Friday, October 09, 2009

Atoms of Empire

Judging a book not by its cover but by the author's name ...

While browsing on one of my favorite sources for online books, Feedbooks.com, I stumbled across an obscure work called Atoms of Empire. The title caught my eye first, but what really hooked me was the name of the author: Charles John Cutliffe Wright Hyne. How's that for a mouthful? And what an epitome of Victorian respectability it captures in its ringing tones. That settled it. I had to see what Mr. C.J.C.W. Hyne had written.

The concept behind the title is that each individual is an indivisible atomic unit of the society as a whole. Specifically, in whatever far flung reaches of the globe they might find themselves, the intrepid subjects of the Crown were each a representative microcosm of the British Empire. Keep in mind that the work dates from the late 1890's when Victoria was still "Queen of England and Empress of India."

What follows in this collection of short fiction is a marvelous variety of period pieces ranging from droll plots hinging on matrimony to Indiana Jones-style adventures that stretch credulity to the breaking point.

In the opening story a priggish newcomer to an African colony decides to march into the jungle to impose law and order on the cannibal king, armed only with an umbrella. Having made himself universally unpopular, no one sees fit to prevent him from sallying forth to meet his fate.

Elsewhere various adventurers find themselves in the wilds of American swamps, falling victim to brazen train robberies, and fighting a cholera epidemic aboard ship. Then, on the fantastical side, we find out what lurks in an unexplored cave in the heart of the British Isles, and interview a mummy on the floor of an Egyptologist's study. Often the denouement of the story involves an encounter between two of the characters back home in Piccadilly or in the snug confines of their gentlemen's club.

What's enjoyable about these yarns is not just their dry wit but their unselfconscious belief in the triumph of pluck and daring-do. It's like watching old Hollywood movies where the writers, directors, and actors had absolutely no qualms about good triumphing over evil and America vanquishing fascism.

But more than just escape fiction, these stories have acquired a layer of historical interest for what they reveal about the attitudes of their intended readers. Racism, for example, is portrayed in a matter of fact way that has long since (thankfully) ceased being politically correct. Still, there is something refreshing about the use of the word "nigger" by someone who intended no insult by it. Now we are stuck with using the infantile phrase, "the N-word." That's progress for you.

There is precious little biographical information to be found about Hyne online, but in his day (1866-1944) he was a prolific popular novelist who cranked out a whopping 46 volumes during his career. There are a few others available on Feedbooks, including The Lost Continent, and still others thanks to the efforts of Google Books (check on Barnes and Noble), including the likes of Kate Meredith, Financier.

So if Atoms whets your appetite there is plenty to feast upon.

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