‘THE BUSIEST MAN IN ENGLAND: GRANT ALLEN’: Book Part 1


Posted On Oct 14 2014 by

Readers may wonder why, in a book which deals so much with money, I have made so little attempt to indicate its modern purchasing power. Inflation tables readily show, for example, that Allen’s L1000 literary prize in 1891 is equivalent to L64,341 in 2004 British pounds. But as a guide to what such a sum ‘meant’ in terms of what it would buy, such a conversion is wholly misleading.

For the period between 1890 and 1894, Allen’s growing irritation with his publishers and with public opinion is a study in the anatomy of frustration. In his exasperation he wore his heart on his sleeve too openly, and it brought him into conflict with conservative literary elements who had a wit just as acid as his own, and were far more ruthless in deploying it. The most unfortunate aspect of Allen’s career as a novelist is that his reach always exceeded his grasp and made him bitter and impatient with his own success. Although he put aside — or said he had put aside — any higher ambitions for his novels than producing big-selling tales for the broadest possible audience, he never really gave up the idea that he should have been writing novels like Philistia — novels to lash the cruelties and fatuities of society; novels to promote its reform.

Presumably that emphasis came from the paternal views rather than the paternal practice. But it is unlikely that these early events had much impact on the frail, bookish son of a rich, rentier clergyman. Grant Allen left Kingston when he was a young teenager, and in any case he spent much of his childhood on Wolfe Island, five kilometres by ferry across a channel dividing it from the gardens of Alwington on the mainland. The largest of the Thousand Islands at about 34km by 11km, Wolfe Island has a different geology. It is of limestone like the adjacent coastline and is mostly flat, not rugged like the other islands, and lacks their scenic charm.

Allen’s religion was, of course, a purely secular faith. Philistia is much concerned with high-minded, non-revolutionary socialism of the permeative kind. In this, as in so many things, Allen was in the vanguard, for his novel is one of the very first overtly socialist fictions, along with Shaw’s An Unsocial Socialist which appeared at the same time. The time was ripe politically, too, for both the ‘moderate’ Socialist Democratic Federation and the high-minded Fabian Society were formed in the year that Philistia appeared.

So began an odd relationship which had its ups and downs but somehow held together to the day of Allen’s death. Very soon they were on good terms, and met frequently during the short period when Allen was living in London.

‘ Presumably Allen would have favoured George Orwell’s observation that there are some ideas so stupid that only an intellectual can be made to believe them. It’s unlikely that Allen got L450 this time from the Graphic, but he was certainly moving towards a total return, from all sources, of about L600 for one of his three-deckers by the time he had reached mid-point in his career. The Graphic also took The Scallywag (1893), which received the best reviews of any of Allen’s novels; by the time Watt had sold off all the rights piecemeal, it had certainly earned L700 or more.

Even his admirers complained that he repeated himself endlessly in the ‘At the Sign of the Ship’ column, especially when he became gripped by spiritualism in later life. The 250 essays he contributed to the Illustrated London News between 1891 and 1896 are embarrassingly thin. Many readers noticed how careless he could be about factual matters, and indeed his reminiscences of Grant Allen are evidence of that. They are surprisingly inaccurate considering they had known each other for so many years. In an obituary he gave the wrong years for Allen’s second marriage, his stay in Jamaica and for the date of his first ghost story in Belgravia.

Jefferies’ only regular resource at the start was a weekly column in a trade magazine, the Livestock Journal, but he eventually wrote some 450 essays and articles, which was an impressive total considering that he never saw his fortieth birthday. He contributed nature essays to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1877-80, and then collected them into books — The Gamekeeper at Home (1878), The Amateur Poacher (1879) and Round About a Great Estate (1880) — which is just the same course that Allen followed slightly later. Indeed, Allen’s own articles for the Pall Mall Gazette occupied the same physical space in the newspaper where Jefferies had left off.

Are we really such immense successes ourselves that we must needs perpetuate the mould that warped us? ‘[287] Since young women graduates were now being fed the same diet, it’s not surprising that he detected, and portrayed, a Jane Bull type as well. He drew such a one in Ida Mansel, of Dumaresq’s Daughter. Mrs. Mansel is an icily rational young matron who voices ferocious sentiments like ‘war’s an outlet for our surplus population. It replaces the plagues of the Middle Ages.

As it happened, he had forgotten the house number and was astonished to find, on inquiry along the street, that none of the locals had even heard of his hero. The whites were a mixed bag, the main constituents being the British, some Jews from Portugal and Spain, and French refugees. None of them lived in Kingston if they could help it; everyone of any means occupied the villas, some of them quite grand, which were spotted around on the surrounding hillsides. The local aristocracy was the British planter class, spread across the island on their estates and now mostly living in reduced circumstances. The pride and arrogance of some, and their obsession with racial ‘purity’ (for in truth most had their admixture of African blood) provides the mainspring for one of Allen’s best novels, In All Shades (1886).

Whether the son conformed to, or reacted against, his father’s private philosophical and religious beliefs is also unclear. Joseph Allen resigned his ministry in mid-life over some theological dispute with his bishop, and it’s conceivable that he had a scathing view of the clergy which he transmitted to his son, who, by his own account, was a militant atheist and Darwinian from childhood. His son’s memorable birth year, 1848, the year of European revolutions, also saw the issue of Marx’s Communist Manifesto in England; and the Origin of Species burst on the world when he was eleven. Joseph Allen ensured that their message was not lost on his son. He was himself the author of Day Dreams of a Butterfly, a philosophical poem of appalling length with an appendix of notes citing authorities from Kant to Carlyle.

But from this point on, it is plain that the pressure is mounting. Every move we see him making now brings him further along on a collision course with the moral arbiters of the day. He will confront the ‘dissenting grocer’ head-on, cost what it may. Why? Because he had a message to convey, truths to tell, and he was being blocked.

His wife Patience was a milliner. We guess that Thomas Jerrard was in a prosperous line of business and could afford to raise his daughters as ladies, since two of them were found acceptable in Oxford’s academic society.

The philosopher’s proud independence and readiness to sacrifice everything to his self-assigned task greatly impressed Allen. Yet though he admired it intensely, no such course was open to him.

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