Monday, July 19, 2021

The Modern Prometheus by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Guilt-ridden romance
E. Phillips Oppenheim
I recently discovered the work of British author E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) and have enjoyed reading a couple of his books. He published over 100 novels, most of them thrillers involving espionage, crime, or political intrigue, and many of them bestsellers. Other than 
The Great Impersonation, which is probably his best-known work, I really don’t know which of his books are considered his best. So when I decided to read more Oppenheim, I just scrolled through the novels in the Delphi Classics’ Collected Works of E. Phillips Oppenheim and chose one randomly by title. Looking for a shorter work, I settled on The Modern Prometheus, published in 1896. The title intrigued me because it is reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. I did not expect Oppenheim’s novel to bear any similarity to Frankenstein, but it is surprising that the story doesn’t seem to have any relation at all to the myth of Prometheus.

In the opening chapter, we are introduced to Francis Kernham, a reluctant celebrity in his hometown of London. He is a self-made man who has struck it rich digging for gold in a foreign land (the details of his meteoric career are never really revealed). He has returned to London for the first time in a decade, and his primary goal is to track down an old flame. Ten years earlier, Kernham was a struggling writer in a relationship with an equally struggling young actress. He left her to seek his fortune, knowing full well that he was possibly abandoning her to an iniquitous fate, forcing her to capitalize on her beauty and become a “kept woman” (somebody’s mistress) in order to survive. Motivated by both love and guilt, Kernham is now resolved to find his lost lover and face the truth of her unknown fate.

Oppenheim’s forte may be spy stories and adventure tales, but this is just a romance, and a rather dreary one. It is unclear to the reader why any two people in this novel are in love with each other because we never actually see any of the characters enjoying one another’s company. Though there’s a lot of grandiose talk here about love, the only factors that seem to bind couples together are money and physical attraction. The latter element might be sufficiently captivating for a movie, depending on the casting, but not for Victorian prose. For a novel of this era, The Modern Prometheus is admirably forward in its discussions of premarital and extramarital affairs. This is no erotic thriller that capitalizes on scandalousness, however. The narrative is still hampered by the Victorian code of mores that binds gentleman and ladies. Any sexuality that’s hinted at in the narrative only serves to pile on more guilt.

For the first half of the book, Oppenheim does a great job of keeping the reader guessing as to what exactly is going on between Kernham and his mystery woman. Each chapter ends with a bit of a cliffhanger that makes one look forward to the succeeding chapter. Once the basic premise is revealed and established, however, the novel becomes awfully formulaic and clichéd. In scenes seen countless times in old movies and pulp fiction, the characters all take turns renouncing love in the name of honor.

The Modern Prometheus is one of Oppenheim’s earlier works, so perhaps he was still finding his mature authorial voice. His later works call to mind the thrillers of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. Though this novel was a disappointment, I will continue to delve blindly into Oppenheim’s prodigious body of work, where I know there are gold nuggets to be found.
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