There is often something shocking comes out of the past to shake our complacencies. Footling through Hammerton’s Thousand Best Stories collection, I came across one in volume eleven that gave me such a shaking. It was in a section described as ‘overseas’ and I had turned to that out of curiosity as to just which country that was! It turned out to be the even more oddly named countries of ‘Britons of overseas’. They in turn, turned out to be Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders. How they would feel about that ‘Britons’ I’m not sure, but it certainly is a usage of the word that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

In this sequence of stories was one by H.B.Marriot Watson (1863-1921).  Quarantine is described as ‘a great story, a model of the short story, related with no waste of words and without a word misplaced.’ Technically then, up to the job. The sort of story, if my interest in how you write ‘em and what they are is genuine, that I ought to be reading. So I did.

And it is well written. Framed, not unlike Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with a pipe smoking narrator who tells a story that has been told to him. Set in the South Seas – Somerset Maugham’s South Sea Tales came out around the time that Watson died. It is a story told by a dying clergyman, found in a boat with no oars, but who is beyond saving, though he lives long enough to tell his tale. On an isolated island, where he is ‘parish priest,’ smallpox breaks out. The island has two communities: his Kanaka natives, and a ‘white’ plantation with native workers. The two rub along well enough, until the disease breaks out, and the priest’s community has to be quarantined. One young man though, cannot resist crossing the line into the plantation to visit his girlfriend. Warnings turn to threats, and to eventual murder. The line becomes a boundary across which it is death to cross. The disease rampages, and does eventually cross the line.

It is at this point that the white traders seize the priest who has been living in the native village, where his attempts to contain the disease have been useless. In fact he has been able to do no more than help the natives to face an inevitable death. The ‘white’ traders have invited him to join them, ‘in quarantine’ but he has chosen not to. Now, with the disease out of control, they seize him, and set him afloat, with provisions, but no oars, freeing themselves to take a ruthless line with the outbreak, and the community.

The priest persuades his rescuers to visit the island, where they find only a few survivors, the leader of the whites, dying by now himself, among them. The story, explicitly, poses the question, which of the two approaches was correct…the trader, with his gun-enforced quarantine, or the priest who stayed on in the community, aiding those who would die, but not containing the disease?

It is a good story but what was shocking was the inherent racism, not in the characters on the island particularly – it is not only whites who are trying to maintain the quarantined area – but in the narrator whom Watson has pass on tale. Explicitly, and using the ‘n’ word, he points out the folly of ‘arming’ the locals, who, throughout the telling, are assumed to be inferior – the word inferior is actually used .

Is it still, I wonder, accepting for the moment that it might once have been, ‘a model of the short story’? In detail, it’s no worse than the cowboy stories of my youth, in which to sell guns to the Indians was, for similar reasons perhaps, considered an unconscionable act. Selling guns to the ‘enemy’ is a slightly different matter. Yet in Watson’s lifetime, and for long before it, armies of locals had been raised, and armed by conquerors of many nations, back to the Roman Empire and beyond. It is the attitude behind the opinion revealed in the language that is more shocking than the opinion itself. To arm any natives, even when they are us, might not be a good idea – but to not do it because they are thought of as inferior is the offence.

The speculation leads me on to recall two other stories that raise similar issues, both mentioned before in this blog. They are McCabe and Mrs Miller, and Rogue Male. In both films, as issued on dvd, racist elements – in the former about Chinese Men, in the latter about Jews – have been excised from earlier versions seen by me. The tidying up of old stories might well make them more acceptable to a later audience, but it also robs us of a knowledge about the past, and the stories it told! Thinking of another film, Waterloo, made in the late 20th century, there was a scene in which a British infantryman stepped of line amidst the chaos of the battle and delivered a speech that would have fitted well into the mouth of an anti-Vietnam war protester, but rang untrue in one of a generation that could hang a shipwrecked monkey as a French spy. The attitudes of the past belong to it, and to the stories written in it, even when they are possibly false ideas about deeper pasts.

But the question still remains, as to what extent we can regard stories as being ‘models’ of a genre when their content has become, by the passage of time and the development of ideas and understanding, abhorrent to us? What we might answer to that might indicate our own attitude, not to the assumptions of the story, but to the potential for usefully disentangling from each other the concepts of form and content in relation to art of the storyteller.

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