Called Back (1883)

16Jan11

As promised last time, and as part of this blog’s public service remit …

Bristol firm J.W. Arrowsmith used to be a major force in publishing. The only news they’ve made in recent decades concerned the disgraceful treatment of most of the workforce in a bitter industrial dispute back in the 1990s. More about that here.

James Williams Arrowsmith was born on November 6 1839 in Worcester. His father Isaac was a printer and he moved his family to Bristol in 1854 to run a business in Quay Street. Most of the work was contract printing, but he also published boat and train timetables. James joined his father and continued the business after he died in 1871.

Ten years later, James Arrowsmith decided he was bored with the printing and the timetables, and that he would branch out into publishing fiction.

In March 1881 he invited 12 friends to dinner and suggested they all submit a piece for a Christmas annual. ‘Thirteen at Dinner and what Became of it’ (1881) was rubbish, a complete failure. Two novels followed which were equally disappointing, but then the second, ‘Called Back’ (1883) by Bristolian author Hugh Conway got a belated rave review in The Times, and sales soared. It went into several editions and sold over 400,000 copies in Britain alone.

James Arrowsmith now, it seemed, had an unerring eye for a bestseller. He discovered and first published Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and Rupert of Hentzau (1898), G. K. Chesterton’s Man who was Thursday (1908), George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody (1892) and loads more. Most famous of all was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889).

From middle-class respectability, he was elevated to city father. He was active in local affairs, though turned down an invitation to stand for Parliament by the Liberals. He was also instrumental in securing the County Ground for Gloucestershire CCC. He died in 1913.

The famous books we all know about, but ‘Called Back’ sounds interesting, don’t it? The Times review apparently said it was as good as anything Mr Wilkie Collins wrote, so I thought I’d take a look. Thanks to tinternet you can download it for free. I got mine from here, and recommend the PDF version as it has pictures in.

This long-forgotten Bristol bestseller is hysterical – though not in the funny sense. We are talking high-period Victorian melodrama here. It requires a number of instances where the modern reader’s belief requires not so much suspension as heavy lifting gear.

The tale concerns one Gilbert Vaughan, a wealthy young man living in London who, sometime in the 1860s, goes blind. One night, desperate to recapture some of his life, he gropes his way out into the street and goes for a walk. He gets lost, seeks directions from a friendly drunk, goes into the wrong house, and stumbles into the middle of what he assumes is a murder.

Anyhow, he gets cured of the blindness, and while travelling in Italy becomes obsessed with the beautiful Pauline March. Whom he marries, not realising that she is in a semi trance-like state as a result of some awful trauma.

And that’s just the start of his adventures, which eventually lead him – via Italy, London, Paris and a trip to one of the Czar’s labour camps in Siberia! – to uncovering the whole business of what happened that night.

The plot is unbelievably silly, predicated on coincidences and one semi-occult experience, that nobody would buy nowadays. Having said all that, you can see why it was popular – there were also stage versions and at least two movies (1914 and 1933). The romantic plot, with Gilbert desperate to win his bride back to her full sensibilities so that she will love him as he loves her, is very appealing.

Conway is also a very economical writer; no digressions, no florid prose, just a plot that keeps moving. It’s a page turner, and his description of the Russian and Siberian bits are completely convincing. So, too, is the political conspiracy stuff (alas continental politics, nobody plotting to overthrow Mr Gladstone). If Wilkie Collins is the granddaddy of detective fiction, then this is one of the antecedents of the modern thriller.

Hugh Conway was a pseudonym. His actual name was Frederick John Fargus. He was born in Bristol in 1847, the son of an auctioneer. As a kid he was besotted with the novels of Captain Marryat and resolved to join the Navy, so at the age of 13 he found himself on the training ship Conway in the Mersey. He soon lost his enthusiasm and he went into the family business until the success of Called Back enabled him to quit the day-job.

On 26 August 1871 Fargus married Amy Spark; they had three sons and a daughter and lived at 13 Oakfield Road, Clifton. He died in Monte Carlo of typhoid in 1885, aged just 37.

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2 Responses to “Called Back (1883)”

  1. 1 Rory Armstrong

    Re: The Arrowsmith dispute. I would not consider that the workers were treated badly by the company as per usual they were led up the garden path by the unions, who dumped them when the lost the Industrial action… same old story I’m afraid!

    • 2 gerry long

      as an ex employee who was sacked and was there, its nice to know that the young son of a member of the management at the time and quite happily saw his staff dismissed can express a totally uneducated opinion is it his or his fathers


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