- The Emergence of John Trevena: A Case Study of a Pseudonym
SERIOUS CRITICAL RECOGNITION for the fiction of John Trevena (Ernest George Henham, 1870–1948) is only now, a century behindhand, rebounding to the levels of appreciation his work originally received in the first decades of the twentieth century. Early critics had described a novelist who would “rank in the forefront of modern fiction” and as “unquestionably one of the most notable of living writers” who “looms large in the English fiction of the present moment, and … bids fair to hold a high place in its future.… He is a novelist to be read, to be studied and to be discussed.”1 His contemporary Somerset Maugham once hauntingly remarked: “I know just where I stand—in the very front row of the second rate.”2 But until recently Trevena was largely forgotten and remained in eclipse far outside any row within the temple of literary fame. Paul Jordan-Smith, the literary editor of the Los Angles Times a century ago, both described Trevena’s accomplishment and possibly gave the reason for his subsequent obscurity: “Russia has produced the most powerful novelists. Beside Turgenief and Dostoievsky we know of no American and but one Englishman who is fairly entitled to a place. John Trevena alone writes with the force, the dynamic power of the brooding Slavic Titans.”3 That was 1914. Only a year or two after this review, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, elaborating on the Russians’ pioneering explorations of the mind and heart’s inner perceptions, published their first “psychological” novels, ultimately sweeping the reclusive Trevena from the British intellectual stage. However, when a new edition of Trevena’s 1913 Sleeping Waters appeared last year, the reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement hailed its author as “one of England’s lost novelists, a writer of startling abilities”; and at the same time the first book-length study of Trevena’s work in eighty years (the second only) also appeared.4 [End Page 241]
As late as 1934 Paul Jordan-Smith reiterated his undiminished fascination when he observed that “a full-scale ‘analysis’” of Trevena would reveal to us “one of the most painfully interesting figures of this century”5—an observation that less than halfway into the twentieth century’s fourth decade hardly needed to be qualified even by the century’s end. This prescient remark in combination with Henham’s abrupt and puzzling adoption of the “Trevena” pseudonym suggests an author grappling with issues of personal and literary identity. If Henham felt himself conflicted or divided, a fresh self-identity as “Trevena” with a new subject matter (the English “West Country,” as it transpired) might provide a bold imaginative liberation. Like an astronomer winding the film of cosmic expansion in reverse to reach the moment of an origin wrapped in secrecy, I would like—not unaware of postmodern biographical theory—to unravel as far as may be that mix of meaning, intention, and intimate “bios” in his writings to identify, with the assistance of a recently uncovered fictional text, the urgencies behind the author’s “Trevena” mask.
During his school days at the age of sixteen Henham fell seriously ill with a lifelong tubercular infection. It eventually was concluded that the smoky, tainted atmosphere of English towns was a slow poison and that the fresh air of higher elevations might provide a cure. Owing to this early effort to stem his tuberculosis, Henham’s future literary career was initiated by a four-year sojourn from 1890 through 1894 in the open air of northwest Canada. Initially he worked as a cowboy and lumberman. Then for improved prospects he became a student-at-law; but the office cancelled his articles when it was discovered that in his spare time he wrote and published poetry in local newspapers—apparently composing (on birch bark when he had no paper) love sonnets “dedicated to Althea, Chloe, and other damsels.”6 From his fictional and nonfictional prose we learn about his employment as a “factor” for the Hudson’s Bay Company. “Talbot” of the HBC is the author’s persona in a number of these accounts woven around the region of...