[From The Manx Quarterly, #27]
Sir Hall Caine's Story of his Early Years in the Isle of Man.
Eight years have passed since our distinguished fellow - countryman, Sir Hall Caine, came before the public with a new novel. And now he comes forth with "The Master of Man," of which, for these times, a record making issue of 100,000 copies are to be immediately made available for the vast English holiday crowd that sets out on its annual vacation about the last week of July.
" The Master of Man" was begun in the year before the war, but was laid aside because of the pressure of urgent national and patriotic duty. On the day after Armistice it was taken up again, and after two years further work completed. As in the case of "The Woman Thou Gavest Me," it has made its first appearance serially in " Nash's Magazine," where it is still running, and where it has had a success which has probably never been excelled by that of any serial story issued during the past twenty years.
The volume is the marvel of the age, a revelation of cheapness, and only shews what can be done, even in this era of high costs of printing and paper, when British brains seriously sets about the task. It is in short, despite all the complaints regarding high wages, a pre-war book at a pre-war price, viz., 6/-. At a rough calculation the work contains some 220,000 words-that is, 430 pages of, say, 515 words a page. Even if "The Master of Man" ran to a quarter of a million words, it would be still a long way short of the length of "David Copperfield" and many of the other books by which Dickens and Thackeray made their reputation in the mid-Victorian era. Many people chiefly those who do not habitually read novels say the public like short books of 100,000 words or so. The fact is quite otherwise. There is no such drug in the market as volumes of short stories reprinted from the magazines. The public love a long book love it as long as it retains their interest; and the simple truth seems to be that they do not care to make the acquaintance of characters who are going to pass out of their lives in a few hours, or even in a few days. From a manufacturer's point of view, therefore, " The Master of Man" marks an epoch in our post-war effort; and the publisher, William Heinemann, does well to give printer's and paper-maker's imprint as follows : " Printed at the Chapel River Press, Kingston, Surrey, on paper specially manufactured for this book by Watson's of Bullionfield, Ltd." They have our warmest congratulations.
As nearly as possible there is simultaneous publication of " The Master of Man" in the following countries : Australia, Bohemia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the United States or not fewer than twelve distinct translations, maybe more, because whilst Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden can read each other's book, they have all a strong preference for their own particular farm of the one Scandinavian tongue. (By this it is not to be understood that the native tongue of the Finn is Scandinavian. Language is not a uniform expression of race, or the Finns would be speaking an Asiatic tongue not unlike the prehistoric tongue of the Basques in Spain.)
Pending a considered review of a work of this importance and length, we have pleasure in giving in full the author's own Note of Explanation. Sir Hall Caine writes with grace, charm and beautiful simplicity. He says :
Although I have published several Manx novels, I always find when I publish a new that I am addressing many readers who would be the better for some knowledge of Isle of Man.
All that is generally known about the Island is that it is a health and holiday resort for the people of the northern counties of England and Ireland, and the southern ones of Scotland, but I think it has claims that rise higher than that. It lies anchored out in the middle of the Irish Sea and as you approach it from the mainland looks like a bird sitting on her nest. The majority of its human habitations are such are to be found in other seaside resorts for summer visitors, with a few ivy-covered and turreted mansions of moderate size, and a number of thatched and white-washed cottages, which stand with their sides or backs to the high roads and are usually screened by the thick foliage of the tammon-tree, or the scarlet droppings of fuchsia.
But it bears to the closer observer a hint of ancient history, of legend, of poetry, and of the struggles of races, in the ruins of old churches, the remains of at least one Abbey and of a large ecclesiastical fortress, the bastioned four-square walls of a Norman Castle, a number of runic crosses, and (above all in historical interest) a circular turf mound, which is probably the only visible relic in the world of the ancient Althing, the open-air parliament of the Norse republic.
And behind these remains of the past and their rather commonplace associates of the present, there survives, even to this day, a little race that is so distinct from the English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh, that though I desire to make no autobiographical intrusion, I find it necessary, in order that this story may be followed with full understanding to present some sort of personal picture of the curiously self-centred little community in which it lives.
To do this I must take the reader back nearly sixty odd years, when as a very young boy I lived in a cottage, such as I have described, on the edge of the Curragh, a marshy meadowland which lies on the sea-warrd side of the remote parish of Ballaugh. It was the home of my paternal grand-father, and of an uncle, who farmed some forty odd acres-much of it hilly and humpy and some of it boggy and peaty. From this centre of interest, not very wide, I took my first view of the Island which is the scene of the present book and of a number of the books that have gone before it an Island that has been the house of my paternal ancestors in their humble way through more years, perhaps more centuries than the moth-eaten registers of the oldest of the parish churches have been able to record.
Our Manx people, in my boyhood, were not more than forty thousand all told, scattered over an oblong area of some thirty miles by ten. And though we thought there were many mighty distinctions of class among us, dividing the rich from the poor, and the educated from the uneducated we were really one big little family, whereof nearly every member knew something of everybody else.
There were the crofters in the mud cottages on the Curragh half landsmen, half fishermen, following, from father to son, the labour of both land and sea. There were the tenant farmers, who farmed perhaps seventy acres and. had rights of pasturage on the mountains. There were the land-lords, who held their heads high and maintained the prestige of aristocracy on incomes which would barely bring certain of them in these days within the range of the Income Tax. There were the little groups of rather boisterous half-pay English officers, who had come to end their days on our Island because the customs were low with us and the living (particularly the liquor) cheap. And then (so far above us as hardly to be within our ken) there were the Insular officials, some English, and some Manx, the Governors, the Deemsters, the Bishops, the Archdeacons, the Vicar-Generals, the High-Bailiffs and the Water Bailiffs, who, being practically beyond the reach of British authority, ruled or misruled us in the name of the British Crown.
All this was present to my boyish imagination as far back as I can remember, though it was only little by little that I came to see the tiny human drama that was so plain because it was so close. And perhaps it is only now that I realise that it represented the whole world in little-that nearly every interest, every emotion, every passion and every experience that comes to humanity lay there for me to look upon and to learn on my native rock in the Irish Sea.
Naturally, it was through the eyes of my grandmother that I first saw the life of the Isle of Man. She was a little Manx-woman, very old and much bent, dressed in the blue homespun of the Island, and usually occupied with the lighter duties of the household, while the lustier members of the family were at work in the fields baking our oaten bread on a griddle, spinning the wool of our sheep into yarn, making tallow candles in an iron dip, salting down the herrings for our winter " stock," gathering the dried gorse that crackled on the earthern hearth under the " oven-pot," and bring ing the water from the mountain stream that served us for a well. I think she must have been deeply religious, for though I cannot remember that she could read I recall the skill with which she could turn up a favourite text in her Manx Bible at the proper page.
She called me " Hommy-beg," which was Manx for little Tommy, and I think I must have been much in her company for I still have memories of the types of Manx character to which she introduced me. Through her I came to know something of a kind of Manx parson that has long ceased to exist, a simple old-womanly soul for the most part, who rarely did anything worse than stand at the gate of a field in harvest time to count the stooks of corn, as they were gathered, and to see that every tenth was carried into his cart. Through her, too, I came to know a vast deal about witches and witch doctors, and fairies and bogganes. You had to be kind to the " little men," I remember, or they might be angry or even spiteful, so, last thing at night, before going to bed, my grandmother would lay out on the kitchen table a crock of fresh water, with perhaps a bowl of new milk, and a plate of " bonnag," which was barley bread.
I like to think that what I saw through the eyes of my old Manx grandmother was in some respects the sweetest and best our Island had to show; but there was an aunt in our household at Ballaugh, a strapping country girl in her twenties, not yet married, and through her I came to know something of the more tragic as well as the more joyous aspects of Manx life. Of such kind were the methods of Manx courtship, whereof the accepted law was that it should be done at night, and generally in the dark, when the elder members of the family had gone to bed, and the kitchen was left to the girls, who waited for the light rattle of the shingle that used to be thrown at the window by " the boys." Through her, too, though heaven knows how, I came to understand that our Manx morality in those days was very indulgent to sins of the senses so that if a girl had given birth to a " by-child," and married the father of it " within a year or two," never having compromised herself with any other man, her chid became legitimate. I remember one curious Manx custom of legitimation, wherein the mother tucked her baby under her petticoat while she was being married in church, but whether I ever witnessed a scene like this or only heard of it I cannot say.
It was through the eyes of my uncle, however, that I saw the lustier aspects of our Insular life. He was a vigorous person, usually clad in a Garibaldian red shirt, and generally at war with the powers above him. Part of the business of his little farm required that he should travel in his springless cart once a week from his Curragh house on the north of the Island, over a range of mountains of moderate altitude, to our principal town on the south, and on one of these journeys I was allowed to accompany.him. It was a breathless experience, showing me for the first time England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, stretching far beyond our blue seas, as well as our four Manx towns lying in the green around below-Douglas. with its harbours. to which the red -funnelled steamers had already begun to bring visitors; Castletown, our capital, with its ancient castle and public school; Peel, with its fishing fleet and its ruined Cathedral-fortress; and Ramsey, to which we made our way when we quarrelled and went to court.
We often quarrelled, I remember, and were a ridiculously litigious race in those days. I have clear memory of two of my kinsmen marching off one morning in high wrath to the Courthouse at Ramsey, to "put the law" on each other about a coil of rope, and (leaving various "damages" and "costs" behind them) returning arm-in-arm at night, both merry and both poor.
The combativeness of the Manxman sometimes found other and more threatening opportunities of expressing itself in my boyhood, and I can recall the scarcely-veiled contempt with which my uncle in the Garibaldian red shirt would point out to me the houses of "the big ones" of the Island the ivy-covered mansions at the end of shady lanes, where peacocks spread their gorgeous tails and screamed. I remember, too, some of the fairs to which he took me, particularly a fair on Midsummer Day at St John's, in the middle of the Island, where the sale of sheep and cattle and the general business of becoming merry at the neighbouring inns was interrupted for the farmers by proceedings of a more pretentious character-the procession of law-makers of our Island, the Governor. the Bishop, the Deemsters, the Keys, the Captains, the Clergy and the Constables, in their cocked hats, lawn sleeves, wigs and gowns and beaver hats, from the chapel to the round mount, called Tynwald Hill, for the promulgation of the laws.
Our Manx government in those days was an anomalous creation compounded of officialism and feudal power. We were supposed to have inherited from remote antiquity a right to rule ourselves without restraint from the English Parliament, and we did so by means of a popular Chamber, called the House of Keys, whereof the members elected themselves, and acted under the guidance of a Lieutenant-Governor and Executive Council appointed by the English Crown. As a consequence, the people of the soil had often to be grateful if they were permitted to exist, and among my memories of those boyish years is that of my uncle protesting to an inspector, who was calling on him for forced labour on roads, that if things went much further with the "big ones" of the Island, a plain Manxman like himself wouldn't be able to call his soul his own.
But it was not until years after this, when as a youth in my later teens, and some unaccountable turn of the wheel of chance made me a schoolmaster, that I came to any real comprehension of the ways of our Manx Government. My schoolhouse was a stark and gaunt-looking structure, which stood like a lighthouse on the bleakest of our Manx headlands. The wind in Winter swirled around it and lashed it as with a knout, and sometimes we had to tie a rope from the door of the dwelling-house to the door of the schoolhouse that I might shoulder my way around the walls without being swept off my feet. The population of the district was sparse, and partly as a result of their hard fight with nature to make ends meet, it came about that they added to my task as a schoolmaster certain extraneous duties, such as the making of for the farmers round about, the drafting of agreements and leases, the writing of messages to banks protesting against crushing interest on loans, and the framing of petitions to the Tynwald Court (our Manx legislature), not to speak of the inditing of love letters for the farm lads of the parish to their sweethearts in service in parishes that were far away.
I had not been long at my various duties before I realised that by much the most threatening force over the Manxman's life in those days was not that of the self-elected Keys, or yet of the Crown-appointed English Governor, or even that of the Bishop, with his astonishing prerogatives, but that of the Deemster, the Judge and President of the Supreme Court of Manx law. This personage, usually of native origin, was in reality the Master of Man. Others might have the show of ruling, but it was he who really governed; others might make the laws, it was he who administered them.
In earlier days the Deemster's powers must have been practically absolute, for many of the laws whereby he judged the people were called "breast laws" the laws which were not written in any statute book but only in his own breast, and therefore to be revealed or concealed according to his will. And if he was the sole authority on what was law. he was also the absolute judge of how it should be executed. Within the memory of living men the mere presence of the Deemster constituted a court. He could hail a man to trial at any time or anywhhere, in the middle of the night, or at the side of the road, and from his judgments there was practically no appeal none at least nearer than the High Courts which were in London, and might almost as well, for the ordinary Manxman's purposes, have been in the mountains of the moon.
Naturally, the power of such a person to bring heads under the axe was a constant terror, and even in my young days the frown of the Deemster in court; or even in the streets, was enough to whiten the faces that had been furrowed by half a century of storm, and to make the voices that had been wont to bellow like a harbour-master's break into the tremor of a frightened girl.
As a consequence, when the Deemster hap-pened to be a bully, which was not infre-quently, the bellowing too often came from the Bench, and I remember one such case of bellowing in the Court House at Peel, where (the temporary prison being in the cellars immediately under the judge's chair) the Deemster, after a violent altercation with a prisoner, consigned him to the cell beneath his seat in language that was tragically plain-spoken.
Such power led to serious abuses, and I recall many stories that came to me on that windy headland of the dark doings of Deemsters. Some of them concerned money, and were therefore not too material to a young fellow on the verge of manhood but others concerned women, and were therefore absorbing.
One such story was of a Deemster in our northern half of the Island, whose courage was at least equal to his corruption. He was understood to keep an open reckoning in chalk on the inner face of the shutter of his dining-room window of his visits to the good-looking wives of certain defaulters whom he had allowed to evade their responsibilities. Another was of a Deemster in the south, who fell from his office by a too reckless exercise of his judicial authority in the interests of his amours. His relations with a lady who held her head high in Manx society had existed for years before anybody had dared to question her character as an honest woman, and then somebody, in a fit of jealousy, told her what she was. The outraged lady took her lamentation to her lord, who, certain of his power to punish, said " Haul her up before me," and that being done, the Deemster, sitting on his own character as well as that of his mistress, committed the alleged slanderer to prison. But this proved to be too daring an exercise of "breast law," even in a Deemster. Somebody lodged a complaint with the authorities in London, with the result that the Deemster was removed from the Manx Bench by the polite fiction that his health was broken, and he needed a change of air.
There was, however, another judicial scandal in the Isle of Man, which arose far above all this, and somehow entered into the region of the heroic, partly by reason of the part played in it by a great and noble woman. That was the scandal whereof the main features form the groundwork of the following story-the story of a sin, perhaps a little or at least a natural and pardonable sin, which, being concealed and denied at the beginning, went on and on from consequence to consequence (as all hidden sins must), increasing like a snowball in weight and momentum until it was in danger of submerging with an avalanche the entire community.
But while the principal incidents of the tale I have now to tell owe something to reminiscence, I have exercised so freely the storyteller's licence in telling them, in analysing and enlarging the impulses which led up to them, and in changing the period and the scenes of them, that I can claim no better authority for my story than that of an independent creation, with a general background of fact.