Monday, May 23, 2016

Stories by English Authors: England by Charles Reade, et al.

Mostly familiar formulae and stale humor
Amelia B. Edwards
The ten-volume Stories by English Authors series was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. It follows the same model as the 1884 series Stories by American Authors and the 1898 series Stories by Foreign Authors. Each book is a showcase of 19th century fiction containing from five to seven short stories or novellas. The volumes in the English series are not numbered, but are subtitled according to the setting of the stories. This volume is subtitled England, for example, because all the stories take place in that country. Other volumes include London, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Africa, the Orient, and The Sea. While I have finished reading the American and Foreign series in their entirety, this is the first volume I have read from the English series.

The collection kicks off to an inauspicious start with the initial entry by Charles Reade, entitled “The Box Tunnel.” A young man bets his friend that he can kiss a pretty woman on the train. Following this terrible start (sexual assault must have been funnier a century ago), the tale proceeds in predictable directions. The whole thing could be told in four sentences; the rest is all flowery rhetoric and self-indulgent slang. Reade aims for clever, but ends up with cloyingly cutesy.

Cuteness is a plague that afflicts many of the selections included here. They go through the motions of tried-and-true story formulas, but with a tongue-in-cheek approach that suggests you’re being set up for a zinger of a surprise ending. More often than not, however, the climax fails to zing or surprise. Anthony Hope’s “The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard” is a predictable love story that positively crawls to its foregone conclusion. In “The Three Strangers,” author Thomas Hardy spends an inordinate amount of time heaping on the rural local color before coming to a finale that the reader saw coming a mile away. On the other hand, “Mr. Lismore and the Widow” is truly an excellent story for about 90% of its length. A young man who is on the verge of bankruptcy is approached with an offer of rescue by the aged widow of a man whose life he once saved. The two characters develope a fascinating relationship, but the story is ruined by its ending, which is anything but predictable because it’s totally ridiculous.

Despite household names like Hope, Hardy, and Collins, the honor of best story in the bunch goes to Amelia B. Edwards, whose “The Four-Fifteen Express” begins with a chance encounter between acquaintances on a train and evolves into a mystery story that would have made a good episode of The Twilight Zone. The remaining two entries are OK. “Minions of the Moon” by F. W. Robinson is a tale of highwaymen terrorizing the 18th-century English countryside. Angelo Lewis’s “The Wrong Black Bag” makes the most blatant attempt at comedy, and for the most part it surprisingly succeeds. It’s about a mild-mannered milquetoast who attempts to live it up while his wife’s away, but his adventure doesn’t quite work out as he planned.

Overall, the stories of this collection feel far too familiar to be compelling. The entry by Edwards is really the only selection that pleasantly surprises. Even with seven brief stories crammed into a relatively brief page count, they tend to feel long-winded, as simplistic story lines are fleshed out with all manner of gratuitous wordplay and antiquated humor. Whether or not this volume is indicative of the quality of the Stories by English Authors series as a whole remains to be seen.

Stories in this collection
The Box Tunnel by Charles Reade 
Minions of the Moon by F. W. Robinson
The Four-Fifteen Express by Amelia B. Edwards 
The Wrong Black Bag by Angelo Lewis 
The Three Strangers by Thomas Hardy 
Mr. Lismore and the Widow by Wilkie Collins 
The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard by Anthony Hope

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