Over on Vulpes Libris I write enthusiastically about the Historic Fictions Research Network conference, how amateur historians rewrote the Battle of Trafalgar, and the invented town of Agincourt, Iowa, that teaches architecture in North Dakota. It was all about the fictions that history tells us, and it was great. Follow the Network @HFRN, and the Journal of Historical Fictions @journalhistfics.
The Historical Fictions Research Network is holding its second conference this weekend in Greenwich, home of the Meridian and steeped in English history. I will be there, celebrating the launch of the first issue of the Network’s scholarly journal, the Journal of Historical Fictions, which I edit, and giving a talk on the relationship between counter-factual fiction and science fiction. So this is a good time to wheel out another Really Like This Book podcast script, on a highly satisfying historical novel about alchemy and witchcraft, set in the seventeenth century, by Una L Silberrad. It’s called Keren of Lowbole, from 1913, and as far as I know only a handful of people now living have ever read it. These are either the handful of Silberrad scholars (me and my German colleagues), or Una Silberrad’s great-nephews and nieces who revere their Aunt Una with affection. Una L Silberrad is such a good novelist, yet totally forgotten, so I’ve been working on her for years.
You can find her novels in print-on-demand editions, and sometimes the genuine second-hand article, and in older public libraries that haven’t yet thrown their less borrowed books into the bin to make room for more computers. Her first novel was published in 1899, and her last in 1944. She was prolific, producing forty novels and short story collections in just over forty years, of the type that would be asked for in libraries between the war as ‘a nice book’. But they’re rare: she was never a top of the range best-seller, and in the Second World War, the bombing raid on London in 1940 that destroyed Paternoster Row and the heart of the book trade also burned all her publisher’s stock. Because of that her books are simply very hard to get hold of. I managed to republish one, The Affairs of John Bolsover, in a scholarly edition because it’s a great unknown example of the Edwardian feminist future novel. I’ve also shepherded her best novel, The Good Comrade, into publication with the independent publisher Victorian Secrets. But Keren of Lowbole is unlikely to be republished in paper form any time soon: its best hope is to be published in an e-version when Silberrad comes out of copyright, and that won’t be until 2026.
Una Silberrad wrote romance with adventurous happenings. Her novels usually involve someone escaping or running away from danger or another kind of trouble, and there are always tremendous independent heroines. Silberrad was an early feminist writing very conventional fiction with a twist. Her female characters are repressed scientists, or illegitimate aristocratic book-keepers, or antiques experts, or mining financiers, or detectives: they are never just nice girls who just want to get married and have a better life. They do, of course, want the better life, and their romances are realistic, believable and highly satisfying. Silberrad was more interested in writing about women with minds of their own, and brains to help them on their way in life. She wrote about women and science, or women and business. She set her novels in two periods: the present day and the late seventeenth century. Her late seventeenth-century novels have the additional unusual dimension of being populated by Quakers and Dissenters, because she was interested in throwing theology into her plots, to reinforce the importance of religious law and morality as part of everyday life.
In Keren of Lowbole, there is a wandering Dissenter called Tobiah. He’s a lively character, very willing to have an argument about Scripture that might last for days, and has a strong sense of responsibility towards anyone who appears to be behaving in ungodly ways. In effect he’s a freelance spiritual policeman, and is a moral signpost for good and righteousness. In the seventeenth century it’s no bad thing to have a person like that on your side, especially if he isn’t afraid of anything, which Tobiah is not. Una Silberrad’s nephew John said that apparently Aunt Una referred to Keren of Lowbole as the First Book of Tobiah: a pun on the names of Biblical books, because several of her short story collections and at least one other novel, have Tobiah stalking throughout the pages, laying down the spiritual law and getting people out of trouble.
But he is a relatively minor character in this novel, which is about a girl called Keren Ashe, who lives with her father, Dr Ashe the alchemist, in the Forest, south of Colchester in Essex. He is a descendant of Dr Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s alchemist, and Keren’s mother was a gypsy from Bohemia, so Keren has a strange and distinguished bloodline. She works as her father’s lab assistant, and seems perfectly content to do this for the rest of her life, until well-meaning Tobiah mentions to Betsy Shipp in Colchester one day that there is a 17-year old girl growing up wild in the Forest, with no older woman to instruct her on household duties or to see that she does not stray into temptation. Betsy is Dr Ashe’s distant cousin, so she takes Keren to live with her in the town, which seems to be a good plan for all. Dr Ashe disappears shortly afterwards on a secret journey.
Colchester in the later 1600s is a fun place to live. Keren makes friends with her girl cousins, she is praised for her impeccable housewifery (only a man could think that a girl growing up running her father’s house would need extra lessons), she goes to weddings, and she can shop. She’s already fallen in love, and fallen out of it again when she realises that the man is simply unworthy, and also that he loves a married lady. She put a stop to this unworthy man’s designs on the beautiful but long-suffering Lady Belton, who has been kind to Keren, by switching the love potion that her father would have supplied for a harmless bottle of coloured water. She has an easy friendship with Zachary Ward, a highly skilled glass-blower and lab technician whom her father values, but she doesn’t realise that Zachary is the prodigal son of Wythes Hall, with a wicked stepmother determined to do him out of his legal rights to the estate. Keren has a suspicion about her father’s long absences, and wonders where he has sent the last glass phial of the mysterious Ultio, which is usually kept out of danger and harm’s way on a high shelf. Dr Ashe had been very concerned when the other Ultio bottles fell off the shelf in an explosion. He wouldn’t let Keren or Zachary touch any of the glass except with tongs, and made them burn everything that had come into contact with it. Keren doesn’t know the terrible death of her mother in far-off Flanders, nor does she realise how long her father has waited to take his revenge. When Sir James Belton returns in a bad temper from his mission to Flanders, he reports that his opportunity to gain glory by taking the town for King Charles by force was thwarted by an unexpected outbreak of the plague, just after he got there. It’s probably much safer for Keren if she stays in Colchester, but in Colchester there are religious rivalries breeding trouble too.
Tobiah seems to be the head preacher for all the Dissenting sects, those troublesome Protestants who broke with the Church of England and insist on splitting theological hairs in defining their own religious beliefs, until there are almost more sects than believers. When Tobiah is out of town, Samuel Calderbeck sneaks back in, an ignorant man with a mania about demonic possession and witchcraft. When Betsy goes to London to see her married daughter and the new grandchild, her fussy husband installs his sister, Rachel Shipp, in the house to keep an eye on the maids. Rachel is a Calderbeck enthusiast, and very strong on the girls attending all possible religious services. At one, Keren forgets to kneel down for prayers, because her mind is elsewhere, so after a stern interrogation by Calderbeck and Rachel, it is suspected that she must be possessed. This is not a good time for Keren to be under suspicion of witchcraft, because her sneaky cousin Kate already has a downer on her. Keren can see easily through Kate’s hypochondrical ways, and Kate is very good at being devout when it will do her good. Keren has also been making lapis lazuli, a straightforward alchemical experiment that she has never managed to work accurately before, so when this too is discovered (it was a present for her nice cousin Betty) she is sent straight to her room and locked in, awaiting judgement in the morning.
Naturally, she gets out. What happens to her, and to Zachery’s claim on his father’s estate, and to Tobiah when he is miscalled a drunken vagabond, and to Dr Ashe’s secret journey, and the discovery of the missing will, will all be yours to discover when you read the book. I do hope you can find a copy.
Keren of Lowbole is a fine example of a historical novel untainted by modern preoccupations, language or style. I don’t think Silberrad uses any words that would not have been used in the seventeenth century, no do her characters do things that are out of period: that’s something that many modern historical novelists would do well to learn from. The narration is calm and restrained, the plot is meticulously structured, and the main characters are instantly memorable, and are consistent to the end. Keren is not an anachronistic feminist but she is a gypsy in her independence and cleverness with objects and natural creatures. It’s a timeless novel that could have been written at any time in the past hundred years, and deserves to be much better known.
One Day Without Us is a British grassroots campaign to celebrate the contributions that EU citizens and migrants from all over the world make and have made to daily British life. It culminates in a national day of action all over the UK on Monday 20 February 2017. See what else is happening in your area.
Over on Vulpes Libris I began the invitation list for a party to celebrate all the migrant authors who have made English literature what it is today. Who do you think should be invited?
So, when I read this title, I Am Legend, I automatically think of Tim Curry in magnificent raunchy curled horns and stomping devil hooves, terrifyingly, hugely red, from Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend. Or John Legend. Or perhaps the film with Will Smith in it. In descending order of recognition, that title barely scrapes a thought for Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel. Pity. Matheson certainly didn’t invent the vampire, but he put it into 1950s pulp fiction, and imagined vampires in American high streets and grocery stores.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is the basis for the 2007 Will Smith film, which (from looking at the online descriptions) moved the action from an anonymous, Everyman small town to (yawn) New York, and upped the leading character Robert Neville to a ‘brilliant scientist’. Matheson’s Neville is a regular American guy who has to repair his house every morning after the nightly attacks from his vampire neighbours, and also force himself through a basic biochemistry course from library books. You get desperate when you’re working out how your immunity to vampire attack can help you kill them before they kill you.
Matheson’s novel is a pulp classic. It’s a straightforward survival story, generously laced with gore and relentless sexual suggestion. The female vampires flaunt themselves at Neville, trying to lure him outside (of course they do; female vampires only exist to supplement male sex fantasies). The female survivor who Neville rescues is unaccountably unable to keep her bathrobe tied properly. There’s even a scene where something secret is brought out from its hiding-place inside a brassiere. Whatever happened to pockets?
I Am Legend has been repackaged as a science fiction classic, despite its horror lineage, because it uses a serious scientific approach to the problem of the biochemistry of vampirism. Is it in the blood, or in a bacillus? How does the bacillus allow vampires to survive gunshot wounds? Why does wood work when lead won’t, and exactly which part of the garlic bulb is the repellent? I definitely enjoyed the science more than the tedious pulpy parts, because as Neville thrashes through his flashbacks of what happened to work out why the vampire plague happened, we see glimpses of a far more interesting story. I was bored quite quickly by Neville refusing to escape from being trapped in his house by night and scavenging by day. I wanted to read the whole thing, not his deranged memories and circular ramblings. The oblique storytelling becomes really murky towards the end, so much so that I am still none the wiser about why Neville has become a legend to the new society that is taking over the earth. They don’t sound like nice people. I was happy to close the book.
When William Came by Saki (H H Munro) is a complicated novel. On the face of it, it’s a straight propagandist story at the peak of the anti-German pre-First World War war fever craze, to warn the British to start preparing for war and get the young men into the army as soon as possible. Underneath that, it’s a classic Saki story. It’s witty and sly about glossy boys who prey on middle-aged Edwardian matrons, who know perfectly well what they’re doing, and understand the duplicity of their upper-class society. At an unexpected third level, it’s a rather strongly-felt hymn to the English countryside, English values and the tragedy of not being able to live in England. And I say ‘England’ deliberately: this novel is about England, not Britain. And, finally, it’s a strangely subtle fantasy about the grafting of European values and culture onto London society, which has the surprising effect of letting us see what Saki thinks about the rest of Europe, about Germans, Italians, Jews and all. I’m going to try to avoid the word ‘offensive’ because one person’s outrage can be another person’s delighted amusement, especially in fiction from a historical period that we don’t live in.
When William Came isn’t at all a black and white, easily polarised narrative. This is what makes it probably the best of the war fever novels, because it is not simplistic, not single-level, and so it has survived as a novel, rather than as a novelty, beyond the fad of fear of Germany. No-one now would read The Battle of Dorking unless they were literary historians: there is no other excuse. No-one now would read The Swoop, or, How Clarence Saved England, unless they were completist P G Wodehouse fans. They certainly wouldn’t read it for the enjoyment of war fever fiction. I have a fat volume of these tales, lovingly and painstakingly collected by the late I F Clarke, the great pioneer in the recording of really obscure, very generic fiction from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was interested in science fiction and feminist fiction too, any kind of genre fiction as long as it was from around this period, and war fever fiction was one of his specialities. His bibliographic achievements are invaluable to literary historians, but this particular fictional cul-de-sac has not been much visited by the average reader.
One hundred years later: is When William Came still worth reading? If you like Saki, absolutely. There’s a lot here for those who appreciate Saki’s particular style to enjoy. If you’re a war-fever collector: yes, certainly. This novel is a sophisticated addition to the canon, it’s by a most accomplished stylist and it’s actually a really fascinating read. There is no conventional plot: the novel is a series of scenes with political speeches laid on, but they are very cleverly arranged, have real characters, vintage Saki creations, who continue to live on after you’ve finished the book. The propaganda value is potentially immense, but I doubt whether anyone took the novel seriously because of who Saki was.
Saki was a satirist, a writer of light squibs, frothy cynical superficial fiction for amusement, and the after-dinner quotation. He made his name by sending up turn of the century Westminster political pretensions in The Westminster Alice, in which he rewrote topical political events in the style of Alice in Wonderland. These were published in weekly instalments, and as a book in 1902: he was really a newspaper columnist. He then became celebrated for his short stories. If you read these en masse in one of his collected fiction editions, they give you a total immersion into callous candour and heartless selfishness. They are brilliant: he had a gift for seeing straight through the pretension and pompousness of Edwardian upper-class society, and for being bitingly straightforward about the hypocrisies of daily life. When William Came was his last novel, because shortly after it was published, the First World War broke out, he joined up (over-age) and died in November 1916, killed by a sniper’s shot. His last words, to a fellow soldier, were ‘put that bloody cigarette out’.
When William Came is speculative fiction, a what-if story, so when it begins we are immediately intrigued by the something that has occurred. It is referred to, politely and discreetly, by the characters as the ‘catastrophe’, or is simply not mentioned at all, as if it were rather too unpleasant to discuss. ‘It’, of course, is the German invasion of Britain, which was accomplished very easily in only a few days because the British were too lazy to train their young men to be an active defence force. The mighty power of the massed German armed forces overwhelmed the puny and pathetic British attempts at self-defence, and in a remarkably bloodless takeover, Germanised the entire country. Actually, we only see London, and a bit of the countryside, but we are to take it that whatever happens in London, must have happened to the rest of the island. Streets have been renamed in German. Road signs and place-names now have signs in both languages. The British way of socialising has been transformed to German habits. There are no pubs any longer, only continental-style cafés where you argue, play chess and read the paper at set times in the morning (when Saki was writing, this was very un-British). A German monarch sits on the British throne, and many, many Britons have left the country to settle in other parts of the Empire. The British king now has his court at Delhi. There is a richly sentimental episode where a traveller in Mandalay, or somewhere similar, visits an English family who have settled there, where they can still raise the Union Jack on a flagpole. Charming German aristocrats are infiltrating the British social scene. The British middle and upper classes, already supine, are being slowly squashed, and British men have been emasculated. The only successful British men are the charming glossy boys whom Saki specialised in writing, who exist by flattering and serving their own interests. It is now illegal for British men to join the army, they have no masculine role any longer. But hope still exists: even if British men have been beaten and are unable to fight back, with fox-hunting their only active, physical pursuit, British youth will not lie down under the German yoke. At a grand review in Hyde Park, at which the Boy Scouts of the nation are to parade and salute the German emperor and his son, the gathered crowds are first embarrassed, then gleeful to see that British youth has decided to ignore the summons by the German Emperor, and simply do not turn up. It’s a sad sight to see an Emperor kept waiting by his subject race, and so the novel ends on this uplifting but flatly ridiculous sight. There is hope for the nation, even an unprepared nation, if its youth keep a proper attitude towards the enemy. At least, that’s what I think Saki is saying.
The scorn in this novel is very, very evident. It is a Tory rant. Decadent social customs are held up for ridicule: modern dance, couples who do not live together in harmony, the adoption of pretty boys by older women as agreeable social accessories. The most wonderful character in the novel is Joan Mardle, an irritating woman related to practically everyone in Society, who invites herself to events and then comments on them loudly at moments when the din of conversation has dropped. She is the spirit of inconvenient candour, a kind of anti-flatterer, whose ringing voice and piercing tones say aloud what everybody else has been thinking, or trying not to say, or would have preferred not to be noticed. She alone is worth reading this book for, but when she is part of a glorious satirical shower of scorn, she makes When William Came simply magnificent.
How does this novel fit into the literary scene of 1913? It’s obviously part of the anti-German war fever fad, and it’s also a nice example of early twentieth-century speculative fiction. It’s a strong example of Edwardian satire and dilettantism, the kind of literary alley down which you would also find E F Benson and Anthony Hope. These are minor sub-genres: Saki was not a major writer, but he was absolutely brilliant at what he did.
In a review posted this week on Bustle, E Ce Miller gave us a list of the 50 great / important works by women we should all read. Imagine my feelings of smug self-validation when I found that I’d already read about a third of them, and that I was in the middle of reading (actually, galloping through) another: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
I knew about Alison Bechdel from her culture-changing idea of the Bechdel Test, that thing you ask of films, books and other cultural productions. If two or more women are having a conversation, if it about something / someone other than men? If the film or book can answer ‘yes!’, then it has something to say to more than one segment of the population and has a fair chance of not being gender biased. She was also awarded one of the 2014 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Awards, to allow her to keep writing and creating. Fun Home is far more than a graphic novel, because it’s a memoir, not fiction at all. (It was also made into a smash hit musical.) It’s painful, beautiful, poetic and symmetrically chilling. It’s about Alison Bechdel’s childhood in Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time she grows to realise that her father is more than an obsessive house renovator and the grim community mortician (Fun as in Funeral). He oppresses his family, but he also loves them, and he loves boys too, though is too closeted to come out. Thus the circle of escape, obsession, dictatorialness and unexpected admissions of pleasure continues. The story moves back and forth in time like a weaving shuttle, so the reader experiences layer after layer of story, with each new layer gaining texture and resonance from its foundation.
The sad and ordinary fact of Bruce Bechdel’s death, hit by a truck as he crossed the road, is examined again and again for clues and for answers. He took the children camping, he took them to stay with friends in New York (where he could go cruising at night on Christopher St), he had them cleaning and doing chores every day, he taught them to swim. Helen Bechdel, a former actress who gave up her dreams to be the mother of a family, endures her husband’s erratic ways and endless, casual affairs with angry endurance. She retreats into acting and a thesis, while he is in a world of his own, sourcing chandeliers and Victorian glassware, and foolishly buying beers for underage boys. The children separate as well (the renovated house certainly has enough space), so isolation and private experiences become normal.
When Alison goes to college she works out the name and the meaning of her own sexuality, which adds another layer to her relations with her father. She had loved men’s shirtings and suits as much as he did, and she fetishised the lines of a man’s body, wanting that shape for herself, as much as he wanted their bodies. The artwork tells more than half of this complex, shifting story, with frames repeated to silently show that yes, there was more going in here, in this particular exchange or event, than the younger Alison had noticed. Although the seven episodes of the book move back and forth in time in a patchwork of recollections and linked stories, the language of the narration begins simply, increasing in complexity as more understanding emerges. When moments of comprehension surface in the small or adult Alison’s mind, the effect is stunning: word and image working together simply and beautifully to hit the reader for six.
You can read this as a memoir of family life with an unusual proximity to death and its processes (I’ve barely mentioned the family funeral home business: that’s an entirely separate story). You can read it as a sad story of closeted homosexuality (Bruce), or as a satisfying and wryly self-deprecating memoir of an out lesbian at ease with herself and her life. You can read this as a book about the importance of reading the right book at the right time to realise the truth about sexuality, in all its manifestations. You can certainly read this book as a pointed rebuke at the pretentiousness of college English literature tutorials, and the dangers of obsessing over one particular text (Bruce was also a high school English teacher). We don’t read a lot about Alison’s brothers as adults, and perhaps that was by their wish. At the end of the book, her first acknowledgement is to her mother and brothers for ‘not trying to stop me writing this book’. Her portrait of her mother is understanding but also unsparing: Helen was an expert mother and an understanding woman but not warm or friendly. Those children lacked hugs. That family lacked warmth. It was not a fun home, by any means.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. A Family Tragicomic (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), ISBN 978-0-224-08051-4, £12.99
The novel of 1913 that I’m resurrecting from the Really Like This Book podcast scripts is the first modern thriller, The Power-House by John Buchan. This is often overlooked because of its far more famous younger brother, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was published two years later in 1915. When Buchan wrote The Power-House, he was still hoping for literary fame. He’d been a writer for nearly twenty years, but his life kept distracting him as he kept looking for the career in intellectual public service that he felt he was destined for, and for which he had been training himself. Politics was getting him nowhere (the 1911 general election, for which he had been groomed as a prospective parliamentary candidate, didn’t happen). He’d tried being a colonial civil servant in South Africa, but didn’t find a new post when his first one ended. He tried journalism, and wrote a great many excellent book reviews and opinion pieces, but only rose to become temporary deputy editor of The Spectator. He had trained as a barrister, but this didn’t seem to draw him in: perhaps the law was too dry and inward-looking, and simply not concerned enough with words as literature.
With hindsight, it is perfectly obvious that Buchan was a born writer. What is not so obvious is that, unlike many of his peers, he ignored the tug of words for over fifteen years before being able to write them full-time. Other novelists got their heads down and did this: it was their job. Buchan tended to write his fiction in the evenings of his day job, and perhaps this less intense application showed in the time it took for him to finally get it together and write the novel that the times, and the public wanted. The market and his developing writing style finally came together in the first months of the First World War and burst upon the waiting world in 1915. The Thirty-Nine Steps really was a breakthrough for him, a masterpiece in many ways. What is interesting about the over-shadowed The Power-House was that it was the last novel but one before The Thirty-Nine Steps, and contains many of the elements that made The Thirty-Nine Steps a winner.
It was written while Buchan had been steadily settling into a new career as the literary advisor for Thomas Nelson, a Scottish publisher. He was their talent spotter and editor, and an expert negotiator, but he was increasingly drawn to writing books for them himself. It’s as if he couldn’t stop himself. Buchan had to read a lot of current popular fiction and new novels, to see if they would suit Nelson’s own reprint series, and then handle the negotiations between authors and agents. He couldn’t have thought up a better way to survey the market for fiction if he’d tried. He even knew exactly how to pitch and market his own books: he did this very well with his own books that he wrote for Nelson’s: Prester John in 1910, and the biographies of Montrose and Sir Walter Ralegh a few years later. But with The Power-House, Buchan struck out on his own, and gave the novel (really a novella) to a different publisher, William Blackwood, for publication in Blackwood’s Magazine. Why did he do this?
With Nelson’s he had a captive publisher he could persuade to give him good terms, and the novel was short enough not to matter too much if it failed, but Buchan was clearly after more than in-house publishing comfort. He wanted independent fame (and who can blame him?) Blackwood’s Magazine was also a lot more prestigious than Thomas Nelson, which was more known for its Christian and children’s lists. Nelson’s was not a natural home for a best-seller, and Buchan really wanted this. Getting his novel in a magazine for its first publication was also very good business. He’d be paid for that publication, and be paid again if any US magazine wanted to do the same (though, as it happened, no other magazine did reprint The Power-House). He undoubtedly expected that afterwards there would be book publication royalties, but for The Power-House these took their time, because Blackwood didn’t do anything with the story until after The Thirty-Nine Steps had had a massive success, and so The Power-House didn’t appear as a book until 1916. This must have been galling, because it proved, once again, that as a novelist Buchan was not considered (by the prestigious but stuffy and old-fashioned House of Blackwood) to be worth much investment. What Buchan needed was a real hit, and a new publisher, and The Power-House did not give him these. After The Thirty-Nine Steps was a smash success for William Blackwood, despite their almost complete lack of advertising or publicity, Buchan’s next novel went to Hodder & Stoughton, with whom he stayed for the rest of his life.
So why was The Power-House not the kind of book that Blackwood preferred to invest in? It was not steady, reliable, Victorian or safe. It did not rehash Imperial adventures and colonial values. In fact, it did the opposite. A dastardly spy plot is discovered, and an innocent man is being hunted by wicked foreign conspirators in the exotic and very nineteenth-century adventure playground of the Victorians, Bokhara and the Pamirs. But the central joke behind the novel is that all this conventional drama happens off-stage, while the really thrilling events happen in London, on the narrator’s own doorstep. With The Power-House Buchan invented the thriller that could happen to any one of us. The novel’s narrator, Edward Leithen, is a barrister and an MP, he has easy relations with the police and Embassy staff, he has a chauffeur (this was the early period of driving, when a car routinely needed a driver, because the owner didn’t know how to drive), but for all of this, Edward Leithen is One of Us, an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.
So the hunted man disappears off to the Russian borderlands to hide from someone or something mysterious, and Leithen is left in London wondering what can be done to help. Small coincidences keep accumulating. Leithen keeps coming across connections between the man who has had to vanish, and a house in south London, a collector of Wedgwood china, his horrible butler, an old trade union embezzlement scandal, and some odd Russian names. He knows they’re connected, but doesn’t find the key until one weekend when he has a car accident in the countryside, and is offered hospitality for the night at a gentleman’s house nearby. As we will find in pretty much all of Buchan’s novels, another coincidence appears, because the gentleman is revealed as the connecting link between all the clues. He is Mr Lumley, the super-intelligent leader of a shadowy international criminal gang who are plotting to bring down western civilisation. The rest of the novel is devoted to the excitement of Leithen’s attempts to stop Lumley, and to stop being assassinated himself.
And this is where Buchan really makes thriller writing new. Edgar Wallace had published a fair few London-based thrillers before The Power-House, but Wallace was ponderous, slangy, sensational, cheap and rather too swiftly dashed off (there‘s a great early 20th-century cartoon in which a bookstall owner offers the ‘midday Wallace’ to a perplexed customer). Buchan was a seriously good classicist, a very well-read son of the manse, and a good historian. He wrote this thriller with the example of Wallace before him, but wearing his learning lightly. He did not sacrifice the breathtaking chases and dramas in tight spots to sloppy plotting or laughable dialogue: he just wrote well, and believably, and fast. Speed is Buchan’s thing: his novels zip along just as his heroes do, and he pares the action down to the essential details which also remain completely memorable.
When Leithen is pursued by persons unknown who are determined to nobble him, he has to find a safe way through crowded London streets. Never have building sites on Oxford Street seemed so dangerous. Never has going to a seedy little restaurant in the East End seemed so worrying. Leithen also has a lot of friends who help him out, and by this London seems less of a huge anonymous city, but a familiar neighbourhood. Because he has friends in high places and low, we accompany him to rare and unusual places throughout the whole adventure.
Re-reading the novel in 1913, preparing to teach it, some things jumped out at me that I hadn’t noticed before. The anti-German spy fever was at its height at this time, and Buchan does slip in references to a German spy being caught in England; as if this were a commonplace (when in fact no such creatures existed). The Russian angle is also interesting: I don’t know what the Comintern was up to in 1913, or the British-based Socialists, but it’s interesting that Buchan makes one of the chief villains a former union executive. Admittedly he did the union wrong and stole all their money, but there is a suggestion that a trade union would naturally attract that kind of evil swine. Buchan was a Conservative, which shows in the central theme of the novel: that the border between civilisation and anarchy is very thin, and could be broken by the smallest events. Civilisation, in Buchan’s view, was inherently antithetical to all that the forces of the Left, which included anarchy, and trade unions, stood for. He was certainly right that civilisation was about to be broken up pretty thoroughly, only twelve months later, but the threat wouldn’t come from the Left, but from the rotting corpse of ninetenth-century Imperialism.