Grant Allen Essay - Critical Essays


Grant Allen would be surprised, at the very least, to find that he is best remembered as a writer of popular fiction. Allen considered himself a naturalist and a philosopher, a disciple of Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, and Charles Darwin. He began writing short stories as a way to illustrate scientific points. His first published work of fiction, “Our Scientific Observations on a Ghost,” for example, was not a ghost story but a tale that showed how people could be led to believe in ghosts. Allen described the further circumstances that led to his becoming a writer of fiction in the preface to Twelve Tales, with a Headpiece, a Tailpiece, and an Intermezzo, Being Select Stories (1899). James Payn, on assuming the editorship of the Cornhill magazine, returned one of Allen’s scientific articles and at the same time wrote to “J. Arbuthnot Wilson” (one of Allen’s pseudonyms) to request more short stories. After this, Allen said he was well “on the downward path which leads to fiction.”

One can still see in Allen’s fiction the influence of his scientific interests, his evolutionary philosophy, and his antiauthoritarian politics. In fact, he turned some of his later fiction into a forum for his views on society. He was most infamous in his lifetime for the novel The Woman Who Did (1895), which presents the radical view that marriage is an unnecessary institution.

Allen’s political leanings are evident in his assignment of guilt and innocence. He criticizes the police for seeing only the crime and not the context that may have caused it; in one episode of Hilda Wade, for example, a murderer is presented as morally innocent because his wife’s personality drove him to murder. On the whole, Allen does not hold the police force or professional detectives in high regard. In fact, in one short story, “The Great Ruby Robbery,” as well as one episode of An African Millionaire, it is the detective who is the criminal. The worst offenders, for Allen, are members of the upper class, regardless of whether they have broken the law. This view is very clearly expressed in An African Millionaire, in which crimes committed by a confidence man against a businessman are presented as morally justifiable.

Allen thought of himself as a supporter of women’s rights, though his view that a husband should be excused of the murder of a nagging wife hardly strikes one as liberated. He did believe, however, that women should hold positions in the workforce equal to those of men, and that the English system of chaperoning women was merely another form of imprisonment. These views on women come across most forcefully in his portrayal of strong female characters, especially Miss Cayley of Miss Cayley’s Adventures and the title character of Hilda Wade. Both these heroines could be said to be competing with Sherlock Holmes, as they are probably among the first female detectives to appear in print.

Miss Cayley’s Adventures

Of the two works, Miss Cayley’s Adventures is much more enjoyable and much more consistent in tone. Miss Cayley sets off at the beginning of the novel with twopence to her name, determined to travel around the world and have adventures. She is not disappointed. Among her many exploits are rescuing an Englishwoman from an Arabian harem, shooting tigers in India, and saving her lover from a mountain cliff in Switzerland. The stories never pretend to be grounded in reality, but rather have the spirit of rip-roaring yarns. Miss Cayley is a bold, spontaneous, never-say-die heroine. About to leave England in search of her first adventure, she describes her modus operandi to her more conservative friend Elsie:I shall stroll out this morning . . . and embrace the first stray enterprise that offers. Our Bagdad teems with enchanted carpets. Let one but float my way, and hi! presto! I seize it. I go where glory or a modest competence waits me. I snatch at the first offer, the first hint of an opening.

Very soon into her adventures, Miss Cayley meets an extremely wealthy young man, Harold Tillington. Miss Cayley refuses to marry Harold, though, because he is so much richer than she; she vows to marry him only when he is penniless and forlorn. The detective plot serves mostly to bring those circumstances about. Toward the end of the novel, Harold is wrongfully accused of fraud by his cousin, a reprehensible member of the aristocracy. Just before he is led away to prison, Miss Cayley marries him and then proceeds to prove his innocence.

Hilda Wade

Hilda Wade is more centrally concerned with crime and detection. Hilda Wade is on a quest to clear her father of the accusation of murder by proving that the real criminal is a renowned doctor, Sebastian. Hilda Wade is presented as a female version of Sherlock Holmes. She has astonishing powers of intuition that match his powers of deduction. She also has a chronicler and admirer, Dr. Cumberledge, to match Holmes’s Watson. When...

(The entire section is 2067 words.)