Jack is rarely present, which leaves young Heather in a precarious position. The extent to which Jack recognizes his daughter's peril – I do not exaggerate in using that word – is unclear. Could be he's in denial.

It's apparent from the start that Betty is suffering from a serious mental illness. She's unable to work and spends much of her day in bed eating candy. The house is a worsening filthy mess, which prompts Jack, who has returned home from yet another sales trip, to spray the kitchen with a garden hose. This early scene is uncharacteristic; Jack is otherwise sensitive and patient regarding his wife's mental health. It's due to his efforts that Betty has weekly meetings with a psychologist named Jessup.

For a time, it's suggested – by the doctor, at least – that Betty is making progress. At Jessup's urging, she makes an effort to make new friends, deciding on her two next-door neighbours. Elderly Poinsettia, lives in the house to the left. Betty insists on calling her Bertha, which Poinsettia quite likes. Sheila, to the right, lives in the house Betty considers the most beautiful on the block.

Both women have problems of their own. Bertha , who lives to garden, struggles with severe arthritis. She fights worsening pain and a son and daughter-in-law who want her to give up her home and come live in theirs. Sheila's problem is worse still. Minutes before Betty's intrusion in her life – it is very much an intrusion – husband Ed revealed that he'd been having an affair. Sheila's reaction to the infidelity amounts to the strongest writing of the novel. If you read nothing else from the novel, read this.

Neighbours was a Search-for-a-New-Alberta-Novelist winner. Pauline Gedge, Andre Tom MacGregor, Fred Stenson, Jan Truss, and Betty Wilson were fellow honourees. In reading reviews from the time, I came upon three in the Montreal Gazette, my hometown paper. Published on 1 June 1979, the first belongs to Zonia Keywan:


The second is by Walter J. Traprock, whose name I can find nowhere outside the newspaper's 3 November 1979 edition. He butts against Zonia Keywan, feeding Western alienation: 

Laurali (Bunny) Wright is the winner is of the fourth Search-For-A-New-Alberta-Novelist competition. Despite this dubious distinction, she writes well, and if her first novel, Neighbours, has problems, it also has considerable promise. 

I have no idea why the Gazette saw fit to review the Macmillan edition twice. Change in editors? Poor memory? Drunkenness? 

The third, published on 11 June 1980, was occasioned by the novel's paperback release. Written by the legendary Marion McCormick, it's the shortest and the most amusing:

All too often, young writers write the same heavily autobiographical story: the hero heroine – always the most sensitive kid on the school bus – suffers in a provincial hamlet populated by Yahoos until he she can break away and write a novel about it.
   Neighbours is something else; a well-plotted suspense story involving three families who live on a Calgary street. The author achieves a mixture of pathos and menace that sticks in the mind. 

I side with Marion McCormick.

Macmillan's dust jacket, flaps included, focus on Betty, selling the novel of one woman's hellish decent into madness. I see it as something much more. Neighbours is about neighbours. Betty brings Bertha and Sheila into the story. Again, it is a novel about three women; it is a "Chilling Story" only because the struggles each face are so consuming that they can do nothing to help one another. 

It sticks in the mind.

Object and Access: The jacket illustration is credited to Martin Springett. Richard Miller is credited with the design.

As "L.R. Wright," Laurali Wright – Rose was her middle name – went on to become the foremost Canadian mystery writer of her time. Wright's fourth book, The Suspect, was recognized in the United States with the 1986 Edgar for Best Novel. This being Canada, it is unsurprising that the Macmillan edition enjoyed nothing more than a single printing. In 1980, Signet published the novel in paperback. I've never seen a copy.

Neighbours is sadly typical of Macmillan's 'seventies output in that it is nearly impossible to read without cracking the spine. Collectors of Alice Munro and Robertson Davies know of what I speak. My copy was purchased two years ago in Montreal at S.W. Welch. Price: $5.00. The previous reader or readers broke its spine twice. I take pride in having been so careful as to not increase that number.

Mine is the only copy I've ever seen in person, but there are others – not many – being offered online. At US$13.95, a Nova Scotia bookseller has listed one as "very tight unread/unopened." Another bookseller shares this disturbing image:

At US$100, the standout is a Very Good copy signed by the author.

That is the one to buy. Careful with the spine!