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

The senior Allens returned to Canada eventually and took up residence at Alwington, where they lived for the rest of their lives with their unmarried daughter. But their son did not return. Grant Allen could never have made a living from his kind of superior scientific and polemical journalism and novel-writing in Canada. He had to be at the heart of the literary-intellectual world to sell the produce of his pen, and in the last decades of the century that meant London.

There is surely something a trifle melancholy about that sunny Sunday afternoon. Allen could hardly have failed to recognize that a brilliant new star was in the ascendant, working the same patch that he himself had worked as best he could, but with incomparably more energy and inventiveness. Over the last few years of Allen’s life, the young Wells marched from triumph to triumph, demonstrating his ability to ‘domesticate’ (as he called it) a scientific hypothesis in a fashion which Allen, even at his best, could never emulate. Even in the early 1890s some guardians of public opinion did not relish having the clash between science and religion spelt out quite as baldly as Allen does it here; it reminds us, too, that Allen’s polemical style had grown rather more gratingly opinionated with the passage of time. As explicatory writing, this is obviously in the highest class.

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.

The typical John Bull! pig-headed, ignorant, brutal.

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.

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.

They are ‘places for imparting a sham and imperfect knowledge about two extinct languages. Besides, look at our results!.

It seems doubly so when we recall these are the opinions of a youth who one day was going to turn into a sexual renegade with a reputation as a neo-pagan apostle of free love. But there is no real incongruity. His views on French public life were based on personal observation and in any case the essay had an immediate, if concealed, personal application. For by the time his essay appeared in the magazine at the end of 1869 Grant Allen had taken a very surprising step for an upper-class undergraduate of those days.

Outbreaks of cholera and typhus in the slum quarters filled mass graves which had to be dug along the waterfront, and violent feuds among the Irish immigrants, arising from distinctions of class and religion, marked the early years of Allen’s childhood. The most comparable name that comes to mind at once is Allen’s colleague and sparring-partner Andrew Lang (1844-1912). But Lang’s range was mostly literary-historical. Essentially he was a belle-lettrist; in fact, the very archetype of that species.

‘There is absolutely no reason — no moral reason — why you should not publish it’, he told Lane. ‘It merely deals with the conscientious scruples of a woman regarding marriage, and England being a free country we are free to consider marriage as an evil or as a blessing. The book is as superficial in thought as it is in style. At the same time it cannot be denied that there is a certain amount of “go” in the book and it was read with some interest. It carried one on like a newspaper article.

Jefferies’ only regular resource at the start was a weekly column in a trade magazine, the Livestock Journal, but he eventually wrote some 450 essays and articles, which was an impressive total considering that he never saw his fortieth birthday. He contributed nature essays to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1877-80, and then collected them into books — The Gamekeeper at Home (1878), The Amateur Poacher (1879) and Round About a Great Estate (1880) — which is just the same course that Allen followed slightly later. Indeed, Allen’s own articles for the Pall Mall Gazette occupied the same physical space in the newspaper where Jefferies had left off.

During the summer busy journalists like Eliza Lynn Linton took cottages for rest and recreation. Of all the calamities that might crush the professional writer, incapacitating illness was one of the most dreadful. The career of Richard Jefferies, a naturalist, novelist and countryman who was born the same year as Allen, is a reminder of this. Jefferies had an even shorter life, but while it lasted his career and Allen’s marched alongside each other.

As it happened, he had forgotten the house number and was astonished to find, on inquiry along the street, that none of the locals had even heard of his hero. The whites were a mixed bag, the main constituents being the British, some Jews from Portugal and Spain, and French refugees. None of them lived in Kingston if they could help it; everyone of any means occupied the villas, some of them quite grand, which were spotted around on the surrounding hillsides. The local aristocracy was the British planter class, spread across the island on their estates and now mostly living in reduced circumstances. The pride and arrogance of some, and their obsession with racial ‘purity’ (for in truth most had their admixture of African blood) provides the mainspring for one of Allen’s best novels, In All Shades (1886).

His life was short — he died of a brain tumour at 46 — but he devoted it to technical zoological studies and the evolution of the mind in animals and humans, which was one of the most controversial post-Darwinian issues. He contributed prolifically to the periodicals on philosophical questions, especially on the application of Darwinism to religion. He also had literary ambitions as a poet.

Whether the son conformed to, or reacted against, his father’s private philosophical and religious beliefs is also unclear. Joseph Allen resigned his ministry in mid-life over some theological dispute with his bishop, and it’s conceivable that he had a scathing view of the clergy which he transmitted to his son, who, by his own account, was a militant atheist and Darwinian from childhood. His son’s memorable birth year, 1848, the year of European revolutions, also saw the issue of Marx’s Communist Manifesto in England; and the Origin of Species burst on the world when he was eleven. Joseph Allen ensured that their message was not lost on his son. He was himself the author of Day Dreams of a Butterfly, a philosophical poem of appalling length with an appendix of notes citing authorities from Kant to Carlyle.

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