Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Miss Cayley's Adventures - Grant Allen

Grant Allen was a happy discovery courtesy of a Penguin compendium of Victorian women in crime, I read An African Millionaire last year and loved it so was delighted to get 'Miss Cayley's Adventures' at Christmas (it's also available free as an ebook from project Gutenberg). Miss Cayley started life in The Strand magazine and this book is a series of almost independent short stories which loosely come together as a novel originally published in 1899.

Lois Cayley finds herself freshly graduated from Girton, utterly bereft of family, and with no greater means than two pence to her name. She is however a remarkably resourceful as well as attractive young woman so she sets off to travel the world working on the theory that one can be alone and flat broke anywhere so one might as well make it somewhere new and interesting.

In her first adventure she fall in with a cantankerous old lady who knew her father - the old lady happens to be in need of a companion to escort her to a German spa so Lois seizes the day and offers her services. En route she foils an attempt to steal the old ladies diamonds. Having increased her fortune to £2 and found herself in Germany, Lois is well on her way to adventures which will take her to Switzerland selling bicycles, Florence working as a secretary, Egypt as a journalist, India as the tiger hunting guest of a maharajah (this is my favourite episode) and back to England again to prove the innocence of the man she loves. 

Lois is an engaging heroine, she's the athletic as well as the academic sort, and her cycling and rowing abilities are just as useful in her adventures as her knowledge of maths and chemistry. She has her limitations - the tiger episode is so funny because it's sheer dumb luck that saves the day, but basically she's one of the most able and amusing heroines you're likely to find in fiction. Mostly this is light reading intended to be funny  but Allen makes some interesting points which have nothing to do with humour at all.

Most obvious is that his Miss Cayley is such a capable girl. Nothing defeats her, not tigers, not con artists, not loneliness, and most definitely not poverty but there is a price to be paid for this adventurous lifestyle. When stuck in the witness box her unfeminine behaviour is used against her and we have to wonder how she'll save the situation - save it she does. 

Even more interesting to me though is Allen, and Miss Cayley, on the subject of race - for all the books I read from this period, and all the casual racism therein, this is the first time I've seen it discussed and challenged - specifically with reference to India. It's made clear that nigger is a term of abuse and a word no lady should be comfortable using and Allen takes the time to expose the double standard that operates in the attitude the English display towards their Indian hosts along with a complete and inexcusable lack of respect. 

Funny, interesting, and free if you read it electronically - what's not to love.   


  1. This sounds absolutely wonderful - I have downloaded it already! She does sound like just my sort of heroine.

  2. I haven't heard of this one and am definitely going to read it. The point you bring up about racism is interesting as it's pretty rare in novels written before a certain period. Intriguing.

    1. It is interesting, even more so because the preceding chapter is set in Egypt and has no very warm views towards Arabs or Muslims. It's not that Allen is especially enlightened, though comparatively he is, it's just the first time I've even seen the discussion in a book this age.

  3. I'm so pleased to find somebody else loving this book. I bought the Valancourt Books a few years ago, and Miss Cayley charmed me.

  4. I saw your review - and have the same copy - agreed wholeheartedly with everything you said. It's a little gem of a book!

  5. could you check out my literature blog please?! http://literaturespy.blogspot.co.uk/

  6. Oh yes, I've read the same Penguin collection of Victorian female detective stories via the library but I didn't realise there were more Cayley stories to hunt. I love Allen's The Woman Who Did as well, not sure if you've read it but it's a good convention-bucking look at a woman who essentially opts out of a regular relationship and deals with all the consequences without blinking.

  7. I'll hunt out 'The Woman Who Did' as I've really enjoyed the Allen I've read so far. Valencourt publish Miss Cayley if you prefer paper books, but it's also free to download. Penguin publish 'The African Millionaire' which is also very funny and it's quite likely that can be downloaded free too from somewhere. I just think he's brilliant.