Thursday, March 15, 2018

Old Bestseller: The Masquerader, by Katherine Cecil Thurston

Old Bestseller: The Masquerader, by Katherine Cecil Thurston

a review by Rich Horton

Finally back to a sure thing Old Bestseller, from a writer with an appropriately dramatic personal life. Katherine Cecil Madden was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1875. Her father was a banker who later became Mayor of Cork. She married an English writer, Ernest Temple Thurston, who was four years younger than her, in 1901. Katherine had already been publishing short fiction, and her first novel, The Circle, appeared in 1903. Her second novel was John Chilcote, M. P., in 1904. This was retitled The Masquerader for American publication (a much better title, I think). It was a huge success -- the third bestselling novel of 1904 and the seventh bestselling novel of 1905, according to Publishers' Weekly. Her next novel, The Gambler, was the sixth bestselling novel of 1905, and her last novel, Max, was the fourth bestselling novel of 1910. While her husband was at first supportive, and turned some of her stories into plays, he apparently became resentful of her success relative to his. (He eventually did become a fairly popular writer.) They separated in 1907. After their eventual divorce, Katherine became engaged to a physician, A. T. Bulkeley-Green, but shortly before their planned marriage, in 1911, she died of an epileptic seizure. Her death was immediately the subject of rumors, however -- some though it might have been a suicide, some thought murder. Poisoning would have been the cause, which of course in the public mind suggested her physician fiancé as a suspect. My personal suspicion, based on very limited knowledge, is that she actually did die as a result of a siezure (she had a history of such attacks), and that the speculation of a more lurid cause was just sensationalism (perhaps abetted by the sensational plots of her novels).

So, to John Chilcote, M.P. aka The Masquerader. My edition seems possibly the American First, published by Harper and Brothers in October 1904. The flyleaf is signed "To Father from Lulu, Nov. 19, 1904". There are illustrations by Clarence F. Underwood. Though Harper's had a London office, the U. K. edition appears to have been from Blackwood (Edinburgh and London). (For some unexplained reason, the Publishers' Weekly page on 1904 bestsellers claims the book was anonymous, but my copy, and copies I've seen of the Blackwood UK first, are clearly attributed to Katherine Cecil Thurston.)

I'll start by saying that I really enjoyed this novel. And I'll immediately qualify that -- the story is pretty preposterous. And there's a lot of guff about masculine character vs. feminine character, and how a wife's greatest duty and joy is to get out of the way when her husband needs to be doing man stuff. It's interesting to think about this in light of the apparent problems in her marriage, and the way her husband resented the fact that she was more successful than he. But: it's a bestseller of a certain distinct type (there is, for one thing, some definite resemblance to The Prisoner of Zenda, though it's not a Ruritanian-style novel at all), and it executes its plot well, makes the central love story fairly convincing, and is an engaging book to read.

The story opens with John Chilcote, M. P., leaving the House of Commons one night and getting lost in the fog. By happenstance he bumps into another man -- and is shocked to see that this man, John Loder, is his exact double. They talk briefly, and we gather that Loder is somewhat down on his luck -- his father blew the family fortune, and Loder himself was unlucky in a love affair and has sworn off women; while Chilcote is outwardly very successful, but inwardly tormented by his addiction to morphia (morphine).

We follow Chilcote some more, see him neglecting his duties, learn that his marriage is loveless, see him interacting with his mistress, an empty-headed and manipulative woman. And then, in something like despair, and prompted by his mistress' mention of a current bestselling book in which two men who look alike change positions, Chilcote hatches a crazy idea -- he will go to John Loder and offer him money to take his place for a week or so at a time, while Chilcote indulges in his morphia cravings.

After some resistance, Loder agrees. And what he had intended to be just a rote fill-in job becomes something different when Chilcote's wife Eve somewhat contemptuously relays a message from Chilcote's mentor, the Tory leader Fraide, asking him to get a grip and fulfill his potential. As it happens, a crisis is on hand -- Russia is making trouble in Pakistan, and the Whig government, now in power, is vacillating. Loder plunges right in and starts making headway. Both Eve and Fraide notice the change in him ... and then Chilcote is ready to change places again.

This seesaws back and forth a couple of times -- Chilcote relapses and Loder takes over, then Chilcote comes back. Eve can tell the difference, though she doesn't know the reason, and she begins to see some hope that her marriage can be rekindled. Fraide too is excited, and he assigns Chilcote/Loder a key speech asking for more action against Russia. But by happenstance, Loder as Chilcote encounters Chilcote's mistress -- and, shockingly, she is the same woman who had disappointed him in his previous life. (I told you this was pretty preposterous.) Loder is torn between fear of being exposed, and his pride in his new accomplishments -- but especially torn between his growing feelings for Eve and his moral beliefs that as she is another man's wife he must renounce her, must come to a decision.

Spoilers follow ...
(illustration by Charles F. Underwood)

Loder decides to tell Chilcote they must stop this masquerade. He needs to leave the country and build himself a new life. But Chilcote is in terrible straits -- he begs Loder for one more night to lose himself in his addiction. Loder agrees -- and is indeed somewhat complicit in allowing Chilcote to take an unusually large dose. Loder goes home to Eve, and reveals all to her, telling her that he must leave. They both go to Chilcote, meaning to try to straighten him out -- but, no surprise, they find him dead. Loder still believes his duty is to leave, so as not to compromise Eve. But Eve has other ideas -- she insists that Loder as Chilcote has become too important to his country, in his role as Fraide's right hand man (Fraide has been asked to form a government): so, leaving aside her obvious desire to become fully his "wife", he has a duty to England to stay and take over Chilcote's identity.

(We note, of course, that that's exactly what Rudolf Rassendyll does NOT do in The Prisoner of Zenda!)

So -- yes it's preposterous. But I really did enjoy it. Besides the substitution plot, and the love story, there is a fair amount of political neep: I'm not sure that it's really that accurate, but it's fairly interest
ing anyway. A perfect example of the sort of novel that one understands both why it was a bestseller and why it's not a lasting classic. And of that set of novels, one of the more enjoyable reads.

No comments:

Post a Comment