Novels of long ago

Published on December 17th, 2010

Elizabeth Cran

Topics : Formac Publishing , Halifax society , The Guardian , Halifax , St. Lawrence River , England Some years ago,

Formac Publishing of Halifax began republishing a number of 19th and early 20th century novels, successful in their day, but now unknown.

Most of the once best-selling authors are now forgotten too; among the few exceptions are Sir Charles G. D. Roberts and Ralph Connor.

Twenty-two novels have preceded the latest ones in the series: A Detached Pirate by Helen Milecete (Susan Morrow Jones, 1900); and The Lady of the Ice by James de Mille (1870). Both books have their original illustrations.

The Lady of the Ice is ridiculous, funny, melodramatic, satirical and more. It opens with a frighteningly realistic description of crossing on foot — and partly by sleigh — the ice in the St. Lawrence River; it is March and break-up time and the danger is real.

Subsequently, the narrator, a young British officer stationed in Quebec City (a few years before Confederation [1867]), spends most of the rest of the novel looking for his Lady of the Ice.

In the process he gets to know and elderly Irish gentleman and his family, all of whom complicate the plot. Jack Randolph, the narrator’s best friend and fellow-officer, further complicates the story by getting engaged to three ladies at once, none of whom he wants to marry.

James de Mille was both a professor and well-known novelist. Ironically, he is best remembered for his science-fiction novel A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. However it’s The Lady of the Ice which should make his name widely known again today among those who appreciate well-written lighthearted fiction.

A Detached Pirate is an intriguing, though misleading title. The pirate is Gay Vandeleur, a recently divorced young woman, who, with the money from the final settlement, is sailing from England to Halifax, where she was born, to start a new life.

Younger readers may not realize how divorce in 1900 — and for long afterwords — made a woman a social outcast for the rest of her life. However Gay is not bad; she enjoys a drink and a smoke, but even her adultery — the only cause for divorce allowed in Britain at the time — is strictly fictional.

She is the detached pirate participating in society, but, at the same time, not deceived by its conventions. She relates her ups and downs in 25 letters to her best friend Vera.

This very old-fashioned format for a novel works well for these two characters. We never hear directly from Vera; however we learn a good deal about her through Gay's letters.

Susan Morrow Jones came from an artistic and literary family in Halifax and married a prominent medical man. Later they lived in England and the South of France.

A Detached Pirate was considered a “calumny...which should not be allowed to go unchallenged” by Halifax society.