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The Alias by Alexander Crawford
William Blackwood and Sons, 1913, 345 pages

‘To go through life under an alias even, our very name not to be breathed. It’s awful…’

The Alias, p. 65
The Alias by Alexander Crawford, 1914 Shilling Edition

The alias of the title of Alexander Crawford’s third novel, published in 1913, is one assumed by Ann Bevington while her father, Edward, serves time for bankruptcy after the collapse of a dodgy business venture. Staying in a lodging house and making what living she can as a typist, young Ann adopts her mother’s name, Dittany, and her father, when he gets out of prison early on in the novel, decides to take up the name too. As a bankrupt, he’s not allowed to run a business, but Edward Bevington is a keen-minded businessman, and running a business is what he intends, indeed needs, to do, in order to win back his fortune, pay off his debts, and regain the respect of his daughter. In the same lodging house is Neil Wishart, a young gentleman expelled from Cambridge after a false accusation of thievery, now trying (and failing) to earn his living as an insurance salesman. In a house of otherwise shabby characters, Ann and Neil recognise one another’s innate virtue and fall in love. When Edward Bevington appears, he, too, sees something in Neil Wishart: an honesty and plausibility that’s just the thing he needs to front his new (and just as dodgy as the last) business venture. He offers Wishart the job of secretary, and Wishart, hoping to stay close to Ann and desperately in need of a position, accepts.

Alexander Crawford’ is, of course, itself an alias, the pseudonym used by David Lindsay’s elder brother Alexander in his brief fiction-writing career that began with the novel Kapak in 1911, and ended with Alexander’s death in 1915. In a biographical note written for the publication of Devil’s Tor in 1932, David Lindsay mentions that his “brother, the late ‘Alexander Crawford’, also wrote some novels (The Alias, etc.) which by now are almost forgotten”, with the implication that they are, perhaps, forgettable. Unlike David Lindsay’s books, though, Alexander Crawford’s were popular in their time, and received good reviews (see Douglas A. Anderson’s essay, ‘Resurrecting Alexander Crawford’, in Wormwood #11, which also notes that The Alias was Crawford’s most successful book). Relations between the brothers were strained. Alexander seems to have tried his hand at several endeavours, including a business in the Midlands, and a marriage that didn’t work out. Altogether a more worldly person, Alexander certainly presents himself, through The Alias, as knowing a good deal about how the world works: the business details (including the exact nature of the scam that powers Edward Bevington’s latest business) are convincing, indeed quite technical in places. And perhaps this practicality comes through in the sort of fiction Alexander chose to write. David Lindsay’s novels weren’t easily accepted by the reading public during his lifetime because they deliberately challenged that public’s most deeply-held values. A Voyage to Arcturus set about smashing every precious idol it could. The Alias does the opposite. It not only buys into the key cultural values of its times, it tells a story that sets about enacting and reasserting them. The Alias is a melodrama: a story in which virtue is threatened but never really tested and is, ultimately, rewarded. It is also a story in which virtue is innate. Those characters who are good — Neil Wishart and Ann Dittany — are good at the start and good at the end. And not only are they virtuous, but both (though temporarily ‘on their uppers’ at the start of the novel) also belong to the upper or upper-middle classes. Neil Wishart is a gentleman, and you just know that his estrangement from his family is simply awaiting some plot point (in this case, a death-bed confession in an abandoned African village) before he can be restored to his fortune, his family, and his rightful position. Comparing The Alias to A Voyage to Arcturus — something that is, I know, unfair, but which is nevertheless informative — it’s almost shocking how totally and unquestioningly Alexander Crawford buys into his society’s values, as embodied in the ideal of the gentleman, who is both innately virtuous and born wealthy, in contrast to all the ‘shabby’ types who, not being born wealthy, are also not innately virtuous. It shows just how central the revaluation of all values was to David Lindsay’s writing. Also, I’d say, it shows David to be a better creator of characters. Almost all of those in The Alias are easily-recognisable and easily-digestible types, from Ann Dittany and Neil Wishart — honest but dull — to the spineless and sneaky blackmailer Roger Tregarth who’s the real villain of the novel. Character, in The Alias, is mostly as straightforward as that in a pantomime or morality play, while immorality seems more born of jealousy, and an innate sense of worthlessness before the bright light of gentlemanly virtue (‘There is no character a blackguard distrusts so much in the world as that of a gentleman’ (The Alias, p. 146)). Lindsay has his ‘good’ characters (Joiwind and Panawe in Arcturus, for instance), but they aren’t simply ‘good’, they have a reasoned philosophy making them that way. His ‘bad’ characters, on the other hand, can have an amoral vitality that takes them well clear of melodrama (Maurice Ferreira in Sphinx, for instance, or the entire populace of the Ifdawn Marest).

Advertising page at the back of The Alias, 1914 Shilling Edition

The Alias, as a novel, does have one redeeming virtue, one character with enough vitality, and dimension, to take on some life of his own, even some genuine human truth. This is Edward ‘Dittany’ Bevington, and although Neil Wishart and Ann Dittany are the ostensible hero and heroine of The Alias, Edward is its soul and driving force. It’s Edward who, with his aim of regaining his fortune and making his name, drives the plot. It’s Edward who, through his sheer will to exercise his innate business-mindedness, takes action, whether moral, immoral or amoral. It’s Edward who, faced with blackmail, is the only character to suffer any genuinely non-black-and-white dilemma, as the only solution is to give the blackmailer (Roger Tregarth) Ann’s hand in marriage, but Ann is about the only person Edward has any love for. Yet still, Edward buckles — and it is that buckling, that wavering before the face of such a character-defining decision, that brings him alive. It’s largely with Edward that Alexander Crawford’s writing comes alive, too. There’s one scene that really stood out for me, in which Edward is alone in his office with the blackmailer Roger Tregarth’s sister Hilda, a woman somewhat more strong-willed than her brother, but who shares his greed. Hilda and Edward recognise a similarly dark, amoral spark in one another, and Hilda falls in love, for the first time in her life having met a man who actually seems equal to her own nature. It’s a brief moment, but one that seems on the verge of stepping the novel outside of the accepted morality of its times.

It’s too tempting to take what little we know about Alexander Crawford and read it into his writing. Here, what’s most vital in the novel is a tale of a businessman living on the edge of wrongdoing, straying occasionally outside legal bounds, at times troubled by the moral quandaries he faces, but also driven to exercise the fullness of his formidable powers as a businessman — how much of this was true of Alexander? He may not have been a formidable businessman, but he certainly could have found himself faced with those decisions that lie within the legality of business practice, while being outside those of the accepted ‘gentlemanly’ conduct of the day. Certainly, this is where the human insight in the novel comes to the fore. As Ann says, of her father: “I often wonder… whether the things the Law gets hold of are half as bad as the things a man doesn’t even know about himself.”

The Alias — as all melodrama should — gets its fairy tale ending. Ann and Neil, though separated and deceived into doubting one another, are brought back together and get to say that, in truth, they never did doubt one another. They regain their fortunes and their positions in society, while everyone else — all the shabby types, the blackguards, the cads and ne’er-do-wells — get their comeuppance. Having said all this, though, I found The Alias enjoyably readable, and the plot quite engaging, particularly once Edward Bevington was in charge of events.

© Murray Ewing 2017