Last week one of my Facebook fans recommended I read perhaps the craziest nineteenth-century novel I’ve ever come across –Grant Allen’s 1891 What’s Bred in the Bone. If you’re after a novel with identical twin heroes who get toothache simultaneously, a heroine who struggles to overcome an overwhelming desire to dance with snakes (or feather boas), murder, illegitimacy and a rather morally dubious spell of diamond-hunting in South Africa, (after all who isn’t?!) then this one’s definitely for you. Thanks for the recommendation, Brian!
|The Snake-Charmer, John Evan Hodgson|
For general readers: Allen wrote this novel as a competition entry and it’s not difficult to see why he beat 20,000 other entries to pocket the sizeable £1,000 prize money. What’s Bred in the Bone is ridiculous but also ridiculously fun, and well-written enough to be incredibly readable. The novel isn’t one which leaves readers guessing – it’s apparent to us immediately who the father of the Waring twins must be and, later in the novel, that neither of them is responsible for murder – but it is difficult to guess exactly how everything will work out, especially as the odds mount against the ‘good’ characters. The plot is well thought through (if coincidence-laden), although the central moral – that the pedigree of your breeding will shine through in your actions – may seem a little unsavoury. The ending ties everything together nicely, although I was left with a few important questions. How is Elma an abbreviation of Esmeralda? Did Gilbert Gildersleeve QC ever see his wife do the crazy snake dance? And did Cyril get rid of his snake?!
For students: I think this is definitely one to throw into an essay to impress and amuse your lecturers. What’s Bred in the Bone is interesting in its treatment of criminal justice, Africa and the diamond trade, foreign blood (described as Romanian, gypsy and Oriental), and railway accidents (of which there is a particularly dramatic example in the opening pages). The importance of marital records, level of detail as regards transportation times and written correspondence and trial scene also link the novel to many of the tropes of sensation fiction.
Canadian born Grant Allen is largely under-studied today, apart from his 1895 novel The Woman Who Did (an example of New Woman literature), and What’s Bred in the Bone would be a lively example of some of his lesser-known work. Allen’s prominence as a scientific writer and proponent of evolution is also a notable context for the rather more dubious scientific claims made at times in the novel, which could merit from further study.