Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Sign of the Spider by Bertram Mitford (1896)

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Bertram Mitford (1855-1914) is a tought nut to crack. There isn't much information on him to be had online accept for the fact that he was born in the UK and visited South Africa several times, which is also where he got the inspiration for the setting of most of his novels. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction claims he was a member of the Royal Geographical Society. His father Edward Ledwich Osbaldeston Mitford (1811-1912) lived to be 100 years old, for which he received a congratulation by the King, and according to The Times from London served for 25 years in the Ceylon Civil Service and in fact his first three children were born on Ceylon/Sri Lanka but Bertram was born back in England.

The Sign of the Spider is a book which I've looked forward to for many years on the title alone, before I found out Mitford was compared to H.Rider Haggard.

The problem is the tone of the book is all over the place. On the one hand you have a main character, Laurence Stanninghame, who is very pessimistic in all he does, to a lovable decree. But on the other, you have him participate in human slave trade in Africa and he goes through all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify how it's actually good that's he's enslaving these people. Mitford has all the people he enslaves be "savages", bloodthirsty cannibals, and so he tries very very hard to not have the issue seem at all moraly dubious. That is still very hard to accomplish, especially when the main character actually compares his own perpetual and hereditary enslavement of whole generations of people to his own future of, gasp, having to do odd jobs for not that much money ! Because willing paid employment and forced unpaid lifelong servitude and objectification are basically the same.

The main character doesn't set out to South Africa to deal in slaves, but circumstances force him into it. Only later on in the book when he gets captured by the People of the Spider, descended from the Zulus, the reader is hard pressed to feel genuine sympathy for him because he always has to remember this man was making money out of enslaving people. One of his companions actually continually protests the bloody business at first, and I could not shake the feeling it would not have been better for the book if that was the main character who had these objections. And not because I favour clearly defined black and white morality in characters, but more because the entire rest of the novel is set up like a traditional adventure novel where the story is designed to have you sympathise with the main characters and his plight and that always comes up as a sore spot.

The title of the book is derived from a box given the main character by a potential love interest before he sets off for his expedition and just so happens to resemble the national symbol of the spider worshipping Ba-gcatya and thus saves his skin. He gets carted off to their land, but his stay there doesn't take up much of the book and isn't as in depth as one would like.

Then finally, the moment we've all been waiting for. He gets himself thrown down into a pit with a huge man eating spider and it's.....not that great. It only lasts a few pages and then he runs off thanks to his Ba-gcatya sweetheart Lindela. On the way back to Cape Town Mitford, in order to avoid having to deal with race issues, does a copout by having Lindela die of a snake bite along the way. Laurence finds his other sweetheart in Cape Town, the owner of the titular Sign of the Spider, her monogram on the box which saved Laurence's life before, is now married to her rude, obsessive cousin, because he'd probably off himself otherwise.

Laurence then goes back to England with a few diamonds he found in the spider cave and apparently his slaving companions are still in the business and getting rich off of it by the end of the novel.

While the Ba-gcatya are portrayed with dignity, one does have to wonder about Mitford's morality when dealing with some of these issues.

Overall, the horror element in this book is far too minimal to really warrant it being a classic of the Weird and the adventure element isn't as extensive as one would hope. I hope Mitford's Induna's Wife and The Weird of Deadly Hollow will fare better.

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