Saturday, January 25, 2020

Is This The Worst 19th C. British Novel?

by Stephen J. Gertz

It’s rarely a good idea to begin a novel with a Preface. It’s never a good idea to write a Preface as apology for what is to come. And what writer in their right mind would trust that their readers be indulgent and not too.critical of what they are about to read? Only a novelist who subconsciously knows that he is issuing a warning: Caution! Train-Wreck Ahead.

Santa left ashes in the author's Xmas 1893 stocking.

No such luck for The Author, one T. Duthie-Lisle. The reviews for this three-decker upon its publication were devastating; this may be the worst 19th century British novel ever published.

"The hardiest spirit may well quail before the stupendous task of giving any accurate idea of what is, apparently, the first-fruits of Mr. Duthie-Lisle's imagination" (The Saturday Review Dec. 30, 1893); "...obtrudes itself on almost every page as deficient in sense as of grammar" (The Academy Oct., 21, 1893); "...this incredibly foolish book" (The Speaker Sept. 16, 1893); and this dart to its heart: "One of the missions of the literary critic is to warn off intending readers from books that are utterly worthless, and 'The Heirloom' comes within this category" (The Athenaeum Sept. 9, 1893). 

Seventy-eight years later Robert Lee Wolff, in Nineteenth Century Fiction, declared it "...unbelievably awful as to style - antiquated, ungrammatical, melodramatic, like a parody of itself." 

Of the author, little is known; it is hoped T. Duthie-Lisle survived the reviews to live in hiding. It appears that this was TD-L's first and last foray into “the wildest schemes which his imagination [could] conceive, the marvelous combinations which a turn of the magic kaleidoscope of eventualities, and what we misname fortune may produce, are again and again out acted in real life.”

Why was this novel issued? It was not the sort of book that its publisher, Gay and Bird, usually published.

Wolff suggests that it was a “‘prestige’ publication.” If so, Gay and Bird’s standards for prestige were decidedly low; the book deals prestige a deadly blow. Could the brain trust at Gay and Bird have been so devoid of taste and discernment? Their publication of this novel strongly suggests that they possessed the editorial instincts of a cane toad, Australia’s answer to promiscuous publishing: cane toads will attempt to copulate with dead animals including dead female cane toads, dead salamanders, dead rodents, dead reptiles. Hence the dead on arrival publication of this dreadful doozy. 

Yet beyond its status as arguably the worst nineteenth century British novel, The Heirloom is significant as being among the last of the three-deckers, a format that ceased to exist by the end of 1894, with only an occasional three-decker published in the twentieth century, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings the most notable example. This copy of The Heirloom was deaccessioned from a circulation library and that tells us a story.

Introduced in the early nineteenth century, three volume novels were expensive - the average retail price was 31 shillings.6 pence  - far too expensive for even middle class readers. But though three-deckers did indeed provide a measure of prestige to the publisher, author, and the book, because of their expense the major source of reading distribution was through a circulation library. Yes, you could buy inexpensive reprints in single volumes but if you wanted to read the latest "prestige" novels you had to borrow from a library. With low print runs (generally 1000 copies or fewer) and high price a publisher could earn a tidy profit. Ultimately, however, publishers of three-deckers had to bow to commercial pressures and began to issue single volume novels. Single volume novels were less expensive to produce, could be sold for less than a three-decker, and though their price was low, greater profits could be earned via dramatically increased sales volume.

At this point, you may be curious about the plot of The Heirloom. It is the sorry plight of the reader to plow through it. Three-decker novels typically possessed complicated plots, often dealing with marriage and property. The Heirloom cubes the complications,  throws in a lot of mush, and the result is a plot so convoluted that one is tempted to go full-Alexander the Great and take a sword to this Gordian knot. It would, alas, take a machete to hack through it but with no guarantee of success. 

It begins with the near-death ravings of Bertram Gonault, the presumptive hero of the story, as he lies in bed at Vernwood Manor. He made a fabulous fortune, and met a beautiful girl, who mysteriously vanished just prior to their wedding. As usual when a man loses the woman of his dreams, Bertram hit the road of dissipation that ended in deathbed delirium, an old man at 50 on page one, "at what a price!" A half hour after his feverish diatribe he was murdered. By the end of volume one, after an at best wearisome telling of the story of Bertram’s life, “the reader feels relieved when at the end of [that volume] he resumes his place in Bertram’s bedchamber” (The Speaker). You may want to get in bed with Bertie and take a quick nap before the murderer shows up.

The remaining two volumes are devoted to discovering the mystery murderer, finding a beneficiary for Vernwood Manor, the title's heirloom, and locating a mysterious ring, another heirloom to pad out the narrative. This is tantamount to asking readers to take a hundred mile hike with a hundred pound rucksack. Really, an army Ranger with a reading habit would be challenged to get though this book without giving up. 

Oh, lordy, this book's a doozy. And quite scarce.

DUTHIE-LISLE, T. THE HEIRLOOM; or The Descent of Vernwood Manor. London: Gay and Bird, 1893. First (only) Edition. Three octavo volumes (7 3/3 x 4 3/4 in.). vii, (1, blank), 247, (1, blank), 16 (catalog); vii, (1, blank), 222, (2, blank), 16 (catalog); vii, (1, blank), 246, (2, blank), 16 (catalog) pp. Publisher's original gray cloth, gilt lettered title, sprig of leaves in black.  Cloth soiled, lt-mod. wear, a few sm tears to spine tails, spine exhibits library label ghosts, "Lorde Circulating Library" stamped in purple to preliminary blanks, offsets to preliminary blanks from bookplate of Britten Memorial Library, otherwise a Good copy of a genuinely scarce work. Wolff 1966. 

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