Thursday, June 5, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The King's Jackal, by Richard Harding Davis

The King's Jackal, by Richard Harding Davis

a review by Rich Horton

Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was the son of Rebecca Harding Davis, a fairly well-known and significant writer in her day. His father was a journalist, editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger. So perhaps it's not a surprise that Richard became a very famous journalist and novelist. He was something of a football star in his abbreviated college days (this would have been very early indeed in the history of American football). After being invited to leave two colleges (Lehigh and Johns Hopkins) he became a journalist, gaining a reputation for a flamboyant style and for tackling controversial subjects. (All this from Wikipedia.)

He became a leading war correspondent, and was particularly noted for helping to create the legend of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, and also for his reports on the Boer War. He was also strikingly good looking (so I judge from the picture on his Wikipedia page), and was credited for popularizing the clean-shaven look, and as the model for the the "Gibson Man", the analog to his friend Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl".

Davis was likely better known then, and is still more remembered, for his journalism, but he wrote quite a lot of fiction as well, much of it very successful. (To be sure, there are those who would suggest that some of his journalism was fiction as well!) The only book of his I can find on the Publishers' Weekly fiction bestseller lists (the top ten of each year) is Soldiers of Fortune, the #3 bestseller of 1897. But the book I have is from 1903, The King's Jackal, which comprises two novellas, "The King's Jackal" (30,000 words) and "The Reporter Who Made Himself King" (17000 words). The publication history is a bit complicated, and worth addressing as it hints at some of the publishing world of that time. "The Reporter Who Made Himself King" was written in 1891, and sold to the McClure syndicate for serialization -- presumably it appeared in various newspapers (the Boston Globe being one of them). That same year it was published in a collection, Stories For Boys (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1891); and again in 1896 in another collection, Cinderella and Other Stories. (At a guess, the latter book was considered for adults, while Stories for Boys was marketed for children, so "The Reporter Who Made Himself King" was being repositioned as an adult story (which it surely is) in the second collection.) "The King's Jackal" was serialized in Scribner's Monthly in 4 parts, April 1898 through July 1898. A book edition came out from Scribner's that same year. Finally, in 1903, "The King's Jackal" and "The Reporter Who Made Himself King" were reissued together as The King's Jackal, also from Scribner's. The copyright page for that book, which is the one I have, duly reports "Copyright 1891, 1896, 1898, 1903".

(Let me add thanks to the help of Endre Zsoldos, Denny Lien, Richard Fidczuk, and the excellent resource in clarifying this complex publication history.)

Todd Mason noted of a couple of previous books I reviewed in this series that the covers appeared to be Gibson Girl covers. (I don't know if those covers were actually by Gibson or derivative of him (or even of someone else like Harrison Fisher).) (Indeed, I saw a copy of Harrison Fisher's American Beauties (1909) at an antique mall in St. Joseph, MO, this past weekend, and Fisher strikes me as wholly as important as Gibson in promulgating a turn of the century image of American women.) The King's Jackal truly is illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson. My copy doesn't have a dust jacket, but I've turned up a couple of images of the original dust jacket and it is indeed by Gibson (a reproduction of the frontispiece art from my edition). Above I show (somewhat pointlessly) a picture of the cover of my edition (which is just the Charles Scribner's Sons monogram, really), plus pictures of the title page and frontispiece.

"The King's Jackal" is about the exiled King of Messina. Messina of course is a major city on Sicily. In this novel, it is said that the Republican movement in Italy kicked the King out, and also made the Catholic Church illegal. I don't know if this corresponds very closely to history. It doesn't seem to jibe exactly with the events portrayed in one of my favorite novels, Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard (one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century in my opinion), which is about a Duke in Sicily at the time of the Risorgimento.

Anyway, the King is actually fairly happy to be exiled. He didn't care for the burdens of actually ruling his people, nor did he care for his home. He spends his time in Paris and Tangier and such places, with his mistress and a few fellow exiles. He's a thoroughly nasty man, corrupt, a sexual predator, lazy. He's also running out of money, so he has hatched a scheme to raise a lot of money from loyalist families and from monarchists in general, and to stage a fake invasion of Messina which will fail. Then he'll keep the rest of the money.

The only problem is that a couple of his associates are true believers. These include the title character, Prince Kalonay, called "The King's Jackal" because out of misplaced loyalty to the King he has assisted cynically in his debaucheries. But he has been "saved", as it were, by Father Paul, a monk who is wholly devoted to restoring the Church to Messina. The King is worried that Prince Kalonay and Father Paul, in leading the expedition to Messina, might actually succeed -- so he has had his mistress betray the plans to the General of the Republican forces.

A further complication is Patty Carson, a beautiful young American woman, a devout Catholic, who has pledged a great sum of money to Father Paul to restore the Church. The King's problem is twofold -- one, to keep Patty from figuring out the deception, and, two, to try to get his hands on the money, which she would prefer go straight to Father Paul.

Perhaps predictably, Patty Carson and the Prince Kalonay fall rapidly in love (without revealing their feelings to each other). Kalonay, in particular, considers himself unworthy, due to his previous corrupt ways -- but perhaps if he is successful in his expedition to Messina, he will have restored his honor sufficiently. (The King, meanwhile, considers raping Patty Carson as part of the project, and also because he seems to regard it as sort of his droit de seigneur. He really is a nasty man.) Meanwhile, a heroic American reporter shows up to cause further problems for the King. This is Archie Gordon (who, one thinks, might be modeled in the author's mind on himself), who inconveniently is well acquainted with Miss Carson. Gordon is horrified that Patty is involved with a group of people he knows to be reprobates ... and then he runs into a spy for the Republican side of Messina ... Will he queer the whole pitch by finding out the real plans of the King? Or can Patty convince him to support her goals? Or ...

It ends more or less as one might expect, though curiously (and, I think, correctly), at the psychological climax -- we are never to know how things really turn out, but we do know how Prince Kalonay and Patty Carson and even Archie Gordon are changed, and what they plan to do. Not great stuff but fairly enjoyable in its way.

"The Reporter Who Made Himself King" is cynical as well, but in a different and much more comical way. The protagonist is another journalist named A. Gordon -- A for Albert in this case. He's a young pup just out of college, and desperate to find a war to cover, but there are no wars on the horizon. So he decides to write a novel instead, and jumps at the chance to serve as secretary for the newly appointed American Consul to the remote and tiny Pacific island Opeki. On arriving at the beachfront village where the tribe with whom the US apparently has established tenuous relations, the Consul immediately quits, leaving the job to Albert. His only assistants are a very young telegraph operator for a nearly defunct telegraph company, and two British seamen, deserters. Soon he realizes that war threatens, in the form of another tribe, which lives in the interior hills of the island and periodically raids the coastal tribe.

Albert convinces the local King to start an army for defense purposes, but when the hill tribe invades, things don't go quite as planned, mainly because a German ship has shown up with the intention of planting their flag on the island, and they have negotiated with the hill tribe. Albert manages to convince the Kings of both tribes that that isn't a good solution, and he gets them, implausibly, to agree to make him King temporarily. And then he manages, more or less, by accident, to provoke a hostile response from the Germans. Which would be no big deal, except the telegraph company, on receiving Albert's report (his first war correspondence!) decides to rather exaggerate what happened, risking starting a war between the US and Germany.

Again the story ends more or less at the climax -- when we realize exactly what sort of fix the characters have got into, but not how things will end. Which works out fine in this case as well. Here Davis' intent is more purely comical, along with a fair amount of satirical comment on the influence of the news media on national relations, and their culpability in fanning the flames of war (something Davis himself was accused of later). Again, not a bad story, fairly funny at times. (And, I must add somewhat obviously, somewhat racist in its depiction of the natives, though perhaps this is blunted a bit because none of this is really intended to be taken at all seriously.)

1 comment:

  1. I have to ask you (though I am not going to wait for an answer) why in the world you read old books since you are SO sensitive and adept to PC. It boggles the mind!