Sunday, April 29, 2018

What's Bred in the Bone - Grant Allen

Grant Allen is one of those prolific Victorians with all sorts of interests who make me feel a) very much of an under achiever, and b) that he would be a great guest for one of those fantasy dinner parties.

I first came across him in an anthology of short stories (it might have been about Victorian lady detectives - it would certainly have been along those lines, unfortunately I'm not at home right now so can't check). A couple of his best books (An African Millionare, and Miss Cayley's Adventures) have been reprinted and are really worth seeking out, more are available as free downloads.

I've read a couple of these now, there was 'The Woman Who Did' about a girl who has, on principle, a child out of wedlock and suffers for it. Allen's attitude throughout is that its society that's wrong, not his heroine. It's interesting if melodramatic, its value now more as a record of changing attitudes than anything else.

In terms of quality 'What's Bred in the Bone' is even worse. It's something between a sensation novel and a science fiction work focused on evolution and genetic inheritance. It's startlingly un PC for the modern reader. I finished it because even here Allen's humour is a redeeming feature, and because as the current scandal about how the Windrush generation are being treated unfolds it was a useful reminder of colonial attitudes.

The plot goes something like this; a young woman (Elma) finds herself sharing a train compartment with a handsome young artist and his snake, they get trapped in a tunnel when it caves in, and almost die before rescue comes, during which process they more or less fall in love with each other. Home and safe, Elma is overcome by a desire to dance with a snake. She thinks she's going mad, but it turns out that she's descended from a long line of eastern snake dancing prophetesses and this is her nature asserting itself. It also explains her uncanny intuition.

Meanwhile Cyril the artist turns out to be an identical twin, and moreover the twins do not know who their parents are. This makes Elma's parents unwilling to consider a marriage. Then the boys father is faced with them, and overcome by some overdue remorse for the frankly shitty way he's behaved he attempts to buy them off whilst still hiding their true inheritance from them. He's doing this partly to protect a third son who doesn't know he isn't the legitimate heir. Then there's some stuff about a forgery, a murder, twin Guy and his unknown half brother (who foes know that Guy and Cyril are his brothers now, but doesn't bother to mention it, or tell Guy that he's wanted for murder) find themselves in South Africa looking for diamonds. They then get taken prisoner for 18 months and some more melodrama happens before they get home and Guy finally discovers he's wanted for murder before being tried by the very judge who actually did the murder.

Fortunately Elma's intuition means she knows who is guilty, and after Guy is wrongly found guilty she stares the judge down until he confesses. Then everyone lives happily ever after. Apart from the judge, who dies.

It's the description of Elma's father that really made me stick with this book. He's a bit of a non entity, nothing more than "a ridiculous old peacock. He was administrator of St.Kitts once upon a time, I believe, or was it Nevis or Antigua? I don't quite recollect I'm afraid; but anyhow, some comical little speck of a sugary, niggery, West Indian island...'

It's such an offensive, arrogant, dismissive, description on every level. It says so much about the world view that produced it, and quite a lot about the prejudice and outright racism we have inherited as a society, and continue to pass down.

'What's Bred in the Bone' isn't a good book on any scale, and nothing about it has aged well. My guess is that it was trashy fiction when it was written (Grant at his best is really good) and it's deservedly fallen into near oblivion. The other side of that though is that we're all to ready and willing to airbrush out less acceptable views from our collective pasts, ignore unpalatable prejudices unless we have to, as when debating Dicken's anti-semitism (or getting worked up about Georgette Heyer's for that matter).

Confronting those attitudes in books like this is a shock (I was certainly shocked by it). It's the casual dismissiveness of that 'some comical little speck' etc line that's somehow worse than all the later talk of savages and natives. The language we use, it seems, has changed far faster than the underlying attitudes about places and people. And that's something that needs to be confronted.


  1. Urgh. I loved Miss Cayley, quite liked An African Millionare, my patience was tested by The Woman Who Did, but this one... I think I should thank you for doing the hard yards as I'd quite likely have eventually got around to picking it up!

  2. It didn't really have any redeeming features, but I did find it interesting against the background of the latest Windrush scandal. It's to easy to ignore this kind of uncomfortable history these days - literally lock it away in vaults in the case of some art, or leave (admittedly bad) books out of print, sometimes it's necessary to be reminded of the less palatable attitudes in recent history.

  3. I read this a few weeks ago and didn't comment at the time, but it's stayed with me. I've had similar stepped-on-a-rake moments of shock lately (there's a horrifying bit in R C Sherriff's mostly very cosy Greengates, for instance). I found this post really helpful as a way of processing - to see such moments as useful as well as shocking, a necessary reminder/corrective. Thank you.

  4. I think it is helpful to confront those attitudes sometimes, otherwise it's very easy to forget how pervasive they were and how far reaching their effect, but it's unpleasant when we do, especially when it's a writer you've otherwise thought well of. At least with this book the over all quality was so poor that I could consign it to a virtual dustbin (it was an ebook) but if the writing and ideas are otherwise good it's even worse somehow.