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Hall Caine
Vivien Allen

Hall Caine: Portrait of a Victorian Romancer
Vivien Allen
Sheffield Academic Press
Sheffield 1997
Cloth: £37.50 1850756953
Paper: £16.95 1850758093

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Hall Caine (1835-1931) was a highly successful writer of sensational romances whose work is now generally forgotten and who is remembered, if at all, largely for his reminiscences of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. There are many reasons for writing and reading biographies of ‘minor’ writers, even those which do not challenge that ‘minor status’. Such biographies offer relief from the recurrent ‘lives of the saints’ approaches to the same major writers which fail, predictably, to provide biographical and historical explanations for literary excellence. Minor writers may offer approaches to literary and social milieux whose representation tends to be skewed by a focus on more widely known figures. Indeed, biographies of writers who have been but are no longer very popular may tell us more about the establishment of literary reputation than examinations of those figures who have remained in the pantheon or who have been reinserted into it, Vivian Allen’s book prompts some questions about reputation and literary history, but unfortunately does little to answer them.

Allen’s extensive research uncovers some entertaining and promisingly diverse material. Dr. Tumblety (at one time principal suspect in the Ripper murders), the remnants of Rossetti’s circle, George Bernard Shaw, Lord Northcliffe, Bram Stoker (who dedicated Dracula to Caine) and Alfred Hitchcock (whose last silent film was a version of Caine’s The Manxman) all make appearances. Caine made much of his origins in the Isle of Man, and his novels rely heavily on offering their readers exotic or peripheral settings, whether in Man, Egypt or Iceland. His novels also return frequently to the theme of illegitimacy, and in his own life the illegitimacy of his own son refused to be buried, as did that of his granddaughter. Allen notes these points but seems more consistently concerned than Caine himself to make the novelist conform, to make him ordinary. The complications of Caine, who had supported the raising of the age of consent to 16 but married a girl whom he was initially accused of ‘ruining’ when she was 13, his probable homosexuality, excessive self-advertisement, active political life and sartorial eccentricity are all noted only to be played down. The difference and pastness of the past, political conflict, issues concerning social diversity and mobility are lost in a generalising and normalising style, which relies far too heavily on what people ‘must have’ felt or thought according to some unspoken assumption of common understanding.

Even Caine’s association with Rossetti, which Allen shows to have been of enormous personal importance to Caine himself, becomes a matter of tedious domestic detail and diary reading. Allen states that ‘He [Rossetti] told Caine a great deal in confidence about his marriage, his mistresses and his impotence but one cannot imagine he admitted to being mad.’ Sadly, we seem to be discouraged from imagining or inquiring at all. Some relations between the life and the work are suggested, but never really examined. Caine fictionalised not only events from his own experience, but also others like Rossetti’s famous exhumation of his own wife’s body to retrieve a manuscript. (Rossetti’s family were unimpressed by Caine’s resurrection of this episode). But Caine’s persistent digging up of his own life for the purposes of fiction is not subjected to any real scrutiny.

Allen does not provide enough quotations from original sources (there are no notes), and the few direct quotations are too brief. A reference to Michael Collins does not inspire confidence, since it reverses the political position which led to his death. In general, the reader is dissuaded from exercising any active interest at all. Which is a pity, because many of the details of Caine’s life which Allen relates offer great opportunities for re-examining literary respectability and ephemerality, familiarity and exoticism, popularity and acceptability. Allen raise subjects which promise to fascinate, but then tells us in excessive detail about a hot water bottle or about railway carriages instead. The conclusion merely reiterates the question ‘Why was Hall Caine so popular?’, and this mystery, which perplexed some contemporaries as well, is simply left as a strange fact to be accepted like Caine’s bizarre, haunting gaze as displayed in many of the portraits reproduced here.

Reviewed by Ben Hawes


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