Monday, December 27, 2021

Removing a Story (via misattribution) from Fitz-James O'Brien's oeuvre

 A bibliographical point came up on a list-serve I'm on, and with the permission of fellow-researchers Phil Stephensen-Payne and Endre Zsoldos I recap it here. 

The story known as "A Dead Secret" appeared anonymously in Harper's New Monthly Magazine for November 1853.  Francis Wolle, in his seminal Fitz-James O'Brien: A Literary Bohemian of the Eighteen-Fifties (1944), noted that the story is in "one of the various styles in which O'Brien was accustomed to write, and it alone deals with the sort of material which later became a source of his strength" and he called it "the first of O'Brien's mystery stories" despite noting that the 1853 Index for Harper's New Monthly Magazine attributed only one story to O'Brien for  that year--and the story was not "A Dead Secret." So Wolle's attribution of the story to O'Brien was educated guesswork. 

"A Dead Secret" was collected in Jessica Amanda Salmonson's The Supernatural Tales of Fitz-James O'Brien (two volumes, 1988), and in its one volume form, The Wondersmith and Others (Ash-Tree Press, 2008).  Salmonson clearly included the story in her collection based on Wolle's attribution.  

However, "A Dead Secret" appeared previously (and also anonymously) in the U.K. journal Household Words for 19 September 1853, when Charles Dickens was the editor, publisher, and a major contributor to it. Dickens apparently kept good records, and these were utilized by Anne Lohrli for her book Household Words: A Weekly Journal 1850-1859 conducted by Charles Dickens (1973), and she attributes the story to George Augustus Sala, a frequent contributor to the journal during that period. Lohrli notes that "Six of Sala's H.W. contributions were reprinted in whole or part in Harper's" (p. 114).    

Based on these records, "A Dead Secret" should be removed from the list of Fitz-James O'Brien's stories, and hereafter attributed to George Augustus Sala (1828-1895), an editor, journalist and fiction writer, whose most successful work was probably the novel The Seven Sons of Mammon (1862). Sala pioneered the position of travelling reporter, covering current events around the world.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

A Jar of Date Jam

I always enjoy the adverts in old magazines as well as the literary contents, and indeed several of them have given me ideas for stories. This is particularly the case with classified ads, whose brevity often leaves room for mystery and speculation. But others are just faintly odd, or happen to catch my fancy.

In the Special Christmas Number of the sixpenny magazine The Hiker & Camper, Vol. I, No. II, Dec. 1931, which has on its cover two bright young ladies in overcoats, hats and scarves striding over a snowy field, there is a Classified Advertisement on page 39 as follows:

‘A NEW FOOD FOR HIKERS, RAMBLERS AND CAMPERS.—Dibs, the date jam made from pure clean dates, and manufactured from an old Arabic recipe for the first time in England. Send 3d. in stamps to pay packing and postage for free sample to Dibs Ltd., 26 D’Arblay Street, London, W.1’

The other advertisements in the column are mostly for cafes, hotels and guest houses. We are invited to stay with Miss Dagg of “Utopia”, Wonham Way, Gomsall, Surrey; or at The Sun Patch Cottage; or Hathaway Farm, Stratford-on-Avon, (‘next to Ann Hathaway’s Cottage’), which also offers ‘Catering in Ye Olde Barn’. We may also order a Campers’ Diary and join a Penship Club.

I must admit to a fondness for the fortunes of obscure foodstuffs. J C Squire once lamented that piccalilli had never been the same after the First World War, and this naturally made me wonder why this was so. Perhaps the supply of Zanzibar cloves had faltered, or the cauliflower florets were not so crisp. Or was Squire mingling the memory of the golden piccalilli days with the lost savours of youth?

Jams must have been all the rage in the Thirties. Squire’s literary journal the London Mercury also carried an advertisement for arcane preserves, prepared by a retired military man and his family in the West Country and available in breakfast jars for guest houses etc. They included loganberry and whortleberry as well as the more usual strawberry, damson and blackcurrant. 

But did many hikers, ramblers or campers ever avail themselves of Dibs, on a halt during a staunch tramp? Was it spread liberally between two thick slices of wholemeal bread, or eaten with a spoon straight from the jar? Surely there was a good chance of the exotic provender escaping, and getting all over the maps and the compass and the spare socks and the vagabonding volume by Edward Thomas, or R. Francis Foster, or Herbert W. Tompkins, and moreover staining the pages of their scrolled-up copy of the latest issue of The Hiker.

I wonder whether the makers had aimed at quite the right audience. Connoisseurs of fine food might have been a surer market. And I cannot help thinking that Dibs, though succinct and friendly, was not quite the right name for a date jam that you wanted to present as made from a secret Arabic recipe. I should have thought ‘Saladin’s Delight’ would do the trick better, with some further alluring phrase such as ‘A Taste of the Near East’.

That taste had been fostered by E M Hull’s sultry bestselling desert romance The Sheik (1919), also made into a film (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino in the title role. His name and reputation were still vivid enough over fifty years later for my own surname sometimes to be accidentally or mischievously amended to his. As I was a thin, bespectacled, shy and bookish boy, the contrast with the smouldering-eyed matinee idol was somewhat incongruous. Of course, in my maturity . . .

The zest for the Near East had also been fed by the tales and newsreels of the exploits of T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’), which gave a sense of dash and glamour to a weary public in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, especially when Lawrence attended the peace conferences in the early Twenties in white Arab clothes and headdress.

It seems unlikely that the manufacturers of Dibs could have got the legendary hero to endorse their date jam. He was chary of publicity (except when it suited him) and once sent even his friends a postcard: ‘To tell you that in future I shall write very few letters.’ Still, a cunning designer could have come up with a label that implied Lawrence without strictly depicting him, and a hinting title such as ‘Preserve of Arabia’.

There were many sequels and imitations after The Sheikh, and a similar surge of books and memoirs about the desert war. But the advert for Dibs date jam did not often reappear in further issues of the hiking journal, and the jam itself and the trade name do not seem to have survived into our own times. And now I rather want to know what Dibs date jam tasted like, and whether that old Arabic recipe survived. Rich and sticky and sweet, no doubt of it. I like to think there might have been exotic tints too: rosewater and sherbet, maybe, or cinnamon and cardamom.

Perhaps in some obscure backstreet of a provincial town there is a semi-forgotten celestial grocer’s shop pervaded by the aroma of tea, toffee and aniseed balls, where on a high shelf only reachable by a tapering step-ladder a jar of the original lost piccalilli and a jar of Dibs date jam converse together of old glories.  

(Mark Valentine)

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Grub Street Nights Entertainments - J C Squire

Some second-hand bookshops have shelves entitled Pocket Editions. It must be said that this often seems to entail an optimistic assessment of the capacity of the average pocket, particularly if it is already occupied by pens, ink cartridges, pencil stubs, notebooks, blotting paper, visiting cards, conkers, string, sealing wax, old envelopes, loose change, interesting pebbles, slabs of chocolate, bletting medlars, matches, a compass, a pen-knife, a box of coloured chalks, a worn coin from the Netherlands Antilles, tide tables, and, last but by no means least, a much-thumbed list of second-hand bookshops.

However, Cape’s Travellers' Library series, in its compact royal blue format, is certainly among those more likely to actually fit in a jacket or coat pocket. Like the bottle green of Secker’s New Adelphi Library, it is always worth investigation. The Cape series included Arthur Machen’s Dog & Duck, story collections by A E Coppard, Ronald Fraser’s The Flying Draper, novels by Mary Webb, stories by Naomi Mitchison, and other varied volumes, some now almost forgotten. 

Another in the series was J C Squire’s The Grub Street Nights Entertainments (1924), a collection of stories about the book world. The first of these to appear, ‘The Success’, about a novelist whose career is on the wane, was published in the December 1923 issue, Vol IX, no 50, of the journal he edited, The London Mercury. Others followed, and soon readers demanded a volume of them.

The title of the first story, we will realise at the end, contains a melancholy irony. The plot is in the minor key, concerned with the slow accretions of fate rather than sudden drama. Squire depicts the life of his lead figure, a conscientious craftsman but something of a loner, sympathetically, describing his circumstances, environment and background with telling details.

We are not so much here in the world of complete penury and privation experienced by, for example, Gissing and Machen when they were struggling writers. His author has some, but not quite enough, means, even for a fairly modest existence, so that when his publisher cannot, with regret, offer an advance for his latest book, he is about to descend into even greater difficulty.

The story is particularly observant of the sort of rented rooms and cheap cafes such a figure must frequent. Squire does not evoke the romantic image of the misunderstood genius in the garret: his character has an unobtrusive, steady talent, an awkward integrity, appreciated by some, but not by enough.  The restraint of this approach gives the story a quiet power.

A brief holiday in a cathedral city leads to an encounter with an enthusiastic reader, and through them the echoes of a lost romance, which adds further poignancy to the story. In this evocation of a lonely, haunted figure I think that Squire approaches the qualities of some of de la Mare’s stories.

Another tale is a pleasing literary fantasy about an impoverished collector who spots a valuable rarity at a book auction, which he notices because of the unique spelling of a single word.  There is a high-spirited tale too about a lecturer to a provincial literary society who tells his audience and the presiding Alderman exactly what he thinks of them, which one suspects was an indulgence in wish-fulfilment by Squire.

Two other stories explore ethical dilemmas: what if there are letters that show an eminent much-revered author had a seamier, shadier side? And should a critic praise a book when moved by pity for its desperately ill author? These episodes offer different moods to the first story, but all of them show an affectionate if amused understanding of the book world. The portrayal of collectors, dealers, authors, publishers, journalists, coteries, is nuanced, mildly satirical but with a tolerant attitude to human weaknesses. His characters are generally thoughtful if fallible people doing what they think best.

The Grub Street Nights Entertainments is not among the more often-seen in the Cape series, in my experience, but it would certainly be worth picking up if encountered. Whether it fits in the pocket or not, it would be a pleasing addition to the book-collector’s bedside or fireside table.

(Mark Valentine)


Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Supernatural Thrillers of Archie Roy

The Scottish astronomer and psychic researcher Archie Roy (1924-2012) was the author of six SF/supernatural thrillers spanning the decade 1968-1978. I found four of them for about £1 each in the cellar of Richard Booth’s at Hay-on-Wye, where genre paperbacks are banished in case they contaminate the literary stock: SF, fantasy, horror, romance, westerns.

If you’re even moderately tall, you have to keep ducking under the beams, which certainly keeps you alert. On the plus side, the stock here is reasonably priced and you can pick up odd things.

The first of his books, Deadlight (1968), mingles Cold War era science and technology with ancient standing stones, like the later The Twelve Maidens (1973) by Stewart Farrar. In Roy’s novel, a scientist who is onto a big discovery that troubles his conscience meets with a fatal ‘accident’ while surveying a stone circle on the island of Arran, and a colleague, coincidentally called Arran, goes to investigate.

Roy’s writing is confident and urbane, brisk and well-structured, albeit following fairly conventional plot routes. His narrator says that ‘every man wants to be James Bond’ (although personally I’d much rather be Catweazle) and there are certainly Bond-like elements in his plot: a secret society that wants to rule the world, a suave villain, a glamorous, sophisticated young woman.

Roy obviously knew the island of Arran well and gives the routes and locations in detail, so that you could follow the story on the map or on the ground if you wished. There is a sustained chase scene across the rugged mountains of the island which makes the reader almost as breathless as the characters, and which certainly earned him the comparisons that were made to John Buchan.

Possibly he was also influenced by the example of Fred Hoyle, another distinguished astronomer who wrote thrillers combining science, ancient sites and pursuits across country, such as Ossian’s Ride (1959) and October the First is Too Late (1966).

In Deadlight, the megalithic monuments are (a little disappointingly) mostly just a backdrop rather than the main cause of the action or the speculative ideas, but in some of Roy’s other books the residues of the past are more to the fore. With their exploration of questions of time and space and other dimensions, and parapsychology, and their pace and vigour, they are an interesting later efflorescence of the metaphysical or supernatural thriller mode that first flourished in the interwar period.

His other novels are: All Evil Shed Away (1970); The Curtained Sleep (1971); Sable Night (1973); The Dark Host (1976); and Devil in the Darkness (1978).

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Orkney International Science Festival