Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The 1919 Proserpine Prize

Readers in obscure byways of outré literature may from time to time bring to mind the Prosperpine Prize founded by Mr Basil Lamport, the proprietor of the Luminous Gamp Company, whose phosphorescent umbrellas played their part in keeping wayfarers safe during murky or foggy conditions.

Not unmindful of the possibilities for drawing attention to his excellent wares, Mr Lamport endowed an annual award for the British novel that most skilfully went into the dark and emerged with something of the light. The founder recalled fondly his youthful reading of the romances of Lord Lytton. Beginning in 1901, the prize is reported to have been won by such eminent titles as Mr Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and Dr Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It is true that a certain notoriety has attached to the title chosen in at least one year, as recounted in an episode (“The 1909 Proserpine Prize”) in Seventeen Stories (The Swan River Press, 2013). Nevertheless, it is evident that the prize continued to be awarded and there has recently come to light a manuscript note which appears to be the shortlist compiled for the year 1919.

Ten years after the 1909 award, matters seem to have been restored to a more regular footing and the year was propitious for good literature in the field. Some of those chosen were evidently intended to commend solid literary worth, while other titles suggest it was hoped to arouse a certain amount of controversy. There was thus strong competition for the 1919 shortlist, but the seven selected seem to have been:

E F Benson, Across the Stream. A young man with psychic gifts who comes into contact with an evil spirit.

Stella Benson, Living Alone. A modern young witch with magical powers which bring confusion to those she meets. Told lightly but with an undertow of melancholy.

Gerald Biss, The Door of the Unreal. A thrilling yarn about a werewolf prowling the London-Brighton road, told with all the author’s accustomed gusto and brisk style.

Leda Burke, Dope Darling. The startling story of the drug culture among bohemians and artists in the more sordid quarters of London. (It is curious that the judges preferred this to Mr Sax Rohmer's Dope, similar in theme.)

Clemence Dane, Legend. A poetic account of an author who dies young but pervades her friends’ memories: there is a brief apparition, which may be illusion.

William De Morgan, The Old Madhouse. The last novel of the respected Victorian author, a mystery of a sinister house, and peculiar characters haunted in more ways than one.

H. Rider Haggard, When the World Shook. Ancient worship on a South Seas Island, reincarnation, sorcery and a struggle to prevent apocalypse.

Research continues to discover which of the shortlisted titles secured the favour of the anonymous judges. But did they overlook any which should have been on their list? And which of the seven should they have chosen for the 1919 Proserpine Prize?

Mark Valentine


  1. Is the prize only awarded to novels? Otherwise one might suggest for consideration M.R. James's "A Thin Ghost"and, even, Max Beerbohm's "Seven Men." Surely, poor Enoch Soames knows the suffering of the damned.
    Then, too, if the judges allowed poetry, the "Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy" probe some of the darker corners of life and the human heart.
    Of the seven titles on the rediscovered shortlist, none exhibits the glamour of those earlier winners mentioned, "The Purple Cloud" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles." I certainly hope that Walter de la Mare's "The Return" took the 1910 prize.
    My vote would go for Stella Benson's "Living Alone." But the brief description of Clemence Dane's "Legend" makes it sound very attractive. --md

  2. Thank you, Michael. Yes, only novels. But if there had been an award for short story collections, those two would certainly be in the running. I must delve further into the archives to see if any records have survived of the 1910 award. Mark