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The Novelistic Melodramas of Hall Caine: Seventy Years On David C. MacWilliams Adams State College HALL CAINE (1853-1931) was one of the most popular novelists writing in English in the 1890s and early 1900s, yet he is today virtually unknown. Except for a biography written by Vivien Allen in 1997,1 mention of Caine by literary historians in the past half century is rare. Even his status as a curiosity is tenuous. Occasionally his name will appear in a list of male romance writers;2 when it does appear, it is usually in reference to the marketing of'fin-de-siècle best sellers and the earning power of their creators.3 Moreover, on those occasions when reference is made to his work, literary scholars all too frequently rely on incomplete readings of his novels by previous critics.4 Such obscurity is a fate Caine never would have predicted for his work. The immense popularity of his books convinced him of at least two things: first, that his work was of higher value than most critics assigned it and second, that his life would inspire far more interest than it has. September 2001, the seventieth anniversary of his death, came and went with little, if any, notice. According to his final plans, his private papers were to have been released to the public on that anniversary. Although hordes of eager historians and grateful readers did not crowd the ferries to the Isle of Man to mark the event, perhaps enough time has passed to revisit some of his work and attempt a reappraisal. While his popularity alone cannot earn him a higher critical evaluation, it does indicate that Caine knew his audience. Over seventy years after his death, his work, surely in small doses, is worth revisitation because in it literary scholars of the Transition period and scholars of the history of popular culture will find a most rewarding touchstone to the popular literary tastes of Caine's day. Perhaps as important, his work reveals attitudes of the general reading public towards two rapidly changing socio-cultural 426 MACWILLIAMS · HALL CAINE realities of his day: conventional Christian morality in an increasingly secular society and the status of women. His fictional works have not been reprinted since his lifetime. Only two items, in fact, have been republished for their value as literary artifacts : the first being an article he wrote on the Romance genre in the 1880s and the second, his controversial biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti .5 Yet almost all of his novels saw sales in the hundreds of thousands , in total probably selling about ten million books in his career.6 The Bondman (1890) launched Heinemann publishers. Its initial sales (it eventually sold over 450,000 copies) so thrilled the young William Heinemann that he named his company's telegraphic address after the novel's main character, "Sunlocks," and so it remained until the company adopted the telefax nearly a century later.7 His urban-regional romance , The Christian (1897), sold fifty thousand copies in one month,8 eventually selling over 640,000 copies despite, or perhaps because of, its controversial depiction of a parson's struggle between his religious vocations and his sexual longings for a childhood sweetheart who becomes a music-hall performer. Caine's socialist romance, The Eternal City ( 1901 ), is reputed to have sold over one million copies, making it possibly the first million-selling British novel.9 His novels went through many editions during his lifetime and were published in at least fourteen languages . The Woman Thou Gavest Me, a novel about divorce, adultery, and the natural rights of (middle and upper-class) women, and among the top best sellers in Britain 1913, was published simultaneously in six languages, and soon thereafter translated into eight more, including Hungarian, Japanese, and Yiddish. But the gods who bestow the cherished laurels of literary immortality remain unpredictable. Less than a decade after his death, George Sampson's Concise History of English Literature dismissed Caine in one line: "The numerous novelistic melodramas of Hall Caine must rest unnamed."10 And for seven decades since his death, his novels largely have. It is not difficult to understand why...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 426-439
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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