Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The voice in the rice, by Gouverneur Morris (1910)

Morris on the left here, with Pola Negri, Charles Chaplin and Ruth Wightman, his wife

Gouverneur Morris (1876-1953) was once a novelist of some fame, however he seems to be solely remembered now for the great grandfather after whom he was named. He wrote books and published serials in the pulps, including the not-hard-to-research-at-all title Adventure (in print 1910-1971). The only other tidbit I could find out about Morris was that he divorced his wife, married his secretary Ruth Wightman in secret in Mexico and then married her again because of Californian divorce laws. And he apparently knew Chaplin and the Viscount Hastings.

The book in question is a short little novel from 1910. Now when I first heard the summary, about a man being found washed up on the shore after he falls off his ship, and coming across a hunchback who brings him to his secret community where they never liberated their slaves, I assumed this one would be rather interesting. And but for one point I would be disappointed. As Richard, the main character seems to care very little about the blacks in the Santee still being enslaved, nor about locals telling him should the US scatter them all they would still come back and re-enslave the blacks anyway. He only ever makes one remark about all this, and that only to piss off someone he doesn't like. The whole rest of the novel is mostly concerned with him getting along with everyone at the Santee, which presents a slave owning society which threatened to kill him rather then let him escape to tell the tale, like an ideal place for endless society visits and tennis games. The ease with which the main character slips into going about making social calls among these people is rather alarming. Worse yet, the novel is presented as a love story between him and the hunchback's niece....except she's fallen in love with him when she found him unconscious from a snake bite and he after having just heard her talking to him over growing rice, without having seen her ! In fact the novel conspires to invent ways to prolong the time until he gets to see her, which is three pages before the novel ends.

The one real saving grace the novel has is Lord Nairn, the humongously corpulent, tyrannical ruler of the Santee, who is real fun to watch. The man immunises himself to snake bites by getting himself bitten on purpose since childhood, thinks about swallowing snakes whole and looked rather too intently at a young girl, the eventual main character's sweetheart, with the remark that he is waiting for her to "ripen". There's a few more twists and turns that do showcase his villainous character, but I don't wish to spoil them. The only problem is that he doesn't figure in the book more, and that once a skirmish happens which allows for the Richard and his Mary's escape, it largely happens offscreen, with everyone on the main character's side emigrating peacefully offscreen as well just before the afterword. It seems Morris could have written more about the internal power struggle in the community but maybe he did not know how to do so and prolong the meeting between Richard and Mary for another hundred or so pages.

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