Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Miss Cayley’s Adventures by Grant Allen

Independent woman travels the world
Canadian-born British author Grant Allen spent his career pushing the boundaries of Victorian England’s conservative mores. As both an essayist and a novelist, Allen often wrote works advocating for such liberal and radical ideas as atheism, socialism, feminism, free love, and the theory of evolution. His 1899 novel Miss Cayley’s Adventures is a protofeminist story of female independence. The title character is an unmarried woman who, after her stepfather’s death, finds herself with nothing to her name but the twopence in her pocket. Rather than find a husband, take a job as a teacher, or confine herself to a convent, Lois Cayley embraces the freedom of having nothing to lose and decides she wants to travel around the world. She then fortuitously stumbles into a series of odd jobs that finance her travels to exotic locations around the globe.

Like a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, the chapter titles all begin with “The Adventure of the . . .” (Cantankerous Old Lady, Magnificent Maharajah, Unprofessional Detective, and so on). Although each chapter focuses on a particular escapade, this is indeed a novel. All the adventures must be read sequentially as one complete narrative, as they culminate in Miss Cayley’s ultimate fate. Some sources (Wikipedia included) state that this book is a detective novel, but that is not accurate. Miss Cayley is not a detective, and her adventures run the gamut from thwarting a crime, fending off a suitor, establishing her own business, or competing in a bicycle race.

In 1899, there were likely hundreds of novels published that featured a penniless young man striking off to make his fortune in the world. The idea of an unmarried woman traveling alone, however, would have been a shock to British readers, and probably to many Americans as well. In the story, Miss Cayley is frequently presumed to be an “adventuress,” that is to say, a woman of easy virtue looking to snag a wealthy husband. Allen, who enjoys satirizing priggish attitudes toward sex and class, endows Miss Cayley with an admirable I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude. She is clearly an intelligent and capable young woman, and one who values personal freedom and happiness over money. Sometimes her confidence comes across as a little too egotistical when she expresses thoughts of self-praise that are meant to come across as spunky or plucky but would seem off-puttingly arrogant if uttered by a male character. The story is light-hearted good fun, more romantic than realistic, and well-told for the most part by Allen. The situations he puts Miss Cayley in are sufficiently lively and complex to maintain the reader’s interest, but comfortably predictable in their good-triumphs-over-evil outcomes. The last few chapters, however, feature a tedious courtroom battle that ends the book on a weak note.

Though Allen was quite liberal for his era, he’s not entirely free from Victorian prejudices, or at least here he compromisingly panders to a more conservative audience in matters of race, sex, and class. Though he wishes to make Cayley the very embodiment of an independent woman, the novel never leaves any doubt that her final destination will be marriage. On a trip to India, Cayley is the only Brit who refuses to refer to the natives by the n-word, yet she blushes at the idea of marrying outside her race. Allen frequently scoffs at class distinctions, yet the events and characters of the narrative continually imply that the upper classes are a cut above the laboring masses, Miss Cayley excepted. Nevertheless, Allen’s novel does make baby steps in the right direction, and it is certainly a refreshing improvement over the racist, sexist, and classist sentiments found in much of English genre fiction at the time. Without succumbing to heavy preachiness, Allen manages to get his views across in a fun story that makes for an entertaining read.
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