While visiting my friend Lloyd Currey this past fall, I noticed a copy of John Galton’s The Stars I Kneel To (Herbert Jenkins, 1939) resting amidst a shelf of uncatalogued books. The Stars I Kneel To is one of a number of pseudonymous novels written by Evelyn Grosvenor Bradley, best known for the lurid weird thrillers he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s as R. R. Ryan. I asked Lloyd if I could read The Stars I Kneel To in order to evaluate its content so that he could add the title to his database and feature the book in his upcoming email list for that week, which he happily allowed me to do.
There is nothing substantial written about The Stars I Kneel To anywhere of which I am aware. Conducting an online search for information about the novel only retrieves a brief description of the book as a “romance with typical Ryan theme of psychological torture,” a statement that could apply to nearly any of the books Bradley wrote. The most complete assessment readily available appears in the April 1939 issue of The Library World in a less-than-flattering anonymous review under “New Fiction”:
"A rather terrible story of a young genius, Kenneth, who is trained to be a barrister and becomes an actor. His stern brother goes into his dressing-room and beats him so mercilessly that he cannot act again and gradually deteriorates in character. One imagines that if Kenneth had time to tell his brother he was earning £50 a week instead of sitting still waiting for briefs, the story might have ended differently."
As The Library World review suggests, The Stars I Kneel To is a routine melodrama. The main character, Ken Richmond, is studying to be a lawyer at Oxford at the behest of his oldest brother Reade. Obsessed with restoring the family estate of Little Heights to its former glory, Reade views Ken’s future career as a lawyer as instrumental to securing the funds necessary for Reade to reclaim the family’s squandered property holdings. Ken, however, feels trapped by the path that has been chosen for him and quits law school to become an aspiring actor, a profession that better suits his artistic temperament. He discovers his soulmate in Nan Leslie, the daughter of Sir Nigel Leslie, a famous London gynecologist who is determined his daughter will not marry Ken. Spurred on by Ken, Nan rebels against her tyrannical father, and, with Ken’s assistance, they both become overnight sensations on the stage. Reade eventually confronts Ken and nearly beats his younger brother to death, damaging Ken’s face to the extent that he is unable to speak. Doctors fear that Ken may never recover mentally or emotionally from this incident, and when Ken returns to the stage, he has lost his acting ability. After being tricked by Sir Leslie into taking nerve pills that make him appear completely drunk on stage, Ken later attempts to rob Sir Leslie and is arrested after he accidentally shoots a police inspector in the leg. The sensationalistic lurid details that characterize the Ryan thrillers appear in the final third of the novel after Ken is released from prison and falls in with Teresa Bowles, a prostitute who is a former patient of Sir Nigel’s suffering from an advanced case of syphilis. Teresa is prone to parading around in the nude during her attempts to lure Ken into bed after she falls in love with him as they navigate life on the streets in the seedier parts of London. The novel’s title is a quotation from Poe’s second “To Helen” poem (1848), which is addressed to Sarah Helen Whitman to whom Poe was briefly engaged: “They fill my soul with Beauty (which is Hope,) / And are far up in Heaven—the stars I kneel to / In the sad, silent watches of my night.” The “stars” to which Poe refers are Sarah’s eyes, and the novel’s title emphasizes Ken’s idolization of Nan, whom he nicknames “Star.”
Unlike the Ryan novels, The Stars I Kneel To is not a thriller, nor does it contain any fantastic or supernatural elements. It is essentially a work of psychological and social realism. The plot is straightforward, and overall, the novel is much more competently written than any of the Ryan books. While I have not been able to read any of the novels that Bradley wrote under the Cameron Carr pseudonym, they, too, are reportedly less fantastic than the Ryan novels and characterized by a greater depth of psychological insight. The speculation that Bradley employed his different pseudonyms for what he viewed as very different types of novels certainly seems to have some merit. I can easily imagine Bradley viewing Ryan’s The Subjugated Beast (1938) or Freak Museum (1938) as commercial hackwork and Cameron Carr’s Gilded Clay (1938) or Galton’s The Stars I Kneel To as his “serious” novels.
As such, The Stars I Kneel To provides an interesting contrast to the Ryan thrillers. Most noticeably, the novel’s protagonist is male, not female, and Bradley’s characteristic concerns with the cultural and social forces with which women must contend in a male-dominated society do not take center stage. Bradley’s focus is entirely on Ken’s struggle to define his own identity and career in order to free himself from his oppressive relationship with Reade, his older brother. Ken’s artistic and aesthetic temperament is also entirely at odds with the lives lead by all his brothers, who, like characters in a D. H. Lawrence novel, revel in hard physical labor in the country and in their lusty, sensual relationships with their wives. While Ken loves Nan, he is clearly not interested in sexual relations with her. Instead, he longs for a more spiritual connection, a melding of artistic souls not rooted in earthly physicality. Ken is alienated by the lives his brothers lead and by all of them essentially being “men’s men.” The efforts Ken later takes to avoid having sex with Teresa despite admittedly being somewhat aroused by her behavior are glaringly obvious.
Whether or not we are to read Ken as a repressed homosexual is a matter for conjecture as is the extent to which any autobiographical elements of Bradley’s own life have informed the development of Ken’s character or the plot of The Stars I Kneel To. Bradley was a theater manager, actor, and playwright, and his novel A New Face at the Door (Herbert Jenkins, 1937), written under the Cameron Carr pseudonym, focuses on the members of a repertory company in a small theater. At the very least, Bradley’s own theater experiences certainly shaped the subject matter of The Stars I Kneel To and A New Face at the Door.
The Stars I Kneel To is fairly mediocre, but then again so are the more well-known novels written under the R. R. Ryan pseudonym. Their primary points of interest lie in the aberrant psychology of their main characters, their frank treatments of sexuality and sexual violence, and their over-the top plot conceits that would make even Harry Stephen Keeler raise an eyebrow. Lacking the more macabre elements found in the Ryan thrillers, The Stars I Kneel To is far less interesting despite Bradley’s seeming ambitions to write a more serious work.