Machen’s The Three Impostors – reviewed last month – led me to this; a linked three-story series from Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights collection that, in set-up and structure, was its inspiration.
Prince Florizel of Bohemia, with his British aide Colonel Geraldine, don mutual disguises in a bid to thwart a Gentleman’s Club wherein its clientele play cards for the opportunity to be led by variously devised means to their own deaths. Across each tale, the Prince and the Colonel assist a vulnerable victim (is there any other kind?) as a means to corner and despatch the Club’s wicked President who may have had a hand in the fate of Geraldine’s brother and is, of course, only out for himself.
To describe this book as merely dated is to underestimate the more honourable attempts of its contemporaries. The main problem – as so often is the case with Victorian melodrama – is what is the subtext; not only left unwritten by the author, but, seemingly, not even realised. Clear opportunities for contemporary satire are ignored:
‘There was little decency among the members of the club. Some boasted of the disgraceful actions, the consequences had reduced them to seek refuge in death; and the others listened without disapproval. There was a tacit understanding against moral judgments;…a third was for reading the mysteries of life in a future state; and a fourth professed that he would never have joined the club, if he had not been induced to believe in Mr. Darwin.
"I could not bear," said this remarkable suicide, "to be descended from an ape."’ (p. 13).
Such a quote, witty in itself, unfortunately leads nowhere, never being exploited in the narrative voice of its author. Neither is blatant gay iconography ever once even intimated. Florizel and Geraldine are, here, unquestioned male names, for crying out-loud, while the usual, distant ‘love interest’ is manifest in the mysterious fate of Geraldine’s brother.
While what may have been mildly shocking subject matter in 1882 is positively Neanderthal in 2012. It also reads today as tactlessly presumptuous in assuming a single world-view against the subject of suicide. Can we blame Stevenson for this? Well, I would expect far more radical and revelatory use of the same material from contemporaries such as Chesterton, Belloc or, perhaps most intriguing, Ronald Firbank.
This would have been far more successful as a satire of Wildean wit, but, in several bounds, Stevenson manages to free himself from all opportunity to portray it as such. Where the subject of suicide and the individual’s right to choose is hotly debated today, here, the view is strictly conservative and – despite the lame attempts at black humour – as socially unaware as Stevenson’s humourless kowtowing to its two Establishment ‘heroes.’
Some books come into their own after years of unjust neglect. Others fall out and should be left where they land to die. The Suicide Club is one such. A pity – and such a great title.