Book review., Books, Detective fiction, Fanny Vandegrift, Harun al-Rashid, History, Literary criticism, More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter, New Arabian Nights, One Thousand and One Nights, Prince Florizel of Bohemia, Robert Louis Stevenson, Romance, The Arabian Nights, The Suicide Club
During the first of Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1878), “Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts,” a gentleman named Mr Theophilus Godall throws a hundred pounds on to the fire. The setting is a restaurant in Soho and the “shaggy and weather-beaten” Godall is no less a personage than Prince Florizel of Bohemia, albeit disguised behind a “pair of large adhesive eyebrows.” His money is, however, a lot more real than his eyebrows. The Prince cremates his cash in order to advertise his recklessness in the face of poverty, and to so win the confidence of a penniless young man. By doing this, Florizel will learn about the existence of the secretive Suicide Club.
Years later and Mr Godall is now set up permanently in Soho as a tobacconist. We have resumed our acquaintanceship with him in More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter (1885). Whereas Godall had once sent a hundred pounds up the chimney, he is now listening to one of his customers, the jejune Paul Somerset, complaining that he has only “one hundred pounds” of his fortune left. “What,” Somerset demands, “can a young fellow of reasonable education do with a hundred pounds?”
Somerset is here in exactly the same circumstances that the then-fictional Godall was in at the start of his own adventure. Godall did not die in the Suicide Club, not least because he was an empty role with no existence behind the eyebrows. But he is today made flesh, a living person in a real trade, whilst Prince Florizel, his creator, is himself no more. The Prince was overthrown in a revolution; his money, crown, and servants are all gone. Godall, a whimsical pseudonym, or a kind of avatar that Florizel had used to surf and troll public places, now comprises the Prince’s entire identity.
Of course, monarchs throughout history have reliably walked incognito amongst the common people. Shakespeare depicted Henry V thus before the Battle of Agincourt; Mary, Queen of Scots was also reported to frolic in disguise, apparently as a stable boy. The most spectacular example of an uncover monarch, however, is afforded by Peter the Great, the first Tsar of Muscovy to ever visit the West. Peter’s Grand Embassy left Russia for eighteen months in 1697. Wishing to inspect Dutch shipyards without state ceremony, he insisted on being disguised as a carpenter. In being Russian, extraordinarily lanky for the period (6ft 7) and disfigured by facial convulsions, Peter’s ambition to move freely amongst the Dutch dock workers was never likely to be realised. Robert K Massie has fun with the consequent story in his biography of the Tsar:
To escape, he steered for shore and jumped out, only to find himself in the middle of another curious crowd, pushing to see him and staring at him as if he were an animal in the zoo. In anger, Peter cuffed one spectator on the head, provoking the crowd to shout at the victim, “Bravo! Marsje, now you have been knighted!”
Thomas Carlyle’s 1837 history The French Revolution describes the aristocrats who were, like Florizel, radically shrunken by the growth of modern thought:
Ci-devant Seigneur, exquisite in palate, will become an exquisite Restauranteur Cook in Hamburg; Ci-devant Madame, exquisite in dress, a successful Marchante des Modes in London. In Newgate-Street you meet M. le Marquis with a rough deal on his shoulder, adze and jack-pane under arm; he has taken in the joiner trade; it being necessary to live.
Two especially well-rounded precursors for Florizel’s character, Eugène Sue’s Grand Duke Gustavus Rodolphe of Gerolstein and Stevenson’s own Prince Otto, will be considered in subsequent instalments of this series. But the question for us here is why Florizel is left where Stevenson has put him. The reader of The Dynamiter can reasonably anticipate that Florizel will be returned to his throne, in much the same way that Bedridden Hassan, the famous hero from the One Thousand and One Nights, eventually bounces back from pastry chef to prince again, restored in the end to his rightful p(a)lace. Instead, a classic, even mandatory scenario from the Nights is, for once, openly disregarded.
There are of course happy endings aplenty. The Dynamiter is blown up and the heroine regains her rightful inheritance. So whilst the magic of Araby still sparkles overall, there has been the gentlest of lapsing into realism, the faintest of grounds to quibble over the services rendered, when it comes to the Prince.
Prince Florizel is a wry, Victorian reimagining of Harun al-Rashid, the real-life fifth Abbasid caliph (r. 786–809) who had been portrayed embarking upon various fanciful nocturnal adventures in the One Thousand and One Nights. Yet Florizel is forever lost out on the streets that he was only ever intended to traverse. He is a prodigal son who is missing in action.
al-Rashid had typically ventured down mysterious, anonymous, backstreets. For the most part, The Dynamiter is happy to evoke streets of this sort. Take, for instance, the meeting between Edward Challoner and Clara Luxmore in “The Squire of Dames.” It is not possible for one who has never been a flâneur in London to locate the cul-de-sac where this encounter so vividly occurs. The city’s most famous example of a cul-de-sac, Downing Street, is disqualified due to its absence of gardens (a similar street appears in the original Nights’ “The story of King Shahriman and his son, Qamar al-Zaman.”) The location of Somerset’s adventure is equally anonymous: “the young man found his way to the square, which I will here call Golden Square, though that was not its name.” In a jolt out of this dreaminess, Florizel is banished, significantly, to an identifiable location: Rupert Street in Soho.
Whereas the caliph had had his own confidante Ja’far the Barmakid executed, in a surprise move that was apparently intended to secure caliphal power, Florizel himself receives the boot and his bosom friend Colonel Geraldine remains subsequently unmentioned. Maybe Geraldine has turned turncoat, to join or to else lead the Bohemian revolutionaries. His reported ability in “The Suicide Club” to “adapt not only his face and bearing, but his voice and almost his thoughts, to those of any rank, character, or nation” might have lately fooled his erstwhile master.
Florizel has now renamed himself Godall, at once a less flashy name and a more all-encompassing, godlier one. It shivers with omniscience. The less salubrious phrase “sod all,” incidentally, does not seem to have been coined before the late 1950s, so this probably does not feature in the mix.
I like to think that the Prince must have privately undertaken elocution exercises. Nobody who he meets ever comments on his accent. Or perhaps he has spent so much time rummaging around London that it has become thoroughly Cockneyfied.
Florizel’s newfound circumstances are ably symbolised by the life-sized, carved wooden figure of a Highlander that stands outside his tobacco store. These statues had conventionally decorated the entrances to tobacconists and the custom can be dated to 1720, when Jacobites had frequented a tobacco store in Coventry Street. A wooden Highlander still looms today outside the tobacconists Mullins & Westley in Covent Garden. There is no doubt an affinity between the stiffly lifeless, vanquished hero and the deleted Prince. I can picture Godall ruefully hauling the Highlander into his store at closing time, the same hour of the day when his own princely memories would begin to return to him.
What can be done with a hundred pounds? We find that the latter-day Godall is inclined to mock the usefulness of this sum and in terms that are decidedly picaresque. His words here are awash with freedom:
“A hundred pounds will with difficulty support you for a year; with somewhat more difficulty you may spend it in a night; and without any difficulty at all you may lose it in five minutes on the Stock Exchange. If you are of that stamp of man that rises, a penny would be as useful; if you belong to those that fall, a penny would be no more useless.”
The picaro can thus reinvent themselves and rise in the world by way of sheer character and a penny. But there must be a bitter curl somewhere within Godall’s smile: Florizel is the stamp of man who falls, with his fortune proving as useless as small change in the face of a revolution; Godall is the man who has risen in Florizel’s place, but he is not rising very quickly and he has not risen very far. Florizel was a man of action; you cannot help noticing that Godall mostly philosophises.
Florizel was not, in fact, even very distinguished as a man of action. He is ultimately, for an initially promising detective, a bit of a flop. Although accounts of Florizel’s interventions would reportedly “fill the habitable globe with books,” Stevenson pensions him off early with only two adventures under his belt. This is even fewer than those of Edgar Allan Poe’s pioneering but not especially energetic detective C Auguste Dupin, who had clocked up just three (some might settle for two, since Dupin does not leave his armchair during “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”). After losing his kingdom, and retiring to become a tobacco merchant, Florizel no longer commands the ready supply of deferential subordinates who are indispensable to the success of his crime-busting.
Even this trickle of adventures gets steadily less adventurous. Florizel is unmistakably a protagonist during the first story-cycle, “The Suicide Club,” but in the second, “The Rajah’s Diamond,” he is a distant fixer who has to bail out the series’ characteristically inept array of lesser lights. In The Dynamiter these adventurers prove only even inepter and the happy endings that are dispensed to them by Florizel are restricted to jobs behind the counter of his shop.
His world of romance and adventure has wilted. He is increasingly inundated with weaklings and softies, dreamers and escapists, whose attempts to steal a diamond or to win the hand of a beautiful lady or to even shake England to its core with a dynamite campaign become ever more steeply childish. Many of them, from the shaky young man with the cream tarts to the gibbering anarchist who is ordered to assassinate Florizel, are essentially ironical duplicates who have been peeled off Stevenson’s own fondly childish psyche.
Tychy’s earlier analysis of “The Rajah’s Diamond” had taken note of this story-cycle’s “almost histrionic obsession with parental absence.” In The Dynamiter Florizel is still a paternalistic force, who is still just as kindly and nimble in his interventions when handing out those shop clerk jobs as when he was previously contriving a fairytale marriage for Francis Scrymgeour in “The Rajah’s Diamond.” Yet the dynamiters’ conspiracy largely falls apart of its own accord and after Florizel’s only actual brush with them, when fishing the hapless M’Quire out of the Thames, he fails to chase up the proffered “clue.” He fails, in fact, to meet the criterion for “the detective” that had been set out earlier by his own protégé Somerset:
“This clue, which the whole town beholds without comprehension, swift as a cat, he leaps upon it, makes it his, follows it with craft and passion, and from one trifling circumstance divines a world.”
Is Godall a promising new role for Florizel or a premature retirement? If it is the former, then we are given – albeit in a potted, rather spurious way – a glimpse of where Godall might have obtained his philosophy of reinvention. Mrs Luxmore saves the life of Florizel’s Judas by dousing this would-be assassin’s stomach with salt and mustard. Had this lady not been on the spot, then the young man would have died, for Florizel alone would have just pitied over his body. A point of dispute accordingly arises. Florizel complains that, “your mercy may be cruelty disguised. Where the honour is lost, it is, at least, superfluous to prolong the life.” Mrs Luxmore replies that, “If you had led a life as changeable as mine… you would hold a very different opinion. For my part, and after whatever extremity of misfortune or disgrace, I should still count to-morrow worth a trial.”
Maybe this moral returns to the Prince after his empire has been shrunk to the proportions of a shop floor. Maybe Mrs Luxmore’s example encourages him to “prolong the life” and to submit to more tomorrows. Or maybe such a moral seems time-battered now. When he is lugging that Highlander into his store, does Florizel regard Mrs Luxmore’s lyrics as a will-o-the-wisp, which has lured him off into nowhere? He is now strutting about within his cramped, petty life, or shop, a has-been adventurer. Or does he continue to subscribe fully to her philosophy – will he one day play on far larger stages again?
We are naturally reunited with the all-encompassing Godall at the end of The Dynamiter, and he is in turn reunited, if somewhat sardonically, with Mrs Luxmore. “Is my face so much changed that you no longer recognise Prince Florizel in Mr. Godall?” he teases her. Where once she had recommended new tomorrows, he now observes that she does “so much object to the simple industry by which I live.” He threatens, half impishly, to add her name to his own over the tobacco shop. She doesn’t like that.
You might conclude that this uneasy humour only reproachfully highlights some residual, as-yet-unmelted nugget of the Prince. Florizel was a lynchpin of the ancien régime and Godall is still garbed in all of his princely graciousness. Or, to put it another way, Florizel is just a terrible actor, someone who can only ever be typecast. The same wooden quaintness and moral stiffness are ineradicable beneath the changing costumes.
In his 1927 study of Stevenson’s writing, GK Chesterton imagines how “the humorous reader suspects, with half his mind, that the man is really only a pompous tobacconist, whom Stevenson happened to find in Rupert Street and chose to make the hero of a standing joke.” There is a danger here of failing to fully appreciate Stevenson’s joke. On a personal level, Stevenson had neither enjoyed the effortless wealth of a Prince nor done anything so menial as work in a shop. From Stevenson’s own penny-pinching middle-class perspective, the Prince’s plunge from aristocracy to shop-counter practicality, with scarcely a hair out of place, affords an instance of superhuman resourcefulness. Godall will rebuke Challoner that, “By the defects of your education you are more disqualified to be a working man than to be the ruler of an empire.” Florizel’s aplomb, “the customary calm polish of his manner,” when being cut down to size might actually confirm the supremacy of his character.
Still, if Florizel is the classically wise, otherworldly prince of storytelling convention, who remains unfazed by the poverty of the streets, then surely he has no need for all the trappings of princehood. His breeding as a prince therefore negates his status as a prince. His princeliness is a guru mentality rather than a mere bank balance. The Prince indeed sportingly declares the “power of money” to be “an article of faith in which I profess myself a sceptic.” Samuel Smiles moralises on this very theme in Self-Help, a book that we have previously examined in light of The Dynamiter: “As Burke said in his speech on the India Bill, he knew statesmen who were pedlars, and merchants who acted in the spirit of statesmen.”
Florizel’s character might have an extra appeal for today’s readers that it did not possess in 1885. These days, graduates who leave university with even unimpeachable qualifications will normally end up working in the service sector, sometimes as a stopgap and sometimes for years on end. As with Florizel, their wisdom will be divulged only to the customers of shops or bars. Florizel is henceforth the perfect hero for our time. His stoical acceptance of his circumstances, his genuinely keen interest in the profitability of his cigar shop and the happiness of his customers, should today make mandatory reading on the national curriculum. It would gift upon schoolchildren across the country Stevenson’s penetrating, if admittedly accidental, insight into the requirements of our own economy.