By Mary Grover
You will struggle to find out anything much about the author, Ethel Boileau, although the indefatigable Furrowed Middlebrow offers some information about her books. However, you can now find a signed copy of Boileau’s 1936 tome, Clansmen – the story of a Scottish family struggling to maintain their ancestral estate, from just after the Jacobite rising of 1745 to 1936 – on the shelves of Sheffield Hallam University’s special collection of popular fiction 1900-1950.
This copy was donated by Norman Adsetts, after whom the Learning Centre at Hallam is named. As Reading Sheffield’s interview with Norman Adsetts revealed, Boileau was an extremely popular novelist in the 1930s. Norman should know; he grew up in between the shelves of his father’s tuppenny library where his mother would have found her favourite author, whose foreign name the little boy struggled to pronounce.
The cover and contents of Clansmen belie Boileau’s reputation as simply a writer of romance. For a start, it is unusual to find a novel explicitly promoted for its length. The first words on the cover of Clansmen are ‘Ethel Boileau’s long new novel’. Length must have been a quality her fans sought. The length owes a great deal to the time-span: 1747-1936.
Family sagas were popular in the 1930s (as they still are). John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, published in the 1920s, was succeeded by Hugh Walpole’s Rogue Herries (1930-1932); Ethel Mannin’s Children of the Earth (1930 and 1937); and Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna series (1927-1958). But the form was sneered at by modernists (as it is by today’s literary fiction proponents) who set value on the intense, the transitory and the subjective. The narrators of popular sagas of this period tend to assume an unfashionable omniscience.
However, in many ways Clansmen itself is about the value of the subjective, the transitory and intense and is very clear-sighted about the economic realities threatening the enjoyment of any emotional attachments. The only nineteenth century members of the Stewart clan who remain solvent are bankers. However their money is misspent by their relatives, either dissolute or dim. The focus of the main and later part of the book is Alan Stewart. His father having died in the Boer War, just before his birth, he is cared for by his uncle whose crazed and fraudulent stock market dealings wipe out what remains of the money. The generosity of a Jewish financier, Sir Isidore, and the utter loyalty of a retainer, Hector (who alone knows that he is Alan’s illegitimate half-brother), enable Alan to survive, first as an ungifted financier himself and then as a more committed laird. However, at the end of the book the success of this ancient calling is seen to be compromised by Alan’s new wife, a beauty with ‘a past’ and hopelessly bored by the Highlands. Though the dissolute cousin who attempts to seduce this desperate metropolitan beauty is pushed off a cliff by the loyal Hector, the novel ends on a decidedly equivocal note: Hector ‘with his silent stalker’s walk’ turning his back on the image of Alan’s wife in a way that reveals his own desire for her.
Perhaps it is the date when Clansmen came out, 1936, that accounts for its emphasis on the unforeseen and individual helplessness in the context of global war and pervasive economic collapse. The romance is really that of Hector, who loves both master and mistress with no hope of emotional fulfilment himself. The dedication of the novel ‘To All Scots in Exile’ and the prominence of the Stewart heraldic emblem on the cover suggest that this might be a nostalgic novel in which Scottish clans will represent threatened values of loyalty and land. In fact, it is the members of the clan with least connection with the land who make possible the precarious hold the Stewarts have on their shrinking areas of the Highlands. The benefactors of the romantic but rather obtuse Alan are the Jewish financier and a long-dead ancestor who redeemed the family fortunes by running a bank in India. The vast scope of the novel – the Highlands, Edinburgh, Calcutta, the trenches of the First World War, the battlefields of the Boer War, the fleshpots of New York and, very up-to-date, Nazi Germany – conspires to make the Scottish bogs where the action ends up very much on the edge of things, and certainly holding out no hope of stability or sanctuary.
Returning to the reader who first brought Ethel Boileau’s popularity to our attention, Norman Adsetts’ own favourite was a book by Sir Phillip Gibbs, Cities of Refuge (1937). This novel is about the often harsh and tragic fate of White Russians fleeing the revolution. This is a strange book for a six year old to read – yet what an appropriate preparation for the wartime apocalypse through which he was to grow up. The tuppenny library served the young Noman well. Not only did it fire his imagination with romance, comedy and jungle adventures. It also introduced him to the realities of the world into which he had to learn to be an adult through blockbusters (however much these might be derided by 1930s self-styled ‘realists’ or the heirs of Bloomsbury). Clansmen together with Cities of Refuge would have given the seven year Norman more knowledge of the history of twentieth century Europe than a modern boy with greater access to fiction now regarded as more appropriate to his age.