‘THE BUSIEST MAN IN ENGLAND: GRANT ALLEN’: Book Part 1

G. Wells came closer, in passages of his science fiction, but he soon moved into social polemics. No modern scientific writer for a popular audience could do better. No one — in our own time neither Jay Gould, nor Wolpert, nor John Gribbin nor even the brilliant stylist Richard Dawkins — could have come up with that opening extended analogy. It is a stroke of playful genius, absurd and charming (‘while Shakespere and Moliere, crowned with summer roses, sipped their Falernian at their ease beneath the whispering palmwoods of the Nevsky Prospect’), and at the same time it drives home its educational point. Anyone who isn’t sure whether pterodactyls were around to fly past the nose of a tyrannosaurus, or whether a stegosaurus trampled grass or some other herbage underfoot is likely to check a textbook when he remembers that image of Homer smoking his pipe at the Mermaid.

He went back to Alwington as a mature man probably only twice, once on a flying visit mentioned above, in 1875 or 1876; and again during a tour of eastern North America in the summer of 1886. In many ways, which we will be considering later, Allen was a renegade and an outsider, and like many other expatriate writers was fiercely critical of British institutions, which caused some animosity. For example, his views on sexual and marital relations were partly formed, as he said himself, by the rather freer mores of the New World. Some of his stories and essays turn on this point.

Certainly the family home in Broad Street, in the centre of the town, must have been congenial enough for the Oxonian brothers-in-law, because both the Allen and Richards families spent a good deal of time there. Allen loved the Lyme area and wrote a good deal about its topography and remarkable palaeontology. Such an eager anticipation of a regime of communistic puritanism would seem odd in almost any young man.

Such views, reinforced by his reading of Spencer’s Sociology, formed early in Allen’s life and he retained them to the end. ] The pompous sub-title to the collection, Reminiscences of Excursions round the Base of Helicon, Undertaken for the Most Part in Early Manhood is a typical piece of mock self-disparagement. When exactly the poems were written is unknown.

They would stroll across the park to the Athenaeum club, where Spencer played billiards most afternoons. If Allen is to be believed, he was even given the password which gained entry to the bare room over the Bayswater milk shop which Spencer rented as a study and to which virtually nobody ever went. Spencer’s influence on Allen’s scientific and philosophical thinking continued unabated to the end.

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Zola himself, despite the Vizetelly prosecution, showed up in London in 1893 and was treated as a celebrity. Ibsen’s three astonishing plays were seen in unlicensed London productions. Everyone concerned had survived these experiences without feeling the policeman’s hand on their collars. Some had made money too, even if they had had to absorb a lot of abuse. Hardy’s Jude appeared uncut late in 1895 and certainly touched the very edge of toleration.

————–SPORTING INTELLIGENCE.…

Dorking today is a commuter town which has suffered some monstrously ugly development over the last fifty years, much of it at the expense of the old. Two of the most grievous losses, both praised by Allen in various essays, were Deepdene, a great house and garden demolished in favour of a nondescript office block in the 1960s, and the small, elegant Rookery, Thomas Malthus’s home. But in Allen’s time Dorking had the advantage of being utterly rural — it consisted of just one long, old-fashioned main street with its antique coaching inn, the White Horse, halfway along it — while still being on the direct line to Victoria. This was the perfect combination for the not-yet-prosperous writer, and this part of Surrey had long been popular with authors.

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‘ Presumably Allen would have favoured George Orwell’s observation that there are some ideas so stupid that only an intellectual can be made to believe them. It’s unlikely that Allen got L450 this time from the Graphic, but he was certainly moving towards a total return, from all sources, of about L600 for one of his three-deckers by the time he had reached mid-point in his career. The Graphic also took The Scallywag (1893), which received the best reviews of any of Allen’s novels; by the time Watt had sold off all the rights piecemeal, it had certainly earned L700 or more.

Huxley received hundreds of books from aspiring scientists and philosophers, and usually dispatched a note of gruff praise when he could. Even the fact that Darwin, then near the end of his life, praised Allen’s work does not mean a great deal. Darwin was famous for his generous enthusiasm towards anyone who was following in his footsteps. In this case his praise was more likely to be forthcoming because Allen spoke up for the mechanism of sexual selection, which Darwin’s critics were then condemning as an afterthought brought in to patch up the apparently ineradicable weaknesses in the natural selection hypothesis.

‘You proposed to give me L2 for my opinion of this book. I have given it now send me the L2. Short accounts make long friends’. However offensive the language here, the reviewer had struck shrewdly at Allen’s Achilles’ heel, his much-cherished ability to spot and exploit new trends before anyone else. This time he was had fallen in danger of missing the boat.

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