MICHAEL'S CRAG is an 1893 novella by Grant Allen, a popular Victorian writer of fiction and non-fiction alike. I came across it via my "GOBI - Great Old Book Illustrations" account on Twitter, where I featured several of the 350 silhouette-styled illustrations by father-son artists Francis Carruthers Gould and Alec Carruthers Gould that originally appeared in the book's margins. The fine mustachioed gentleman at right is one of the illustrations.
I found the novella both intriguing and confounding. Set in the Cornwall coast of England, a very big “Chekhov’s Gun” is revealed early on; one of the main characters, Trevennack, an important figure in the Admiralty, is actually the Archangel Michael… or so he believes himself to be. He is, of course, utterly delusional.
So my expectation was that at some point Trevennack’s delusion would be revealed to more than just his long-suffering and horrified wife, that the Chekhov’s Gun would be fired, and various dramatic or comedic consequences would result. (The film THE RULING CLASS was in the back of my mind.)
But… that never happens. When Trevennack’s delusion finally take full occupancy of his mind, it’s when he is alone in the countryside, where he sees a large aggressive black ram as Satan, leading to a struggle that ends in a fatal fall over a cliff. Only his wife, and the doctor whose autopsy discovers a large blood clot in Trevennack’s brain, know the truth. None of the other characters, Trevennack’s daughter or friends or acquaintances, ever know more than that he sometimes said strange things or acted oddly.
My initial reaction was “Well, this Grant Allen fellow didn’t know how to structure or plot a story very well.” But then I thought about it some more, and realized that the entire purpose of the novella was to serve as a paean to British reticence and propriety.
Because insanity wasn’t just a shameful thing to have in your family, it was a blight on your family, as madness was still largely believed to be an inheritable trait, and if there was even a possibility that Trevennack’s daughter Cleer might ever inherit her father’s madness, her marriage prospects would be ruined, along with the family’s social standing.
So a good part of the story, the sections where we see Trevennack’s inner mind, is about his inner struggle to maintain a normal appearance and behavior. Because, up until his final end, there’s still a small portion of Trevennack’s mind that realizes his angelic nature can only be a delusion, even though he also knows, is also certain, that he is in deed and in fact the Archangel Michael. So, for propriety and for the sake of his family, Trevennack manages to keep that British “stiff upper lip” and proper behavior almost until the very last.
Looked at from that perspective, Trevennack’s death, and the solitude of its circumstance, is the happy ending of the story. He maintained propriety. He maintained appearances. He ensured the continued fortune and fates of his family. He maintained the status quo of upper-class British society.
The paean to propriety is further reinforced by the secondary plot narrative. The daughter, Cleer, mis-times a walk out to a rugged, rocky tidal island (where a pathway is revealed at low tide) and is stranded when the evening high tide comes in. A prospective suitor, Eustace, tries to swim the gap in a dimwitted attempt to rescue Cleer, only to barely reach the island, badly battered and bruised from being tossed among the rocks. So both Cleer and Eustace are stranded overnight on the epynomous crag until low tide returns.
Well! An unmarried couple spending the night together?! Alone?! That’s a scandal, sir, a scandal! (Even if the night was spent cold, wet, rained upon, and with Eustace barely able to move.) So of course the two of them must be married now! No acceptable alternative exists! Ha-rumph! So once again the rigid rules of society follow their inevitable, respectable path.
So, if you want a peek at British societal customs and attitudes circa the 1890s, MICHAEL’S CRAG is actually a pretty good choice, I think. The book also features some very effective descriptions of the Cornwall countryside and coast, making it seem both bleak and beautiful.
(first appeared, in slightly different form, in Last Stage For Silverworld, March 2022)