14 January 2013

R.Murray Gilchrist, The Stone Dragon ( 1894)

Current selling price £2,000+.

Until the early 1970s R. Murray Gilchrist (1868 - 1917) was known mainly for some unremarkable regional and other novels together with a few bog standard  topographical  books on Yorkshire  and the Peak District, none of which have ever attracted the attention of collectors. Then, in the 1970s his horror fiction began to be anthologised and before long this Yorkshireman was being hailed as a undeservedly neglected master of the Decadent and Gothic, worthy to rank with some of the greatest masters of the genre. Over the past forty years stories from his debut collection The Stone Dragon have been anthologized more than a dozen times and the book has been reprinted in 1984, 1994 and 2003. Because of this interest demand for first editions of his most acclaimed book has escalated enormously in recent years.

Frustratingly, little is known about the life of Gilchrist. It seems that he was born in Sheffield in 1868, where he attended the grammar school there, and apart from a short sojourn in Paris soon afterwards, he remained in the Peak district for the rest of his short life, living for some time near Holmesfield,  in his mother’s house, the largely Tudor Cartledge Hall, with a male companion, which suggests that he may have been gay. In the early 1890s his ‘Decadent’ tales featured in W. E. Henley’s National Observer, a mainly non-fiction magazine that also published Yeats and Kipling. In 1891, his first novel, Passion the Plaything appeared, but although this and two further novels, Frangipanni (1893) and Hercules and the Marionettes (1894) were not a great critical success, reviewers were much more enthusiastic about his first collection The Stone Dragon which came out in 1894..  Thereafter, Gilchrist was in demand and he published further stories in more mainstream magazines, including The Idler, Pall Mall Magazine and Windsor Magazine.

It has been remarked that the critical neglect of Gilchrist since his death in 1917 has been mainly due to his unevenness as a writer. Writing mainly of his novels one critic of the time described his work as 'incomplete, elliptical, mannered and uncontrolled'. Elsewhere the same critic, after praising the good qualities of one particular novel, condemned him as a writer of 'great moments and appalling weaknesses.' These remarks, which were echoed by other critics, seem to have contributed to Gilchrist’s critical fate.The stories in The Stone Dragon, however, appear to have escaped these critical reservations, despite the fact that some of them share some of the stylistic failings of the novels. It’s the themes treated by Gilchrist in this Decadent fiction that attract the modern sensibility. Stories that address same-sex passion, the lust for youth, and feminism, predominate and it is perhaps no coincidence that the resurrection of Gilchrist followed directly on from the sexual liberation of the nineteen sixties.

In the title story, for instance, the hero has to choose between two women—one boringly conventional and submissive and the other erotic and unconventional, with the stone dragon itself acting as a symbol of emotion frozen for all time, just as in a conventional marriage. Other aspects of gender and sexuality that occupied so many writers and artists of the 1890s (one thinks immediately of Beardsley and Swinburne) are explored with imaginative power in The Stone Dragon and in later collections.

If you want some first or early editions of Gilchrist for a few pounds  his topographical guides are easily available. Most bookshops will stock Ripon and Harrogate (1914) and The Peak District (1911) for around £5 each, though one chancer in East Moseley wants a very silly $244 for The Peak District because it retains its dust jacket ( he must have been reading Tanselle on book jackets !). The bigger prices are reserved for Gilchrist’s novels, a handful of which are available online. One of the cheapest seems to be Damosel Croft at $83 (Peter Ellis), with the undated Pretty Fanny’s Way going for $164.39. Most of the other novels hover around $90.

Not surprisingly, The Stone Dragon claims top spot. There is an wonderful inscribed copy of this 'legendarily scarce' title on sale from Adrian Harrington at a decadent $4,152, but if you have a ‘ horror ‘ of paying over the odds, one dealer in Australia will sell you a copy in only slightly worse condition for $1,250, which seems a bargain to me. Incidentally, if you can somehow find the ‘Colonial ‘edition of the same book it should cost you even less. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. This is a book I have never seen although one customer has a copy down Bexhill way. Must
check him out when next in God's waiting room.