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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – September 2017 (3)

What’s Bred In The Bone – Grant Allen

This book, not to be confused with Robertson Davies’ 1985 novel of the same name, is a racy, page-turner, romp of an adventure, mystery story. It was published in 1891and was an entry into a literary competition organised by George Newnes, the publisher of Titbits magazine, which attracted some 20,000 entries. Allen wrote the book in double quick time and scooped the prize of a thousand smackers. It was a sensational success.

By that time he was already a prolific writer, not only of fiction but of articles and books of scientific interest. In particular, he was a stout proponent of evolutionary theory. Today, however, he is pretty much forgotten. Perhaps there are too many vestiges of jingoism and the little Englander for the modern taste. A shame, perhaps, as he knew how to write a ripping yarn.

The story has a bit of everything. A near catastrophic railway accident in which a tunnel collapses leaves the two protagonists, Elsa and Cyril, one of the Waring twins, in close proximity in fear of their life. Inevitably, they fall in love but the path of true love does not run smoothly. Elsa is fascinated by Cyril’s snake – there ought to be a Freudian sub-text to this but this was written in more innocent times – and we soon see she has a hidden side. One of her characteristics, which she shares with her female relatives – they come from Romany stock – is her deep insight into people’s psyches. She is also overcome in moments of high personal drama with the desire to dance with snakes or, at least, a feather boa if a reptile is not to hand. This is England after all.

Yes, the plot is ridiculous but Allen has the panache to pull it off. There is a murder, a case of mistaken identity – having twins as central characters is helpful, I suppose – and the danger of a grave miscarriage of justice. It is not a whodunit – we know who committed the murder – and the main interest of the book is how the innocence of Guy Waring is going to be established, particularly as with each twist and turn of the plot his predicament seems to worsen. I won’t spoil the story but feelings of remorse on the part of the real murderer prompted by Elsa’s astonishing ability to get into their head wins out. The book ends happily ever after with most, if not all, of the loose ends tied up.

Guy’s adventures include a spell digging for diamonds in South Africa – successfully, naturally – and it is this part of the book that may most offend as the natives are depicted as little more than uncouth savages. But, alas, that was the overriding view of the times, even amongst evolutionists and scientists. In a world where we are accustomed to accepting that a good DNA sample will unlock the key to identities, it is fascinating to be reminded that around 120 years ago marital records and ledgers recording births and deaths were of paramount importance. And a chap can’t get around at all without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the railway timetables.

It is a rather dated novel and one which is heavily imbued with the racism and sexism of the age but also one that sheds a fascinating insight into how our forefathers saw the world. The central moral of the story is, as the title points out, that breeding will out and will shine through your actions – a concept that can only prompt a snort of derision today. The plotting is ridiculous and heavily reliant upon coincidence – but then even the best novelists are guilty of having clunking plots – and in less skilled hands the book could easily crash into an unedifying heap. But if you can suspend your prejudices and finer critical judgment, you are in for a great few hours of entertainment.

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