29 January 2024

On the Modern Library Mrs. Spring Fragrance

The Modern Library is very dear to my heart. I discovered the imprint as an illiterate Kindergartner looking through his late father's books. He'd owned a small number of editions, including Anna Karenina, ArrowsmithOf Human Bondage, and Eugene O'Neill's Nine Plays, each bearing his signature and a stamp with our Beaconsfield address. I liked that they were compact and uniform. I also liked the covers.

As a young adult, Modern Library's founders Albert Boni and Horace Liveright, became personal heroes. Firebrand, Tom Dardis's 1995 biography of the latter, had something to do with this, though I was already in their camp. As a university student, I sought out Modern Library editions of assigned texts, snubbing the cheap mass market paperbacks sold at the campus bookstore.

During those years I kept my spare cash in Winesburg, Ohio.

Ernest Boyd wrote the introduction to Winesburg, Ohio. Ford Maddox Ford wrote the introduction to A Farewell to Arms. Famously, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the introduction to what was then the commercial flop known as The Great Gatsby. 

Because Modern Library's focus, like mine, is on the past, I've not kept up with the imprint, and so only recently became aware of its 2021 reissue of Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings by Sui Sin Far (Edith Eaton).

It made the heart proud for a second or two. Mrs. Spring Fragrance may be the only book by a Canadian on the today's Modern Library list, though you would not know this from C Pam Zhang's introduction. True, her contribution isn't large – roughly four pages in length – but you'd think that there might be room to mention of the author's birthplace (Prestbury, Cheshire, England) or the city in which she was raised, educated, lived most of her life, died, and is buried (Montreal, Quebec, Canada). She's instead presented as "North American."

The errors are egregious: Eaton’s mother was Chinese, not "Chinese British;" her "white American father" was in fact English. Sister Winnifred, who was inarguably the more successful writer, is ignored entirely.

I end by noting that Mrs Spring Fragrance, whom Zhang describes as "a Chinese woman thriving in San Francisco," lives in Seattle.

It's right there – "Seattle" – in the very first sentence of the very first story.

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10 January 2024

O Lucky Man!

You Never Know Your Luck: Being the Story of a
   Matrimonial Deserter
Gilbert Parker
Toronto: Bell & Cockburn, 1914
328 pages

The dust jacket invites comparison with The Right of Way, Gilbert Parker's 1901 runaway bestseller, but I would have gone right ahead regardless. Both novels centre on married men who, brought down by vice, go missing. In The Right of Way that man is Charley Steele, Montreal's most feared lawyer and closet drunkard. Whatever you may think of him, Charley is not a matrimonial deserter. What happens is that he goes slumming, gets into a bar fight, and receives such a blow to the head that he loses his memory. It takes the talents of a world-renowned French surgeon to set things right, by which time the lawyer has been declared dead and his wife has remarried.

It is a story of redemption. Charley does not return to Montreal, his mansion, his vast wealth, and his beautiful wife. He'd married Kathleen for her looks, but she is now wed to a man who loves her back. Charley recognizes the private pain and public sensation that would result in reappearing Lazarus-like.

Shiel Crozier of You Never Know Your Luck is a lesser man. He begins the novel as J.G. Kerry, living a modest life in an Askatoon (read: Saskatoon) boarding house run by young Kitty Tynan and her widowed middle-aged mother. Shiel's true identity, that of a married Irish baronet, is revealed through his testimony as witness to a murder involving the Macmahon Gang. Gus Burlingame, the lawyer for the defence, holds a grudge. He was turfed from the boarding house after Shiel caught him groping Kitty.

Munsey's Magazine, April 1914

Pretty Kitty has a thing for Shiel. It's easy to see why. Handsome, personable, fun, and smart as a whip, he's seems the most eligible bachelor in Askatoon – that is until Burlingame gets him on the stand and has him disclose that he has a wife overseas. Before Kitty can digest the revelation the Macmahon Gang strikes again! This time, the target is Shiel himself. He survives a gunshot to the gut through the good work of the local physician, known affectionately as "the Young Doctor."

Munsey's Magazine, April 1914
While recovering, Shiel summons the doctor, Kitty, and Mrs Tynan to his bedside, where he expands upon the revelations revealed during the trial. The scene, which takes the entirety of the sixth chapter, is depicted in two not dissimilar illustrations by George Wright (above) and William Leroy Jacobs (below). 

You Never Know Your Luck
Toronto: Bell & Cockburn, 1914

Shiel speaks of his privileged birth, his education at Eton, his education at Oxford, and his education at London's Brooks's Club, where he was introduced to the Crozier family's long history of placing wagers on just about anything. Taking up the tradition, Shiel starts on a track that will lead to the loss of his inheritance, but not before he marries heiress Mona (maiden name not provided). His bride had encouraged him to change his ways. Shiel promised he would, only to bet the last of his fortune on a horse named Flamingo at Epsom Downs. What happened next was tragedy, no doubt inspired by Emily Davison's death at the 1913 running.

The Daily Sketch, 7 June 1913 

Like George V's Anmer, Flamingo was brought down by a woman stepping onto the racecourse, though this action had nothing to do with the Suffragette cause.

In an instant, Shiel is rendered nearly penniless. Because he hasn't the fortitude to face his spouse, he makes for the colonies, but doesn't escape before receiving a letter from Mona. Shiel's been carrying it, unopened, ever since.

The Right of Way ranked amongst the ten bestselling novels in the United States in both 1901 and 1902. It was adapted once by Broadway and thrice by Hollywood.

You Never Know Your Luck didn't make nearly so big a splash, though there was a 1919 Sunset Pictures production starring House Peters and Mildred Southwick. Alas, 'tis another lost silent film. Very lost. The only image I've found comes courtesy of this advert in the 16 December 1919 edition of the Beaver, Pennsylvania Daily Times

The reason The Right of Way did so well and You Never Know Your Luck not falls on Shiel's shoulders. He is a matrimonial deserter; there's no getting around this, it's right there on the title page.

The appealing, charismatic character we encounter in the novel's early pages is exposed on the stand. Though he's portrayed as having got the better of Burlingame when on the stand, he never managed to restore his reputation with this reader. And yet, Kitty's love endures, as does Mrs Tynan's. The novel's most interesting passage involves an awkward exchange in which daughter and mother reveal to one another that they are in love with the same man. Parker really pushes things when the deserted wife, still very much in love with her husband, arrives in Askatoon.

It is in Shiel that the fault lies.

Parker treads terrain that is similar to that of The Right of Way, but here his footing is nowhere near as sure. This time out, his hero is far too flawed.

The poorly composed seven-page epilogue – too wordy, too flowery – concludes with the marriage of the novel's most likeable character. It is not a happy ending. There's uncertainty, some of which stems from the fact that the groom has a vice of his own. And the bride? Well, she's in love with another man.

It's in these last few pages that the novel redeems itself.


Object: Purchased seven years ago for six dollars, far more than I usually pay for a Parker; but just look at the thing!

First, there's the dust jacket, which has somehow managed to survive these last 110 years. Next we have four colour plates and illustrated endpapers by William Leroy Jacobs.

Access: You Never Know Your Luck first appeared in the April 1914 edition of Munsey. Much was made of it at the time.

Munsey provides nineteen illustrations, the first depicting Kitty Tynan:

My Bell & Cockburn edition is the Canadian first. Torontonian George H. Doran published the American first. Online seller Babylon Revisited Rare Books, whom I've dealt with in the past  and so, can recommend  has the two best copies on offer. Both Doran firsts in uncommon dust jackets, they're going for US$85.00 and US$125.00. Condition is a factor. The only Bell & Cockburn edition is offered by a Manitoba bookseller. At US$6.00, it is also the least expensive. 

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08 January 2024

Canadian Notes & Queries at 114, Véhicule Press at 50, and a Few Favourite Forthcoming Things

A few days into the year and already a new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries. This one – number 114! – features writing by:
Noelle Allen
Tamara Faith Berger
Brian Bethune
Mark Bourrie
Randy Boyagoda
Kate Cayley
Steacy Easton
Alex Good
Brett Josef Grubisic
Canista Lubrin
Ian McGillis
Emily Mernin
John Metcalf
Vanessa Stauffer

As always, the cover is by Seth.

I contribute 'Véhicule Press at Fifty,' an interview with publishers Simon Dardick and Nancy Marrelli. Together we discuss the history and future of the press through ten key titles, beginning with the very first: Bob McGee's Three Sonnets & Fast Drawings

Subscribers also receive the latest issue – number 5! –of The Bibliophile. Just look at the goodness it offers:

So, why not subscribe!

Here's the link.

02 January 2024

Acadian Driftwood

The Lily and the Cross: A Tale of Acadia
Prof. James de Mille
Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1875
264 pages

Like de Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, reviewed here last January, The Lily and the Cross opens with a vessel adrift on a calm sea. The Rev. Amos Adams (known affectionately as the "Parson") is a New England schooner belonging to Zion Awake Cox (known affectionally as "Zac"). It has been chartered by his friend Claude Motier to voyage from Boston to Louisbourg. Père Michel, a newly-met Catholic priest, is along for the ride. Because the year is 1743, Zac is understandably anxious, considering the French as his natural enemies. 

"O, there’s no danger,” said Claude, cheerily. There’s peace now, you know — as yet.”
   Zac shook his head.
   "No,” said he, “ that ain’t so. There ain’t never real peace out here. There’s on’y a kin’ o’ partial peace in the old country. Out here, we fight, an’ we’ve got to go on fightin’, till one or the other goes down. An’ as to peace, ’tain’t goin’ to last long, even in the old country, ’cordin’ to all accounts. There’s fightin’ already off in Germany, or somewhars, they say.”

The plan had been to make quick, deposit Claude and Père Michel onshore not too far from Louisbourg, then hightail it back to New England. But the wind stopped blowing and a dense fog had moved in, making Zac all the more antsy. Who knows what's out there?

What's out there is a small portion of either a round-house or poop deck – de Mille is only so specific – upon which seven survivors of the shipwrecked French frigate Arathuse stand, sit, and kneel. As three of the seven belong to the French aristocracy, it can't be said that the group is representative of their home country. There's the Comte de Laborde, who isn't much more than a ghost. The sensitive reader will give the author a pass as the character is close to death. Laborde's gorgeous daughter Mimi is far stronger; from the moment of her introduction, we know that she will play a key role in what is to transpire. The other count, the Comte de Cazeneau, just happens to be new governor of Louisbourg. One would think he would be forever in gratitude to his rescuers, but Claude, Zac, and the crew of the "Parson" soon find themselves in imprisoned.

Might the incarcerations have something to do with the comte having eavesdropped on an intimate conversation between Claude and the gorgeous Mimi; the tête-à-tête in which he shared his recent discovery that Jean Motier was not his real father, rather the Comte de Montressor?

Describing The Lily and the Cross in further detail would invite spoilers, but not confusion. The web is tangled, but not so much that the reader cannot foresee the directions and intersections of every thread.

This is not a criticism.

De Mille deserves credit for his ability to keep things straight. The Lily and the Cross is one of those historical novels in which nearly all primary and secondary characters are connected by backstory, spoon-fed over the course of its twenty-six chapters.

The Comte de Laborde and the Comte de Montressor were close friends until they became romantic rivals vying for the hand of the same woman. That woman would become the Comtesse de Montressor, who would in turn give birth to the young man introduced to the reader as Claude Motier. She and her husband fled France for New France, victims of a conspiracy orchestrated by the Comte de Cazeneau, but known to the Comte de Laborde. The latter did nothing to expose the malfeasance, not even after the villain Cazeneau seized Montressor's property for himself. Shortly after the ruined couple's arrival in Quebec, the Comtesse de Montressor died. Her grief-stricken husband wandered off into the wilderness, never to be heard from again. It is presumed he died. The Comte de Laborde's purpose in crossing to the New World had to do with finding the son of the Comte and Comtesse de Montressor so as to make amends. I'll add that the commandant of Louisbourg is an old acquaintance of the Comte de Montressor. As for Père Michel, père is enough to break that code.

C'mon, you knew. You can't say that was a spoiler.

The Lily and the Cross is interesting enough, but nowhere near so much as A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, the novel for which de Mille is best remembered. As a historical romance it is somewhat unusual in that its hero, Claude, is so often reliant on others, namely Zac and Père Michel. At the novel's climax, his execution is thwarted and his freedom gained through the chance arrival of a ship from France.

Okay, that was a spoiler.

At the end of the novel's 246 pages, what strikes most about The Lily and the Cross is de Mille's pandering to the American market. Its subtitle, A Tale of Acadia, echoing Longfellow's Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), is the least of it. Throughout the novel, France is invariably described as corrupt (which it was), while New England is depicted as pure (which it was not). Old England receives no mention and is therefore spared judgement.

Claude had hired Zac's schooner in an effort reconnect with his French heritage and return to the country of his mother and father, but in the final pages Père Michel, his surviving parent, advises against it (emphasis mine):

"What can France give you that can be equal to what you have in New England? She can give you simply honors, but with these the deadly poison of her own corruption, and a future full of awful peril. But in New England you have a virgin country. There all men are free. There you have no nobility. There are no down-trodden peasants, but free farmers. Every man has his own rights, and knows how to maintain them. You have been brought up to be the free citizen of a free country. Enough. Why wish to be a noble in a nation of slaves? Take your name of Montresor, if you wish. It is yours now, and free from stain. Remember, also, if you wish, the glory of your ancestors, and let that memory inspire you to noble actions. But remain in New England, and cast in your lot with the citizens of your own free, adopted land.”

Cut to the Rev. Amos Adams – the Parson – on which we find Jericho, very much a minor character:

He was a slave of Zac’s, but, like many domestic slaves in those days, he seemed to regard himself as part of his master’s family, — in fact, a sort of respected relative. He rejoiced in the name of Jericho, which was often shortened to Jerry, though the aged African considered the shorter name as a species of familiarity which was only to be tolerated on the part of his master. 

Would he? Would Jericho have regarded himself as part of the family? His master's family? Zac isn't shown to have a family, and does not treat Jericho as a brother.

I will say this for Zac. He was right about the fighting in Germany.

Object and Access: The novel first appeared in Oliver Optic's Magazine (January-June 1874), a Lee & Shepard publication.

Is my copy a second printing? A third? I ask because I've seen some bound in green boards. Mine features six illustrations credited to John Andrews & Son, a Boston firm that produced work for Lee & Shepard.

As far as I can determine, the novel enjoyed two further editions in the nineteenth century before falling out of print. It was revived in the twenty-first century – 2010 to be precise – as a Formac Fiction Treasures title. It benefits from an introduction by Michael Peterman. Copies can be purchased through this link. At $16.95, they're a steal.

The edition I own can be read online here courtesy of the Internet Archive. I much prefer the green.

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01 January 2024

Start the Year with Stringer!

The 1924 New Year's edition of Maclean's. What is suggested? A year of excitement? Terror? Is there not something disturbing in this child's expression? That is a child, right? 

The issue's lead article, 'Saying "Success" With Flowers,' concerns T.W. Duggan, who "took hold of a bankrupt business — and made it worth half a million." The very thing one would expect in a periodical founded as The Business Magazine. After that comes fiction by Henry Holt, W. Michael Edwards, Stanley J. Weyman, and Canada's own Norma Phillips Muir. I was much more interested in this tempting advert. 

I was reminded again of how much I enjoyed Arthur Stringer's 1915 novel The Prairie Wife, which I read last February. And it makes me think of giving the author another go this year. I don't know about The Wire Tappers, Phantom Wires, and The Gun Runners – I've never been much for Stringer's adventure novels – but maybe something else. After all these years, I still haven't read The City of Peril. As a title, Are All Men Alike intrigues, in part because it lacks a question mark.


Wishing everyone a year of good books and fine reads!

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