Homepage‎ > ‎GRANT ALLEN pages‎ > ‎






[The Director's Cut. Updated with much new information. Last updated 04 Oct 15]


Now see how long a letter I have written unto you, going the Apostle one better, with my own left hand: only the busiest man in England could have found time to do it.

Grant Allen to 'Fiona Macleod', 1894


This book is for Heather









INTRODUCTION 'The Most Hateful of Professions'?


CHAPTER ONE Canada and Oxford (1848-1873)


CHAPTER TWO Jamaica (1873-1876)


CHAPTER THREE Setting Out the Stall (1876-1880)


CHAPTER FOUR 'A Pedlar Crying Stuff': Selling the Wares (1880-1889)


CHAPTER FIVE The Stock in Trade: Writing Science


CHAPTER SIX The Stock in Trade: Light Fiction


CHAPTER SEVEN The Prosperous Tradesman (1890-1895)


CHAPTER EIGHT Dealing with the 'Dissenting Grocer'


CHAPTER NINE Retailing The Woman Who Did


CHAPTER TEN Last Orders (1896-1899)


CONCLUSION 'We of the Proletariate. . . '


Abbreviations in the Notes


Notes and References








'With coat-sleeve turned back, so as to give free play to his right hand and wrist, revealing meanwhile a flannel shirt of singular colour, and with his collar unbuttoned (he wore no tie) to leave his throat at ease as he bent myopically over the paper, he was writing at express speed, evidently in the full rush of the ardour of composition. The veins of his forehead were dilated, and his chin pushed forward in a way that made one think of a racing horse'. Thus are we introduced to Sykes, one of the most desperate of the literary hacks for hire in George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891). We are left in no doubt that, down there in the Darwinian nether world of late-Victorian authorship, success is defined as the survival of the fastest.


Such a dismissive attitude has been exacerbated by the ahistorical slant of much modern literary scholarship but it is not, in fact, new. Even in the closing Victorian decades some writers and critics thought it irrelevant and irreverent to display much interest in bank balances and the rewards of the 'trade'. It pained Henry James to hear his colleagues crying from the house tops their sense of solidarity with grocers and shoemakers. Edmund Gosse, critic and poet, protested against some of his fellows' unseemly interest in hard cash, rates of production, deals with publishers, or what different periodicals paid per line. Yes, of course, Gosse conceded, business had to be done, contracts signed. But 'there should be a little modesty, one feels, in this pursuit of the guineas. . . . These functions should be performed in private, not flaunted before the public. I no more desire to know what my neighbour the poet makes by his verses than I crave to see the account books for my other neighbour the lawyer'.


Many did, in fact, did desire to know. Gosse's attitude was not uncommon, but it existed in the late Victorian era alongside a hungry interest in writers' bank balances, houses, activities and their opinions on everything. We see the same paradox in our own time. Attempts to de-historicise literature somehow manage to coexist with an unassuageable appetite for big literary biographies which are more candid and inclusive than ever before. And, at the more scholarly level, studies in literary history have proven to be remarkably resilient over the last twenty years or so, especially in the area of the socio-economics of Victorian writing and publishing. Peter Keating said rather gloomily in 1989 that the literary history, or more exactly the historical sociology of literature that was then being written, was of an unadventurous kind. Keating's own The Haunted Study did much to counter that; and other studies of the calibre of those by Nigel Cross (1985), Michael Anesko (1986), Peter McDonald (1997) and Graham Law (2000) have continued the good work. One particularly welcome effect of that has been to direct attention to writers below the first or second rank, where the struggle for existence may be studied in its grimmest and most telling specificity. 


This book had its origin in my earlier The Vital Science: Biology and the Literary Imagination, 1860-1900. That book is a study of the creative uses to which writers put the ambiguous data of biology in the immediate post-Darwinian years, and I got interested in the way in which scientific popularisers interacted with their readers, and how some of them turned to fiction to dramatize their ideas. Grant Allen figured in a minor way in the earlier book, and I wished I had been able to explore his career further and how broad his interests were. But other projects drew me away, and there matters rested until 1999, the centenary of Allen's death, when a celebratory conference was planned at Bristol. Preparing the keynote address for that conference caused me to investigate his bibliography more thoroughly, and I grew astonished at the productivity and versatility of the man. He labelled himself proudly 'the busiest man in England', and he seemed entitled to the label. Given what he achieved in a career lasting hardly more than twenty years, it is rather alarming to consider what he might have done if he had had a career twice as long. I was particularly intrigued by his own vigorous, acerbic and frequently witty examination of the professional freelance writer's lot; and that had a personal resonance too, for I had laboured for a time in that same vineyard, just a century after Allen, and I found what he had to say about the trials and tribulations, and the rewards of such a life was no was no less thought-provoking now than it was then.


The occupational disease of the biographer, said Macaulay, is the lues Boswelliana, the fever of admiring overstatement. I have been careful, I hope, not to catch that infection. Time has placed Grant Allen as an author of the third rank, and I expect him to remain there; it is not my task to reinstate him as an unjustly neglected writer, or even to mount a case for bringing very much of his work back from obscurity. Much of his work -- not quite all, to be sure -- was done for the day and has vanished with the day. I hope to show, however, that his career gives us some insight into the opportunities and rewards available in late-Victorian England for the most industrious writers of the type to which Allen belonged; and that is not a type which has been closely investigated.


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. It ignores on the one hand the many goods and services not then available at any price (effective health-care and domestic technologies, for instance); and on the other the relative abundance in England of other goods 120 years ago (relatively cheap land and basic building materials; very cheap semi-skilled labour and readily accessible, untouched countryside). Critically, it ignores the effect of modern taxes, direct and indirect, which were low or non-existent then. This is an omission so serious that it has been said that a Victorian income, after being adjusted for inflation, should then be tripled to give an idea of its real buying power at the time. I know of no reliable way of adjusting for these factors. As a substitute, I have occasionally indicated some specific late-Victorian goods and services that might have been bought with a particular sum which Allen earned with his pen.



15 July 2012





The resources of the internet have transformed scholarly endeavour. Some of the primary research and virtually all of the exchange of ideas and information which stand behind this book have been handled via the web and email. No matter how recondite their interests, constant participation in world-wide discussion groups is available to all scholars now, and I have used these resources to the utmost. 


Even the internet has its limits, however, and a good part of the primary research for this biography was carried out in the British Library and elsewhere in England in 2001 during an Outside Studies Program provided by Flinders University, Adelaide. Other grants from Flinders' Faculty Research Budget relieved me of some teaching duties, contributed to the cost of conferences, and supported several foraging expeditions into libraries in the UK, Canada and the United States in 2002.


Numerous institutions have allowed me to use their holdings: a complete list is provided in the Bibliography. Many people connected with these institutions, and others, have shared their specialist knowledge with me and although we shall probably never meet in person it is good to know that we have met, and will meet again, in cyberspace. Among them I wish to thank the following particularly: Victor Berch of Brandeis for many obscure leads on Allen's short fiction; Angela Kingston of Adelaide for several rare and important finds; Nicholas Ruddick for our extended and enjoyable discussions about various aspects of The Woman Who Did, of which he was preparing his Broadview edition; Alex Scala of Kingston, Ontario for much information about that city as Grant Allen knew it; and Sandra Stelts, the curator of the Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University, for generous and repeated help over a long period. My thanks also to the following for their help on specific aspects of Allen's life and career: Mike Ashley and the Fictionmags forum; Pierre Coustillas, Donald Forsdyke, William Greenslade, Richard Landon, Mark Lasner, Graham Law, Xavier Legrand-Ferronniere, Bernard Lightman, Barbara Arnett Melchiori, Christine Nelson, Patrick Parrinder, Lyssa Randolph, Terence Rodgers, Christopher Sanguinetti, Jay Shorten, Jonathan Smith, Jean Soude, Richard Sveum, Phil Stephensen-Payne, Sue Templeman, Sabine Ernst, Greta Turner, John Owen Smith, Rebecca Venable, and the late Chris Willis.


And a final thanks to Tony Twohig for the use of his house in Blackheath at a critical juncture.






'The Most Hateful of Professions'? 



Forty years ago, in a ground-breaking article 'The Sociology of Authorship' Richard Altick defined what he took to be 'the essence of the literary situation' for professional writers in the last Victorian decades. By that time, said Altick, writers who lived by their pen were being forced to accommodate themselves to a new mass audience; an audience of 'limited capacities and special expectations'. Every professional writer of the period, he continued, had to deal in one way or another with this question: 'To what extent was he obliged, as a member of his age's ruling class and supported, sometimes handsomely, by the pounds and shillings of his cultural inferiors, to debase his art, either for the sake of sheer intelligibility or for the more specific one of imparting desirable social, political, moral, and aesthetic attitudes?[1]


'Debasement' is a loaded term, and it is unlikely that many late-Victorian writers saw their plight in quite that way. Still, Altick's question admits of many answers and permits many stances. The most common stance which writers took towards it was the one that correlated best with the current state of their bank balance. Here is a voice answering Altick's question in a particularly stark, hard-headed way; a way which it is the aim of this book to define, illuminate and contextualize. As it happens, it is a fictional voice:

'But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me. He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won't make concessions, or rather, he can't make them; he can't supply the market. I -- well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that's a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetizing. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell he'll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits'.[2]

This quotation is from a novel to which we shall have frequent reference: George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891), that indispensable vade-mecum to the literary life of the 1880s. The speaker is Jasper Milvain, a brash young literary man on the make. The narrative does not require the reader to agree with the character's sentiments, for Milvain, as his first name hints, is the villain of the piece. Milvain seeks success, success measured in coin of the realm, and we see him trampling over everyone to get it. But he is a mightily attractive villain, especially when compared to the other writers whose careers Gissing charts with such loving despair: the ineffectual novelist Edwin Reardon, psychologically incapable of meeting the market; the hard-bitten veteran essayist Alfred Yule; his daughter Marion, exhausted by her task of cobbling together yet more 'literature' in the Reading Room of the British Museum; the naively idealistic Biffen; the semi-charlatan Whelpdale; all the other minor drunks and down-at-heel hacks. Indeed, it is exactly the tension caused by our awareness that the novel is of the devil's party without knowing it that engages us. It is propelled by a powerful if surreptitious envy and self-pity -- emotions which must figure in any socio-economic history of literature in the years of Allen's career, and from which our subject himself was not free.


The action of New Grub Street opens in 1882. In that year, in real life, Grant Allen, a Canadian resident in London, is in his mid-thirties. He has been rather a late starter, but his career as an author-journalist is now getting into its stride. He wants to be successful; or, more exactly, he wants to make money -- though not for selfish reasons. It is, rather, because he does not expect to live very long and has a family to support. Jasper Milvain's analysis of what made for a successful tradesman-writer of the time is a fair account of the strategy which Allen is really pursuing at this point: not always willingly, it must be said, or without some poignant self-questioning, but always very effectively.


Having returned to England some years earlier after a spell teaching abroad, with no job and few resources, and eager to make a reputation as a scientific writer, Allen starts with a couple of technical tomes on evolutionary biology. Quickly he discovers that this will not earn him a living on a par with that of a prosperous country solicitor or doctor, which is the level he believes is his due and is determined to secure. He moves into the best general monthly periodicals of the day, ignoring the unanimous opinion of editors and working journalists that it is virtually impossible to make a living in that way. But by dint of almost incredible labour, Allen forces this market to yield a living. Soon afterwards, riding the boom of the New Journalism, he turns to writing miscellaneous essays for the weekly periodicals and newspapers as well. His favourite topics are in the area of popular science, especially botany, where his knowledge is prodigious; but he can and will turn his hand to anything.


Next, stumbling into fiction by accident, he finds that startling and sentimental short stories pay even better, so dozens of those too start to roll off his pen. Then he tries a serious novel of ideas -- one of the first explicitly 'Socialist' fictions of the '80s -- to promote his political beliefs. He polishes it carefully and elaborately, but it makes very little critical impression. Instead of giving up, he responds by varying his output, trying to appeal to different sectors of the market-place for fiction. Unremitting work produces several collected volumes of stories and some thirty-five novels, of which about six are still worth the attention of cultural historians, if not literary critics, a century later.


Twice in his career Allen finds he has a great popular success on his hands. What's Bred in the Bone (1891), a sensational thriller written to order at top speed, secures him one of the largest literary prizes ever awarded in Britain: a thousand pounds from George Newnes, the publishers of the magazine Tit-BitsWhat's Bred in the Bone comes first in a field of 20,000 entrants to take the prize. It sells hugely in its first year, goes into seventeen impressions, appears in the form of a silent film in 1916, and is translated into several languages, including Icelandic. Nothing demonstrates better Allen's cold-blooded judgment in analysing and meeting the popular taste.


Allen's other triumph, The Woman Who Did (1895), proves to be a scandalous success of the first magnitude. Written from the heart, this is the most ambitious result of Allen's long-standing interest in women's issues, especially the relations between prostitution and marriage. About halfway through his career, we find him starting to articulate views on these subjects that are so charged and uncompromising that they border on the obsessive -- views which, as later chapters will elucidate, were formed from painful personal experience. At first praised, and then reviled by critics right across the ideological spectrum from the radical feminists to the Social Purity league, this 'sex problem' novel nevertheless sites itself at the head of its particular genre. Later on, some years after its author's death, it is made into a film. It goes in and out of print over the next century, but there is a new centenary edition, and another fully-edited edition appears after that. 


Somehow, on top of all this, Allen never loses sight of his 'serious' interests, which are enormously wide-ranging. At Allen's memorial service in October 1899 the positivist Frederic Harrison enumerated them: 'science, biology, physics, botany, mineralogy, metaphysics, history, palaeontology, archaeology, theology, philosophy, sociology, ethics, art, criticism'.[3] This may sound like the kindly exaggeration often thought appropriate at funerals, but that is not so. Indeed, Harrison could readily have added to his list: biography (Allen wrote three), classical studies, folklore, topography, geology, entomology, interior design and travel. About half of his total output -- that is, more than thirty books and many hundreds of articles -- testifies to these varied interests, and Allen's power to synthesize, generalize and find fruitful interconnections between them is remarkable. All his life he insists that his real work lies in science and philosophy, and he wished especially to help extend the reach of Darwinian biology into sociology and ethics. Economic pressures, however, oblige him to write popular science, for which he soon displays a powerful talent. Some of his pieces of popular science, like 'The Bronze Axe' (1889) and 'Mud' (1891) are fine products of the temporal and geological imagination. Almost none has ever been reprinted.[4]


It is tempting to over-emphasize Allen's sheer versatility as a writer. Certainly he may remind us of one of the other denizens of New Grub Street, who boasts 'I could throw off my supplemental novelette of fifteen thousand words without turning a hair, and immediately after it fall to, as fresh as a daisy, on an Illustrated History of the United States'.[5] Allen's pen is no less facile. He can jump from preparing a learned edition of Catullus' Attis to the task of banging out a history of Anglo-Saxon Britain; a popular biography of Darwin which is still an admirable short introduction to the man and his theory; a tale for boys; or a collection of moral uplift stories of artisan heroes. To all alike he brings to bear the same professional efficiency and air of expertise.


However, such a blunt comparison, stressing the mere facility of Allen's pen, is demeaning and misleading. It's inconceivable that any of the cast of New Grub Street -- certainly not Jasper Milvain -- would have been willing to spend ten years gathering the materials for a study in religious anthropology or working out a treatise on physics, well aware that the sales are going to be numbered in the hundreds. But Allen is not deterred, for he believes his book on religion, by exposing its folk-myth origins, will help to consign Christianity, and by implication all other revealed religions, to the scrap-heap; and for him that is a goal worth pursuing indeed. This is what makes Allen an interesting study in the sociology of authorship. He straddles so many different areas in the literary culture of his day. We see him in multiple roles: as the constructor and marketer of popular fiction; the dedicated but unaffiliated scholar, pursuing his lonely course and reckless of his time and energy, as long as the work gets done; the feuilletonist whose latest chatty 'middle' for an evening paper is always mailed on time; the severely technical botanist with a thesis to expound on the evolution of flowering plants; the tosser-off of a long opinionated essay on London architecture or a profusion of other topics; and, most dramatic of all, the idealistic social reformer half-willing to immolate his own career for the sake of having his radical say.


Grant Allen suffers from ill-health for all of his life and is a semi-invalid for some of it. When he dies at the age of fifty-one, everything has been achieved in a career lasting only two decades. His obituarists, glancing down the truncated list of his books in Clodd, exclaim at this astonishing record. The Athenaeum professes itself staggered by his 'amazing industry and versatility. 'Much as we admired Grant Allen's powers', it says, 'we were hardly prepared for such a list'.[6] The Daily News' opinion is that 'if sometimes aggressive and irritating, Grant Allen was always suggestive and interesting. The amount of work which he turned out in his comparatively short life . . . was amazing, and there can be few contemporary writers who have alternately provoked and stimulated, alienated and attracted, so many readers'.[7] Andrew Lang, man of letters and no slouch himself when it came to productivity, calls Allen 'the most versatile, beyond comparison, of any man in our age'.[8] But not one of them, not even his closest friends, is in any position to grasp or to appreciate the full extent and quality of his labours.


An intriguing figure, then, Grant Allen: a fringe presence at many different sites of Victorian intellectual life. How did this prodigy strike his fellows? In character he was, all agree, a convivial man with a pleasantly enthusiastic, confiding manner. He was a superlative teacher. 'A walk with him was an education', the editor Frank Harris recalled years after his death. 'He had no whimsies or quirks; he was always reasonable, good-tempered, vivacious, bright, and interested in every human interest. To my astonishment he knew a good deal about painting and sculpture and architecture; he was certainly the best-informed all-round man I have ever had the good fortune to meet'.[9]That is a memorable tribute from someone as egocentric as Frank Harris. Because some of Allen's views on social questions were exceedingly controversial, many reviewers savaged his work with a ferocity remarkable even by the accepted standards of late Victorian criticism. Yet he seems to have had few personal enemies. He was on good terms with most people in literary London, with some notable exceptions. He was no less welcome in scientific circles, and he said once that he had the good fortune of being acquainted with every distinguished scientific personage in Britain. This did not prevent a few scientific men lambasting him for his amateurism. Gossip columnists reported his striking presence at many a public dinner. With his 'silky silvery hair and beard, and the rather pronounced features so often associated with men of uncommon ability', a reporter scribbled on the occasion of some banquet, 'Mr Grant Allen is the type of the contemplative man of science -- the dreamer who is also an active thinker'.[10] He was sweet-tempered, modest to a fault, and usually charitable towards his critics, even the most bigoted of clergymen.


Though he was far from being a typical Englishman, Allen did like to maintain the familiar English pose of the cultivated amateur. People commented how few books he ever seemed to have about him. Yet his range of information was astonishing. In Italian art, English history and prehistory, geology, and especially in botany, he was all but omniscient. He claimed, quite without boasting, that he could identify forty thousand plants by eye alone. At one point he toyed with the idea of setting up in business as a general office of all-purpose information, a sort of walking data bank; and his friends thought this was a reasonable ambition, for they used to chorus, when some questionable fact came up in conversation and no reference book was to hand, 'Let's look it up in Grant!' The impression that he did little reading could not really have been correct, for, as he told an interviewer in 1887, his first task every morning was to turn out a book review. That done -- and he followed this regimen for some years -- the work of the day could start.


Yet he always seemed to have plenty of free time. Anthony Trollope claimed that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. Allen did not go quite that far, but somehow he got through his stint by working only in the mornings. They were long mornings, though, and he was capable of ferocious application at the typewriter, being one of first British writers to make full use of the machine. Frank Harris liked to say that Allen's typewriter disturbed no one, for it went in 'one long even click', as the 'super-journalist', as Harris called him, turned out yet another 'first-rate article on almost any subject from the growth of the idea of God to the habits of the caterpillar, at a moment's notice, and without perceptible exertion'.[11] Richard Le Gallienne, perceptive critic, good friend and neighbour, recalled how 'anyone who has stayed in his house will remember how his typewriter could be heard, as you crossed the hall, punctually beginning to click at nine every morning, and, if you eavesdropped, you would seldom note a pause in its rapid clicking'.[12] He moved from task to task with little time for rumination. Interruptions made no difference. Le Gallienne noticed how, when the gong announcing lunch sounded, Allen would stop typing in the middle of a sentence; then, finding the meal was not quite ready, would return to his typewriter and finish that sentence and start another. Many modern writers might reflect, however, that the most significant detail in that story is the sound of the luncheon gong. There are worse intrusions than being called too early to a meal whose preparation had been undertaken, like all the other domestic tasks of Allen's well-conducted household, by several resident servants who looked after a family of three.


Of course there was a price to pay, and something of the personal toll this schedule imposed on him is suggested in this private comment to a friend: 'Even with the aid of my type-writer, I find it hard to get through all I have to do in the twenty-four hours. A man who would invent a day of forty-eight would be conferring a great benefit on suffering humanity. And yet, when one comes to think how tired one is at the end of the existing day, any addition to it would be rather terrible to contemplate'.[13] On the other hand, this very letter is addressed from the excellent and expensive Grand Hotel du Cap, Antibes, where his family enjoyed for years a winter suite. Allen made authorship pay well, though for him its rewards were painfully won.


Once the day's tasks were over, Allen liked to be out of doors. Everyone who knew him agreed that he talked best on his feet, and that his gifts as a teacher of botany and geology and entomology revealed themselves best on a country walk. York Powell, who knew him for thirty years, said his afternoon walk was 'the crown and pinnacle of his day; the pleasure to look forward to and to look back on; every copse and hedgerow was a living museum to him, every roadside or field corner a botanical garden'.[14] Everyone noted his love of the natural world. 'He loved nature as I have never seen it loved by any other man', another wrote. 'He would dart towards some tiny flower by the hedgerow and talk of it with a quite beautiful sympathy; he would watch the movements of a bird or an insect with an observation that seemed extraordinary'.[15] Allen was no nature-worshipper or pantheist, however. His minute inspection of the natural scene was always scientific and his observations were always the raw material of generalizations. As Le Gallienne said of him, 'what an amazing talker he was! No pose-talk, but talk easily born of his knowledge and love of the subject that at the moment occupied him. No more brilliant generaliser can ever have lived. Present him with the most unexpected fact, or the most complex set of circumstances (as it might seem to you), and he had his theory in an instant, and was making it as clear, by the aid of his marvellously copious and exact vocabulary, as though he had drawn it on the air'.[16] The label which he fixed on Herbert Spencer, 'the prince of generalists', fits Allen just as well. Some hint of the mental universe which he inhabited, a place where no fact, no statistic, no recollection, existed in isolation, can be caught from a stray comment he once made about a child's ideal education:


A country walk will be richer in his eyes if he knows the birds and beasts, the flowers and insects. A Continental trip will be the richer in his eyes if he can delight his soul as much in a Mantegna or a Van der Weyden, in the spires of Cologne or the facade of the Certosa, as in the Boulevards and the Opera, the Rigi or the Matterhorn. Geology, history, poetry, make the world the fuller for him. Here rolled the Triassic sea: here brooded the ice plain: here Francesca paced the grey streets of Rimini. Every subject in which human thought can steep itself adds to the pleasure and the depth of life. That is why it were well to make the basis of our education as wide, as real, and as varied as possible. Let us ground our boys and girls in realities, not words: in knowledge of life and the world they live in, not in irregular verbs and rules of syntax.[17]


All very well, one might retort, if the teachers were all of the calibre of Grant Allen. Dr George Bird told Clodd that, if he had had a son, he would gladly have paid Allen a thousand a year just to take the boy on a weekly rural walk. Another friend would have upped the pay to two thousand a year if Allen had been available to her for a daily stroll. 'He was so full of information', she said, 'and had such a very lucid way of imparting it'.[18] 


From his essays and from all but his most pot-boiling novels, we can deduce a good deal about Grant Allen's temperament and attitudes. He was an advanced radical of that familiar English stamp -- the radical with a powerfully puritan admixture, a man in the mould of Cobbett, Orwell and Lawrence. He wrote against big landlordism, private ownership of raw materials, prostitution, working women, nationalism, militarism, racism, vivisection, most aspects of imperialism and colonialism, the established Church, the House of Lords, sexual double standards and the environmental degradation of cities. He was for (fairly) plain living and high thinking, a social philosophy he called Individualism, 'little England' and Home Rule, a country residence and early nights, the right to roam across landed estates, early mating but divorce on demand, maternal women and large families produced on positive eugenic principles. 


In social and political matters he can be relied on to side with the underdog, the oppressed and the exploited, though surely for ideological rather than empathetic reasons. Nearly all his fiction charts the doings of the upper middle classes and above: despite his animadversions on the aristocracy, he knew his readership well enough to make sure that all his novels show how dearly they love a lord. His working-class figures are all stock characters. His views on racial differences are cringe-making, even offensive, today but unremarkable for his time and in some respects were in advance of it: even a severe critic might allow that his heart is usually in the right place. In his youth he described himself as a Communist, and perhaps always thought of himself as one; but if so he managed to reconcile this with a little cautious personal speculation in building land. The Fabians' phrase 'the inevitability of gradualness' sums up his political position well enough, although he took no interest at all in party politics. No small part of his charm comes from the occasional perversity, even the self-contradiction, of his views. He loved to tip a received opinion on its head and to assert a paradox: he would have said it was the Irishman in him. In his first novel, Philistia, the young and poor Le Breton family are forced to wander the streets of Holloway, looking for lodgings. Their landlady is a tall, gaunt, hard-faced woman. We seem to be moving into the territory of Jude the Obscure and The Nether World, but Allen subverts our expectations by making her a domestic and maternal angel. She is how, however, entirely unconvincing.


Immediately after Allen's untimely death in October 1899 one of his oldest friends began to collect letters and reminiscences for a biography. It was published in the following year as Grant Allen: A Memoir with a Bibliography. The author was Edward Clodd (1840-1930) and he was well qualified for the task. He was already an established author when Allen, then teaching in Jamaica, had run across his Childhood of the World (1873), a book introducing the origins of mythology and human culture to young readers. When Allen returned to England and made his foray into journalism, he and Clodd soon became acquainted. So began an intimate friendship which lasted for the rest of Allen's life. The two men were similar in their interests, values and temperament. Clodd was quite a prolific and popular writer, his main interests being the history of evolutionary theory, folklore, mythology, and the origins of Christianity. He was a rich man, a banker, and, in the nicest sense, a scalp-hunter of intellectuals, writers and artists. Tolerant, sympathetic, unenvious, genial and a generous host, Clodd made his Whitsuntide parties at his home at Aldeburgh in Suffolk into an institution. Almost all British and many foreign writers of any distinction accepted Clodd's invitations at one time or another. Good food, good drink and the liveliest possible conversation in male company were guaranteed at Clodd's. Grant Allen, a sociable man himself, was a regular at these parties, and for his part Clodd regularly took the train to Dorking or Hindhead to pass a day or two with the Allens; in addition, the two men were together every day for five weeks when they made a tour of Egypt in 1889.


Unfortunately Grant Allen was not served well by his biographer-friend. For reasons that are unclear, the Memoir was a rushed, sketchy and occasionally inaccurate job, well below the standard of even the usual stolid Victorian Life and Letters. It is said that biographies should never be written with one eye on the widow. The Memoir was practically a collaboration between Clodd and Allen's widow and son, and it is uselessly discreet about key events in Allen's life, such as his first marriage and his spell in Jamaica. In this respect at least he gave satisfaction, for Nellie Allen was pleased with him for giving 'such a clear idea of my darling's beautiful personal character, and of the hard struggles that he had to bear'.[19] Few others were as satisfied, although Gissing told Clodd privately that he was glad that 'discretion rules from beginning to end. I should say that you have done the greatest possible service to Allen's memory -- to divest his personality of the temporary, the inessential, & to show the core of the man, his potent virtues, his amiable characteristics, his persistent aims'.[20] But Gissing had his own secrets, one of them not unlike one of Allen's, and he surely voicing his anxiety about posthumous biographical investigation, which he rightly feared would one day reveal much more than the 'core of the man' in his own case.


Most of the published reviews were negative or luke-warm. 'It is to be regretted that Mr Clodd has not produced a life of Mr. Grant Allen which would have been of more than ephemeral interest', said one.[21] Another lengthy review, in the Academy, was anonymous, but it was probably by James Sutherland Cotton, who had been editor of that influential journal between 1881 and 1896 when Allen had been contributing a good deal to it. Cotton had known Allen just as long as Clodd, and had worked alongside him during their early struggling years of journalism. It was Cotton who later wrote the accurate and judicious entry on Allen for the Dictionary of National Biography. With the resources and the insider's information he had at his disposal, Cotton could have done a much better job of work than Clodd, and no doubt his awareness of this coloured his review. He felt 'utter disappointment' when he read it. Clodd, he complained, had deliberately reneged on the biographer's most sacred duty: to assist time in forming a correct assessment of his subject. He had made no attempt to set Allen into his social and intellectual context, or even to ascertain properly what he had written, and to organise it meaningfully:


The writings are given in chronological order, which would be all very well for an author who kept to a definite pathway, and to whom dates were of consequence in order to establish his claims to originality. But Grant Allen did not keep to a definite pathway, but was philosopher, naturalist, physicist, historian, poet, novelist, essayist and critic. The efforts of a many-sided man like him ought not to have been given indiscriminately according to dates, but should have been tabulated according to subject-matter, and the tabulation should have been done in such a way as to show a definite purpose and a definite unfolding of a distinctive gospel.[22]


The Memoir has other even more obvious failings. There are far too many bland reminiscences solicited from old friends and copied out verbatim. Clodd made no attempt to use Allen's own writings to colour up his rather grey account, even though his subject was often frankly autobiographical and strongly opinionated in his fiction and non-fiction alike. He accepted uncritically the most complimentary remarks on Allen's scientific work, popular and technical, and never bothered to find out what his peers had really thought of it. He skated much too quickly over Allen's radical and inflammatory views on social issues, and never traced out their origin in his early experiences, even though he knew quite well that they had been formed there. Worst of all, despite the promise in the sub-title of his book, Clodd did not even try to discover the full extent and variety of Allen's writings, still less to evaluate them. Indeed, it appears that he compiled his bibliography simply by copying out the entries in the British Museum library catalogue of printed books. That library did not -- and does not -- have a complete set of the British editions of Allen's books, let alone of his overseas editions, translations, and the many, many hundreds of his more fugitive publications, a lot of which were unsigned. Small wonder, then, that Clodd was incapable of bringing into any kind of accord the two most disparate elements in Allen's career, which had put his subject under great nervous tension: the committed but unrewarded philosopher-scientist on the one hand, and the popular and affluent novelist-journalist on the other.


The most serious consequence of Clodd's rushing into print was that the Memoir was just about good enough to discourage anyone else from trying their hand at something better. A few years later, one Herbert Thompkins, an uncritical admirer of Allen's, did try to supplement Clodd by attempting an assessment of Allen's oeuvre in all its variety, including the popular scientific writings and a sampling of the periodical work. Thompkins' article in the Gentleman's Magazine is the best single overview of his career and achievement made before the very end of the twentieth century, although it is entirely inadequate on his social views, and the evaluation of his fiction is sketchy.[23]


After that, the rest is (almost) silence. Allen's main publisher, Chatto & Windus, found it worthwhile to reprint fifteen of his novels in a single-volume uniform 'new edition' in the 1890s, but nearly all of these were long out of print by the end of the First World War, and most of his volumes of popular science were out of print as well. Grant Richards reprinted some of Allen's uncollected work just after his death as a favour to his widow, but most of it slumbered undisturbed in the periodicals for another century. The lessons his career had to teach about the trade of writer in the late Victorian era did not yet interest literary historians, and even if they had, many relevant primary documents were still in private hands. Gradually his contemporaries and friends died off. Ironically, Clodd, who lived to be ninety, must have been one of the last survivors among those of Allen's friends who had observed his authorial career from start to finish.


In the inter-war years there was a flicker of interest in Grant Allen as a social prophet and as the spiritual grandfather of the new freedoms which marked the age of jazz and the flapper. There is an allusion to the title phrase 'The Woman Who Did' in the 'Cyclops' chapter of Ulysses (1922), as one of an absurd parade of pseudo-Irish heroes and heroines. There were short-lived new editions of The Woman Who Did in America and England in 1926 and 1927, the last for many years. A silent film based on The Scallywag was released in 1921. A final attempt to evaluate Allen's career as a whole was made in 1928, in a long but flimsy essay by the American literary journalist William Chislett.[24] After that, there was little but an occasional academic paper, some expensive library facsimiles of a few works, a reprinting of a handful of his stories in science fiction and other genre anthologies, and, in recent years, chapters discussing The Woman Who Did in works of feminist criticism and literary history.[25] Most biographical sketches have been content to copy from Clodd or from the entry on Allen in the DNB; and in this way some factual errors have been copied from one reference work to another for many decades.[26]


The first sign of a renewal of interest in Grant Allen's career as a whole came with the approach of the centenary year of his death, 1999. Oxford University Press issued a new edition of The Woman Who Did in 1995 in their Popular Fiction series, with an introduction by Sarah Wintle, in the form of a gaudy blue and yellow paperback bearing the stamp 'The bestseller that scandalized Victorian Britain'. The centenary itself was marked by a conference devoted to him at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and the subsequent planning of a book of essays to be issued by Ashgate Press. Barbara Arnett Melchiori's Grant Allen: The Downward Path Which Leads to Fiction (2000) followed, notable as the first attempt to deal critically with Allen as a novelist; and there was a doctoral thesis on Allen's scientific work.[27] In the following year appeared a centenary reassessment, founded on the first thorough attempt to determine exactly what Grant Allen had written -- no mean task.[28] All these developments made it clear that he was a figure well worth a proper biography, making use of the quite extensive and still extant primary materials, now scattered across three countries, which were overlooked or ignored by Edward Clodd in 1900.


Insofar as it is more than an account of an exceptionally busy and self-reflective literary life, this study aims to open up a portal on the socio-economics of professional authorship, using Grant Allen's career to take up the question of how his kind of writer went about extracting a living from the market place in the last three Victorian decades. How exactly, starting with no assets but a head stuffed with miscellaneous information and armed with a ready pen, did Allen rise to comparative affluence with the kind of wares he had to offer? How exceptional was his achievement? What kind of concessions to publisher and public was he forced to make en route to prosperity? 


Certainly these questions interested Allen himself, for he had much to say about the working conditions of the authorial trade in late Victorian England. He would have been the last writer to bridle at the word 'trade'. Indeed, he insisted on using it. For him, the need to earn his daily bread was paramount -- every penny he had came from his pen -- and he had few illusions about what he needed to do to get it. The question of where he might have been, or should have been, as an author was one he inquired into closely and repeatedly. He gave his answers (for they are multiple answers) now this emphasis, now that; and he cast them in the various forms of the polemical essay, the short story, the fable, and as episodes and authorial asides in his novels. Always they are always tinged with irony and an appealing if grim humour. 'Men are driven into literature, as they are driven into crime, by hunger alone', he asserted in gloomy tones, which (we must hope) contain a fair amount of self-mockery:


The most hateful of professions (as a profession, I mean), it becomes tolerable only from a sense of duty to wife and family, or the primary instinct of self-preservation. The wages are low; the prizes few and often fallacious; the work is so hard that it kills or disables most men who undertake it before they arrive at middle life. . . . We have to deal here with a crowded trade, in which competition is exceptionally and fatally severe -- a trade which kills off its workmen faster than any sweating system ever designed by human ingenuity -- a trade compared with which (I speak seriously) match-making and silvering and house-painting and coal-mining are healthy and congenial light occupations.[29]


Mirror-silvering sweatshop or cosy book-lined study? Match-girls' 'phossy jaw' or writer's cramp? Which is nearer the truth? Only in the last twenty years or so has it become possible to give any reasonably objective answers to these questions, for the necessary comparative socio-economic studies have begun to emerge over this period: work of the quality of Nigel Cross's The Common Writer (1985), Michael Anesko's "Friction with the Market": Henry James and the Profession of Authorship (1986), Peter Keating's The Haunted Study (1989), N. N. Feltes's Literary Capital and the Late Victorian Novel (1993), Peter D. McDonald's British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice 1880-1914 (1997), and Graham Law's Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press(2000). Indeed, this biography might be seen as a supplement to the work of the these scholars; for what they do for Collins, Besant, James, Stevenson, Caine, Corelli, Conrad, Bennett, Conan Doyle and others, I have tried to do in my account of the busy life of Grant Allen.


In one important respect, however, these studies throw only an indirect light on Allen's career, for that career fits into a particular, distinctive and not well-explored stratum of late-Victorian literary activity. It is the stratum which was first defined and inspected by John Gross in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969). In part of this ground-breaking work Gross analysed the careers of what he called the 'bookman' -- the men and women who rose to prominence in the 1880s to meet the voracious demand for material to fill the novels and the new periodicals. They were, Gross shows, a distinct new breed: freelancers, but thoroughly professional authors who tried to make the bulk of their living from 'miscellaneous writing'. Miscellaneous writing can be defined, in this context, as the production of popular fiction, semi-popular or specialized non-fiction, and activity in what the French call high vulgarization: that is to say, the upper levels of literary and scientific journalism. None of the bookmen were creative geniuses, of the kind who create their own audience and succeed, in Gissing's phrase, by mere cosmic force. But neither were they necessarily hacks. As a group they are distinguishable, rather, for their ingenuity and shrewdness, and a determination to make the most of these gifts with relentless hard work.


The stratum of the bookmen was a broad one, and it has several distinguishable layers. It is to one of the most prosperous of these layers that Grant Allen's career belongs. It was a thin layer, however, because very few bookmen made enough money from pen-labour alone to allow them to live out their lives in solid, bourgeois comfort, at the same level, say, as that of the owner of a flourishing family business, of a commissioned army officer of a higher rank, of a partner in a small but thriving legal firm. That was the level to which Allen aspired and which he eventually achieved. He insisted on labelling himself a tradesman and would have scorned the 'bookman' tag, but his use of 'tradesman' has to be understood in a particular sense. From his perspective, doctors or lawyers or artists were tradesmen too, since they were all freelance artisans who sold their skills daily for what they would fetch in the open market. To put it another way, what Allen wanted was to become a self-employed professional man; a man whose profession is authorship; a man in an honourable profession, capable of earning his fees on exactly the same basis and at the same level as those in comparable lines of work. Certainly he evinced no trace of bohemianism, not even in his earliest days, either in his personal tastes or in his standard of living. From an early age he had commitments and dependants which he took very seriously. Professionalism and self-respect were his keynotes. Though he wrote fast, and with a close eye on the market, he scarcely repeated himself and he maintained a more than creditable standard, well apart from what Besant called 'the damnation of the cheque'.[30]


A salient feature of Allen's career is the amount of detail we have about the path he trod on the way to prosperity as a bookman. This is not true of most of them: few of the bookmen have ever attracted a candid biographer, and the ones who were the subject of a memoir or lengthy obituary soon after their deaths were never subjected to any indelicate probing into their finances. Edward Clodd permitted himself only the vaguest references to the matter. The difference, in Allen's case, is that the omission is all the more noticeable because his subject himself had an almost neurotic interest in his money-earning capacity and had no scruples about dilating upon it in private or in public. So Allen's own records are one source of information about his advance into affluence. Then there is the advantage that Allen dealt on intimately personal terms with three publishers and an agent (John Lane, Grant Richards, Andrew Chatto and A.P. Watt), who were all men who were scrupulous about their correspondence and whose firms have well-preserved records of their dealings with Allen.[31] 


Then again, few of the bookmen had any scientific interests; yet for Allen writing popular science for the general periodicals and papers was critically important, especially in his earlier years. The socio-economics of popular scientific authorship in this period is another area which is only just starting to be explored.[32] 


Finally, there is the factor of Grant Allen's own background. In some ways it was typical of the average bookman, yet in rather more ways it was intriguingly atypical. Nearly all of the most successful bookmen were, as Gross says, pre-eminently Oxbridge men with smooth Oxbridge manners.[33] Allen was an Oxford man, and his Oxford connections probably secured him his first toe-hold in journalism. But he lost that footing quickly, due to illness; and afterwards, as far as can be ascertained, he was on his own. In any case, he barely fits the specification drawn up by Gross (who does not mention him). He left Merton College with a mediocre degree in classics and said afterwards that he regarded himself as being, in effect, self-educated. By background and inclination he was an outsider, with an outsider's detachment, an outsider's idiosyncratic interests, and, potentially at least, an outsider's chip on the shoulder. He was a Canadian who had little good to say about the country of his birth, and the education that his affluent parents had given him at Kingston and in the United States, France and England deracinated him and gave him a flippantly sardonic outlook on English life. He disliked much about the government, policies, manners and customs of his adopted country, and what he said about them was often abrasively expressed. Apart from a few heroes like Meredith, Hardy and possibly Conan Doyle, he had what Gissing called an 'acrid' view of most of his fellow literary workers, and some of them returned the compliment. He was not one for coteries or committees or societies. 'I dislike organization -- I'm too individualistic to work together with them. . . . As socialistic as Marx, I am as individualist as Herbert Spencer. I will do better work for our common cause -- so far as it is common -- by holding aloof from all societies and saying my say in my own way. But I hope little. I am a gloomy pessimist. . . . PS. I am an invalid and have enough to do to earn a livelihood for my wife and family'.[34] He emerged from deepest Surrey only for business or social engagements -- although these were frequent enough, for he was no hermit; he had the bump of sociability.  


We may close with some statistics which help us take a first measure of our man. In his short life Allen produced seventy-seven volumes (counting his three-decker novels as one volume). He therefore published an average of three and a half books in each one of the twenty-two years of his career, dating from his first book in 1877. Of this total, forty-five volumes were novels, collections of short fiction, and poetry. The rest were on an extraordinary range of subjects. Some of them were assembled from periodical articles which had already seen print, but not all that many, for Allen did not reprint his own work very assiduously. For example, he contributed 102 long essays to the Cornhill right through his career, most of them very solid pieces indeed, closely-argued and running to eight or ten pages of fine print. This was well over a million words to that magazine alone. Yet he only ever reprinted twenty-six of these essays. Of the fifty-six articles of social criticism and commentary that he contributed to the Westminster Gazette in 1893-4, fewer than half were ever seen again. Finally, of the twenty-nine lengthy essays written for Longman's, he collected no more than ten. Presumably he thought the others were not worth reviving, though little of the residue is noticeably inferior to the items he did collect. Of his work in fiction, he left at least seventy of his short stories undisturbed in the magazines after their first appearance. 


As a practitioner of the higher journalism, then -- not to mention his three or four books a year -- Allen was prodigious. His total output of articles, short stories and reviews amounted to very many hundreds of pieces, and that is only counting his signed or other indisputably identifiable work. He lived, of course, in an age of enormously productive penmen. In the preceding generation, the journalist G.A. Sala (1828-1895) was legendary for his output, and his breadth of interests came close to matching even Allen's. Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), who shared some of Allen's interests in folklore and archaeology, was said in his day to have the longest title-list under one author in the British Museum catalogue. His productivity was sometimes compared to Allen's, but he did not depend on his pen for a living, and his work was done over many decades.[35] 


The most comparable name that comes to mind at once is Allen's colleague and sparring-partner Andrew Lang (1844-1912). But Lang's range was mostly literary-historical. Essentially he was a belle-lettrist; in fact, the very archetype of that species. He could not begin to match Allen's versatility, a point that he readily conceded himself. In terms of quantity and rate of production, Allen's was a record that was not outstripped by many; and in terms of range was outstripped by very few, if any, during his heyday. When comparing his career with others', we should always bear in mind that Allen's adult life was nearly half over before he had produced a single publishable word.






Canada and Oxford (1848-1873) 



As the great St Lawrence river streams out of Lake Ontario, with Canada on its western bank and New York State on its eastern, its waters flow over a bed of soft limestone. But here and there, partly obstructing the river's passage, bosses of granite emerge from the water. They are the remnants of a band of tough igneous and metamorphic Precambrian rock, which forms the geological underlay to the Thousand Islands. These shaggy, craggy islets, whose name understates by far their total number, are thickly vegetated with pines and shrubs, and by the mid-nineteenth century they had become popular holiday havens. 'Their beauty is so unlike anything that one may see anywhere else', wrote Grant Allen on a return visit to the region. 'Tiny little islands, placed in tiny little rivers, crowned with tiny little chalets, and navigated by tiny little yachts; it all reminds one so thoroughly of one's childish dreamlands'.[36] The dreamy memories were his own, for this curious riverine locality was the country of his birth.


Grant Allen's father, Joseph Antisell Allen (1814-1900), was an Irishman and an Anglican clergyman, the son of a barrister from Tipperary. He attended Trinity College, Dublin, but left without a degree and spent some years hacking for a religious publishing house in London. At some time between 1840 and 1842 (accounts differ) he left Ireland for the New World, as tens of thousands of his compatriots were doing at the time and presumably for the same reason: to try to better his condition. If that was his intention he must have succeeded far beyond his expectations, because after being ordained at Montreal, and occupying a couple of livings in Quebec, his fortunes improved dramatically. Somehow, around 1843, he met and married Charlotte Catherine Ann Grant; and Miss Grant was an heiress, the daughter of a Baron.


Charlotte Allen, nee Grant (1817-1894), Grant Allen's mother, had a romantic family background in which were mingled aristocratic French-Canadian, English and Scottish bloods. Her mother was a Coffin, from a Devonshire family of admirals and generals. Her father's family, the Grants, came originally from Blairfindy in Moray county, an area best known now for its small picturesque ruined castle and the Glenlivet whisky distillery. The Grants were Jacobites, and after Culloden the four sons of the laird fled Scotland to save their necks. By the end of the eighteenth century they had become a distinguished military family in the New World. Charlotte's father, the Honourable Charles William Grant, inherited the French title of 5th Baron of Longueuil through his mother's line in 1841, and the Grants owned considerable property in and around Kingston, the town in Ontario adjacent to the region of the Thousand Islands. 


In 1833, because he needed to be in Kingston to pursue his political ambitions, the Baron built a large house just outside the town. 'Alwington' stood in spacious grounds reaching down to the lake, and consisted of a central rectangular block of two stories with a single-storey wings on each side, all in the local limestone. In 1841 the government rented this mansion from the Baron to serve as the vice-regal residence for the short period when Kingston was the capital of the united Province of Canada, but in 1844 it reverted to the Grants and became the family headquarters. The frontage, facing towards the town, was quite modest; but any visitor approaching the house from the lake, coming up through the superb gardens along a path edged with irises to a flight of steps leading up to the terrace, got quite a visual shock. There, an ill-proportioned, Italianate portico, rising two full storeys and consisting of a great pediment supported in front by four massive pillars and behind by four equally massive pilasters, overhung and dwarfed the central block. Grant Allen grew up to detest the imitation classical architecture of the eighteenth century in England, and if this pretentious excrescence was part of his childhood home (it is not known exactly when it was added) perhaps his animosity started there. 


Joseph Allen the clergyman could hardly have afforded by his own labours to keep his wife in the style to which she was accustomed. Fortunately that was not required of him. Instead the couple lived with her family at Alwington in leisured ease after their marriage. Two children were born to them there before the arrival of their third child and second son on 24 February 1848. He was christened Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen.[37] The components of this name reflect his mingled ancestry, and he was proud of his inheritance. It was an inheritance not financial, for he never saw a cent of the family fortune, but genetic. Allen liked to think of himself as a pure-bred, typical Celt, a race to which he ascribed many virtues, especially in the arts. He claimed at various times that such unlikely folk as Catullus and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were 'really' Celts. Without following Allen into one of his most enduring crochets, we can surely concede that a blend of seigneurial French, witty Irish, sober pragmatic Devonshire, and canny, brave Scottish bloods was likely to make for a pretty effervescent mixture.


Alwington was a large house, but in the 1850s when Allen was growing up it was fairly crowded. Apart from the owner, the Dowager Baroness (the Baron died in 1848), Alwington housed her son Charles James Grant, the sixth Baron, his wife Anna, their seven children, and five servants. Some of the Allens must have lived there too, at least intermittently. The pressure was relieved, however, when his uncle, aunt and the entire family of cousins packed up their household and settled in Paris, never to return, leaving the Baroness and the Allen family in possession. The last we hear of the Longueuil relations was a comical incident many years later, when a young woman of twenty-eight, a cousin whose name was presumably Hilda Grant but who styled herself Hilda de Longueuil, stayed with the Grant Allens at Dorking in Surrey, to get over a love affair. She attracted the aging and recently widowed author George Meredith, who pursued her vigorously for a while with letters after she returned to her home in France.[38]


The town of Kingston which lay beyond the front gates of Alwington during Allen's childhood was a small place whose chief distinction was some surprisingly grand public buildings. These were the relics of its brief glory as the capital of the Canadas, a status it had lost just before Allen was born, and they gave it a curious appearance. He left as a child, though he went back twice after that; but in this description he is seeing the town of his birth with thoroughly acclimatized English eyes, as a mature man:


a basking, blue stone-built town glowed in the foreground, its roofs all covered with tinned iron, and shining like gold in the morning sun. I could almost fancy myself in the East once more, looking out upon some domed and minaretted village of the Bosphorus. Building after building of a quaint debased American-Byzantine style, propped on pseudo-Doric pillars and surmounted by a false Italian dome (wood, tin-plated) stared upon us boldly, unabashed by its own pretentious absurdity. Incredibly monstrous they all are, if taken separately . . . yet looked on in the mass from the waterside, they really compose a pretty and harmonious picture. The effect is much heightened, too, by a few scattered martello towers, standing straight out of the shallow water, with red-rusted iron roofs, which contrast finely with the sun-gilded domes.[39]


The level and direction of the sarcasm here are difficult to determine. Is it aimed at the Canadians, or at the reader, or at the writer himself? And in what proportions at each? How deliberate are those cliches and the dead similes? The jaundiced phrasing seems a bit too eager to mock, and so falls into uncertainty: pillars, even if made of concrete, are either of the Doric order or they are not: they cannot be 'pseudo-Doric'. A dome is still a dome, and not 'false' even if it is made of wood and tin. But whatever the exact nature of his reaction at the time, we do know for sure that Allen soon steamed away down the St Lawrence to Quebec and an Atlantic crossing, and found neither occasion nor necessity to visit the land of his birth for another decade.


The presence of the Martello towers and the grim Fort Henry are reminders that Kingston is an ex-garrison town, founded by refugees from the American Revolution and afterwards settled by Irish Protestant immigrants. It was fiercely loyal to the British Crown. It was already home to what would become one of the great Canadian educational institutions, Queen's University. No doubt whatever intellectual stimulation Kingston offered at the time centred on that college, to which Joseph Allen was briefly affiliated. But Kingston had another very different side to it. After 1847 the Orangemen were joined by tens of thousands of poverty-stricken Irish Catholic refugees fleeing the Potato Famine. Outbreaks of cholera and typhus in the slum quarters filled mass graves which had to be dug along the waterfront, and violent feuds among the Irish immigrants, arising from distinctions of class and religion, marked the early years of Allen's childhood.


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. At the time of Allen's birth the Grants owned about a third of the island, or around 4500 hectares, of which a small portion was cultivated.


Perhaps to give herself some space away from her son and his family, the Baroness preferred to live on Wolfe Island in another of the family’s mansions, Ardath House. This was a rambling property built in the French style with oak ornamentation. She had a small church built in the adjacent village of Marysville -- was it perhaps to give her new son-in-law some pretence of an independent occupation? -- and the Reverend Joseph Allen became the first vicar of the parish. It is unlikely that he found his duties onerous. Trinity Church -- a small, plain box of a building with a stumpy tower, built of the inevitable limestone -- has the date of 6 October 1845 on its foundation stone, but for some reason the church was not finished until 1848, and was probably put to little use for some years after that. As early as 1851 another clergyman had taken over the parish affairs on the island, and Joseph Allen continued to live as a gentleman of means with his mother-in-law, wife and children at Ardath House. The family of Joseph and Charlotte Allen expanded quickly. Grant Allen eventually had six siblings: five sisters, and an elder brother who predeceased him. Ardath House (called 'the castle' locally) had enough room for them, including a central manor hall heated by a gigantic fireplace.


Apparently Allen had no formal schooling at all during his childhood. He passed a 'rustic boyhood' under the benign tutelage of his father, wandering about on the island 'with the raccoons and the sunfish'.[40] He went skating and fishing and boating, and laid the foundations for his later formidable knowledge of natural history in general and botany and entomology in particular. It is hardly likely, however, that this Huckleberry Finn-like existence filled very much of his time. For much of the year Wolfe Island was a taxing environment for a child with a weak chest. The channel between mainland and island was frozen solid from the end of December, with access only over the ice; and when the ice began to break up in the spring, the island might be cut off for weeks at a time. Later on, Grant Allen was fond of warning parents not to let their children's schooling get in the way of their education, but a warm study and a book-laden desk must have figured largely in his own childhood. His father reported fondly that he started the study of Greek well before his seventh birthday, and could read his Greek Testament by the time he reached it. He must have had four languages at his disposal before he was far into his teens.


The surviving accounts agree that the prevailing tone of the Allen family was intensely intellectual. There was a constant procession of eminent visitors to Alwington. The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace stayed with them in the summer of 1886, after his American lecture tour, in their 'roomy old-world mansion', noting that Joseph Allen cultivated a magnificent collection of gladioli and a small private vineyard.[41] Joseph and Charlotte Allen must have had a very strong influence on their precocious son's development, but since Allen rarely mentioned his parents in later years the exact nature of their influence remains shadowy. From what is known of his career, Joseph Allen appears to have been a fairly headstrong person. In his few surviving letters, he gives a slight impression of officiousness. For example, having persuaded his son to send on to Charles Darwin a copy of a paper that he, Joseph, had written on the evolution of morality, he then wrote to the great man directly from Canada, trying to secure an invitation for his son to visit Down House. No invitation was forthcoming.[42]


But a fairer reading, perhaps, might be that, unfulfilled himself, he found a vicarious solace in his son's expanding reputation. Many years later, when Herbert Spencer accused Grant Allen of 'turning Socialist' he retorted that, on the contrary, he had been born one. It is hard to credit that Allen would have heard much socialism preached at him from his tough, acquisitive Grant relations, but his father's politics may well have been unorthodox, if not radical. His position in life, though externally enviable, may have chafed his sense of self-respect. 'A private gentleman' was how Joseph Allen described himself in documents; a gentleman who dabbled in political pamphlet writing and constructing a concordance to the New Testament. But the blunt truth was that he was living on his wife's unearned income; was a pensioner, one might say, of the Grant family, and yet at the same time he surely appeared to his social inferiors as someone who had inveigled his way into the colonial landlord class. What the tenantry whose rents supplied those private means thought of their ex-pastor is unknown, except for one clue. In 1854, there seems to have been some criticism by a committee of the Wolfe Island congregation, to the effect that the landlords of the island ought to be doing more for the spiritual welfare of their tenants.[43] Joseph Allen may have regarded himself as the meat in the sandwich in such exchanges, and his perceptive son might well have pitied him for it.


There may be a hint of some of the tensions between his father and his mother's family in Allen's first and highly autobiographical novel, Philistia. In an early scene, young Ernest Le Breton goes as a private tutor to Dunbude Castle, the home of the Exmoor family, a hideous country house 'formed by impartially compounding a Palladian palace, a Doric temple, and a square redbrick English manor-house'. Over the dinner table Ernest has to endure the conversation of Lord Connemara, a bone-headed young Irish peer, who is having tenant problems:


'My tenants won't pay up, and nothing will make them. They've got the cash actually in the bank; but they keep it there, waiting for a lot of sentimentalists in the House of Commons to interfere between us, and make them a present of my property. Rolling in money, some of them are, I can tell you. One man, I know as a positive fact, sold a pig last week, and yet pretends he can't pay me. All the fault of these horrid communists that you were speaking of, Lady Exmoor -- all the fault of these horrid communists'.     

'You're rather a communist yourself, aren't you, Mr Le Breton?' asked Lady Hilda boldly from across the table. 'I remember you told me something once about cutting the throats of all the landlords'.[44]

Ernest, to the mischievous Lady Hilda's disappointment, disavows any murderous sentiments, although like his creator he does call himself a Communist. This stance causes him some grief shortly afterwards.

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. He certainly made his son read Herbert Spencer. And, like several Victorian atheists, Grant Allen acquired a knowledge of the Bible that would have shamed many a divine; he quotes from it more than from any other work. On the other hand, he said once that he had no problem giving his villains an occupation, because he made them all clergymen. The converse is certainly true. He made most of the clerics in his fiction hypocrites, trimmers, time-servers, fanatics, arsonists or murderous psychopaths. Presumably that emphasis came from the paternal views rather than the paternal practice.


When Allen was born the population of Wolfe Island was only about 1300, nearly all of them tenant farmers, but in the years when he was growing up the community was expanding and prospering. By the time he left Canada, the population had almost tripled and a canal had been dug across the island to improve transport with the American side of the St Lawrence. So during the young Allen's rather idyllic childhood the island where he wandered at large was undergoing an invasion of eager farmers intent on turning the wilderness into cropland. Perhaps his observation of this process stands behind his later denunciations of the philistine habits of the North American farmer.


On the other hand, even a youngster must have been aware that this same transformation was enriching his family and was about to underwrite his family's long sojourn in the Old World. In his political articles, and in passages in his novels, the right of proprietors to sequester or (as he liked to put it, to 'taboo') large areas of land is one of his most constant targets. Certainly he was good at expressing his naive wonderment that, just because men like his grandfather had been able to acquire tracts of virgin Canadian wilderness, his family could, for ever afterwards, oblige the farmers who extracted an arduous living from 'Grant' land to pay rent sufficient to keep the entire large brood of the Allens and the Grants in idleness. How odd, how primitive, how laughable our arrangements would seem to an anthropologist of the future! Perhaps the first seeds of Allen's satirical The British Barbarians were sown on Wolfe Island.


When he was about thirteen,[45] part of the Allen family began one of those leisurely tours of Europe, their duration measured in years rather than months, which were such an attractive feature of upper class life of the time. The senior Allens returned to Canada eventually and took up residence at Alwington, where they lived for the rest of their lives with their unmarried daughter. But their son did not return. Grant Allen could never have made a living from his kind of superior scientific and polemical journalism and novel-writing in Canada. He had to be at the heart of the literary-intellectual world to sell the produce of his pen, and in the last decades of the century that meant London. He went back to Alwington as a mature man probably only twice, once on a flying visit mentioned above, in 1875 or 1876; and again during a tour of eastern North America in the summer of 1886. In many ways, which we will be considering later, Allen was a renegade and an outsider, and like many other expatriate writers was fiercely critical of British institutions, which caused some animosity. For example, his views on sexual and marital relations were partly formed, as he said himself, by the rather freer mores of the New World. Some of his stories and essays turn on this point.


According to the shaky notes which the aged Joseph Allen made forty years later just after his son's death, the furtherance of their children's, or at any rate their boys', education was the sole purpose of this long tour. It took them successively to the United States, France and England. They lived first in New Haven, Connecticut, from June 1861, and here Allen and his brother acquired their 'first rudiments of higher education beneath the shadow of the elms at Yale College'.[46] The peacefulness of Yale must have contrasted strangely with the public events of that tumultuous year: the Civil War had started in South Carolina a couple of months earlier, quickly followed by the secession of the states of the Confederacy. The Allen family followed the war closely and enthusiastically, seeing the struggle as an unambiguous fight for human freedom. Early in the following spring, around the time of the slaughterhouse that was the battle of Shiloh, they crossed the Atlantic to France. They settled into the English colony at Dieppe, where Grant attended the College Imperial, a handsome establishment on the Quai Henri IV which catered particularly for foreign pupils. He stayed a year, presumably to perfect his French, and he did become completely bilingual.[47] The family then crossed the Channel and he entered King Edward's School, Birmingham early in April 1864, when he was sixteen.[48] Surviving school records show that he had distinguished himself by winning a string of prizes in classics, mathematics and French -- but not, apparently, in natural history, even though science did appear on the curriculum. Perhaps he thought that the humanities offered more of a chance of a lucrative scholarship. If so, he was right, for only a tiny fraction, about 3%, of the college scholarships available at Oxford at that time were for study in the sciences.[49] So, when he left Birmingham in the summer of 1867 at the age of nineteen, it was to take up a valuable postmastership in classics which he had won at Merton College, Oxford. His life as an independent adult had begun.



In his old age the critic George Saintsbury wrote a memoir, 'Oxford Sixty Years Since', which captures a good deal of the atmosphere as Allen knew it when he went up in the autumn of 1867.[50] Oxford in the 1860s consisted almost entirely of the colleges and their supporting facilities. The big, comfortable late-Victorian and Edwardian villas running out along the main roads had yet to be built, and few middle-class people lived in the town who were not connected in some way with the university. The monastic past still lay heavily on Oxford. There were some new buildings, but also many crumbling ones, and the general atmosphere was one of gentle decay. The entire undergraduate body numbered only about two thousand -- applicants were not plentiful, not even with the bait of scholarships -- and, of course, none of them were Roman Catholics, or women. No father who expected his son to follow a commercial or a medical or an engineering career considered Oxford; for all such youths, it was a waste of time. An eminent Scottish academic, himself an Oxford man, described the university in 1867 as a great, expensive steam-hammer, used only for cracking walnuts.


When Allen went up things were tranquil enough. The religious turmoil of the Oxford Movement had long since subsided after Newman's conversion to Rome. In the previous decade Morris, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and their friends had painted bright frescoes on the walls of the Union. It seemed appropriately symbolic that they had already faded into ghostly tatters, for Pre-Raphaelitism as a coherent artistic movement had come and gone. At Brasenose, an obscure tutor, Walter Pater, was preparing his The Renaissance, a book whose innocuous title disguised a vague but powerful promotion of hedonism, neo-paganism and, in the most delicate yet unmistakable terms, homoeroticism. When published in 1873 it would usher in Aestheticism, a doctrine part artistic credo and part self-publicity. Among other things, Aestheticism gave Hellenism a bad name and cast a temporary pall over Greats (classical studies), in which Plato had been figuring as a set author for the last twenty years. Parents grew disquieted, and Jowett and other tutors were obliged to scramble to explain, or explain away, the pederasty imbuing the Greek texts which their charges were expected to master. Grant Allen was not immune to the charms of Aestheticism, or indeed of Oscar Wilde himself, another Oxford man, but by the time Pater's book burst on Oxford his own university days were well over. During his time there, what intellectual excitement was available was still being supplied by theological debate and doubt -- for this was the Oxford of the Essays and Reviews, of the Higher Criticism, of Darwinian controversy, of the conflict between religion and the growing authority of science as symbolized by the Huxley/Wilberforce confrontation. The effects were proving unsettling. Every second Oxford man, it was said, was a sceptic in religion.


Serious scholarship was at a low ebb, especially in the natural sciences. T.H. Huxley growled that a man could achieve the highest honours Oxford could bestow without knowing whether the sun went round the earth or vice-versa. Few people cared about the mathematical studies of a certain don at Christ Church, but he was famous everywhere for the fantasy he had woven for the small daughters of Dean Liddell. And that seemed appropriate too: some irreverent spirits thought the worlds of Alice in Wonderland and Oxford were not really very distinct. Oscar Wilde reported later that the charm of the place lay in the fact that sordid reality was kept at a good distance, and this was an image that was being carefully nurtured in the '60s. Matthew Arnold had just ceased to be Professor of Poetry and during his tenure had published 'Thyrsis: a Monody' -- that most perfect expression of Oxonian nostalgia -- coining therein a famous phrase about 'dreaming spires'. Not that all the dreaming spires were as old as they looked. John Ruskin, then at the height of his fame and influence, was about to be appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art, and Gothic Revival buildings had arisen as the material expression of his teachings: the University Museum; Butterfield's chapel and Waterhouse's frontage for Balliol; Scott's chapel for Exeter College.


Both Grant Allen and George Saintsbury attended Merton, a small, ancient college with about sixty undergraduates. Its academic reputation was slight. Most of the upper-class young men in residence were the very images of Byron's young barbarians, all at play. As there was no entrance examination they were free to treat Merton as a club or finishing school for gentlemen. It was a place where one might pass a few years in pleasant surroundings and congenial company, engaging in the acceptable amusements of cards, rowing, football, hunting, horse-racing, bump suppers and -- if one were discreet -- pursuing the less acceptable vices among the pubs and dubious lodging-houses of Jericho and St Thomas's. Sporadic vandalism was shrugged off as high spirits until it became intolerable, as it did late in 1865 when the entire college was 'gated' after a Bonfire Night riot. Mandell Creighton, later Bishop of London, was an undergraduate at Merton in the mid-'60s. An earnest and arrogant cleric, Creighton was not inclined to facetiousness; but his opinion for posterity about his college fellows is memorable. 'The majority were Eton men', his wife reported him as saying, 'brought there through the influence of the Warden, Dr Marsham, men who loved hunting and other sports, had plenty of money to spend, and no particular intention of doing any work'.[51] The 'reading men' of the college, the postmasters, were tolerated but they hardly set the tone. Even the dons thought it was rather vulgar for students to claim they were working for a degree as an aid to employment. Vulgar or not, it certainly was not a popular activity, since a full third of Oxonians left without bothering to take any degree at all.


On 27 April 1866, while his son was still at school in Birmingham, Joseph Allen was appointed lecturer in modern (civil) history at Queen's University in Kingston. The post was honorary, without salary, but it did have teaching duties.[52] By November of the same year, Allen was making himself unpopular by writing letters to the Kingston News advocating the annexation of Canada by the United States. Fearing the consequences for their institution, which was still struggling financially, the Trustees asked for his resignation on 4 January 1867, and that took effect the next month. So by the time Grant Allen left for Oxford that autumn, his parents had been in Canada for a year and a half or more. (After leaving school it seems Allen crossed the Atlantic to spend the summer with them before going up, but presumably he returned to England alone.)[53]


Whether the nineteen-year-old was alone at Oxford or was in any way supervised by English relatives is unclear, but there is no evidence that he felt any immediate impulse to kick over the traces. His first year at Merton passed uneventfully, for he definitely belonged in the camp of the reading men. He had rooms in Mob Quad, and he discovered in a window pane some Latin lines scratched by an occupant in the sixteenth century. They advised the reader, or possibly the inscriber himself, not to waste his time at Oxford but to be vigilant in studying day and night. (They are now preserved in the college library.) It was not, initially, advice that Allen was likely to neglect. So far he had proved the very model of an industrious, intellectual youth from a loving family who was clearly destined for a career in one of the solid professions. He soon formed a small circle of studious friends. One was York Powell, a law tutor and later Regius Professor of Modern History, an eccentric and idle character with extreme left-wing opinions.[53a] Others were Richard Pope, later a mathematics lecturer who officiated at Allen’s second wedding; Exley Percival of Brasenose, who had competed in the prize-lists with him at Birmingham; and W.W. Fisher, a chemist. They found him very unlike the typical British undergraduate of the day, and that could hardly have been otherwise, given his unusually cosmopolitan background. No-one saw him as a rebel, although he did acquire a reputation for having 'advanced' political opinions and for being a little doctrinaire and over-forceful in expressing them. He had the socially disconcerting habit of never allowing an interlocutor to think he agreed with him when he didn't. One did not need to be very radical or bluntly outspoken, in the tranquil Oxford of the 1860s, to acquire such a reputation.


The only surviving evidence of his youthful opinions, other than those recollected by college acquaintances decades later, is to be found in an evanescent magazine, the Oxford University Magazine and Review, which he founded and co-edited with a friend. He contributed to it a few poems and a humorous tale mocking Americans' pretension, vulgarity and political corruption. But his one article for the magazine reveals more. He gave it a challenging title, 'The Positive Aspect of Communism', but its sentiments are hardly those of a political firebrand. In fact, it is not really about communism, or about politics at all. (Marx's Kapital appeared in German the year Allen went up to Oxford, but it is improbable that he had even heard of it.) What he really wants to talk about is 'the present chaotic state of public morality' and the 'laxity of morals' which are especially evident in France. He makes it quite clear what kind of morals are in question: 'the licentiousness which we see in the reign of Napoleon III is complete and universal, and is infecting every relation of domestic life'. Prostitution, and sexual vice generally, is eating away at the fabric of French society. It is not pleasant to contemplate, but it has to be inspected by anyone who wants to 'decypher the enigma of history'. For the reaction is at hand; the cloud has a silver lining. Only 'communism, or some form of government closely resembling it' will purge society of its decadence. That day, the writer hopes, cannot be far off.[54]


Such an eager anticipation of a regime of communistic puritanism would seem odd in almost any young man. It seems doubly so when we recall these are the opinions of a youth who one day was going to turn into a sexual renegade with a reputation as a neo-pagan apostle of free love. But there is no real incongruity. His views on French public life were based on personal observation and in any case the essay had an immediate, if concealed, personal application. For by the time his essay appeared in the magazine at the end of 1869 Grant Allen had taken a very surprising step for an upper-class undergraduate of those days. It was a private matter, but it had serious public consequences. On the last day of September 1868, at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, West London, he got married.


On that autumnal mid-week afternoon the little wedding party must have made a joyless and rather pathetic sight as it trooped up the long shady pathway leading from the busy Brompton Road to the church. The groom was twenty, and in a mood oscillating between defiance and despondency. His defiance is implied by his giving his occupation as 'Gentleman' in the marriage register; his gloom by his awareness that he was, in truth, just a first-year Oxford undergraduate whose valuable scholarship was being terminated even as he stood at the altar. His bride, Caroline Anne Bootheway, the daughter of a Leicestershire man variously described as a labourer, a porter and an inn-keeper, was slightly older, minimally educated and probably a semi-invalid. Her face surely showed the alternating pallor and flushes characteristic of the tuberculosis that was slowly killing her.


Holy Trinity church, a 'Commissioners' Gothic' edifice of sooty yellow brick, was hardly the place for a fashionable wedding. Today it is hidden from the road by the vast marble bulk of the Oratory, and its churchyard, now a little park, is a haven of quiet; but then it was simply the parish church of what was still a suburban and slightly raffish neighbourhood. The young couple were already living together in rooms in a terrace off Thurloe Square, a short stroll away, probably because the area housed many students looking for tutors, and perhaps also because the Brompton Consumption Hospital was nearby. While the marriage was not exactly clandestine, it is doubtful whether the Allen family knew much about it. One of the witnesses was Allen's young college friend, Exley Percival, and it is unlikely that the other one belonged to either the bride's or the groom's family. The hard facts of this marriage are to be found in the public records alone, for later Allen and his friends would succeed in editing every detail of it out of his history. There is not a single direct mention of it anywhere in his surviving papers, public or private.[55]


When Allen married his second year at Merton was just starting. The loss of his scholarship was a heavy blow, for it could be held for five years and he had drawn it for only one, and he had few other resources. The academic consequences were more serious still. If Allen harboured any ambition of gaining a postgraduate fellowship at Merton his marriage put paid to it. This was not necessarily because Fellows had to be bachelors. From May 1871 the rules changed at Merton permitting some existing fellows to be married and allowing fellowship applications from married men, despite dire predictions that it would mean babies in perambulators in the Parks. But Allen was never in the running for a fellowship. His studies suffered alarmingly in the wake of his marriage. To his contemporaries at Oxford, Allen was recognized as a student of remarkable intellectual gifts; 'undoubtedly one of the most brilliant undergraduates of his time', his friend Pope remembered years later.[56] But now he began to falter. He graduated in the summer of 1871, apparently having suspended his studies in the previous year. Obviously money had became a problem. The Merton archives show that the college offered him some relief by charitably paying his scholarship again 'on the ground of poverty' for a single half-term, from Easter 1871, presumably so he could graduate; but there were also what Clodd calls vaguely 'changes in family circumstances'.[57] This was almost certainly the result of bank failures in Ontario and an economic decline on Wolfe Island. The farming population fell again, the canal was abandoned and the senior Allens' rent-roll diminished. Probably his family either could not, or would not, pay him an allowance any longer. Allen made ends meet by private tutoring work, which also cut into his study time, and he had a wife in declining health to care for as well.


Certainly the strain was showing when, as a married man of a year's standing, he wrote twice to his friend Nicholson, a student of his own age at Trinity. The time was the closing days of 1869 and Allen was spending a thoroughly miserable Christmas in lodgings on the Isle of Wight, trying to catch up on his reading. The tone of both letters is still half-disconsolate and half-defiant. He announces that he is pulling out of the co-editorship of their magazine; he is, he tells his friend, 'much too poor a man to waste any more time on an unproductive place like Oxford. . . . All I want is a degree. I go in for no fellowship'. He wanted only 'the two letters, and as good a class as I can manage', after which he intended to 'get an easy mastership, where there is lots of work and very poor pay, and subside into obscurity'.


The recipient of this confidence, Edward Nicholson (1849-1912), was to become Bodley's Librarian in 1882, and he and Allen shared several interests, including numismatics and folklore. At this time they must have been quite close, for one of the letters is signed, fantastically and presumably jestingly, 'Yours Davidically, Jonathically and Pythia-damonically'. But Caroline's name is never mentioned. Perhaps her presence was understood between them. He does say that he is 'troubled about many things, very troubled indeed, and by no means up to writing', and he seems to expect Nicholson to understand that he has good reason to be in semi-hiding on the island: 'When I leave Ventnor, I shall probably not have spoken to a soul (except tradespeople) outside this house. Young Williams of Merton is at Sandown, and I have seen him once, but shall try to prevent a recurrence of the circumstance'.[58] 'Young' Williams was Gerard Williams, also a postmaster at Merton and just the same age as Allen; he became a vicar.


The class of the two letters turned out to be a not especially creditable Second at Greats. A few years before, and despite working very hard, George Saintsbury had got only a Second also. It rankled for the whole of his life. Was there anything, he wondered, short of severe illness, ruin, disgrace or a friend's death which 'hurts so abominably and lasts so long as getting a Second. . . . The sting of a Second is almost incurable'. He admitted to having recurrent dreams about it for years.[59] It's most unlikely that Allen felt anything like the same pain. He did rail a little against the unfairness of his fate at the time. A fellow-student who lodged in the same house recalled, fifty years later, that Allen turned up in his rooms on the day the results were posted, saying that he felt sorrier for Oxford than for himself because its inability to rate his abilities properly would make it look downright silly one day.[60] Whether or not he was joking, his attitude soon hardened into a lifelong distaste for the education he had received there. His course in the Final Schools, Literae Humaniores, was based exclusively on the Greek and Roman classics and amounted to an unrelieved diet of their literature, history and philosophy. But, multilingual himself, Allen thought little of the acquisition of languages. Anyone can pick up a new tongue. Who learn languages most easily? According to him, 'children, negroes, servants, the uneducated'. And are the classics so supremely important as to merit three or four years of a young man's education? He seriously doubted it. He regarded himself as an autodidact who had left Oxford without having developed his faculties in any useful way at all. Only travel and observation, especially travel in Italy, he said later, had taught him anything worth knowing.[61] His comments make a piquant contrast with Saintsbury's essay, which despite that incurable sting of the Second is soaked in dreamy nostalgia in the Brideshead Revisited mode.


So, after graduating BA, Allen did as he had gloomily forecast he would do; did what many men with modest degrees and no prospects have done before and since. He turned schoolmaster, that 'refuge of the destitute', as he called it.[62] He got a post down on the south coast teaching Greek and Latin at Brighton College, which was one of the new private school foundations run on strictly business lines. Before the term started, he almost certainly spent some of that exciting summer of the Commune in Paris. He must have missed the street-fighting of La semaine sanglante in May when perhaps twenty thousand died, but he was there in time to examine the aftermath of the insurrection: the dismantled barricades, the shell craters and pock-marks of bullets in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery where the firing-squads had been at work, the burnt-out hulk of the Tuileries, the mass trials of August. Three of his poems, including the powerful 'A Bas La Bourgeoisie: A Psalm of the Commune' read as though they are based on personal observation. All his sympathies, naturally, were with the doomed communards, during those brief months when it seemed as though a true proletarian revolution was at hand; Allen, perhaps with his working-class wife at his side, must have been in his element. On top of these excitements, Darwin's eagerly-awaited Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sexhad appeared that February, and Allen swallowed its epoch-making if predictable message at a single gulp.


Teaching at Brighton must have seemed tame by comparison. His brief time there has left few records except for a note in the school magazine bewailing his loss to the Reading Club, which prepared boys to deliver public recitals. However, a photograph of the little group of masters at the school, taken in the porch of the headmaster's house, furnishes the earliest known image of Grant Allen, at the age of twenty-three. A pale, spare figure under his mortar-board, he stands slightly apart at the rear of the group, perhaps to gain height from the extra step. His mouth is turned down and he grips his coat with a slightly self-protective air. Even allowing for the conventions accepted by photographic subjects at the time, he looks distinctly unhappy and out of place among the other beefy pedagogues. Since Allen had been so careful to keep Caroline out of the way of his Oxford acquaintances, one wonders what impression she must have made at Brighton, particularly on the other teachers' wives. In the stuffy introverted atmosphere of a small private school, it's inconceivable that there would not have been gossip about whether her past bore inspection. In Philistia Ernest Le Breton has to reckon with the enmity of the headmaster's wife, who accuses him of getting his job under false pretences when she discovers his wife is 'positively a grocer's daughter from a small country town'.[63] In real life the young couple may have come in for more brickbats than that. Not that the Allens were at Brighton for long. They stayed only for a term. The egregious Frank Harris, man about town and, as the editor of the Fortnightly Review, one of Allen's many paymasters, claimed later that it was he who replaced Allen as a teacher at the school. This is about as true as most of Harris's assertions.[64]


Perhaps Allen took the Brighton post hoping that the sea air would do Caroline good. The same motive may have governed their shift that Christmas to Cheltenham, a spa town and a well-known resort of consumptives. Allen himself called this new employer 'Cheltenham College', but the venerable school of that name has no record of his working there. There were, however, several transient establishments in the town in the later part of the century, and Allen was probably a 'tutor' (for so he described himself) at one of those. It was at Cheltenham, at 'Belle Vue Villa', a house in the centre of town divided into apartments for teachers, that Caroline Bootheway Allen died on 23 March 1872, and from which she was buried in the city cemetery five days later. She was twenty-six. So ended the first excursion into matrimony for the man who, twenty years later, would be demonized in many quarters as the foe of that institution and the frankest, most uncompromising spokesman for free unions of his day.



When his wife died Grant Allen had just turned twenty-four. The tragedy that had overtaken the pair was a commonplace one. Tuberculosis was the familiar, implacable killer of 60,000 people a year in Victorian England, most of them young adults, and an unpublished poem, existing only as an autograph copy in the hand of Edward Nicholson, implies that the couple knew within a year of marriage that her death was inevitable:


We stood upon the Westward-fronting cliff,

And gazed athwart the calm. The red sun dipped,

Purpling the blue. Between him and our eyes

Drave a black hull, black-sailed, that stood, and loomed

Huge, on the water's edge. The red sun sank,

And all was dark, save where one silent light

Bore slowly westward: and we watched its course

Awhile in silence: then we turned and went.

And all the cliff was dark, and all the fields.[65]


The death-ship is a rather too obvious and not very appropriate allusion to Tennyson's Arthurian barge, 'black as a funeral scarf from stem to stern' carrying the immortal hero to the island of Avalon, but there is no denying the sinister and ominous tone of this poem: the single light being borne westward after the sunset; the couple watching it silently and then moving away into the darkness. The poem's title is '1869'.


But, then, young men in their early twenties are resilient and Allen quickly married again: a happy union that lasted the rest of his life. Really, he could not have been thought heartless if the whole episode had left little behind it except some fading sorrows and gentle regrets. Yet, as we shall see, this is not what happened. His wife's life and death played some central, if not perfectly comprehensible, role many years later in giving a decisive form to Allen's views on social questions; those highly controversial views which would animate and outrage the emerging feminism of 1890s England. Why was this so? That is a question for a later chapter.


After Caroline's death Allen went back to Oxford, where he worked as a private tutor and tried unsuccessfully for a university fellowship. He then took a last brief teaching post at Reading Grammar School. This rapid turnover of schools suggests he found it hard to settle to school-teaching. Perhaps his politics got him into trouble, as they do Ernest Le Breton in Philistia, who indignantly declines to adopt the 'quiet and gentlemanly, but unswerving Conservatism', recommended by his headmaster, and continues to consort with Socialists.[66]


While at Oxford he had met the woman who became his second wife, Ellen (Nellie) Jerrard, the youngest of the five children of Thomas and Patience Jerrard of Lyme Regis in Dorset. At only twenty, Nellie Jerrard was very much the baby of the family, for her siblings were all ten years older or more. Her elder sister Ethel was married to Franklin Richards, an Oxford don and a close friend of Allen's. One of their children, Grant Richards, Allen's nephew by marriage, was treated later on almost as a son by his uncle and aunt, and became in due course the publisher of most of his uncle's last books.


This time the wedding was no hole in the corner affair. Due regard was taken of all the Victorian niceties. They married at St Michael's, the parish church at Lyme, by the Rev. Richard Pope, Allen's Oxford friend. The witnesses were the bride's father and uncle, and an Oxford don. Yet once again Grant Allen had, by Victorian standards, married beneath him. Thomas Jerrard is described variously as a butcher and, in the census of 1881 when he was seventy, as a 'retired purveyor'. 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. Certainly the family home in Broad Street, in the centre of the town, must have been congenial enough for the Oxonian brothers-in-law, because both the Allen and Richards families spent a good deal of time there. Allen loved the Lyme area and wrote a good deal about its topography and remarkable palaeontology.


Although she shared most of Grant Allen's adult life, Nellie Jerrard Allen remains a shadowy figure. Edward Clodd recorded her as reciting a very mildly risque limerick at a dinner party once, and it seems she tried her own hand at a novella at one point, which Andrew Chatto declined. No one left any impression of her character, appearance or opinions, except for the usual platitudes ('charming', 'the delightful Mrs. Allen', etc) and nothing is known of her influence on her husband's views. His only public reference to her is found in The Woman Who Did, a novel which, despite inveighing against marriage, defiantly acknowledges 'my dear wife, to whom I have dedicated my twenty happiest years', which some readers thought rather undercut the message of the book right at the start. Their marriage really was to all appearances idyllically happy, a circumstance which, given his acerbic view of that institution, badly disconcerted his opponents. An anecdote implies as much. Just after The Woman Who Did appeared, Allen gave an interview to air his views further. Impressed by his sincerity, the journalist closed his story with the defiant sentence: 'He is happily married'. The compositor who set up this text was incredulous that this assertion could be true of a notorious pornographer like Grant Allen. He introduced a couple of commas, so that the printed sentence read: 'He is, happily, married'.[67] In her middle years Nellie Allen was in poor health, like her husband, and was prone to those mysterious Victorian 'breakdowns' and general debility which demanded frequent rest cures in private hotels at home and abroad. When they married, she was the same age that Allen had been at his first marriage. No wonder that was the age he later pronounced was the right one at which young couples ought to be pairing off, though without benefit of clergy.


Nellie Jerrard had no money of her own and no expectations of any, and Allen, now drifting between Reading, Oxford and Lyme Regis, needed a stable job before they could marry. When one turned up it involved a drastic change of scene. Early in 1873 Allen was offered a position which sounded much grander than school teaching. It was an academic post with the title of 'Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy'. The snag was that it was in the West Indies, at a new government college which was about to open on the island of Jamaica. Allen may have got the job through family influence, since the governor there, Sir John Peter Grant, was probably a maternal relation, and then in his last year of what had been a very successful posting. There was nothing better on offer, and it would at least be an adventure; so, stifling their doubts about such an alarming step into the unknown, Grant Allen and Nellie Jerrard got married on 20 May (her birthday) on the strength of the appointment, which was worth six hundred a year with increments to eight hundred.


After hosting a farewell oyster-lunch at the Mitre in Oxford for all their friends and acquaintances, the young couple took ship for Jamaica in good time for the first term, which was due to start late in September. They travelled out on the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company's Don, probably in the company of William Chadwick, who had been appointed Principal. He too was in his twenties, and had also been a postmaster at Merton. He was currently a Fellow of Corpus Christi, Oxford, where he taught mathematics. He and Allen were to be the only academic staff at the new Queen's College; one other man was appointed as steward and secretary. With them as baggage went fifty gowns and mortar-boards for the future graduates' ceremonies.




Jamaica (1873-1876) 



The passage to the West Indies took about twenty days. After boarding at Southampton, one left behind the Wolf Rock lighthouse on the Scillies -- the last sight of Britain and, indeed, of any land worth mentioning. Then one spent the next four miserable days tossing on the Bay of Biscay and another two weeks or so crossing the Atlantic deeps in the company of a cow, some sheep and a small poultry-yard; a menagerie whose initial racket diminished steadily as the voyage went on. There was plenty to eat, hot water to wash with, but only cold sea-water baths. Unless marred by a hurricane, the trip was safe, comfortable and monotonous. The featureless days were broken only by meals, watching petrels and flying fish, and the sweepstake on the ship's daily run. Like everyone else on board the Don, the Allens were heartily glad to make a first landfall at St Thomas, an island which was then a Danish colony. From a distance the view was picturesque enough: the wide, calm bay with the white houses rising beyond with their green shutters and red shingled roofs. But as they drew into the harbour with the bum-boats crowding eagerly around, this, their first glimpse of the West Indies, was far less prepossessing. Allen had seen something of the tropics already, having travelled in the southern United States as a teenager before leaving for Europe, so he was fairly prepared for the reality of Caribbean life; but it was still a shock. There was the ferocious heat, for a start, 'like a Dutch oven'. He liked the look of the people: he described them as 'Anglicized negroes, with a touch of American smartness' very unlike the Jamaicans as he was to know them later with their 'listless laisser-aller' style; and different too from the 'sauntering Spanish nigger of Cuba, or the independent and relapsing African of Haiti'. Their town, though, was alarming. St Thomas was a bustling trading port, but that was about all one could say for it. The Allens surveyed the houses ('mean and shabby-looking'), winced at the assault on the senses, and they did not like it. ('The smells are terrific, the dirt undisguised, and the heat past human endurance. A broiling sun pours down upon the whole festering mass of unwashed humanity, crowded negro huts, narrow lanes, decaying rubbish, and dry dust'.) Everywhere they heard the opinion that 'nobody ever dreams of living at St Thomas unless he has business in the town; and then his one object is to save up money and go away again'. It was not reassuring to the ears of two young people who had just let themselves in for a working life of indeterminate length in the Caribbean.


When the Allens finally anchored in Kingston harbour a few days later on 20 June 1873, it was St Thomas all over again, only worse. In the foreground was a long low sandy beach, from which palms rose at all angles with their foliage covered in an inch of grey dust. Beyond, the town appeared as 'a ruinous mass of flat wooden shops and houses, in every stage of decay' running back from the sea on a low, sweltering, swampy plain. In the background were the Blue Mountains -- not blue at all, but a dark mass silhouetted against the whitish-grey horizon. Over everything lay a blanket of damp heat, while a pitiless flood of light revealed every sordid detail.[68]


That Allen's first impression was no exaggeration is well attested to by other visitors at about this time. One of them described Kingston as 'a town which has lost its self-respect. Like a man who has seen better days, it has given up attending even to its personal appearance'.[69] Fourteen years earlier, that inveterate and generous-minded traveller Anthony Trollope had been blunter still: 'of all towns that I ever saw, Kingston is perhaps, on the whole, the least alluring, and is the more absolutely without any point of attraction for the stranger than any other'.[70] Ruined, even burnt-out, buildings were everywhere. The flimsy houses consisted of low brick walls and posts supporting the roof, with the space in between filled with jalousies like Venetian blinds, mostly faded to a dusky olive green. In the unvarying seasons nothing more was necessary and the frequent hurricanes and fires did not invite any more solid construction. Since these blinds were normally kept closed against the heat, the houses looked permanently vacant. None of the streets, not even Harbour Street, the main thoroughfare, was hard-surfaced and every visitor commented on their state: 'as dingy, dirty, gloomy ones as I ever encountered', said one.[71] The streets had no sidewalks and were quite unlit at night. There were few facilities to welcome the visitor: no hotels or boarding houses of quality, just a couple of not very inviting 'halls' or inns. The main public buildings were a prison, an old barracks then being converted into a court-house, a little theatre, a lunatic asylum, a hospital and a circular building of corrugated iron which was the central market. All were exceptionally ugly. There were few organized decent amusements, either public or private. The main leisure activity was strolling the streets or driving about in the cool of the evening. The population of Kingston was about 35,000, and of the whole island about half a million. Four-fifths of them were illiterate.


Ninety per cent of Jamaicans were Negroes, the descendants of West African slaves imported to grow sugar. In Kingston itself, however, Negroes formed rather less than half the population. The balance was made up of racially mixed people whose genes had been variously contributed by East Indians (a few hundred brought in as indentured labourers to replace the slaves), a scattering of Chinese, and other assorted Europeans. All these races had interbred with greater or lesser freedom.


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). People of discernibly Afro-European descent were the ones usually called 'creoles' at the time in England, although in the West Indies the term simply denoted anyone, of any ancestry, who had been born in the islands.


The woebegone appearance of Kingston accurately reflected the current economic and political reality. Jamaica was a British crown colony whose economy had been declining steadily for most of the century. During the Napoleonic Wars it had been a garrison state and entrepot which shipped goods throughout Spanish America, but those days were long over. King Sugar was down, if not quite out. The palatial sugar and coffee estates, like Rose Hall or Morgan's, whose slaves had made fortunes for their British absentee landlords, were now struggling to survive or had fallen into ruin. Few of them had recovered from the effects of emancipation, which had been completed in 1839. 'It was the Saints that ruined us', said the planters; 'Saint Wilberforce, Saint Macaulay, and their following'.[72] A further blow had come with Britain's abandonment of tariff protection after 1846. It was now said that one could not travel for more than five miles without coming across an abandoned plantation, and Allen himself recorded that he was eighteen months in Jamaica before he saw his first sugar-cane. On the other hand, small sugar-mills operated by the new free peasant class had sprung up, and more of the island's rich soil was still under sugar than any other crop. But prices were dismally low. Jamaica could barely compete with other slave-owning producers of sugar elsewhere in the Caribbean.


Jamaica had a long and blood-stained history, and plenty of blood had been spilt at no distant date. The savage insurrections which had preceded emancipation and the brutality with which they had been suppressed were well within living memory. And every adult had lived through the most recent troubles. As recently as 1865, after the appointment of the inflexible Edward John Eyre as Governor, escalating social unrest had finally boiled over in the Morant Bay rebellion. Riot and insurrection had been followed by the imposition of martial law and the deaths of more than 600 people, including 439 executions. A government commission found against Eyre, who was recalled and dismissed but not otherwise punished, in a celebrated case which had disgusted every liberal in England. The island was peaceful throughout the Allens' years there, but the threat of another uprising could never have been far from people's minds. Certainly this became a plot-device in most of the stories set in Jamaica which Allen wrote years later in England.


By the middle 1870s, when the Allens arrived, most Jamaicans were just as poor as they had ever been, but they had been placated by the cautious but reformist management of Sir John Peter Grant. 'Papa Grant' was by far the most popular, energetic and effective governor that Jamaica had ever enjoyed. In the wake of the Eyre rebellion he had completely restructured the government and got rid of the squabbling House of Assembly. There was still no question of representative government, but the powers of the planter class had been curtailed by transferring most of the executive power to Britain. Grant had also overhauled the civil service, the courts and the police force, and he thought he had remedies for the economic situation. Why was Jamaica so poor? Because of a lack of external investment. Why were investors lacking? Because the workforce was unskilled and unproductive and labour relations were terrible. It was a long story of strikes and riots, long-standing sullen resentments and intransigence on both sides, gingered up by religious revivals based on a syncretic blend of Christianity and African cults.


Grant's solution was a very Victorian one: self-help. He wanted to produce a race of enterprising small-holders by settling them on cheap government land and encouraging them to produce cash crops for the American market -- bananas, pimento, coffee and tobacco. In the city he wanted to expand the educated middle class, and the key to that, he thought, was higher education. What Jamaica needed was a local tertiary-level institution. Grant promoted this idea to his political masters in London, and they eventually agreed to finance one. The first such college anywhere in the Caribbean, it was to be non-sectarian and, in theory, open to anyone -- any male, that is -- and not just Afro-Jamaican boys. But it was unlikely that the British planter class, or the prosperous tradesmen, or the higher officialdom, were ever going to use it, and in fact they never did. They routinely sent their sons to Britain to be educated, as did the tiny affluent minority of the other racial groups. The few students who ever enrolled at the college were all of mixed race.


So, after some years of planning and the spending of much public money to convert existing buildings, here was the spanking-new Queen's College; empty at this moment, the end of June 1873, but all ready to take its first batch of students. Curiously, the college had been located not in Kingston, which was by far the largest town, but in the much smaller Spanish Town, which had been the capital of the island until the removal of the government to Kingston the year before. This change had caused much resentment among the locals, and no doubt the college had been put there as a sop to their pride.



After a short spell in Kingston getting their bearings, the Allens moved west to their new home. The distance was less than 20km, but in Jamaica no conveyance was speedy. One could chose between the road and a very slow train. Either way there was little to see. The road ran through dead flat country between hedges of thorny dildoes, varied with bushes of prickly-pear, other cacti, and lignum-vitae trees. About half-way one traversed a large swamp, from which dank vapours and swarms of pestilential mosquitoes arose at night -- this was where the notorious 'yards' were to develop late in the next century. So 'along the dusty high road, and between the malarial swamps, and through the grey streets of dismantled Spanish Town', as he remembered that first journey long afterwards,[73]Grant and Nellie Allen came to their home for the next three years.


If Kingston was ugly, at least it had some life and colour -- paradoxically, as Allen noted, because the streets were full of loungers with nothing much to do. Spanish Town was merely a decayed shanty town. It had the dismal look of a place which had been running down for years and whose reason for existence had now vanished altogether. It dated back to the sixteenth-century Spanish conquests, but a devastating earthquake of 1692 had destroyed practically everything from that era. Then for two hundred years of British rule Spanish Town had had a lively and rich population of officials, churchmen, lawyers, administrators and adventurers, and those who supplied their wants. Here the pirate Sir Henry Morgan, who had risen to be governor of the island, had held court. Fortunes had been made and squandered. The historic proclamation emancipating the slaves had been read out in its central square. But little trace remained of this colourful past. Some of the fine, highly-ornamented mansions where these people had lived were still standing, but now all were let off as rooms and crumbling away. It was rare to hear a wheel in the streets, whereas the sight of pigs rootling amid the garbage was commonplace. Again, Trollope's description is vivid:

 It is like the city of the dead. There are long streets there in which no human inhabitant is ever seen. In others a silent old negro woman may be sitting at an open door, or a child playing, solitary, in the dust. . . . [The square] would have some pretension about it did it not seem to be stricken with an eternal death. All the walls are of a dismal dirty yellow, and a stranger cannot but think that the colour is owing to the dreadfully prevailing disease of the country. In this square there are no sounds; men and women never frequent it; nothing enters it but sunbeams -- and such sunbeams! The glare from those walls seems to forbid that men and women should come there. . . .
     But the place is not wholly deserted. There is there the most frightfully hideous race of pigs that ever made a man ashamed to own himself a bacon-eating biped. . . . These brutes prowl about in the sun, and glare at the infrequent strangers with their starved eyes, as though doubting themselves whether, by some little exertion, they might not become beasts of prey.

There are several more pages in similar vein. Trollope's travel book, The West Indies and the Spanish Main, appeared in 1859. One wonders if Grant Allen had read these words before accepting his post.

The only public place worth a second glance in Spanish Town was Parade square, consisting of a central garden surrounded by buildings in Classical style, in yellowish stone. One of these was the old House of Assembly; another the court-house. To the west was the former governor's residence, Old King's House, with its Ionic portico, and other government buildings which had now been taken over and adapted for the use of the college. King's House was more impressive inside than it looked outside. It had spacious rooms with faded gilt panelling, ornate furniture, wide passages, polished mahogany floors and a grand ballroom to hold five hundred, rarely used and infested with bats. In King's House were the teachers' apartments, the Allens on the ground floor and Chadwick on the first. The Allens had a huge sitting room and bedroom, the latter so sparsely furnished that there was, Allen told his mother soon after their arrival, 'space enough in the middle for five sets of lancers to dance easily'. Another building across the square had been turned into dormitories and lecture rooms with scientific instruments. There was plenty of room for several hundred students. Chadwick and Allen planned for an initial enrolment of about thirty.


In reporting conditions to his mother, Allen tries to put the best gloss on things, but it is clear enough that he had become disillusioned quickly enough. 'We are getting accustomed to being a little tumble-down', he says ruefully, 'and have this comfort, that we are much less tumble-down than anybody else. . . . We are getting quite accustomed now to find civilized and fairly educated people living in moderate comfort in the broken and shabby cottages of Spanish town'.[75]


Still, like it or not there was work to be done, and the two teachers got down to the job of publishing the curriculum and advertising for students, ready to start the first term on 22 September. The college had been established as an institute of higher education which would award its own degrees, so it had to have a complete sequence of courses. Their plans for the curriculum were quite advanced for the time, especially compared to the one at Oxford which Allen castigated as useless. Compulsory subjects included courses on English literature, history ancient and modern, and geography. Optional subjects included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, surveying, and chemistry. All this was to be taught entirely by the two young men. The full program for a degree was to be nine terms spread over three years, and for an Honours degree, five years. Tuition was not free, but the fees were modest compared to those charged by private secondary schools in Kingston, and heavily subsidized.


To enter Queen's College, boys had to be at least fifteen years old and able to pass an entry test. These requirements had been laid down in England, and at once they proved controversial. Few Jamaican lads or their parents could see the point of continuing their education beyond fifteen. The more able ones hoped to get clerical jobs in shops or offices, and were too anxious about missing a place to sign up for college-level courses. Even worse, the entry test -- or rather the prospective students' performance in it -- quickly exposed the dismal standards prevailing at the Kingston schools. These schools boasted that they turned out students capable of meeting the entry requirements of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge and London universities. This claim had rarely been tested and was quickly revealed to be hollow when six youths presented themselves for the entrance examination. Only two reached an acceptable standard. It was reported that one of the other four expressed the belief, in the geography test, that Jamaica is located in the Mediterranean. There was hostile publicity. Some newspapers blamed the 'cruel and misdirected flattery of the schoolmasters' who had beguiled well-to-do parents for the sake of the fees.[76] Others, like the Colonial Standard, took up the cause of the schools and the clergy, and engaged in a vituperative campaign against Chadwick, trying to pressure him to lower the bar. But all Chadwick would say was that he had not come to Jamaica to turn schoolmaster.


Despite this bold front, both men realized very quickly -- within a few months of opening -- that Queen's College was just not going to work. The public arrived at the same conclusion just as quickly, thanks to the newspapers. One of those predicted that what it called the 'grand fiasco' would not survive past June 1874, the end of the first teaching year.[77] The two teachers tried to integrate the college into the community more by a program of public lectures. Allen advertised one on 'The Philosophy of History' in Kingston as they were finishing their first year's work, but one wonders how well he competed against the delights of the Victoria Circus, newly arrived in town, with Mademoiselle Paulino Lee, the dashing equestrienne, and Andrew Lehman, 'the Side-splitting Clown and jester of all jesters'.[78]


Sadly, William Chadwick had little time left to do any more for the Queen's College. He fell ill with yellow fever over the Christmas holiday of 1873/4, when he was staying at Kingston with E.A.C. Schalch, the Attorney-General, and his sister. They nursed him devotedly, spooning arrowroot and brandy down his throat every half hour day and night, which was the only recommended treatment. Eventually the crisis passed and Chadwick recovered, but both the Schalchs caught the infection from him and died within an hour of each other on the last day of January. Chadwick went back shakily to work, only to succumb to an attack of typhoid fever during the summer. He was only twenty-eight, and had not survived even one academic year in Jamaica. Allen took over the title of Acting Principal and went on alone into the second year, still with only three students. At some point he wrote up an account of his day in an ingenious rhyming letter to his brother-in-law Franklin Richards, which gives a vivid picture of life in a tropical backwater at the time:


Here I am, my dear Franklin, in Spanish Town still, 

as usual, grinding away at my mill. 

On Logic and Ethics, on Latin and Greek 

I have been talking for hours till I scarcely can speak. 

Then I have come back from College and muddled my brain 

with getting up lectures on Spencer and Bain, 

so I think that by way of a respite I had better
sit down and reply to your last welcome letter.


The pace of life was slow, even soporific. First came the awakening at seven, after a night's sleep always rendered fitful by prickly heat and mosquitoes. Then a bowl of sago gruel in bed, brought by the housemaid, followed at eight by the single unalloyed pleasure of the day: a cold bath. A slow and deliberate toilet -- even at that early hour, the slightest exertion made one's collar unpleasantly damp -- was followed by an unappetizing breakfast of curry and bacon, and then came the daily round:


At ten I depart for the College to lecture 

on every subject of human conjecture, 

from the weight of the sun and the path of the planets, 

the earthquake that shakes and the breezes that fan it, 

to the freedom of will and the nature of feeling, 

on the relative wrongness of fibbing and stealing. 

For, this being but a one-man-power College 

I alone must explore the whole circle of knowledge, 

appraise all our poets from Chaucer to Tennyson, 

prove Hamilton wrong and give Bentham my benison, 

show how the comitia used to assemble 

and crib Anglo-Saxon from Palgrave and Kemble. 


Meanwhile, in the household department dear Nelly 

inspects the production of pudding or jelly, 

and, in short, overlooks the entire commissariat -- 

no easy affair in the town that we tarry at, 

where we count ourselves lucky if five days a week 

we can get us some jam and a morsel of steak.


After lunch, more teaching till three, then idling and a visitor or two filled up the time until a stroll in the short tropical dusk; dinner at seven, card games or reading till nine, and a thankful retreat to bed, only 'to repeat the whole programme da capo next day'. The poem closes on a bravura note:


And here this epistle at length must be ended. 

It's double as long as I ever intended; 

but, having begun, I ran on by the gallon. 

Believe me, as ever, Yours truly, Grant Allen. 

P. S. I subscribe myself 'truly' instead of 'sincerely', 

because it agrees with the metre more nearly.[79]


This must surely date from early in their stay, for Allen would never have written so jauntily after Chadwick's death, which must have come as a shocking blow. It brought home the uncertainty of life in Jamaica; the ever-present risk of contracting an incurable infectious disease like typhoid or yellow fever or, worst of all, smallpox, a virulent strain of which was endemic to the island. These diseases were no respecters of class. Death could visit anyone, at a moment's notice. A judge in Spanish Town living near the Allens caught yellow fever that October, and though he could afford the best medical care his doctors threw up their hands in despair once he had progressed to the final stage, known gruesomely as the Black Vomit. The annual mortality rate in the island was supposed to be about forty per thousand, more than double the rate in England, but as there was no compulsory registration of deaths nobody knew for sure. This may be the reason why Nellie Allen was certainly back in England by February 1875, less than halfway through their second year. Indeed, the Allens apparently spent their summer vacation of 1874 in Canada, with his parents, so she may have returned directly to England from Ontario after a single year in Jamaica. In fact she may never have returned to Jamaica at all before her husband's final departure in the summer of 1876.[80] Thirty years later, gossip had it that one Harrington, or Hamilton, a reputed son of Allen's 'by a black woman' was still living in Kingston.[81]


Allen quickly decided that he hated Spanish Town and did not trouble to conceal his feelings. He told visitors there was nothing whatever to see, and that even the cathedral nearby -- the ugliest brick cathedral in all Christendom, he told them -- wasn't worth inspecting except for a glance at the monuments inside.[82] The local people resented their town's loss of its capital status, and the appropriation of the buildings. They particularly resented the removal of a fine statue of Admiral Rodney, the victor over the French fleet in 1782, and eventually staged a coup to get it back. They objected to the closure of the roads around the square, and the importation of iron railings to enclose a quadrangle for the students. The college, or rather its representatives, took the blame for these things. By the time Allen reached the end of his second academic year, in July 1875, the protests had redoubled and his position was being undermined. There were public meetings in Kingston, led by a cabal of non-conformist clergymen who took their concerns to the governor. They were demanding that that the college be re-established as 'an institution of popular benefit', with a new intake of 13-year-old boys in junior classes. And there are signs of a move against Allen personally, for another demand was that 'no chair of the College would ever become a medium for disseminating views antagonistic to the religious sentiments of the community'.[83] Allen's free-thinking views, and possibly his behaviour, had not gone unnoticed.


Nothing much came of these protests. Grey, the governor, did nothing. Allen laboured on by himself through his third and final year, but as no one else enrolled his duties were light. The Handbook of Jamaica noted sadly after Queen's College closed that 'its ultimate failure to carry out the work which it was intended to accomplish' was because

too great a distance intervened between the common schools of the country and the Queen's College, and to bridge over this interval good grammar schools are needed, and as these are for the most part wanting it must take some years of educational progress before such an establishment as an island college can hope for success.[84]

 This is so obviously true that it is hard to understand why it did not occur to anyone at the planning stage.


Allen stuck it out until his three students graduated in the summer of 1876; then the college closed down and his job vanished. One of his last acts in Jamaica must have been a final public lecture which he gave in Kingston in July. It was on Wat Tyler's Rebellion, and in a parting shot a newspaper review condemned it roundly for its radicalism, though admitting to its 'eccentric comic flashes of fancy and rare historical facts'.[85] But Allen soon waved goodbye forever to Jamaica and its censorious citizenry. He probably returned to England via North America, where he gathered some meteorological statistics for a learned society, visited his parents at Kingston, and filled his notebook with material for several future articles.


Little remains of Allen's Jamaica. Soon after he left, the King's House was converted into a teacher-training college, but the building was almost derelict when Edward Clodd inspected it in 1905. He found little inside but cases filled with the insect-eaten mortar-boards and gowns imported thirty years earlier.[86] King's House burnt down in 1925 leaving only a facade standing, and the court house on the Parade also went up in flames in 1986. In Kingston, a severe hurricane in 1880, a fire in 1882 and finally a devastating earthquake and fire in 1907 obliterated the commercial centre and indeed most of the town as Allen had known it. A memorial to Chadwick in St Jago de la Vega cathedral and a plaque outside are the only visible remnants of the whole educational episode.



What did Allen make of his three years in Jamaica? How did the experience shape him, at that plastic stage in his life? Certainly he was quick to record his loathing of most aspects of his life there. He hated the enervating, muggy heat of the lowlands, and the ramshackle settlements ('the whole town has an air of neglected decay, which seems ten times more evident through the blinking, staring sunlight that falls in full force on every squalid detail'). Surprisingly, for such an enthusiastic naturalist, he took no pleasure in the countryside. He could see nothing but rank, dispiriting vegetation and 'squalor, dust, sunlight in abundance'. He stands in marked contrast to Philip Henry Gosse, who had visited Jamaica in 1844-5 and had gloried in the island's bird life. Being intensely religious, Gosse found in the splendid variety of birds and their behaviour the most wonderful evidences of God's benevolence and ingenious handiwork. Allen, the evolutionist, would have thought the latter sentiment ridiculous because anti-Darwinian; but he had nothing good to say about the flora and fauna anyway. There were 'no trees, no birds, no flowers, no scenery' he recorded flatly; by which he meant that there were none worth looking at with eyes attuned to damp, temperate, misty English landscapes.


What Allen missed most in Jamaica were the civilized resources essential to a man of his temperament. Perhaps he would have agreed with Dr Johnson's growl, when he heard that a rich West Indian planter had died, that the deceased would not be noticing much change in either the climate or the company. He suffered badly from an 'utter famine of books, pictures, music, theatres, society, science, thought, all the pursuits that make life worth living to a civilized and rational being', as he put it dolefully.[87] At some point he took a holiday trip from Kingston up to the Port Royal Hills at some point, staying at Mango Top with a 'little colony of officials'. Although he grudgingly admitted that here at least it was cool and the scenery and the trees and flowering plants in this area were beautiful, he was determined not to be mollified. 'Though we idle away our time pleasantly enough, I cannot for a moment pretend that life among the Jamaican hills is really enjoyable. . . . In short, let alone heat, negroes, and atrocious cookery, the mosquito is by himself enough to poison life in the West Indies'.[88] Allen was not much interested in food even as a young man, but he made a wonderfully despairing catalogue of the shortcomings of Jamaican cookery in an article with the ironic title of 'The Epicure in Jamaica'. The natives, we hear, live on boiled yam and salt-fish all the year round. For the newly-arrived Englishmen the first impression is that there is nothing to eat but 'ground beetles and baked boots'. Chicken, flabby beef and some scrawny mutton provide the only meat, and that has to be killed and eaten within twelve hours. To get fish of any kind requires serious long-term planning. All the tropical fruits are useless, except the ones everyone eats in Europe anyway. One fruit is 'sickly', another 'pappy and nauseous', a third tastes like 'brown sugar and water', a fourth like an over-ripe gooseberry. Tins from England and America, the products of 'Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell or the Portland Tinned Meat Company' are a too-frequent resort. How one longed to say 'farewell to the gritty and fly-bespangled loaves, to the suspicious foreign bodies in the soup, to the flying ants which obstinately immolated themselves in the sherry, to the queer interest surrounding the dubious mammalian bones in the curried chicken'![89]


All in all, Allen felt that his time on the island was 'just so much dead loss of time cut away from one's allotted span', or, at best, rather like reading Herodotus: something one is glad to have got done in one's youth, but which one would never do again for any money.[90] It should be borne in mind, though, that most of these jaundiced views were recorded in 1878-9, soon after he had returned to England and was struggling hard to make his way as a writer. Perhaps the assessment was true, in terms of the advancement of his career; in that sense, Jamaica had been marking time. But certainly he had not been idle. That quick, observant eye had been storing away impressions that would be surfacing in print for years to come.


He had complicated feelings about the Jamaicans themselves. His contempt for the economic mismanagement of the island, and his own difficulties at the college, and the general narrowness of the life there, darkened his views. He despaired over the Jamaicans' propensity for idling, which he put down not to any racial trait but to the 'fatally fertile' soil. 'A negro earns nine shillings a week by labour which even as a Communist I consider easy; of this he spends two, and saves seven. After a few weeks of work he has done enough for the quarter, and lies by in absolute idleness'. Higher education, he thought, had no utility in Jamaica: 'the people don't want education, and won't take it even if it is literally given away to them'. On the other hand he had only contempt for the planter class, which he thought formed the drowsiest, most offensive variety of the national John Bull type, and the planters' treatment of the blacks appalled and disgusted him. 'I have no exaggerated sympathy with blacks, yet I must say the way they are regarded by the whites is simply shameful', he told his parents-in-law.[91] His observations reinforced his radical social and political views, and he mined his experiences several times in his fiction, most effectively in his long novel In All Shades, whose subject is entrenched racism in what is supposed to be Trinidad but is plainly Jamaica. (One guesses that he moved islands to evade any risk of libel.) In All Shades deals realistically and quite effectively with the obsessive interest in racial purity among the white planter class. A young lawyer, Edward Hawthorne, marries in England and returns to his parents in the West Indies, having secured a judgeship there. The young couple are completely ostracized by the planters because they have discovered the Hawthorne family has a trace of African blood in its family tree. Edward Hawthorne becomes the sworn enemy of a leading arrogant planter family, the Dupuys, when he favours a black labourer in a court case. Later Hawthorne is joined by an aristocratic and rather autocratic friend, Harry Noel, who is the heir to a Lincolnshire estate. He is made to suffer as much, if not more, when it becomes known that he too has black relatives in Barbados. All these events are treated from a liberal perspective, and the novel does offer some penetrating insights into Victorian race issues from several different points of view.


Allen was, however, far from being immune to the racial stereotyping common at the time, and he expounded it as lucidly as he did everything else. His early years were a time when new sciences of life were emerging: palaeontology, comparative anatomy and physiology. As far as the concept of 'race' was concerned, all these sciences seemed to point in one direction. Racial characteristics are not the product of local climate and geographical conditions, but of biological heterogeneity due to natural selection. They cannot be altered easily. Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, and his fellow-scientists, Allen at this point in his life took it for granted that humankind falls into a hierarchy of races, that some of these are markedly inferior to others, and that the Negro is near the bottom of the scale in intelligence and moral fibre. One of the earliest racial theorists, Edward Long, promoted the notion that Negroes are not part of the genus Homo at all but belong to a distinct species: he formed this view from personal observations, specifically in Jamaica. In the 1860s scientific racism had become thoroughly entrenched, particularly in the leaders of opinion who were associated with the Anthropological Society. Though their views did not go unchallenged, there was broad agreement about the notion of a hierarchy of races. Herbert Spencer asserted that Europeans are higher on the mammalian ladder than any other race. Francis Galton thought the adjectives which best defined the African nature were lazy, stupid and perversely cruel. Darwin argued only that all mankind is biologically one species; he still believed that the races are distinguishable in all sorts of ways, and that intellectual activity varies innately across them. John Tyndall, physicist, opined that Negroes were peculiarly indolent and savage. T.H. Huxley took it for granted that his dusky cousins, with their larger jaws and their smaller brains, would never reach the highest places in civilization. Even A.R. Wallace, strong liberal and socialist, thought the only question at issue was exactly how far the degree of intellectual inferiority of the lower races extended.


The only point on which Allen had slightly unorthodox views was over the question of people of mixed blood. He thought that the best hope for the tropics was to increase the population of people of mixed European and African ancestry. W.G. Palgrave, reporting on the conditions in Jamaica at the time when Allen was there, agreed: 'the coloured man, thanks to the tropical admixture in his blood, endures in-doors manual labour to a degree impossible for the pure-blooded European, while the intelligence and perseverance that he derives from his white parentage supplies a fortunate corrective to the irreflective carelessness and habitual negligence of his light-hearted, but often light-headed, nigritian ancestors. . . . Superior in neatness of hand to his European half-brother, the coloured man is not rarely his equal in intelligence'.[92] Though this too is a tissue of absurdities, it was contrary to the prevailing view which saw people of mixed-race people as inferior to the 'pure-bred' of any race. They were assumed to lack breeding (in all senses) and were probably infertile and highly-sexed simultaneously. (Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, a Jamaican Creole, is the epitome of the type, though it's unclear whether she is supposed to be a white woman who has 'gone native' or a degenerate mulatta.)


Allen probably would have agreed with Palgrave, but in his fiction, particularly in the sub-genre which he called 'the romance of the clash of races', he plays with the notion of the hierarchy of races, and the quality of mixed races, from several different positions. In All Shades introduces us to just such a man, Dr W. Clarkson Whitaker, a mulatto returning to practice medicine in the island after training at Edinburgh. He is also a brilliant composer, violinist and botanist. Even though he presented very sympathetically as a victim of deracination and racism -- in some ugly scenes he is virtually hounded to death after he arrives home -- we also hear that '[he] talked on to them hour after hour, doing the lion's share of the conversation, and delighting them with his transparent easy talk and open-hearted simplicity. He was frankly egotistical of course -- all persons of African blood always are; but his egotism, such as it was, took the pleasing form of an enthusiasm about his own pet ideas and pursuits'.[93] We may wonder if this is being offered seriously -- sometimes the suspicion arises that the apparently ingenuous narrative voice is surreptitiously mocking some of the assumed prejudices of his readers -- but in this case it surely is. Allen's essays of the same period sometimes touch on racial issues and offer sentiments which are conventional enough but disconcerting for the modern reader. On his way home from Jamaica via Canada he noted how pleasant it was to see black waiters on the trains. They make the best servants, as they never resent being treated as inferiors.[94] Another early article, 'The Human Face Divine', defines the hierarchy of races in terms of physiognomy: the 'most human' face is that of the 'civilized Aryan; the most simian is that of the African Bushman'. Those of negroes, Andaman islanders, and Indian hill-tribesmen are 'more brutish' and 'to put it in the truest way, more ape-like'. At first sight, Orientals pose a problem: they are prognathous and noseless, which are clear signs of primitivism, yet somehow they have managed to become quite civilized. How to explain this? Because they only seem civilized; actually they show 'every mark of arrested development'. The Chinese language is monosyllabic, like baby talk; their writing never discovered the alphabet; their mental powers are mostly imitative.[95] Several of Allen's essays on this theme are perfect reminders that, just as the old prejudices based on caste and religion were beginning to lose their force, a cruel twist to the ideology of racial differences was given when a quasi-Darwinian anthropology, ethnology and sociology allowed a whole new set of prejudices to arise and flourish.


Jamaica worked on Allen's radical sympathies in more ways than politics and race relations. His views on sexual morality and behaviour, which had been thrown into a turmoil already by his first marriage, were redefined again. The sexual life of the West Indies was a matter for scandalized observation by every Victorian visitor to the islands. 'Devoted to sensual pleasure', they noted breathlessly, 'the negro has little respect for the marriage tie. Concubinage is a universal institution, and bears with it no disgrace'.[96] From the moment his steamer arrived at Kingston harbour, Allen must have noticed that gender roles in Jamaica were a little bit different to those prevailing in Victorian Oxford. When the ship docked, the arduous process of coaling began. It was handled by casual wharf labourers of both sexes. It was mostly men who filled the baskets; the heavier job of heaving and tipping was handled by muscular young women; bold, quarrelsome viragoes. The following scene met the startled eyes of a British visitor less than a year before Allen arrived:

We had the fortune to witness a fight between two of these interesting maidens. Catching her opponent by the neck, vixen No. 1 commenced the attack by delivering a vigorous 'buck' with her head right in front of her antagonist -- a compliment which was instantly returned. Now both were wrestling on the ground, legs twined with legs, and arms with arms, and the blood flowing pretty freely on either side. How long this might have lasted we cannot say, for nobody seemed to think it his duty to interfere. But just at this juncture a constable was seen approaching, and the two termagants bleeding, wounded, almost naked, hurling abuse at each other all the time, with many tears and objurgations, were incontinently marched off to 'the cage'.[97]

Such a fight was, of course, no rarity in Whitechapel or the Seven Dials either, but Jamaica differed from London's East End in the strongly matriarchal cast of its social organization; a social structure which dated back to the days of slavery and had persisted in the dismal state of the economy. Most of the Kingston population was made up of landless peasants, the children of emancipated slaves, who had gravitated from the estates and small-holdings to scrape an urban living how and where they could: 'negroes of the most idle and improvident class' as Allen classified them harshly.[98] Barely one man in four had paid work and the jobless ones were treated scornfully in their own society and had little self-respect.

Many women, by contrast, enjoyed a sturdy independence. Women were cheaper to hire and more willing than men to take on the hardest physical work. So a pattern was set which continued well into the next century: 'the idle boys and men of Kingston were supported by their mothers, aunts or grannies, who worked as servants or in other domestic and feminine occupations, or by their women who worked on the wharfs, in coaling, or in loading bananas'.[99] In such a matriarchy, with a measure of economic power, and careless of exhortations from missionaries whose doctrines took on strangely mutated forms in the eclectic religion of the island, women took the sexual initiative. They chose their partners, and the fathers of their children, at will. About three-quarters of births were illegitimate. Families were, in the jargon, 'matrilocal'. Men were a floating presence in many households, for it was traditional for the children, 'bye-children', or 'out-children', or 'love-children', to be raised by the mother and her family.


Allen wrote nothing about this directly, although it is obvious that his observations must stand behind his polemical novels The Woman Who Did and The British Barbarians (both 1895) and behind many of his later essays promoting extreme solutions to the problems of marriage, divorce, women's roles and prostitution. The closest he came to a direct account of what must have been for him a matter of daily observation was in an article, 'Tropical Education', and in one of his best stories, 'Ivan Greet's Masterpiece'. Both were written many years later when he was planning his onslaught on Philistia, which was his name for censorious, bourgeois England. In the article, he used his Jamaican experiences as a stick with which to beat Mrs. Grundy. People who get to know the tropics in their formative years are like a higher brotherhood; they have taken the 'Tropical Tripos'. In particular, the tropics can give you a liberal education on sexual matters; they can disconcert your prejudices, get you away from the 'reduced gentlewoman's outlook' on life, and send you back home with shattered faiths and broken gods. 'How can Mrs. Grundy thrive', he asks rhetorically, 'where every woman may rear her own ten children on her ten-rood plot without aid or assistance from their indeterminate fathers?'[100] With some suitable modifications, this is not far from what Allen was recommending for his utopian version of England in the 1890s.


In the story, an idealistic young English poet, Ivan Greet, moves to Jamaica, where he hopes to live as a child of nature while he ruminates his epic poem. He quickly acquires a brown-skinned mistress, Clemmy, and Allen's observations about the sexual life of the island, now lent enchantment by time and distance, are couched in soft, romantic terms:

To Ivan it was an Eden of the Caribbean Seas; he loved it for its simplicity, its naturalness, its utter absence of guile or wile or self-consciousness. 'Twas a land indeed where the Queen's writ ran not; where the moral law bore but feeble sway; where men and women, as free as the wind, lived and loved in their own capricious, ancestral fashion. Its ethics were certainly not the ethics of that hateful Mayfair from which he fled in search of freedom. But life was real, if life was not earnest; no sham was there, no veiled code of pretence; what all the world did all the world frankly and openly acknowledged. Censors and censoriousness were alike unknown.[101]

But it would be a long while yet before Allen would prescribe a dose of Jamaican morals, of men and women living 'free as the wind', to cure the sins of philistine England. What Jamaica gave him most of, in the mid-'70s, was free time. Apart from his direct observations of Jamaican life, those three years were a period of great intellectual growth. He had time, as he had never had before, for an immense amount of private reading in literature, philosophy, natural history and psychology. He read Merivale, Caesar, Tacitus, Gibbon, Comte and Schopenhauer. His talent for explication and synthesis were expanded by his teaching duties, where perforce he had to be a universalist; and this developed his air of authority, his clear-cut opinions and a capacity for swift, colourful generalizations which served him so well later on. He looked closely into Jamaican folk practices, especially the fear of 'duppies', (ghosts) and the ways of placating them by placing a saucer of sprouting cereal on the corpse, and the belief that the duppy was less dangerous once the grass had grown green on the grave. These observations helped to elucidate his theory of the origin of religion in ghost worship.[102] He even dissected a couple of bodies. His friend Dr Stamers, the government medical officer in the town, got hold of the corpse of a murderer, Daniel Madden, warm from the gallows, and decapitated it so that Allen could dissect the brain with his students. Dr Stamers had stored the body in his coach house and it caused great excitement, almost a riot, when someone stole the detached head, probably for purposes of witchcraft, and then thought better of it and threw it away in a back yard.[103] The dissection in that climate was filthy work, with no refrigeration or even any effective preservatives, and Allen could not face his dinner for several days afterwards.



In the foreground of Allen's mind throughout these three years was the name and works of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), the last of the great philosophical system-builders of the nineteenth century. He had known Spencer's work since childhood, as his father was an admirer, and he had talked of Spencer enthusiastically to his friends at Merton. The philosopher was in his fifties by the time Allen was reading him closely in Jamaica. He had published many of the key volumes of his Synthetic Philosophy in their original form, although he continued to tinker with them and expand them for the rest of his life. Allen had access to First PrinciplesSocial StaticsThe Principles of PsychologyThe Principles of Biology and The Study of Sociology when he started to compose essays of his own, and as he read and re-read these volumes in Jamaica they struck him as being work of consummate genius. He thought out an evolutionary theory of aesthetics on Spencerian principles which eventually became his first book, and he got published in a Canadian general magazine a paper on physics, trying to correct some details of Spencer's account of some of the central concepts of thermodynamics. The fact that Spencer had misunderstood them in the first place, and Allen's paper only garbled them further, attracted no attention at the time, though it would later.[104]


By the time his second teaching year began Allen was suffering badly from intellectual isolation. The only connection with the wider world was the fortnightly mail boat. Spanish Town continued to offer nothing to stimulate the mind. About twenty white families lived there, but their resources were soon exhausted unless you wanted to talk about rum, sugar, horseflesh or outdoor sports: this, for a lively sociable being like Allen, who rejoiced in free-flowing, speculative conversation, was purgatory. So he was all the more inclined to express something of his admiration for his far-off hero in a fulsome poetic eulogy. It runs in part:


Deepest and mightiest of our later seers, 

Spencer, whose piercing glance descried afar 

Down fathomless rifts of dead unnumbered years 

The effulgent waste drift into sun or star, 

And through vast wilds of elemental strife 

Tracked out the first faint steps of yet unconscious life . . . 

Not without honour is the prophet's name,

Save with his country and his kin in time; 

But after years shall noise abroad thy fame, 

Above all other fame in prose or rhyme: 

For praise is his who builds for his own age, 

But he who builds for Time must look to Time for wage.[105]


This he posted off to the sage with a letter, dated 10 November 1874. It was the letter of a typical young intellectual just finding his way, half-admiring and half-arrogant. He signed himself 'Professor of Mental Philosophy':


Dear Sir, 

     Though I know you only through the medium of your books, I venture to address to you the annexed copy of verses. I trust you will do me the favour of granting them a perusal. You will see from them that I agree in the main with your chief speculations, though, of course, in so large a body of propositions as your writings contain, some diversity of opinion must necessarily exist in almost any two minds. 

     My sole object in sending you these lines is that which I mention in the concluding stanza -- to render you thanks for the personal assistance you have rendered me in interpreting the phenomena of the universe. 

Yours very faithfully, Grant Allen.[106]   


It is safe to say that no one had dared to address a poem to the crabby Herbert Spencer before. The philosopher was too independent a man to welcome flowery praise from a would-be disciple, and he was notorious for his rough handling of people who tried to scrape acquaintance with him. Still, even Spencer was human, and no doubt it is hard to resist the attractions of a poem which speaks of you as one who has 'scanned the glittering fields of space' and 'gazed through the eons on the fiery sea' of Creation itself. So this time he broke his usual habit and dispatched a dignified and modest reply to the West Indies. 'Your letter is pleasant to me as implying that, even in remote regions, there are others, unknown to me, having that mental kinship which is shown by a wider comprehension than that of the specialist', he said. 'Respecting the sentiment expressed in your verses it is scarcely proper for me to say anything; unless to disclaim a merit so high as that ascribed'. But then he rather spoilt the effect by passing the poem itself on to E.L. Youmans, his chief admirer and agent in America, who printed it in his magazine, the 

Popular Science Monthly -- or so Allen claimed years afterwards. 


Allen's letter had been a little disingenuous itself. He professed to be amazed when Spencer answered, but he had surely anticipated a reply because his next move was to solicit Spencer's help in placing a manuscript in one of the big British reviews. Spencer tried to do this for him, but failed; still, a rapport had been established. The moment he returned to England in the autumn of 1876 he sought out Spencer at his London boarding-house. It was a dramatic moment in Allen's life, and one senses that the story of their first encounter became a well-honed anecdote. 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.


Great Heavens, I thought, could this happen anywhere else in the world but in England? The greatest philosopher that ever drew breath, the maximum brain on earth, is living in this square -- and not a soul in the place has ever heard of him. It was clear that the name awakened no echo in these dense British heads; to ask for Herbert Spencer in his own street was like asking for Jones, Brown, or Robinson. And, indeed, to the last, it was difficult for me to understand the relatively small place in men's minds which was apparently filled by the greatest thinker of this or any other epoch.      At last I found the house; but Spencer was away. I left a card, and wrote a little later, requesting the favour of an interview. I got a gracious reply; would I come and lunch with him? I accepted, of course, all agog at the privilege. On the day appointed I called at the house in Queen's Gardens . . . .[107]


And there they met at last. At their first meeting, as Spencer rose from his anatomically-designed armchair (his own patent), Allen confessed to being a little disappointed. For a 'maximum brain' Spencer was so very ordinary. With his smooth, untroubled features, he looked like a confidential clerk. Allen was always confident of his ability to read the mind's construction in the face, and he thought the forehead was noble but the chin and mouth were weak. Right from the start he was very well aware of Spencer's shortcomings as a man and, indeed, alludes to his 'serious moral defects of character', though he does not tell us what they were.


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. They would stroll across the park to the Athenaeum club, where Spencer played billiards most afternoons. If Allen is to be believed, he was even given the password which gained entry to the bare room over the Bayswater milk shop which Spencer rented as a study and to which virtually nobody ever went. Spencer's influence on Allen's scientific and philosophical thinking continued unabated to the end. His initial sense that Spencer was blessed with enormous and unique powers grew ever more extravagant as Spencer's star waned quickly towards the end of the century. But one way in which he differed from Spencer was in his manner of life. 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. He had given his hostages to fortune. He had a living to earn.




Setting Out the Stall (1876-1880) )



Back in England in the cheerless autumn of 1876, Allen must surely have wondered where his life was going. He was jobless, married with a dependent wife, and his thirtieth birthday was on the horizon. His compensation payout, though it was apparently as much as a thousand pounds, would not last for ever. He did feel constrained to apply for a head-master's post and he did continue, on and off, with private coaching work at Oxford for four more years. But the job of dinning the same foolish round of Horace and Livy and Latin elegiacs in the heads of useless, eat-all, do-nothing young fellows (as he put it) -- fellows who should have been apprenticed to a useful trade years earlier -- appealed no longer.


Trying to write for a living appealed a lot more. He had brought some draft chapters of a book back with him from Jamaica, but they were part of a treatise on sensory psychology and not at all the kind of book which a professional author would have thought of tackling. He put that aside for the moment, and started to scribble in earnest, probably while living in digs at Oxford or down at Lyme with his in-laws, saying later that he submitted 'a hundred or more magazine articles' on various scientific subjects to editors, only to have every single one of them rejected with thanks'.[108] It's hard to see how this could have been literally correct. Even if he had sent articles to the English journals while still in Jamaica (and his letters to Spencer and others only mention one such), then he must still have submitted most of that hundred in the single year after his return, because his first article was accepted by the Cornhill in the following autumn. Could he really have been writing, submitting, and having rejected two fresh articles every week? Perhaps he meant that he suffered one hundred rejections from various editors. 


But even if the number is exaggerated, it does suggest that by now he had determined to make his way into the higher journalism. Yet he had no special reason to be optimistic. He had shown no particular aptitude for writing for a semi-popular audience, for money, and against the clock. His only publications had been nothing remarkable for a man who was pushing thirty. They amounted to a small handful of poems, stories and articles, and most of those had appeared nowhere more profitable than the university magazine which he had briefly edited with his friend Nicholson. And he was only too aware that he had spent the invaluable years of his mid-twenties, when a man secures his first footing, far from the seat of literary power and patronage.


Financial necessity, poor health and a dislike of the teaching life, we can guess, were the main motives driving him into the toughest sector of late-Victorian authorship: that of the freelance writer, journalist and literary jack-of-all-trades. In due course Allen would shed any romantic illusions he may have had about the fraternity that he hoped to join. 'The profession is recruited almost entirely, I believe, from the actual or potential failures of other callings', he would write.

The man who has knocked in vain at all other doors, or the man who has not capital enough even to approach any other door with the silver key which alone admits to the outer vestibule, takes as a last resource to literature. Some of us are schoolmasters or college tutors; some of us are doctors who failed to draw patients; some of us are 'stickit ministers' or disfrocked parsons; a vast proportion are briefless barristers. When a man who knows how to put an English sentence grammatically together has no other resource left in life, he sells himself, body and soul, in the last resort to the public press, and produces the fabric they call literature.[109]

But that outburst came after ten years at the mill, when he had not only grown adept at selling himself 'body and soul' but had also been able to mark out a small private zone where he was not for sale. By that time he could afford, emotionally, to entertain a certain flamboyant cynicism about his calling. But even in the beginning he could hardly have expected to make a living out of scholarly scientific authorship. Certainly his first book was not written with any eye to the market-place. He finished it over the winter of 1876/7 at Oxford, and then secured Herbert Spencer's permission to dedicate it to the man he called 'the greatest of living philosophers'. Allen thought the title alone -- Physiological Aesthetics -- would be quite enough for most people, and even he could not have expected to make anything out of it but the beginnings of a reputation.


Actually, though, the contents of the work are much less intimidating than the title. What it tries to do is to explain aesthetic judgment in terms of the physiology of the senses. Obviously Allen, no more than anyone else then or now, did not have a truly reductive explanation of aesthetics in terms of neurophysiology. The book pursues no rigorous argument. Most of it simply collates and categorizes a mass of information and anecdote and illustrations about how the nose, the ear, the eye, pain receptors and so on function, and then describes which kinds of stimulation of them we find pleasurable and which disagreeable. Apart from a few vague remarks about nerve pathways in the brain, that is as far as the book goes in meeting the first term of its title. Allen, in this respect, does no better and no worse than Spencer, who had been over this ground in the 1850s, and Darwin, who had tackled it again not long before, in The Descent of Man. And Allen's book does have the virtue of being more lively reading than either of those.


As might be expected, by attempting to tie down the principles of taste to the physiology of the sense organs -- thereby fixing them, implicitly, as objective and immutable -- Allen merely betrays his own cultural and personal prejudices. And certainly he had an endearing set of prejudices when it came to aesthetic judgments. As we will see in the case of his travel guides and art criticism written at the far end of his career, Allen had an unblinking certainty about the universality and objectivity of his own tastes. So, for example, in Physiological Aesthetics we are told that 'sexual feeling . . . defies introduction into Poetry, because the feelings aroused, though they may be pleasurable, obviously fall short of aesthetic disinterestedness. It can only be introduced under a veil of mysterious reverence'. Presumably, therefore, if we take pleasure in Rochester or Byron, Donne or Chaucer, despite their signal lack of 'mysterious reverence' about sexual feeling, this merely proves that our sensory physiology is out of kilter. Again, asks Allen, what does our physiological organization make us admire most in architecture? It is 'perfect examples of any particular style, age or nation' that give us the fullest pleasure: the Parthenon, Diocletian's Palace and Cologne Cathedral are the exemplars here. On the other hand, we feel a 'conscious critical disgust' when we contemplate the Brighton Pavilion, the Capitol at Washington or the Albert Memorial. Our senses, or Allen's anyway, are repelled by the 'mongrel and meaningless fabric' of such edifices. But if we insist that, in fact, our senses respond with pleasure to the Brighton Pavilion because we find it a 'perfect example' of the Regency, then Allen can only condole with us over the deficiencies of our sensory apparatus, and move on.[110]


The good points of Physiological Aesthetics are ones which would be standing its author in good stead later. Already evident in full measure are those essential tools of the populariser and the worker in the craft of high vulgarization: a plain, smooth and fluent style which draws little attention to itself, an effortless command of detail, and a gift for striking metaphor, memorable analogy and concrete illustration. Its weaknesses are those to which all of Allen's original scientific work is prone: that is, it is intensely Spencerian in its approach. Allen thought of his first book as a contribution to the emerging science of psychology -- he calls himself a 'psychologist' in it -- whereas it is really a compendium of assertions and value judgments categorized under grand but arbitrary headings, with almost nothing in the way of testable hypotheses. There is no doubt that the result is interesting and informative. But there is little meat in it; it goes nowhere. The trouble is that, like Spencer, Allen never seemed to pause to ask whether this kind of activity is what he wants it to be; that is, whether it is, in any useful sense, doing science. It was a problem that would recur.


Allen had persuaded H.S. King, a reputable scientific publisher, to take Physiological Aesthetics, but he had to pay the large sum of L120 for what was, in effect, a vanity-publishing deal to get it into print. It made a hole in his Jamaican compensation payment. It was an expensive gamble, for the book sold fewer than three hundred copies before the remainder was lost in a fire. But it was not a bad investment. He ended up only about L30 in the red. Reviews were few, but they were respectful. The psychologist William James was nice about it, urging him to focus his attention rather more in his next original inquiry. So Allen was no longer completely unknown. He had at least the makings of a reputation in scientifically influential circles and, as an expert networker, he made sure his name at least became known to as many of the intellectual aristocracy as possible.


Emboldened now, he fashioned an article out of the central thesis of the book and gave it a mildly intriguing title, 'Carving a Cocoa-nut'. By examining this particular primitive effort at decorative art, he shows how the aesthetic impulse can be traced back beyond the origins of humanity into the animal and even the insect worlds. He dispatched this to Leslie Stephen, the gaunt, erudite editor of the Cornhill. By now Allen was probably somebody more than a name in the corner of a manuscript to Stephen. At any rate, this time not the article but a cheque came back. Stephen took it for the October 1877 issue and paid for it promptly. Allen remembered his jubilation ever after. 'That was the very first money I earned in literature', he recalled. 'I had been out of work for months, the abolition of my post in Jamaica having thrown me on my beam-ends, and I was overjoyed at so much wealth poured suddenly in upon me'.[111]


He was being sarcastic, of course, but the Cornhill did pay him twelve guineas for his article, calculated at its standard and notably generous rates of about a pound a page. Could one make a living by churning out articles for pay like this? It depended how you looked at it. Entire Victorian families, many thousands of them, and (a trustworthy observer noted) 'clean, well-fed, well-clothed, and well-mannered' families at that, were well used to living for two months on the sum Allen received for that single article. Harold Biffen, the young Realist novelist in New Grub Street, could have sustained his monkish existence in a garret for twenty weeks on such an inordinate sum.[112]


But Allen was no monk, and no bohemian either. He was not thinking of taking a pair of back rooms in Islington, and ensuring a regular flow of those twelve-guinea cheques was no easy thing. The Cornhill had high standards but a sliding circulation. The number of periodicals willing to pay for articles on the origins of art was, to put it mildly, limited. Still, Allen successfully worked the same vein with several more pieces for the Cornhill on related themes: 'Aesthetic Analysis of an Obelisk', 'Dissecting a Daisy', 'The Origin of Flowers', 'The Origin of Fruits', and 'Colour in Painting'. They were close-knit, lucid and packed with lively notions, although their style is much stiffer than the mature one which Allen eventually devised for himself.

The trouble was that these pieces were all offshoots of Physiological Aesthetics and its successor scientific book, the one which Allen was now researching in great detail. This was living on one's fat. It could not go on for long. What he needed was an outlet for more varied wares. He found it in the Belgravia, a middle-brow monthly designed to appeal particularly to the genteel female reader. It published much fiction, a tradition started by its first editor Mary Braddon, but at present the editor was the publisher Andrew Chatto, and he was looking for more gossipy, light-hearted articles, particularly travel pieces. He was glad to discover Allen's articles and stories, which were just what he wanted, and Allen started to appear there from April 1878, continuing right through the next decade. For the first time Allen adopted a pseudonym, 'J. Arbuthnot Wilson'. The name was a private joke: it formed the acronym 'jaw', a slang term of the time for gossipy talk. The Cornhill pieces had been unsigned, or appeared over initials only, but of course everyone, or everyone who counted, knew who had written them. But now, for these first Belgravia pieces, Allen not only used a pseudonym but devised a semi-fictive voice to speak for him. When writing on the Thousand Islands region of his birth, for instance, this persona claims that he has never been there before; and in another he asserts that he has lived in Jamaica for years longer than Allen actually did.


The pseudonym was taken, presumably, to keep apart his personae as a serious essayist/scientist and as a more frivolous journalist and story-writer. But the use of a fictive narrator in his essays is rather different. It hints at darker psychological waters. It is as though Allen wants to half-disown what he is doing. It is the first sign of the bifurcation which would trouble him greatly in years to come, and which became, indeed, the dominant note of his career. But for the present the attempt was only half-hearted. He did not insist for long on keeping the roles distinct, and one soon merged with the other. He retained the 'Wilson' identity for some time when writing short fiction, but quickly abandoned it for his non-fiction, which he now began to turn out in quantity. For the Belgravia in these early years he wrote on almost anything: closely-observed travel articles; the merits of American food; the undeserved 'romance' of tropical scenery and so on. In the Belgravia appeared Allen's first short stories also. He stumbled into fiction quite by accident, having no idea that it might prove more profitable and easier to produce than miscellaneous articles. Andrew Chatto saw some promise in his first effort, which he printed in July 1878, and encouraged Allen in this new venture. He produced three more over the next eighteen months: a slow start.


Placing articles in a few monthly magazines was not a living, even if one could do it every month (and Allen soon got close to that, even though most editors said it was impossible). It needed supplementing with whatever other hack work was available. Late in 1877 he joined a group of editors who were compiling a multi-volume reference work, an Imperial Gazetteer of India, under Sir William Hunter, who was the Director-General of Statistics to the Indian government. Hunter employed a team of people to take statistical information supplied by compilers in India and work it into a consistent format. There were entries for about 8000 Indian towns and places of interest to compose, and Allen tackled some of the longest entries on the Punjab and Sind. He had to move to Edinburgh in December 1877 to work on this, and he stayed there for some months. Eventually the work stretched out to three years of part-time labour spent in the 'dreary Indian Statistical Department', and the Gazetteer did not appear until 1881. From the documents he worked with, Allen, the colonial, formed a hostile view of British imperialism at work in India and a jaundiced view of Hunter himself, who was, he found, quite ready to select facts to suit his role as the 'literary whitewasher of the Indian Government'. This experience bore fictional fruit later.[113]


Once he was back in London, Allen next managed to get freelance work on a Liberal morning newspaper, the Daily News. What work he did on the News was all anonymous and is now lost forever amid its acres of close-packed, smudgy print. He wrote 'social leaders' on questions of the day, pieces on natural history, and no doubt some of the numerous book reviews which figured in every issue.  It is said that he wrote all the leaders commenting on the Second Afghan War of 1878-80.  Whatever the work, it would have developed the lightning productivity and versatility which marked him later. He was not the only young man going through such an apprenticeship. At the News he got to know several of the most fluent pens of the day: Richard Whiteing, William Black, Robert Louis Stevenson and others. But the two men he met there who most put him on his mettle were surely Andrew Lang and George Saintsbury.


Allen, Lang and Saintsbury had all been students at Merton College, but although the years that the trio had spent there had overlapped a little, none of them had known each other. Andrew Lang, the oldest, born in 1844, entered Balliol College in 1865, when he was twenty-one. He was a brilliant student and after graduating he was elected to a Merton fellowship, but was away a good deal with a lung complaint. His fellowship was for a fixed term, and he surrendered it in 1875 in favour of marriage and journalism in London. (Perhaps he could have remained as a married fellow, but the basic pay was only L300 a year, although some fellows managed to double that and more, by taking on extra college duties.) Lang was the first to settle at the Daily News, and very soon his fanciful literary leaders were attracting attention: 'fairy tales written by an erudite Puck', was one slightly barbed description.[114]


George Saintsbury, born in 1845, had arrived with a postmastership at Merton in April 1863, four years before Allen. But he had failed to get a fellowship. He left Oxford early in 1868, in Allen's first year, and, just as Allen was to do later, went school-mastering. He married a surgeon's daughter that June. After spells in Manchester, Guernsey and Scotland, he discovered that he disliked teaching. He moved back to London and shifted into journalism in 1876, when Lang got him on to the Daily News. He stayed in literary journalism for the next eighteen years, building up a formidable reputation as a critic. In an active career lasting sixty years, he wrote nearly fifty books and edited some 450 editions and selections, plus hundreds of articles. (As there is no comprehensive bibliography, the exact number is unknown.) All were on French and English literature, except for the gossipy Scrap Books and a book about the contents of his wine cellar -- the latter being the sole item of this vast output still in print by the end of the twentieth century. Saintsbury was never entirely self-employed, as Lang and Allen were. Between 1880 and 1892 he was a sub-editor and leading light of the Saturday Review, which had a fearsome reputation for its assaults on the books noticed in its pages. Allen's novels suffered regularly from the attentions of the 'Saturday Reviler'. Saintsbury's editorial post absorbed only a part of his energies, of course, but it reminds us of how much Allen suffered from not having anything similar to fall back on. By 1883 Saintsbury's editorship plus his own work and a small private income was bringing in about L1400 in some years: a splendid sum by any standard, especially for a writer who had no recourse to fiction.


It is hard to credit that Grant Allen, whose political and social views were already far to the Left, could possibly have taken much pleasure in the company of a pair of romantic-Tory dreamers and dyed in the wool litterateurs like Lang and Saintsbury. For one thing, both of them were a little older than he -- in their early thirties. Saintsbury was a perfect example of the 'young fogy' who even at Oxford had been ribbed for sounding like a reactionary clubman. He had the highest High Church leanings, and one of his amusements, apparently, was getting a little group together and reading St Augustine's Confessions out loud.[115] He was a wine and food bore, whereas Allen cared nothing for either. He was so little the gourmet that in later life he lived on an almost unrelieved diet of oysters and Benger's Food, an invalids' pap.


And then there was the question of their literary manners. Grant Allen's style evolved quite markedly as he matured, but his conscious goal from the start, in non-fiction anyway, was a relatively undecorated, conversational, even breezy style. Saintsbury, like Lang to a lesser degree, cultivated a maddeningly mandarin style larded with quotations and allusions in half a dozen languages. His later work reads more like the clue-list of a difficult crossword puzzle than English prose. Both men were masters of the put-down: flippantly dismissive in Lang's case; saltily contemptuous in Saintsbury's, and neither found much talent to praise in their own age, especially anything which smacked of the experimental. Such attitudes were very far from the generous, even effusive tributes which Allen liked to heap on new writers, including some who manifestly did not deserve it. 'They say that I discover a new poet once a fortnight', he said once, with self-mocking exaggeration.[116] This readiness to engage with everything new and enticing (enticing because it was new) is one of the most attractive aspects of Allen's personality. His colleagues' shallow disparagement of everything modish and challenging could not possibly have been to his taste. Even more damning -- and this must have been the ultimate condemnation from Allen's point of view -- was the fact that both men looked on science, and the scientific outlook on the world, with blank distaste. 'He took to popular science', Lang wrote of Allen after his death, with an almost visible shudder, 'by which a tiny income may be made by an extremely clever man in this educated age . . . the public does not care whether "petals are in all cases transformed stamens" or not, and I confess to sharing this hideous indifference'. Well, of course. It was Lang who summed up Allen's practical scientific enquiries in one expressive noun: 'stinks'. [117]


Though Saintsbury must have struck Allen as merely preposterous, his relations with Andrew Lang were more ambivalent. Though Lang posed as a dilettante he had, after all, shifted from that cosy Merton fellowship, the very prize briefly within Allen's own grasp, into the arduous world of literary journalism. He was four years older than Allen, with a self-possessed, somewhat impudent manner. He had a bantering style of conversation even with friends that stopped only just short of offensiveness. For most of his career Lang, like Allen, was entirely a freelance writer, living on his wits with no salaried post of any kind as a safety net: a very rare achievement indeed. Yet he made the handsome living that Allen felt forever eluded him, simply by becoming a titan of productivity in his chosen areas. And Lang was ubiquitous. Every time Allen appeared in Longman's Magazine -- and thirty-seven items appeared there -- right next to his article or story was Lang's regular causerie, 'At the Sign of the Ship', which appeared in every single monthly issue for the rest of Allen's life. 


Lang's capacity for work was legendary. No doubt Allen heard all the stories: how he could turn out a leading article in a stray half-hour before the dinner bell, or a longish essay during a single ride in a hansom cab, and how he could participate intelligently in a meeting while holding a book under review in one hand and a busy pen in the other. Then there were all those books, nearly eighty of them, eventually: the twelve volumes of the multi-hued Fairy Books; the nine translations, including all of Homer; the Scottish histories, the essay collections. . . . Saintsbury once said that, if collected, Lang's work might have filled nearer 200 than 100 volumes; though this is must be an exaggeration, it may not be a great one.[118] It's true that Lang's achievement is, on closer inspection, not quite as overwhelming as it seems. For one thing, his writing career lasted more than thirty-five years. And although he did work of more lasting value than Allen in folklore and anthropology, his range of interests were narrow. 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.  


Still, the fact is that for his entire career Allen had the provoking Lang right alongside him, and Lang was the only writer in England who was being successful in exactly the way that Allen wanted to be successful. It wasn't even as though Lang had to compromise much with the market-place, as Allen repeatedly claimed he had to do. Lang wrote just what he wanted to write, and found it was just what the public wanted to read. He never had any reason to resent the limitations that his audience placed on him. It must have been irritating that, even in the few scholarly interests which they shared, in anthropology and folklore, Lang was taken more seriously than Allen ever was. When Allen's labour of love on the anthropology of religion, 

The Evolution of the Idea of God, appeared in 1897, Lang reviewed it at great length. It was a learned, polite and fair review. It was also destructive. But what he said turned out to be the common judgment on the book.


Although their relations remained fairly good, good enough for Allen to ask Lang to puff at least one of his novels, an anecdote does suggest something of the tensions between them. Just after Allen's death, Lang wrote an obituary for the Daily News and related this incident in his typical feline fashion:

As an instance of his kind temper, I remember that he showed me proof-sheets of a novel in which I appeared as the Villain. The personal portrait (apart from my series of heartless crimes) was flattering, but recognizable; and, at my request (for it could only cause gossip), the villain was altered out of all possibility of recognition. 'The body is yours', he said, 'but the soul is the black soul of -- '. The soul appeared to me to be that of the common miscreant of romance. However, Mr Allen took very considerable trouble to make the body unrecognizable.

Unrecognizable? Hardly. The character is very obviously Hugh Massinger of This Mortal Coil: a minor poet with a line in cynical, fantastical and rather tiresome talk. Allen disguised him physically (he appears as a dark, handsome Byronic cad, rather than a lean, fey Scotsman) but the portrait is unmistakable. It is an exercise in veiled, perhaps even hardly conscious, creative hostility, and despite the bland tone of his anecdote it seems that Lang detected this at the time and did not like it at all. He confronted Allen over the portraiture rather too forcefully, and then thought better of it.[119] But most of the time they preserved a chaffing, joking relationship. They bickered endlessly over Darwinism and psychical research, but they kept away from personalities in their reviews of each other's work. Literary London, or at least their sector of it, was not so large a place, and each man was influential enough to cause the other serious damage; it suited both to be tactful and supportive as far as they could. During the episode of the Athenaeum letter in 1892 discussed later, when Allen's mental equilibrium seemed to be teetering for a while, Lang was careful to show him a segment about the matter due to go in his Longman's column, offering to pull it out if he found it offensive.


Apart from his work on the News, Allen, like the other two, had several more irons in the fire. He joined them, and Robert Louis Stevenson as well, in contributing pieces to London, a short-lived Conservative weekly erratically edited by the boisterous, red-bearded, truculent W.E. Henley, who was becoming recognized as a literary king-maker with a genius for gathering rising young writers about him. Nothing was signed in London, which was just as well when some issues were cobbled together entirely by Henley and Stevenson with the printer's devil at the door. Only a little of Allen's work can be identified now. The pieces most obviously from his hand are three vividly unpleasant papers which appeared in November 1878. They describe and comment on the tortures inflicted on animals during pointless experiments with vanadium injections, which Allen had read about in some learned society's journal. They are the first view we get of a side of the man that he revealed rarely but always to great effect: a capacity for really ferocious sarcasm.[120] 


But London offered few opportunities of this kind, and Allen could hardly have taken much pleasure in writing for such a stodgy journal. Apart from its politics, which were totally at odds with his own, the tone of London was curiously peevish considering that all the copy came from bright young men. Many a column was filled with 'why-oh-why?' laments about prisoners being mollycoddled with mattresses in their cells, barbers who gossip too much, and over-crowded first-class train carriages. Its house style was a version of the florid, space-filling one common in journals of the time, a hangover from the previous century, in which a brawny policeman might be called 'a veritable son of Vulcan'. Allen could imitate this style to perfection. When he reviewed Alfred Russel Wallace's Tropical Nature he treats Wallace's spiritualistic beliefs with the required laborious humour: 'he desires a certain evidence for the invisible and immaterial with such fervour, that he has been occasionally tempted to seek a proof by the illogical method of employing his eyes and his fingers to see and to handle it. His coquetry with that special form of necromancy which calls itself Spiritualism will be fresh in the memory of many readers. . . ' and so on and on until the column was filled.[121]


Very occasionally there is a more subversive, sly touch. London's reviews went in for some really shameless log-rolling, trading on the anonymity of its contributors. Allen's own articles, which were then appearing in the Cornhill and Belgravia, are specially recommended to the readership as earnest and intelligent, and when his second book appeared it was greeted with an outrageous piece of puffery. 'We do not know one so audacious, so grave, and so completely competent as the writer of the book before us', it begins. The reviewer (could it have been Allen himself?) makes the book sound like the Principia and the Origin of Species rolled into one: 'as closely reasoned as a proposition in geometry . . . a marvel of acute discrimination and resolute industry . . . one forgets even to envy the author for his remarkable knowledge . . . the finest work of its kind which we have ever seen . . . at present there are not three scientific writers living in England whom we would care to put above him'.[122]


Foolery of this kind is rare in the pages of London. But still, it was all experience; amusing, no doubt, and quite invaluable for a man entering this cut-throat world of higher journalism. But it was daunting, too. Sitting in the sparsely-furnished London office in the Strand, watching a deceptively languid Andrew Lang taking some topic of the moment and tossing off an amusing ballade on it for all the world as though he were scribbling a business note, must have been both inspiriting and depressing. As he watched Saintsbury and Lang, Henley and Stevenson, vying with each other -- all of them limbering up to become the most athletic pens of the day -- Allen must have realized just how competitive was that circle which he trying to enter.


Certainly he fully intended to be in the race. He was working hard and, for the moment, making good money. He could afford to take a house in Ladbroke Grove at 22 Bonchurch Road, which was not a fashionable area but perfectly respectable. The house was a pretty terrace, rented at perhaps a hundred a year. In full flight from the heavy mahogany furniture and harsh aniline dyes of mid-Victorian taste, the Allens did out their house in a light, bright, functional Arts and Crafts style. Or, to be more exact, they used the cheaper commercialized version of that style on sale at Liberty's, that new shop in Regent Street: all soft Indian prints, Japanese fans, peacock feathers, filoselle silk, lacquered trays, and pipkins from Morlaix, about which he would soon be writing enthusiastically in the Cornhill. Allen had no interest in the bohemian aspects of the Aesthetic movement: the men in velvet knickerbocker suits and flat velvet caps; the women with red hair, green eyes and a magenta mouth; the preciosity of it all. But he was interested in interior design, and in clothes: he was known to select his wife's dresses, and even to have them made up from his own designs. His own tastes ran to the quaint, the hand-finished, the quasi-medieval and (later) the Moorish, more or less along the lines set down by Clarence Cook in The House Beautiful (1878), in Wilde's lecture of the same name, and other such guides to the Aesthetic home. Allen did not live long enough to react to its supplanter, Art Nouveau, which dates from the very end of the '90s, but he did pass through the 'Liberty' phase of brass trays, rugs, incense burners, fretwork, and pearl inlays, especially after the winter he spent in Algeria. At Bonchurch Road the Allens' child, Jerrard Grant, was born in July 1878, five years after their marriage. This was unusual for the time -- about 80% of Victorian wives produced a child within a year of marriage -- and there were to be no others. Were the Allens early adopters of family limitation? If so, they were part of what was becoming, in their class, a very discreet majority; a majority to which Allen would be addressing some acerbic comments in due course.


We may calculate that Allen's annual income from all sources was very briefly L650-700. His colleague Saintsbury, whose labours were comparable to Allen's at the time, kept records showing that he earned L700 in 1877. This was the income of an up-and-coming professional man. It placed Allen in the top 1% of British family incomes, and certainly enabled three people to live in quite luxurious comfort. Such a family could run to a terrace in, say, Kensington, with four bedrooms; a cook, a nurse, a parlour-maid; a comfortable month at the sea-side in the summer, and six long weekends in the country scattered through the year.[123] Life looked more promising. But then a familiar Victorian catastrophe loomed. He fell seriously ill.



Of all the calamities that might crush the professional writer, incapacitating illness was one of the most dreadful. The career of Richard Jefferies, a naturalist, novelist and countryman who was born the same year as Allen, is a reminder of this. Jefferies had an even shorter life, but while it lasted his career and Allen's marched alongside each other. 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. Had he lived a normal span, Jefferies might have been another example of how the higher journalism padded out with some reasonably marketable novels could be a good living. But tuberculosis put paid to that, and Jefferies and his family were charity cases before the end. They would have gone to the workhouse had they not received a Royal Literary Fund grant (L100 a year) and the income from a fund set up by Longman, his publisher, and the Pall Mall Gazette, which raised L1000. All that lay in the future when Allen fell so ill for the first time, but he could very easily have ended the same way, and he needed no precognitive powers to know it. 


Allen had always to reckon with his health. He had been a sickly child, and by early manhood was already afflicted with the 'lung' that would plague his whole life. Despite being a great outdoorsman he was quite frail, and late-shift newspaper work was too much for him. Lang and Saintsbury were wiry men who were capable of working from ten in the evening until the early morning and then walking all the way home to North Kensington; for a time, anyway. Allen was not. He had other worries too. London was drifting on to the rocks early in 1879 and folded on 5 April. Well before then he was casting about him for work: any literary work at all. In a pathetic letter to Nicholson, now working as a librarian, he begs his friend to help him to find something. 'I cannot make money enough to keep us afloat. It strikes me that you may possibly know of some literary hackwork -- index making, cataloguing, compiling or anything of that sort. . . . I am ready to turn my hand to anything'.[124] Things must have reached a fairly alarming state to make him swallow his pride and write in such terms as those. Again, the conversation between an author and his wife in New Grub Street gives the context:

'Was there ever a man who did as much as you have done in literature and then sank into hopeless poverty?'
'Oh, many!'
'But at your age, I mean. Surely not at your age?'
'I'm afraid there have been many such poor fellows. Think how often one hears of hopeful beginnings, new reputations, and then -- you hear no more. Of course it generally means that the man has gone into a different career; but sometimes, sometimes --'


     'The abyss'. He pointed downward. 'Penury and despair and a miserable death'.

     'Oh, but those men haven't a wife and child! They would struggle --'

     'Darling, they do struggle. But it's as if an ever increasing weight were round their necks; it drags them lower and lower. The world has no pity on a man who can't do or produce something it thinks worth money. You may be a divine poet, and if some good fellow doesn't take pity on you, you will starve by the roadside. Society is as blind and brutal as fate'.[125]


The abyss waited for him, but Allen was no Edwin Reardon. He knew how to struggle. The scientific and other quality journalism which he turned out in 1878/9 is already redoubtable in its range. He wrote reviews and articles on psychological topics for Mind; he wrote solid essays on the origins of civilization and on national characteristics for the Gentleman's; he wrote on the etymology of Christian names and on English topography for the Cornhill; he wrote on the physiology of nutrition and digestion for the Belgravia; he tried his hand at literary criticism, by making a minute and clever inspection of a few lines from Keats' Eve of St Agnes; he appeared for the first time in the Fortnightly Review writing on the puzzle posed for Darwinists by the loss of body hair in humans.


The latter was something of a coup. The Fortnightly had been started by G.H. Lewes in 1865 as the organ of rational agnosticism and all progressive causes (or, as its enemies said, of materialism and godlessness), and Allen found John Morley, its editor up to 1882, a congenial spirit. Morley put some book-reviewing Allen's way, trying him out with Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Allen hated cruelty to animals and, perhaps because he thought it would go down well with the Fortnightly's liberal readers, referred disgustedly to Stevenson's use on his donkey of a 'wooden goad, with its eighth of an inch of pin . . . most Englishmen will feel pained rather than amused by the description of poor Modestine's many stripes, or of her foreleg "no better that raw beef on the inside"'.[126] Stevenson was becoming a desirable property for editors, and Allen's career as a general-purpose reviewer ended abruptly after that. Still, the new association with the Fortnightly proved to be a particularly happy one. He contributed twenty-nine lengthy articles and review-articles to it right through his career, including several of his most incendiary pieces which probably he could have placed with no editor in London except Morley's replacement Frank Harris (editor 1886-94). But then, Allen wrote as well for that pillar of Christian orthodoxy, the Contemporary Review, and even for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. In truth, he cared little at this stage whom he wrote for, as long as they printed all his words and paid him promptly.


In addition to all this, and on top of the work for Hunter, he had been slogging away right through 1878 on his second scientific monograph, which was published at the start of the new year as The Colour-sense. More than half of this book is a painstaking description of how colour vision in animals and insects, and the hues of flowers and fruits, have evolved interactively to service plants' reproductive needs. However, the actual occasion of the book was a debate of the day about whether humans' colour vision has evolved in historical times. The case for this was first put by the classical scholar and Prime Minister, William Gladstone, in a paper in the Nineteenth Century in 1877, which he later issued as a pamphlet. Gladstone claimed on purely philological grounds -- that is, by examining the colour words in their literature -- that the people of 3000 years ago could distinguish red and yellow, but not blue and green. His sub-text here was, of course, that the Darwinian account of human evolution must be wrong, since 3000 years, or three million for that matter, could never have produced such a complex mechanism as colour vision by natural selection alone.


The Colour-sense is a more effective book than Allen's first, because it allowed him to exercise one of his most powerful talents: the mustering and arrangement of a vast array of dry data into a logical, readable, lively narrative. It demolishes Gladstone's theory easily enough, and offers a convincing and testable one of its own: namely, that the lack of highly discriminative colour terms arises from the small number of dyes or artificial pigments available in primitive cultures. One wonders, though, if devoting 280 pages to the job, and making inquiries by circular letter of missionaries and officials in every corner of the globe, was not overkill in the circumstances. After all, the original speculation was a silly one which, as he himself says at one point, a few visits to museums ought to have knocked on the head quickly enough. Presumably he tackled it because it was a lively issue of the moment which allowed him to champion Darwinism and -- an even more rewarding enterprise in some circles -- give the leader of the Liberal Party a polite drubbing. Another bonus was that it gave him an excuse to bustle about getting in touch with the leading names in biology and anthropology. In his introduction he acknowledges Darwin, Galton, Spencer, Wallace, Sayce the philologist, Moseley and Lubbock as having provided him with information; and even from the surviving remnants one can see that his enquiries generated a huge correspondence. He and Darwin exchanged several letters about it in April and May 1879 and it is clear that, in the wealthy and influential circle centred on the great naturalist, Allen was becoming a young man to watch. But when the book appeared Allen was shocked at the scantiness of the returns. It earned him the miserable sum of thirty pounds. 'As it took me only eighteen months to write', he reflected sardonically, 'and involved little more than five or six thousand references, this result may be regarded as very fair pay for an educated man's time and labour'.[127]


It is unlikely that he took such a detached view of his circumstances at the time. His illness, which was probably bronchitis exacerbated by a tubercular lesion on a lung, grew steadily worse as 1879 wore on. For a while it seemed as though he was literally killing himself with work. Victorian medicine had nothing to offer except to recommend getting him into a warmer clime over the winter. But the order South was one thing; funds were another. Allen replayed the predicament, with some satirical inventions no doubt, in Philistia, five years later. Edie Le Breton, wife of the consumptive hero, scrapes together three guineas to get an opinion from the most expensive specialist:

'In the first place [the great man tells Edie] your husband must give up work altogether. He must be content to live perfectly and absolutely idle. Then, secondly, he must live quite away from England. I should recommend the Engadine in summer, and Algeria or the Nile trip every winter; but, if that's beyond your means -- and I understand from Mr Le Breton that you're in somewhat straitened circumstances -- I don't object to Catania, or Malaga, or even Mentone and the Riviera. You can rent furnished villas for very little on the Riviera. But he must in no case come further north, even in summer, than the Lake of Geneva. That, I assure you, is quite indispensable, if he wishes to live another twelvemonth. Take him south at once, in a coupe-lit of course, and break the journey once or twice at Lyons and Marseilles. Next, as to diet, he must live generously -- very generously. Don't let him drink claret; claret's poor sour stuff; a pint of good champagne daily, or a good, full-bodied, genial vintage Burgundy would be far better and more digestible for him. Oysters, game, sweetbreads, red mullet, any little delicacy of that sort as much as possible. Don't let him walk; let him have carriage exercise daily; you can hire carriages for a mere trifle monthly at Cannes and Mentone. Above all things, give him perfect freedom from anxiety. Allow him to concentrate his whole attention on the act of getting well, and you'll find he'll improve astonishingly in no time. But if you keep him here in England and feed him badly and neglect my directions, I can't answer for his getting through another winter'. . . . So that was the end of weeping little Edie's poor hardly-spared three guineas.[128]

Fortunately Allen, unlike Ernest Le Breton, had affluent friends to rally round in this emergency; and in later years, thanks to his own industry, he was able to supply himself with some of the panaceas he mocks here, right down to the oyster-diet. One of Allen's well-wishers was the young biologist George John Romanes (1848-1894). Romanes and Allen had every reason to take an interest in each other's careers. Not only were they of an age, but both had been born at Kingston. Romanes' father had been an academic in Canada but when he inherited a fortune, soon after George's birth, he moved the family to England. The young Romanes went to Cambridge in the same year that Allen went to Oxford. An accomplished student in physiology with ample private means and a ready entry into the best circles which they permitted, Romanes pursued a course very similar to the one that Allen might well have followed given the same advantages. His life was short -- he died of a brain tumour at 46 -- but he devoted it to technical zoological studies and the evolution of the mind in animals and humans, which was one of the most controversial post-Darwinian issues. He contributed prolifically to the periodicals on philosophical questions, especially on the application of Darwinism to religion. He also had literary ambitions as a poet.

Romanes had reviewed Physiological Aesthetics fairly approvingly in Nature, calling it 'an entertaining little treatise', which perhaps was not meant to be as patronizing as it sounds. Certainly he thought enough of it to send a copy to Darwin. His misspelled Allen's name throughout the review, but if the two men did not know each other well, or at all, they soon improved the acquaintance. Romanes' health was never good either, so he could easily sympathize with Allen's plight. Now he joined forces with the philosopher George Croom Robertson, the editor of Mind, the first dedicated journal of psychology, for which Allen had written a few reviews. The two men devised a scheme to raise money by subscription. Eventually they raised L202 from fifteen well-wishers, including Andrew Lang and Leslie Stephen. Darwin contributed L25 and offered more if need be: he was taking a personal interest in Allen's embryonic career and thought it a very melancholy case.[129] Robertson and his wife agreed to the ticklish task of offering this gift -- for that was how it was intended -- in a way that the Allens could accept. But when they called round at Bonchurch Road one evening on this mission, they met little resistance. Matters were desperate, and for the sake of his family Allen could not afford any display of false pride. The offer came, as he said, like a lifebuoy to a drowning man. The Robertsons permitted him to think of it as a loan, though no-one either expected or wished it to be repaid, and with that the matter was settled.


The money was more than sufficient to send the family off to the Riviera for the entire winter of 1879-80. That October, the Allens with their baby and a nursemaid took the train from Victoria to Paris, and then the notorious ambulance train which trundled south each day with its cargo of sick and dying patients swaddled in blankets. The trip was horrible. The train had no sleeping cars, dining car nor, probably, any lavatories. They had to overnight at Lyons in a hotel where the beds were so dirty that they dared not get into them. They passed the night on chairs, wrapped up in their travelling rugs. After another night at Marseilles, on the third day they finally reached the small town of Hyeres, near Nice. Standing on the side of a craggy, pine-covered hill, and before the time of railways easily accessible down the Rhone valley, Hyeres was one of the oldest of the sanatorium resorts. Like most Provencal towns at the time, it consisted of a medieval core of tangled and stinking streets where cholera lurked and few visitors ventured, plus a few modern boulevards making up the 'foreigners' quarter'. The family lodged at the Hotel des Hesperides on the Boulevard des Isles d'Or. Living in southern France was cheap then for Britons and getting cheaper. You could hire a cook for L2 a month, and a mid-range furnished apartment cost L64 for the whole winter season. A pair of rooms at the Hesperides, en pension with everything found, cost even less than that. The hotel was cosy rather than glamorous, but it had big sitting-rooms and a dining-room with a fine garden planted with orange trees. There were splendid views of the mountains and of the glittering sea, some five kilometres away across the intensively-cultivated plain which formed one great market-garden for the halles of Paris and Marseilles. Hyeres was rather a backwater at this time because the main railway line along the Riviera coast had bypassed it, but there were still fifteen hundred resident British in every stage of decrepitude and recovery, and therefore plenty of companions to make gentle excursions on foot or by donkey-cart and picnic in the hills around. One of the sights of the town was an ancient man, the last French survivor of the Battle of Trafalgar, whose robust health at ninety put fresh heart into the most tottering consumptive.


Sitting on the third-floor balcony in the mild, soothing sun, Allen reported that he had never felt lazier in his life. 'The ordinary course of existence for the invalid world -- and we are all invalids -- is remarkably unruffled and serene', he reported. 'At the hotels, people get up, take their roll and coffee, stroll about till twelve, then have a table d'hote dejeuner, and devote the afternoon to a long walk or drive. Dinner at six makes the great event of the day, and a rubber in the public salon occupies them till nine, when they generally melt away to their private rooms'.[130] After just a few days of this vegetable existence he felt so much better that he even dared to weigh himself.


The Allens stayed at Hyeres until May 1880, and despite his protestations of laziness he must have put in several hours a day at his desk. Allen was one of those writers whose pens travel daily across the page by reflex action, whatever else is happening in their lives. He wrote a story for the Belgravia's Christmas annual, 'Lucretia', set in Quebec, which is a good skit on British social prejudices about colonials. A young and very innocent English traveller falls in with a bewitching French-Canadian, and fears her motives are robbery or murder -- worse, she turns out to be married. He also wrote at least four substantial articles for the Cornhill, and their titles are indicative of Allen's range even when he was presumably out of reach of reference books. One, 'The History of Haconby', sketches out the entire history, from prehistoric times, of an imaginary but typical English settlement. Another, 'Chippers of Flint', describes the long evolution, over hundreds of millennia, of stone and bone implements. A third, 'The Philosophy of Drawing-rooms', is Allen's first excursion into interior decoration, and it offers numerous insights into the lighter taste of the Arts and Crafts movement: he recommends pulling out pallid marble fireplaces, for example. The last, 'A Pilgrimage to Vallauris', describes an excursion to the much-admired pottery in the hills near Cannes. At that time the chief potter was Clement Massier, one of three brothers who had inherited the business from their father. He was famous for his lustre glazes, and was a figure of repute in the Art Nouveau movement in the following decade. Picasso would work at Vallauris later, and it is still operating today. On top of all that, Allen produced fifteen pages of technical evolutionary speculation on 'Pain and Death' for Robertson's Mind ;and a couple of lesser articles for the Gentleman's Magazine.


It was hardly a rest cure, to be sure; but rather surprisingly as the months passed his health was almost fully restored. He was able to resume working like a Trojan, and remained in good enough shape to sail through the next appalling winter without leaving England. (The January of 1881 was the worst of the century; so bad that Allen speculated in one of his St James's articles that the long interglacial epoch was ending and a new ice age beginning.[131]) Pulmonary tuberculosis is an unpredictable disease whose prognosis can be uncertain even today. It can become quiescent for years or decades, and it can exhibit a bewildering variety of symptoms. Allen's own symptoms, at least, went into abeyance. Believing that his months in Hyeres had saved his life, he went on to promote the charms of the Riviera vigorously to English tourists in numerous colourful travel pieces, one of which supplied some man-of-the-world advice on how to avoid making a fool of yourself at Monte Carlo. The casino there was quite new (it was founded in 1866). Because casinos were banned in France, Italy and Germany, what went on in them was a novelty for most British readers; so much so, indeed, that Allen takes some time explaining the principles of roulette. A passage from it suggests a new pliancy of style when he was left to his own devices, characterized by a nice balance between easy colloquialism and richer sentences filled with rolling subordinate clauses:

You have had enough of it, have you? That is well. Let us come away, and go out into the fresh open air. The heat in these rooms is stifling. I am tired of these fat German princesses, these sleek Parisian elegants, these stolid American gamblers. We swing the great door open upon its hinges, and go out into the corridor, bowed from the room with great dignity by a well liveried attendant. There is plenty of obsequiousness at Monte Carlo for everybody, even if he has lost his last louis.
     We emerge once more upon the beautiful terrace, the glorious view, the waving, penciled palm-trees. All around us, the Italian sun is lighting up the lovely coast with brilliant splendour. Bay and rock and mountain look all the more exquisite after that hot and crowded gaming-room. And there, high up on the shoulders of the Turbia, the great Roman tower looks down majestically with a kind of mute contempt on the throng of busy idlers who pour in and out all day through the marble portals of the Casino. It is well to have seen Monte Carlo for once, but one feels it would be a healthier excursion to climb up those grand old ledges and visit the silent monument which still gazes down with such calm serenity upon the motley throng who come so rudely to disturb its peace to-day after twenty centuries of unbroken solitude.


Allen preserves this tone of sardonic detachment throughout the piece, but perhaps his article had some effect because the very next year one of those societies beloved of the Victorians was formed in London specifically to lobby for the closure of Monaco's gambling hell.



Allen's illness was another turning point in his career. Naturally, he had had to give up the Daily News work, but he salted down his experiences as a working journalist for fictional retrieval later; first in Philistia, and again, equally satirically and no less effectively in some passages of his novels The Scallywag (1893) and At Market Value (1894). While at Hyeres he had celebrated a birthday. He was thirty-two. He would never again be anyone's employee. It was now a question of seeing what his own wits and his enlarged understanding of the fickle literary marketplace could do for him. The warm months in the South had brought him back to health, and though for the rest of his life he relapsed periodically into the life of a semi-invalid, his capacity for relentless work was never again seriously compromised. But he had had his warning. Was he likely to see old age? It was doubtful. And if he died young, where would his wife and son be? His first priority was his family. 'I never cared for the chance of literary reputation except as a means of making a livelihood for Nellie and the boy', he wrote later from a more secure vantage point. 'I can now make a livelihood easily: and I ought to turn to whatever will make it best'.[133] At this early stage his ambition was establish himself and make a lot of money, and make it quickly. Possibly he weighed his opportunities, assessed his powers and recognized his physical limitations, and decided that the life of a freelance author-journalist offered him the best chance, tenuous and unstable though it was.


Even if his planning was not quite as deliberate as that, it is certain that once he was back in London Allen flung himself with total determination into this dangerous arena. Superficially, the signs were good. He had brains, diligence and by now had earned some editors' regard. He had already proved that he could write quickly and well about many different things. But could he really make a living with the products he had to offer? And what would the personal cost be? Certainly for the first few years of that period he had a very difficult time, and it marked him for life. The work -- the particular kind of work he could do -- was fearsomely hard. He may not have appreciated himself just how relentlessly he would have to drive himself to make a satisfactory living. Much later in more prosperous times he reflected: 'I had a ten years' hard struggle for bread, into the details of which I don't care to enter. It left me broken in health and spirit, with all the vitality and vivacity crushed out of me. . . . I would say earnestly to the ingenuous and aspiring -- "Brain for brain, in no market can you sell your abilities to such poor advantage. Don't take to literature if you've capital enough in hand to buy a good broom, and energy enough to annex a vacant crossing."'[134] If the 'ten years' is to be taken literally, then it must refer to the period up to about 1887 or 1888, when he was forty. It will help, then, if we pause at this point and have a look at the competitive but potentially rewarding world which Allen was entering.




'But, sire, I must live'. (L'Abbe Guyot, excusing himself for having written a libellous pamphlet.)

'I don't see the necessity'. (Le Comte d'Argenson's response).

-- Quoted by Voltaire

Even from the perspective of a century or more, the socio-economic position of the professional author in late-Victorian England is still contentious. By selecting the evidence carefully -- and vast amounts of documentation are available -- it is possible to argue that writers had never had it so good either in terms of income or status; or, alternatively, that authorship had become a beggarly trade whose rewards were ridiculously low and declining by the year. Indeed, both of these cases were made vigorously at the time, and both could be made to sound convincing. Where, then, does the truth lie? Were authors right in feeling exploited and marginalized? Or was it, rather, that their expectations of their own worth has risen recently -- to unrealistic heights, perhaps? What, in any case, was the rank and role in society that writers 'deserved' to occupy? What rewards 'ought' to be due to them? And, most painful question of all, why did so many believe that sufficient remuneration was not, in most cases, actually forthcoming?


These were difficult questions, involving a good deal of subjectivity, and they are not very amenable to reasoned analysis. But authors being an opinionated and articulate breed, the questions were thoroughly aired anyway, in a long debate which bubbled away right through the twenty years of Allen's active literary life. This period is neatly bracketed by the appearance of Trollope's Autobiography (1883) at one end and Arnold Bennett's The Truth about an Author (1903) at the other, those two study-confidentials which shocked and titillated readers with their meticulous and unromantic accounts of their authors' working habits and rewards. Over the period between, dozens of articles and guidebooks investigated why writers wrote, and for what audience; how much or little they were paid for doing it, and whether it mattered -- for society, that is -- that the returns for most seemed to be so small that the game was hardly worth the candle. One locus of discussion was the Society of Authors, founded by Walter Besant in 1883/4, especially after its monthly mouthpiece The Author started to appear from May 1890. A great talking-point was the publication of New Grub Street in the following year, which supplied a fine occasion for the stoics to pit themselves against the breast-beaters in the Author's columns. According to the stoics, everybody knows that authorship is the only profession where even the genuinely talented often cannot make a living; so why the fuss? Why not accept the fact with good grace and, if the conditions are too irksome, why not turn to something else? Is such a poor trade worth so much attention? In fact, doesn't the insistence on the notion of trade, with its implication that a living wage is to be had, itself encourage false expectations? Henry James thought so: he protested against the 'too-iterated' question of earnings, and he resented attempts to align his or other writers' labours with those of grocers and shoemakers. Andrew Lang, that happy man, disparaged Gissing's handling of the more wretched cases in the novel, chiding the novelist for not equipping his cast with more of a sense of humour and more supportive wives. This drew indignant rebuttals claiming that the Olympian Lang knew nothing of the habits of the 'unattached journalist'. (An unfair charge in Lang's case; Lang was attached to no one.) 'What of the horror of a slack season, when nothing is going on except the unhappy journalist's appetite?' wailed one correspondent. 'What of the MSS rejected, one after another, because members of the staff of the paper have forestalled outsiders? What of the unexpected collapse of the "column" which brings in the modest sum of one guinea weekly?'[135]


What indeed? What answer could there be, except that the world owes no one a living, not even the author? Such, more or less, was the position which Allen himself took up. Whatever reservations he may have had about his master Herbert Spencer's laisser-faire economics in other contexts, he seemed prepared to follow him in his attitude to his own trade. He did not rebel against the economic plight of the writer, nor did he expect it to be ameliorated; his view was that either one accepted it or got out. Geniuses might chart their own course, and others might act the part of Simon Stylites on his pillar, surveying the throng below with pity and contempt; but even they had either to sell or be subsidized one way or the other. Allen's kind of author has to suit the market in precisely the manner of the baker and the grocer. Such an author cannot force the market, any more than the baker's man can elevate the taste of the back streets by asking them to buy French rolls instead of the homely quartern loaf.[136]


Allen took a similar Spencerian line on publishers, whom he regarded as humane businessmen who usually did what they could for their authors -- when they could afford it. His sheer delight in paradox, always a strong element in his nature, made him infuriate his fellow-authors by making obsequious remarks about the generosity of that tribe:


it is the fashion among certain authors to talk about the meanness and stinginess of publishers. As a matter of observation, I should say, on the contrary, there are no business men on earth so just and so generous. In no other trade would a man who has bought an article for a fair price in the open market, and then has found it worth more than the vendor expected, feel himself called upon to make that vendor a free gift of a portion of his profits. But publishers often do it; indeed, almost as a matter of course, expect to do it:[137]


This authorial interpolation accompanies a scene in the novel At Market Value (1894), at just the time when the Society of Authors was waging its war against the cupidity and fraudulence of some publishers, in the wake of the Archdeacon Farrar incident years before when Farrar had accused his publisher, Cassell, of making a fortune from his Life of Christ while paying him a pittance. (Actually the sum paid over was L2000; admittedly only a small fraction of the profits, but quadruple the contractual price, and few people except some authors sided with Farrar.) Not surprisingly, therefore, Allen's cheerfully impudent stance, his talk of 'the harmless, necessary publisher, that most indispensable of go-betweens, that most justifiable of middlemen' who is made 'the innocent scapegoat of literary economics',[138] produced a certain amount of tension. It was, perhaps, less a case of being reluctant to bite the hand that fed him than another expression of his contrarian temperament. He liked to cut against the grain almost as deliberate policy, but his views could seem intolerably quixotic to many of his fellow-writers.


The often acrimonious debate about 'sweating' publishers ebbed and flowed in the general press as well as the literary organs, because many people were interested in hearing about it. For, well-paid or not, authors were important people. Throughout Allen's career, writers of all stripes filled a peculiar social role in the society of English-speaking countries; one which they had never held before and will never have again. In the period bounded roughly by Forster's Education Act of 1870 at one end, and the first challenge to the world of print by the cinema at the other, writers, even quite minor writers, were celebrities. Their slightest doings and most trivial opinions were publicized not only in the newspapers but in what were effectively fan magazines. Robertson Nicoll's Bookman (1891), for instance, is often described as a trade journal for booksellers. But it was more than that. Month after month, on large, richly illustrated, coarse pages like blotting-paper, this was a magazine that ministered to a broad range of quasi-literary appetites. It chronicled the small beer of writers' private lives: we hear, for example, that Lady Somebody is 'recruiting' at Bournemouth before starting her new serial for the Belgravia. It also supplied ticker-tape information about the literary stock market (Kipling is steady; Hardy climbing; demand for biographies is tapering off).


The Bookman was the Exchange & Mart of the literary world, but it was not alone. At a slightly more elevated level -- though by the 1890s rather dowdier ones -- were two venerable competitors, the weekly Athenaeum and the Academy. Both were grab-bags of information about the printed word and its producers. Apart from reviewing almost everything worth noticing, they offered erudite articles whose very titles sound like parodies ('The Etymology of "Elope"') and a superior class of gossip ('Dr Buelbring has gone to Dublin to collate the Trinity College MSS of an early Psalter'). The Academyin particular, under its editors J.S. Cotton and Charles Hind, shifted down-market as the century closed, seeking a broader, less patrician readership who wanted to know about the latest advances in science and technology as well as the humanities.


If literature was being commodified and repackaged for the mass market, so were the authors themselves; and not only in their own eyes, but in the eyes of their readers. Furthermore, the place of production of these tradesmen was not the counter or the work bench or even the office, but most commonly a private room in a private house. Thus the distinction between the sites of work and of domesticity became blurred, and it is not surprising that the house or living-space became metonymic of authors themselves. The Bookman offered portraits and wood-cuts of authors' country houses. The general picture magazines, like the English Illustrated Magazine, the Strand and the Idler, invited their readers into the holy of holies, the Study itself -- the writing-chair, the desk and its accoutrements, the prints on the walls -- as though these objects had soaked up the mana of the author. It is notable just how minutely attentive New Grub Street is to interiors. We move from Biffen's garret with its scrap of weedy carpet, the three inches of head-room, the chair-bedstead and fireless grate; to Reardon's flat with its eight flights of stairs, the stove behind a screen, the cheap engravings near the writing-table; and finally to Milvain's select dinner-party for six in Bayswater, with a table of silver and crystal presided over by his 'matchless' wife.

In real life, the market-conscious author actively conspired with his readers to make this metonymic transference. Allen himself did it once, though not without hedging his article around with elaborately modest disclaimers and appeals to the readers' charity. In 'My Lares and Penates' -- note the high-flown title for what is, in fact, just a room-by-room tour of his Dorking house -- he wrote in a chatty mode specifically for an American audience. Americans, he says (surely with false disquiet) have an appetite for this kind of thing, whereas English readers 'sniff too suspiciously at personal detail'. And so we move through 'a pretty wee Queen Anne cottage, with tiny balcony and wooden porch . . . on the outskirts of a quiet, sleepy little English country town', noting on the way the little mementoes and trophies: the 'Indian bronze bell my brother brought me home from Allahabad', the Teiss microscope with its flattering inscription. The furnishings were still Liberty -- The Nook was Liberty Hall, joked a visitor -- and Allen obviously took considerable satisfaction in having beautiful things about him, especially in his study. He concludes his tour with an elaborate appeal for tolerance:

Accept it, I beg of you, not in any carping or unfriendly spirit, but as the confidential afternoon small-talk of a humble English journeyman journalist, anxious to exhibit to you something of his own life, as an illustrative specimen of the life of the class in which he is included. Literature in England (save for a few great names) is a hard trade, but it has, by the way, its incidental consolations. I have tried here to put a few of them before you. Do not think too harshly of me for my garrulous confidences. . . ...[139]

A more discreet way of backing into the limelight it would be hard to imagine, and Allen was infuriated and mortified when W.T. Stead reprinted extracts in the Pall Mall Gazette without permission. 'The article was written on a special American suggestion for a local American magazine to suit a peculiar American taste, and I would rather have cut off my right hand than have had it printed here in England', he complained. 'The appearance of these extracts in particular, [set] apart from their redeeming context, has caused me most acute discomfort. The article itself contains a distinct proviso that it was not intended for English readers'. Stead shrugged it off, and relations between the two were prickly ever afterwards.[140]

It's hard to see why Allen was so agitated. British readers were not greatly different from American ones. Their pattern of consumption was somewhat different, but the most important things was that they were all avid consumers of text, and that there were more and more of them. Late Victorian culture, from high to low, was overwhelmingly a culture of text, and the printed word had an authority, a dominance, a ubiquity, unparalleled in history. Text was the supreme conduit of culture at a time when some of the traditional sites of oral culture -- the sermon, the public meeting, the salon, the reception, the soiree -- were either losing their appeal or had never been accessible to people who were now eager and sufficiently educated to be informed and entertained. An array of new technologies were able to put more printed words in front of more people more frequently and more cheaply than ever before, and in ever more attractive formats. From the lowest class to the highest, every literate Victorian read something, and by the century's end literacy was virtually universal. And these readers had more to spend on their solace and instruction, too. Books and the more serious periodicals were bought (or, in the case of books, borrowed) mostly by people in the income band between L150-400 a year, and that band contained three times as many people when Allen died as it had had when he started out. As the ever-cheerful Walter Besant put it, 'reading, which has always been the amusement of the cultivated class, has now become the principle amusement of every class . . . the whole civilized world has acquired a taste for reading'. And that, he thought, was a good thing, as it kept people from more vicious pleasures.[141]


The sheer size of the reading market guaranteed that some authors would grow very rich. The burrowings of several generations of biographers has revealed in fine detail the finances of the literary giants -- or, at any rate, the big-selling names -- of the Victorian age. If we want to know how Dickens or George Eliot or Thomas Hardy or Mrs. Humphry Ward made their fortunes from the pen, it is easy enough to satisfy our curiosity. Some of the figures are extraordinary. John Ruskin managed to get through an enormous inheritance -- he gave a lot of it away -- but his books were still bringing in L4000 a year at the time of his death in 1900. Tennyson received 300 guineas for a single ballad in the Nineteenth Century, a startling earning capacity for a poet and one which allowed him to shrug off as simply too tiresome an American lecture tour which promised to net him L20,000.


It is very apparent, however, that it was the small body of best-selling novelists who built up the most impressive bank balances. We gasp at the stupendous L10,000 that Longman paid Disraeli for Endymion in 1880. George Eliot could afford to take a 'lesser' offer of L7,000 for Romola to satisfy her artistic conscience, but her income was still about L5000 a year in 1873 -- more than the top echelon of barristers could command, or a society physician. According to his famous account, Anthony Trollope at his peak was earning not much below that. He made about L70,000 in all from literature by ticking off his quantum of MSS every day. The top earnings increased steadily up to the end of the century and beyond. The British and American serial rights alone of Kipling's Captains Courageous went for L5,500 in 1896, which was then the highest price ever paid by a magazine for a piece of fiction. These were the earnings of the literary millionaires of the day, but even at a lower level novel-writing could pay very well. The forgotten James Payn, a sub-Dickensian talent of huge energy, and very popular, is said to have earned a steady 1,500 pounds by his pen year in and year out. This was a very fine income indeed when a family could live in solid upper-middle-class comfort on half that.


The prospect of ending dismally as a drudge may have dissuaded some people from taking up the literary trade, but the equal prospect of making at least a competence by sitting at one's own desk for a few hours a day spurred others on. At the census of 1881, when Grant Allen's career was gathering steam, six thousand people in England and Wales defined themselves as 'authors, editors, journalists, reporters'. By 1891, when Allen was pulling hard at full throttle, the number had grown to about eight thousand people. Just after his death, in 1901, it was eleven thousand. So, speaking very roughly, the number of people who were trying to make a living from the printed word doubled during the active phase of his career, and this may be a considerable understatement. Another estimate, in 1888, claimed 14,000 men and women in London 'lived' by writing.[142] It is very unlikely that many of these really lived exclusively by the pen. Anthony Trollope's optimistic assertion, in his Autobiography, that, if a man can equip himself with a table, a chair, pen, ink, and paper, he can start his trade without a moment's delay, must have sent hundreds off to the literary diggings. Not many paused to notice that, at the particular point in his career to which he is referring, Trollope was a salaried official in the post office. He was fifty-two before he felt confident enough about his authorial powers to resign. And that was characteristic of the generation preceding Allen's. Few people had expected to make a living out of authorship. In Isaac D'Israeli's Calamities of Literature, a splendid compendium of disaster published in 1812, not the least 'calamity' he considers is that of having to write expressly for money at all.[143] Traditionally, writing had been a side-line. The truth of Walter Scott's maxim had seemed self-evident: literature is a good stick but a bad crutch. Only three groups of people who lived entirely by the pen were exempted from this principle in the mid-nineteenth century, and they were all small: first, journalists who were more or less permanently on the staff of magazines and newspapers, like G.A. Sala; second, the penny-a-lining hacks who supplied much of their copy and felt lucky if they escaped destitution for another week; and third, the household names at the top of their particular literary trees: Scott (who was the exception to his own rule), Collins, Dickens, Disraeli, Eliot, Ruskin, and so on.


Even in the last part of the century unassisted professional authorship rarely paid a living wage, except for a talented and popular few. Taking a sample of Grant Allen's close contemporaries, it is surprising to discover just how rarely it did so. (We may define as 'close contemporaries' those who were born around mid-century and reached or began to climb to the apogee of their reputations near the end of it.) Financially speaking, nearly all of them fit well enough into four categories. First, there were those who came from moneyed families. Some of these had parents who were generous enough to underwrite the early stages of their offspring's careers while they found their feet, or paid them a living allowance indefinitely: W. H. Mallock (b.1849), R. L. Stevenson (b.1850) and Oscar Wilde (b.1854) all belong to this group. Stevenson, despite his energetic pen, earned very little before he was thirty. Even Treasure Island brought him only L100 at the outset. By the early '80s he had a few hundred a year coming in, but when he married his chief support was the L250 a year his father allowed him, and it kept both him and his several dependants more or less afloat for years until Jekyll and Hyde (1886) sold 40,000 copies in six months, earning him a small fortune. Even then, however, his incredible financial incompetence reduced him to semi-poverty more than once afterwards. Others of this group inherited money early on or had a private income in their own right: for instance, George Moore (b.1852) had a reliable L500 a year in Irish rents from the age of twenty-one; and Joseph Conrad (b.1857) had a substantial Polish inheritance to ease his transition from seaman to author, though he lost most of it before his career had really started.


Henry James (b.1843) does not precisely fit into this first category, but he has affinities with it. Thanks to Michael Anesko, we know a great deal about James's literary earnings. Though he came from a wealthy family, James was dependent on his pen until the age of fifty, and Anesko's figures permit the calculation that he earned an average of L869pa over the years of Grant Allen's active writing career; certainly more, but probably not greatly more, than Allen's own average over those years.[144] In other words, his rewards were considerable but hardly princely, especially considering his productivity coupled with the total dedication he had for his art. But James was in a very privileged position. As an American national resident in England he enjoyed copyright protection in both countries, and thanks to his transatlantic connections he earned much of his income from serialization in the most lucrative portions of the American periodical market, like the Atlantic and Harper's. In addition, from 1893 until his death in 1916 James had quite a large private income. Had he lacked this, and if he had suffered from the attentions of marauding US publishers and editors who expropriated his work for nothing -- as Grant Allen, a Canadian in England, did for most of his career -- then the figures tell their story: the older James would have lived and died a relatively poor man.


Second, there were those who married money as youngish men, so that they were free to expand their literary gifts in ways that would otherwise have been difficult: Wilde again, whose stylish mode of living before his plays made a fortune was underwritten by his wife's private income; or Rider Haggard (b.1856), who married a Norfolk heiress. Others married money in mid- or later career, enabling them to avoid an impecunious old age. For most of his life George Meredith survived on literary odd jobs to supplement his novels' tiny earnings, but it was a timely inheritance plus his second wife's money which transformed him into the comfortably affluent sage of Box Hill. Further down the social scale, W.H. Hudson (b.1841), the natural-history essayist and novelist, was largely supported by his wife's boarding house and, eventually, a Civil List pension. Almost all, if not quite all, Victorian women writers were in this class, too: they had at least a roof over their head and clothes on their back supplied by a husband or father, even in the few cases, like Mrs. Humphry Ward or Mrs. Oliphant, where they were more than able to supply their own.


Third, there were those whose literary endeavours were cushioned by other earnings. Some were able to use a salaried post as a springboard into full-time authorship: Edmund Gosse (b.1849) was for years a civil servant at the Board of Trade; W.E. Henley (b.1849) wrote prolifically, but from a series of paid editorial chairs heavily subsidized by rich backers; Conan Doyle (b.1859) had his doctor's fees, modest though they were; Hall Caine (b.1853) started as a secretary and journalist before his popular fiction started to sell by the million. Even a writer of such marked energy as Walter Besant needed the security of his post as secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund, which sounds like a sinecure but which was not treated as such by Besant during the eighteen years that he held on to it. (Besant, born in 1836, was older than Allen's generation, but he was a late starter and his writing career is almost coterminous with Allen's: his first book was published in 1868, on the unremunerative topic of Early French Poetry.)


Surprisingly, for the exceptional person who could secure an endless flow of work, a semi-permanent berth as a straightforward book reviewer could provide the foundation of a decent living. George Saintsbury reviewed in his 'spare' time and boasted that he could produce a lively review of a book on any subject whatsoever, averaging L3.10s for an evening's reading and a morning's writing.[145]This was about the weekly wage of a capable bank official and more than double a skilled workman's wages. Here was the basis of a good annual income, if one could keep up the murderous pace and if one were prepared to tolerate the draining effect on one's creativity. Grant Allen added that particular string to his bow at an early date. For most of his first decade of labour he wrote a book review first thing in the morning on every single day of the year. It must have supplemented his income considerably, but as nearly all of it is untraceable now, it is hard to say by how much.


Academia, the mainstay of so many writers today, was no such haven in this period. There were few posts in the humanities anywhere in the country, and men who were outside the charmed circle of Oxford and Cambridge life found it hard to penetrate it. They had to prove themselves so thoroughly that, at best, a post was only likely to come in time to support their later middle age. Even Saintsbury was fifty before he secured his Chair at Edinburgh, and it came just in time to rescue him from a difficult patch in his long career. The pugnacious critic John Churton Collins, who was the same age as Allen, leapt across all the stepping stones from teacher, to man of letters, to journalist/critic and finally to the firmer ground of academia -- but he was nearing sixty before he got his university post.[146]


All this serves to reinforce the closing assessment of J.W. Saunders in his socio-economic study, The Profession of English Letters: 'It was an age when the possession of private means, apart from professional earnings, was an almost indispensable asset in the preservation of integrity'.[147] Integrity was not always the key issue, in fact. Saunders' last phrase might well be qualified to read: 'the preservation of integrity or of a gentlemanly way of life'. Those who were determined to retain a foothold in the middle classes, even it meant sacrificing some integrity, soon discovered that selling out was no easy thing. In their different ways, two writers who are comparable to Grant Allen in their eventual acceptance of the need to compromise with the market are George Gissing and Joseph Conrad. The case of Conrad is particularly instructive. Peter McDonald's striking term for Conrad's stance in the opening phase of his career is 'principled aloofness', and where principled aloofness might lead you is well illustrated in McDonald's thorough account of Conrad's early financial history. In his early days Conrad refused to publish in the down-market Pearson's Magazine when invited to do so, on the grounds that his story 'was much too good to be thrown away where the right people won't see it'. He was able to take this stand because he had received two separate inheritances, so that in 1895 he was a comfortably affluent bachelor who could write as he wished. But things deteriorated quickly after that. He lost most of his capital in 1896, and he got married. He was forced to compromise. As McDonald says, 'he had always held that "shallowness, imbecility, hypocrisy", not "pure art", succeeded. The only difference now was that he was prepared to enter the game'. Conrad explained his new strategy to his friends in insouciant terms. He had started, he said, to write stories with 'lots of second-hand Conradese' in them, and 'henceforth my concern shall be to discover and steadfastly pursue a dishonest and profitable course'. Conrad makes it sound like child's play, but he soon discovered that it wasn't. Humiliatingly, his total earnings up to 1897 averaged out to less than the thirty shillings a week of the skilled workman. He received a Royal Literary Fund grant in 1902. If that was shallowness, imbecility, hypocrisy and dishonesty at work, then Conrad could not make them pay any better than he could his principled aloofness. Conrad was pleased to call Grant Allen 'a man of inferior intelligence' whose work was 'not art in any sense'.[148] Perhaps, after he was forced to rely for a while on charity, he changed his mind about Grant Allen's intelligence. Writing for the crowd is not as easy as it may seem.


There was one other recourse for any writer who wanted to maintain the balancing-act somewhere between purist and profiteer. It could pay well, and so, in theory anyway, it could free up time for less profitable labour. But it had to be exploited to the full, and it demanded skills which Conrad, Gissing and many other accomplished novelists lacked. That recourse was producing miscellaneous periodical journalism on a freelance basis.



Perhaps only those who have tried it know what a serious tale of scattered articles at five and ten, and even twenty guineas each it takes to build up a respectable income.[149]


Grant Allen knew it well; knew it with bitter intimacy. For he belonged to the fourth and last group we need to consider, and that was the hardest-driven of all. It comprises those who had to live by the unsubsidized labours of the pen, and were prepared to write anything, including fiction, when it suited them; but whose natural bent and interests lay in criticism, philosophical speculation, political theory, science writing, or belles-lettres. In effect, that meant working for the weekly or monthly magazines. The rate of payment for top-quality pieces was not ungenerous -- by present standards it was very generous -- but to make a good living in this fashion demanded the skill and energy to produce with untiring regularity. Very few writers hauled themselves up from nowhere into the comfortable realms of the late-Victorian solid middle class by unsubsidized labour of this kind. Fewer still stuck the course from first to last as fully self-employed workers who were never on anybody's payroll as an employee. Many aspired to it, but never made it because they lacked the stamina, or they were not sufficiently astute in handling their affairs, or they were not prepared, or not able, to supply the market in ways that might have paid them more.


That such people existed at all in any number was a new, very distinctive phenomenon in the world of letters in the second half of the century. For the first time in literary history it had become a reasonable goal for people of middling talents and ambition to make a respectable living by this sort of pen-labour alone. A fictional specimen of this new species is Alfred Yule, a character in New Grub Street. He is about fifty and lives in a three-storey terrace house in St Paul's Crescent, Camden Town. His household consists of his wife, a daughter and a servant. His income 'has never exceeded two hundred and fifty pounds, and often -- I mean even in latter years -- has been much less'.[150] The Yules are neither poor nor rich, but penury always beckons, kept at bay only by Alfred's pen and the small comfort of a life insurance policy. He commutes regularly to the British Museum library. His life, effectively, is that of a suburban clerk. He is a lettered Mr Pooter. There is nothing to distinguish him from the other occupants of his street, except for one remarkable and peculiar thing. His household is sustained by the production and sale of articles on subjects like the minor French dramatists, or contemporary English writing styles, or James Harrington, the seventeenth-century author of Oceana. Never before, we may safely say, had anyone made a living entirely by such means. Yule is an historical curiosity, made possible by socio-economic changes in the production and consumption of printed matter. When he had started his career, presumably in the later 1850s, the market was already becoming so fragmented and specialized that even such unprepossessing wares as his could supply a hard-working pen-driver with a living wage.


Yule writes books as well -- though not fiction -- but the mainstay of his career has been the periodicals. It is true that his is a fading career, for by the early '80s the particular vein he has worked for thirty years is almost exhausted. Tastes are shifting and Yule cannot meet them; he is doomed to extinction. But other pens had done a great deal better than Yule over the same years. In the Belgravia of January 1881 there appeared an article entitled 'Does Writing Pay? The Confessions of an Author'. In remarkably swaggering style, the anonymous writer reports on a literary career which is, we gather, coming to an end at about the same time as Alfred Yule's. This man, too, describes himself as a litterateur, as Yule would have done; but his range has been infinitely greater and the rewards he assesses, in a studied understatement, to have been 'a fair return for the off-hand, rattling, and somewhat careless attention bestowed'. And it has not been a full-time attention either: 'Anon' is a barrister. He has produced biographies, novels and tales in volumes from one to three. He has written essays, criticism and plays that succeeded and some that didn't. He has contributed to an advertising paper and been employed as a roving reporter on the Continent. Finally: 'I have written for almost every magazine that has been born, died, or exists. I have written on painting, music, buildings, decorative art, dress, the classics, history, travels, my own life, the lives of other people, dancing, etc. In short like Swift and his broomstick, I could write decently and respectably on any subject "briefed" to me'. And the best source of copy has been literature itself. The odder byways, he advises, could always be discreetly plagiarized: 'you can go on for ever emptying the stuff out of the old clumsy demijohn into nice modern flasks', he says breezily. Our barrister concludes that no intelligent person need suffer want with their pen at the ready:


As for my essays, sketches, descriptions, they are simply innumerable. It is agreeable work, and so lightly done. You covet something, or are extravagant to the tune of five pounds. You sit down for a morning (having found a subject in your last walk), and the debt is paid. . . . Adding all up, I should fix my total earnings at about fourteen thousand pounds, of which I retain, alas! but fifteen hundred duly and securely invested.[151]

How delightful it sounds! And though 'Anon' was retiring from the scene, the game was not over. The periodical market was still there, still offering, at least to the naive eye, glittering opportunities for the tyro. It was still natural for new authors to turn first to the generously-paying monthly periodicals, as Allen did at the outset.

He had started with the two most necessary skills: speed and versatility. The second was essential, for, as Margaret Beetham has reminded us, the 'text' of a Victorian periodical is not, properly considered, the individual numbers but the whole run. To stay in business the editors' objective had to be not so much to satisfy consumers with their single purchase but to stimulate them sufficiently to buy the next issue. The periodical was the first consumer item with a distinct 'use-by' date built into it.[152] That is why even the staider monthlies offered their readers a dizzying miscellany of topics in each issue. For example, in the course of a single six-month period in 1885 the reader who had the stomach for it could read Matthew Arnold's 'Comments on Christmas', or follow Andrew Lang making an erudite comparative study of ghost stories, or tackle something very solid on 'The Hittites'. Then there was someone anonymous on 'The Decay of Irish Humour', a potted biography, 'Samuel Johnson', by Edmund Gosse; someone else on 'The Future of Electricity and Gas'. The reader could watch the Catholic anti-Darwinian biologist Mivart tying himself into knots trying to reconcile his religion and his science under the title of 'Organic Nature's Riddle', or swallow 'Some Turkish Proverbs'. After a dose like that, Percy Greg's advice on one's best choice of drug in 'Stimulants and Narcotics' may well have gone down well. And the random list above is only a tiny fraction of what was on offer in half of a single Victorian year. The Niagara of print grew so overwhelming that those shrewd men W.T. Stead and George Newnes realized that there was a readership prepared to pay for someone to undertake a preliminary stage of mastication. Their Review of Reviews (1890) boiled the mental foodstuff down a stage further, for those who could not even find enough time to take the serial diet straight.


The digestive metaphors are appropriate. There was plenty of hostility directed at the desultory reading habits which this seemed to encourage, and epithets were hurled against the sort of reader who was force-feeding himself on such a diet: it resulted, it was said, in a stuffed 'sausage of a man', 'a walking encyclopedia', 'an animated bookcase', or mental 'kaleidoscope' who is likely to suffer, mentally, from a 'desolating dyspepsia'.[153] Such opinions ran right across the cultural spectrum. At one end is the wrapping-paper manufacturer John Yule, when he quizzes Jasper Milvain about his productions in New Grub Street:

'You, now', pursued John, 'what do you write about?'

'Nothing in particular. I make a saleable page or two out of whatever strikes my fancy'.

'Exactly! You don't even pretend you've got anything to say. You live by inducing people to give themselves mental indigestion -- and bodily, too, for that matter'.[154]


At a more elevated level of cultural commentary, Matthew Arnold would not have used the metaphor of mental indigestion, but his concerns were similar. In a well-known passage, Arnold, who was ambivalent anyway about the new democratic forces unleashed by Reform, spoke of the New Journalism -- which he took to be the most characteristic product of recent political developments -- as so corrupting the public that it was becoming 'feather-brained' and incapable of thinking 'fairly and seriously' about anything at all. It is not always noticed that Arnold's scornful phrases themselves appeared in an article in the Nineteenth Century, and that denouncing the popular taste earned him fifteen guineas or so.


Arnold's comments appeared in 1887 when the boom in the periodical market seemed unstoppable, and it's unlikely that the nimble young men (and a few women) who were jostling for a position in it knew or cared about his anxieties. Such people were more streamlined versions of Alfred Yule. They aspired to Kensington and Bayswater rather than Camden Town, and their gossip was more fashionable, but they were in the same line of descent. They were still bowing to the twin deities of Bread and Cheese, but now they were doing it more deliberately, with a more acute sense of business to be done; in short, as a trade. As the boundaries between the novel, the short story, belles-lettres, the causerie, the interview, the leader, the 'middle' and the outright gossip column blurred and merged, there was good money to be made, providing writers were flexible enough to produce distinctive, varied, sellable work in the new shadowy borderlands where committed artists and down-at-heel ex-scholars rubbed shoulders with slick young graduates and shameless hacks.


In her novel A Writer of Books (1898) Emily Morse Symonds ('George Paston') presents a hard-boiled woman journalist, Miss Nevill, who is one of this new breed. Each of her articles is the product of four days' work or so, and if imagination flags she is not above 'faking up' something by lifting the raw materials from old magazines. Then she offers it to descending levels of the market until it sells: first to one of the illustrated monthlies, then, if it bounces back from there, to one of the weeklies, and finally, as a last resort, she chops it into 'pars' not exceeding one inch of print for one of the scrappy papers like Tit-Bits. Such a piece might earn anything from five guineas down to five shillings, depending on its final resting-place. Such are 'the secrets of the prison-house', according to Miss Nevill.


Nor was her type rare in real life. An excellent example is the career of Arthur St John Adcock (1864-1930). Adcock actually belonged to the next generation, but his career is otherwise strikingly similar to Allen's. If there was ever a literary all-rounder, Adcock must surely take the palm. In describing how he reached prosperity, in an essay titled 'The Literary Life', written in his fifties just before the war, he starts by quoting no less a person than Grant Allen himself. 'It did not encourage me', he says, 'when, at a very early stage of my career, I read an article by Grant Allen in which he had roundly asserted that a man had better sweep a crossing than take to literature'.[155]


Allen made that discomfiting proposition in an article in the Idler at a point where he himself is glancing back at his early years. When it appeared, in 1892, Arthur Adcock was twenty-eight years old and just about to abandon a minor but secure clerkship for the freelance life. His is one of the most impressive cases on record of the writer who started with literally nothing; no supportive family, no university friends, no private means, no semi-sinecure in government employ. His only concession to security was to take a part-time post working for two days a week as an assistant editor for an obscure trade journal. For the rest, he trusted to a moderate talent and an heroic persistence. He had two rules. The first was never to have fewer than twenty manuscripts going the rounds of editors simultaneously. The second was never to let a rejected piece lie on his table overnight. He claimed that he had placed five thousand articles and stories -- all but five or six items of everything he had written -- in this fashion. Adcock was no genius, and he never enjoyed any sudden breakthrough into prosperity. He got a miserable L25 for the serial rights for his first novel, and in its book form it earned nothing as the publisher went bankrupt. Nothing daunted, he simply went on screwing a living out of the market by putting out two books a year come what may, and labouring at literally any pen-task that he could get hold of: 'reviewing of other people's books, the writing of serials, short stories, articles, essays, topical and other verse . . . I have written services of song and hymns . . . I have contributed eight serials to five different London papers', and so on, year in and year out.[156] It is pleasant to record that Adcock found a haven in the last few years of his life as the editor of theBookman. It was a job that must have suited him perfectly. Such a career did show that a little talent coupled with extraordinary diligence could raise the miscellaneous author into prosperity under those peculiar end-of-century publishing conditions.


It was inevitable under such brutally demanding conditions that social envy and naked ambition should become the driving force, not perhaps of genuine creativity, but certainly of productivity. 'Let me give you a useful hint', says Jasper Milvain -- a smoother and nastier Arthur Adcock -- to Marian Yule in New Grub Street. 'If ever I seem to you to flag, just remind me of the difference between these lodgings and a richly furnished house. Just hint to me that So-and-so, the journalist, goes about in his carriage, and can give his wife a box at the theatre. Just ask me, casually, how I should like to run over to the Riviera when London fogs are thickest. You understand? That's the way to keep me at it like a steam-engine'.[157] The house, the carriage, the theatre box, the excursion abroad: for the new tradesman, these trappings were the golden markers on the upward path.



But for many, no matter how hard they tried, the path never led upward at all. It is easy enough to paint a much more dismal picture of what probably awaited the young aspirant. We know something about 'the wrecks', as Walter Besant called them with fine scorn: the ones 'who now live sordid lives, doing the lowest drudgery of literary work for the pay that is tossed to a drudge'.[158] Not infrequently, even drudgery failed them in the end. Thanks to Nigel Cross, we can inspect the last stage of the careers of these pathetic hacks, when they applied for charitable support and were obliged to give a history of their endeavours when they did so, much to the benefit of historians following their trail.[159]


There was, for example, the reality of how all those periodicals were filled. Even the quality ones had a tiny editorial staff and few salaried writers. Most of the great effusion of print was being poured out by occasional contributors; in other words, literary soldiers of fortune like Grant Allen. So, in principle anyone could try their hand at the periodical market; there was, as we have seen, a vaguely romantic aura hanging around the idea. People thought of Dickens late at night, popping the first of his Sketches by Boz into the letter-box of the Monthly Magazine. But this aura was entirely spurious. Those who wrote freelance for the Victorian periodicals in the hope of a livelihood are often called journalists, and so they were, after a fashion. But their conditions of employment, the relations which existed between them and their employer the editor, were far removed from the ordinary staff journalist's. The truth was that the relation between contributor and editor was entirely one-sided. Although the demand for good material was insatiable, the supply far outstripped it. Some editors had around 3000 unsolicited manuscripts a year to choose from, and a surprising number of periodicals never paid their contributors anything at all, subsisting entirely on the labours of writers who worked for glory more than gain. These were the ones Valentine Cunningham has described as a 'seething army' made up of people as various as 'Nonconformist pastors, Anglican vicars, gentlemen of leisured reading interests, cultivated industrialists and aesthetic civil servants with time on their hands'.[160] Such Incursions of the Amateur was one of the two main causes which drove down authorial wages, according to Allen's own analysis in a brilliant essay which might well have been written a century later. In every sphere of life but the literary, the specialist commands the higher price and the amateur is spurned. No one would entrust his legal matter even to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but any celebrity can cobble together a book. 'If a great doctor, a well-known soldier, a popular painter, a familiar singer or actor or beauty writes a book, it sells, not only as well as the average book of the professional author, but a great deal better', Allen commented bitterly.[161] The net effect was that literary products of every quality fetched a very cheap price -- very cheap, that is to say, compared to other kinds of artistic produce (especially paintings), and certainly compared to other occupations which might be presumed to command the same kind of intellectual power and application. The only remedy, the only hope, was unremitting hard work.


But in an environment as competitive as this, even hard work could not buffer one against the psychological punishment. A manual by a working journalist, who sounds as though he has been through the mill himself, warned that the tyro 'must be prepared for some of the most bitter and possibly the most humiliating disappointments that it is possible for the lot of humanity to come in contact with'. No one could hope to succeed who did not start the course with 'the energy of a horse, and the industry of an ant, and an illimitable amount of patience'.[162] Most writers of spirit rebelled against such a procedure sooner or later. Arnold Bennett, who endured it for some years, finally got his own back in a torrent of self-loathing:

The freelance is a tramp touting for odd jobs, a pedlar crying stuff which is bought usually in default of better; a producer endeavouring to supply a market of whose conditions he is in ignorance more or less complete; a commercial traveller liable constantly to the insolence of an elegant West End draper's 'buyer'. His attitude is in essence a fawning attitude; it must be so; he is the poor relation, the doff-hat, the ready-for-anything. He picks up crumbs that fall from the table of the 'staff' . . . and the shame of the free-lance is none the less real because he alone witnesses it -- he and the postman, that postman with elongated missive, that herald of ignominy.[163]

A tramp, a pedlar, a fawner careless of kicks so long as pence followed, a doff-hat waiting for a long envelope with the rejected piece inside: the picture is not appealing. Few people could submit themselves to this doleful regime with the resignation of St John Adcock. It took a special type of temper to boast, as Adcock did with a kind of proud masochism, that 'until the last six or seven years practically all [my] work has been sent in uninvited, with stamped envelopes enclosed for its return if it were found unsuitable'.[164] And that was when Adcock was in his forties and a veteran with fifteen books under his belt!


For their part, editors, not surprisingly, downplayed the amount of damage they inflicted on their contributors' egos and concentrated on the economics of the business. They sounded the same pessimistic note, however. All experienced editors said that trying to make even a bare living by writing for the monthly periodicals was more than difficult; it was next to impossible. No one had a grasp of the market-place better than the editor W.T. Stead. By 1892 he had an unrivalled knowledge of the economics of the trade, and he claimed that he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of contributors who made even L200 a year from the magazines. 'The best paid contributions by the highest class reviews seldom exceed L1 a page of 500 words', he wrote. 'The average review article does not yield its writer more than L15. As there are not ten men in England who contribute ten articles each year to monthly miscellanies, the conclusion is obvious'.[165] Allen had, of course, become one of those ten even before his health breakdown -- Stead declared himself amazed at his productivity -- but, as Allen himself had already discovered, as a means of making a secure and reasonable annual income the monthlies were hopeless. The writers of authors' guides concurred. One of them spelt out the facts of journalistic life in this fashion:

The magazines, reviews, and literary papers of standing can almost be counted on the fingers; and with an army of applicants for an appearance in their pages, no one man, however brilliant, can have in a single case anything like a monopoly. Perhaps hardly one writer on any of the weekly literary papers has an article inserted every week throughout the year; yet, if he had, his total earnings would only amount to a sum which it would be a mockery to speak of, in the ordinary sense, as an income. Do the monthly magazines offer better rewards? If in one or other of them a single writer made one monthly appearance (and what a brilliant writer he would be!), the result would certainly be less than L150 per annum; yet the amateur, seeing that writer's name in the Cornhill one month, in Macmillan's the next, in The Contemporary the month after, would, perhaps, imagine him to be rolling in wealth.[166]

Presumably, with respect to the monthlies, the calculation the writer was making here was based on a hypothetical twelve monthly contributions at about L12 at time. Obviously an income of under L150 a year was intolerable for anyone who had the brains in the first place to make that 'one monthly appearance' as regularly as clockwork. Even Walter Besant's sunny optimism deserted him when he estimated the opportunities in the monthlies market. 'Unless a writer possesses very wide knowledge, or special knowledge, of a kind that is much in demand, he can hardly expect to live by writing for magazines. . . . Let them be a help, but not a means of livelihood, if you value your reputation, your independence, and your self-respect'.[167] He particularly warned against supplying papers of literary history and criticism, which he regarded as a sinking market. In 1892 Besant went to the trouble of sampling 800 articles published over a three-year period in some of the leading magazines. He found they were produced by about seventy different writers, who averaged no more than four papers a year each. Like Stead, he drew the obvious conclusion. 'One cannot, therefore, live by writing for the monthlies'.[168]


But why should one have to? retorted the optimists in turn. The traditional monthlies were no longer the only outlet for one's wares. And they surely had a point, when one contemplates the general buoyancy and fragmentation of the newspaper and periodical market. In the era roughly bounded by 1860 and 1920, there was an astonishing proliferation of journals catering for every taste. Much earlier in the nineteenth century it had been enough for those heavy-weights, the Edinburgh and the Quarterly, to slug it out just four times a year for the Whig and the Tory interest. It was in the second half of the century that the new quality monthlies had supplanted them, and, having inherited the solid reputation of their predecessors, they were still going strong. But now new weekly and daily contenders, quicker and lighter on their feet, were bouncing one after the other into the ring. Even in the early '80s those who had their ear to the ground could sense that boom times were coming. Gissing captures it in a conversation in New Grub Street, when Alfred Yule is trying to persuade his daughter to invest her windfall inheritance in a new journal:

     'By the by' -- he threw an arm over the back of his chair -- 'what did you think of our imaginary review, the thing we were talking about last night?'

     'There are so many periodicals', replied Marian, doubtfully.

     'So many? My dear child, if we live another ten years we shall see the number trebled'.

     'Is it desirable?'

     'That there should be such growth of periodicals? Well, from one point of view, no. No doubt they take up the time which some people would give to solid literature. But, on the other hand, there's a far greater number of people who would probably not read at all, but for the temptations of these short and new articles; and they may be induced to pass on to substantial works. Of course it all depends on the quality of the periodical matter you offer. Such a monthly as we projected would be of distinct literary value. There can be no doubt that someone or other will shortly establish it'.[169]


Marian Yule is dubious about the venture, not least because she fears her father is incompetent to edit it. But actually Yule's assessment of the position is true enough; Gissing himself had seen it come true. By the 1890s the rush of journals of all descriptions had become a torrent, a fantastic profusion. They catered for the broadest range of interests and levels of sophistication, to a degree that social historians are even now only beginning to appreciate. Simple statistics capture the essence of the situation. In 1870, just 626 magazines appeared regularly on the news stands of Britain; by 1900, after thirty years of relentless growth, the reader had the choice of 2446 monthlies and weeklies. London alone supported more than a dozen daily newspapers in 1890, and there were 150 more in the provinces. Collectively they consumed vast quantities of non-news material, and new kinds of middlemen had sprung up to service them: agents like A.P. Watt, wholesalers like Tillotson's Fiction Bureau, the National Press Agency and the Northern Newspaper Syndicate. They were increasingly the prime movers in a commodity market where manuscripts were bought and sold like pork bellies in Chicago, and with the same dispassionate efficiency.


Walter Besant may have been gloomy about the monthlies, but he saw plenty of openings elsewhere in the New Journalism. The number of papers 'is simply enormous; there seems no end to them', he crowed. Some of the weekly penny papers had circulations in the millions, and all were vying to get the best fiction, the most striking articles. 'They offer', said Besant

a means of subsistence -- not a mere pittance, but a handsome income -- to hundreds of writers. Out of one office alone there is poured every week a mass of fiction representing as much bulk as an ordinary three-volume novel. The daily papers with their leading articles; the high-class weeklies, such as the Saturday Review, the Spectator, the Athenaeum, the Guardian, the Speaker, and a few others, with their leaders political and social and their reviews, give occupation to a large number of the best literary men and women, and the popular weeklies employ a much larger number of the rank and file.[170]

It was a seductive picture. No wonder eager novices would not believe the sceptics who scoffed at the notion that anyone with a modicum of talent could go out, buy a few quires of paper and a 'J' nib, and, 'by merely piling these properties one on top of another and moistening them with ink, at once acquire a competency'.[171] Many people believed that that was exactly what you could do. The mythology was too powerful to be resisted, the prospects too alluring, and the known successes too familiar. 'The belief that money is easily made by literature -- that is the chief reason why these thousands of pens in these islands are rushing, flying, driving across the everlasting plains -- the endless prairie -- of paper', said Besant, conjuring up an almost surreal image.[172]


Even the hardened professionals were half in love with the fable themselves, or at least were willing to countenance it. Grant Allen could hardly have been more sceptical about the likely rewards of literary activity, but even he permits several of his heroes, when poverty looms, to rescue themselves by going out and buying pen, ink and paper. Towards the end of his career he wrote colourfully about this avalanche of print as he had seen it gathering speed and bulk in his own lifetime. In his boyhood, he recalled, 'the Christmas number of the Illustrated London News, with a coloured plate of bluff King Hal, after Sir John Gilbert, sufficed for some thirty millions of Britons at home and in the Colonies'. Now, forty years later:

Now that there are sixty millions we might reasonably expect to find the Illustrated supplemented by one rival -- the Graphic. But how about this pink and blue invasion of Christmas numbers innumerable -- the Gentlewoman, the LadyBlack and WhiteSt Paul'sTruth, the Penny Illustrated -- a round dozen of imitators? And then the magazines! the double Christmas numbers! The Gentleman's AnnualPhil MayGood Cheer, the unco'guid, the world, the flesh, and the devil! Every variety of creed or taste is represented; every form of chromo-lithography is pressed into the service. You can be domestic or wicked or intermediate as you will. . . .

Look again at the ordinary stream of weekly papers. What a riotous profusion! For our youth, did not Punch, the Saturday, the Athenaeum suffice? Nowadays we run to seed inPick-me-ups and Lika-Jokos, in the Speaker and the Liberal, in National Observers and Academies, and Realms, in the Westminster Budget, the Young ManTo-dayTo-morrow. Or look, again, at our reckless output of monthly magazines, especially the pictured ones -- the Strand, the Idler, the English Illustrated, the Pall Mall, all of which must be allowed in the clearest sense to be unbridled luxuries. Look at the Sketch among weeklies, an enormous success, entirely devoted to the interest of amusements. There may be no money forthcoming for investment, it is true, but there is plenty forthcoming for papers with pictures in them.[173]

Allen titled this article 'Depression', and his chief subject is the severe economic downturn of the mid-1890s. Allen's title cannot avoid having, in his personal context, a mildly smug connotation. His main point is the same paradoxical one which George Orwell would be making about another Depression in a later decade: that, when hard times come, people turn to cheap luxuries; and for the Victorians the bright, cheerful comforts of undemanding text were among the cheapest and most satisfying. Allen's own career had shown by this time that the literary tradesman with the right kind of goods on sale was in an occupation that was practically recession-proof; and not only that, but he himself was about to put before the public an item that would jump him up several rungs on the ladder of affluence. For 'Depression' appeared in the Westminster Gazette when all literary London was buzzing with the news of the imminent arrival of The Woman Who Did.


Fifteen years earlier, though, it had been a different story. Then, he had had a much more tentative hold on the market and was still feeling his way into the most profitable areas of enterprise. He knew well that what he had to do was look beyond -- and, if one cared to look at it that way, well below -- the Cornhill and the Fortnightly. 'The monthly', warned yet another of those guides for the novice, 'may do for your choice morsel, when you have one to dispose of, and you wish it to be ticketed with your name, but as a means of earning the wherewithal to pay your rent and taxes, butchers' bills, and settle the accounts of your shoemaker and baker', the primary need was to get a foothold in the weeklies and dailies.[174] Only these, interspersed with a regular output of fiction or other saleable volumes, offered the freelancer any chance of climbing into real prosperity. Such a foothold was what Allen sought when he plunged back into the fray after returning from France in the spring of 1880; and despite all the handicaps and gloomy predictions, for him it worked wonderfully well.




'A Pedlar Crying Stuff':

Selling the Wares (1880-1889)



Allen got back from Hyeres in May 1880. As we have seen, he had not idled his way through the months of recuperation. Indeed, in the month after his return there appeared in Fraser's Magazine an article, 'Geology and History', which is a very typical and fine example of his early work. It explains how the agriculture, the manufactures, the arts and even the religion of a society stands, quite literally and well as metaphorically, on its geology. Britain's recent history was founded on coal; just as Egypt's civilization was based on granite and Nile mud; Greece's, on marble; China's, on kaolin clay; Assyria and upper India's, on sun-dried brick. He points out that the delicate tracery of English cathedrals would never have existed if the only building material had been ragstone or basalt. Fortunately, there was the limestone of Caen, Bath and Portland to hand: 'the marble lattice-work of the Taj or the "prentice's pillar" of Roslyn chapel are only possible in a soft and pliable material'. For twelve pages Allen expands this notion with the most fluent and confident generalizations and a wealth of illustration.[175] Still, he must have been only too aware by this time how hard it was to make a living wage by doing this kind of thing for the monthlies, and he must have been uncomfortable with the thought that he had no book on the stocks for 1880. But a big breakthrough, and something of a change of direction, came almost as soon as he was back. It was another opportunity with a newspaper, but work of a much more appealing kind than scribbling leaders or reviews for the Daily News.


Up to that time, one particular niche in the London newspaper market, the late-afternoon slot, had been filled successfully by the Pall Mall Gazette. The Pall Mall was a paper of quality, as its appearance proclaimed. Though indescribably drab to modern eyes, it was a format to which readers was accustomed: two solid columns of print to a page without many cross-headings. There were, of course, no photographs; nothing but an occasional map or chart. It had a readership of about 8,000, most of them well-educated commuters who wanted to read, in the train or at their club, a detailed summary of the day's events plus a few solid leading articles interpreting those events from a congenially Conservative stance. At the end of the paper they wanted business news. And in between they were accustomed to find a few 'middles', short, opinionated, lively and perceptive essays on almost any subject. They were supplied anonymously by various people, but men of the calibre of Trollope, Froude, Arnold, Lewes, Kingsley and Wilde were happy to write for the Pall Mall. This was not tabloid journalism.


A new proprietor, Henry Yates Thompson, had recently acquired the Pall Mall with the intention of turning it into an organ of the Liberal Party. This transfer of allegiances produced a considerable upheaval. The editor Frederick Greenwood and some of the staff jumped ship and set up a new Conservative paper, the St James's Gazette, in direct competition. The St James's layout imitated the Pall Mall very closely indeed, and it needed fresh blood for its middles. One of the first things Greenwood did was to hire Allen to write one on scientific topics for the paper on an irregular but frequent basis. He contributed his first piece, 'A Sprig of Crowfoot', about the peculiar leaves of that semi-aquatic plant, on 23 June, just a few weeks after the first issue appeared. He went on to contribute another 136 articles before the last one, 'Our Winter Visitors', appeared rather more than two years later, on 28 October 1882. This figure probably understates the total number of his contributions by a tenth at least, since many other reviews -- more properly, review-essays -- over that period are possibly, but not certainly, from his pen as well. He reprinted some of the St James's natural-history articles in the collections The Evolutionist at Large (1881) and Colin Clout's Calendar (1882). Another lengthy series was made up of local historical and topographical pieces on all the counties and most of the noteworthy towns of England. He maintained an extraordinary rate of production for these essays. In August 1880, for instance, they were appearing once every three days, on average.


What makes this performance even more remarkable is that after his first six months on the St James's Allen was simultaneously writing another set of middles. Presumably impressed by what Allen was doing for the competitor paper, John Morley took him on at the start of 1881 to do the same kind of sprightly article for the Pall Mall Gazette. His first piece, one of eleven essays on the topography of the country around Lyme Regis, appeared on 31 January 1881. This was where his in-laws lived, and he playfully disguised all the names of '[this] sunny corner of a southern shire whose exact position its present historian has no intention whatsoever of disclosing, seeing that he himself has taken up his abode there'.[176] These too appeared irregularly, but rarely more than seven or eight days apart.


By the time the St James's series finished in 1882, he had contributed at least forty-five articles to the Pall Mall, and probably many more which cannot be identified. Morley put him on an extremely loose rein, permitting him to write on almost anything he liked, from trends in Canadian tourism to the ancestry of the donkey; from the folklore attached to Welsh cromlechs, to the wood-spurge as a botanical survivor in the micro-climate around Bath. Some of these he collected as Vignettes from Nature (1881), his second collection of that year. Some of Allen's topics may seem outside the likely interests of a tired, homeward-bound newspaper reader, but his lightness of touch and his ability, while seeming to know everything, never to patronise his audience, let him engage almost anyone's attention. He had the gift of being able to come up with a wholly unexpected angle on a subject. What, for instance, could be more hackneyed a topic than spring? Yet Allen finds something new to say, by exploring the fact that when the poets of Queen Anne's day wrote of spring their portrayal was constructed from a classical stock of images in absolute defiance of reality; and, moreover, this has infected our stock phrases, so that we speak of a perfect climate as being a 'perpetual spring', which is certainly not what we mean:

The common expression is correct enough in the mouth of a South European, for whom spring is the delightful middle breathing space between the draughty chilliness of open winter and the sweltering aridity of high August noontide; but it is simply ridiculous on the alien lips of the remote Hyperborean Briton. Nobody who took his language and his ideas direct from nature could ever dream of holding up as the model of a delicious climate that alternation of swirling, dusty nor'-easters and boisterous, drenching sou'-westers which we in England recognize as spring. The ver perpetuum of the Roman poet meant something very different indeed from that. . . . That is one of the greatest delights of the otherwise rather arid and often disappointing Southern scenery; the familiar images and descriptions of classical poetry begin for the first time to live before one, to assume a concrete and natural reality in one's mind. The arbutus ceases to be an abstraction and becomes a visible shrub: the cicada no longer bears company with the wyvern or the hippogriff, but chirps most audibly and undeniably in the neighbouring thicket. There you have the true enchantment of it.

But, after all, this is only newspaper chat, not a tract on intertextuality avant la lettre, and in closing he lightens the tone with a humorous example of literature moulding life:

'What! pork pies!' exclaimed an enthusiastic American tourist in the railway refreshment room at Liverpool. 'How delightful! By all means let us have a pork pie. Why, you know, one reads about them in Dickens!' We sober English, to the manner born, laugh quietly, of course, at the association; but, after all, there is really something enviable in the conditions which permit one to invest even the staple product of Melton Mowbray with a genuine and picturesque literary interest.[177]

John Morley certainly thought highly of Allen's skills, for he gradually moved him forward in the paper until he was writing 'turnovers', a turnover being the article following the leader on the front page, which ran on to page two and had to be written in a style bright enough to encourage the reader to turn over. A typical piece was titled 'The Composition of a Very Mixed People', and discussed, sceptically and humorously, the cranium-measuring activities of the Anthropometric Committee of the British Association. This was also notable in that it was signed. All of his previous work for the Pall Mall had been anonymous. He claimed later, not quite accurately, that this was only the second signed article ever to appear in a London daily paper.[178] He continued to contribute to the Pall Mall at erratic intervals long after W.T. Stead became editor in 1883 and repositioned the paper far down-market.


Even the tally above by no means exhausts Allen's journalism of the early '80s. At the end of 1881, while he was appearing simultaneously in the Pall Mall and the St James's, he started contributing to Knowledge: An Illustrated Magazine of Science, edited by his friend Richard Proctor. He jumped aboard this new popular weekly right from the start, with a lively essay 'What is a Grape?' and throughout 1882, 1883 and 1884 he contributed more than sixty articles to it, most but by no means all of them on botanical topics. One was a palaeoanthropological series 'Our Ancestors', and another ran through the round of the seasons under the title 'A Naturalist's Year' at the rate of two essays a month; yet another dealt with 'The Evolution of Flowers' at the same rate. Proctor gave him pride of place on the first page of Knowledge for some of these.


It remains something of a mystery how and when Allen had managed to acquire such an extensive knowledge of his chief subjects, especially botany. Of course, he was well grounded via his reading of Spencer, Darwin and others in evolutionary theory. But many of the essays he now began to write display, among other things, the minute observation of a trained field naturalist, and it is not very clear when Allen had had time to learn so much about the British flora, in particular. Presumably he had started as a youthful collector. A letter of his in Nature mentions his discovering a rare snail 'when I was a schoolboy' at Kinver, near Stourbridge. This village is not far from Birmingham, so this must have been during a school excursion. It implies that he was already a fairly experienced naturalist at the age of seventeen or so.[179] But if these amateur enthusiasms continued during his Oxford years, or when he returned to England from Jamaica, they have left no record.


Still, he had got the knowledge somehow, and one senses that with this semi-popular science journalism Allen had moved into a new and higher gear. At last he had found his metier; had found a job he could do better than almost anyone else in England. As his powers expanded he found he could produce these essay-articles effortlessly, or at least give the impression of doing so. For each of the years 1880-83 he produced around a hundred articles, reviews and stories. It seemed immaterial whether the topic of the moment was scientific, philosophical, social or critical, or what length was required for any particular job of work. In a hilarious scene in Philistia, Allen has his ingenuous hero agonising for a whole morning about how to stretch out a social leader on Italian barrel organs to a requisite fifteen hundred words. He only manages it with desperate digressions into the natural history of guinea pigs and the scenery of the Apennines. Allen was never troubled in that way; or if he was, it does not show. He could turn out a 1500-word leader in half an hour and, if more were needed, could expand it almost indefinitely without any obvious padding.


One piece, 'The Philosophy of a Visiting Card', is noteworthy in that it revels overtly in its own ingenuity. Starting in autobiographical vein, Allen tells how he found himself bookless on a five-hour train journey from London to Dartmoor, with just 'one solitary piece of literature' for company. It was nothing but a visiting card engraved with the name 'Edgar B. Chadwick'. He resolves to convert that scrap of pasteboard into a philological article:

This is how the thing is managed. I pull the elements of Mr Chadwick's name to pieces; I jot down the analogies and illustrations that strike me on the back of the card; and when I get to-night to my lodgings on Dartmoor, I shall take pen in hand and write the notes out in full. . . . Think it all out between stations; scribble down the key-words whenever we stop at Swindon or Chippenham; and there you are -- the article is practically written.

 'Practically written', that is, if you can move effortlessly through the etymology of personal nomenclature. Starting with the family name, with digressions on how names can be fossil remnants of places that no longer exist, he traces out all the implications of the root wic, a village, and its many cognate forms. Then he traces out the varying fortunes of 'Edgar', passing finally to reflections about the recency of middle names in England and why the feminine forms of surnames -- Baxter, Brewster, Webster -- rather than the masculine have so often survived. He closes with a flourish:

as I write the last note 'Baxter, Brewster, Anson, Nelson', the train is just steaming into Newton Abbott station. I have no time for more, as I have to look after my luggage in the scrimmage. But is it not a wonderful thought that every one of us thus carries about with him every day a perfect philological fossil in the way of a personal name . . . . Is it not a wonderful thought -- label for Moreton Hampstead, if you please, and just two minutes to catch the five-forty down train.[180]

Expanded, the result of this self-referential exercise filled seventeen packed pages in the Cornhill for September 1882. Allen was capable of producing an article like this at a single sitting. The resulting payment could have bought him a train ticket to Rome, not Dartmoor.


For these early labours Allen chose subjects so various that it's impossible to find any unifying themes in them. He produced so much that he must have been writing on whatever took his fancy at the moment of composition, although the display of omniscience makes that hard to believe. But when he collected some of them his strategy is obvious. He picked out those pieces which assert most lucidly and unmistakably the truths of Darwinism. The title of his third collection, Colin Clout's Calendar (1882) was a particularly good one, for as well as being a generic name for a countryman, 'Colin Clout' was the persona assumed by the poet John Skelton in 1552 for his satirical attack on the powerful prelate Cardinal Wolsey. As we have seen, Allen took a dim view of clerics in general, and one of the things he liked to do whenever he could was to discomfit them by tugging away the last shreds of the theological argument from design. Not that his approach is aggressively polemical in any of these pieces. He believed, as he put it, more in permeation than confrontation. What they do is merely to reiterate, over and over again, that descent with modification, acted upon by natural selection, can explain the present form of the organism under inspection -- whether it be the structure of goose-grass or the habits of the squirrel -- more profoundly and more economically than any other conceivable explanation. He was disappointed that all this work for the two Gazettes and Knowledge did not lead to the offer of a science editorship on one of the big dailies. The Standard, for instance, had such an editor. It is possible that no such offer ever came because of his notoriety in some quarters as a doctrinaire atheist and Darwinian. Darwinism was still a bitter pill for many to swallow in the 1880s, and he may have paid the price for his advocacy.


Still, it was all good fun, and he was pleased to be making headway at last. It was only gradually that a certain disenchantment set in. Was this to be his life, then? When was he to find the time for those deeper philosophical and scientific speculations which were, he believed, the real business of his life? Was he not pouring out his very life-blood on to the thirsty sand of daily journalism, to be read one evening and wrapping fish and chips by the next? Was he to be a circus performer, capable of mental dexterity and agile contortions, but essentially a pen for hire, a well-informed gossip, a mere 'tootler'?

Sometimes the tootle takes the form of a third leader -- that wonderful social leader in all the daily papers, which begins with a fresh squabble in the St Pancras Vestry, goes on to consider the history of vestries in general from the days of the Stone Age onward, alludes playfully to our Aryan ancestors, digresses into the constitution of the Athenian demes, discourses casually of Roman municipia, is learned on the subject of early French communes, and ends abruptly with an amusing anecdote of Gustave Courbet. Sometimes the tootle becomes a middle in a weekly paper, sometimes it assumes the guise of an amusing review, sometimes it presents itself to the candid reader as the present article.[181]

But even at the time it must have struck some readers of this self-lacerating description that such tootles do at least presuppose a newspaper audience which knows what the municipia were; which could take on board a reference to the communes of France; which has heard of the painter Courbet. Thirty years later, the journalist-novelist Arthur Machen would be sighing nostalgically over the lost St James's Gazette of his youth. He remembered it as a newspaper produced by and for educated gentlemen, contrasting it with its degenerate successor tabloids like his own paper, the Evening News, written, as he jeered, not even for the cab-men, but for the cab-men's wives.[182]


Still, this kind of journalism paid better than anything Allen had done hitherto. John Dawson, a veteran journalist who gave aspirant freelancers the benefit of his experience in the mid-80s, claimed that the papers paid three guineas an article in the St James's and four or five guineas in the Pall Mall.[183] Writing three or four such pieces a week was very much easier work than one densely-constructed article for the Cornhill, which even he could not put together without a modicum of background reading. Not that he gave up the latter. He continued to do both for the rest of his life, averaging an article or story in every other issue of the Cornhill alone, and he almost always had a couple of book manuscripts on the stocks as well. Leslie Stephen was no mean pen-man himself, capable of writing a six-thousand word article at a sitting. He wrote sixty articles for his own magazine. But Allen wrote a lot more in a shorter space of time than that, and Stephen expressed wonderment at the younger man's facility. He found it extraordinary that -- so Allen had complained to him -- he could not place all that he wrote. But perhaps that is not surprising for a man who, in May 1882, was capable of putting fourteen separate pieces of work go into print in a single month: a story in the Belgravia, seven articles for the St James's, two each for the Pall Mall and the Cornhill, and one each for the Academy and the Magazine of Art, on subjects ranging from the lost polychrome colouring of Greek statues to the invasive properties of yellow-rattle in cornfields.



These labours had a benefit other than the strictly financial. Though the life of the freelance was hardly enviable in most ways, it did have a few compensations. The contracts of most staff journalists forbade them from writing elsewhere, whereas the freelance, in principle anyway, had the run of the market place. Allen took full advantage of it, first by himself but soon with the assistance of a literary agent, A.P. Watt. Another advantage was that the freelance could live anywhere that he could do his work. After his return from Jamaica in 1876, Allen made it clear that he had not only done for ever with the tropics, but he had done with the New World as a place to live as well. Some of his earliest journalism is scathing, sarcastic denunciations of North American rural life, especially on the farms of New England. These articles perhaps indicate some of the stress Allen was under as he strove to make his way, or they may have served the psychological purpose of cutting himself free of his New World origins. In sentiment, and even in phrasing, they are very similar to the notorious comments, phrased as a string of negatives, about the American cultural landscape which Henry James had just made in his Hawthorne (1879). Allen stressed the dreariness of the physical setting of these farms, set in a countryside devoid of any human interest: 'no scenery, no history, no antiquities, no associations, no architecture, no beauty of any kind -- nothing to tempt any human being out of his road'.[184] Perhaps he was thinking especially of Wolfe Island and its surroundings, which do echo some of the features of the English, or perhaps lowland Scottish, landscape, but lack all the picturesque details created by centuries of pre-industrial habitation. What he particularly disliked, in Canada especially, was the spurious imitation of 'English' life which had surrounded him as a youth; but whose culture (he now perceived) was wafer-thin. Certainly he was quick to dismiss the Canadian farmer, in particular, as 'that mild modern Vandal with a tinge of Methodism' who has produced a 'Philistine paradise' without bothering his head over the aesthetics of landscape.[185]


But it was more than just the landscape. Several features of raw American life -- the pseudo-universities; the small-town Puritanism; the quack doctors -- attracted his satire; so did affectations like invented names: the inoffensive 'Melissa' was one such that he poured scorn on. With remarkable prescience, Allen foresaw and feared the Americanization of the West, a prognosis which he made in surrealistic detail fifty years before Brave New World:

a world all made up of infinite turkey and illimitable pumpkin-pie; a world full of circular saw-mills, and Pullman palace cars, and mammoth hotels, and light blue satin, and white-and-gold drawing-rooms; a world wholly given over to raising corn, and sticking pigs, and distilling old Bourbon whisky, and making vulgar love through the nose to vulgar, overdressed, underbred young women. Its one literature would be the editorial screamer; its one excitement, an annual boom, and a quadrennial orgy of presidential elections. Picture to yourself such a society, without any painters, without any thinkers, without any musicians, without any of those rare souls, poets'.[186]

By contrast, this is the essence of the image of England that Allen was in love with:

We have in every part of England a varied national life, close communication with real centres of thought and culture, infinite interweaving of classes and interests. The squire goes for half the year to London, and fills the hall for the other half with guests from distant shires. The parson has taken his degree at Oxford or Cambridge, and diffuses among his people a constant civilizing influence. The farmer himself generally knows London and the seaside towns, goes on Sundays to a church adorned with mediaeval art, and catches frequent glimpses of a life and a society far more elevated than his own. But in rural America the whole existence of the people rolls on for ever in one unvaried and unlovely round, and all their thoughts, beliefs, and aspirations are cast in one monotonous mould.[187]

Despite the opening clause, one notices that, by implication, Manchester or Sheffield or Birmingham or even London do not figure in this encomium. Allen's 'England', a country which he described as offering its overseas devotees the chance of a new spiritual birth when they arrived there, is a fairly circumscribed place. It is, essentially, the market-towns south and west of the Wash. Surrey, Sussex, Oxford, Dorset and rural Wales were the locales that he made his own, and (with some exceptions) his topographical, natural history and geological studies reflect that. He saw English life through literary spectacles too, in his early days: Litchfield meant Dr Johnson; Nuneaton, George Eliot; Crewe, Colonel Newcome; Blisworth, Dick Swiveller.


But, much as he hated rural America, he hated London, that 'beflagged and macadamized man-made solitude', even more.[188] One of his throwaway descriptions of London was 'the squalid village', and when people protested about the phrase he wrote a long essay, 'Beautiful London' -- a little masterpiece of impassioned irony which caused quite a stir. In it, he first imagines a naive traveller arriving by sea at Venice, that 'small mercantile town' whose population even at its zenith was not much larger than Brighton's. He imagines this innocent traveller, after surveying the splendours of Venice, whose overseas possessions even at its height amounted only to Cyprus and the Morea, saying to himself then: 'What may I not expect from the land which owns India and Australia, Jamaica and Canada, Hong-Kong and Singapore, New Zealand and Cape Town?' and, full of anticipation, sailing up the Thames from Gravesend to the headquarters of Empire:

How every true Englishman's heart would swell with the pride of world-wide empire as he contrasts in memory the way up from Greenwich to the Tower with the way up from the Lido to the Doges' palace! What luxury of ornament! What excess of splendour! The exquisite front of the Victualling Yard at Deptford, the storied beauties of Bugsby's Reach, the charming facades of the Isle of Dogs, the noble and sweet-scented tanneries of Bermondsey! At each bend of the river new and beautiful groups of buildings rise gradually into view, as far surpassing the Piazza and St Mark's as London surpasses mediaeval Venice in wealth, population, and in artistic spirit. The traveller feels the apologists were indeed quite right, and that a great commercial city is here worthily housed beneath the graceful and appropriate shadow of an iron bridge many dozen times bigger than the boasted Rialto. So he sails on rejoicing, past mud-bank and tavern, till he comes to anchor at last by the British Molo, at the song-inspiring steps of magnificent Wapping.

Well, he imagines his critics saying, perhaps the Pool of London is not that appealing, but there is the South Bank of the Thames: that at least is picturesque. Allen pretends he hears this plea in Florence, that 'second-rate and obsolete Italian town', and he has to close his eyes to picture the scene from Lambeth Bridge:

Yes, yes; I could picture it in all its glory -- the six exquisitely varied blocks of St Thomas's Hospital, standing side by side like the ribs of St Lawrence's gridiron; the charming sky-signs of somebody or other's soap and the patent pain-killer; the mud that gleams brown by the yellow Thames; the palatial row of warehouses that occupy the background. With a penitent sigh I admitted my error, and dismissed the Arno. I allowed the superior beauty of the silvery stream that glides by lovely Lambeth. I remembered Cleopatra's Needle and its well-chosen situation, when compared with the Luxor Column in the Place de la Concorde, the great obelisk between Bernini's Colonnades at St. Peter's, and the towering monolith in the Piazza del Popolo. I thought of a thousand such points of superiority in our own beloved London, and thanked heaven under my breath that I was born an Englishman, and not a Papist Italian.

By the time this withering exercise was written Allen's touchstone of scenic and architectural excellence had become Italy. But his love affair with rural England came first; and now, as his freelancing life got under way, he had the chance to consummate it and escape London for good. The family lived first in Hastings and Lyme and then in 1881 they shifted to the small market town of Dorking, in Surrey. Dorking today is a commuter town which has suffered some monstrously ugly development over the last fifty years, much of it at the expense of the old. Two of the most grievous losses, both praised by Allen in various essays, were Deepdene, a great house and garden demolished in favour of a nondescript office block in the 1960s, and the small, elegant Rookery, Thomas Malthus's home. But in Allen's time Dorking had the advantage of being utterly rural -- it consisted of just one long, old-fashioned main street with its antique coaching inn, the White Horse, halfway along it -- while still being on the direct line to Victoria. This was the perfect combination for the not-yet-prosperous writer, and this part of Surrey had long been popular with authors. Keats is supposed to have written 'Endymion' in the parlour of the Burford Bridge Hotel nearby. George Meredith lived nearby at Flint Cottage, Box Hill, and his mystical poem The Woods of Westermain was inspired by the ancient yews in Norbury Park. During the summer busy journalists like Eliza Lynn Linton took cottages for rest and recreation.


The Allens took a house on the south side of the town, just off the Horsham Road, and christened it 'The Nook'. It stood until quite recently, abandoned and derelict in a secluded hollow of the grounds of a hospital. Most of its garden has run wild or been built over, and the roar of traffic just beyond would make living there intolerable even if the house could be restored. It is a square-built, double-fronted villa in a vaguely Queen Anne style, a style very popular in the neighbourhood in the 1870s, and it must have been almost new when they moved into it. This was their home for the next twelve years. Here, for the rest of the 1880s, the first full decade of his career, he worked himself half to death as he polished his skills, studied his markets, met its needs, and eventually raised himself to the point where he could say convincingly that his family would never want, come what may.


Living was cheap in Dorking. By the end of the year he was in a position to repay the subscription money raised by Robertson and Romanes for the recuperative trip to the Riviera two years earlier, and he insisted on doing so even though it had been offered as a gift. His letter is worth quoting at length for the interesting detail it provides about a characteristically Victorian product: that informal network of charity by which the professional classes -- or the public school and Oxbridge fragment of them -- supported and assisted each other at critical junctures:

We have both talked the matter over fully, and have come to the unanimous opinion, to a man, without one dissentient voice, that it would be better to return the money. I don't think we are actuated by any false pride: when need was, we took it most gladly and thankfully. I never felt more relieved or more grateful in my life than on the night when you and Mrs. Robertson came and first proposed your kind and thoughtful plan to us: it was a lifebuoy to a drowning man, and without it I don't know where we should all have been by this time. But now, we hope and believe, the danger is over, and there are many reasons why we ought to repay it. Some of the subscribers are themselves literary working men, and they know that I am now making a good income. It would naturally seem strange to them that we should go on keeping money which was advanced under such different circumstances. There are some of them, no doubt, who have no need of any such return, and to whom I should not feel it so necessary; but I agree with you that whatever is done should be done towards all alike. I am half afraid that I seem to be acting contrary to your wish to some extent; yet I gathered when I saw you in London that on second thoughts you were half converted to my view. It is not that we want to shuffle out of our obligations -- with many of you, such as you yourselves, Romanes, Lang, Leslie Stephen, the Hertzes, and so forth, that would be quite impossible, because this particular matter is only one among many other similar kindnesses which we can never repay -- but we wish to avoid any appearance of having accepted this welcome assistance when we were in need of it, and then quietly stuck to it when we were in a position to help ourselves by our own exertions. So -- to cut a long story short -- our final decision is to send out the letters and cheques.[189]

As this painfully scrupulous letter attests, Allen hated debts and obligations, even though repaying the money must have been a sore burden at that stage of his career. Romanes did his best to talk him out of it, but Allen was obdurate, and so was his wife. He paid half of the loan in November. 'I have not the least doubt that it saved my life', he wrote, 'and one reason which urges me to make the present repayment is the opportunity which it affords me of showing all those who came forward to help me that their assistance has really enabled me to turn the corner'.[190] When he received his cheque and his copy of the circular letter of thanks which Allen had added, Darwin in particular was very touched. He wondered if they might return some of the money in a different form, such as a present. He suggested a microscope. Romanes and Robertson liked the idea, but they chose to wait until Allen had paid off the second half of the loan so he would not feel under any new obligation. Eventually Allen was presented with an expensive microscope which became his most treasured possession. In his personal letter of thanks to Darwin -- who died the next month, in April 1882 -- he said, rather optimistically, that he did not need to do quite as much hack-work as formerly, and hoped to have time to use it to do some real science in future.[191] Perhaps so, but his thoughts were turning more and more to fiction, and substantial fiction at that. 


By 1883, buoyed up by his success with short stories, of which he now had nearly enough for a first collection, Strange Stories, Allen felt ready to try a full-length novel. He embarked on an ambitious socio-political novel of ideas in the clumsy three-volume format of the day, which he hoped would forge his reputation as a serious novelist. The novel was Philistia (1884), and into it he poured his social idealism, albeit satirically treated. He said later that it 'embodies to a great extent my own ideals of life and conduct. . . . I regard it to a great extent as a religious work. At any rate, I tried to put my religion into it'.[192] As originally conceived, and as the working title, Born Out of Due Time, suggests, it was to have been a deeply pessimistic work too, dramatizing the fate of high literary principles in the workaday world.


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. Precisely what influences had moulded Allen's socialism it is hard to say. If he had links with people in any branch of the movement they remain invisible. Allen was never a political activist nor a member of any party except, briefly, the Fabians; nor is it apparent that he so much as dropped in on any socialist meetings. Allen's was always a party of one, and his angle of vision on all practical political issues was sardonic. Still, like most of the political Left of the day, he recognized that socialism had to shake off its millenarian and utopian origins to become an effective force, and so he gave many of his chapters mocking titles based on the conflicts between the Israelites (here, the 'chosen race' of the socialists) and the Philistines (the occupants of the mundane, materialistic world); titles like 'Askelon Villa, Gath' (the names of two of the Philistines' chief cities), 'The Mountains of Gilboa' (where Saul lost to the Philistines), 'The Streets of Askelon', 'The Daughters of Canaan', and so on. The central action concerns the adventures of the three young Le Breton brothers from an aristocratic Anglo-Indian family as they move out into London life, the latter-day Philistia of the title. They are Ernest, the high-minded political idealist and teacher/journalist; Herbert, foppish Oxford man, cynic and cad; and the saintly unworldly Ronald, a member of an Apostolic Christian Missioners sect. Other characters include Lady Hilda Tregellis, a bold and bored young aristocrat eager to marry someone 'different', and Arthur Berkeley, a composer of comic operas and the first in the long line of Allen's self-sacrificing heroes who decorously love another man's wife from afar.


'Tell it not in Gath', thunders the Hebrew prophet, 'publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph'. In Philistia the uncircumcised are seen triumphing in no uncertain manner, and they would have done so even more if Allen had been allowed to retain his original ending in which the idealistic characters would have died in misery, destroyed by their elevated ideals. But Philistia never saw print in the form that Allen originally intended. As an augury of his later problems with publishers and editors, neither the Belgravia and the Cornhill -- Allen's usual short-fiction outlets -- would take it as a serial, allegedly because it dealt with socialism, but more probably because of the rather jejune views put into the mouths of some characters. But although James Payn turned it down for the Cornhill, he did offer to publish the volume under the imprint of Smith and Elder. Allen then sought an inclusive serial and book deal from Andrew Chatto, who agreed to take it for his firm's Gentleman's Magazine. However, he wanted a happy ending. Given that Ernest Le Breton's pathetic death after his tribulations have crushed him is foreshadowed from the start, and was intended to be the moral lesson of the book, this amounted to a demand for a different product. Allen protested, quite mildly in the circumstances, that 'if one made him recover or get on well in the world then there would be no denouement, and, as a matter of character, I doubt whether such a person ever would get on well'.


But it was no good. Chatto wanted Ernest alive. He used the thinnest of arguments ('you may want him again -- you know how Anthony Trollope regretted killing Mrs Proudie on the impulse of the moment after overhearing the talk of two club loungers') but his real reason was his sense of what readers would expect; and that was a morally improving lesson showing that even a radical might come to his senses one day and, as he put it, '"get on" by steady perseverance in principles which at first may appear opposed to his own immediate interests'.[193]


Chatto's ultimate argument, of course, was that he held the purse-strings. It was the first time Allen had felt the insidious pressure to compromise to suit what he called sarcastically the 'imperative' demands of the public.[194] But, unlike his hero Ernest, whose obduracy nearly destroys him and his family, Allen knew how to kiss the rod. One can easily imagine his frame of mind as he grafted in a new chapter, 'Out of the Hand of the Philistines', which restores Ernest to perfect health and puts him into the editorial chair of a richly-subsidized Radical journal. He must have found it the very height of absurdity to rewrite the close in a way that undermined the lesson the book teaches from its first page. But there is no sign that Allen resented what Andrew Chatto had made him do; or if he did, he disguised it well enough. His relations with the house of Chatto & Windus continued to be excellent, and the larger part of his work appeared under their imprint. Andrew Chatto was no prude and sometimes took work which others would not; but what he would and would not do for Allen certainly affected the latter's career path as a controversialist. Publishing in the streets of Askelon turned out to be simultaneously lucrative and expensive in terms of one's integrity.


Once he had refashioned the ending and earned Chatto's benignant smile, he secured no less than L250 for the entire copyright, including the serial rights, payable in twelve equal monthly instalments. It was a surprisingly large sum; far above the going rate for a first novel, especially one appearing over an unknown name; for Allen, contrary to Chatto's advice, had chosen again to write under a pseudonym to make sure of getting an objective critical opinion. But this time it was not to be 'J. Arbuthnot Wilson'. That name was good enough for the short story and gossipy article market, but this new work demanded something different. Chatto managed to talk him out of his ridiculous first choice, which was 'Gertrude Beresford O'Sullivan', by saying tactfully that it smacked too much of a 'somewhat shabby aristocratic amateur author' and that they preferred short noms de plume.[195] They agreed eventually on 'Cecil Power'.


Allen took Philistia very seriously, and expected great things to follow. He told his friend Croom Robertson afterwards that he had put his whole soul into it. 'I fell to with the eager confidence that I was producing a really great work. That confidence and enthusiasm I can never again replace. When it was finished, I felt I had done my utmost . . . I didn't write hastily; I satisfied utterly my own critical faculty: and I can't do any better. Indeed, I can never again do so well'.[196] And, in a way, that is a true judgment. Philistia is much more densely written than any of its successors, and is worth engaging with, on several levels. The scenes set in Herr Schurz's salon, to which the emigre socialists, shabby but intense refugees from the continent and 'all that was best and truest in the socially rebellious classes',[197] make their way each Sunday evening to hear the master dilate upon the path to revolution, can usefully be set against the James's and Conrad's handling of similar material. And as an autobiographical document it is psychologically intriguing. Of the string of novels which Allen turned out in the '80s, it is the only one where we sense a real personal engagement, and where we feel that he really had, imaginatively speaking, bitten off more than he could chew. Philistia was planned from the start as a study of failing idealism, and it had plenty of personal reverberations. It was designed to illustrate his perception that, ultimately, in the present state of affairs, you can be either a martyr to your political and literary principles or an uncomplaining cog in the social machine; and that no one will care very much, probably, if you choose the first role. It is, in psychological terms, an elaborate attempt at self-reconstruction; a novel where maladroitness, estrangement, and self-division loom large, as Allen tries to pull all the parts of his nature into some kind of harmony. Ernest is not as deracinated as Allen was himself, but he does cut himself adrift from his aristocratic mother's world, just as Allen had cut free from his maternal family of the Canadian Grants.


Allen put something of himself into each of the three Le Breton brothers. Ernest, the chief character, is, as his name was intended to suggest long before Wilde, partly a Candide figure, partly a Holy Fool, and partly a Samson figure as he grinds away at the mill of journalism to support his family, and in turn is ground into powder by the predatory and hypocritical Philistine world in which he has to make a living. The narration distances itself from Ernest's opinions and behaviour, and offers regular mildly ironical commentaries on his intransigence. By the time he came to this, his first full-length novel, Allen was a seasoned journalist of thirty-two, and he had learned several hard lessons about accommodating one's ideals to the demands of the market-place. When Ernest and Edie go off on their 'brief and hasty fragment of a poor little honeymoon' Ernest guiltily takes first-class tickets. The narrator comments: 'It's so extremely hard to be a consistent socialist where women are concerned, especially on the very day of your own wedding!' Another character remarks that living with Ernest Le Breton 'would be like living with an abstraction', and a woman 'might just as well marry Spinoza's Ethics or the Ten Commandments'. The reader is likely to agree. But the painfully scrupulous young Ernest has potential; the potential to become his creator. As Herr Max lectures his daughter:

'The best socialists never come from the bourgeoisie, nor even from the proletariate; they come from among the voluntarily declasses aristocrats. . . . The aristocrat who descends is always thinking, 'Why shouldn't these other people have as many rights and privileges as I have?' . . . [It] begets a certain gentle spirit of self-effacement. You don't often find men of the aristocratic class with any ethical elements in them -- their hereditary antecedents , their breeding, their environment, are all hostile to it; but when you do find them, mark my words, Uta, they make the truest and most earnest friends of the popular cause of any. Their sympathy and interest in it are all unselfish'.

Voluntarily unclassed, self-effacing, well-meaning, unselfish, a man of the people: Ernest is a prig and a young fool, but it is easy to see how he might yet become a version of Grant Allen as he liked to think of himself in his early thirties.


Philistia is most autobiographical in its handling of another of its central themes, exogamy. All three Le Breton brothers acquire working-class lovers or wives. Ernest's wife Edie is a grocer's daughter, although hardly a typical one. She is a refined and educated girl and the sister of a Oxford mathematician to boot. His odious brother Herbert has seduced a rural greengrocer's daughter, Selah Briggs, without any intention of marrying her. Though their relationship is presented as decorously as the Gentleman's Magazine required, its nature is made plain enough to reveal Herbert as a self-deluding liar and betrayer. This couple play out a version of Allen's relations with Caroline Bootheway, seen through a distorting mirror; it is as though he is trying out, imaginatively, brutalized versions of his own behaviour fifteen years earlier. A certain amount of self-laceration may be detected, too: 'Selah turned her great eyes admiringly upon him once more. "Oh, Herbert," she said, looking at him with a clever uneducated girl's unfeigned and undisguised admiration for any cultivated gentleman who takes the trouble to draw out her higher self'. That sounds like a touch from life, softened in recollection. Herbert persuades her that they cannot marry, because that would mean surrendering his fellowship. Selah says eagerly that 'a very small income would do for me, with you, Herbert', but his frigid line is 'Pardon me, but I could not. I've been accustomed to a certain amount of comfort, not to say luxury, which I couldn't readily do without'. When alone he meditates a theme whose personal resonance is transparent: '"It's an awkward sort of muddle to have got oneself into," he thought to himself as he walked along the asphalte pavement in front of the sea-wall: "a most confoundedly awkward fix to have got oneself into with a pretty girl of the lower classes."' He resolves to take a break in Switzerland, and reject her by letter. Eventually, in a spirit of self-mortification, Allen's third fragment of himself, the saintly Ronald, picks up the betrayed and cast-off Selah on the Embankment, just in time to save her from the streets or worse.


There are some further striking autobiographical elements drawn from Allen's more recent life, especially in the scenes where Ernest Le Breton, dreadfully poor and burdened with a family, works for the Morning Intelligence while trying to keep his soul undefiled. Allen claimed that the model for the editor was Frank Harris, who, when he received an article in manuscript, thought nothing of adding or deleting a 'not' in a sentence to make it accord better with editorial policy.[198] Allen could not have suffered from this treatment from Harris himself, but he uses it to mordant effect in Philistia. Presumably he is glancing back at his own experiences working for Hunter as well as on the Daily News in a scene where Ernest, desperate for money, writes an indignant leader about the mutiny of an Indian hill-tribe which has sought freedom from colonial rule, only to see it distorted into its opposite meaning by the editorial pen. '"The insult to British prestige in the East," ran that terrible opening paragraph, "implied in the brief telegram which we publish this morning from our own Correspondent at Simla, calls for a speedy and a severe retribution. It must be washed out in blood." Blood, blood, blood! The letters swam before his eyes'. The following confrontation with a sub-editor, and other similar scenes described in Allen's skilful but too rarely indulged ironical mode, almost bear comparison with Evelyn Waugh's Scoop.


When Philistia appeared it did not quite fall dead from the press, but it failed to arouse any special interest. 'Clever' was the term most of the reviewers used. In truth, Philistia has several failings typical of a first novel, especially of a novel of ideas, that notoriously tricky form. The tone is uncertain, wobbling uneasily between documentary realism, comic satire and tragic melodrama. The essayist and article-writer peeps out at every point, particularly during the mannered and implausible dialogue, where the characters lecturing each other for whole paragraphs at a time. In the opening scene, for example, Here Herr Schurz, 'in almost perfect English', welcomes the three new young visitors to his salon in these well-turned sentences:

At present everything is against us; we are but a little leaven, trying vainly in our helpless fashion to leaven the whole lump. The capitalist journals carry off all the writing talent in the world; they are timid, as capital must always be; they tremble for their tens of thousands a year, and their vast circulations among the propertied classes. We cannot get at the heart of the people, save by the Archimedean lever of the thinking world. For that reason, my dear Le Breton, I am always glad to muster here your Oxford neophytes . . .

and so on; and that is only half of his greeting. The sickly sentimentality of the love relationships also has to be reckoned with. Most of Allen's novelistic skills, especially his plotting and dialogue, improved quickly, but sentimentality was to be a recurrent feature. Virtually all his love relationships are childish. Its presence at the start, in the serious Philistia, proves that this style of love interest was native to him; he did not introduce it to improve his commercial prospects.

Still, Philistia was a start. As he told Croom Robertson confidently, 'I shall doubtless write lots more novels, many of which will hit the public taste better than Philistia, for I am learning to do the sensational things that please the editors. I am trying with each new novel to go a step lower to catch the market. . . . I have very little doubt that by carefully following the rules given me by Payn and others, and by feeling the public pulse, I shall in time succeed in being a fairly well-read average novelist, in something the same way as Payn himself, or Black, or Hardy, though not perhaps quite so successfully. I shall make novels pay: I'm almost sure I have ability enough to accommodate myself to the environment'.[199] And he was right. Soon his work was paying the bills comfortably; indeed, as the decade moved on, a lot more than the bills. More attractive commissioned work began to come his way. One was to write an introductory chapter to a book of original drawings by W. L. Wyllie. The drawings were views of the Thames, as seen from a yawl, Puffin, as they sailed upriver one glorious day from the estuary mouth to London Bridge. Allen supplied a narrative of the trip, done in some of his most relaxed and fluently descriptive prose. He sets out to please, and one would never guess, from his easy-going, urbane commentary, just how much he loathed London architecture and London squalor. His essay appeared in the catalogue of the drawings in 1884, when they were exhibited at the Fine Art Society's gallery, but the appearance of the volume was delayed, for some reason, for eight years. When he got paid is anyone's guess.[200] 




By the mid-'80s the Allens could afford much more adventurous travel than sailing up the Thames. They had had at least one spring tour in northern Italy by 1883 and a little later, with their son away at Charterhouse school, they started to winter abroad in rather fine style. For the rest of the decade they evaded the worst months every year. Usually it was the Riviera. The Riviera Allen knew was a region still so primitive that it tests the imagination to reconstruct it. Along the entire coast from Marseilles to Menton, only one town, Nice, had the look of a substantial, modern resort. Antibes had hardly changed since medieval times. Juan-les-Pins and Saint Tropez were just fishing villages: Allen mentions the former in passing as an odd place almost unknown even to Frenchmen, where within a few kilometres of the town 'you can lose yourself in trackless forests'.[201] Other small towns and villages of the hinterland were picturesque but appallingly primitive. Bornes, he reported, had no lodgings whatever where an Englishman could stay, and not a single shop selling meat, milk, butter or white bread. The villagers seemed to live entirely on black bread, olive oil, and abominable vin du pays.


Allen's great discovery, and his favourite place along that azure coast, was the Cap d'Antibes, then a wild promontory almost in a state of nature. A dull olive-grey spit of land, it was covered in wild myrtle and mesembryanthemum which, from a distance, were not inviting. But the view from the point, looking back to the coast from La Garoupe lighthouse, was spectacular, as it still is: on one side is the Bay of Cannes, the Croisette and the little islands of Sainte Marguerite and Saint Honorat, with the hills of the Esterels behind; on the other side lie Villefranche and Monte Carlo, and, as a backdrop to the whole, visible from this vantage as they are not on the coast itself, the gleaming summits of the Alpes Maritimes, covered in winter snow. Allen did not fear that publicising the spot might spoil it. 'There isn't the very slightest danger that the wrong sort of people will ever go to ruralise on the end of the point', he wrote boldly. 'It's nonsense to talk about all the nice places getting overrun'.[202]Within twenty years of his death, the American socialites Gerald and Sara Murphy had moved into their Villa America just below the lighthouse, and there played host to a new generation of artists and writers: the Hemingways, the Scott Fitzgeralds, Picasso, Stravinsky, Dorothy Parker. . . . Soon the Cap was home to some of the most expensive real estate in the world.


Even in Allen's day it was not entirely in an inconveniently natural state. It had one hotel, the Grand Hotel du Cap, which had started life in the 1860s as the Villa Soleil, a private chateau owned by a consortium of Russian aristocrats. Then, in October 1887, at about the time Allen started to patronize it, it had come into the hands of a skilled Italian hotel-keeper, Antonio Sella. A century later it has metamorphosed into the Eden-Roc, a hotel-resort of almost fabulous exclusivity, where, it is rumoured, all bills are settled in cash; but when the Allens stayed there each winter it was small, comfortable and luxurious. The daily life and pleasures of the English people who wintered there were simple enough, however. According to Alice Bird, reminiscing about some four winters she spent there with her brother George in the company of the Allen family, almost every day there was a picnic:

each person carrying his own simple lunch. Grant Allen never started with us -- the morning was the time he gave to work. We named a favourite spot, and when his task was over he and his wife (and his son when there for the holidays) used to join us. The myrtle bushes abounding at the Cap supplied us with perfumed springy couches. It was a favourite trick to walk slowly backwards into these compact wind-cropped masses; and as we crushed our way leisurely down, the air became charged with delicious resinous exhalations.

There were lively discussions in the evenings at the hotel, in which, according to Miss Bird, Allen alternately charmed and scandalized the guests:

The commonplace and the conventional seemed to vanish in his company, and we loved to follow him into an ideal land where he vividly pictured things not as they are but as he hoped they might become. At the Antibes hotel it was natural that the majority he met differed from him, but to dissentients he was invariably gentle and forbearing. And it not infrequently happened that a sharp opponent, if not converted, would be turned into a respectful listener. . . . He never deviated from the one great object of his life -- 'to make the world accept as a truism in the next generation what it rejected as a paradox in the present generation'.[203]

Alice Bird was a good friend and a great admirer, of course; doubtless the 'dissentients' she mentions would have had a different view. Indeed, a sourer note is struck by Edith Nesbit, the novelist, who with her husband Hubert Bland saw something of Allen at Antibes in 1890 or 1891. A member of Nesbit's party later reported that when Allen came over from his 'large and luxurious hotel to dine with them in their much humbler surroundings, he made a great fuss on account of his fear of getting typhoid in that place, and later he held forth to a largely feminine audience on the inferiority of women, a thing which may seem curious to those who recollect that a couple of years later his novel, The Woman Who Did, was looked upon as a feminist tract'.[204] Curious, perhaps, but not surprising to the informed reader.


Still, a Riviera winter was hardly a matter of dolce far niente for Allen. Despite these evidences of greater prosperity, his financial position was still insecure. He was living well, but constant bouts of illness supplied regular warnings that he might break down altogether; and then. . . . The main problem was that he was accumulating no capital. His books, fiction and non-fiction alike, sold tolerably well at their first appearance, but they had little staying-power so that even the ones on which he had retained the copyright brought in little enough. If one of Andrew Chatto's accounts can be believed, the first half of 1886 produced only L55 in continuing royalties on four books. 'I am greatly disappointed that it is not for a larger amount', said Chatto, no less aware than the author himself that he could not afford to slacken pace for an instant.[205] He was so ill over the winter of 1885/6, another winter of terrible cold, that Nellie Allen was writing almost despairingly to their friends. That January, Clodd made a special memorandum to himself about a request his friend had made: 'should he not survive, I am to get Romanes, Lang, Cotter Morison and Croom Robertson to apply for Civil List pension for Mrs. A'.[206] Such pensions were notoriously stingy, and the prospect of his wife and young son being obliged to live on L100 or L150 a year must have driven him to even greater exertions in uncongenial fields. No doubt the fact that in the preceding months he had written two long three-deckers and a pot-boiler full of occult and mystical ingredients (Kalee's Shrine) had something to do with his collapse.


By the spring he had recovered sufficiently to take his family on a much longer trip: to the States and Canada for a visit lasting some months, to see American friends and the family at Kingston. Allen had not seen his parents or sisters at home for ten years, since his visit on the way back from Jamaica; and they had not seen their grandson and nephew at all. They were in Concord, Massachusetts, in June, where they stayed with Lothrop, the publisher. Allen greatly admired Thoreau's town and made the usual pilgrimage to Walden Pond. He took a trip to Lake Calabogie, in backwoods Ontario, and travelled among the White Mountains of New Hampshire, finally sailing back from Quebec at the end of August.


On his return to England Stead interviewed him for the Pall Mall Gazette, first asking him, predictably, what new impressions he had gained of North America. Allen replied that one unexpected thing in particular about the eastern United States had struck him very forcibly. One can imagine Stead leaning forward eagerly at this, expecting to be regaled with some witty observation on the mores of the New World. Yes; the fact was, Allen continued disconcertingly, that he had previously quite underestimated just how fiercely the glaciers of the Ice Age had scoured the landscape of the eastern seaboard, compared to their action in Europe. (Typically, he expanded this perception to fifteen pages for the Fortnightly, later in the year.) No doubt Stead leaned back again at that. Allen went on to make it plain that his attitude to American rural life had not softened. When asked what he had written while away, he said cheerfully that he had written nothing at all; he had spent the whole time lazing and recouping his energies. He modestly refrained from mentioning that three more of his novels had come out during his absence. Nor did he mention the twenty-eight short essays making up his collection Common Sense Science. (These were directed at an American audience and only ever published there, probably because many of them are sketches for future, more evolved articles or are simplified versions of old pieces to which he gave a slight American gloss.) And then there were the Cornhill articles, still appearing almost monthly as regular as clockwork: five of them while he was in America, on subjects ranging from sea-serpents to the origins of the decimal system.


The following winter, from November to March, 1887/8, he was away again; this time to Algiers, where there was another health resort for the English at Mustapha Superieur, in the hills above the capital. This visit was arranged at the last minute, when he suffered such a serious bout of bronchitis again that he dare not stay in England. From the Villa du Palmiers he wrote rather pathetically to his ten-year-old son: 'Mummy went out with [an invalid girl staying at the villa] to pick violets, but Daddy was too ill and stopped at home in bed. Today I'm better and able to be up. . . . Now good bye, my birdie. I hope you'll be able to read this, for my hand shakes rather'.[207] At least all these travel experiences could be used as grist for the fictional mill. The Algerian visit, for instance, produced The Tents of Shem (1889), which, considered as a piece of journalism rather than fiction, is most perceptive in capturing the French colonial atmosphere and sentiments of the time, which would lead to the ferocious war against the colons decades later -- and, indeed, to the country's present miseries.


Back in Dorking in the spring of the new year of 1888, quite a different experience loomed. Herbert Spencer came to stay. Allen had often invited him to visit them at their country home, but to no avail. That June, however, the aging philosopher had been suffering from one of his vague and interminable illnesses, and he proposed that the Allens should take him in as a boarder for the whole summer. It says much for their kindness and hospitality that they agreed to this. 'Dear Allen, You must be very well if you can stand H. S. when he isn't!' wrote Andrew Lang in mock consternation.[208] The weather was bad, and after a few months Spencer persuaded them that he was too ill to return to London and had to stay longer. In the end the Allens left (or fled, according to one account) Dorking for their winter on the Riviera, leaving him behind as tenant of their house. He was not particularly grateful. His own account conveys well his self-absorption and expectation that his state of health ought to interest everyone else too:

The end of June found me at Dorking, where I took up my abode with my friend Mr. Grant Allen for the summer months. There rapid advances resulted; but a little too much physical effort, followed by a little too much mental excitement, again undid all the good done. Improvements and relapses filled the time till the middle of October, when Mr. Allen was obliged to go, as he habitually did, to a warmer climate; and I, unable to move, took his house for the winter. The five months passed in it, more monotonous even than the fifteen months passed at Brighton, were made more bearable in the one place as in the other by various friends, who came to spend sometimes a few days, sometimes three weeks, with me; and especially were they relieved by two children of my friend Mrs. Cripps.[209]

The children were 'borrowed' because Spencer liked to have children about him to fuss over. It is a commentary on the times that a mother was prepared to send two young girls to stay by themselves with an elderly and odd bachelor for weeks on end, in a house which was empty but for the servants. Altogether Spencer spent nine months at The Nook, and got almost nothing done there at all. Instead he beguiled the time by firing off missives to the Riviera complaining about the laundry arrangements. Allen seems to have regarded these quirks as nothing worse that the pardonable eccentricities of genius.


That summer visit of 1888 did give Allen the chance to observe Spencer at close quarters and for several months on end. Ever since he first met him twelve years earlier, the man Spencer seems to have intrigued Allen as much as, or perhaps more than, the thinker; and the reason for this bias is not hard to discern. Part of his hero-worship was based on aspects of Spencer's personal history with which Allen readily identified, especially Spencer's early adoption of his vocation and his monkish devotion to it, which had carried him over emotional and financial hurdles which would have crippled anyone lacking his iron will. Allen, too, saw his own natural bent as lying in unremunerative philosophy and speculative science; but he had in early life given hostages to fortune which Spencer -- had he ever felt the temptation -- would have evaded without hesitation. Most of all, the whole tendency of Spencer's thought fed, reinforced and legitimized Allen's dogmatism: his urge to draw everything into one logical self-sustaining Grand Theory. For that gift, Allen was willing to forgive his master everything -- or almost anything.


Perhaps, though, at the personal level, he liked what he saw rather less than he had done before. Curious evidence for this is the unmistakable portrait of Spencer which he drew in his lively novel Dumaresq's Daughter (1891). Haviland Dumaresq has finished his life's work, the great Encyclopedic Philosophy, but it is virtually ignored. He is lucky to sell a dozen sets of it a year. He is now seventy. (This age Spencer reached when the novel was being written.) Embittered by his lack of success, he is obliged to live in a rural cottage with his daughter, eking out an existence on 'the merest scientific hackwork for London publishers -- Universal Instructors, you know, and that sort of claptrap'.[210] Dumaresq is, like Spencer, like Allen himself, a compulsive generaliser. 'He saw nothing -- not even the smallest small-talk -- as isolated fact: every detail came to him as a peg on which to hang some abstract generalization': the first time we catch sight of him, at a tennis-party, he is discoursing learnedly on homophonic surnames. Both Spencer's inhuman detachment and blank disdain for art are pointed up and ridiculed: 'the existing culinary utensil calls herself Maria', he says of his servant; and a water-colour is for him 'a piece of paper with the image or simulacrum of a common dwelling-house scrawled in colour upon it'.


However, on an early page Dumaresq is allowed to tell the story of his early life with dignity. It has been one of superhuman effort and privation, when for years he 'lived like a dog in a kennel', at one point being rescued by a timely small inheritance, just as Spencer was. The old philosopher preserves a noble detachment. 'We men are but parasites on the warped surface of a tiny satellite of a tenth-rate sun . . . . The book got done at last: that's the great thing. The world at large may not care to look at it; but there it is, in evidence to this day, the monument of a lifetime, a germ of intellectual yeast cast loose into the fermenting thought of humanity'.


The most interesting touch is the degree to which Allen fictionalizes Spencer's career as a way of analysing his own temptations and, perhaps, predicting his own fate in old age. Dumaresq concedes his life has been nobly wasted. Philosophy has lured him on as gin lures drunkards, but what had it all been for? Now, at the end, he would advise the young: 'Go the way of the world and do as the world does. Don't waste your life, as I've wasted mine. Work for the common, vulgar, low, personal aims -- money, position, fame, power. Those alone are solid'. After this outburst he is seen to swallow discreetly a small, silver-coated pellet. A later scene where, abandoning the principles of a lifetime, Dumaresq seeks to marry his beloved daughter Psyche off to a rich man come what may, offers an odd mixture of farce and pathos. In a narcotic haze, described with rhetorical flourishes worthy of De Quincey, he visualizes Psyche decked out in pearl and diamonds. 'Money, money, money, money: the dross he despised, the pleasure he looked down upon, the vulgar aims and ends that he himself had cast like dirt behind him -- he dreamed them all for the daughter he loved, and was no longer ashamed: for Haviland Dumaresq the philosopher was dead within him now, and there remained for the moment but that shell or husk, Haviland Dumaresq the incipient opium-eater'. Here Allen cuts very close to the bone, both personally and vis-a-vis his subject. Spencer's father, as he must have known, had died from an overdose of morphine and Spencer's invalidity after 1885 was almost certainly due to his having become a morphine addict in turn. Perhaps Allen saw evidence of that at Dorking. Spencer did not, of course, read popular fiction and there is no reason to believe he ever heard about Dumaresq's Daughter; still, the wonder is that Allen dared or wished to draw such a picture, knowing his friend's vanity and high sense of self-esteem. It is a peculiar illustration of the warring mixture of idealism and satire in his nature.


The decade ended for Allen with the most demanding excursion he ever undertook: a visit to Egypt in the company of Edward Clodd in the winter of 1889. The friends left by boat train from Victoria on 4 November and travelled via Switzerland to Milan and Venice, and then by boat to Brindisi and Alexandria, where they met Arnold, Clodd's son. After that, they followed the usual tourist round. They climbed to the top of the Great Pyramid and then took the train down to Luxor. There they hired a donkey and guide to explore the Valley of the Kings, and Clodd the financier noted the donkey-hire cost four times as much as the boy guide: the total amounted to two shillings. After a languid sail back down the Nile in a felucca, which offered endless hours of talk but little comfort, they were glad to see Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo. They were back in England by 10 December after five weeks in each other's company. Unfortunately Clodd was no Boswell. The diary he kept of this trip was scribbled in tiny memorandum books and half the entries are illegible, and even where legible they record nothing substantial about Allen's talk, apart from mentioning that there was time for a great deal of it. Allen, unusually, wrote nothing about his Egyptian tour, only expressing the opinion that it was 'a visit which he had no desire to repeat'.[211]


So ended the 1880s. When the last decade of the century opened, Allen must have looked back with some satisfaction. He had drudged, yes, but he had drudged to no small effect. He had lived well, and the hardest days were behind him. At least some of the work he had to do now was more congenial than of old, and even in his own eyes was not entirely despicable. And far richer rewards lay ahead.



The Stock in Trade: Writing Science



The miserly returns on his first two monographs had persuaded even Allen that writing serious science for a living was impossible. But being thought a 'scientist' continued to be important to him. (Not that he ever used that noun; he thought it a vulgar neologism.) Science, for Allen, was the supreme product of the human intelligence. He believed that the three master discoveries of nineteenth century science -- that is to say, the atomic theory of matter, Darwinian evolution, and the laws of thermodynamics -- had utterly transformed our understanding of reality. He expresses this creed best in the wonderfully inclusive long essay 'The Progress of Science, 1830-1880' which he wrote for the Fortnightly in 1887 to mark Victoria's Jubilee year. This essay, a masterpiece of exposition, is far more than a survey. It is a eulogy to the advancing spirit of rationalism, a hymn to the underlying uniformity in nature, a paean to the way naturalistic modes of explanation are inexorably extending their sway through all of nature. Through his eyes, we see the birth of the cosmos itself as the Victorians understood it, and then the development of the solar system, as explained by the nebular hypothesis. The earth forms, and he shows us how Lyell's geology, uniformitarianism, is the most economical theory, and fits the facts; we follow the gradual increasing comprehension and delineation of the geological epochs and eras; the successful grasping, against fevered opposition, of the principles of organic evolution; the growth of palaeontology and anthropology and comparative religion and what they have to tell us about human organic and cultural evolution; advances in physics, chemistry and technology generally: it's all there, and it all describes a cosmos cut from one cloth: 'consisting everywhere of the same prime elements, drawn together everywhere by the same great forces, animated everywhere by the same constant and indestructible energies, evolving everywhere along the same lines in accordance with the self-same underlying principles'.[212]


The hero of this brilliant epitome is the scientific method itself -- the self-correcting procedures of induction and hypothesis-formation which make all theories, and even laws, tentative and provisional. Scientific naturalism was Allen's religion. It gave him an aesthetics, an ethics, a metaphysics, a social philosophy. Indeed, science, for Allen, exposed the very pith of the world so thoroughly, so lucidly, so beautifully, that he was sometimes incredulous that anyone could possibly need another creed. He called one of his books Common Sense Science and for him the phrase was an incantation to the god of rationality, readable forwards and backwards: science is organized common sense; and it is only common sense to be scientific. His entire career as a thinker and writer was built on that reversible proposition. He had no room for other gods and, naturally, his attitude to all revealed religions was hostile. Far from taking the defensive position, popular in his day and afterwards, that God may possibly be revealing himself through evolution, Allen went on the offensive: evolution accounted for God, or at least our conception of God.


It is not surprising, then, that was important to Allen's self-image to be thought a man of science, in the sense of one who did original work and offered it up to the communal judgment. He tried to maintain this role throughout his life despite disdainful criticism, economic sacrifices and great demands on his energy. His first two books were, as we have seen, contributions to perceptual psychology. His very first periodical article, published in a Canadian magazine, offered a new way of looking at some of the basic concepts of physics. And, right from the outset of his career he received plenty of encouragement to think of himself as a scientist. When copies of his first semi-popular collections of reprinted essays of evolutionary explication, The Evolutionist at Large and Vignettes from Nature (both 1881) were sent out to the famous, they received flattering testimonials. The aged Darwin wrote privately: 'I quite envy you your power of writing -- your words flow so easily, clearly, and pleasantly. Some of your statements seemed to me rather too bold; but I do not know that this much signifies in a work of the kind, and may perhaps be an advantage. Some of your views are quite new to me'. T.H. Huxley spoke approvingly too: 'I find much to admire in the way you conjoin precision with popularity -- a very difficult art'.[213]


But testimonials of this kind have to be understood for what they really signified in the sub-culture of Victorian scientific scholarship. The two just quoted come from routine letters thanking the author for making them a present of his books. Such presents were well understood by donor and recipient as being an acceptably modest, coded way of soliciting a puff from a famous name. Huxley received hundreds of books from aspiring scientists and philosophers, and usually dispatched a note of gruff praise when he could. Even the fact that Darwin, then near the end of his life, praised Allen's work does not mean a great deal. Darwin was famous for his generous enthusiasm towards anyone who was following in his footsteps. In this case his praise was more likely to be forthcoming because Allen spoke up for the mechanism of sexual selection, which Darwin's critics were then condemning as an afterthought brought in to patch up the apparently ineradicable weaknesses in the natural selection hypothesis.


But when it came to the impersonal medium of the review, or a professional judgment by his peers, Allen's forays into experimental science were treated rather differently. His dealings with the journal Nature are illustrative. Founded in 1869, Nature was originally meant to present scientific research to a lay audience. By the 1880s, though, its audience had altered somewhat. By then, Nature was being read mostly by professional scientists, although it still dealt in general science and was perhaps most useful to scientists who wanted to keep in touch with what was going on in specialties other than their own. Perhaps because of that shift of emphasis, Nature's reviewers were often hard on amateurs, and as far as it was concerned Allen decidedly belonged to that class. It reviewed many of his books and article-collections, usually with a slight air of disdain. Vignettes from Nature was generously handled by Alfred Russel Wallace, who spoke up rightly for Allen's skill in bringing out the novelty, intricacy and functional beauty discoverable in the structure of the lowliest organisms. But in the wake of that review Vignettes was criticized by W. B. Carpenter for speaking imprecisely about the size of extinct animals. Carpenter was a divine, known to his enemies as 'the silver-tongued Bishop of Ripon', and Allen fastened on that, by retorting that 'with all due deference to Dr Carpenter, for whose supreme authority on all matters of biological fact I have, of course, the profoundest respect', he was, in fact, writing for the popular reader. This heavy sarcasm drew down on his head a rebuke of truly episcopal proportions.[214] The exchange doubtless produced plenty of mirth in all quarters, but in the latter part of Allen's career, when he had become notorious, Nature's tone towards him hardened. 'Science diluted with sentiment' was its judgement on the late Moorland Idylls (1896) -- admittedly the flimsiest of Allen's collections -- although it did concede that a nature-lover would surely find the essays' approach attractive. Treated even more harshly was the primer on botany, The Story of the Plants, which he wrote for Newnes in 1895. This was quite a success, being translated into Russian and Dutch and still being in print in a revised and expanded edition as late as 1926. But Nature's editor allowed the primer to be reviewed under the sneering title 'Parturiunt Montes' ('the mountains laboured' [and brought forth a mouse]'). The reviewer picked away ruthlessly at a number of small technical errors, and closed by saying that the more ignorant the reader, the more he was likely to find the book pleasant, but hardly profitable, reading. That review appeared only a few months after The Woman Who Did, and one would have to be naive to think the two were not connected. Nature maintained that tone during his last years. A review of Flashlights on Nature (1898) even charged him with stealing another naturalist's illustrations without acknowledgement. The Victorian scientific establishment handled Allen as it had handled G. H. Lewes, a man with similar talents, before him. It knew how to put in their place those it regarded as amateurs and sciolists.


In his early days Allen was immune to mild hostility from the scientific establishment, and he twice tried to assert his credentials as a botanist by publishing in Nature. The results were not happy. He tried first in July/August 1882, with a series of four papers which propose a new theory about how the coloured petals of flowers had evolved, not from leaves, but from flattened, degenerated stamens. He tries to show that they had done so over the ages in a specific sequence of colours; from yellow, through white, to red, purple, lilac, mauve and finally blue. This passed muster -- Darwin praised an earlier version in his private letters to other people -- and Allen even persuaded Macmillan's to bring it out as a monograph, The Colours of Flowers, as Illustrated in the British Flora. In his next effort, which was four papers on 'The Shapes of Leaves' in March 1883, he tried to show that leaves have taken on their specific shapes in response to, and in turn acted as an influence on, the micro-climates around the plants which bear them. But this thesis was cut up badly by professional botanists. 'Blunders of such magnitude', wrote one in best finger-wagging style, 'but written with that assurance of style which naturally carries conviction to the mind of the unwary, and disseminated through the country in a widely read journal like Nature, cannot but produce a rich crop of erroneous impressions. These it will be the arduous duty of teachers to eradicate'.[215] Allen tried to defend himself by saying that absolute precision of language is not necessary in semi-popular writing, and that amateurs of botany ought to be allowed to try out their 'own little guesses and glimpses for what they may be worth'.[216] Neither sentiment, probably, endeared him to Nature's readers, who were keen to extend the professionalism of science. Even worse was this critique:

It is no doubt pleasant, even fascinating, to sit down at one's desk and, having formulated a few fundamental assumptions, to spin out from these explanations of what we see in the world about us. But I think when done it should be understood that the result is merely a literary performance, and though, viewed in that aspect, one may admire the skill and neatness with which it is accomplished, I nevertheless venture to think that the whole proceeding is harmful.[217]

This rebuke was from Thistleton Dyer, a heavyweight of botany who became the Director of Kew Gardens, and it is, unfortunately, true enough. What Dyer is defining here is deductive argumentation, a method which Allen had acquired from Herbert Spencer and to whose limitations he was always curiously blind.




No other person, living or dead, did so much to form Allen's scientific naturalism as Spencer. As we have seen, Allen read him thoroughly in Jamaica and sought him out on his return to England. The acquaintance confirmed his opinion that, if Darwin has discovered evolution by natural selection, it was Spencer who had achieved even more by discovering cosmic Darwinism. Spencer had outstripped Darwin, and Aristotle and Newton and Galileo as well, by drawing the entire cosmos into one all-embracing, scientifically-validated philosophical system. Allen's admiration was of course shared by many others -- for a short time Darwin, Huxley and Spencer seemed to form a natural triumvirate -- but is rather hard to comprehend today when, as a reference book puts it, Spencer's reputation has 'sunk to hitherto unfathomed depths'.[218] For Allen, though, evolutionism -- the extension of the biological theory accounting for life on one planet, to the entire history and development of the cosmos 'from nebula to man, from star to soul, from atom to society' as he put it -- was his rational religion, and Herbert Spencer was its messiah.[219]


In this new religion the role of John the Baptist was vacant. Allen appointed himself to the post. He continued to promote, and to quote, Herbert Spencer on every possible occasion and every possible subject right to the end of his life. If anything, his claims for him became ever more extravagant and rather less credible as time went on. In his first public reference to the philosopher in 1876, Spencer is already named as 'the first in the history of our race to attempt the vast task of systematizing the whole circle of existences'.[220] By 1887 we hear that not only Spencer's thought, but even his literary style, is nothing less than 'the most perfect instrument for its particular purpose ever fashioned by the intellect of man'.[221] Finally, in 1894, Allen is prepared to claim that no one who had ever lived has correlated all the facts of the universe -- all the facts that are known; indeed, by implication, all the facts that can be known -- into a synthesis so magnificent, consistent and profound. Quite simply, Spencer 'possessed the finest brain and the most marvellous intellect ever yet vouchsafed to human being'.


This last remarkable assertion appeared in a no less remarkable memoir which Allen wrote in 1894 but ordered should not appear until after Spencer's death. In fact, Allen predeceased him and it was published in an American magazine (and only there, it seems). This article, 'Personal Reminiscences', is a odd but fascinating production. It is certainly no piece of hagiography. Allen was far from blind to the older man's faults, and here he relishes the chance to foreground them: the selfishness, the hypochondria, the deafness to all criticism. Indeed, he recycles some of the ripest anecdotes about Spencer, including one which he surely must have known Spencer had publicly denied ever happened. He even adds a couple of his own, rather more damaging than the commonly-known ones. Then again, he gives a clear impression that he and Spencer were intimate over many years, and that Spencer regarded him as one of his two most important disciples in England. (The other was Beatrice Webb.) He told Clodd that Spencer had left instructions in his will that all his papers should be turned over to Allen to write a Life. There is no reason to doubt that this was indeed Allen's perception of their acquaintance -- one hesitates to call it a friendship -- which lasted so many years. But if we peer into Spencer's papers to try to fill out the picture of their relationship, the effect is disconcerting. It is as though we are looking over the shoulder of a man who is standing before a mirror, only to find that nothing of his shape is being reflected back. For if Spencer thought much of Allen's admiration, he kept it to himself. In the two fat volumes of his autobiography he has only a single passing mention of Grant Allen.


That can be explained readily enough by pointing to the notorious vanity and self-regarding egotism of the philosopher. But to explain Allen's lifelong admiration for Spencer's thought -- idolatry is not too extravagant a word -- is a more complex matter. It is curiously difficult to put one's finger on what specific doctrines of Spencer's Allen found most valuable and fruitful. When speaking of Spencer's merits he tended, like the master himself, to speak in abstractions. What, in fact, were those staggering insights of which he thought so highly? Whatever possessed him to speak so absurdly of Spencer's 'mighty generalizations -- the Instability of the Homogeneous and the Multiplication of Effects -- which will endure after Oxford and Cambridge are forgotten'?[222] Was it just bombast, a desire to shock or be mischievous, or was it sober conviction? It is one of those opaque regions of Allen's intellectual personality into which the biographer cannot penetrate far.


Could those new and brilliant truths have been the ones uncovered by Spencer's political theorizing? Surely not. Even for a man who called himself an Individualist Communist -- splendid oxymoron -- it is inconceivable that Allen, with his humanitarian ideals and simple niceness as a man, could ever have given any credence to Spencer's bleak libertarianism, which raised the most brutal form of economic laisser-faire to a cosmic principle. His hero was, after all, the man who taught in no uncertain terms that the national government should leave everything to be done, or not be done, by private initiative, save only defence and policing. Never afraid to push his principles to their logical limit, Spencer was against any other interference whatsoever in the play of market forces. Banks should not be regulated, for it is wrong to act to guard people against their imprudent habits. Doing so interferes with the evolutionary process which rightly brings 'benefit to the sagacious and disaster to the stupid'. The ultimate result of shielding people from their own folly is to fill the world with fools.[223] The Poor Laws and the Factory Acts; laws against the adulteration of food; laws regulating the dispensing of any medicines, even those banning quack remedies known to be useless or dangerous: all such laws should be abolished, for they hinder the process of deleting the 'unfit'. Even city sewerage ought to be supplied by private enterprise or not at all; householders who did not or could not pay should have their waste pipes promptly disconnected and be left to cope with their backed-up effluent as best they could. Naturally, Spencer opposed all public schooling. He held that education was for parents to supply; for, he argued, if the State were held responsible for providing the child with mental nutriment, then the State might be held responsible for giving needy children food, clothing and shelter as well. (He thought this latter proposition too self-evidently stupid to merit further comment.) He declined to support the new Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children on the grounds that it weakened parental authority. He opposed nearly all charity -- begging, for instance, should not be supported, for 'it has called into existence warehouses for the sale and hire of impostors' dresses'. He did allow grudgingly for private benevolence in deserving cases of 'men thrown on their backs by unforeseen events', and presumably that was why he contributed to Allen's sickness fund in 1879; but as he got older he repudiated even that much charity.


Several of these illustrations of Spencer's social philosophy have been drawn from Social Statics (1851), a book which Allen probably read at Oxford, if not earlier. One wonders greatly what he made of passages like this, which display Spencer as an unremitting Social Darwinist before anyone had heard of Darwinism:

The well-being of existing humanity and the unfolding of it into this ultimate perfection, are both secured by that same beneficent, though severe discipline, to which the animate creation at large is subject: a discipline which is pitiless in the working out of good: a felicity-producing law which never swerves for the avoidance of partial and temporary suffering. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many 'in shallows and in miseries', are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence. It seems hard that an unskilfulness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artisan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life and death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence -- the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the intemperate and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.

Spencer goes on to complain that there are 'many very amiable people' who 'have not the nerve to look this matter fairly in the face'. One wonders if Allen were one of them. If so, did he ever wonder what 'unnatural' impulse had made him ignore these edicts in his own life? After all, Spencer refers explicitly to the way nature deals with tubercular people. 'Consumptive patients, with lungs incompetent to perform the duties of lungs . . . are continually dying out, and leaving behind those fit for the climate, food, and habits to which they are born'.[224] Why, then, did not Allen follow this clear mandate to 'shoulder aside' (charming phrase!) his own sick wife?


The question is of course rhetorical, and ridiculous. It is unimaginable that Allen could ever have found doctrines like these acceptable in real life, or that he could ever based his own behaviour on them. In his memoir of Spencer, Allen concedes on an early page that there were some aspects of his hero's thought that he could not stomach:

As a matter of fact, not only I, but almost all those who had learnt most from him, and been most profoundly impressed by his early teaching, saw reason to dissent from him on a large number of subjects in his later period. But that did not and does not alter my opinion of the man and his gigantic intellect. I regard him still, as I always regarded him, on the intellectual side, with the profoundest reverence. No man ever formulated so large a number of new and brilliant truths; no man ever correlated all the facts of the universe, physical and spiritual, into so magnificent, so consistent, and so profound a synthesis.[225]

But this is a wholly disingenuous concession. Allen gives the impression that when Spencer went 'grievously wrong, more particularly in his social and political thinking', this can be excused as an aberration of his old age. Certainly towards the end Spencer did revise his views on the merits of universal suffrage. But Social Statics was not the product of Spencer's old age. He was barely thirty when he wrote it. Allen was not, of course, obliged to accept this, or any other particular component of the Spencerian system, although, logically, rejecting part of it was difficult because it was just that, a system; in fact, the last of the comprehensive philosophical systems of the nineteenth century. Its claim, as Allen insisted many times, was that, like the scientific naturalism supposedly underpinning it, it formed a seamless whole. Spencer's political economics was interknit with his psychology, his biology, his sociology: each component meshed with, and was validated by, the rest of the System.


Allen might have been able to ignore Spencer's social science, but he had more trouble with the fundamentals of his life sciences. Spencer claims to have raised his System on a foundation of indisputable scientific fact, and central to his biology, and his sociology and his psychology, was Lamarckian inheritance; that is to say, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, or, to employ the more descriptive term, use-inheritance. (Strictly speaking, use-inheritance is only one of several conceptualizations lumped together under the label of neo-Lamarckism, but the terms are sufficiently synonymous for our present purposes.[226]) Most biological theorists active between the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 and the end of the century assumed use-inheritance was a fact, including, as is well known, Darwin himself in his later years. Darwin's own explanation for the mechanism of inheritance, and one cause of variation, he called pangenesis. According to this, every organ and tissue of the body detaches gemmules, or small images of its own sort, which then accumulate in the reproductive cells, ready for onward transmission as an epitome of the entire parental organism, life-experiences and all.


Spencer had his own theory of inheritance, the notion of physiological units, which is more complicated but, potentially, had more explanatory reach than pangenesis. Supposedly, the organism is made up of two different types of Unit: one is capable of differentiation into the different bodily organs, while the other remains undifferentiated and generalized, but has the property of responding sympathetically to every influence acting on the body. If required, these latter Units are like holograms which can reconstruct any special organ, or even the entire body, from one of themselves, analogous to the way in which a single crystal can build up copies of itself out of a suitable solution. This explains the puzzling fact that lower organisms can regenerate lost limbs or even most of their bodies, if necessary, from some internal blueprint. In higher animals, including humans, this type of Unit is, or is contained in, the reproductive cells, which can rebuild from the proper materials a whole new organism together with all the modifications impressed upon the parental Units during their lifetime. Spencer therefore took it for granted that a powerful factor in evolution, though not as powerful as natural selection, was that the properties and qualities of parents are inherited by their offspring; not merely the properties common to the species, but those individual attributes acquired for good or ill by the parents during their lifetime. He explained the inheritance of musical ability, blindness in cave animals and modifications in domesticated creatures in this way.


It has been claimed more than once that Allen was no neo-Lamarckian, and that he disavowed use-inheritance because there was insufficient evidence for it and because it approached too closely, for his taste, to teleological reasoning. But of course he was. Like many or most of the speculative thinkers of his day, he passed his whole life thinking the evidence for use-inheritance was incontestable. He took it for granted that the children of acrobats are born with more supple limbs, and that the children of musicians or mountaineers inherit their parents' special gifts.[227] He thought it was inconceivable that the human nervous system could have evolved through natural selection alone. The structures of the human brain, especially the frontal lobes, must have undergone their lightning enlargement as a functional adaptation to a changed environment, as the humanoid ape emerged from the forest on to the grasslands of Africa. 'To my humble intelligence the notion of accidental brains seems simply monstrous and incredible'.[228] So, too, did any 'accidental' explanation for the human reasoning powers. It seemed obvious that these were the cumulative result of acquired habits, passed down and added to over hundreds of generations. How else could human culture have come so far and so fast?


A thorough cultural history of Victorian neo-Lamarckism is one of the most desirable of unwritten books, but it is plain enough that Allen, like many other moralists, social theorists, teachers and political philosophers, had a strong emotional investment in it. Use-inheritance had the useful property of being able to explain almost anything. It was used, for instance, to explain the sexual brutality of men and the weaker sexual vitality of women. Men's cave-man habits, imitated and confirmed over millennia, had become instinctive; whereas, in women, the experience of painful childbirth had helped to structure and reduce the female libido. It soothed the unease of those who supposed women were mentally inferior to men. Darwin himself speculated in the Descent of Man that the better women were educated, the more likely they were to pass on their superiority directly to their daughters; on the other hand, conservative men need not be alarmed, for he expected it to take generations to produce any distinct effect. Most of what use-inheritance was supposed to explain had a frighteningly moral tinge. As an anxiety-maker, it was without peer. How stimulating the thought that the best endeavours and acquired skills of our forebears, especially our parents, should descend to us! How frightening that our vices, indulged weaknesses, and bad habits should descend in turn to our children, even if in some masked or muted form! How heavy, then, the responsibilities weighing on those planning to become parents!


Allen's belief in use-inheritance had one especially noteworthy effect on him. It allowed him to dismiss any calls for a program of eugenics, at least in the form defined by its originator, Francis Galton, as 'the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage'. Allen had no time for interventionist eugenics of this kind, and satirized it in his story 'The Child of the Phalanstery'. This was built around hearing a friend advocate euthanasia for such cases as a child with a club foot which they saw in the street, in order to curtail the transmission of inheritable defects. The story is set in a future utopian community, where such infants are sorrowfully put to death, on a day renamed 'Darwin'. Although there are some moral ambivalences in the story, broadly it mocks well-meaning eugenic proposals. When Sir George Campbell, a eugenist, spoke against the 'foolish ideas about love and tastes of young people', promoting as an alternative a deliberate program of 'man-breeding', Allen protested that the results of the selective breeding of animals have not been particularly admirable: he evidenced the race-horse. Better trust to 'inherited instinct', that process, otherwise known as falling in love, is a far surer technique, especially if women were encouraged to become eugenic gatekeepers -- a concept to be examined later.[229]


The neo-Lamarckians adhered to their position on grounds which were a mixture of a priori reasoning and anecdote. It was left to August Weismann (1834-1914), a German biologist at Freiburg, to apply a long-overdue empirical test. He asked not, 'How does Lamarckian inheritance work?' but 'Does Lamarckian inheritance actually happen?' In one experiment, he amputated the tails of mice over twenty-two consecutive generations. When he found that the mice of the last generation had tails no shorter than the first, he argued the matter was closed. Thereupon the neo-Lamarckians, who had welcomed the experiment at first, expecting a positive outcome, shifted ground and said that he had ignored Lamarck's concept of besoin, or need. If the mice had wanted to lose their tails, they would have; it is acquired adaptive characters that are inherited. However, Weismann thought this and similar experiments decisively established the principle of the 'continuity of the germ-plasm'. The reproductive cells are quite distinct from the body cells, and the material of inheritance which they contain is handed on indefinitely from one generation to the next, quite unaffected by the personal life of the individuals through which it passes: no injury to the body, no atrophy or hypertrophy, no acquired skills or cultural conditioning of any kind, is ever written back to the reproductive cells. Every generation starts afresh, unstained or unblessed by the personal activities of its predecessors.


As neo-Lamarckism became rather more problematic towards the end of the century, it is to Allen's credit that he never tried to duck the difficulties. He was fascinated by heredity on both the speculative and creative levels of his mind. No other theme appears so often in his work: literally dozens of his novels and stories turn on the consequences of inherited habits and (particularly) vices. It is not surprising, then, that he spent much time wrestling with the problem of trying to reconcile use-inheritance with Weismann's inviolate germ-plasm. He reviewed Weismann's books as they were translated into English, and wrote several wonderfully clear expositions of the crux of the matter. He knew just how important the issue was; it was because, as he put it, 'if Weismann is right, we shall have to begin all over again; we shall have to reconstruct from its very basis the entire fabric of evolutionary psychology' -- by which he meant Spencerian psychology.[230] Use-inheritance via the physiological units is the very pivot of the Spencerian explanation of human evolution, especially the evolution of the mental powers. It is absolutely central to the Principles of Psychology, for instance, first published in July 1855, and to the Sociology. In the plan for the Synthetic Philosophy, use-inheritance is proposed as the source of much innate knowledge, as the basis of instinctive behaviour, as the foundation of the conscience and the gradual extension of social morality, and as the final basis of certainty for the transcendental axioms. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say, as some contemporaries said at the time, that if use-inheritance is not a pronounced factor in evolution then Spencer's psychology, his sociology, his ethics and his anthropology are all fatally compromised. Spencer disputed this vigorously in the early 1890s when doubts began to arise, but it is true nonetheless, as Allen realized only too clearly. The disciple seemed to go even further than the master, in fact, because he told an interviewer that 'I should still believe in Spencer's Psychology if Spencer himself were to retract every word of it'. [231]


Allen was not prone to repeating himself, or even to recycling his subjects. It is unusual that he made no fewer than three attempts over seven years at clarifying what had become, by 1890, the crucial issue in biological theory. In its most advanced form, his argument took the form of what he calls a 'flank movement' against Weismann. That is to say, he wonders whether use-inheritance between generations is in fact the key issue[232] He wonders whether inheritance is not actually a more specialized case of the mystery of assimilation. Isn't the conversion of food into tissue -- that is, not-self into self -- the real miracle? For where does the blueprint reside that makes sure nutrients are organized and converted into the precise form needed for the growth and repair of the body's fabric? Where is that master plan? The problem is especially acute when we consider that individual body cells have a limited life. For, when foodstuffs are transformed into the body of a man, 'they rebuild him with all the marks of his past history imprinted upon him. . . . Refrain from swimming for ten years, and then try the water once more: you will find the acquired power is still present in arms and legs, no actual living particle of which ever before performed any active work in swimming'. Compared to this miracle, is it not a 'minor matter' that the germ cells have the same faculty in transmitting the body-blueprint to the next generation? 'If [the cellular blueprint] can rebuild the parent, why not also the offspring?'[233]


Allen's example was unfortunate, for the skill of swimming resides in the brain, and most neurons are not replaced during life; and in any case critics noted that in 'solving' the problem he was committing the fallacy of substituting one mystery for a larger one.[234] Still, if use-inheritance is the key issue, then he was eager to see the issue settled. 'What is wanted now is some decisive experimental settlement of the question', he said. 'Can it be shown that in any case a capacity or habit acquired beyond a doubt during the life-time of the individual is transmissible to the off-spring? If that can be proved, Weismannism falls at once to the ground'.[235] He did not add that, if it cannot be proved, Spencerism falls to the ground. He never saw the resolution, for the last gasp of use-inheritance, in the Soviet-style genetics of Lysenko, lay decades in the future; and even then, as one historian puts it, no other biological hypothesis in the history of that science has been abandoned so reluctantly.[236] In one of his reviews Allen called for a David to tackle the formidable Goliath of Weismann. He thought the champion might come from psychology. 'Psychology in the end will supply the smooth stones which may pierce the forehead of our German giant', he predicted hopefully.[237] By that late date, however, he could hardly have been expecting Herbert Spencer to wield the slingshot. Perhaps he had noticed that his hero was approaching the dangerous point where use-inheritance had to be true because he needed it to be true. He had so woven it into the texture of his System that he had made too great an emotional and intellectual investment in it to give it up.


Just one year after Allen's death, the Mendelian factors of particulate inheritance were rediscovered after forty years of neglect. Soon afterwards Sutton and Boveri, working with sea-urchins, had speculated that the thread-like chromosomes they could see in the cells carry the hereditary determinants which Sutton named 'genes'. The sex chromosomes were decisively identified a few years later. Spencer's 'physiological units' vanished into the limbo reserved for phrases coined to name things which don't exist.


What else was valuable in Spencer to counter and overcome his unappealing and doctrinaire attitudes? We surely have to point to the philosopher's argumentative procedures, which allowed Allen to believe that he too, lacking as he did both the time or resources for laboratory work, could nevertheless participate in science. Spencer never went near a laboratory -- or into a monastery garden. It never seems to have occurred to him or his disciple that the secrets of heredity, for example, were unlikely to be uncovered by sitting in a book-lined room, collecting and spinning other men's observations -- obtained, notoriously, from assistants whom he hired to pick through books for him -- into a mental cocoon. He was so wedded to a priori argument that he was incapable of reasoning in any other way. Francis Galton, the psychologist and eugenist, had an amusing story of the occasion when he happened to mention to him that the purpose of fingerprints is unknown. Spencer at once improvised an elaborate theory that the whorls and ridges protect the sweat glands of the fingertips from damage from abrasion, and, in his usual rounded phrases, reared up on this supposition 'a wonderfully ingenious and complicated superstructure of imaginary results'. Galton explained that a glance through a microscope would show that the ducts of these glands open on the exposed crests of fingerprints, not in their valleys. The splendid edifice collapsed.[238] To be fair, Spencer recognized this trait in himself, and sportingly repeats in his own Autobiography T.H. Huxley's well-known epigram that Spencer's idea of a tragedy was a beautiful deduction slain by an ugly fact.


Allen himself smiled at dogged empiricism, which he thought was a typically bone-headed 'English' (or originally Saxon) trait. He recognized (though it was rather a double-edged compliment) that it was Darwin's endlessly patient methods of observation and fact-collection which had underlain his success, for Darwin knew his countrymen; knew exactly what was needed to touch 'the slow and cautious elephantine intellect of the masses'. No Englishman, Allen was sure, is ever satisfied with the elegantly abstract proof of Pythagoras' theorem. He isn't impressed or convinced by logical deductions. He needs to get out 'a few selected pieces of rudely shaped rectangular paper' and shift them around on a diagram so he can see the proof for himself. Only then is he happy.[239] How different to the quick, intuitively logical perceptions of the Celtic mind -- like his own, for example! But despite this bravado, after the criticisms in Nature Allen evaded any more professional disputes with botanists and others on their own ground. H.G. Wells, whose own background and interests -- and intellectual weaknesses -- were very close to those of the older man, made a shrewd if gritty assessment of Allen's powers as a scientific worker in his Autobiography. He is looking back here from a perspective of thirty years:

Like myself, Grant Allen had never found a footing in the professional scientific world and he had none of the patience, deliberation -- and discretion -- of the established scientific worker, who must live with a wholesome fear of the Royal Society and its inhibitions before his eyes. Grant Allen's semi-popular original scientific works such as his Origin of the Idea of God (1897) [sic] and his Physiological Aesthetics (1877) were at once bold and sketchy, unsupported by properly verified quotations and collated references, and regardless or manifestly ignorant of much other contemporary work. They were too original to be fair popularization and too unsubstantiated to be taken seriously by serious specialists, and what was good in them has long been appropriated, generally without acknowledgement, by sounder workers, while the flimsy bulk of them moulders on a few dusty and forgotten shelves.[240]

Not a flattering assessment, certainly; but, even so, Wells is too generous to mention, or perhaps he averted his eyes from, Allen's most adventurous foray into pure science -- into theoretical physics, to be exact. In 1888 he published a treatise, Force and Energy, which is unquestionably the oddest production of his career. This long-meditated work proposed, as its sub-title said, a new theory of dynamics by redefining some of the fundamental concepts of physics. He uses 'force', for instance, to mean 'attractive power' and 'energy' to mean 'repulsive power'. It need hardly be said that these are totally empty verbalisms -- Allen does not use a single line of mathematics -- and, for the rest, he either takes for granted, or ignores, the conceptualizations so arduously clarified and tied down into interlocking definitions in his own century by geniuses like Joule, Kelvin and Maxwell. Allen does not anticipate Einstein or Planck or Dirac; in fact he makes some elementary schoolroom blunders.


Force and Energy was reviewed with baffled astonishment by several real physicists, including the kindly Oliver Lodge and the frighteningly polymathic Karl Pearson. Lodge asked sadly, 'Are we, then, to conclude that the author, in all this treatise, has hit on no germ of truth -- nothing but what was well known before, or what is erroneous? I fear that . . . this must be our conclusion'. Pearson, a mathematician, statistician and physicist at London University, had also trained as a lawyer and could wield a ferocious pen. This time, though, he was content to strike a jovial note of seasonal good-will. 'Mr Grant Allen may for his own personal convenience call the "powers" to which he refers force and energy, just as he might have equally well christened them Jack and Gill. . . .We advise him to do penance at once by writing us a blood-curdling Christmas ghost story, and by promising to entertain no more heresies'. With that sort of reception, it wasn't long before Allen heard from his publisher that the book was being converted into wallpaper.[241] Still, he remained proud of his theory, even claiming on his deathbed that recognition for it was the only memorial he wanted.


Putting aside pseudo-scientific works by obvious cranks, Force and Energy is one of the most peculiar items in the literature of Victorian pathological science. How he came to construct the theory, and write the book, defies explanation. (Despite his show of confidence, perhaps Allen had his own private doubts about it, which he had earlier stifled with a transparent piece of wish-fulfilment in the shape of a story, 'Dr Greatrex's Engagement'. In this, a young doctor believes he has made a 'grand discovery' about 'Energy', until he finds himself pulling facial grimaces; then he fears he is suffering from delusional mania and has written gibberish. But the grimaces prove to be just a nervous twitch, and his discovery is hailed as a work of genius.[242]) All one can say is that it exposes like nothing else Allen's key intellectual weaknesses: far too much reasoning a priori, an unwarranted dogmatism, an independence of mind verging on obstinacy, and a rage to systematize everything. It is a faintly alarming comment on human folly that if he had been a man of private means Allen might well have passed his life happily articulating the cosmic philosophical system that he had brought back in his head from Jamaica, and he would probably have done it in a series of books just like Force and Energy. He might, in fact, have become another Herbert Spencer.



But there was never really any risk of that. For Allen it had to be the writing of popular science or nothing, for that was the only kind which paid. But not well. Except for the special case of the educational textbook market, the rewards for any kind of non-fiction work -- a non-specialist biography, say, or a popular history -- were, generally speaking, very modest indeed. Even Walter Besant, at the height of his career, was paid only L100 by Macmillan's for a biography of Captain Cook, which was hardly lavish in itself; but the task involved expensive primary research, so that Besant calculated he had made L48 net on the book! And yet he claimed to have no hard feelings. 'I do not grumble, because I was perfectly free to accept or refuse'.[243]


This phlegmatic attitude was certainly a useful one to cultivate if one's field happened to be science. Of all the sectors of non-fiction authorship, this was the most difficult to penetrate and the most poorly rewarded. In his writers' guide The Pen and the Book (1899) Besant deals with every kind of remunerative authorship, but he does not mention scientific writing at all, except for a passing reference to treatises by the learned: in the higher mathematics, for example. That treatises of this kind do not pay was too obvious to state, but Besant must have assumed that no one in their senses would try to make a living out of writing popular science either.


By the date Besant was writing, at the end of the century, it may be that the situation had become clearer and gloomier than it had been when Grant Allen was starting his career. Certainly the dice became more and more heavily loaded against the average scientific author right through the 1880s and '90s. The market for their wares was always small. Some readers of the major periodicals were interested in science, of course; but they were not numerous enough for editors to bother about carrying many articles. One recent estimate, which sampled eight of the most prestigious general periodicals, concludes that in the 1870s only about 5% of their articles were on scientific subjects. 'Scientific' here excludes technology, but little space was devoted to that. The proportion of scientific material carried in popular weeklies like the Illustrated London News was no greater than 5% either, although technology figured a little more.[244] The proportion perhaps increased slightly over the next two decades, but not very much. Further evidence of limited public interest is that the specialised popular-science magazines found it hard to maintain their circulations at an economic level. Two initially popular ones, the Popular Science Review and the Quarterly Journal of Science, both folded in the middle years of Allen's career, and even Nature was in deep financial trouble in the early '80s. Complaints were often voiced that the discussion of scientific matters was 'passing more and more into the hands of a Brahmin caste of specialist experts, whose very language is an unknown tongue', as Stead put it, but that should be read more as a prediction than a statement of the current position. Most of the contents of Nature, for example, were still accessible to any educated person.


 Not only was the market small, but standards were very high. By the 1870s a group of eminent scientists had become thoroughly entrenched who could write lucidly and stylishly about their work. They were men of the stamp of Huxley, Carpenter, Mivart, Tyndall, Clifford, and Galton. These were the names editors most liked to see at the foot of a manuscript. All of these men had an academic or industrial appointment, or private means. None of them depended on an editorial cheque for a living. Their writing was a sideline, a means of self-expression, or else a task they had imposed on themselves of educating the public. Editors could afford to maintain high standards when articles were coming in from men like Edwin Ray Lankester (b.1847). Lankester was an undergraduate contemporary of Allen's at Oxford, but their worlds soon moved far apart. Lankester had already secured the chair of zoology at University College, London by 1874, while Allen was still sweating it out in Jamaica. Then there was Sir John Lubbock (b.1834), another fluent and fascinating pen. He was a botanist and expert on the social insects, who somehow managed to fit his popular books on natural history -- not to mention the detailed field observations which stood behind them -- around equally successful careers as a rich banker and a popular MP. Lubbock, we may be sure, did not write for money. Again, when John Tyndall, the eminent physicist, delivered himself of a piece on 'The Electric Light' for the Fortnightly, or one on 'Virchow and Evolution' for the Nineteenth Century, we may suppose that he too did not lie in wait for the editorial cheque: similarly with Francis Galton on 'Psychometric Facts' for the Nineteenth Century or T.H. Huxley in the same place on 'Sensation and Sensiferous Organs'. Allen never appeared even once in those pages. Probably he never tried, knowing full well that lesser popularisers were not required while august names like these were available. When James Knowles bought science for his Nineteenth Century he bought the best communicators in the business.


'Many thanks for your abundantly sufficient cheque', T. H. Huxley once wrote to the editor of the Fortnightly. 'Rather too much, I think, for an article which had been gutted by the newspapers'.[245]What a bitter laugh that would have raised down in the regions where obscure men tried to write science for a living! A good example of a prolific career at this lowly level, one about which almost nothing is known, is that of Andrew Wilson (b.1852). He appeared regularly alongside Allen in the general periodicals and cultivated a rather similar patch: he wrote on topics of zoology, physiology, and diet. Wilson was Scottish and had some kind of medical qualification which saw him employed for a while as a university lecturer, but his sheer output makes it look as though miscellaneous journalism rather than medicine supplied his living. He wrote many books with titles like Science StoriesChapters on Evolution and Leaves from a Naturalist's Note-book; he started a magazine, Health, and for years wrote a weekly 'Science Jottings' column for the down-market Lloyd's Newspaper. It seems far too much labour for one for whom writing was a second string, but the exact mix of motives which propelled this arduous career are obscure and likely to remain so.


Allen was able to inspect at first hand what miserable rewards were forthcoming to the popular-science writer who had no other strings to his bow. This was the career of his older friend R. A. Proctor (1837-1888). Like Allen, Proctor married while still a student. His writing career lasted about the same length of time as Allen's and he died at fifty-one, the same age as Allen. After graduating Proctor hesitated between the law and the church, but rejected both in favour of astronomy. An inherited private income made this decision feasible, but he lost his capital in a crash of 1866 and was dependent thereafter on his pen. He never held any professional scientific appointment. He published his first paper, on the colour of double stars, in the Cornhill in 1865. In the same year he published his first book, Saturn and Its System. He had toiled over it for four years. Even the publisher lost money on it. Proctor got nothing at all. But he was determined to force a living out of freelance science writing, apparently out of some mixture of idealism and stubbornness. As his obituary in Knowledge explained it, he 'preferred the independent position of an author and had a great idea of the importance of the calling'.[246] He despised state-subsidized science, which he thought was a recipe for mediocrity, and claimed that research could best be undertaken by men like himself, who could fund their serious work by the income from their popular writings and textbooks. He thought it should be possible to earn between two and five thousand pounds a year by this means. This wildly improbable figure suggests what a martyr Proctor was to his own obstinacy. The reality was that in his early years he worked for five years straight without a single day's holiday, admitting, not very credibly, that he 'would willingly have turned to stone-breaking or any other form of hard and honest, but unscientific, labour' if anything else had offered itself. He published fifty-seven books in twenty years, innumerable technical papers and more than 160 semi-popular articles, not just on astronomy but on topics such as 'Mechanical Chess-players' and 'Calculating Boys'. (He also used a pseudonym, 'Thomas Foster', for some lighter articles.) Writing just one of his eclectic pieces, bringing together a mass of information on a particular matter, must have involved many hours of labour. Consider his article on 'Suspended Animation', originally published in the Contemporary Review in 1879. It runs to thirteen pages of close-textured writing. It cites a whole mass of experimental and anecdotal evidence, along with a generous supply of footnoted supplementary data. And at the same time Proctor contrives to write in a lively, bright style with a good dose of humour and graceful literary allusions to Shakespeare, Buffon, Dickens and St Augustine. It probably earned him rather less than a pound a page.


Proctor did not, of course, live off the periodicals and his books. A man of boundless, pugnacious energy -- he found time to play championship whist, among other things -- he supplemented his income with frequent lecture tours in America. And in November 1881 he founded his paper Knowledge, which started as a twopenny weekly in November 1881 and was 'intended to bring the truths, discoveries, and inventions of Science before the public in simple but correct terms'.[247] Knowledge was fairly successful; it filled a niche and, as we have seen, paid well enough to secure Grant Allen's services on a regular basis. Yet it had to shift from a weekly to a monthly in 1885, and when Proctor died of fever in America in 1888 he left almost nothing for his wife and eight children. There was a public appeal for his friends to buy up his library, and his estate got something from the copyright of Knowledge, but it was little enough. After promptings from practically every notable scientist in the country, the government awarded his wife a Civil List pension in 1889. It was a scant L100 a year.


Allen must have noted the course of this career of almost frightening industry, shuddered, and determined that it would never happen to him. He probably had Proctor in mind when he commented that 'a surprisingly small number of copies of a book -- in the case of a serious or scientific work how surprisingly few would be almost incredible -- suffices to bring it well within the reach of pretty nearly everybody who cares to read it. Circulating libraries, the British Museum, Tauchnitz editions, American piracy, do the rest, and the author, poor soul, laudator et alget': his talent is praised and he is left to starve.[248] Or perhaps he was thinking of the position he had been in himself a few years earlier. His Evolutionist at Large (1881) sold just 416 copies initially, even though Chatto advertised it more widely than usual. Vignettes from Nature in the same year earned him L15: a sum which, at a royalty of a shilling a copy, suggests only 300 sold. Finding such sales hard to believe, he took his fourth volume of essays, Flowers and Their Pedigrees (1883) away from Chatto and tried Longman instead, but to little advantage. It seems to have sold under 600 copies and earned him L28 in royalties. Another L30 came from the German translation rights, and the American Funk & Wagnall's stumped up a voluntary L10. We may guess, then, that these four volumes of popular science, comprising ninety-one essays, brought Allen about L125 in all. They were, of course, all reprinted work. A rough calculation suggests that the magazines had already paid him approximately L382 for their first appearance.[249] Still, a return of L500 or so spread over three years for an inordinate amount of work does illustrate graphically what the earning-power of science writing was at this time. Only the fact that Allen was capable of producing a lot of more profitable work on top of that kept him afloat at all.



One thing in Allen's favour as a populariser was that botany, anthropology, folklore, archaeology, sociology and palaeontology were among the more popular scientific subjects with readers. When working within these fields he was particularly adept at turning out the kind of product which Gissing defined rather more sympathetically than is his wont in New Grub Street. Here he is charting the intellectual development of Amy Reardon after she has left her husband:

When she found herself alone and independent, her mind acted like a spring when pressure is removed. After a few weeks of desoevrement she obeyed the impulse to occupy herself with a kind of reading alien to Reardon's sympathies. The solid periodicals attracted her, and especially those articles which dealt with themes of social science. Anything that savoured of newness and boldness in philosophic thought had a charm for her palate. She read a good deal of that kind of literature which may be defined as specialism popularized; writing which addresses itself to educated, but not strictly studious, persons, and which forms the reservoir of conversation for society above the sphere of turf and west-endism. Thus, for instance, though she could not undertake the volumes of Herbert Spencer, she was intelligently acquainted with the tenor of their contents; and though she had never opened one of Darwin's books, her knowledge of his main theories and illustrations was respectable. She was becoming a typical woman of the new time, the woman who has developed concurrently with journalistic enterprise.[250]

Specialism popularized for educated but not studious persons: that was Allen's native terrain. There were plenty of Amy Reardons, new readers for the New Journalism, especially in America, and it was to them that Allen's genius spoke most effectively. As a scientific populariser and synthesizer and middleman, Allen was without peer in his own day. Dozens, even hundreds, of examples attest to that. Take, for example, his short critical study and biography of Darwin, Charles Darwin (1885), prepared for Andrew Lang's 'English Worthies' series for a flat payment of L100. For a treatment written so close to the time of its subject's death this little book is, in its modest way, a remarkable feat. As a condensation of Darwin's career and significance, it is really admirable. No better treatment for the general reader appeared in the nineteenth century. Lang persuaded Allen to tread carefully on what was still a contentious subject, and, when he saw the manuscript, he drew attention to some of Allen's 'slaps at orthodoxy' (he meant religious orthodoxy, of course), wondering diffidently whether some readers might be put off by 'one or two little verbal orgies'. He asked Allen to tone them down as a personal favour, and he did.[251]


Perhaps it was these interventions of Lang's that explain little book's particularly measured, judicial tone. Indeed, reading it today is a curious experience. Considered as an assessment of Darwin's career, of his place in history and of the origins of his revolutionary ideas -- which is all it sets out to do -- it still reads so accurately that hardly a sentence needs correcting or even qualifying. Despite the vast increase in knowledge of the precise mechanisms of evolution that has been acquired since, the core facts about the Darwinian revolution were established and properly evaluated at a surprisingly early date. The struggle of the master to clarify his theory; the contribution of his predecessors; his place among the biological theorists of his day; his enduring legacy; even the quality and seriousness of the valid objections to his theory: all these things Allen summarizes admirably. He is particularly good on Darwin's predecessors, especially those who had adumbrated a theory of natural selection of their own, or something like it. Allen probably included this material to counter Samuel Butler's personal assaults on Darwin's integrity which had been in Evolution, Old and New in 1879. (It is a measure of Allen's broad intellectual sympathies that he was prepared to take Butler's flailing assaults on Darwin more seriously than they merited.) The weak point of the book, one might concede, is that Allen does lean heavily on the inadequacy of natural selection as a fully inclusive explanation for evolution; but there he had warrant from Darwin himself. Allen was well within his rights to assert that Charles-Darwinism allowed a place for variation induced by use and disuse in the lifetime of individual organisms, and he goes no further than that.[252]


Charles Darwin also illustrates the fact that Allen's most distinctive talent as a populariser of science was for concreteness and the telling, almost lurid analogy. There is a splendid example, apparently thrown off just as effortlessly as many other examples which one might choose instead, in 'Big Animals', first published in the Cornhill and reprinted in the collection Falling in Love. This article takes up at one point the issue of how extremely hard it is for the imagination to grasp the immensities of geological deep time, and when we fail to do so we make some ludicrous mistakes about which plants and animals co-existed and which were in fact separated by untold millions of years. But ludicrous errors when painstakingly described tend to read ploddingly; worse, few readers enjoy being lectured, and especially not by a know-all of Allen's calibre. But Allen never lectures and never patronizes. He makes his point about errors in geological chronology in this fashion instead, and it is worth quoting at some length:


Such a picture is really just as absurd, or, to speak more correctly, a thousand times absurder, than if one were to speak of those grand old times when Homer and Virgil smoked their pipes together in the Mermaid Tavern, while Shakespere and Moliere, crowned with summer roses, sipped their Falernian at their ease beneath the whispering palmwoods of the Nevsky Prospect, and discussed the details of the play they were to produce to-morrow in the crowded Colosseum, on the occasion of Napoleon's reception at Memphis by his victorious brother emperors, Rameses and Sardanapalus. This is not, as the inexperienced reader may at first sight imagine, a literal transcript from one of the glowing descriptions that crowd the beautiful pages of Ouida; it is a faint attempt to parallel in the brief moment of historical time the glaring anachronisms perpetually committed as regards the vast laps of geological chronology even by well-informed and intelligent people.


We must remember, then, that in dealing with geological time we are dealing with a positively awe-inspiring and unimaginable series of eons, each of which occupied its own enormous and incalculable epoch, and each of which saw the dawn, the rise, the culmination, and the downfall of innumerable types of plant and animal. On the cosmic clock, by whose pendulum alone we can faintly measure the dim ages behind us, the brief lapse of historical time, from the earliest of Egyptian dynasties to the events narrated in this evening's Pall Mall, is less than a second, less than a unit, less than the smallest item by which we can possibly guide our blind calculations. To a geologist the temples of Karnak and the New Law Courts would be absolutely contemporaneous; he has no means by which he could discriminate in date between a scarabaeus of Thothmes, a denarius of Antonine, and a bronze farthing of her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria. Competent authorities have shown good grounds for believing that the Glacial Epoch ended about 80,000 years ago; and everything that has happened since the Glacial Epoch is, from the geological point of view, described as 'recent'. A shell embedded in a clay cliff sixty or seventy thousand years ago, while short and swarthy Mongoloids still dwelt undisturbed in Britain, ages before the irruption of the 'Ancient Britons' of our inadequate school-books, is, in the eyes of geologists generally, still regarded as purely modern. 


But behind that indivisible moment of recent time, that eighty thousand years which coincides in part with the fraction of a single swing of the cosmical pendulum, there lie hours, and days, and weeks, and months, and years, and centuries, and ages of an infinite, an illimitable, an inconceivable past, whose vast divisions unfold themselves slowly, one behind the other, to our aching vision in the half-deciphered pages of the geological record. Before the Glacial Epoch there comes the Pliocene, immeasurably longer than the whole expanse of recent time; and before that again is the still longer Miocene, and then the Eocene, immeasurably longer than all the others put together. These three make up in their sum the Tertiary period, which entire period can hardly have occupied more time in its passage than a single division of the Secondary, such as the Cretaceous, or the Oolite, or the Triassic; and the Secondary period, once more, though itself of positively appalling duration, seems but a patch (to use an expressive modernism) upon the unthinkable and unrealizable vastness of the endless successive Primary eons. So that in the end we can only say, like Michael Scott's mystic head, 'Time was, Time is, Time will be'. The time we know affords us no measure at all for even the nearest and briefest epochs of the time we know not; and the time we know not seems to demand still vaster and more inexpressible figures as we pry back curiously, with wondering eyes, into its dimmest and earliest recesses.[253]


As explicatory writing, this is obviously in the highest class. It is impossible to think of any contemporary of Allen's who could have fixed our attention on the immensities of geological time as well as this. T. H. Huxley's prose is a flexible instrument, and his lucidity and range of reference are very great; but he lacks Allen's lightness of touch and fantastical wit. We are reminded always, in his essays anyway, that his is the prose of an elder statesman of science. H. G. Wells came closer, in passages of his science fiction, but he soon moved into social polemics. No modern scientific writer for a popular audience could do better. No one -- in our own time neither Jay Gould, nor Wolpert, nor John Gribbin nor even the brilliant stylist Richard Dawkins -- could have come up with that opening extended analogy. It is a stroke of playful genius, absurd and charming ('while Shakespere and Moliere, crowned with summer roses, sipped their Falernian at their ease beneath the whispering palmwoods of the Nevsky Prospect'), and at the same time it drives home its educational point. Anyone who isn't sure whether pterodactyls were around to fly past the nose of a tyrannosaurus, or whether a stegosaurus trampled grass or some other herbage underfoot is likely to check a textbook when he remembers that image of Homer smoking his pipe at the Mermaid. This is a sensibility supremely in control of his material.


Another essay, celebrated in its own day, is 'Mud'. With great ingenuity, he takes this unprepossessing topic and virtually defines the growth of human civilization in terms of mud. The mud of the Nile created the civilization and the architecture of Egypt, other muds allowed the rise of Babylon and the cultures of the Indus and the Irrawaddy and the Yellow River. Lombardy is one great mud-plain; so is the Deccan. Mud is fashioning the future plains which will one day exist in the Bay of Bengal and at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Mud is and will be the seed-bed of culture, human and perhaps post-human. But many other examples just as good as this could be cited.


Although all his scientific journalism was produced against the clock, Allen maintained a remarkably high level of quality, not only in content but also in style. Reading though his colossal output of the 1880s we see a certain stiffness and verbosity giving way to a semi-conversational mode, acquiring en route that sparkle, charm and lightness of touch married to an effortless range of reference and a copious vocabulary which became his trademark. Allen was more than a master expositor. He had more to offer than clear expression. Scientific writing for specialists often cannot be reproached for any lack of clarity; unfortunately, prose can be crystal clear yet dry and dull as well. Allen's best prose is full of fanciful touches, even when applied to topics the reverse of frivolous. His most bread-and-butter productions show this; here is an example taken at random, on excavated ancient ceramics:

That is the great merit of pottery, viewed as an historical document: it retains its shape and peculiarities unaltered through countless centuries, for the future edification of unborn antiquaries.Litera scripta manet, and so does baked pottery. The hand itself that formed that rude bowl has long since mouldered away, flesh and bone alike, into the soil around it; but the print of its fingers, indelibly fixed by fire into the hardened clay, remains for us still to tell the tale of that early triumph of nascent keramics. [254]

The thought here could be summarized in a sentence: Pottery is important to archaeologists because it resists decay. A critic might complain that the rest is decorative padding, and the Latin tag sounds rather forced. But the three sentences are nicely balanced; and the last one, with its touch of alliteration, fits particularly neatly around the semi-colon. And the slightly lapidary quality, the faint, appropriate whiff of Thomas Browne's Urne Buriall, flatters the educated reader. Considering that he had no time for much, if any, revision, such sentences could not have been long deliberated. Their gracefulness must surely be instinctive. The decorative effects are intrinsic; they have not been laid on, as we suspect they have been in the prose of, say, Pater or worse, Stevenson, which Le Gallienne once called, rudely, 'sugar-candy euphuism'.[255] Passages like this, and there is a wide choice of ones just as good, makes it a scandal that Allen's prose is never anthologized.



It is rather disappointing to find that despite possessing, one would have thought, a blend of just the right kind of qualifications, Allen was no more than a minor pioneer in the 'scientific romance', as science fiction was then called. If we accept the familiar definition of this -- the fictional projection and imaginative exploitation of a current scientific, or quasi-scientific notion -- then very few of Allen's stories qualify. Certainly a good number of them, including some of the best, do turn on scientific issues (issues of heredity, atavism and degeneration were his favourites), but they fail to extrapolate. In 'Professor Milliter's Discovery', Cyril Milliter is both an anatomist and a preacher in a fundamentalist sect. (The model for Milliter must be, in part at least, Philip Gosse, who was still alive, long since reduced to a semi-tragic figure after his attempt to marry Genesis and geology in the absurd Omphalos, although his son's autobiographical Father and Son did not appear in Allen's lifetime.) By accident, and to his horror, Milliter discovers a bird-lizard in a layer of oolite. He hides the discovery in fear and trembling, but when the truth comes out he finds to his surprise that neither his wife nor congregation are much concerned about the revelation. They have painlessly acquired and assimilated Darwinism, almost without knowing it. 'He can hardly resist a quiet smile himself, nowadays, when he remembers how he once kept that harmless piece of pictured stone wrapt up carefully in a folded handkerchief in his laboratory cupboard for some weeks together, as though it had been a highly dangerous and very explosive lump of moral dynamite, calculated to effect at one fell swoop the complete religious and ethical disintegration of the entire divine universe'.[256] The story, which is distanced by this amused, patronizing narrative voice, is constructed to reiterate and celebrate the triumph of scientific rationalism and the cultural absorption of Darwinism, twenty-six years after the Origin.


'Professor Milliter's Discovery' is meant to read like a quaint historical document whose passions have been sterilized by the passage of time. Allen had no trouble publishing it in 1885. But interestingly, when he reused his idea eight years later he found no magazine editor would touch it. 'The Missing Link' is a much sourer, more combative version. This time the hero, unlike the well-meaning and bewildered Professor, is a stern and obdurate fundamentalist. Dr Richard Hawkins is an amateur fossil-hunter, and one of those 'solid, stolid cast-iron Britons who knew they're in the right, and will go to the stake gladly for their dearest prejudices'. He is popular in his dreary Suffolk village because as a Christian, anti-Darwinian and professional man he is more than a match for the local atheist, a 'blaspheming cobbler'. One day Dr Hawkins finds a fossil human finger with a Pliocene deposit on it; bones 'ghastly in their reminiscence of the great anthropoids'. Dr Hawkins confides in the vicar, who warns him to be more flexible, but he is adamant:

'I won't play fast and loose with the plain words of the Book. If God made man in His own image, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life on the Sixth Day of Creation, then I can understand all the rest: the Immortal Soul; Free Will; the Plan of Salvation; the difference that marks us off from the lower animals; the existence within us of a divinely-sent conscience. But if ever it can be shown conclusively, shown beyond the shadow of a doubt, we're descended from an ape, then I give up all. We can be nothing more than the beasts that perish. For at what point in the series of evolving monkeys can the Immortal Soul first come in? How can we ever say where the ape leaves off, and the man begins? Once admit the existence of a continuous chain of life, and you abandon the citadel. Either man is created in the image of God, or else he is a direct descendant of the monkey, the lizard, the ascidian, the jelly-fish. What is true of them is true also of him. The soul, the conscience, eternal life, depend entirely on direct creation'.

Dr Hawkins is nothing if not logical; having convinced himself with the fossil finger, he pays a call on the bemused cobbler to say he has unwillingly joined him in his atheism, and then he goes home and poisons himself. The vicar, however, is a Vicar of Bray, one of nature's survivors:

The vicar knocked off his ash pensively, and perused his boots. Logically, he had nothing to answer to the doctor's argument; but practically, he knew in his own soul that if evolutionism were to prove man's animal origin beyond the shadow of a doubt tomorrow morning, he'd stick to the vicarage of Dimthorpe still, and debate as hotly as ever at the diocesan synod over apostolic succession and the eastward position.[257]

Probably this gibe at the trimming vicar was enough to doom the story all by itself. Allen sent it round to every magazine where he thought it might have 'the ghost of a chance'; but, 'as usually happens when one writes anything in which one feels more than ordinary personal interest', it was 'unanimously declined by the whole press of London'.[258] Even in the early 1890s some guardians of public opinion did not relish having the clash between science and religion spelt out quite as baldly as Allen does it here; it reminds us, too, that Allen's polemical style had grown rather more gratingly opinionated with the passage of time.


Apart from the special case of The British Barbarians, which is more of a politico-economic fable with ethnographical trimmings, a handful of stories do meet the definition of science fiction more exactly. The young H.G. Wells, whose career overlapped a little with Allen's, learnt from him and fully admitted the debt: 'I have as sincere an envy for the almost instinctive way in which you get your effects in your short stories & for your scientific essays . . . I flatter myself that I have a certain affinity with you. I believe that this field of scientific romance with a philosophical element which I am trying to cultivate, belongs properly to you'.[259] He was thinking of 'Pausodyne', 'The Child of the Phalanstery', Dr Palliser's Patient, 'The Dead Man Speaks' and a few others, which are still reprinted from time to time in historical anthologies of the genre. Two of Allen's final attempts do march in step with Wells' emerging creative imagination. 'The Thames Valley Catastrophe', written for the Strand in December 1897, shows suburbia being overwhelmed by an immense volcanic eruption. This story has a setting similar to the War of the Worlds of the following year and exploits the same cosy-disaster atmosphere, but unlike Wells' story it is weakened by the lack of plot and Wells' superbly moving closure. In 'Joseph's Dream' (1899) an ordinary clerk has a dream of famine and riot in London, and writes it down as a warning to the politicians: it is a reworking of the Biblical story, but it has affinities with When the Sleeper Wakes of the same year.

As a novelist, scientific populariser and social theorist, Wells was Allen's natural successor. He sent Allen a copy of The Time Machine in its book form when it was published in 1895, although Allen had read part of it already in one or another of its serial forms, so it was not entirely new to him; and he may have seen one or two of Wells' very early stories in the Pall Mall Budget in 1894. Of course he paid tribute its 'brilliant whimsicality', and he gives full praise to its originality and the way the novel conception of time travel is worked out. At the same time, there is something slightly carping or grudging about his joke that Wells has raised speculation to a new high level -- 'perhaps a fifth dimension', he said; and he is a little too determined not to be impressed by Wells' superlative vision of future human degeneration.[260] But it is hard to blame Allen for this. For one thing, he knew Wells had written anonymously a merciless review of The Woman Who Did for the Saturday Review not long before; and for another, he would have had to be a saint not to have felt a stab of envy at Wells' triumphant debut. Many years later Wells recalled their meeting:

He wrote me a very pleasant invitation to come and talk to him and I ran down by train one Sunday, walked up from Haslemere station and lunched with him in Hindhead. In these days Hindhead was a lonely place in a great black, purple and golden wilderness of heath; there was an old inn called The Huts and a score of partly hidden houses. . . . We sat about in deck chairs through a long sunny summer afternoon under the pines in the garden on the edge of the Devil's Punchbowl. . . . Probably we talked a lot about writing and getting on in the world of books. I was a new and aggressive beginner in that world and I was being welcomed very generously'.[261]

Wells was only twenty-nine, and his career was just starting. There is surely something a trifle melancholy about that sunny Sunday afternoon. Allen could hardly have failed to recognize that a brilliant new star was in the ascendant, working the same patch that he himself had worked as best he could, but with incomparably more energy and inventiveness. Over the last few years of Allen's life, the young Wells marched from triumph to triumph, demonstrating his ability to 'domesticate' (as he called it) a scientific hypothesis in a fashion which Allen, even at his best, could never emulate.




The Stock in Trade: Light Fiction



Grant Allen, author of more than thirty novels and much short fiction, was notorious in his day for his low opinion of that part of his trade. He liked to tell people that he had stumbled into fiction-writing by accident, and had continued because of the money it brought in, nothing more. 'I suppose no man ever took by choice to the pursuit of fiction', he wrote in the self-punishing tone which, in one mood, was habitual with him:

Fellows drift into it under stress of circumstances, because that is the particular ware most specially required by the market at the moment . . . the literary aspirations of an educated man generally lead quite elsewhere. It is only the stern laws of supply and demand that compel him in the end to turn aside from the Lord's work to serve tables for his daily sustenance.[262]

The Biblical allusion is only half-joking. Allen came to believe about halfway through his career that he did have the Lord's work to do (metaphorically speaking) and that most of his novel-writing was a distraction from it. He was prone to disparage his productions -writing with humorous cynicism, telling more than one friend that he never wanted to hear any allusions to his 'commercial' novels, excepting only one, For Maimie's Sake, which he regarded as superior to all the rest.[263] This self-assessment cannot be taken at face value, but it is not surprising that even his well-wishers took him at his word when he spoke of himself as declining into fiction 'as many men drop into drink, or opium-eating, or other bad practices, not of native perversity, but by pure force of circumstances'.[264] That very proper man, Frederic Harrison, saw nothing improper in publicly brushing aside, on the sensitive occasion of Grant Allen's funeral, all the imaginative part of his friend's career. 'Of his fiction I know nothing, nor need I speak. He himself treated it as a bye-play, and I well remember that he often told me gaily that I should not trouble myself with his task-work of that kind'. Some of his hearers may have found that unnecessarily blunt, perhaps; but all of them must have heard Allen say the same thing himself at one time or another.[265]


Yet it was almost inevitable that a restless, versatile writer of Allen's temperament, for whom money was very important, should have tried his hand at fiction sooner or later. No other product repaid the tradesman's labours like fiction. 'The price it fetches is far in excess of that which is given for prose writing of any other kind, and is magnificent . . . other literary labour cuts a sorry figure is comparison', said Wilfred Meynell, in his beginners' guide.[266] In particular, the magazines' demand for light, bright short fiction, and for novels suited for serialization, was insatiable. By the mid-nineties, there were nearly as many novels being published yearly in Britain as there were books of every other type combined.[267] 'A writer cannot live by contributing to magazines, except in the way of fiction', was Walter Besant's flat judgment. The supply rose to meet the demand throughout Allen's career, and though there were many casualties in that branch of the trade, the ratio of failures to successes was lower than elsewhere. In the year of Allen's death Besant estimated that there were thirteen hundred novelists active in Britain, of which about sixty were making L1000 a year and another 150 a tolerable living: 'the rest of the one thousand three hundred make little or nothing'.[268] Allen by that time was certainly one of the sixty, and had probably been in that select group for ten years or so. The production, first of short stories, then of novels and novellas, started to underpin his career quite early on and in effect subsidizing all his other numerous activities. But that did not stop him resenting it, or saying that he did.


It was the short story which started him on what he called, with typically protective self-disparagement, the 'downward path' into fiction. In an attempt to make one of his early articles for Chatto's Belgravia, on Spiritualism, more palatable he cast it in the form of a narrative, 'Our Scientific Observations on a Ghost'. As a story it is crude enough. There is no plot; all that happens is that a ghost appears to a pair of medical students, and they apply a range of scientific tests, with inconclusive results. But Allen was encouraged to try more, and he had placed a dozen stories in the Belgravia by January 1883, when James Payn took over the editorship of the Cornhill from Leslie Stephen, tasked with the job of reversing the magazine's slide into extinction.


Payn, at that point a veteran in his fifties, was a light novelist in the sub-Dickensian style who had scored an early best-seller with Lost Sir Massingberd and went on to turn out seventy more. No one knew this particular side of the business better than Payn, and he boasted that his goal was to make every issue of the Cornhill readable by anyone from cover to cover. One of his innovations was to cut the cover price in half. Another was to commission much more shorter, lighter fiction and more middle-brow articles, with the general aim of repositioning it in the market as 'polite entertainment coupled with information of the least disconcerting kind'.[269] (The only fiction previously countenanced by the Cornhill had been serializations of prominent novels by the likes of Collins, Eliot, Gaskell and Hardy.)


Grant Allen's articles on the evolution of feathers, or the influence of oolitic limestone on architectural styles, stylishly-written and packed with information though they had been, were no longer required under the new regime, and Payn wrote to tell him so. However, Payn's eye had been caught by 'J. Arbuthnot Wilson's' work in the Belgravia, and he wrote via Chatto's to request more along the lines of 'Mr Chung', the grim tale of a Chinese envoy in London who becomes too westernized for his masters: he is recalled to certain death, and goes back from a sense of duty. Allen liked to tell how Payn's two letters had arrived together.[270] Allen set to and produced 'The Backslider', a mordant tale of a young member of a fanatical religious sect who is sent out into the world as its emissary, but who apostatizes when exposed to an Oxford education and Herbert Spencer. He wrote eight more stories for the Cornhill, all of them more polished than his other work. The second one, 'The Reverend John Creedy', about an African missionary who atavistically reverts to savagery when he returns to his homeland but who finally redeems himself in the eyes of his English wife, attracted much comment at the time. Each story probably earned Allen thirty pounds. Unlike Conan Doyle, who resented it, Allen cared not a jot that his stories for the Cornhill were anonymous. He continued to write dozens of stories for Belgravia, Longman's, the English Illustrated Magazine, and (later) Black & White, the Graphic and others, collecting a first pick of the crop in 1884 under the title of Strange Stories. Five more collections followed: The Beckoning Hand (1887), Ivan Greet's Masterpiece (1893), The Desire of the Eyes (1895), Twelve Tales (1899) and, posthumously, Sir Theodore's Guest (1902). Left behind, forgotten in the magazines, were enough to fill several more volumes. Judged collectively, Allen's short stories -- he wrote at least 175, and perhaps as many as 200 -- show most clearly his ability to analyse a market and meet its needs. The short story in the late '70s and '80s, when Allen was producing most of his, was not in an experimental phase. The largest demand was for an unpretentious tale that would slip down easily, preferably leaving the sweet taste of an acceptable moral behind it. Far more readers were women than men; more of them belonged to the lower-middle and middle-middle classes than any other, and few wanted to have their wits challenged or their prejudices scrutinized. But he does merit a footnote in literary history for making very early contributions to the inter-racial tale and to science fiction, as well as detective fiction and the horror story, or, more exactly, the tale of the bizarre.


Allen originally thought of calling his first collection of stories Nightmares, which is hardly appropriate for most of them. But he did develop in time a certain gift for the tale of curious or supernatural events (eg. 'Wolverden Tower', 'Pallinghurst Barrow', 'Selwyn Utterton's Nemesis'); and a handful of these stories has survived to be reprinted in genre anthologies up to the present. Unlike most Victorian ghost-story writers, Allen, as a scientific rationalist, nearly always offers some sort of mundane explanation in the end. In 'The Mysterious Occurrence in Piccadilly' he uses a simple but ingenious plot device to generate an inexplicable situation: an apparently simultaneously-appearing double apparition. Allen was probably aware of the current labours of the Society for Psychical Research, for his friend George Croom Robertson was also an intimate friend of Edmund Gurney. Gurney was the driving-force behind the Society's lengthy investigation into 'crisis apparitions', which would soon be appearing as its first major publication, Phantasms of the Living. Certainly Allen parodies rather well the frequently pompous style in which people contributed their evidences to the Society. The founders of the Society suffered from the fatally simplistic belief that reports of supernatural events, when supplied by upstanding people like judges, civil servants and academics, ought usually to be taken at face value. It was the first and last time Allen took any interest in the respectable side of Victorian Spiritualism, even as a joke. For the modern reader, the most supernatural detail of the plot is that it was possible, then, to post a letter in Oxford at 5pm and have it delivered in London the same evening.


Another vein which Allen worked successfully were studies of sociopathic personalities, which are quite impressive in an age which was rather innocent about abnormal psychology. He made a full study of a psychopath in his novel The Devil's Die, with the character of Harry Chichele, a toxicologist, a brilliant, charming but cold-blooded researcher with a dark streak of sadism in his ancestry. To prove a pet theory, he thinks nothing of murdering a poor patient in her bed in the Middlesex Hospital, by the ingenious means of putting his own hand, secretly frozen in an ice-bag, on to the small of her back; the shock kills her. In the smaller compass of his stories, Allen offers criminal psychopaths ('The Curate of Churnside'); fanatics of religious fundamentalism ('Luigi and the Salvationist'); atavistic regression and the potency of heredity ('Carvalho', 'Harry's Inheritance'); superficially rational madmen ('Evelyn Moore's Poet'); and Nihilist terrorists ('The Dynamiter's Sweetheart' and 'The Assassin's Knife'). 'The Curate of Churnside' and 'The Next Presentation' each offers a murderous young clergyman. In the first, the curate knifes his uncle, forges his will and gets away with it. In the second, another curate with a large family finds a poisonous plant in the municipal gardens, feeds it to a crusty old canon who is blocking the path to the reversion of a living, and also gets away with it. As one might have guessed, Allen's narrative method in these tales derives from Browning's dramatic monologues. He said of 'The Curate of Churnside' that it was 'a psychical analysis of a temperament not uncommon among the cultured class of the Renaissance: the union of high intellectual and aesthetic culture with a total want of moral sensibility' -- the same point Ruskin had made about a Browning monologue.[271] Other stories show him capable of straightforwardly comic tales ('The Chinese Play at the Haymarket', 'A Social Difficulty') and of man-of-the-world Somerset-Maughamish tale like 'Major Kinfaun's Marriage', which cleverly inverts the convention of the gold-digger: Major Kinfaun, down on his luck at Antibes, woos a mysterious young widow with whom he is genuinely in love. He marries her, full of foreboding that he is being tricked, and they return to England. When they arrive at her manor house, and she is revealed as woman of great substance, the shock is so great that Kinfaun's wits are unhinged. This is a stylish, urbane story, but the ending does not quite come off.


Allen claimed to have actually invented the anthropological romance, or what he called 'the romance of the clash of races'. Several of his originally most popular stories, like 'Carvalho' and 'The Beckoning Hand', deal with atavism and inter-racial marriage, although since Allen believed it was the collision between the higher and lower races which gave these themes their romance, they evoke little today but embarrassment. Certainly these stories did pre-date the first huge success in the genre, Rider Haggard's She of 1886, as well as the later excursions by Kipling, Stevenson, Hall Caine and others. Allen said later about this particular genre that he kept watch 'with the interested eye of the dealer engaged in the trade, and therefore anxious to keep pace with every changing breath of popular favour'.[272] He did keep pace with The Great Taboo (1890), a striking if bizarre story which owes a good deal not only to Lang's theories about the origins of religion, superstitions, and taboos, but also to The Golden Bough: in fact, it is a fictionalization of Frazer's thesis with some of Allen's own adaptations. Washed overboard from a liner in the South Seas, Felix Thurstan and Muriel Ellis swim to a Polynesian island, where they are promoted to the status of gods of Rain and Clouds respectively. Their reign will be short, however; they can expect to be killed, eaten and replaced after some months. Fortunately they learn, from the babbling of an ancient parrot once owned by a sailor castaway, the exact process by which the reigning supreme god, Tu-Kila-Kila, is himself replaced; armed with this knowledge, Felix steals the golden bough from the sacred grove and kills the incumbent in single combat. Felix and Muriel then introduce a humane and rationalistic regime before escaping on a passing ship. Allen is very good on the paranoid suspicion and ingrained system of taboos and rituals which govern life in such societies, but the novel is weakened by the thinly-realized setting. Even Allen knew nothing of the actualities of Polynesian life, and it shows.



Philistia, which he had written so carefully and in which he had invested so many hopes, enjoyed only a modest success. It was not a triumphant start, and in a way its reception doomed Allen's career as a serious novelist at its inception. Philistia shows promise; it had serious flaws, but there is nothing that a committed artist could not have put right in his next attempt. Clearly Allen was constitutionally fitted to make a novelist of ideas: he had a powerful imagination, an inexhaustible reservoir of odd facts and curious conjectures to draw on, and a sportive way with complex notions. Something Peacockian, or in the manner of the early Aldous Huxley, might not have been beyond him. But unfortunately he was now on a treadmill and the economic wheel had to be kept turning. He did not have the leisure to reflect, learn and do better.


Nor, perhaps, did he have the inclination. One of his most admirable qualities was his capacity to shrug off crushed expectations and move on. He had tried his best; he had written a serious work on a serious theme, but the public would not bite. Very well: it was time to adapt himself to a more profitable, if less discriminating, segment of the market. For the rest of his life he fitted one, two or even more novels every year into his punishing schedule, very aware that only a regular output of semi-popular fiction could underwrite his comfortable mode of living and other more congenial activities.


He wasted no time in moving on. By August of the same year, 1884, a new manuscript with the working title of Art, was in Chatto's hands. This time the publisher serialized it in the Belgravia first, and then as a three-decker, again under the Cecil Power pseudonym. When they discussed terms, Chatto told Allen he would have liked to offer a lot more than he had been able to do for Philistia, 'but we regret to say that the small enquiry for that story as well as the very depressed state of the market for fiction in consequence of the over supply does not permit us doing so'.[273] Nevertheless, he gave L300, an increase of L50, for all the rights: again, a remarkably high price in the circumstances.


The published title was Babylon, referring to the English and American artists' colony in Rome, and with it Allen turned away from both stories of the weird and the novel of ideas to produce an unexceptionable piece of social realism expressly for a female market. In Babylon there come together, eventually, two artistic geniuses -- one a landscape painter, the other a sculptor -- from very different humble backgrounds. Hiram Winthrop, a bashful lad and lover of nature, is raised on a hogs-and-corn farm in New York state, in a family of narrow-minded fundamentalists. Hiram is rescued from rural idiocy by Lothrop Audouin, a rich, refined Boston intellectual, a confirmed bachelor and Transcendentalist who has fled industrial America for the shores of Lake Ontario. He has more than a passing resemblance to the idle connoisseur and flaneur Rowland Mallet, in James's Roderick Hudson (1875). Altruistically, he puts Hiram through school and college.


Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic Colin Churchill is growing up in rural Dorset, modelling figures in clay from the river for his sweetheart Minna and astonishing the vicar with his innate grasp of plastic form. (He must be based on the sculptor John Gibson, most famous for his polychrome 'Tinted Venus', who had died in Rome in 1866.) He works at wood-carving and then puts himself under the tutelage of Cicolari, a stone sculptor, where his genius rapidly expands. After some difficulties both Colin and Hiram are drawn to Rome; Colin quickly makes a name, but Hiram is apprenticed to a unsympathetic historical painter, and has a harder time before he is rescued by a Ruskin-like critic who raises Hiram to instant stardom with a well-placed review. There are various love interests too, including a sinister Italian model, Cecca, who tries to poison Minna. Allen 'essayed domesticity', as he put it, in this novel; but, as a kunstlerroman, especially as an account of the mysterious up-welling of innate artistic genius in totally unpropitious places, it is tolerably effective.


Domesticity in Babylon did not sell especially well either, but Allen soon had its successor, In All Shades, in manuscript. (He wrote it early in 1885, but it was delayed in print.) This time he suffered a distinct reverse. Chatto was luke-warm about it when he read it in May 1885. We recall that this novel, one of Allen's most interesting productions, deals with the racism and arrogance of the West Indian planter class in a fairly uncompromising way. It was not likely to appeal to the conventional Chatto. He offered only L150 for the three-decker volume, and declined the serial altogether. However, Chatto was one of the very few publishers who dealt willingly with literary agents, and he boosted Allen's career by introducing him to 'a very highly valued friend', A.P. Watt (1834-1914), the agent whose career was just starting to blossom at that time. Watt took Allen on at once, promising 'I shall do my best to find you a constituency'. He did just that, promptly disposing of the serial to Chambers's Journal in Edinburgh, an organ Allen had never used before and knew little about, for a handsome two hundred guineas. Chatto paid another L75 for the volume rights.[274]


Thus started a profitable association for both men. Within a short time, under Watt's astute handling, Allen's short fiction started to be reprinted regularly in American magazines like Lippincott's and Harper's, and Watt managed to extract small sums for them. He also began to sell the serial rights of the novels to Australian newspapers. Later on, Watt issued a yearly volume of testimonial letters from satisfied authors, and Allen wrote one which must have gladdened Watt's heart. 'Nothing could give me greater pleasure than to testify publicly to the great advantage I have derived from your management of my business', he wrote. 'In three ways, it seems to me, I've benefited by placing my manuscripts in your hands. First, I've been able to find room for them as serials in mediums which I would never have thought of approaching personally. Second, I've got something for American, colonial, and foreign rights. And third, I've been saved a lot of fuss and bother'.[275] The help that a good agent could be to a writer in Allen's position -- and Watt had no serious competitors before the turn of the century -- could hardly have been more succinctly expressed. When Watt died in 1914, all those ten percent commissions had certainly added up. He left an estate ten times larger than Allen's fifteen years earlier, but Allen would never have grudged him a penny.


While negotiating over In All Shades, Allen pushed on with his next. Once again, he showed how adept he was at detecting a market trend and following it. This time he tried an out-and-out, full-blooded, sensation novel, trading on the Fenian bomb outrages. The result, For Maimie's Sake: A Tale of Love and Dynamite, is a rather peculiar novel, with a peculiar central character. Maimie Llewellyn is a dizzy, blonde, amoral, child of nature very like the heroine of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes forty years later. She has been raised by her eccentric sea captain father, who is an admirer of Reason and Tom Paine and has instilled in her nothing but an artless egotism. Nevertheless, she is such a delightfully ingenuous, baby-faced femme fatale that every man and woman she meets is ravished. Adrian Pym, an Oxford tutor, Jocelyn Cipriani, a painter, and his wife Hetty, and Sydney Chevenix, an explosives chemist, are all 'in love' with her and do their best to protect her from her own devastating simplicity. Marrying Chevenix, Maimie soon gets bored with him and accidentally on purpose shoots him with an experimental pistol in favour of Adrian Pym. Her husband survives the injury, though he is assumed to be dead by everyone, and he spends the rest of his life incognito while keeping a hidden watch over his wife and her lover -- simply because to him she is still a lovable innocent who needs protection. The scenes where he devotedly observes her moods and habits through a pair of binoculars from his lodgings opposite stretch credulity far past breaking-point, but Allen must have felt such uxorious behaviour was natural enough. Once Maimie and Adrian are married, Chevenix drowns himself, partly because he has nothing more to live for and partly to prevent further suspicion falling on them. There is a subplot concerned with explosive cigars and Russian Nihilists, led by a ruthless woman with the soundly revolutionary name of Vera Trotsky -- an odd coincidence, since Lev Bronstein only took that name from his jailer when he escaped to England in 1902.


Allen himself was very pleased with Maimie, which he described as a 'wicked novel' written deliberately to appeal to the young female reader who liked to be shocked. Though he judged afterwards that his own 'natural innocence peeped through too obtrusively' for the novel to be very successful, he still thought it was the best thing he had ever done in this line. He confessed to Chatto that he had been unable to sleep while writing the second half, being so caught up in the actions of 'my marionettes'.[276] The modern reader, however, is likely to close it with the wish to see, not a critic, but a psychoanalyst, getting to grips with the bizarre set of relationships which it delineates.


Chatto, in turn, was quite bowled over. :'Allow me to congratulate you on the very powerful and startling story you have written in For Maimie's Sake', he wrote enthusiastically. 'I found the interest so absorbing that after once committing to read the MS you so kindly sent I could not lay it aside until I finished every line of it. It is so entirely different from the ordinary serial and three volume story'.[277]He judged it too racy for either the periodical or the library markets, and his opinion was reinforced when the printer who was setting it up protested that the language of one passage was 'unnecessarily ardent'.[278] Allen agreed that Maimie's morals might not do in a serial, and accepted the less familiar arrangement of bringing it out as a single, moderately-priced volume. Another comment he made to his publisher about his heroine's morals ('they're really a thousand times better than those of many young women who do get the entree of the best magazine society'[279]) is noteworthy. It is the very first hint that Allen might hold, quite seriously, opinions about personal ethics which were both radical and confrontational. After all, Chatto might have protested, reasonably enough, that a heroine who shoots her husband down in cold blood, and yet prospers with her lover to the very end just because she is so delightfully kittenish, hardly deserves a place on the moral podium high above her sisters. But he held his peace. Others, later, would not be so forbearing.



Allen's output of fiction was gathering speed now, and with a few exceptions it is neither necessary nor profitable to consider its content in detail. For the rest of the decade he published, apart from the regular flow of short stories, one lengthy three-decker or novelette after another, at the rate of about one every four months. In Allen's second and last full decade of activity he produced even more: another mass of short stories, twenty more novels including his two great popular successes, two children's stories and two more novelettes.


Enough survives of the correspondence between Allen and his agent, as well as with two of the shrewdest publishers then active in England, Andrew Chatto and John Lane, for us to see how matters were handled to secure the maximum financial benefit all round. Allen died before he could tap deeply into the lucrative American magazine market which, in the years just before the First World War, was willing to offer sums like the L3000 Harper's gave for the serial rights to one of Arnold Bennett's minor works. Nevertheless, it was fiction which propelled him into the upper reaches of middle-class prosperity. The letters between him and Chatto, in particular, give much detail about the rewards available to a moderately popular and intermittently successful novelist like Allen, always providing his production never flagged.


Chatto took eleven of Allen's most substantial novels of the 1880s and early '90s and published them in the three-decker format. This in itself reveals something about his readership. By no means all, or even most, Victorian fiction appeared in this form: that was never true. The three-decker was expensive (for seventy-three years the price of a set was maintained at 31s 6d) and it was bought almost entirely by the circulating libraries, so repeated publication in that form was an accolade of a kind. It meant one was meeting a particular market, and the most lucrative market at that. Chatto, sometimes working in conjunction with Watt, stuck to the same sequence of events. First came the serial publication. The periodicals and newspapers they used varied, depending on the best price which Watt could secure. Chambers' Journal, the People, and the Graphic were the main ones, with, in later years, the provincial and Australasian newspaper rights sold off separately. That was followed by a three-decker edition for the libraries in a print run of a thousand sets or fewer, usually timed to appear in the last stages of the serial; that in turn was followed by the one-volume cheap 'new edition'. Allen had to wait, in the case of Philistia, for eleven years for the cheap edition to come out, but soon it was following at ever closer intervals; within two or three years, and eventually, in the case of the popular The Scallywag (1893), in the same year. There was nothing surprising or distinctive in this pattern. It was simply a trend in the market, a response to changes in taste and changes in the economics of publishing and printing technology.


Chatto was not offered, or was not interested in taking, Allen's numerous shorter novels and popular novelettes, which Allen either marketed himself or (more likely) wrote under commission. A good proportion of them were undemanding romances and juvenile fictions which Allen could fling off virtually to order: novels and novellas like Tom, Unlimited (1897), Wednesday the Tenth (1890), The Incidental Bishop (1898), The White Man's Foot (1888), Blood Royal (1892), An Army Doctor's Romance (1893), and so on. The first three of these were for the child or adolescent market. The last-named was published in a series called The Breezy Library, described by the publisher as 'an attempt to dissociate a shilling from a shocker, and to supply rather a series of "Shilling Soothers"'. Dr Palliser's Patient and Michael's Crag (1893), another study of mania, richly illustrated with curious but appropriate silhouettes in ink and gouache, was published by the Leadenhall Press. Recalled to Life (1891) and some other shorter thrillers were put in the hands of J.W. Arrowsmith, a firm which despite being based at Bristol had, in the mid-80s, a surprising reputation for detecting potential best-sellers: the Grossmiths, Chesterton, Jerome and Edgar Wallace all appeared under its imprint. The nadir of Allen's creative life was surely the three novelettes that he turned out for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: A Terrible Inheritance (1887), A Living Apparition (1889) and The Sole Trustee (1890). These were diluted versions of the old-style penny bloods. The exact length of the tales was specified in the advertisements for this series, the Penny Library of Fiction: each one was guaranteed to contain thirty-two pages, neither more nor less. After a bit of practice, Allen was able to manufacture featherweight novelettes like these in a few hours, surely without engaging his higher mental processes at all. The last one, The Sole Trustee, appeared just as the SPCK came under sustained fire from the Society of Authors for sweating its authors. It was revealed that they were paid between thirty shillings and ten pounds per novelette. Allen probably just shrugged his shoulders and got on with the job, but it speaks volumes for his circumstances that even at this point, near the end of his first decade of authorship, he felt he had to join the company of the nonentities -- mostly hapless women -- from whom the SPCK derived astonishing profits.


Chatto did take all his longer 'blood and thunderers', however; those deliberately-contrived thrillers where Allen shows his ability to devise and handle a fast-moving plot with plenty of highly-coloured incident. He wrote a string of these after For Maimie's Sake, and most of them are still capable of keeping the reader turning the pages today. The title of one, This Mortal Coil (1888), would do for them all, for they lack any vestige of internal structure and appear to have been constructed on the principle of supplying one remarkable scene after another until the third volume filled up. Once he had got to that point, Allen lost interest. At the close of This Mortal Coil the hero accidentally kills the villain as a train steams along the Riviera coast. Without further ado Allen makes the locomotive jump the track at a convenient point, plunging the carriages and the incriminating corpse into the depths of the Mediterranean, presumably because he lacked the space or need for any further complications.


Still, his best examples in this line do show a marked improvement in skill in the last years of the 80s. One particular mark of success came with The Tents of Shem (1889), the fruit of Allen's winter in Algeria. It has a complicated and slightly more integrated plot turning on legal matters, whereby Iris Knyvett, another of Allen's Girton-trained heroines, and her half-English, half-Algerian cousin Meriem eventually come into their huge inheritance despite rascally attempts to prevent them. For the first time, Watt managed to place the serial with the Graphic, which was quite a coup and definitely a mark of Allen's acceptance as a thoroughly saleable middlebrow novelist. Andrew Chatto wrote especially to congratulate him on it when he offered a further L120 for the volume rights. 'The Graphic does not pay high prices -- about L400 or L450 I imagine is their maximum for the serial use of a three volume novel, but I consider that there is a compensating value in the prestige gained by the publication of a novel in their columns and of this the management are aware and do not fail to avail themselves'.[280]


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. The Scallywag was filmed as late as 1921, the contract with Chatto & Windus calling for the author's name to follow the title in an easily-readable typeface -- an indication that Allen's name still had some drawing-power at that date. Under Sealed Orders, a tale of espionage and terrorism, did even better and reflects the sphere he was moving into by this point in his career. ( Its British publication was in 1895, so it must have been one of the last in the long line of three-deckers.) Andrew Chatto paid him L800 -- a splendid price indeed -- for all the rights, and then recouped, after some misadventures, L300 from The People and another L298 from P. F. Collier for an American edition. So Chatto paid only L202 for the novel before selling any of the three-decker edition, and the far bigger sales of the one-volume edition of 1896 were pure icing. Not that Allen would have grudged him the profits. He thought that publishers existed to make money for themselves. Certainly this particular transaction was good business for all the parties concerned.


Allen's most telling success in the popular fiction market was his entry for a competition run in 1891 by the magazine Tit-Bits, founded a decade earlier by George Newnes and the most successful of the penny weeklies. The prize was superb -- a thousand pounds -- and Allen dashed off his entry in a month in between a mass of other work. His rattling yarn, What's Bred in the Bone, won the prize, sold enormously, was translated into Danish and Icelandic, and was filmed in 1916. The pace never slackens for a minute: the heroine almost sits on top of the hero's large pet snake in a railway compartment within the first few pages and is entombed alive with both of them in a collapsed tunnel within the first ten. A murderous judge, multiple mistaken identities and scenes of barbaric tribal life and diamond smuggling in South Africa further decorate this extraordinary confection. The unbelievable number of entries received in the competition -- twenty thousand manuscripts -- evidence was of the bottled-up literary aspirations of the age. It also launched another career. Having awarded the prize, Tit-Bits offered another one of twenty guineas for the best 'humorous condensation of it in two thousand words'. The young Arnold Bennett laboured over the task for six days and won: it was his first-ever 'pen-money'.[281]


What's Bred in the Bone does show Allen at the very top of his populist form. It is a tribute to the coldly analytical skill with which he could meet this particular level of literary taste. He panders shamelessly to female readers -- the majority -- by contrasting the 'gross and clumsy male intellect' with the 'unerring intuition' of his heroine, driving home the message with a cosy authorial aside as early as the third page: 'That's one of the many glorious advantages of being born a woman. You don't need to learn in order to know. You know instinctively. And yet our girls want to go to Girton and train themselves up to be senior wranglers![282] Like all successful popular novelists, Allen was able when necessary 'to incarnate the genius of vulgarity', to adopt Gissing's indignant phrase. He sometimes pained his friends and admirers by apparently admitting to a rather breathtaking hypocrisy, as when he was reported as saying that 'for years I have been trying hard as a matter of business to imitate the tone of the people from whom I differ in every possible idea -- religious, social, political, ethical, psychological, biological, philosophical, and literary'.[283]


Wanting to imitate the style, or tone, of popular novelists is not the same as wanting to imitate their sentiments. Nevertheless, as in the case of the example above from What's Bred in the Bone, Allen's readiness to speak of matters pleasing to the larger part of his audience shows itself particularly in his responsiveness to the nascent feminism of the '80s. These opinions are a coarser and narrower version of his own actual opinions. Naturally, being an author very aware of the sex of most of his readers, Allen started to take a close interest in this some years before he wrote The Woman Who Did, the novel which, amid much scandal, finally brought before a mass readership his beliefs about sexual and marital relations which had been skirted and evaded in all its predecessors. In these earlier novels he was adept at accommodating himself both to the conservatism of many of his readers and the radicalism of the few. It is a commonplace that the New Woman label of the '90s actually encompassed a range of gender stereotypes, some of them mutually inconsistent, and Allen had no qualms about making studies of the most extreme types. For the conservatives, he offers the woman graduate who is a bag of nerves, reduced to a neurotic wreck by the pressures of higher education. Such as one is the young Blackbird in Under Sealed Orders; another graduate (Lady Margaret Hall, this time). Blackbird spends her time composing mournful ditties about the charms of death and lamenting the cruel punishment which her parents have meted out on her:

'they thought I was clever -- perhaps I was to start with; and they crammed me with everything on earth a girl could learn. Latin, Greek, modern languages, mathematics, natural science, music, drawing, dancing, till I was stuffed to the throat with them. Je suis jusque la', and she put her hand to her chin with some dim attempt at feminine playfulness. 'Like Strasbourg geese', she added slowly.[284]

Though weak and vacillating enough, she evades the dangers of maternity at least. When her lover presses her to marry, she applies her chemistry skills to distilling prussic acid from laurel leaves, and kills herself.

Blackbird is a barely disguised version of the young lesbian poet Amy Levy, who had attended Newnham but left in her second year. The ditties Allen puts into Blackbird's mouth are derived from Levy's collection of poems A Minor Poet and Other Verse (1884), many of which dwell morbidly on the dark beauty of self-annihilation. The Allens met Levy socially in 1889, in the last summer of her life, when she took a cottage in Dorking, and he wrote an obituary poem about her, 'Amy Levy's Urn'. (The publication history of Under Sealed Orders is tangled, but it certainly written closer to the date of Levy's suicide, two or perhaps three years before it was published in 1894.) Levy, 'pallid little Amy Levy', he called her, neurotic, perversely sexed and unhinged by brain-work, made a convenient representation for his more conservative readers of what higher education could do to a young woman. An even more alarming case is that of Woodbine Weatherly, a feeble creature in The Duchess of Powysland. For her, enrolment at Girton proves literally fatal when she dies in childbirth. The narrator is quick to sheet home the cause of this hardly uncommon medical outcome. Forget puerperal fever or obstetric complications:

The higher education of women, that fashionable Moloch and Juggernaut of our time, slays its annual holocaust so regularly nowadays that nobody is astonished when one more Girton girl, unequal to her self-imposed task of defying with impunity all the laws of nature, breaks down and dies in her first futile attempt to fulfil the natural functions of motherhood.[285]

These examples of authorial interjections, which could easily be multiplied, seem to confirm that Allen was ready to pander to his readers' prejudices, and he sometimes conceded things which convey that impression. 'My line', he told an interviewer in 1893, 'is to write what I think the public wish to buy, and not what I wish to say, or what I really think or feel; and to please the public, for a man of my temperament and opinion, is not so easy as an outsider might be inclined to imagine'.[286] But, considered carefully, we see that he is not saying he had written things which he did not believe; only that he had been obliged to refrain from writing about many things which he did believe. For example, warnings, in fiction and elsewhere, about the fate awaiting the tertiary-educated woman were a commonplace of the time. George Gissing offered a similar and, if anything, even less sympathetic study of the force-fed woman student in his In the Year of Jubilee, a student whose last infirmity, after her mental collapse, is joining the Salvation Army.


In Allen's case, his interjections are not quite what they seem. The ferociously demanding syllabus which Emily Davies demanded of her students at Girton conceded nothing to the inadequate secondary schooling for girls; and many of her liberal male supporters who were attempting to reform the programme of study at the men's colleges were dismayed. It is important to place Allen's comments in the context of his no less vitriolic condemnation of the public-school curriculum for young men which fed its victims into the universities. In the schools 'there is', he complains, 'no systematic teaching of knowledge at all; what replaces it is the teaching of the facts of language, and for the most part useless facts'. They are 'places for imparting a sham and imperfect knowledge about two extinct languages. . . . Besides, look at our results! The typical John Bull! pig-headed, ignorant, brutal. 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. There are plenty more soldiers where those came from'. Later we hear that 'it vexed her righteous Girtonian soul' to 'harp for ever on a single human life, when population tends always to increase in a geometrical ratio beyond the means of subsistence'.?' 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.


Although even in Mrs. Mansel's case it is grudgingly conceded later that 'even Girton had not wholly extinguished her feminine instincts',[288] for some readers this was not enough: they wanted studies of healthy, cheerful, athletic, down-to-earth young women who have survived the Oxbridge experience with their femininity intact, and Allen supplied these too once he perceived the demand. Examples are women like Ione Dracopoli in Under Sealed Orders who rides across Morocco on horseback with only a male guide for company (although she has, in fact, attended a School of Art); in The Tents of Shem or Lois Cayley, late of Girton, where she has taken Honours in mathematics and rowed for her college; or Miss Cayley, who travels the world on a shoestring budget, getting the better of many colourful characters en route; or Juliet Appleton, the type-writer girl of the novel of that title, who having lost her money, takes to a career, a flat of her own, and a bicycle in a mood of defiant recklessness. Ain the end most are shown tamed by matrimony and maternity. None of Allen's heroines, save one, breaks the carapace of conventionality.



It would be idle to pretend that, considered as works of art, any of Allen's fiction mentioned so far rises above the level of journeyman's competency. Some of what he wrote shows signs of haste, which is not surprising in one who at one point published seven novels in two years: repetitiveness, space-filling conversations, implausible motivation and (even contemporary reviewers complained of this) his insipid heroines ... all those Ethels, and Doras, and Nettas, and Millies so exactly alike. Though he could fashion an eventful plot and write lively dialogue, Allen contributed nothing original to the art of fiction. He never interested himself in form or narrative technique, or, indeed, with any aspect of the theory of the novel. As he might have said himself in one of his gloomy moods, it did not pay him to do so; there was no demand from his paying customers for such experiments. So, despite their frequently melodramatic subjects, all his novels are exercises in flat realism textured with sentimentality or sensationalism. The symbolism, patterns of imagery and figurative devices used half-consciously by George Eliot or Dickens, let alone the more deliberate Modernist experiments being trialled by his contemporaries Kipling, Stevenson, Conrad, or James were not for him. He was well aware, of course, of what the French and Russian writers had been doing since the 1860s -- Turgenev, Maupassant, the Goncourts, and their English disciples like George Moore -- but he took no creative interest in them; not even in Zola's experiments with 'scientific' Naturalism, which one might think would have appealed to him. Of English novelists, he greatly admired Hardy and positively idolised Meredith, but his attitude was to praise and do otherwise.


Having no interest in innovative technique does not necessarily make for a poor novelist, though it may make for an unenterprising and dull one. As we have seen, in his essays and articles Allen is rarely guilty of a dull sentence, and this applies to his best novels too. He is highly allusive: his literary sympathies were wide, although they did not extend to Shakespeare, whom he spoke of as an ineffable bore. A random survey readily turns up quotations from, or allusions to, the Bible, Virgil, Horace, Prior, Shelley, Milton, Bunyan, Gay, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Swinburne, the Savoy operas, Ouida and Hardy; and always with a ease and a naturalness which suggests he did so from memory. Broadly speaking, his style is a colloquial style founded on talk; an effortless, copious, informed flow of talk from a seemingly bottomless reservoir. Everyone who knew him agreed that Allen's talk was something truly astonishing. 'No pose-talk', insisted a friend, 'but talk easily born of his knowledge and love of the subject that at the moment occupied him'.[289] He created several characters who surely are, at least in part, self-caricatures in this respect -- people like the camp music critic Florian Wood in Linnet (1898) whose conversation, or rather monologue, surges forward on a tidal wave of quotations and free association. Hugh Massinger, the villain of This Mortal Coil, has a similar line in cynical and fantastical talk; so does the sexually ambiguous romantic novelist Seeta Mayne in The Devil's Die. In life Allen practiced the art of conversation more successfully than do these characters of his -- he was no Dr Johnson, tossing and goring his opponents -- but his written style, in his essays and the narrative parts of his fiction alike, is a more muted version of his characters': often, one can actually catch the rhythms of his speaking voice. What remaining value he has as a minor novelist is almost entirely due to his gifts as a brilliant journalist, social polemicist and public instructor.


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. His protestations that he literally could not afford to use the novel to say things he wanted to say, things of overwhelming importance to him grew ever more vehement as time passed. Frustrated in that ambition until the last years of his career, he took refuge in self-deprecation as a protective pose.


Nothing is more revealing, in this respect, than a letter he wrote to his friend George Croom Robertson, probably, but not certainly, in 1885. The context is that Robertson had encouraged him to try another serious, heart-felt novel in the wake of Philistia, and this had stirred ambitions he thought he had given up:

I am so much exercised in mind about it, that I can't help writing you this long rigmarole (as if you were the editor of the Family Herald). When you left this house yesterday, I was so far convinced by what you (with too much partiality) said that I half made up my mind to try a novel all straight out of my own heart. Your advice coincides so exactly with the suggestion of one's own personal vanity. But when I think it over, I ask myself, have I any right so to speculate -- mainly for the gratification of one's own vanity -- with time which is really by contract Nellie's and the boy's? Oughtn't I to be using it all to what I feel in my heart to be their best advantage? Ought I to go squandering it away on the remote chance of my own crude estimate of myself being the correct one? The more I rub against other men, the more do I feel that the opinion they form of me & of my work is very different from the opinion I was at first disposed to form myself.

I can't tell you how much we both enjoyed your visit here. It was a real delight to us. I oughtn't to repay it by boring you with this letter. -- Don't answer it. -- I think after all I shall yield to vanity.[290]

The see-sawing emotions elsewhere in this long letter are remarkable. He is content, he says, to be 'a good round hack', incapable of doing work 'above mediocrity', but on the other hand ambition is by no means dead in him, and he closes on a note of defiance. His final determination to 'yield to vanity', produced, after a long delay, the two novels bearing the 'hill-top' label, The British Barbarians and The Woman Who Did. These two he marked out as types of those he would have written, if only he could have afforded to; the ones which he defined as truly his own 'in thought, in spirit, in teaching'.[291] 'Teaching' is the operative word: he had no interest in the art novel, but he did value the semi-popular novel as a educational tool. polemical tool, His opinion was that no one who had trenchant things to say about social questions, and Allen had a great deal to say, could afford to neglect the novel. But to use the novel for such a purpose was always controversial. It was held to be illegitimate and vulgar not only by art novelists like James but by proponents of the novel as romantic entertainment like Andrew Lang and the Henley circle. For Lang, who regarded the romances of Walter Scott and Rider Haggard as the touchstones of genuine art, the idea of using fiction to persuade people to think and live differently was absurd. In his letters to Allen, and in reviews of his novels, Lang chaffed him mercilessly about his propagandist impulse. He refused to allow that the novel should be a campaigning weapon for reform, particularly sexual reform. Such cases should be made simply and directly; they 'ought not to be mixed up with flirtations, love affairs, and fanciful episodes. Novels are not tracts, sermons or treatises'. Zola's Nana, valuable though it is, should not be allowed to circulate in England among the readers of Miss Yonge.[292] So, when Allen sent him a review copy of The Woman Who Did, Lang's response was 'many thanks I hope you have got it off your mind, now! Personally I prefer opinions in Treatises, not in novels, and I would hear you gladly on cuckoos, rather than on cocks'.[293] The bawdy jest makes us blink with surprise. Presumably that was how they talked at Edward Clodd's hilarious weekend stag parties. It briefly flicks open a tiny window into the jovial and cynical smoking-room talk about Allen's doctrines which must have lain just below the decorous surface of the public debate. Yet the blunt speaking is appropriate enough. After ten years of light fiction Grant Allen was about to throw off the sheep-like mask of the inoffensive popular novelist to reveal the face of the polemical tiger behind.




The Prosperous Tradesman (1890-1895)



Grant Allen in his years of prosperity -- in his last decade, that is to say; from 1890 onwards -- was a familiar figure in all the haunts of literary and scientific London: a neat, slightly-built man in his forties, with a long, keen, bony, Scotch face, whitening sandy hair, a reddish-grey goatee beard and pale blue eyes. The gossiping journalist Douglas Sladen said that Allen reminded him of the gaunt, red-bearded figures one sees on French tapestries of the fifteenth century, as he had the same spare figure and the same habit of arching his back.[294] Another described him at this time as 'all sugar, and seems to be a pleasant and gentle person; tall and thin, with plenty of grey or whitish hair and a pointed beard; light eyes, with a boyish look in them, a small and mincing mouth, and a nose that seems to have grown much longer than was at first intended, arched, thin, and pliant, giving him a somewhat foxy look. . . . He has a lot to say, and says it well; is more tolerant of contradiction than most . . . must have done a lot of various work in his time'.[295] His manner was normally quiet, gentle and confiding. He was no club-man, but informal sociability drew out the best in him, and then his conversation could be animated, energetic and, at times, acerbic and paradoxical. While he spoke, he constantly twirled the pocket lens which he kept in readiness for the examination of some flower or insect. Frank Harris noted his 'air of clean alertness and vivacity', and thought that his constant walking exercise and moderate habits compensated for his physical ailments.[296] His tuberculosis continued to remain quiescent for long periods so long as he looked after himself, and fortunately he never suffered from haemorrhaging of the lung. His general health, though, was wretched. As early as 1883 William James had described him as 'a poor long nosed sandy bearded consumptive looking fellow, but a charming talker'.[297] His regular breakdowns, in the form of bronchitis and fever, continued to the end, and he had a cough which another acquaintance said sounded like a knock on Death's door. He also suffered from excruciating writer's cramp, which sometimes forced him to type one-handed. His wife often served as his amanuensis, and many of his letters are penned by her in her sprawling and difficult handwriting, very different to her husband's minute but legible script.


In her biography of the publisher George Newnes, Hulda Friedrichs gave a striking pen-picture of Allen as he entered his last decade. Allen was collecting his prize for What's Bred in the Bone from the offices of Tit-Bits, that popular organ of self-improvement for the lower middle classes:

There were not wanting superior persons who scoffed and sneered because a man of Grant Allen's position in the world of letters should 'mix with that crowd', but he himself never regretted it, quite apart from the fact that the fee of L1000 came as a godsend in his struggle against a disease which obliged him to spend the winter in Egypt. Brave, patient spirit! I see him now, sitting in the tiny waiting-room of the old Pall Mall Gazette in Northumberland Street, looking very frail and thin in his rough tweed clothes, and with the sad smile on his face; and I hear the pleasant, cultured voice that came rather as a surprise to those who saw him for the first time and noted that his bronzed face looked more like that of a farmer than a literary and scientific man. 'Why not?' he said. 'What is the matter with Tit-Bits, that I should be ashamed of having gained a prize in its literary competitions? I wish all the papers for which I have written pot-boilers were as interesting, and if some had paid me half as well I should not be where I am'.[298]

'I should not be where I am'. Where was he, in fact, in 1891, at the time of this word-picture? Somewhere not very attractive, it seems to tell us. We see a delicate, shy invalid ('frail and thin'), in not very affluent circumstances ('rough tweed clothes'), obliged to live in the country, but out of place there (the 'cultured voice'), and doomed to spend his time in outer offices waiting on the convenience of busy men more prosperous than he. It suggests someone who has been dragooned into a uncongenial occupation and who has been almost broken by it: a hero of adverse circumstances, to be sure, but still a fit object of pity.


Although it does reflect something of how Allen presented himself to the world, particularly in his depressed moods, this picture is misleading in many ways. Even the clothes do not square with the picture presented by another journalist friend, who said Allen at home always looked like a dapper county squire, in his habitual, admirably cut loose grey suit, with snowy collars and cuffs and neat walking shoes. Be that as it may, the picture seriously underplays the indisputably tough, shrewd, competitive, calculating element in Allen's nature. After all, he would hardly have been in the Tit-Bits' office waiting to collect his thousand-pound cheque if he had really been the broken reed we are shown here.


The truth is that by this date Allen was at the peak of his productivity, earning well and living well. After all, he published three other novels as well as the Tit-Bits winner in that very year; and yet he still had the time and the leisure to work on his translation of Catullus' Attis -- not a critical edition, in fact, but a scholarly contribution to the poetic mythology surrounding ghost- and tree-worship. Allen found time for several such labours of love in his middle years, and they hardly suggest a man broken and exhausted by his labours. He was able to do so, in part, because at long last he had begun to get some benefit from being published, reviewed and read elsewhere in the world other than Britain.


Of these markets the American was the most important, though he gained very little personal profit until the last eight years of his career. Even more than most authors, he suffered from the piratical activities of American publishers. The United States did not sign the Berne Convention in September 1886, and no protection was available until the (limited) provisions of the American/British Copyright (Chace) Act of 1891. Any remuneration of British writers was left entirely to the benevolence of US publishers who, not surprisingly, refused to pay much, if anything, for a British writer's copyright which they in turn were unable to protect from their own predatory countrymen. The 'first dozen' names in publishing had a gentleman's agreement -- if that is the right phrase -- that the original pirate should be left to enjoy his booty and not be pirated in turn, but needless to say the smaller fry took no notice of that.


Among the pirating periodicals, the Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science and Art was one of the worst offenders. Each issue consisted of little but the best British writing of the day. Month after month, year after year, the Eclectic lived up to its name by calmly appropriating articles from the CornhillLongman's and the Belgravia among many others, and reprinting them in its closely-packed pages without paying their authors a cent. It lifted one of Allen's first articles, 'The Origin of Flowers', in May 1878, and treated at least sixty more of them in the same fashion over the next two decades. Littell's Living Age, which eventually absorbed its rival Eclectic, was another offender. Sometimes Allen could have had the dubious pleasure of seeing a single pirated article of his printed in three different US journals within the same month. As for his books of popular science, some were published by reputable firms like Appleton's and Funk & Wagnall's, both of whom paid small sums as conscience-money; but rather more were reprinted in series put out by minor houses, under titles like the 'Humboldt Library of Popular Science Literature', which certainly paid him nothing at all. It was much the same story with his fiction.


Piracy, of course, ran both ways across the Atlantic, and American editors sometimes tried to muddy the issue by complaining in turn that their own articles were being pirated in Britain. The Popular Science Monthly protested in January 1888 that despite the 'righteous indignation over the ways of American publishers' ten of its articles had been reprinted without any acknowledgement in Health, a journal edited by Andrew Wilson. The editor said sanctimoniously that 'American periodicals in good standing uniformly give full credit for articles'. Perhaps that was broadly true; it was certainly true of the Popular Science Monthly. We note, however, the ambiguity of the editor's phrase 'full credit': he does not go so far as to say that it paid the authors anything, or even acknowledged their existence. Indeed, it is surely suggestive that in the list of the ten articles complained of, an author's name is not given for any of them. The custom of anonymity, of course, which was fading by the late 1870s but far from extinct, made this easier.[299]


These depredations were particularly severe in Allen's case because he produced exactly the kinds of wares which had a larger potential market in America than anywhere else. Popular science, and all works of a kind which appealed to the insatiable urge for self-improvement among the American middle classes, such as travel guides, sold much better than in England. Unfortunately, cheap pirated editions of all this work were readily obtainable in America. All he had ever got, Allen complained in 1885, was a voluntary payment of $50 from one publisher and $100 from another. It was natural for him to feel the abuse the more because by the small geographical accident of being born on the wrong side of the St Lawrence he could be pirated with impunity. If he had been an American citizen, even one living abroad, he would have been protected as Henry James was, to his great advantage. (Strictly speaking, Allen should have been protected from US editions being circulated in Canada, but no one took much notice of that.) Small wonder that he reacted badly to a request from an American magazine for his autograph. 'I can get no protection for the labour of my hands and brain in a great country for which I still feel a deep and enduring affection, in spite of its systematically robbing me of three-fourths of my paltry income. Under these circumstances I have to work far too hard for my living, and for those dependent upon me, to find time for writing my name over and over again on behalf of collectors of autographs. As a rule, I am glad enough to lay down the pen out of my aching fingers as soon as the day's work is fairly over'. Another bitter comment in the same letter of protest hints at his state of mind at this point, in the mid-'80s, when he began to realise where his authorial future lay. 'If people really cared about my work, they would buy my books; which they don't. For ten years I have been fighting a hard battle against poverty, in writing scientific works; and now I am just being compelled to retire from the hopeless contest and take to penny-a-lining for a livelihood at vulgar stories'.[300] From 1891, though, a regular flow of dollar cheques was crossing the Atlantic and adding its meed to Allen's bank account, where at last a good lump of capital was accumulating.



Another index of prosperity was that after twelve years at Dorking the Allens decided the town was becoming too suburbanized for their tastes. Allen's private index of where London ended was exactly where the last gin-palace gave way to the swinging sign-board of the first country inn. By 1890, he decided that Croyden, Cheam, even Epsom, had surrendered to the 'spider-like claws of that devouring national cancer'.[301] Now the country started only at Leatherhead, and it would not be long before the straggling commuters' villas were rising there too. It was time to move on and out, deeper into south-west Surrey.


The choice of locale was not difficult. On the high infertile country around Grayshott, Haslemere and Hindhead only charcoal burners and broom-makers could make a living, so it had remained open moorland covered in heather, gorse and pinewoods. It seemed remote, and by road it was. The main Portsmouth to London highway was not even sealed in Allen's lifetime. But it was only 80km from London by rail and the service was excellent. Here for some years past had been forming the nucleus of an artists' and intellectuals' colony. Tennyson had lived there from the 1870s until his death in 1892, in a fine mansion high up on the ridge of Blackdown, and had described the scenery in 'Gareth and Lynette'. Here too had lived for a spell George Eliot and G. H. Lewes, and much of Middlemarch was written there in 1871. John Tyndall, the physicist, lived at Hindhead for a decade from 1883; later arrivals were Richard Le Gallienne, Conan Doyle, Bernard Shaw, Francis Galton, some of Bertrand Russell's family and many others. Not for nothing was the area known as 'Mindhead', though any coherence it ever had as an intellectuals' colony lasted only for the fifteen years or so around the turn of the century. Quick motor transport to and from Haslemere station brought it within the daily commuters' orbit at last.[302]


Attracted by both the climate and the scenery -- promoters were extolling it as the English Switzerland -- Allen bought a few acres and had a fine house, The Croft, built on a high saddle of land, a position which exposed it to the full force of the northerly winds, which he believed were good for his lungs. The site was on the very rim of the natural depression, or circular valley, called the Devil's Punchbowl, on one side, and the Golden Valley on the other. There were magnificent airy views from every room, with hardly a sign of human habitation anywhere, for the few farms were in the valleys and invisible so that a vista of purple or golden heather and pinewoods stretched right to the horizon. Clodd calls this house a 'charming cottage',[303] which is a considerable understatement. A cottage, in the parlance of Surrey residents then and today, does not necessarily imply a workman's or rural labourer's house, and in this case it certainly did not. The Croft was a handsome villa with at least five bedrooms. The Allens moved there in the spring of 1893 after returning from their winter in the South. A letter to Clodd written in Feb 1893 suggests this visit included the great Italian cities, because he says that in early March he is to leave for Florence and then for Rome. 'I am mugging up my Baedeker in anticipation, but I confess the vastness of all there is to see rather appals me'.[304]


The Croft was Allen's home for the six years remaining to him. They were good years. Here the family entertained, unpretentiously and much more informally than custom required, but in the relaxed manner possible only for the moneyed classes with plenty of willing domestic labour to call on. Every summer weekend a lively company gathered on the lawn in deck-chairs: York Powell, Clodd, Swinburne, neighbours like Le Gallienne and the positivist and medievalist Rayner Storr. Netta Syrett, Allen's niece, then in her twenties, often stayed at The Croft and in her old age recalled that it was there for the first time that she heard conversation practised as an art; conversations which went on for hours at a time: at the lunch table, then outside for afternoon tea, and back in the house for dinner. She found some of Allen's themes disconcerting: the 'frankness of his talk about sex' embarrassed her. 'I think sex was something of an obsession with Grant', she said; but it did not prevent her from becoming a New Woman novelist herself, published by John Lane and promoted with his usual efficiency by her uncle.[305]


Allen was not averse to showing off his new house, and gossip columnists went into ecstasies over it: the 'exquisite taste' everywhere; the genial motto Sibi et Amicis over the entrance; the many signed first editions from famous authors on the shelves; the Hispano-Moorish tiles from Florence decorating the study; the heather running up to the edge of a garden full of rare plants; the general air of domestic comfort, a well-run household and well-earned affluence. Thus was the cult of the gentleman-author worshipped. Allen asserted (or so Morley Roberts said), that by now he could only write in a comfortable study with rose-coloured curtains; an observation which earned a contemptuous growl from Roberts' friend and Spartan stoic, George Gissing, for whom the colour of curtains, or indeed what the window-coverings were of his many scruffy abodes, was of little moment.[306]


His greatest pleasure was rambling or bicycling tirelessly through the lanes around Hindhead and Grayshott. But when necessary -- and it often was -- the Great Wen with its 'tinsel Arcadias' was only ninety minutes away by train. The bracing moorland air made it possible for him to winter at home now, and in these last years spring was the season for his travels. Now it was the art centres of Europe which held his interest, especially those of Italy; for Italian life, manners, and above all Italian art captivated him as never before.



Two new papers from the Newnes stable were launched early in the 1890s, and each offered Allen his last and most rewarding journalistic opportunities. The Strand was an imitation of the smart American papers like Harper's and Scribner's and offered eyebrow-raising rates of pay to match. It was edited personally by George Newnes, then at the height of his proprietorial powersThe Strand specialized in light reading, and its formula was quite simple; lots of variety, plenty of bright fiction, and a lavish use of linotype pictures -- the goal was at least one on every page. Allen contributed a story, 'A Deadly Dilemma', to the first issue in January 1891 and was rarely out of its pages in the later 1890s. Though his creations could not rival those of his friend Conan Doyle (Doyle pocketed L620 for a single episode of The Hound of the Baskervilles), Allen showed his usual perspicacity in exploiting the latest trend. 'The Great Ruby Robbery' (October 1892) is recognised as an early classic of the genre, and although the denouement relies on a trick -- the investigating detective is the thief -- it is carried off ingeniously. It has been reprinted several times in genre anthologies.


The other Newnes venture was a new evening paper, the Liberal Westminster Gazette, started in January 1893 with E. T. Cook as editor, and printed on pale green paper which was supposed to be kinder on the eyes of tired, homeward-bound readers. It was one of those odd ideas that work wonders, and the Westminster soon proved that it had staying-power. It boasted from the outset that a column from Allen would be 'dealing with Popular Science and other matters'. The emphasis, as it turned out, was very much on the other matters: his first piece, for instance, was 'The Struggle for Life among Languages'. Many of his fifty-six pieces, which appeared at intervals of about twice a week, are highly disputatious in tone and give, collectively, the fullest insight into Allen's social and political views. He collected twenty-five of them in a volume, Post-Prandial Philosophy (1894), and they do have an unbuttoned, relaxed after-dinner about them, though they also contain some of his best writing in a small compass: some of them are 'in their comparatively modest way, as complete and organic as sonnets', as Le Gallienne said.[307] Their relaxed tone is perhaps the result of Allen's not being obliged by this date to care very much about anyone's susceptibilities. Each one, in eight or ten pages, covered some broad topic with wit, grace and economy of expression, and often with an intent so subversive as to make it a pellet of philosophical dynamite admirably contrived for the waistcoat pocket, as Le Gallienne also put it.[308] In one column he wrote dryly, 'I get a great many letters in answer to these Post Prandials; and some of them, strange to say, are not wholly complimentary'.[309] He vanished without notice from the Westminster in January 1895, but whether this was voluntary or because he had finally outstripped the editorial patience is unclear.


Allen's mature, broad political stance was formed from a baffling blend of ingredients. As we have seen, he repeatedly spoke of himself in his younger years as a Communist, which in practice for him seemed to mean that he aligned himself, in principle anyway, with the would-be parliamentary socialists. By most measures he continued to be a man of the Left, a fairly extreme Radical. He joined the Fabians in 1891, although he never attended meetings and eventually allowed his subscription to lapse. In his Post-Prandial essays he writes against big landlordism, private ownership of raw materials, prostitution, working women, nationalism, militarism, vivisection, most aspects of imperialism and colonialism, the established Church, the House of Lords, sexual double standards and the environmental degradation of cities. He was for fairly plain living and high thinking, little England and Home Rule, a country residence and early nights, the nationalisation of land and primary industries, the right to roam across landed estates, early mating but divorce on demand, maternal women and large families encouraged by State-promoted initiatives. But as he got older he seems to have followed the familiar trajectory, drifting Rightwards into a kind of Liberal quietism. At one point he said 'as socialistic as Marx, I am as individualist as Herbert Spencer. I will do better work for our common cause -- so far as it is common -- by holding aloof from all societies and saying my say in my own way. But I hope little. I am a gloomy pessimist'. [310]


Whatever he meant exactly by calling himself an Individualist, it certainly did not preclude his having some savage fun with a prospectus from a League of that name, headed by the Earl of Wemyss, a landholder of 62,000 acres. This Individualism was just a 'fine old crusted Toryism'; a mere selfish grab for continued aristocratic privilege. Yet Allen's Individualism did include, apparently, elements of a libertarian, minimal-State philosophy. 'We [individualists] do not believe that one man ought to pay for another man's books, or beer, or preaching, or amusement. We do not believe that the State ... should take aught from any man for any purpose save for the most necessary public objects of defence against external or internal enemies'.[311] If that is taken literally as a denunciation of both free libraries and the welfare state, it is a position Herbert Spencer would have been glad to agree with. How that can be reconciled with the need for state-funded awards for mothering duties -- to give the obvious example of Allen's proposal for state intervention -- is anyone's guess. But it is always misleading and futile to try to lay a template of current socio-political alignments over those of a century ago. Probably we can say no more than that Grant Allen was an advanced Radical of that very familiar English stamp -- the Radical with a powerfully puritan admixture, a man in the mould of Cobbett, Orwell and D. H. Lawrence. Allen was never slow to take the moral high ground -- quite literally so when he wrote around the time of the Wilde trials:


I am writing in my study on a heather-clad hill-top. When I raise my eye from my sheet of foolscap, it falls upon miles and miles of broad open moorland. My window looks out upon unsullied nature. Everything around is fresh and pure and wholesome. Through the open casement, the scent of the pines blows in with the breeze from the neighbouring fir wood. Keen airs sigh through the pine-needles. Grasshoppers chirp from deep tangles of bracken. ... Up here on the free hills, the sharp air blows in upon us, limpid and clear from a thousand leagues of open ocean; down there in the crowded town, it stagnates and ferments, polluted with the diseases and vices of centuries.


The geographical metaphor had both a personal and a cultural application. It referred to the location of the author's study at Hindhead, perched high above miles of open moorland, with an invigorating wind blowing into his doubtful lungs; but it was also the coign of vantage from which to detect and denounce moral corruption: 'below in the valley, as night draws on, a lurid glare reddens the north-eastern horizon. It marks the spot where the great wen of London heaves and festers'.[312]


This is a reminder, if one were needed, that Grant Allen was born when Queen Victoria had been on the throne for eleven years, and that he died before she left it; and that in his personal code of behaviour and attitudes, as opposed to some of the theoretical positions he supported, he shows it. Despite his reputation he was no libertine nor especially broad-minded even by the standards of his day. Promoting serial polyandry and a culture of pagan hedonism from the study chair was one thing; debauchery and degeneracy thrown in the public's face was another. The limit to his toleration of what he took to be indecency and moral depravity were clearly defined and soon reached. He takes for granted the complicity of his reader in making a judgement about what is 'fresh' and 'pure' and what the 'vices of centuries' might be. He suffered from the irritating occupational hazard of the controversialist, that there is always someone more radical still who wants to co-opt you. Allen reacted with disgust to the assertion that 'unnatural vice' might be a constituent of the new hedonism. He met with silence an invitation to join in a debate with an even freer spirit who thought his position merely branded him a disguised neo-puritan, for all his liberating talk.[313]



By the mid-nineties, then, Grant Allen's career, his fame -- or his notoriety -- was reaching its apogee. He was forty-seven, prosperous and, on the surface at least, more or less resigned to the equivocal nature of his literary success. If he had had to sell out to the market place, as he so often lamented himself, at least he had the consolation of having done so for the top dollar. In 1895 he needed no consoling, however, for in that year he published two novels which must have done a good deal for his self-respect. After years of cursing the power of the 'British matron' to censor artistic expression, he stared down that formidable lady long enough to get into print his anti-marriage best-seller The Woman Who Did. , followed in November of the same year his no less outrageous The British Barbarians, a mordant satire on middle-class taboos. Within ten years these polemical novels would be scorned as hopelessly unrealistic and old-fashioned, but they would never be entirely forgotten. Allen came more or less to accept that most of his work was for the day only, but with these two novels, and some associated fiery articles, he fully intended to put his stamp on his century. With them, he declared war on the repressive literary and sexual mores of his day.




Dealing with the 'Dissenting Grocer'



Rigid contracts are nowadays signed beforehand for the production of such and such piece of work. . . . Often enough, a clause is even inserted in the agreement that the work shall contain nothing that may not be read aloud in any family circle. Consider what, in the existing condition of English bourgeois opinion, that restriction means! It means that you are to follow in every particular the dissenting grocer's view of life: that you are carefully to avoid introducing anything which might, remotely or indirectly, lead man or woman to reflect about any problem whatsoever of earth or heaven, or morals, religion, cosmology, politics, philosophy, human life, or social relations.[314]


In Grant Allen's personal mythology the natural habitat of 'dissenting grocers' is the land of Philistia. In the Old Testament, Philistia is a small nation of trading people in the south-west corner of Palestine and the mortal enemy of the Israelites. As early as 1827 Carlyle and others were using 'Philistia' as a label for the most unenlightened or commonplace part of the British populace: 'unenlightened' meaning, here, little more than holding views which the writer happened not to agree with. They probably lifted this usage from the German Romantics. Matthew Arnold gave the term 'Philistine' universal currency in Culture and Anarchy (1869), where it denotes a person deficient in liberal culture, 'people who most give their lives and thoughts to becoming rich'.


By the 1880s 'Philistia' had become a convenient shorthand for the spiritual domain of the most boorish, censorious, narrow-minded sections of the population. After using it as the title of his first novel, Allen remained fond of it. Philistia, for him, was the home town not only of the dissenting grocer but of his spiritual spouse, Mrs Grundy. She was the more formidable of the two; Philistia existed for her to show herself off in all her ignoble glory. And what is she? Allen knows:

And who, after all, is this redoubtable Mrs. Grundy, who has such a good opinion of her own moral and critical character that she dares to set herself up, with inconceivable effrontery, as the censor of the highest of the highest and noblest minds in England? Why, just the average specimen of English middle-aged matronhood, with all its petty prejudices, all its selfish narrowness, all its hatred of right, all its persistent clinging to every expiring form of wrong or injustice. A pretty sort of censor! A pretty sort of sovereign! I know no spectacle more humiliating to British civilization than this spectacle of the average middle-aged married Englishwoman. . . . What a unit of the State is that English mother! Her very looks betray her for just exactly what she is, blandly inane and vacuously pig-headed. Look at her as she comes towards you in the street, and sum her up for yourself, O lover of truth and justice, in all her unaffected and unabashed nonentity. It would not be fair to her to say, indeed, that she is actually immoral; she is something perhaps a degree worse than that -- she is entirely extra-moral.

And Mrs Grundy's daughters, the dreaded scourge of the circulating libraries -- and therefore, indirectly of publishers and writers too -- because all form a chain of economic -- her dependency -- daughters are, if anything, even worse; Allen guys them ruthlessly:

'How much easier', they say, 'to accept what we are told by our dear mammas, and let this world wag on its own bad way, lies, injustices, and all, just the same as usual!' From our women themselves, then, there is nothing immediately or directly to be hoped, for are they not in truth the very Mrs. Grundies against whom we are so strenuously and hopelessly contending? And what man can pretend to cast out devils by the aid of Beelzebub, the prince of the devils? It is my deliberate conviction that many of the worst among the moral cancers which eat into the very heart and life of England, making the other nations of Europe marvel awestruck at our vice, our hypocrisy, our greed, our selfishness, may be directly traced to the influence of our women, and to the low, conventional and vulgar morality they impose upon our literature. They stifle at its source the expression of the higher and nobler manhood of the country.[315]

This is good, trenchant writing, a fine example of a particularly indignant tone which Allen had at his disposal -- Stead called it admiringly 'lordly scorn'. But it must not blind us to the fact that nothing reads more queerly in Grant Allen's career than his attitude to censorship. His whole attitude to it appears, at first sight, to be so totally inconsistent. How can it be made to harmonize with his professed self-image as a workaday entertainer-tradesman? Why should a man whose professed ambition for each new work is 'to go a step lower to catch the market' worry his head about constraints on his freedom of expression? What is the need for such a man to speak of 'moral cancers'? How could he possibly see himself as a Samson, blinded and shorn by his enemies, forced to grind out cheap mental fodder for his Philistine captors?


 The reason is that, intertwined and inseparable in Allen's mind, were two issues. First, there was censorship itself, particularly the tacit kind which meant that editors and publishers would not accept work on morally adventurous subjects. Second, there was the socio-economics of the writing trade to contend with. It rewarded writers far below their just entitlements (for reasons which Allen believed he understood); and so, by keeping them poor, forced them to toe the line. In other words, censorship meant two things for Allen. Writers with socially reprehensible views could not afford to write the books they wanted to write; and if they did defy Mrs. Grundy and write them, it was hard to get them published, harder to get them circulated, and hardest of all to get published again afterwards. The ethics and the economics of censorship ran together. It was not that Allen had suffered from the attention of the 'dissenting grocer' for the books he had written; it was his knowledge that he had other books within him that he saw no point in even trying to write that galled him.


The pusillanimity of publishers was a common target of writers' wrath in the 1880s. Since most publishers were in thrall economically to the circulating libraries who bought so much of their output, they in turn needed to force compliance from almost all their authors. Several writers, of course, chafed publicly against this form of censorship, but few could do anything about it, least of all defy it, and Allen for most of his career was not one of them. Complaints about the censorship enforced by the circulating libraries, and the economic consequences for writers of being banned by them, surfaced repeatedly at that time, especially during the personal campaign waged by George Moore in 1884-5. Smarting over the difficulty he had faced with his first novel, A Modern Lover, he had confronted the circulating librarian Mudie personally in his office and then, getting no satisfaction, had launched an attack on 'A New Censorship of Literature' in the Pall Mall Gazette, later developing his article as the famous pamphlet Literature at Nurse (1885). Mudie's censorship, Moore opined, had managed to reduce the human figure in the novel from the full-blooded presentations offered by Fielding and Smollett in the novels of the previous century to the 'pulseless, non-vertebrate jellyfish sort of thing which, securely packed in tin-covered boxes, is sent forth from the London depot and scattered through the drawing-rooms of the United Kingdom' in his own time.[316]


Allen doubtless agreed with every word of this -- after all he was obliged, during his lowest pot-boiling moments, to perpetrate numerous 'non-vertebrate jellyfish' characters of his own -- but, rather unusually, he did not inveigh much against the three-decker system, or the circulating libraries. His eye was on another target instead: the editors of periodicals. Commonly these were even more stringent than either book publishers or even the proprietors of circulating libraries. There were some rare exceptions, but normally to be acceptable a short story had to satisfy some very restricted guidelines. Indeed, Allen was right that sometimes contracts contained a clause explicitly requiring that nothing was to be included which could not be read out in a family circle. He took a small revenge by baiting these editors when he could. He once wrote to Clement Shorter, editor of the Sketch: 'Herewith I enclose two out of five short stories as per your esteemed order. These stories are warranted to be free from any opinions whatsoever -- political, religious, social, philosophical or literary. They would not raise a blush on the cheek of a babe unborn or shock the susceptibilities of a Cardinal Archbishop'.[317] At another time he challenged an editor: 'I enclose for your consideration a short story entitled 'A Study from the Life'. The Editor of the Speaker was afraid to publish it. Will you be, I wonder?'[318] The fact that the story has vanished gives a mute reply. Presumably it was added to the funeral pyre on which he said he was 'in the habit of cremating all such stillborn children of my imagination'.[319] Allen's metaphor is rather more lurid than was warranted in the circumstances. After all, the very book in which these remarks about 'stillborn children' appear does in fact contain two stories which had been rejected by every editor who saw them. 'The Sixth Commandment' and 'The Missing Link' deal respectively with adultery sympathetically treated and the loss of religious faith under the impact of Darwinism. Yet Allen had not destroyed them and Chatto had published the collection without demur.


Even Allen did not claim that a magazine editor's declining a single short story was critical to a writer's financial well-being. He reserved his fullest resentment for another autocratic power they had: that of controlling the serialization of novels. As he explained in his long preface-manifesto to The British Barbarians, 'the serial rights of a novel at the present day are three times as valuable, in money worth, as the final book rights. A man who elects to publish direct, instead of running his story through the columns of a newspaper, is forfeiting, in other words, three-quarters of his income'.[320] This fact gave magazine editors an economic stranglehold on authors who depended on their pen for a living, a situation which he found infuriating. Editors were even more exacting than book publishers when it came to self-censorship and would not touch anything even slightly questionable.


It is hard to be sure what kind of a case Allen really had here. Certainly serialization did grow progressively more important as the '80s wore on. As early as 1880, as Graham Law has shown in meticulous detail, authors were already starting to get more from the syndicates which took serials for provincial newspapers than they could get from a single periodical publication.[321] In New Grub Street (set in 1882), Jasper Milvain claims that, given the chance, he could have quadrupled the L100 that his timid and ineffectual friend Reardon has got cash down for his novel. 'I should have gone shrewdly to work with magazines and newspapers and foreign publishers, and -- all sorts of people'.[322] The hesitancy Gissing implies with his dash implies Milvain's inexperience, not authorial disbelief in what he is saying, although Gissing himself showed little talent for taking the advice. He sold all the rights to this very novel for L150 cash to one publisher, which proved atrocious terms indeed. Gissing, like George Moore, either would not or could not serialize. Both seemed to have been prepared to accept the consequences, or, at any rate, did not focus their wrath on the magazine editors in quite the way Allen did. But more perspicacious or more worldly authors took a different view. Henry James is a good instance. Serialisation was certainly vitally important to James. When he arrived in London in 1876 he commented that it was 'the deuce' to get any money out of the British magazines because 'half the work is done by rich dilettanti gratis'. Nor was the pay particularly good, compared to what the American 'vulgar organs' offered. But James could never afford to ignore the periodicals of either country. Indeed, after a decade of hard labour he still felt obliged to shape The Tragic Muse specifically as a long serial. [323]


Allen, with the support of A.P. Watt, did very well out of his serials. It is true that some of his novels were never serialised: For Maimie's SakeRecalled to Life, A Splendid Sin, Linnet, Rosalba and perhaps others.[324] In the case of the last three, it may have been because Allen's reputation had become dubious; but a note from a newspaper editor to Watt suggests that in other cases factors quite apart from censorship may have been at work. Watt was trying to sell the serial rights of Under Sealed Orders, but the editor professed to be luke-warm: 'it is not altogether suitable for The People, being above the heads of the ordinary readers of that paper. There are too many references to foreign phrases, which they would not understand, and the action, except towards the end, rather drags'. Nevertheless, the paper did take it, for L300, so the comment may have been little more than an attempt to talk down the price.[325] In general, though, the surviving records pretty much substantiate his claim that refusing to bow the knee to Mrs Grundy in this respect would have been very expensive.[326] For five of his long novels Chatto paid him L745 for the book rights. The serial rights, though, totalled L1860, or two and a half times as much.


So far we have spoken about the financial aspects of serialization, as they were the ones Allen always stressed himself. But he was really making an ethical point. He liked to quote from the Socialists' rhyme about freedom: 'If you haven't got a dinner, why, you're free to go without'. For a long time he was in no position to pay the cost of asserting his autonomy as a writer because the serial rights were important to him, although this did not prevent him railing against the editors' feebleness of spirit. For some reason he never tried Hardy's remedy of producing a self-censored version specifically for the serial market. One wonders why he did not explore this possibility. Perhaps this is a hint that this whole rather dreary matter of serialization, and monetary returns, and editors' and publishers' attitudes, was really a side-show. Such people were, after all, in business. They had their livings to earn, just as the writer-tradesman had his. As we saw earlier, Allen was enough of a Manchester School economist to take for granted the free play of market forces in literature. Publishers and authors, no less than the Mudies of the world of Victorian letters, had to meet the market in all its absurdities and prejudices or go under. He thought it was as pointless to complain about their stance as it would be to rail at the force of gravity.

No, the fact is that Allen's real argument was always with the reading public -- or with that influential fraction of it which lived in the mental state of Philistia. Now, finally, he reached the point where he prepared deliberately to throw down the gauntlet at the foot of the 'English matron', and he expected a battle royal. As far as can be ascertained, he started on this course right at the end of the 1880s, although his sexual radicalism had been formed much earlier, after his first wife's death. And, as he began to push against sexual and marital hypocrisies, so he became more vehement and incautious about his role as a social prophet and truth-teller.


He first tried the ground with The British Barbarians, a satirical fable, and sent it to Andrew Chatto for an opinion. It came back with a friendly but unambiguous warning that its appearance would destroy his career . . . or so Allen reported in a private letter six years later, after John Lane had snapped it up with the hope of repeating the success of The Woman Who Did.[327] At the time, however, Allen took Chatto's advice and put it aside. He tried no other publisher. 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. 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.



Even as he started to plan an even more truth-telling novel than the abandoned British Barbarians, the first sign of the coming struggle was his launching a series of satirical assaults on the British literary market-place, as he perceived it to exist in all its ignoble glory. As early as February 1889 he was complaining that 'to have ethical theories superior to the morality of the grocer, the baker, and the Baptist minister; to have views of life more comprehensive than the views of blushing sixteen in the rectory drawing-room, is to write yourself anathema'.[328] Two years later, in 'A Literary Causerie' he contrasts his position with Maupassant's: the Frenchman isn't obliged to write for girls, in three volumes, and he doesn't have to serialize to live. In England, the novelist has to 'fling his book point-blank at the head of Mr Mudie's erubescent young person. . . . Sentimentalism and romanticism are the breath of his nostrils. He moves ever in fetters, supplied him by girls from eighteen to thirty'.[329] There is a distinctly self-pitying tone in this piece -- that was one of Allen's weaknesses -- and instantly he became the target for some ill-natured mirth. J.M. Barrie had a lot of fun with it in a squib in W.E. Henley's Tory and imperialist National Observer. Here Allen stars as 'The Man Who Is Not Allowed'. He has, the commentator tells us, 'a great novel' in view, but the public's action 'was so threatening that he had to desist. The public flung the great novel back in his face'. Not that he had actually written it yet. 'It was not precisely written, but he had quite made up his mind to write it'; it was, 'if I may be allowed to use the expression, up his sleeve, but he dared not bring [it] down'. Does Grant Allen complain out loud of his treatment? Not at all, concludes Barrie, sarcastically. 'He is indeed one of those gentle spirits that dislike speaking of themselves. Yet what science, what literature, he could produce if only the public would allow him!'[330]


Allen was not dissuaded by assaults of this nature, although privately he was thin-skinned enough to hate this kind of public jousting, which he thought was one of the worst features of being a writer. While arming himself for this fight he published several more bitter stories and aggressive articles over the next few years, lamenting the plight of the idealistic, reformist writer in a rampantly commercial and puritanical age. It is interesting that these are roughly contemporary with some of Henry James's stories on the same theme; in particular James's 'The Real Thing', 'The Death of the Lion', and 'The Next Time'. (The first appeared in 1890 and the other two in Lane's Yellow Book in April 1894 and July 1895 respectively.) 'The Death of the Lion', which was the opening story to the first issue of the Yellow Book, tells of the hero Paraday's fatal encounters with mass culture. At the heart of the story is a wonderful manuscript, known to all to be in train, but never finished. It becomes the very basis of Paraday's celebrity. Could James have had Allen's well-publicized but seemingly infinitely deferred novel in mind?


Allen continued to pursue the attack most vigorously in 'Letters in Philistia' (in the Fortnightly for June 1891). This powerfully aggressive piece on censorship and middle-class morality would probably have been too strong meat for any editor except Frank Harris to serve up. Parnell's adultery was then very much in the news, as the uncrowned king of Ireland was being hounded to his death, and Allen's airy dismissal of it as a 'breach of etiquette' equivalent to breaking one's breakfast egg at the wrong end was thought deplorable. W.T. Stead spluttered that Allen was trying insidiously to deprave the morals of the community. Despite having suffered from his own collision with the guardians of morality, Stead pooh-poohed the whole problem of censorship in England by claiming it didn't exist. 'It is sheer nonsense to pretend that in England a man cannot say what he will. I may safely say without boasting that I have ventured to say and print in England that which no other journalist has said or printed, and yet here I am what I am'. (What he was, a lot of people would have said, was a leading light in the emerging salacious journalism of the 'Disgusting Revelations: Full Details Page 3' school.) Anyway, Stead's apparent defence of free speech is by no means what it seemed to be. The vaunted freedom a man has 'to say what he will' in England is not exactly a libertine's charter. It turns out to mean only 'plain speech' and 'free and frank discussion' -- as defined by Stead himself. The public will not tolerate 'unclean speech': the products of Mr Grant Allen's pen, for example.[331] This conflict did more damage for some years to the wary and fragile friendship between the two men.


Then, in the summer of 1892, matters took another turn. By this time Allen had completed a draft of a new novel and again he sought an advance opinion from a publisher and friend. (One guesses that this was, once again, Andrew Chatto.) What happened is described in a curious letter which he sent to the Athenaeum in July 1892 -- an odd choice in itself, since this journal was always one of his severest critics. In it he alludes to Barrie's attack more than a year earlier; it had obviously rankled. The Athenaeum printed the letter without comment under the title 'The Worm Turns', and it is worth quoting fully for its curious tone:


     I have often been laughed at for saying in print that the English author, unless rich enough actually to defy his public, must work under painfully soul-killing restrictions. May I be permitted briefly to recount a recent experience of mine which proves my thesis? 

     For years those who know me well have said to me frequently, 'Why do you never put anything of yourself into your novels?' But I knew my public too well; I gave it itself instead -- which is what it wanted. Some months since, however, I was tempted by conscience to set to work at a more serious romance on a social theme that deeply interested me. I got absorbed in it; I was carried away by the subject; I wrote at white heat, in a glowing fever of moral enthusiasm. I put my soul into the thing. I put my religion into it. And I wrought long and hard at it, with graver and burnisher, till I believed for once I had made a work of art. It was a part -- a small part, a first instalment -- of the authentic Message which, rightly or wrongly, I imagine the Power that inheres in the universe had implanted in me for transmission to humanity. When it was finished, I gave it to a publisher who is also a personal friend, and in whose judgment I have absolute confidence -- he knows his public even better than I do. After reading it, he implored me in the strongest terms not to publish. He said the book would ruin me. Nobody would afterwards take any other novel of mine. It would spoil my future. I am a very sane monomaniac. I yielded at once to his advice. I dare run no such risk. I shall destroy the manuscript. 

     I hope those who read this note, so wrung out of me, will pardon its egotism. However insignificant a man may seem to others, to himself the failure of his life-work must always be a tragedy. 

     But after this, nobody, I am sure, can ever laugh at me for saying free thought is gagged in England. 

     GRANT ALLEN.[332]


Could these be words from the same man who had said before, and would say again in similar words, that 'no man outside the walls of Colney Hatch ever voluntarily and deliberately devotes himself to the trade of authorship'?[333] Was this the man who had called novels 'for the most part a futile and unprofitable form of literature; and it may be profoundly regretted that the mere blind laws of supply and demand should have diverted such an immense number of the ablest minds in England, France, and America, from more serious subjects to the production of such very frivolous and, on the whole, ephemeral works of art'?[334] Allen's friends were nonplussed. Edward Clodd confided to his diary that he thought Allen's aggrieved tone was indefensible. Andrew Lang wrote him a sympathetic note, saying he had had a similar experience and advising him, yet again, to save any case he wanted to make about sexual issues for a 'not-novel'. The gesture was clumsy, as Lang's own example wasn't very apposite -- he had started a book on Jewish history then dropped it when he realized he needed to know Hebrew -- but it sounds well-meaning.[335]


What had happened to make him write in such vatic terms, in words that, as he said, had been wrung out of him? We will examine some of the broader implications of this outburst in the next chapter, but there need have been no single incident to provoke it. More likely it was the culmination of mounting frustration, especially of having two serious novels rejected with the friendly warning that they could destroy him. He really believed that he was playing for high stakes; that his career might be terminated by publishers' bans on his work; even that he might be prosecuted for obscenity.


This may seem to have been ridiculously cautious, for the puritan pressures had been easing off even before Allen's career started. Even Rossetti's poems of 1870 had escaped severe general censure. (Robert Buchanan's famous 'Fleshly School' attack was totally unrepresentative, as Trudgill has shown.[336]) It did not pay to be too insouciant, however; it was, after all, only three years since the quite respectable publisher Henry Vizetelly, though aged and ill, he had drawn a prison sentence for publishing even expurgated translations of Zola and Maupassant. The laws relating to obscene publication were vague, unpredictable -- and still dangerous.


Allen's threat to destroy his new work elicited protests from his friends, including Nicholson, now librarian at the Bodleian, who offered to house the offending document. Allen declined the offer. 'Thanks for your flattering suggestion. I'll keep the MS during my lifetime, and ask my wife to pass it on to you after my departure from a planet which I shall have scanty cause to remember with gratitude'.[337]


What was this incendiary book, which if published would inevitably lead to ruin? Allen's private letters at the time, and another letter written after its publication, make it certain that it was an early draft of The Woman Who Did, which was not to appear until early in 1895. The long delay in publication and the unfortunately-phrased 'The Worm Turns' letter gave the forces of literary reaction an opportunity they could scarcely have dreamed of. An anonymous satire of 1892, The Silver Domino; or Side Whispers, Social and Literary (usually ascribed to Marie Corelli et al.) panned numerous reputations, and the lines on Allen, with their mocking references to divine inspiration, were clearly composed in the wake of the Athenaeum letter. They are vicious and clever:


GRANT ALLEN hath a 'heaven-sent' tale to tell, 

But much he fears its utterance would not 'sell' 

Wherefore, to be quite certain of his cash, 

He writes (regardless of his 'inspiration') trash; 

Practical ALLEN! Noble, manly heart! 

Wise huckster of small nothings in the mart,  

To what a pitch of prudence dost thou reach 

To feel the 'god', yet give thy thoughts no speech, 

All for the sake of vulgar pounds and pence! 

God bless thee, ALLEN, for thy common sense![338]


The Henley circle was soon barking at his heels as well. In August 1892 an anonymous column appeared which surely sets a record for sheer spitefulness even for the National Observer, which was famed and feared for its hob-nailed critical assaults. It too homed in on the Athenaeum letter, and used the same phrase which Barrie had coined two years before, 'The Man That Was Not Allowed', as its title. The time it was either by Henley himself, or more likely, judging by the style, by his top attack dog, Charles Whibley. Quoting with relish some of the over-heated phrases from 'The Worm Turns', the writer sneered: 'Picture it! The author of The Duchess of Powysland [a pot-boiling novel] had "put his soul" into this work. He had "put his religion" into it. He had put as much as he could of the Power that inheres into it! But he "was not allowed" (he never is) to publish it; and perhaps while we write it is being destroyed for ever and ever! You turn away in tears from this picture of noble struggle and heroic fall'. The writer had an analogy for the position he saw Grant Allen as taking up. It was neither noble nor heroic:

You make soap for so much a year; for so much a year less you could make pictures. You go on making soap, and complain that you are not rich enough to make pictures. Truly, a just and manly complaint. Yet are you better than he who, making soap, yet clamours for the credit for making pictures.

That was the main offence: a mere soap-maker having the effrontery to insist that he is 'a man of letters' when he 'writes stuff which has no more concern with literature than his tailor's bills'! Still, there was one consolation. 'Now that Grant Allen has put his "soul" into a serious romance', the column concluded pitilessly, 'and the serious romance is destroyed, it may be that were have heard the last of the soul of poor Mr Grant Allen. Yea, even of Mr Grant Allen: original, authentic, unique in human history: The Man That Is Not Allowed, and tells the public all about it'.[339]

Allen was cut to the quick by this savage abuse. Acting contrary to his own principles, he composed a reply, although it is uncertain whether Henley ever saw it. It is dated 7 August 1892, and has survived by chance only in a typewritten copy which somehow came into the hands of Grant Richards and thereafter into the archives of his company. It is a remarkable document, not only for its picture of the fierce literary cut-and-thrust of the day, but for its painfully raw revelations of how Allen regarded his own career by this date:

A great many years ago you showed me some kindness, and I was grateful for it. I have always admired your work so much and praised it so frankly that the tone the National Observer adopts towards me has grieved me not a little. When you have a friendly feeling towards a man and a sympathy with his work, you can't help being sorry that the feeling is not reciprocated. Now I have just read with so much mental distress the article in your last number that I can't help writing and speaking to you about it. I know I am unwise: I know one oughtn't to wear one's heart upon one's sleeve; yet I can't resist it. If you didn't write the article yourself (as I suspect you did) I wish you would kindly forward this letter to the person who did. When I wrote to the Athenaeum, I was thinking of a previous article of yours about 'the man who was not allowed'; and I said to myself, 'Surely a cry from the heart, like this, will disarm a critic with any heart at all'. It seems I was mistaken. At a moment of profound depression, when life appears to me hardly endurable, your article comes as a further aggravation, and stabs me once more with a stab that I feel undeserved and cruel. My work and my personality may be worth as little as you think -- and heaven knows I have had to do distasteful work enough in the hard fight for bread; but I think it is unmanly to strike a man through the tenderest and most sacred feelings as you or your critic have done with me; and I thank God I myself never struck anyone so, and never could strike them. I wrote a book which I profoundly believed to be a piece of work for the good of humanity. I may have greatly over-estimated my own powers; but still, I believed it so. It was to me something sacred. With a great sacrifice I decided at last to suppress it, for my wife's sake and my child's, and to go on writing Duchesses of Powysland. Now, however wrong I may be, I am still a man, with the usual claim to courtesy and consideration. One would have thought that the exact moment of what was obviously a great and bitter sorrow would not be chosen by any person as the moment for stinging a soul already despairing, and making a crisis of acute misery still acuter and bitterer. I sincerely trust that no critic will ever inflict upon you such misery as you have inflicted upon me; and as the object of the writer was evidently to give pain, it may be some consolation to him to know how thoroughly he has succeeded. I am a very earnest man, who takes life very earnestly; and I desire to do and say some good things in my generation. It is because I have some beliefs which seem to me important that I continue to say from time to time things that rouse this strange hostility in others. I believe I am almost cured now; but as long as I live I shall be proud to remember that I never used my pen to hurt another as you or your contributor have used yours to hurt and crush me at a moment of peculiar and profound bitterness.

Yours very sincerely, Grant Allen. Writer's cramp compels type-writer.[340]

Henley never replied, either personally or in the Observer, but it's unlikely that if he did read it he would have been much impressed; and especially not by the rather too studied pathos of the writer's cramp.


We see that Allen professes in this letter to be staggered by Henley's animosity. It was true that Henley, who was just the same age as he, had supported him long before by giving him work on London and, a bit later, by taking a couple of his articles while editing Cassell's Magazine of Art. They seemed to have had a working relationship. But could Allen really have been so surprised? How could he not have known that he stood for everything Henley hated? -- and Henley, a bitter, clever man in constant pain from his tubercular leg, was a formidable hater. Allen's socialist politics, his 'rose-water revolutionism', to use one of Henley's favourite phrases, were anathema to his belligerent conservatism. Allen's pacifism contrasted with the militarism promoted in the Observer, and with the far-right philosophy of its 'Common Sense' platform which called for a righteous, refining war against somebody -- anybody, apparently -- which would help separate 'the slag from the metal'. In literature, the Observer stood for 'art standards' even though some of its well-promoted writers had found popular success: Stevenson, Kipling, and later, Morrison, Barrie, Wells and Kenneth Grahame. The Observer condemned smug, bland bourgeois literature just as vigorously as did Allen himself. But just being avant-garde and progressive did not admit one into Henley's magic circle. Henley was no aesthete art-for-art's-saker. Pater, James and Wilde all incurred his displeasure at various times. His stance was much tougher than that; he liked manly writers, and wide popularity -- of the kind enjoyed by Rider Haggard, Stevenson, Dickens, or Scott -- was always very acceptable. But truckling to the mob-audience, and self-promotion, were despised. In particular, writers who gave the impression that making money was more important than their art were instantly blackballed. Henley attacked the Society of Authors for its harping on monetary returns, its promotion of literary agents and on the need for state pensions for writers. Finally, Henley, the cripple and survivor of agonizing surgery; the author of 'Invictus' and the In Hospital poem-sequence, the man for whom the phrase 'stiff upper lip' might well have been invented, was not impressed by 'shameless bleating', as he called it, about the pains of authorship. This rough handling at the hands of the Observer seems to have had exacerbated the tendency in Allen which we have noticed before, and which now became a matter for public comment: a wobbling between extreme cynicism about his function and legitimacy as a writer -- or at least as a novelist -- and an angry frustration that he was blocked at every turn from using fiction to express the great truths he said were bottled up within him. Perhaps he feared, in one of his own phrases, that 'the torpor of middle-age' was creeping over his conscience. Or perhaps it was more than that. Some of his language, public and private, in these years of the early Nineties suggest some quite serious psychological upset. The veering between gloom and exhilaration, between 'profound depression, when life appears to me hardly endurable', and the 'glowing fever of moral enthusiasm', to quote his own phrases, and some of the inappropriately grandiloquent language which we find him resorting to at this time, tempts a diagnosis of cyclothymia, or at least a sub-clinical mood disorder.


He worked his way through it, however, with personal therapy in the shape of several more short stories -- more exactly, stories and fables -- about the humiliations and temptations heaped on the writer in a commercial age. 'The Minor Poet' of the story of that title (published in August 1892) is Arthur Manningham. He sends his anonymous collection of poems on publication to his friend the Great Poet, who promises to give his views but then ignores it. Years later, in Manningham's old age, his friend praises a volume he has just run across by accident, unopened, in his library -- it is the collection. Manningham confronts him with the inscription in the copy and dies. Reissued, it is a great success.[341] Two months later Allen added to this self-pitying tale 'The Pot-boiler', a story which is even more obviously semi-autobiographical. Ernest Grey, an idealistic artist, is obliged to paint insipid pictures for cash; a bachelor friend flatters him, and 'goaded [him] on into letting his wife and child starve for the benefit of humanity'. However, when Grey's child nearly dies of scarlet fever, he recognizes this temptation as 'a peculiarly seductive form of self-indulgence' and returns to his trade. 'Still, it's a tragedy', concludes the narrator.[342] And in the next month (November 1892) the theme of the writer compromising himself through financial necessity pops up again in 'Ivan Greet's Masterpiece'. This story opens with a monologue by a literary lion, the fluent and versatile Charlie Powell, who is revelling in his new job, which pays 'five guineas a column'. He has just had a interview with the editor, who bears a distinct resemblance to Frank Harris:


     'What did he want me to do? Why, contribute third leaders -- you know the kind of thing -- tootles on the penny-trumpet about irrelevant items of non-political news -- the wit and humour of the fair, best domestic style, informed throughout with a wide general culture. An allusion to Aristophanes; a passing hint at Rabelais; what Lucian would have said to his friends on this theme; how the row at the School Board would have affected Sam Johnson.

     'But you must remember, Mr Powell', says Morrison, with an unctuous smile, 'the greater part of our readers are -- well, not to put it too fine -- country squires and conservative Dissenters. Your articles mustn't hurt their feelings or prejudices. Go warily, warily! You must stick to the general policy of the paper, and be tenderly respectful to John Wesley's memory'. 

     'Sir', said I, smacking his hand, 'for five guineas a column I'd be tenderly respectful to King Ahab himself, if you cared to insist upon it. You may count on my writing whatever rubbish you desire for the nursery-mind'.


Rubbish for the nursery mind! This degree of cynicism is too much for the idealistic Ivan Greet. What a shame it is, he says, 'because it'll take him still further away than ever from his work in life, which you and I know is science and philosophy', though he concedes that he himself is wasting his time on journalism too. He is very sorry to see the talented Charlie Powell going down the same path, and Charlie, suddenly sobered, agrees:

'Ivan's right', he said slowly, nodding his head once or twice. 'He's right, as usual. We're all of us wasting on weekly middles the talents God gave us for a higher purpose. We know it, every man Jack of us. But Heaven help us, I say, Ivan: for how can we help ourselves? We live by bread. We must eat bread first, or how can we write epics or philosophies afterwards? This age demands of us the sacrifice of our individualities. It will be better some day, perhaps, when Bellamy and William Morris have remodelled the world: life will be simpler and bare living easier. For the present I resign myself to inevitable fate. I'll write middles for Morrison, and eat and drink; and I'll wait for my philosophy till I'm rich and bald'.[343]

The end of the story, though, seems to imply that that happy day may never arrive. Ivan leaves for a simple life in Jamaica, where he labours over an epic poem before dying of fever. His illiterate mistress devotes her life to earning the money to see it in print, but it is accidentally burnt long before she reaches her goal. The cynical reader may well think that Ivan should have arrived at some earlier accommodation with Philistia and the 'nursery mind'. That is what Allen did, after all, but it is hardly the moral he expects us to take away from his story.


Allen harped on the same theme the following April, in 'The Artist and the Penny-a-liner', a dialogue between these two contrasting literary types. Allen identifies himself with the hack: 'I have things I long to say that I see no chance of saying. Not art like yours, I admit, but rugged truths for humanity. It kills me to coop them up for ever in my own bursting bosom. But I shall have to do it. And I shall go on earning my living all the same by what seems to you a disgraceful prostitution. For the choice is merely between that and starvation'.[344] That stark choice is offered again in the last of this series of fables. 'How to Succeed in Literature', was published five months later in September 1893. It is the cautionary tale of novelist Montague Watts. Watts, a sick man with a 'cavity' in his lung, is 'condemned to work like a galley-slave for most hours of every day at a thankless profession, and to receive in the end about half the reward that falls to the lot of an obscure country solicitor'. He has solved the 'mystery' of fiction, which is 'how a man with intelligence enough to make a story seem alive shall bring himself down to the average level of sentiment and feeling in the mass of people who care to read it'. But then, in an evil hour, friends tempt him: 'trust to your own genius', they tell him, and write a book from the heart. He falls for this, and writes a novel telling many truths, though 'respect for the court made him also conceal and gloss over a great many'. It fails dismally and editors refuse to take his work any longer, because the public now 'are well aware that you hold Opinions'. Watts, his wife and child begin quietly to starve. After failing to get a minor government post, he blows his brains out on the steps of 10 Downing Street. His wife is awarded a Civil List pension. Watts has made literature 'pay' at last.[345]


The Athenaeum had been biding its time after publishing 'The Worm Turns' letter. It sprang in March 1894, the final straw surely being the publication that month of Allen's most inflammatory and most-discussed of all his articles, 'The New Hedonism', which also appeared in Frank Harris's Fortnightly. In it, and in public lectures which he gave based on it, Allen inveighs in the most forthright tones he ever adopted against asceticism. He scorns the 'most money-grubbing among us' for whom 'love is a thing to be got over once for all in early life, and relegated thenceforth to the back parlour of existence in the most business-like way, so that the mind may be free for the serious affairs of alternating psalm-singing and retail trading'; and he follows this with a good deal more about the primary demands of self-development, including sexual liberation from puritanism, in the same acerbic vein. Allen probably took his title phrase from Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, where it appears twice as part of the Pateresque doctrine which Lord Henry instils into the willing ear of his victim: 'Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing. . . . A new Hedonism -- that is what our century wants'. Despite this, the article is more of a reaction against the last phase of British Hellenism, as that movement declined into the Decadence of the mid-90s, than an expression of it. Allen allows himself a passing mention of the Greeks' lack of shame about sex, but he devotes many more pages to biology: to proving that the New Hedonism is licensed by our new understanding of the evolutionary significance of sexual reproduction and sexual selection.


'The New Hedonism' caused quite a stir and was soon reprinted separately as a booklet. It had its supporters, though some of them wanted to know what lay behind its euphonious but rather vague phrasing. How exactly was, say, a well-disposed shop-keeper going to start living out the antique Greek morality of 'innocent love, innocent pleasure' which the article promoted?[346] Should he begin with naked gymnastics in his back yard?


'The New Hedonism' was, naturally, roundly condemned in all the expected quarters. There was quite enough in it to feed the wrath of the Athenaeum's reviewer of Allen's collection of poems, The Lower Slopes. Referring darkly to Allen's oft-repeated inability to get published 'a certain manuscript novel', the reviewer recommended, in effect, that he should put up or shut up:

There is probably no reason whatever for Mr Allen to suppose that what he writes and does not publish is so much more naughty than what other people write and do publish. In the present condition of public taste it is possible for a man to publish in England, if not quite everything which it might be profitable for him to write, at all events very nearly everything; and Mr Allen has given us no reason to suppose that he is capable of writing a new masterpiece of narrative like the memoirs of Casanova. . . . He appears simply to be hovering feverishly round what is called forbidden fruit, for the sake of the phrase, but which is, after all, quite within easy, comfortable after-dinner reach of the average man. The relations of the sexes, on which Mr Allen conceives that he has something perilously new to say, have been the theme of literature since the beginning, and Mr Allen, with his tremors and his timidities and his juvenile consciousness of the delights of naughtiness, is merely bringing a somewhat misty vision to bear on the most hackneyed of all subjects.[347]

However offensive the language here, the reviewer had struck shrewdly at Allen's Achilles' heel, his much-cherished ability to spot and exploit new trends before anyone else. This time he was had fallen in danger of missing the boat. It is easy to forget just how quickly the limits of toleration in literature were being extended in the first half of the nineties. As early as 1883 Olive Schreiner, in The Story of an African Farm, had published an attack on marriage quite as vigorous as anything Allen had to say. During the years when Allen was working on and trying to publish The Woman Who Did, 'Lucas Malet's' The Wages of Sin (1891) had appeared, and the journalist H.D. Traill, who liked to think he had his finger on the pulse of opinion, took it as conclusive evidence that Mrs. Grundy had now abdicated her throne. As though taking him at his word, novelists pushed even harder at the limits. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, if it had had to be dismembered as a serial in the Graphic, escaped too much censure when it was reassembled as a novel in 1892. The negative reviews, though memorably and insultingly phrased in a few cases, were hardly representative of most readers' opinion of this masterpiece. It was followed by 'Sarah Grand's' The Heavenly Twins (1893); 'George Egerton's' Keynotes and Discords (1893, 1894); 'Iota's' A Yellow Aster (1894); and Mona Caird's The Daughters of Danaus (1894). Very few of the reviewers of Moore's painfully grey Esther Waters (1894) struck a sour note. Meredith's Lord Ormont and His Aminta (1894) was criticized rather severely but not on moral grounds, even though its subject is adultery sympathetically treated. Zola himself, despite the Vizetelly prosecution, showed up in London in 1893 and was treated as a celebrity. Ibsen's three astonishing plays were seen in unlicensed London productions. Everyone concerned had survived these experiences without feeling the policeman's hand on their collars. Some had made money too, even if they had had to absorb a lot of abuse. Hardy's Jude appeared uncut late in 1895 and certainly touched the very edge of toleration. There was more severe condemnation, some of it very nasty, and its effect on Hardy himself is notorious; but neither Hardy nor his publisher incurred the displeasure of the law.


We see, then, that Allen's oft-repeated claim that 'free thought is gagged in England' was starting to sound hollow. By the end of 1894, with so much having been promised, every month that passed with Allen giving 'his thoughts no speech' (as The Silver Domino had jeered) increased the risk that his much-heralded, 'heaven-sent' novel would be badly up-staged. It is easy to understand why, as the year advanced and publication was at last agreed for February 1895, Allen admitted to being in a 'hot and excited' state. An odd little self-pitying parable which wrote in mid-year, 'Poor Little Soul', pictures one of the unborn begging to be let off being given the gifts of 'originality, brilliancy, genius' on the grounds that during life it will only cause misery. He asks instead for 'mediocrity, obscurity, silence . . . a narrow heart, a narrow brain, a narrow outlook'.[348] This mood alternated with one of reckless defiance. He really believed that this time he had a product which would make or break him. He had ground corn at the Philistines' mill for long enough. Now he had broken his shackles and braced himself between the pillars of the temple of Respectability. Was it all to end in a grand Samson-smash? 'If it fails to boom, I go under for ever', he wrote dramatically to Clodd. 'It is a serious crisis for me, and only a boom will pull me through'.[349] The language here leaves it an open question whether Allen was speaking of his financial, or his psychological, stability. Perhaps it was both.


But, at least in the short term, he need not have worried. The immediate impact and sales were tremendous. In the first weeks of that fiercely cold winter, herald of one of the most extraordinary years in the history of modern British literature, The Woman Who Did was flying out of the bookshops at the rate of 500 copies a day.




The Woman Who Did



Whatever one's opinion of the merits of The Woman Who Did, one thing is indisputable: its appearance was a public relations and marketing triumph. Two very sharp-witted men, the author and his publisher, collaborated over bringing it to market with a great flourish, and the results were all they hoped for.


Since the friend in the trade to whom he had shown the manuscript had implored him not to publish, Allen's most difficult task was to find someone else who would take the risk. It. As so often happens there was a man for the moment: John Lane. He sent Lane the manuscript in the autumn of 1893, and the readers' reports which Lane secured before the year was out persuaded him to publish -- eventually.


With his usual acumen Grant Allen had selected his new publisher wisely, though at first sight one might wonder about that. John Lane and Elkin Mathews (later the firm of The Bodley Head) had been in business originally since 1889, specializing in up-market editions of advanced literature. Lane himself, six years younger than Allen, a burly figure with a heavy walrus moustache, had a somewhat equivocal reputation (he was called 'Petticoat Lane' behind his back), and there was a slight whiff of sharp practice about him. The firm's reputation was about to be made, however, with its Keynotes series of novels, of which the first ('George Egerton's' Keynotes) appeared at the end of 1893. The was at about the time when the readers' reports on The Woman Who Did came into the office.


The Keynotes were regarded as dubious products in some quarters, even as physical objects. Though they were produced and sold cheaply enough, they were got up in the best Aesthetic style, some with cover designs by Aubrey Beardsley. Almost all the Keynotes authors were near the beginning of their careers, and a good proportion had various religious, feminist and stylistic axes to grind: Ella D'Arcy, 'George Egerton', 'Victoria Crosse', M. P. Shiel, Arthur Machen. If there was a Keynotes profile, Grant Allen, a grey-beard novelist of forty-five with no pretensions to making fictional experiments, hardly matched it at any point. But all these negatives were outweighed by one fact. John Lane had specialized from the start in serious works. As Peter McDonald puts it, anything coming out of the Bodley Head was 'coded bibliographically as "Art"', and any author Lane took on was marked thereby as a purist who could be implicitly assumed to be following a particular level of writerly conduct. Lane, it was known, did not publish mere 'entertainers'.[350] And that was exactly the spin which Allen, author of numerous entertainers, needed to have put on his reputation at this point in his career.


Two of Lane's readers for The Woman Who Did were Richard Le Gallienne and George Moore. (Fortunately, Lane was not yet employing John Buchan in this service, for the young Buchan, later to become the manly adventure novelist, was an exigent reader who took a dim view of sex novels.) Le Gallienne, Lane's trusted reader, a young poet and a great admirer and good friend and neighbour of Allen's, was naturally very positive. He thought the book would rivet its readership and would, in due course, make a good play. George Moore, who was then working on his masterpiece of documentary realism, Esther Waters, was positive too, albeit in a much more muted fashion. 'There is absolutely no reason -- no moral reason -- why you should not publish it', he told Lane. 'It merely deals with the conscientious scruples of a woman regarding marriage, and England being a free country we are free to consider marriage as an evil or as a blessing. . . . The book is as superficial in thought as it is in style. At the same time it cannot be denied that there is a certain amount of "go" in the book and it was read with some interest. It carried one on like a newspaper article. As its superficialities in thought and style would not strike the ordinary reader I am inclined to think that it would be a success'. Having delivered himself of this opinion, Moore was anxious to get paid for it. 'You proposed to give me L2 for my opinion of this book. I have given it now send me the L2. Short accounts make long friends'.[351] He knew Lane's habits of old.


Nevertheless, after receiving these reports, Lane allowed the whole of the next year to pass before publishing The Woman Who Did as the eighth Keynotes volume in February 1895. Almost certainly this was because his partner, the more cautious Elkin Mathews, still objected to it. Perhaps at Mathews' urging, Lane solicited several more responses to the manuscript, including one from the austere Catholic poet and essayist Alice Meynell. Her response is lost, but it was couched in terms that made Allen think she would only be satisfied 'if Herminia got converted in the nick of time by Cardinal Manning, and spent the rest of her days in reconciling the Dean to the church of our fathers'.


All this took time, and Allen was badgering Lane for a decision at the end of 1893 and into the new year. But Lane had a good deal on his plate over those winter months. He was working hard on plans for the new quarterly, the Yellow Book; his partnership with Mathews was foundering, and he was having problems with Oscar Wilde's novel about Shakespeare's sonnets. The partnership was dissolved in September 1894, and Lane probably decided to take the plunge after that, in time for the post-Christmas season. At first Allen tried to sound not too anxious. 'When are you going to let me know about The Woman Who Did?' he asked. 'I am alarmed at leaving her so long away from home among complete strangers'. When that failed, he asked more insistently for a decision. In any case, he told Lane, he had no intention of moderating the text. Indeed, he went so far as to arrange for his nephew to call in and get the manuscript back. Lane calmed him down by producing a contract at long last. The terms were not lavish. He offered a royalty of ninepence on every copy sold, with L100 in advance on the day of publication, and one half of all sums received from the American sales. As was usual then the agreement was for five years and therefore expired just a month before Allen's death, whereupon his widow inherited the copyright, thereafter taking the property away from Lane, to his fury. Having extracted the contract Allen buckled down to making some small stylistic changes and to supply some more credible touches to the characters' psychology.[352]


During the long delay, however, the partners did bring out Allen's only collection of verse, The Lower Slopes, at the start of 1894. This stereotypical slim volume was got up in an ingenious art nouveau binding design by Illingworth Kay and was proudly announced to be a limited edition of 600 copies. That kind of engineered 'rarity' was one of Lane's marketing ploys. In fact, in this case he generated an even rarer rarity by surreptitiously releasing a few copies with a variant title page, one of which he offered to Allen, who declined it. Only one copy is known to have survived.[353] The pompous sub-title to the collection, Reminiscences of Excursions round the Base of Helicon, Undertaken for the Most Part in Early Manhood is a typical piece of mock self-disparagement. When exactly the poems were written is unknown. Seven of the poems had been printed before, at various dates between 1869 and 1882, but there is nothing in the technique or subjects by which to date the rest. Efficient and well-turned, like everything Allen wrote, some are ballades on topics of the day in the manner perfected by Andrew Lang; others are on philosophical issues confronted in various moods from the comic to the solemnly portentous; yet others are rousing pieces of political and social denunciation. When they were written would be unimportant, were it not for a group of five poems which from evidence both internal and external seems to have some bearing on the circumstances of Allen's marriage to Caroline Bootheway. It was not accidental that Allen put them into print in The Lower Slopes volume at that time. He certainly intended them to prefigure and amplify the purpose of the forthcoming The Woman Who Did, as we shall see.


The pre-publication publicity campaign was handled with great skill. Allen himself sent an advance proof copy to W.T. Stead, then at the height of his influence. Despite their previous jousting Stead did Allen proud on this occasion, making it the 'Book of the Month' in his Review of Reviews. He was critical enough of the novel's message, as he thought that monogamy, far from wasting away, would become more and more rigorous as men and women mingled in the workplace, engaging daily in 'intercourse other than the ultimate'. Stead spoke from rueful personal experience here; he avoided conventional moralizing and he certainly took Allen seriously. 'Here we have', he said, 'the full-orbed thought, the ripest fruit of the widest observation of men and things, of one of the ablest, if the not quite the ablest of the working journeymen of the journalism of letters and science of our day'.[354]  For a full thirteen pages of extracts and commentary, interspersed with photographs of Allen's fine house at Hindhead and even of a scenic view of Perugia, he whetted the public appetite as only he knew how. The fact that this issue of the Review, let alone the novel itself, was refused by the Irish booksellers drove sales even higher, with Lane trumpeting the fact that eighteen or more editions were required in the first year alone. (These were impressions, reprints in fact, textually identical to the first edition, the dramatic number being produced by making the print run of each small: another Lane ploy.) By good fortune, its publication was beautifully positioned. Several of the preceding Keynotes had sold well, and Lane's other venture, the quarterly Yellow Book, was now providing a regular dose of avant-garde sensation. Oscar Wilde was a Lane author at his zenith; and his downfall, which did cause Lane to pull in his horns somewhat, luckily occurred some months after The Woman was safely in print and selling hugely -- about 25,000 copies in the first few months in Britain alone.


Despite his fears that the book might fail or that he might even suffer a criminal prosecution, Allen did very well indeed out of The Woman Who Did. What with Lane's marketing and Stead's advertising, not to mention his own wonderfully salacious title which instantly became a catchphrase which was used for years afterwards with a knowing smirk, it could hardly fail.[355]  It made him a lot of money -- at least L1000 to start with -- and made John Lane a good deal more, even though when he discovered what a success he had on hand he felt obliged to increase Allen's ninepence royalty to a quarter of the cover price, or 10d. Naturally it was banned in Ireland, but translations soon appeared in Yiddish, Swedish, German and (partly) in French. In America Roberts, Lane's co-publisher, sold another 10,000 copies in the first year. Numerous readers -- mostly young women -- wrote Allen fan letters, telling him how Herminia had given voice to their deepest thoughts ('except on l'union libre', one noted cautiously). 'You have made one or two remarks that I myself have made in the same words during the last month or so. One is absolutely identical. You do not know me nor I, you -- then why this mental sympathy or likeness?' She hoped to meet the author soon to explore this affinity.[356]


Quite fortuitously, the novel secured even more publicity during a brief but sensational court case later in 1895. A young woman, Edith Lanchester, the daughter of an architect and a women's rights activist, publicly announced her intention to live with her lover as an act of social defiance. Both her lover and her socialist friends tried to talk her out of it with the usual arguments about the weakness of the unmarried woman's position in law. She persisted, however, on the grounds that marriage would make her a chattel. The day before her new life was to start, her relatives and a compliant doctor seized her at her lodgings and dragged her off to a private asylum where she was certified. There was an immediate outcry and she was released after four days into suburban domesticity with her partner, but was never reconciled with her family. The resemblances between Edith Lanchester and Herminia Barton were quite accidental -- Lanchester said she had not read the novel and had formed her views independently -- but for Lane the affair was pure gold. Curiously, Allen had little sympathy with Lanchester's behaviour, as Clodd found when he gossiped with his friend about the matter some months later.[357]


The fame, or notoriety, of The Woman Who Did was by no means restricted to the London literary coteries. Allen became for a while the patron saint of every advanced cause in the country. Chris Healy, a young, bohemian Irish journalist based in Liverpool, belonged to a rumbustious club called The Drum at the time, which he himself calls 'the meeting-place of the chief cranks' of the city -- Fabians, anarchists, actresses, Left-leaning business folk, would-be philosophers. He recalled how fully the younger denizens of The Drum, especially the women, welcomed Allen and his novel:

everyone agreed that Grant Allen should be accepted as the prose laureate of the dumb giant Democracy, because he detested Respectability, Mrs. Grundy, and the Nonconformist conscience. For Mrs Grundy was squirming in those days over the pages of 'The Woman Who Did', and whenever Grant Allen's name was mentioned among us he had the enthusiastic applause of everyone without a beard.[358]

At the other end of the spectrum of propriety, the demure Flora Thompson, later famous as the author of the memoir Lark Rise to Candleford (1939-45), was the postmistress in Grayshott at the time, and she recalled how the villagers discreetly passed a copy of The Woman Who Did from hand to hand until every adult in the place had read it. They found it hard to credit that the quiet middle-aged gentleman with the field-glasses had written this shocking story and some were quite disappointed that the fuss eventually died away leaving the author unscathed.[359]



The Woman Who Did employs an over-heated style but it is only the length of a novella and the plot is simple enough. High-thinking, beautiful, Girton-educated Herminia Barton, aged twenty-two, earns her living as a teacher and lives alone in a Chelsea cottage. She despises the hypocrisies surrounding marriage, and has vowed never to marry. She has no objection, however, to being married, to living in what is a marital union in all but name. Indeed, she becomes a 'wife' within the first six chapters. What she refuses is the act of getting married, with all the social endorsement it implies. Her objections to the marriage ceremony are a mixture of the practical and the ideological. As a matter of self-interest, she will not enter a contract which ties her to a man for life, one which might well force her to live with a partner a single day more than she wants to; especially in the circumstance where 'I discover some other more fit to be loved by me'. Then again, she knows what 'vile slavery' marriage has sprung from, and on what 'unseen horrors for my sister women it is reared and buttressed' (43); that is to say, on the foundations of prostitution.[360] Other women, like Mary Shelley and George Eliot, lived in free unions, but that was only because they had no choice. She will, rather, model herself on Shelley himself, who switched women when his heart told him to. She will act from the start out of pure principle, and will welcome social martyrdom because Shelley suffered it. For someone has to take a stand; someone 'who would be free must himself strike the blow'(42).


Herminia is no hoyden, but she suffers from no shrinking modesty either. She wears 'the face of a free woman', and how a free woman should react to an avowal of love from the man of her choice is made clear:

'Not will be yours', Herminia corrected in that silvery voice of hers. Am yours already, Alan. I somehow feel as if I had always been yours. I am yours at this moment. You may do what you would with me' (41).

In receipt of this generous offer is Alan Merrick, barrister and son of a famous physician. Merrick is not without his flaws. Despite almost sharing a name with his creator, he is not one of those who are 'born married', to use the phrase which Allen applied to himself and which Punch would soon be having some fun with. He has not acted, according to the narrator, as a really honourable man should act in his youth as soon as he feels the impulse to find a partner. Such a man

mates like the birds, because he can't help himself. A woman crosses his path who is to him indispensable, a part of himself, the needful complement of his own personality; and without heed or hesitation, he takes her to himself, lawfully or unlawfully, because he has need of her. That is how nature has made us; that is how every man worthy of the name of man has always felt, and thought, and acted. The worst of all possible and conceivable checks upon population is the vile one which Malthus glossed over as 'the prudential', and which consists in substituting prostitution for marriage through the spring-tide of one's manhood (37).

Alan Merrick has not done this: he has not mated like the birds, in the way that evolution has endorsed. He is judged to be not quite 'one of the picked souls of humanity', because he is thirty and has been 'prudential'. We know what that means: Alan Merrick has followed Malthus, rather than Nature; he has allowed women of the lower orders to service his needs while making his mark. Still, he knows how to behave like a gentleman, and offers of their persons with no strings attached from well-born attractive young ladies are something he finds disconcerting:


     'Then, dearest', he cried tentatively, 'how soon may we be married?'

     At sound of these unexpected words from such lips as his, a flush of shame and horror overspread Herminia's cheek. 'Never!' she cried firmly, drawing away. 'O Alan, what can you mean by it? Don't tell me, after all I've tried to make you feel and understand, you thought I could possibly consent to marry you?'

     The man gazed at her in surprise. Though he was prepared for much, he was scarcely prepared for such devotion to principle. 'O Herminia', he cried, 'you can't mean it. You can't have thought of what it entails. Surely, surely, you won't carry your ideas of freedom to such an extreme, such a dangerous conclusion?'

     Herminia looked up at him, half-hurt. 'Can't have thought of what it entails!' she repeated. Her dimples deepened. Why, Alan, haven't I had my whole lifetime to think of it? What else have I thought about in any serious way, save this one great question of a woman's duty to herself and her sex and her unborn children? It's been my sole study. How could you fancy I spoke hastily, or without due consideration on such a subject? Would you have me like the blind girls who go unknowing to the altar, as sheep go to the shambles? Could you suspect me of such carelessness? -- such culpable thoughtlessness? -- you, to whom I have spoken of all this so freely?' (41)


The 'flush of shame and horror' is striking, but as with similar effects elsewhere in the novel there is something a little calculated, even a little meretricious, about it. Like some of Wilde's epigrams which rely on inversions ('her hair turned quite gold from grief') it comes over as a little too studied to be natural. Still, it must have caused many a conventional soul to draw a sharp breath.

After a further meeting where he uses every argument he can think of to overcome her principles, Merrick metaphorically shrugs his shoulders and, since the two are in love and otherwise in full accord in their ideas about the world, their union is soon consummated, though they continue to live apart to preserve that first fine careless rapture.


Herminia becomes pregnant almost at once. That is not surprising, since contraception is no part of her plan; indeed, bearing a child is her next step of social defiance. In this respect The Woman does occupy a unique niche in the fictional debate over gender relationships. Illegitimate births are, of course, ten a penny in later Victorian fiction, but these heroines are seduced and abandoned, raped or simply ignorant victims. Olive Schreiner's heroine Lyndall in The Story of an African Farm elects to bear her child alone, but she does not deliberately become pregnant to test her resolve as a social martyr. No other heroine of New Woman fiction does this either, however dramatic the theoretical attitudes she might strike. Allen was probably the first and perhaps the last British novelist to show an educated middle-class woman who, in cold blood, puts herself into the position of bearing a child out of wedlock out of pure principle, with the resolve of using the child as a blunt instrument against bourgeois sensibilities. Says Herminia:

Brave women before me have tried for a while to act on their own responsibility, for the good of their sex; but never of their own free will from the beginning. They have avoided marriage, not because they thought it a shame and a surrender, a treason to their sex, a base yielding to the unjust pretensions of men, but because there existed some obstacle in their way. . . . I choose rather to be free. No fear of your scorn, no dread of your bigotry, no shrinking at your cruelty, shall prevent me from following the thorny path I know to be the right one. . . . Here, of my own free will, I take my stand for the right, and refuse your sanctions! No woman that I know of has ever yet done that. Other women have fallen, as men choose to put it in their odious dialect: no other has voluntarily risen as I propose to do (45-6).

Yet, for someone who has spent years brooding on every detail of the right form of union between men and women, Herminia displays a breathtaking naivety. The problem of the children resulting from this pursuit of nature, for instance, is airily waved aside, along with any suggestion of pre-nuptial agreements. 'Fools always put that question', says the narrator scornfully, 'and think it is a crushing one'. For any thinking person the solution is simple:

They would be half hers, half his; the pleasant burden of their support, the joy of their education, would naturally fall upon both parents equally. But why discuss these matters like the squalid rich, who make their marriages a question of settlements and dowries and business arrangements? They two were friends and lovers; in love, such base doubts could never arise. Not for worlds would she import into their mutual relations any sordid stain of money, any vile tinge of bargaining. They would trust one another; that alone sufficed for them (60).

As Stead commented dryly about this very passage, such crackpot idealism -- usually encountered as one of the weapons from Lothario's arsenal -- was precisely what had doomed 'scores of unfortunate girls to be at this very moment in the lying-in wards of our workhouse infirmaries'.[361] It is hard to credit that Herminia's idealism is not being satirically distanced here, but there is no evidence that it is.


Then there is the problem of her own maintenance. She insists on total economic independence, of course; she will continue her school-teaching and, when driven from her post by the headmistress, she intends to 'fall back upon literature' (60). Clearly she has not read Grant Allen on the perils and pitfalls of freelance authorship.


Once he has got Herminia pregnant, however, the old Adam in Alan reasserts itself. Even the redoubtable Herminia quails before the force of biological determinism. She does so with the full support of the narrator. 'It must be always so', we are lectured:

The man must needs retain for years to come the personal hegemony he has usurped over the woman; and the woman who once accepts him as a lover or as husband must give way in the end, even in matters of principle, to his virile self-assertion. She would be less a woman, and he less a man, were any other result possible. Deep down in the very roots of the idea of sex we come on that prime antithesis -- the male, active and aggressive: the female, sedentary, passive, and receptive (63-4).

So from there it is downhill all the way for Herminia, who surrenders all her autonomy with her virginity. She meekly resigns her job at his insistence; she lets Alan decide to take her abroad to avoid gossip; she leaves the decision as to country and city entirely to him; she lets him inscribe the hotel registers with the approved marital formula; she obeys his unspoken signal to allow other hotel guests to think they are married; she disastrously leaves the details of his will, when he falls ill, to his discretion: she bows, in short, to all the usages of Philistia on the grounds of Alan's 'masculine common-sense' and 'greater worldly wisdom'. Naturally, the reader wonders why Herminia did not perceive these deep-rooted male virtues at an earlier stage. It would have saved her a lot of pain.


As they wait for the birth in Perugia, Alan catches typhoid and dies. For the first but not the last time the reader catches sight of the puppeteer's strings. What we want to see -- what we have been implicitly promised we would see -- is how a rational free union might work out in the longer term. In particular, we want to see what happens when either Alan or Herminia feels impelled to take this specific, blunt advice; advice which the authorial voice tells him he, or any man, should be offering openly to the woman he loves:

'Give me what you can of your love and of yourself; but never strive for my sake to deny any love, to strangle any impulse that pants for breath within you. Give me what you can, while you can, without grudging. . . . Be mine as much as you will, as long as you will, to such extent as you will; but before all things be your own; embrace and follow every instinct of pure love that nature, our mother, has imparted within you' (112).

Not strangling impulses that pant for breath inside one; following every instinct of pure love wherever it leads: these homilies certainly make it sound as though we are moving into promising fictional territory, and we know Allen himself adhered to them -- in theory. We want very much to see what free love might mean in the long term, in practice, in Victorian England. But that promise is withdrawn by a contrived blow of fate as soon as offered.


Called to his son's deathbed by telegram, Dr Merrick arrives at Perugia just too late to see his son alive, but not too late to taste the steel of Herminia's resolve:


     'But he married you before he died?' the father cried, in a tone of profound emotion. 'He did justice to his child? -- he repaired his evil?' 

     'He did not', Herminia answered, in a scarcely audible voice. 'He was staunch to the end to his lifelong principles'. 

     'Why not?' the father asked, staggering. 'Did he see my telegram?' 

     'Yes', Herminia answered, numb with grief, yet too proud to prevaricate. 'But I advised him to stand firm; and he abode by my decision'. 

     The father waved her aside with his hands imperiously. 

     'Then I have done with you', he exclaimed. I am sorry to seem harsh to you at such a moment; but it is your own doing. You leave me no choice. You have no right any longer in my son's apartments' (87).


The psychology here is frankly incredible. Though we have seen something of Dr Merrick's implacability when his son acquaints him with his new liaison (he throws Alan out of the house) we have not seen a monster capable of putting out into the inhospitable streets of Perugia the woman who is carrying his grandchild, while his son lies dead in another room. Fortunately the rent-book is in Herminia's name. But that is the last stroke of good fortune she enjoys. The lack of a will allows his family to cheat her, and she is abandoned by her own. She bears her child among strangers, and christens her Dolores. Virtually penniless, she returns to England. Now Herminia seems much less interested than formerly in martyrdom. In order to put a London roof over her head she immediately sacrifices all her most cherished principles, and without too many qualms. She who disdained to pretend to be a wife does not scruple to pretend to be a widow. She has to work, of course, to support herself and her child. Fortunately she turns out to be a competent hack writer, and her 'Antigone for the Use of Ladies' Schools still holds its own at Girton and Somerville', we are told cuttingly. Editors like to help her, for editors are, we hear, people 'who stand at the head of the one English profession which more than all others has escaped the leprous taint of that national moral blight that calls itself "respectability"' (94). As we know, such liberality was not normally part of Allen's perception of editors. But even there, among those generous-minded journalists, she is forced to compromise: 'even the Bohemians refused to let their children ask after Miss Barton's baby' (95).


Thus she endures a life of semi-poverty into middle age, sacrificing everything for her daughter, Dolly, who is her last hope for carrying the torch onward. She turns down another suitor, a Fabian socialist, because he will not meet her requirement 'to live with me on the terms on which I lived with Dolly's father', (110) and he, mindful of his reputation, marries someone else. Apart from this rather small gesture, Herminia takes no further interest in marital reform, either in person or in public. Several feminist critics of the day, like the redoubtable Millicent Fawcett who probably never backed away from a difficulty in her life, demanded to know why the widowed Herminia is allowed to sink into such a slough of useless self-pity. What prevents her from joining some reform societies, involving herself in the causes of the day so dear to her heart, and pushing harder against life?


The worst aspect of Herminia's capitulation to the code of middle-class morality is that, for no better reason than to preserve the social niceties she once scorned, she lies by omission to Dolly, by concealing the facts of her birth. We recall that the destiny reserved for Dolly in utero was that she was to be offered to the world as 'the first free-born woman ever begotten in England'; a woman 'predestined to regenerate humanity'. Coupled with all that we have been asked to believe about Herminia's iron probity and her conviction that she is destined for martyrdom, this concealment is the most implausible element in the whole plot. Dolly, a conventional soul, not too surprisingly hates her mother for it when she discovers the truth, for she rightly sees it as damaging her matrimonial prospects. By the end, Herminia Barton has proven such a nuisance all round that removing herself from the scene with prussic acid gives the unfortunate, and presumably undesired, impression that she is doing everyone a favour.



The Woman Who Did was widely reviewed in Britain and America. Richard Le Gallienne said admiringly that 'here is a book that goes forth to certain death -- gallantly, with its eyes open. There can be little doubt as to the nature of its reception. Every man's hand will be against it'.[362] But that was not true, at least at first. The American reviews were, to be sure, almost uniformly hostile. Harold Frederic in the New York Times thought it 'lifeless to the point of tedium, and its characters, sinners and virtuous snobs alike, are all impossible puppets, who never convince, much less amuse, but simply bore one'.[363]  But some of the early British reviews were favourable and respectful. The Westminster Review called it 'one of the most remarkable novels of the nineteenth century' and 'the Evangel of Free Love'.[364] The Speaker thought it a remarkable and powerful story. The Pall Mall Gazette judged Allen's sincerity to be undeniable, and the sentiments put into the mouth of Herminia to be very noble and eloquent. It thought less of the style, however, judging that Allen's pot-boilers had left 'a thousand grooves and turns in his mind'. Allen struggles hard, 'he would have it Jekyll, his nobler part', but 'alas! after a convulsive struggle, old habit triumphs, and we are given the too familiar Hyde once more'.[365] Some reviewers were handicapped by not being allowed by their editors even to explain what the novel was about. William Archer, the liberally-inclined drama critic, wrote a thoughtful review for the Daily Chronicle, but discovered too late that even the phrase 'free love' was on the newspaper's index expurgatorius, so the printed form of his review was badly mangled.[366]


Others, to be sure, exercised their wit on it, though usually in ways which surely intrigued rather than repelled many readers. Punch produced a cruelly funny parody, written by someone who had read the novel carefully and was familiar with Allen's broader views, and with his botanical writing as well. 'Perugino Allan' and 'Pseudonymia Bampton' meet outdoors for an earnest discussion of marriage, seating themselves on 'a carpet of sheep-sorrel, its orbicular perianth being slightly depressed by their healthy weight'. Allen's proposal for early mating as a remedy for vice comes in for a particularly comical assault:

Perugino sank back into the spongy turf, leaning his cheek against an upright spike of summer furze, of the genus Ulex Europaeus. 'Some men', he began, 'ignoble souls, "look about" them before they marry. Such are calculating egoists. Pure souls, of finer paste, are, so to speak, born married. Others hesitate and delay. The difficulties of teething, a paltry desire to be weaned before the wedding, reluctance to being married in long clothes, the terrors of croup during the honeymoon -- these and other excuses, thinly veiling hidden depths of depravity, are employed to defer the divine moment. I have known men to reach the preposterously ripe age of one-and-twenty unwedded, protesting that they dare not risk their prospects at the Bar. . . . Of course, it is not given to all to be born married. But this natal defect one can easily remedy. I knew a young fellow who did. The indispensable complement crossed his path before it was too late. He was still at his preparatory school; he married the matron. True, there was disparity of age, but it was a step in the right direction; though the head-master, a man of common conventional ideas, gave the boy a severe rebuke'.[367]

The 'terrors of croup during the honeymoon' is a nice touch, but a Punch parody was, as always, too good-natured to put many readers off.

Among the more thoughtful reviewers with more space at their disposal to work out their impressions, the main critical response was puzzlement -- even blank incomprehension. Almost all found the peculiar ambiguity of its moral perplexing, especially when coupled with the humourless style. If it had not been for the earnest tone, no doubt more critics might have wondered, as some did anyway, whether Allen's gift for raillery had got the better of him. A few did speculate that The Woman had been written, not so much to denounce marriage, but to reinstate it with a muted 'two cheers'. They pointed to the dedication ('To My Dear Wife') as a sly authorial judgment on Herminia's tirades. Indeed, just after Allen's death, when he was no longer able to protest, it was quite seriously proposed that the novel had been an elaborate spoof; that it was a mock-up of a 'New Woman' novel, a satire whose real purpose was to show the absurdity of the marriage reformers and the fate that lay in store for anyone who put their doctrines into practice. The writer expected it to silence the marriage abolitionists for a century.[368]


This is nonsense, of course. But certainly it is hard to imagine any novel less likely to encourage a woman to seek the social martyr's crown by emulating the behaviour of its heroine. Stead had his tongue only half in his cheek when he spoke of the novel as 'a Boomerang of a book' which, in the interests of public morality, ought to be pressed into the hands of every young lady to keep her on the path of virtue.[369] Another reviewer, unable to fathom why the plot seems to promote so tellingly the advantages of the institution which the narrative condemns, offers an over-subtle psychological explanation. 'Mr Grant Allen is a man of imagination, and imagination, as Mr. Ruskin has often contended, is the one faculty which never errs. In this case, as in many others, imagination which was engaged as a servant has made itself master, with the consequence that, instead of doing as it was bid and buttressing a bad theory of life, it has brought up its battering-rams and knocked it to pieces'.[370] In other words, don't trust the teller; trust the tale. And the tale's lesson was a comfortably conservative one. Certainly it is noticeable that, while The Woman Who Did received a drubbing from every critical quarter, it was let off relatively lightly by the conservatives. They reserved their sharpest pens instead for Hardy's much more subversive Jude the Obscure, which appeared as a volume that November. Certainly they were aggrieved that Herminia Barton is allowed too many years to spread her poisonous doctrines before her inevitable and well-merited fate finally overtakes her; but at least she does die in the end with her theories exposed and her idealism shattered. Allen's most severe conservative critic, Margaret Oliphant, complained that the novel and others like it had meant that 'the conversation of the drawing-room is already most sensibly affected. Things are discussed freely and easily which it would a few years ago have been a shame to mention or to think of'.[371] She conceded, however, that although Allen's pure 'hill-top' was really nothing better than a moral dung-hill, it was, compared to Hardy's product, a sanitary and an odourless dung-hill.


Severer condemnation came from the more liberal, or more deliberately feminist, wing, who felt that Allen stood revealed as a turncoat or closet reactionary. Feminists, and male supporters of feminists, particularly objected to the fate of the heroine because it seemed to confirm that the wages of sin is death just as severely as any Sunday-school tract. Such was the reaction of Millicent Fawcett, that formidably clever and witty pioneer of women's education, though no radical. 'Mr Grant Allen has never given help by tongue or pen to any practical effort to improve the legal or social status of women. He is not a friend but an enemy. . . .The whole of the social revolution sketched in The Woman Who Did would amount in its practical result to libertinage, not to liberty; it would mean the immeasurable degradation of women; it would reduce to anarchy the most momentous of human relationships'.[372]


There was a personal animus at work here. Mrs. Fawcett's daughter Philippa had been a student at Newnham College and had earned the supreme accolade of being classed above the senior wrangler in the mathematics tripos in 1890. Naturally her mother cast a frosty eye over Herminia's airy dismissal of Girton as a useless place that had inhibited her personal growth. ('I wouldn't stop at Girton', she says, 'partly because I felt the life was one-sided -- our girls thought and talked of nothing else on earth except Herodotus, trigonometry, and the higher culture'.) Herminia's supercilious remark that her own father, who had been a senior wrangler in his day, might therefore be presumed to have 'a certain moderate development of the logical faculties' (30) must have infuriated Fawcett even further, and she took a keen revenge.


Another notable review came from the pen of the young H.G. Wells, who tackled it for the first piece he ever contributed to the Saturday Review. Determined to prove himself in that abusive forum, he did not spare the book, writing his review in what he defined himself as a 'window smashing midnight-concertina-playing' style, even though he agreed with some at least of Allen's sentiments.[373]Figuratively dusting off his hands afterwards, he reported to a friend that had 'made Grant Allen howl in the Saturday over his blessed old Woman Who Did''.[374] He has great fun with the inconsistencies in the physical description of Herminia and her Aesthetic garb: 'the reader must figure her sackful of lissome opulence and her dimpled, statuesque features for himself -- the picture eludes us', he said. He objected to Allen's proposal to abolish the nuclear family ('that school of all human gentleness', Wells called it, though he changed his mind completely on this later), so that in the millennium 'we are to be all foundlings together, and it will be an inquisitive child who knows its own father'. The novel is 'strenuous without strength, florid without beauty, subtly meant and coarsely done', he concluded, though he too admitted to being puzzled. He could not quite put his finger on what it was that gave the novel a certain power. 'Yet, withal, though it falls so short in execution and in art, there is something about it -- that perfervid Keltic touch perhaps -- that makes it readable. It warms one at times where better work might leave one cold. It may not merit praise, but it merits reading'.[375] That was a common reaction, as it still is today.



As must be clear by this point, it is hard to summarize The Woman Who Did without guying it. Once one has made the obvious points -- that it is Allen's most famous, or infamous, novel; that of all the hundreds productions of his pen, it is the only item which has indubitably survived its first century; that it was a huge bestseller so that even today it is remembered as the most typical, if not the best, of the New Woman fictions -- once these points have been made, one starts to flounder. To apply to it the tools of literary criticism is to invite ridicule. Its characters, dialogue and narrative style all resist the powers of even the most generous critic to reinstate the work. Early admirers like Le Gallienne, who wanted to say for it all that they reasonably could, took the line that it should not be considered to be a novel any more than Rasselas or Paul and Virginia or The Coming Race are to be considered as novels: it is a fable, a morality tale, a pamphlet, a manifesto. But even manifestos must reckon with questions of style and consistency of tone. As the sympathetic Clodd judged it, 'there were passages in the book which furnished another illustration that the conviction of a mission is fatal to the play of humour;[376] or, to put the matter less charitably than Clodd cared to put it, The Woman Who Did does have its humorous side, but little of it, regrettably, is intentional.


If, on the other hand, we put aside questions of literary merit and promote it instead as a historical document, a piece of polemical sociology, fashionable in its day; as a contribution to the 'sex problem' novels that were popular in the 1890s, then we risk the charge of false advertising. Any attempt to speak of it as a proto-feminist novel -- as a member of a group which includes, say, Grand's The Heavenly Twins, or Egerton's Keynotes or Mona Caird's The Daughters of Danaus -- any attempt to associate it with such a group is likely to see an aggressive finger being pointed at uncompromising authorial intrusions such as this:

Every good woman is by nature a mother, and finds best in maternity her social and moral salvation. She shall be saved in child-bearing. Herminia was far removed indeed from that blatant and decadent sect of 'advanced women' who talk as though motherhood were a disgrace and a burden, instead of being, as it is, the full realization of woman's faculties, the natural outlet for woman's wealth of emotion. She knew that to be a mother is the best privilege of her sex, a privilege of which unholy man-made institutions now conspire to deprive half the finest and noblest women in our civilized communities. Widowed as she was, she still pitied the unhappy beings doomed to the cramped life and dwarfed heart of the old maid. . . . (94)

This is the 'odd women' social anxiety surfacing again: too many women never achieve their maternal destinies because selfish men are declining marriage in favour of readily-accessible bought sex. But references to blatant and decadent sects of advanced women and the dwarfed hearts of old maids were not likely to win Allen many plaudits from the quarter which might otherwise have furnished them. Some of the most radical spirits might have applauded Allen's hinted solution (polyandry), but even they were disappointed. Allen does not pursue it, because he lacked either the skill or the nerve to dramatize it.


Yet we have to reckon with the fact that, despite being a mass of contradictions, evasions, psychological absurdities and downright bad writing, The Woman Who Did has, in a way, fulfilled Allen's intention that it should be the acme and the justification of his career. It has not, of course, survived as an effective cry of rage against the hypocrisies and stupid taboos of the time. But it has survived, surely, because of the sense it gives of personal engagement; the quality which Wells caught in mentioning its 'perfervid' tone. Even today it conveys a sense of febrile excitement which is far in excess of the needs of the rather silly plot and skimped motivation. Poor books, we may reflect, can be created with the same passion as great ones. And this is a quality which can best be explored and understood in biographical terms. The Woman Who Did emerged, like all books, from the antecedent experience of the author. For the biographer, the questions naturally arise: Why did Allen write it? And why did he write it when he did? What did he hope it would achieve? Why did he himself think of it as a turning point in his career? And, finally, why was Allen -- a perceptive man -- so utterly bewildered, positively mystified, by the reactions he had from even his most sympathetic readers? There are answers to these questions, and they are biographical answers.



Our starting point must be this: The Woman Who Did was written in a spirit of deadly seriousness. Grant Allen had been preparing to write this book for the whole of his career; for even longer than that, in fact, because its germ, as we shall see, lay in the circumstances of his first marriage. When it was published, one of the sticks critics used to beat it with was that it had been rushed out to meet the market for New Woman fiction. Allen refuted that charge indignantly in a letter to the Saturday Review, and it is certainly false. On the contrary, it had been long meditated and planned carefully over several years to bring some of his profoundest beliefs before the middle-brow public, using the only form that it was capable of assimilating. It was written, he insisted, 'with long and calm deliberation. I spent five years in maturing it, before I ever put pen to paper. I spent several months in writing the first outline. I spent two years in re-reading, polishing, correcting it, till every episode, every sentence, every image, every epithet had been considered and reconsidered eight or nine times over. Good or bad, it is my best possible work. There is not a word in it which I desire to change'.[377]


As we have partly seen already in the previous chapter, this timetable appears to be accurate. The reference in the Athenaeum letter of July 1892 to a highly involving work started 'some months since' takes us back to the early part of that year. After he was advised to drop it for the sake of his reputation -- the second time that had happened, we should remember -- he must have continued to work on it right up to his stay at Perugia in the spring of 1893. It is true that we are left with an inconsistency here: the claim in the prefatory inscription that it was 'written at Perugia Spring, 1893'. But Allen could not have intended this to mean 'conceived and wholly written': he contradicted this inference himself after publication.


The second thing is that, despite the burning sincerity with which it was written, The Woman Who Did has a baffling, indeed paradoxical, relationship with Allen's pugnacious views on gender roles, marriage and eugenics. These views he started to push forward in many articles from the end of the 1880s, once his financial position started to look secure and he felt able to begin his campaign against 'the British matron' and her noxious influence on literary culture. It is illuminating, therefore, to study the emergence and evolution of Allen's views on these sexual questions.

The most succinct statement of them in their most mature form may be found in a private letter to the Reverend Etheridge, the Rector of Haslemere, some eighteen months after The Woman Who Did was published. Etheridge had opposed Allen's nomination as the President of the Haslemere Microscope and Natural History Society on the grounds of his disgraceful opinions. Allen was elected anyway (but only just), and he then took the trouble to try to explain his beliefs to the Rector:

I regard our existing system of family and parental arrangements 'as a whole', comprising these various elements -- marriage, prostitution, seduction, abortion, infanticide, desertion, illegitimacy, divorce, and unnatural crimes. I also regard it as being responsible for much husband-murder, wife-murder, suicide, and misery; as well as for many terrible diseases and premature deaths, besides inducing (through the effects of prostitution) a great deal of hereditary consumption, cancer, and insanity. . . . I have spent many years in a close study of marriage-systems and prostitution-systems, both in East and West; and having arrived at what I think solid conclusions as to the means by which prostitution, with its attendant diseases and evils, might be wholly avoided, and a perfectly pure system introduced, I cannot refrain from making my ideas public. I believe them to be capable of entirely getting rid of that terrible social evil, as well as of abortion, infanticide and all the concomitant horrors.[378]

What, then, was this 'perfectly pure system' which might be introduced to rid society once and for all of its terrible social evils? It had three elements. First, the promotion of youthful mating but easy separation without social odium; second, the strong promotion of maternity, including the State support of mothers, coupled with social disapproval directed at women who do not have 'enough' children; and third and most controversial, a move to eugenically improve society by placing the sexual choice of mates into women's hands and licensing what amounts to the practice of serial polyandry.


Allen never brought these three elements together in one place and naturally his 'system' did not spring into being fully formed. Exactly when he started to form his extraordinary proposals about sexual and marital morality must be conjectural, but there is assuredly very little sign of them in anything he was writing -- in fiction or otherwise -- in the late seventies or right to the end of the eighties. His explanation was that he needed to pander to the values of the market place earlier on, and that may be the answer. However, the matter is confused by the fact that Allen's sexual radicalism was a peculiarly patchy affair right through his life, and it was always underlain by conservative notions formed in his early manhood and which even before the turn of the century were starting to look old-fashioned. His view of the natural male and female roles was conditioned by his understanding of the biology of sexual differentiation as this was generally understood in the first post-Darwinian decades. He clung on to the separate-spheres doctrine even while he was elaborating the most unconventional opinions about other aspects of relations between the sexes. 'All that is distinctively human', he said in 1889, 'is man -- the field, the ship, the mine, the workshop; all that is truly woman is merely reproductive -- the home, the nursery, the schoolroom. There are women, to be sure, who inherit much of male faculty, and some of these prefer to follow male avocations; but in so doing they for the most part unsex themselves'.[379] His ideal wife and mother hardly differs from the angel in the house being promoted by John Ruskin back in 1865 when he was an adolescent. 'The race that lets its women fall in their maternal functions will sink to the nethermost abyss of limbo', Allen pontificated in Ruskinian tones, 'though all its girls rejoice in logarithms, smoke Russian cigarettes, and act Aeschylean tragedies in the most aesthetic and archaic chitons'.[380] Such views, reinforced by his reading of Spencer's Sociology, formed early in Allen's life and he retained them to the end.


At some point, however -- and it is hard to put an exact date on it -- such mid-Victorian pieties started to be shot through with a darker vein of more irregular and less avowable opinions. He hints at this for the first time, rather archly, in January 1889, in a column in the Pall Mall Gazette titled 'A Biologist on the Woman Question'. This casual piece, written in response to the emergent feminism of the '80s then starting to gather momentum, and probably thrown off in half an hour, merely voices for most of its length the same views as summarized already. Women's biological destiny is to be 'told off to bear the chief strain of reproduction, which in the human race is peculiarly long, severe, and exhausting'. No superficial plan of social reform can displace that inescapable reality. A nation which pretends it can be ignored is heading for national degeneration and obliteration. If you educate your women at the expense of their reserve fund of energy needed for maternity, you will find that 'many of your seemingly healthy Girton and Newnham girls break down utterly'. But there is a twist in the last paragraph, which seems, rather peculiarly, to shake itself free of the foregoing sentiments:

If these ideas seem in any way conservative, I trust nobody will ever quote them as my 'views' on the subject. . . . I am not such a fool as to say what I really think about such a subject as the relation of the sexes in this intolerant nineteenth century. If I did, my conclusions would certainly not be conservative; but I am wise enough, happily, to keep those to myself, locked up in the safe recesses of my inner consciousness.[381]

'Not such a fool as to say what I really think'. But what was Allen really thinking, by this stage, about these delicate matters? The world was about to find out. The time of keeping things to himself, locked up in his inner consciousness, was coming to an end. Allen by this time had passed his fortieth year, and had taken to heart Clodd's astute advice to have five thousand pounds in the bank before he started to say things many of his readers would not want to read. He had reached this happy state, or something close to it, and was about to take the plunge into sexual polemics.


His preferred form, at first, was the article-essay. He started with 'Plain Words on the Woman Question' in October 1889 and continued seven months later with 'The Girl of the Future'. The latter piece so alarmed the editor of the Universal Review, Harry Quilter, that he was moved to add a nervous footnote dissociating himself or his magazine from it. There followed a long gap. Then two more articles, 'A Glimpse into Utopia' and 'The New Hedonism', followed in January and March of 1894. Allen published these two while The Woman Who Did was languishing in Lane's office waiting for a final agreement to be struck, and they might be considered semi-promotional pieces. All of them were much excoriated, and much discussed, especially the last. In them, Allen offered opinions about sexual, marital and parental roles which are a truly extraordinary blend of the narrowly orthodox and the wildly radical. They earned him a formidable reputation as a firebrand reformer and atheist. Conan Doyle tells a story about a couple who came to call on the Allens for the first time. As they waited on the doorstep Allen, inside, heard the wife say: 'Remember, John, if he openly blasphemes, I leave the room'.[382]


The first element of Allen's proposal, the encouragement of early mating between young men and women starting at about the age of twenty and without benefit of clergy, was proposed only within the context of freely given and freely accepted love. If that failed, nothing ought to restrain either partner looking elsewhere -- from following, as Allen put it, 'the divine impulse of the moment, which is the voice of Nature within us'.[383] Defying his critics who, not surprisingly, called this liberality by a grosser name, Allen looked them in the eye and insisted it was he, not they, who belonged to the 'social purity' school. (This was the contemporary name given to the brand of feminism which sought to enforce on men the same level of chastity conventionally demanded of women: 'Votes for Women; Chastity for Men', as the slogan had it.) He said so without any conscious sense of paradox, because his aim was to balance out the degree of sexual freedom enjoyed by both sexes, and the 'social purity' he had in mind was the abolition of prostitution, which he thought would follow hard upon it.


There is no mystery about the origin of this line of argument. Allen took it over wholesale, right down to some of the phrasing, from Shelley; specifically, from the short essay on free love attached to Queen Mab, published in 1813 when Shelley was twenty, and dedicated, as Allen dedicated his own book, to his wife. (Harriet Westbrook Shelley, however, was abandoned soon afterwards as Shelley followed his own 'divine impulse of the moment'.) Pre-marital chastity for either sex is, says Shelley, 'a monkish and evangelical superstition'. The young should pair off, but only as long as love lasts: 'any law which should bind them to cohabitation for one moment after the decay of their affection, would be a most intolerable tyranny'. The marriage ceremony itself is the best example of that tyranny in action.


Shelley does not presume to know what the exact results of abolishing marriage will be, but they will be 'natural and right' because 'choice and change' will then be unrestrained, and that must be good. For one thing, it will abolish prostitution. Prostitution may well be called the 'legitimate offspring' of marriage, because it services the needs of young men who are 'excluded by the fanatical idea of chastity from the society of modest and accomplished women'. If these ladies were available, it would vanish. Like Allen, Shelley has no effective answer about what to do when children arrived to force responsibility on lovers; but, unlike Allen, he carried this reckless indifference into his personal life, at least in the case of the children of his first marriage.[384]


Just as he makes Herminia Barton do over the dinner table in the Milan hotel, to the scandal of the diners, Allen himself promoted Shelley as a martyr. He tries to persuade us that the poet was 'vilified and calumniated by wretched penny-a-liners, or (worse insult still) apologized for, with half-hearted shrugs, by lukewarm advocates. The purest in life, and the most unselfish in purpose of all mankind, he was persecuted alive with the utmost rancour of hate'.[385] No matter that Shelley, in brute actuality, hardly lived up to even the most quixotic redefinition of 'purity' in his private life. Twice he married when he was compelled to do so; the first time because Harriet Westbrook would not elope unless he promised marriage, and the second time because Mary Godwin and his legal advisors wanted him to cut a more respectable figure in the law courts. His other extra-marital excursions were conducted on no very elevated plane. As in the matter of his cavalier treatment of his creditors, he followed the aristocratic norms of his day. In every possible way, Grant Allen's personal code of conduct -- fastidious, punctilious, honourable almost to excess -- was the exact opposite of all this. Why he should have wanted to base part of his views on gender relations on those of an eccentric adolescent genius who never even began to live up to his own principles can only be put down to native perversity or, to some extent, a lack of information. (He relied entirely on Edward Dowden's then-recent biography [1886] as a source, although Dowden shows how quickly Shelley had abjured the sentiments of the Queen Mab notes.[386])


Naturally Allen agreed with Shelley's brief remarks on prostitution in Queen Mab, but he pursued them much further. He abominated the time-honoured view of prostitution, particularly powerful in Victorian sexual ideology, that it was not just a phenomenon which would never be rooted out, nor even a necessary evil, but actually advantageous to society. It drained off male lust and deflected the attempts of rakes on the virtue of respectable women, married and unmarried. It stabilized family life and provided a safety-valve for ill-sorted couples in an age of very limited divorce. In the case of the prudent paterfamilias who wanted to husband his domestic resources, it could serve as a kind of extra-mural contraceptive. And finally, one presumes, it had the unspoken benefit of taking the pressure off wives to meet sexual demands that no angel in the house could contemplate satisfying or, in the eyes of most men, should be asked to satisfy. The root idea that prostitution is the guard of public decency is as old as Augustine and Aquinas. Aquinas compared the whore to the cesspool in a palace: unpleasant, but necessary.[387] Early Protestantism tacitly admitted their Catholic predecessors' point by tipping the solution upside down: let boys and girls marry the instant they feel the sexual impulse, Luther recommended, and vice will disappear.


In the High Victorian era, rampant prostitution permitted, in fact encouraged, 'prudent' marriages for men; that is to say, a marriage delayed until a man's career was settled, as recommended in the hortatory writings of Samuel Smiles and many another moral-uplift writer. Before higher-status men reached that prudential age -- and for the professional classes it came, on average, when they were just under thirty -- most did not remain celibate. Nor, naturally, did they have recourse to young unmarried women of their own class. They used the services of prostitutes. If they were not driven to look on the streets by natural impulse alone, then there were plenty of manuals and doctors to frighten them about the consequences of celibacy -- genital disease, spermatorrhoea, chlorosis, hysteria, enfeeblement, morbidity -- and some of these explicitly recommended prostitutes as a remedy. Some men, indeed, with sex available at a price to suit every purse, saw no reason ever to marry: Why keep a cow when you can buy a bottle of milk, as Samuel Butler, that confirmed bachelor, put it -- but then, he was only rephrasing John Bunyan's Mr Badman: an indication of how old these attitudes are. (Naturally, this whole pseudo-medical discourse spoke to men; genteel unmarried women were deemed to need no sexual expression at all.)


'Our existing system', argued Allen, 'is a mixed system of marriage and prostitution, or rather, if one treats it from the practical side in the order in which most men come to know it, a mixed system of prostitution and marriage. The greater number of men are introduced to the sexual life through prostitution alone; they bringing at last to marriage and the production of future generations only the leavings and relics of an effete constitution'.[388] What exactly he meant by the last phrase is not clear -- Allen cannot always call a spade a spade -- but presumably he was referring to that medical nightmare of the age, inheritable syphilis. At any rate, he thought free unions for the young would solve that problem and others.[389]


The perception that prostitution had grown to such astonishing proportions because of the fashion for marital prudence among the greatly-expanded middle classes was no special insight of Allen's. Henry Mayhew recognized the linkage in 1862, in Labour and the London Poor, and he was not the first.[390] The whole system was kept running smoothly by a warm oil of maudlin sentimentality over 'fallen' women and their reclamation or their atonement through death. This 'fractured sexuality' as Keith Neild has called it, actually created the psychopathological demand satisfied by the prostitute and adjuncts such as pornography and the suppression of sex education and the eloquent silencing of sexual discussion.[391]


In Grant Allen's young manhood, the definitive, if ambiguously phrased, statement of this position -- the prostitute as public convenience and a necessary martyr to social virtue -- was put by W.E.H. Lecky in his History of European Morals, in a familiar purple passage:

Herself the supreme type of vice, she is ultimately the most efficient guardian of virtue. But for her, the unchallenged purity of countless happy homes would be polluted, and not a few who, in the pride of their untempted chastity, think of her with an indignant shudder, would have known the agony of remorse and of despair. On that one degraded and ignoble form are concentrated the passions that might have filled the world with shame. She remains, while creeds and civilizations rise and fall, the eternal priestess of humanity, blasted for the sins of the people.[392]

Allen obviously knew this quotation, for he virtually paraphrases it in his poem 'Sunday Night at Mabille', probably written when he read Lecky's History on its appearance in 1869. The Bal Mabille was a notorious Parisian dance hall of the Second Empire, where the dancers sported a characteristic lace bonnet with silk bow. It was a familiar haunt of Lecky's 'priestesses of humanity', and Allen draws a similar, if more challenging, conclusion to the historian:


You tell me we must shut our eyes to all 

That turns this gaudy Mabille to a hell, 

If we would keep our wives and daughters pure . . . 

One question that I scarcely dare to breathe: -- 

If woman's virtue cost so much to keep, 

Good friend, is woman's virtue worth the price?[393]


The answer, of course, is No: at least as far as the conventional meaning of 'virtue' goes. For, whether it was dressed up in the language of the cynical man of the world or in Lecky's purple prose, it was the hypocrisy that Allen found revolting. His 'decent' society was, to use his own simile, like a medieval castle reared on its foul dungeon vaults: vaults wherein helpless, lower-class women were daily sacrificed on the altar of prudent bachelordom. It was no less revolting to the Evangelical conscience, and this led to a strange alliance between extreme sexual radicals, like Allen and Havelock Ellis, and nonconformist puritans like Stead. But the latter were certainly not willing to pursue Allen's logic to the next stage: that if young couples could pair off at about the age of twenty, and part without social odium whenever they wished, what need then for prostitution? It would vanish. Curiously, for a socialist, Allen rather discounted the powerful economic motive for working in the sex trade: the fact that it was an occupation that paid so much better than being, say, a sweated seamstress in an attic sewing boys' knickerbocker suits complete for sixpence, or becoming a hand in a factory for six shillings a week.


The second element of Allen's 'perfectly pure system' was a strong promotion of maternity. On the question of motherhood being the natural role for women, a role which no woman should be deprived of, Allen was a conservative; but it was conservatism of the same nature evident throughout late-Victorian feminism. It should be remembered that even powerfully anti-marriage novels like Sarah Grand's The Heavenly Twins (1893) refrained from attacking motherhood, as did almost all feminist literature of the day. The Yellow Aster (1894), by Kathleen Caffyn, even has a heroine who finds maternity brings relief from her sexual problems. It is a remarkable fact that the entire spectrum of late Victorian speculation on the woman question -- civic feminists, eugenic feminists, socialists, suffragettes and anti-suffragettes -- was very nearly unanimous in promoting the notion of motherhood as destiny. Among them were Francis Galton, Frances Power Cobbe, Havelock Ellis, William Morris, Karl Pearson and, of course, Allen himself. (William Morris certainly read and took Allen to heart, because passages on this subject in News From Nowhere are derived straight from him.)[394] Most of these were hostile to sexual liberalism, either from residual Christian puritanism or because they feared that any untoward views on the subject would damage their political credibility. Attacking the family and motherhood was no way to endear oneself to Victorian feminists of almost any stripe. The only alternative to motherhood was seen to be an empowering spinsterhood. Contraception was simply not an issue which bore examination. 


A century later, it seems fantastic that one could discuss feminist issues of any kind without considering women's control of their own fertility. Yet Allen, the social theorist, radical and writer of millions of words on almost every conceivable topic of speculative biology, never once mentions this critical subject. We can only guess why he avoided it, but it is not, in the context of the day, a very remarkable omission. At this time almost no novelists and very few social activists, including overt feminists of any variety, were willing to sanction contraception, or 'neo-Malthusianism', or 'monogamic prostitution' as its enemies called it -- or at least they were not willing to do so in public. (The only exception was the little band who formed the Malthusian League, founded in 1879.) Allen's silence on this question even in his 'hill-top' fiction looks peculiar only from a modern perspective. A thorough study of feminist social doctrines and the British novel between 1880-1920 can cite only one fictional character in this entire period whose creator dares to allow her a knowledge of contraception and the will to use it.[395]


The cultural context here was the reality of the late-Victorian 'flight from parenthood', and the implicit threat it posed. Though this had already begun in the middle orders of society and was well publicized and deplored, its cause was secretive and ignored by nearly all opinion-makers, including almost the entire spectrum of feminist thought. If sexuality itself was silenced for the middle orders of Victorian society, then the desire for, and the achievement of, family limitation was a richer silence concealed within that silence. It may not have been a deliberate silence. Francis Galton, and later his protege Karl Pearson, looked very hard to discover some natural reason for the falling birth rate. From their eugenic perspective, the procreative force had to be an inheritable characteristic favoured by natural selection. How could it be, then, that marital fertility was declining so quickly in the 'best' orders of society? Rather than confront the obvious, they created an entity, 'DE', which stood for 'Determining Element'. They hypothesized that 'DE' was the result of better nutrition, or the consequence of an inverse correlation between better education and sexual appetite. Their almost comical resistance to what was staring them in the face -- that the mysterious 'DE' was simply contraception -- has been well documented by the medical historian Richard Soloway. As he says, 'to accept it, however, was to acknowledge the explicit sexuality of the marriage relationship and to disprove the fiction the marital intercourse was primarily for reproduction. Victorian legacies died hard. If millions of English couples were, as their diminished fertility testified, using some form of contraception, they were very circumspect about it'.[396]


They were indeed; but the pointers are there. The publisher George Newnes, who certainly knew the habits and aspirations of his market (lower-middle and middle-middle class, in this case) caught the mood in the third issue of Tit-Bits as early as 1881. There he offered his readers an image of themselves in the shape of the 'Tifkins' family. The Tifkins live in a suburban villa and number just four: the parents and two daughters. How that happily minimal outcome is to be achieved is, of course, unspoken; but somehow the Tifkins have managed it. It was not necessary for contraceptive methods to be really effective to be a factor in the declining birth rate among the bourgeoisie. Unreliable as traditional methods might be for the individual couples using them -- crude sponges, douches, abortifacients, non-penetrative sex, the 'safe' period, coitus interruptus, active or passive infanticide -- they were perfectly capable of seriously affecting Britain's demography if essayed widely enough. And now they were being essayed. The birth-rate peaked in 1876 and thereafter fell year after year, the effect moving slowly down the social spectrum for decades afterwards. At the outbreak of the First World War the average completed family size in Britain was already under three children.


The silence about contraception is not to say that the reformers were deaf to the pleas of people caught up in the tragedy of excessive child-bearing, or had nothing to say to them. They did have a remedy. It was not Jane Austen's famous recommendation of 'the simple regimen of single rooms' but something simpler still: marriage postponement. Figures were quoted to show that if working-class women would only delay their marriage by five years, the average number of children born to them would fall from 4.2 to 3.1. But that was no solution for Grant Allen who, as we have seen, not only feared racial suicide but viewed this very strategy as the prime cause of his bugbear, prostitution. The uniqueness of his stance was that it was both pronatalist and anti-marriage. His strong support for free unions for couples aged no more than twenty, without proposing any birth control measures, is an extraordinary feature of his social views, especially as figures were bandied about claiming to show that the average fecundity of those British women who did marry between fifteen and twenty was eight children![397] Perhaps it is as well that Alan Merrick dies of typhoid in Perugia, the posthumous father of one. It is hard to visualize the stately Herminia Barton in her Liberty dress and wearing 'the face of a free woman', surrounded by such a squalling brood.


Nevertheless, if he had followed his own precepts in the novel, Allen ought to have given her a large family. In his essay 'A Glimpse into Utopia', as he considers the disinclination for marriage among feminists, Allen maintained that the four-child family was necessary to keep the nation's numbers just stationary. In the ideal state, he says:

almost every woman would be a mother, and almost every woman a mother of not more than about four children. An average of something like four is necessary, we know, to keep up population, and allow for infant mortality, inevitable celibates, and so forth . . . while no woman save the unfit would voluntarily shirk the duties and privileges of maternity, few (in any) women would make themselves mothers of more than four children. . . . No cramping conventions will be allowed to cage her; no worn-out moralities will be tied round her neck like a mill-stone to hamper her . . . the whole body of men in common must support in perfect liberty the whole body of women. . . . In the ideal State, I take it, every woman will be at absolute liberty to dispose of herself as she will, and no man will be able to command or purchase her. . . . And when they had done their duty as mothers, they would not care much, I imagine, for any further outlets for their superfluous energy . . . the margin of their life would be devoted to dignified and cultivated leisure. . . . No hateful drudgery of 'earning a livelihood'. Women might rest content with being free and beautiful, cultivated and artistic, good citizens to the State . . . . If any woman asks more than this, she is really asking less -- for she is asking that a heavier burden should be cast on some or most of her sex, in order to relieve the minority of a duty which to well-organized women ought to be a privilege.[398]

In other words, motherhood was to be a full-time, state-sponsored career, rewarded with a pension and a retirement of 'dignified and cultivated leisure' -- or, as Allen's opponents judged it, the life of a brood mare followed by one of bovine cud-chewing. One infuriated feminist wanted to know one what possible grounds a Mrs A should feel obliged to have six children just because her neighbour Mrs B had only two.[399] Actually, however, Allen's position was by no means so extreme or as eccentric as it might seem. His figures were not his own invention, and they had a long currency. Even fifteen years later, in 1909, the eugenists W.C. and & Catherine Whetham examined the fecundity of 'important' people and came to the conclusion that only a minimum of four children per family could compensate for celibacy, sterility and early mortality in that class. Class suicide was a concept with some influential proponents. Allen's own analysis is, by implication, directed at the upper-middle classes too, although he does not make that explicit.[400]



The third element of Allen's proposals was the most extraordinary one of all. He wished to hand to women a new role, that of serving society as eugenic gatekeepers. If they would only take up this challenge, he promised them dramatically, they would become 'as gods', with 'the keys of history, of sociology, of economics' in their hands at last.[401]


At root, eugenic gatekeeping was nothing more than a socialized interpretation of Darwin's hotly-contested supplementary evolutionary mechanism of sexual selection. In the Descent, Darwin distinguished two types of selection: male competition, and female choice. Eugenic gatekeeping was to be a version of sexual selection exercised through conscious, enfranchised female choice. Its exact lineage before Allen took it up is hard to trace, but the earliest and strongest element in it was surely John Ruskin's separate-spheres allotment of gender roles, as given definitive expression in his influential 'Of Queens' Gardens' (in Sesame and Lilies, 1864). It was then taken up by the social purity wing: by Eliza Lynn Linton, for instance, the hard-headed journalist and definitely no friend of radical women, who held that her sex's role was to be the 'antiseptic of society'. Edward Bellamy in his utopian Looking Backward (1888) came up with a particularly cogent metaphor:

for the first time in human history the principle of sexual selection, with its tendency to preserve and transmit the better types of the race, and let the inferior types drop out, has unhindered operation. The necessities of poverty, the need of having a home, no longer tempt women. . . . Every generation is sifted through a little finer mesh than the last.[402]

By 1890 the notion of woman as eugenic gatekeeper had emerged from a brew of utopian socialism, Comtean Positivism, Evangelical Christianity and neo-Lamarckism. It traded on vague but powerful assumptions about the inherent moral superiority and inherent modesty of women, and their greater readiness to separate themselves from sensuality for the social good. The last was particularly emphasized in this formulation by the Positivist Frederic Harrison:

The true function of women is to educate not children only, but men, to train to a higher civilization not the rising generation but the actual society. And to do this by diffusing the spirit of affection, of self-restraint, self-sacrifice, fidelity and purity . . . as mother, as wife, as sister, as daughter, as friend, as nurse, as teacher, as servant, as counsellor, as purifier, as example, in a word -- as woman.[403]

'Training men': that was to be the work of women acting as eugenic wardens; training them or, in Bellamy's metaphor, putting them through the sieve of women's ever-finer sensibilities, generation after generation, and flushing to waste the coarser grains that could not or would not learn their lesson.


Darwin's co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace pushed the concept somewhat further, partly from reading Bellamy but partly as his specific reaction to the irritant of Allen's 'Plain Words on the Woman Question' and 'The Girl of the Future'. His two essays, published in 1890 and 1892 respectively, 'Human Selection' and 'Human Progress: Past and Future', arrived at direct socio-biological conclusions very different to Allen's.[404] The first requirement, he thought, was to secure for women exactly the same education and employment opportunities as men. Once that was done, prostitution would vanish and universal extra-marital chastity prevail. (All these earnest men found inconceivable the idea of anyone's taking up the sex trade freely. Even the father of sexology, Havelock Ellis, was sure that 'wherever sexual selection has free play, unhampered by economic considerations, prostitution is impossible'.[405]) No illicit sex at all being on the market, and men's sexual appetite being the stronger, almost every woman would receive marriage offers out of male sexual desperation, and those women who were inclined to matrimony and maternity would be able to blackmail their choice into monogamic virtue.


But more than that. Under the new regime all men would be subject to a constant selective pressure. In the millennium, very many women will never marry at all -- rather few seek marriage for 'personal affection or sexual emotion', thought Wallace -- because they would never find a man who met their elevated ideal. As there would be no need to settle for anything inferior, independent women's choice would never fall on 'men who in any way wilfully fail in their duty to society -- on idlers and malingerers, on drunkards and liars, on the selfish, the cruel, or the vicious'.[406] In that way unfit men would be eliminated -- left to celibacy and oblivion -- and progress would be secured 'by giving to the pure instincts of women the selective power in marriage'.[407] 'In such a reformed society', concluded Wallace, 'the vicious man, the man of degraded taste or of feeble intellect, will have little chance of finding a wife, and his bad qualities will die out with himself'.[408] No other deliberate eugenic measures need be applied, he thought, for women will do everything needful themselves. They can be relied on to choose the best males for themselves, and can be expected to equate society's best with their own tastes. 'We may safely leave the far greater and deeper problem of the improvement of the race', finishes Wallace triumphantly, 'to the cultivated minds and pure instincts of the Woman of the Future'.[409]


This splendid being, celibate or married, is certainly a very different creature to Allen's 'Girl of the Future': Wallace was appalled by her. For Allen had given the eugenic gatekeeper notion a radical twist that Ruskin never dreamed of and Wallace repudiated. (His adjective for it was 'detestable'.) Wallace's conception was a conservative mechanism for applying a negative eugenic pressure: fewer of the unfit would be born because women, untroubled by 'sexual emotion' would be content never to marry. But Allen had a different sense of women's sexual needs, and in any case he wanted to ascribe to women a eugenically positive function. He wanted, not fewer of the unfit, but more of the fit. So it was a woman's right -- indeed, it was her sacred duty -- to find the best males to father her children, regardless of any other consideration. In the millennium she would go about 'freely commingling' her 'maternal qualities' with the 'noblest paternal qualities of the men who most attracted her higher nature'. Thus the Allen woman would be the mistress-angel of her own house, supported there if necessary by the state, surrounded by children by different fathers, all of them selected according to her eugenic impulses of the moment:

And surely a woman who had reached such an elevated ideal of the duties of sex as that would feel she was acting far more right in becoming the mother of a child by this splendid athlete, by that profound thinker, by that nobly-moulded Adonis, by that high-souled poet, than in tying herself down for life to this rich old dotard, to that feeble young lord, to this gouty invalid, to that wretched drunkard, to become the mother of a long family of scrofulous idiots. Which course is in the end the more truly respectable? Which motive is in the last resort the more truly respect-worthy?

Is it not an honour for any woman to have been loved by Shelley? Is it not an honour for any woman to have brought into the world a son by a Newton or a Goethe? Is it not a disgrace to be tied for life to a Quilp? Is it not a desecration even to prostitute oneself in marriage to the average money-grubbing British Mr Bultitude? The free woman will choose which lord she shall serve. And do you think her choice will be for the colonial broker?[410]

A woman of such high ideals and such a choice of potential fathers would, presumably, see no need for birth control. She would welcome her repeated, state-supported pregnancies, happy to know she was not contributing to a race of 'scrofulous idiots'. The key element in the 'perfectly pure system' amounted, therefore, to unlicensed serial polyandry, which was certainly a redefinition of female purity that even Thomas Hardy might have flinched from.


These extraordinary proposals were, of course, much mocked and execrated. The theosophist Helena Blavatsky thought this single article might be more fatal to public morals than all of Tolstoy and Zola rolled into one.[411] They were, snorted W.T. Stead, 'indistinguishable from promiscuous but limited adultery'.[412] Are men promiscuous from some elevated eugenic impulse? Clearly not. So why should women, if society abandoned any notions of female chastity, behave any differently? They would become as dissolute as most men already are, and the family would disintegrate. Others complained that Allen assumed too readily that (male) recklessness, improvidence and general degeneracy are inheritable; and also that he is arguing in a circle: he assumes the offspring of the free woman will be the fit; and then the fit, by definition, become those children produced by the unerring moral sense of free women. (Allen thought there was empirical evidence that illegitimate children are superior to, more robust than, honest madam's issue. He told Wells, and perhaps he was not entirely joking, that his own feeble constitution was due to his coming from generations of married folk.)


Others took a more coolly empirical line. There was a lively debate in the popular magazine of sociology, the Humanitarian, about whether there is any evidence that 'free' women do in fact act as eugenic gatekeepers. Some thought they would if they were given the chance. 'If people did not constantly throw fresh mud into the stream', said one woman darkly, 'its foulness would gradually disappear'. But another contributor noted that women who earn their own living and can therefore, in theory anyway, put monetary concerns aside in affairs of the heart (he instanced saleswomen and female clerks) do not in fact show any special 'wise discrimination' when it comes to choosing a husband. No doubt their emotions, so much stronger than in men, let them down. In any case, men who suffer from inherited diseases, or are physically feeble, are sometimes more loveable and morally worthy than the majority. Was it humane, or even sensible, to teach women to turn their backs on 'the weakling, the miserable, and the afflicted'? Finally, it is mere 'poeticizing' to imagine women have instincts one whit purer than men. Civilization has perverted and vitiated the sexes equally, this cynic concluded.[413] With that, the debate fizzled out, possibly because no one could think of any new points to add to it.


Nevertheless, it is fair to claim that Allen's radical form of the eugenic gatekeeper theory did have some slight but distinguishable influence on the socio-sexual theorizing in the Edwardian years after his death. His ideas can be traced in Havelock Ellis, Catherine Hartley (author of Women's Wild Oats, 1919) and the Bernard Shaw of Man and Superman. Ellis' essay 'Eugenics and St Valentine' (1906) for example, virtually plagiarizes Allen's Fortnightly article 'Falling in Love' of seventeen years earlier. H.G. Wells was hardly more scrupulous: in the early stages of his career as a social prophet he lifted many of Allen's ideas without acknowledgement, though in his hands they assume a markedly less liberal tone. In A Modern Utopia (1905), the first of Wells' many blueprints for social renovation, monogamy is socially normative. An advisable number of births per woman in each of the classes is to be publicized, just as Allen proposed, and to help mothers reach the target the State will help them to raise their legitimate offspring. But for any others, the parents will be criminally liable if they fail to support them entirely by themselves. A little later, in Tono-Bungay (1909), he allows one of his characters to toy with Allen's central proposition under the new title of 'the City of Women':

'The homes of the women, Ponderevo, will be set in the wall of their city; each woman will have her own particular house and home, furnished after her own heart in her own manner -- with a little balcony on the outside wall. Built into the wall -- and a little balcony. And she will go and look out, when the mood takes her, and all round the city there will be a broad road and seats and great shady trees. And men will stroll up and down there when they feel the need of feminine company; when, for instance, they want to talk about their souls or their characters or any of the things that only women will stand . . . . The women will lean over and look at the men and smile and talk to them as they fancy. And each woman will have this; she will have a little silken ladder she can let down if she chooses -- if she wants to talk closer. . . '.

'The men would still be competing'.

'There, perhaps -- yes. But they'd have to abide by the woman's decisions'.[414]

No doubt Wells saw himself clambering up many of those silken ladders. A few years later still, and Wells had decided monogamy and the private family had had their day altogether. In The New Machiavelli (1911) there is still to be a state-awarded Motherhood Endowment, but some undefined sanctions would be used to 'encourage' women to mate with the most eugenically suitable males: 'suitable' is now to be defined externally, not by women. With any residual belief in the innate moral superiority of women fast fading, Wells thought it was dangerous to leave the gatekeeping role to their instincts alone. It was time for the State to assert its interest in mandatory motherhood.



Returning now to The Woman Who Did -- and considering it now as a social polemic -- it is astonishing how little of all this finds its way between its covers. All the expectations of the knowledgeable reader were frustrated a century ago, and they still are today. Anyone who followed Grant Allen's work and read the magazines must have been aware of his views, and some did express their bewilderment at the way these convictions are skirted or shirked. They complained that his heroine barely follows the precepts of his essays at all, and that his Woman Who Did is less notable for what she did that what she did not do. Heroines who run off abroad with their lovers and unmarried heroines who bear bastards out of the public eye were of course the common stuff of fiction throughout Allen's career, and long before. As Richard Le Gallienne noted at the time, the disappointment is that Allen's characters 'don't submit themselves to the really significant tests. To have an illegitimate baby abroad is easily done, and any unmarried mother can pass as "respectable" by describing herself as a widow'.[415] Le Gallienne recognized that the union of Herminia Barton and Alan Merrick is in all but name a high-minded monogamic marriage while it lasts, and that Herminia Barton's rebellion amounts to two things only: a determination to flout the bourgeois marital code, and bearing a child in secret. If one were affluent, as these characters are, money could conceal both transgressions. Indeed, we see it starting to do so once the couple choose to leave England. But once having made his heroine a widow, what was there to prevent Allen from having her move on to that path of serial polyandry which he recommended, and fulfilling her destiny as eugenic gatekeeper and the mother of four (or more) en route? Yet Herminia Barton is never allowed to think of this for a minute, with her one child and her celibate life right up to her suicide at forty. Nor, for that matter, did Allen follow his own precepts himself. Even his most hostile critics, to their credit, forbore to press ad hominem arguments against a man who fathered just one child and lived a uxorious husband with the same wife for twenty-five years.


To summarize, then, the most remarkable feature of The Woman Who Did is absolutely not its fidelity to its author's deepest beliefs about love, marriage and the family, but the way it simplifies, sanitizes and evades all the most important aspects of them. It is, as W.T. Stead shrewdly put it, 'milk and water compared with his esoteric doctrine';[416] so much so that as a dramatization of Allen's well-publicized and incendiary views, the novel might well have been the product of someone else's pen altogether. Although the novel has attracted more attention than all the rest of Allen's work put together, this intriguing fact and its meaning has been almost totally ignored.



Our starting-point must be the blurred focus of the novel; its muddled intent: the way it seems to want to be about one thing while actually being about another. Most people who have heard of The Woman Who Did at all suppose that what the heroine 'did' was to espouse and practice free love between equals. They assume that the issue at stake is the one Shelley described so memorably in 'Epipsychidion': that monogamy is stifling and unhealthy; that love, unlike 'gold and clay' can be infinitely divided without loss; that, in short, it is inhuman to expect that anybody will, with 'one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe/The dreariest and the longest journey go'. They assume, in fact, that the novel is a tract in favour of free love. This has caused some extreme misrepresentations. One recent historian described the novel as being about a woman who 'abandoned marriage and satisfied her sexual needs as she wished to so as to prevent racial degeneration which was following on personal frustration and genetic mismating'.[417] In fact, of course, Herminia does not 'abandon' marriage and we certainly do not see her satisfying her sexual needs 'as she wished' for an instant, either before her quasi-marriage or after her partner's death. We do not see her practicing anything but the strictest monogamy and (as a widow) equally strict celibacy; certainly not Allen's version of serial polyandry.


The Woman Who Did's driving-force, which is moral indignation, comes from quite another source: the issue of prostitution, considered in its widest aspect. But this is not an emphasis that would strike the average reader. Herminia Barton is not, of course, a prostitute nor ever at risk of becoming one. She is the daughter of a Dean, and apart from her heterodox views on the marriage ceremony, she behaves like one throughout. No prostitute is a character in the novel; no scene of vice is shown; no transgressive sexuality, apart from the lack of a wedding, figures in any way at all. The reader is obliged to read between the lines in order to appreciate the actual situation. Allen was promoting free unions and other even more radical social rearrangements, not because of their intrinsic merits, or because they would in themselves increase the sum of human happiness, but primarily because they would eliminate the market for bought sex. Few contemporary readers or reviewers had the external knowledge or the patience to work this out, and it has been barely mentioned since.


However, Allen's correspondence and public utterances on his creation are quite clear that this was his intention. For example, when he sent an advance copy of the proofs to Stead he said he hoped it would put aside any 'misunderstanding' which might be existing between them. (Presumably this refers to their sparring over the 'Letters in Philistia' article some years before.) Allen said that he was used to criticism from 'the wretched creatures who spend their lives in lounging about the Empire or the Alhambra' -- very probably an allusion to G.A. Sala, the journalist whose dissolute habits were familiar enough and who died, broke, that December. But he hoped Stead would try to be objective. 'I believe this book, written straight from my heart, and containing in full my reasoned convictions, will show you we are more in sympathy than you imagine. Anyhow, I want you to read it, because I want you to judge me by what I do feel and believe, not by what I don't. We two alone have realized the horror of prostitution in England; let us try to see eye to eye with one another'.[418] Stead was, of course, still firmly associated in the public mind with 'The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon', his notorious exposure of child prostitution in the Pall Mall Gazette nine years earlier; and though he and Allen really had little in common, Allen wanted him for an ally on this subject. As things turned out, Allen found Stead's reaction almost incomprehensible. He was quite bewildered by Stead's boomerang jibe: the entire review read to him like the work of some other person who was asserting propositions diametrically opposite his own. He was afraid Stead, despite his campaigns, was becoming a great bulwark of prostitution.

But this last is a curious charge. Stead had hardly mentioned the subject of prostitution. Why, then, does Allen press so hard on it? The same note of puzzled frustration sounds in a letter he sent to the Westminster Gazette, objecting to the comments on the novel that had appeared there. 'Against [prostitution] I have endeavoured to wage war to the utmost. The moral of my book is, we must put down this hateful slavery of women. And marriage, I contend, necessarily entails it. Therefore, I imagine a pure woman, who, seeing the issues involved, logically and ethically pronounces against marriage. I thought I had put this contention in the plainest possible language; but so far, strange to say, not one of my critics seems to have grasped it'.[419]


But why should they have grasped it? Pronouncing against marriage out of solidarity with her fallen sisterhood is only a very small part of Herminia Barton's rhetoric, and after the first pages it vanishes altogether. It drives no part of the plot at all. Nevertheless, Allen found it incredible that few of his readers seemed to understand that he had written the novel to promote a remedy for prostitution and all the evils stemming from it. Indeed, at times he seems to have been not quite sane on the subject, particularly when he came to believe, quite sincerely, that he had a quasi-divine mission to expunge it from society. For we need to add to the picture the extraordinary emotional state he was in when he started to work seriously on the novel early in 1892. He wrote in the letter to the Athenaeum, we recall, that he composed the first draft in 'white heat, in a glowing fever of moral enthusiasm', in order to bring 'a small part, a first installment -- of the authentic Message which, rightly or wrongly, I imagine the Power that inheres in the universe had implanted in me for transmission to humanity'.[420] Such a tone of messianic fervour is not what anyone, at any time, would have associated with the urbane, atheistic, self-deprecating and market-conscious Allen. He was a warm-hearted and kindly but not a particularly emotional man. Certainly he was not given to moral hand-wringing, yet here, and only here, his habitual light, sceptical tone had deserted him totally. We get a sense of unleashed repression, of feelings submerged for years because he could not write of them for fear of damaging his career, and of a bursting out at last in public indignation. It is natural, therefore, to look more closely at his personal relationships, and in particular his first marriage, contracted with such serious consequences more than twenty years before. Vexingly obscure though the circumstances are, it is possible to piece together something of the story from the few clues and suggestive silences that remain.


Little enough can be discovered about Caroline Bootheway, and nothing of a personal nature. But the dry public records do tell us enough to make it unlikely that she could ever have been a welcome addition to a rich clerical family with semi-aristocratic connections and a strong intellectual bent. Her origins were provincial and impeccably working-class. She was christened on 17 August 1846 at All Saints Church, Loughborough, a small Leicestershire town. At the census of 1851, when she was five, the family was living in Quorndon (now Quorn), a village of some 1600 people where the main activity was framework knitting. In that census, her father is given as William 'Botheway' and his occupation as beer seller; earlier, on Caroline's baptismal certificate, he had called himself a porter. He seems to have risen a little in the world as the 1850s went on, because he appears in two commercial directories as a 'beer retailer', and probably rose to be the landlord of a small pub, the Royal Oak, in Quorn. But on the Allens' marriage certificate his rank is downgraded again to 'Labourer': perhaps the youthful Allen, that self-proclaimed Communist, encouraged this as a defiant gesture! By the 1861 and 1881 censuses, this branch of the Bootheway clan had vanished from sight.[421]


Since nothing is known of Caroline Bootheway between the years 1851 and 1868, it is impossible to know how or where she met Grant Allen, but the natural assumption, given her class and background, is that she had moved from Leicestershire to London to work as a domestic servant or nursemaid. Very probably they met, somehow, in Brompton during Allen's first summer vacation. Not yet re-christened South Kensington, the suburb of Brompton in the late 1860s was a slightly louche quarter still 'largely frequented by votaries of the brush and chisel', according to Dickens's Dictionary of London. Ten years later the area had started to move up-market and was being pummelled in Punch as 'passionate Brompton', home to young Aesthetic married couples wondering earnestly if they can 'live up to' their new blue-and-white teapot. (Du Maurier's famous cartoon appeared in 1880.) It is in the Brompton of this era that H.G. Wells houses young George Ponderevo, fresh to London, in a thinly-disguised autobiographical passage in Tono-Bungay :


I came to London in September. . . . Its centre was now in Exhibition Road. It shone pale amber, blue-grey, and tenderly spacious and fine under clear autumnal skies, a London of hugely handsome buildings and vistas and distances, a London of gardens and labyrinthine tall museums, of old trees and remote palaces and artificial waters. I lodged near by in West Brompton at a house in a little square. . . .      My apprehension of spaces and places was reinforced by a quickened apprehension of persons. A constant stream of people passed by me, eyes met and challenged mine and passed -- more and more I wanted them to stay -- if I went eastward towards Piccadilly, women who seemed then to my boyish inexperience softly splendid and alluring, murmured to me as they passed. Extraordinarily life unveiled. The very hoardings clamoured strangely at one's senses and curiosities. One bought pamphlets and papers full of strange and daring ideas, transcending one's boldest; in the parks one heard men discussing the very existence of God, denying the rights of property, debating a hundred things. . . .[422]


It is easy to imagine the immensity, the temptations, the huge exciting indifference, of high-Victorian London rushing to Allen's head as it did to the young Wells later. After all, though his background was cosmopolitan, he had known nothing but a provincial life well cushioned by money: Kingston at first; then New Haven, Dieppe, Birmingham, Oxford. This was his first summer off the leash -- and perhaps some of those devil-may-care Merton attitudes had rubbed off on him in the end. We do not need to envision him hanging around the Argyll Rooms or the Blue Posts in the Haymarket. That would have hardly have been his style. But it was virtually certain that he would run, somehow, into a pathetic and pretty young woman who either literally or metaphorically was on the streets. Again, Philistia provides a clue, this time in the form of the solitary musings of Ernest Le Breton's brother, the lustful and unscrupulous Herbert:

It was all very well a few years ago, when I first met Selah. I was an undergraduate in those days, and even if somebody had caught me walking with a young lady of unknown antecedents and doubtful aspirates on the East Cliff of Hastings, it really wouldn't have mattered. . . . She attracted me by her social rebelliousness -- another family trait, in me passive not active, contemplative not personal; but she certainly attracted me. She attracts me still. A man must have some outlet for the natural and instinctive emotions of our common humanity; and if a monastic Oxford community imposes celibacy upon one with mediaeval absurdity -- why, Selah Briggs is, for the time being, the only possible sort of outlet. One needn't marry her in the end; but for the moment it is certainly very excellent fooling. . . . The idea flitted across my mind vaguely -- "Why not send her for a year or two to be polished up at Paris or somewhere, and really marry her afterwards for good and always?" But on second thoughts, it won't hold water. . . . It would be awfully awkward if any Oxford people were to catch me here walking with her on the cliff over yonder -- some sniggering fellow of Jesus or Worcester, for example.[423]

Unlike his caddish Herbert, or Wells, Allen was not cut out for sexual adventures, or 'outlets'. What would have been in less refined hands 'very excellent fooling' soon became legal wedlock. After the ceremony, the young couple continued to live in a back street quite close to the developing South Kensington Museum complex, where Allen scraped a living as a private tutor. They lived very privately or even secretively, it seems, because late in the following year Allen wrote to Nicholson in Oxford that 'since you have tracked the lion to his den, you may as well address here for the future'.[424] Was he still anxious not to be spotted with his unavowable wife with her 'doubtful aspirates' by 'some sniggering fellow of Jesus or Worcester'?


Thirty years later, when Edward Clodd came to compose his Memoir of Allen immediately after his death, the problem of how to handle this marriage must have loomed large in his mind. There were the feelings of Allen's wife and son, then in his early twenties, to consider. He asked at least two of Allen's oldest friends, Andrew Lang and York Powell, by then Professor of History at Oxford and an expert on Icelandic sagas, for information about what they knew, and probably for advice on how to handle it.


Andrew Lang had not known Allen at the time of that first marriage. They met only when they ventured on literary journalism together in London. But he knew that Allen had had difficult beginnings. 'In circumstances very trying he displayed noble attributes of character which I can only hint at. Indeed, Mr Allen behaved, if I may say so, more thoroughly in the spirit of the Gospel than any man I have ever met, though his intellect rejected so much that religion believes'.[425] The 'spirit of the Gospel' raises echoes of a certain behest about sexual sin and not casting the first stone, and it is clear enough what Lang was driving at. But he wasn't talking: '"A great ox hath trodden on my tongue"', he told Clodd. He added, mysteriously, 'probably without knowing it you give the story of that first marriage away. Every Oxford man will see the point'. Lang was given to writing with irritating allusiveness. However, the 'point' that an 'Oxford man' (in particular) might be expected to get was surely one about an illicit, or socially dubious, cross-class entanglement.


Such relationships between literary or artistic men of the student class and working-class young women, sometimes more or less respectable, sometimes definitely not, were of course a cliche of the times. In literature and art the theme had been, and would continue to be, a favourite, in all of its many possible permutations. Pygmalion and Galatea, and King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, were two of the most popular myths of Victorianism, treated by Burne-Jones, Watts, Tennyson, Gerome and many others. We think of George du Maurier's Trilby (1894) with its laundress heroine (the story is set in the 1860s), Murger's Bohemians, Angel Clare and Tess Durbeyfield, Jude Fawley and Arabella in Jude the Obscure, Alfred Yule and his shop-girl wife in New Grub Street, And literature reflected life: there is Ernest Dowson's idealized relationship with Adelaide Foltinowicz, the daughter of a Soho restaurateur; Rossetti and whoever the original 'Jenny' was of his poem ('fond of a kiss', we hear, 'and fond of a guinea'); Morris and Jane Burden; other artists like John William Godward, who had long liaisons with their models; and above all, George Gissing and his tortured affair with the prostitute and alcoholic Nell Harrison in the late '70s. In the case of the more scrupulous and idealistic men -- and Gissing's is the stereotypical case here -- these relationships did sometimes end in marriage. But the outcome was not necessarily as catastrophic as it was in Gissing's own case, nor as miserable as in his creation Alfred Yule's. Lang was surely hinting at a marriage of this kind.


If Lang refused to be drawn, York Powell was more forthcoming. He was an urbane man of liberal views, who had been one of the few Establishment figures publicly to support Oscar Wilde a few years earlier. 'You must not leave out the earlier marriage', he told Clodd warmly. 'It is not fair to GA. It is a high credit to him. He was a martyr for a year and he never let the poor girl see that he was suffering for her. He made the end of her life happy and peaceful by his self-sacrifice and if Xtianity were true which it isn't GA would be safe for a good place in heaven'.[426]


Clodd both accepted and rejected all this advice when he worded this section of his Memoir. On the negative side, he deprived Caroline Bootheway Allen of her very name and said nothing at all about her background or her situation when the couple met. We are told only that Allen had given 'hostages to fortune' by marrying so young, and that he had done so 'with more chivalry than prudence'.[427]The second phrase can only mean that this was far from being a marriage between social equals. We learn that Caroline Allen became ill soon after the marriage, with a 'paralysis', and was an invalid until her death. Eager to dispose of the marriage as quickly as possible, Clodd implies that it lasted only two years. In fact it was three and a half.


On the positive side, though, Clodd solicited from Powell, and printed, the only available glimpse of the Allen couple:

I remember being presented to his first wife -- a gentle, quiet, soft-speaking woman, in poor health even then in the early days of their wedded life -- and noticing the tenderness and care with which he anticipated her wishes, and spared her all fatigue or trouble, while it was delightful to see how she appreciated in her silent, grateful way his affectionate attention and guardianship.[428]

So far, so bland; York Powell obviously knew more, but even he was too reticent to want to go further. It was left to Clodd to print the most meaningful revelation of all. Grant Allen never once refers to his wife unambiguously in any of his surviving writings, either published or unpublished. But Clodd had in his possession a single, telling clue which reveals something of their relationship. It is in the form of a poem entitled 'La Dame aux Camelias (To Alexandre Dumas, fils)'. This Allen had omitted from his sole volume of poetry, The Lower Slopes. Although this collection was published as late as 1894 when Allen was forty-six, most of the poems in it had been written years before, as the lengthy sub-title asserted. It is to this early period of his life that 'La Dame aux Camelias' must belong. Clodd had recovered the manuscript from Franklin Richards, Allen's brother-in-law and intimate friend; and now he not only printed it in full in the Memoir, but added the revealing comment that it was 'one more personal than those published', thereby confirming that the basic situation is factual.[429]


'La Dame aux Camelias' is a poem of sentimental recollection. It tells how the narrator has a valuable keepsake, which he keeps constantly by him; it is a 'dog's-eared, thumb-marked' copy of Dumas' novel. This had been his young wife's favourite reading and, when newly married, he and 'Maimie' had often sat over it together, on a bank above 'the tumbling Rhone'. This itself is suggestive, as the novel in the 1860s was regarded as a typical piece of French lubriciousness which even a married Englishwoman could hardly show an interest in without attracting comment. Reading it aloud with her husband was practically an erotic act:

And later when my Maimie's cheek was pale,
And weak her failing voice and low her breath,
And in her bloodless hands we read the tale
Of slowly creeping death,
Yet she would often raise her heavy head
To fix upon my face a tearful glance,
And whisper, 'Read me from the book we read
Long, long ago, in France'.

The connection between this fond recollection and Dumas' story of the prostitute Marguerite Gautier, who is redeemed by her passionate love, is made explicit: Dumas' novel, and Verdi's opera, had made the consumptive courtesan, with her discreetly blood-spotted handkerchief, into the most romantic of figures. There are several correspondences between the novel and Allen's own life. It was published in the year he was born. Alphonsine Plessis, Dumas' mistress and the model for the heroine, was one of the most celebrated courtesans of her day, and she died of tuberculosis at twenty-three. This was Caroline's age at marriage. In the novel Marguerite's true love, Armand, is younger than she, and she tries to give him up to avoid conflict with his father and damaging his career. The relevance to Allen's situation is obvious.


To put the question bluntly, then: Was Caroline Bootheway a prostitute, whom Allen had rescued from the streets and married out of some amalgam of romantic love, chivalry, pity and political idealism? We recall that the cult of the rescued magdalen became popular in his adolescent years. Apart from all the novels dealing with the theme, there were the pictures so dear to the Victorian heart, lithographs of which were to be seen in many a home right up to the end of the century: Watts' Found Drowned; Millais' Virtue and Vice and The Order of Release; Rossetti's Found; Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience; George Harcourt's dramatic Forgiven. The gentle, retiring, humble prostitute did, occasionally, in real life match the 'tart with a heart' literary stereotype. According to the expert, Dr Acton, a certain number of these women 'are notable for the intensity of love with which they will cling. . . . The sick man is safe in their hands, and the fool's money also'.[430] Was Caroline a member of this branch of the trade, and did Allen later on idealize her death as a sacrifice, and she herself as the victim of the hypocritical social machinery which immolated her and women like her to protect her respectable sisters' virtue? One of the poems published in The Lower Slopes, 'Forget-Me-Not', provides a hint that this was indeed Allen's attitude. At first sight this could be taken for a mere sentimental exercise:


Her soft white hand lay tremulous, clasped in his;

Her soft grey eye with pearly dew was wet:

He said, 'Though all things else, yet never this

Will I forget'.


He went his way, and seeking his own rest

Forgot love's little tender, stifled sigh,

Forgot the upheaval of that throbbing breast

Once clasped so nigh.     


And bending o'er an unmarked, uncared grave,

Too late for any penance save regret,

He said, 'The single sin God ne'er forgave

Is, to forget'.


But its placement within The Lower Slopes is significant. It is the fourth of five poems of which the first, 'In the Night Watches', bears the sub-title 'Introduction to a group of poems still mostly unpublished'. All the other poems in this group are expressly and overtly about prostitution. For example, the title poem was obviously inspired by George Herbert's 'The Collar'. The stern voice of Duty orders its 'servant', the poet himself, to rise and sing against the 'blight of a terrible wrong'. The poet says he is unfit; he wants to sing only of love. But he is ordered: 'I bid thee arise with a sword in thy hand for a pen' and the poem ends submissively 'Master, I hear and obey'.[431] These poems were the ones that Allen pressed on Stead when the volume was published in 1894. He particularly urged Stead to read the first three of the group. 'If you read those three, I don't care about the rest of them. There are two men in England really in earnest about the horrible slavery of prostitution. You are one, and I am the other. Don't condemn without reading. Read those three, and then read 'Sunday Night at Mabille'.[432]


We notice that in recommending four of the five poems, the one that he omitted was 'Forget-Me-Not'. It is easy to see why. Whereas the other poems adopt a high-flown tone of moral indignation which is effective but impersonal, this one is tenderly personal in tone. Its sense of guilt, even of self-contempt, is palpable. It is surely autobiographical. While we do not know when it was written, it is easy to suppose that he felt compelled to requite his neglect, his 'single sin' that God -- the God Allen did not believe in -- would never forgive. The silent reproach of that 'unmarked, uncared grave' in the Cheltenham cemetery surely coloured all the rest of his life. Caroline Bootheway was the original woman who did, in the sense that what she did was to inspire Allen's book. It is permissible, perhaps, to indulge in a little further speculation about the psychic mechanisms involved here. After all, if Caroline had been a victim of other men's monstrous 'prudential' arrangements, she had not been the only one. There was Grant Allen himself. He had wrecked, or damaged, his own promising academic career by rescuing her. Wasn't he also the victim, indirectly, of men's cautious and hypocritical sexual lives? Was this an additional ingredient in his recipe for the salvation of society: early mating and reproducing? Did he feel that those over-prudent young men -- they and their chaste women, preserved like wax fruit under a glass dome -- deserved to be 'punished' by an early pairing-off and a quick buckling-down to their parental responsibilities? Even more speculatively, one might wonder whether Allen saw a personal analogy between his own circumstances, the way he earned his bread, and those of his long-dead wife. At one point, in speaking of the forces compelling the author to meet the needs of the market-place, he has an oddly telling comment:

If you don't supply what the public wants, somebody else will step in and oust you; and the somebody else will survive in the struggle for life, while you go to the wall or into the workhouse. That is the gospel according to Darwin and Malthus applied to art. 'Saltavit et placuit' is all the epitaph you can ever hope for; and not to please is simply fatal.[433]

Allen took his Latin epitaph for the writer-tradesman -- 'he danced and gave pleasure' -- from a Roman grave-stone of a 12-year-old boy from the North, found on the Riviera. It is likely that he was aware of the sexual innuendo, and that he expected his readers to pick it up as well. Perhaps his antipathy towards prostitution, no less than his sympathy for its workers, stemmed partially from his recognition that one can be obliged to service a market in ways other than the sexual.

We see now where The Woman Who Did fails, and, to some degree, why. Its moving force is moral outrage, but the reason for it is never properly articulated, as Allen lacked the ability to find an adequate objective correlative for it. We may speculate that, at one level, he wanted to create a heroine rather like Hardy's Tess Durbeyfield. He admired Tess of the d'Urbervilles enormously, and he read it just as he was working out his own conception of a heroine who is more sinned against than sinning. Probably he too wanted a pathetic heroine who could be offered up on the sacrificial slab of male hypocrisy; one who remains a 'pure woman' even at the gallows' foot.


But if that was his intention, he miscalculated badly. It apparently did not occur to him that it is necessary for a sacrificial victim-heroine to be likeable, vulnerable and pathetic. Tess Durbeyfield, harried from one place to another, bullied and maltreated, arouses all one's protective instincts. But Allen, unlike Hardy, was a polemicist with a case to make, and he had to have a clever and educated woman to act as a mouthpiece. This fatally divided conception means that what he produced was a self-pitying, posturing ideologue whom, even at best, it is impossible to regard as being more than a misguided idealist.


Furthermore, Allen was probably constitutionally incapable of devising any plot, or any character, which would have truly dramatized his views. He is a good example of a type -- the armchair sexual radical -- which flourished briefly in the particular conditions of the 1890s. He started by claiming more than the codes of the day would allow, but within a few years they were permitting more freedom than he was able to take. We recall the Athenaeum's comment about Allen's 'tremors and his timidities and his juvenile consciousness of the delights of naughtiness'.[434] This is a rude observation which needs qualifying in all kinds of ways, but there is some truth in it. His long campaign against the censors and his blustering that he was 'condemned to provide milk for babes' while wishing to 'purvey strong meat for men'[435] always sounded a little factitious. It is surely significant that Allen, who sang the praises of Tess so loudly, was reduced to public silence by Jude the Obscure. Although he thought it was Hardy's best work and the characters of the two women wonderfully drawn, he must have found such a scene such as the one where Jude chases Arabella, with a warm egg between her breasts, up the stairs to her bedroom, stronger meat than he ever wanted to purvey. What we are left with is that 'perfervid' enthusiasm which lingers long after the cardboard characters and implausible motives are forgotten.




[For remainder of book see Part 2]