"Really," says Rachel, the novel-writing heroine of this exotic historical novel set in late 19ty-century Constantinople, "I believe I am proof against the most trying persons now I set down their traits in my book. Nobody bores me, nobody frightens me, I won't be provoked, I simply listen, you see, and run home to my novel with their likeness."
"And this -- novel," her husband inquires with well-founded suspicion (for if ever wife had cause to be bored, frightened and provoked by her husband, it is she), "what is its theme?"
"Oh, Archie, it hasn't a theme you goose! Such stuff as that I leave to Mr. George Moore. It's just a tale . . . ."
If Rachel is to be understood as speaking on behalf of her creator here, she is being disingeneous. Glazebrook's social comedy abounds in themes as weighty and topical as those to be found at today's most enlightened newsstands: the politics of sexual oppression and imperialism, the difficulties of moral coexistence with cultures nastier and more overtly brutal than our own, the beauty and practicality of bicycles -- all set forth in a prose that alternates between limpid and orotund, depending on whether Glazebrook is in a straightforward or ironic vein. Indeed, prose is the real hero of the book. Fifty times in only four times that many pages I must have thought, "A quote! A palpable quote!"
Glazebrook can conjure up a landscape as handily as he can chronicle a sexual initiation, but his best moments are his lightest, as in this quick sketch of a Cockney abolitionist and bicycle salesman:
"Slavery and cycling did not exhaust his enthusiasms. There had been homeopathic medicine ('I was a high-potency man,' he confided) and Mrs. Besant and no end of others; all abandoned, I don't doubt, as soon as the rigidity of their existing hierarchy blocked the rapidity with which he had hoped to rise to power in them . . . When every venture had failed, he had fallen back on 'my Powers.'
"'What powers are those?' I asked.
"'Abandoned by the medical men I was then, Mr. Caper -- fatally ill on seven counts they said. That was on the Wednesday I lay dying. Then it come to me.'
"The cat, sir. Come in the door and sat on my chest where the pain was bad. A solemn moment.'"
However, the best of the tale's comic characterization is that of the narrator, Archie Caper, a member of that extinct genus, the English Gentleman. We of a later, hindsightful era can recognize in English Gentle-recognition: the type has become, like men the adamic source of all subsequent sexual inequalities. After Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, Trollope, et al, there is not much shock left in this the Cowboy or Neanderthal Man, an archetype. Glazebrook cannily places his archetype in a context calculated to enhance his tale's ironic possibilities. For if Archie Caper seems a primal male chauvinist prig, how are we to regard the comically villainous Turks with whom he comes in conflict, who kill, abduct, enslave and decapitate each other with the blithe assurance that they're accomplishing the will of Allah?
Oddly enough for a story so steeped in gore, the answer is, sympathetically. The book ends with melodramatic retributions. Even the dwarf eunuch whom we've been led to think has murdered poor Mr. Watkins the Theosophist in order to be possessed of his bicycle, even he is on hand for a cheery curtain call in the last chapter.
The plot as such does not amount to much. Caper, residing in Turkey, unable to deflower his own bride, hopes to purchase a female slave. Oblivious of the genocide brewing about him, he becomes involved with various grotesques, all as decoratively villainous as those in a Beardsley drawing. To say where it all leads would be to spoil much of the fun, and in fact, alas, it doesn't lead anywhere in particular. Some loose ends of the plot are tied up, some aren't, and the East preserves its essential mystery. Archie, after very little suffering, achieves an up-to-date conjugal parity. A man's wife is his houri -- that would seem to be the moral of the book.
Admirers of George MacDonald Fraser and of Lolah Burford will undoubtedly relish Glazebrook's accomplished imposture. As for those whose taste is too serious or too refined for such mere tale telling, let them, as Rachel suggests, read George Moore.