07 February 2019

Review: Septimus by William J. Locke

Hardcover, 315 pages
Published 1909 (originally 1908-09)
Borrowed from the library

Read January 2019
Septimus by William J. Locke
"Here we are in the middle of a Fairy Tale. What are the Powers of Darkness in your case, Sir Red Cross Knight?"
     "Jebusa Jones's Cuticle Remedy," said Sypher savagely. (54)
I read this novel as part of my project to read all the remaining Victorian scientist novels. It's not Victorian, though, and Septimus Dix is an inventor, not a scientist. There's no indication of scientific training or scientific research; he designs things (mostly weapons, but occasionally other things, though only the guns are practical). He is certainly an absent-minded inventor, seemingly even a savant, as it seems like the gun designs just kind of come to him, but he doesn't view the world differently because of his scientific perspective. (He definitely views it differently, though. He's a very odd duck.)

Still, I'm glad I read it because it was delightful. Serialized in American Magazine from May 1908 to June 1909 under the title Simple Septimus, the novel follows four people: the inventor Septimus, the patent medicine hawker Clem Sypher, the would-be actress Emmy Oldrieve, and the Zora Middlemist, the imposing young widow who ties them all together. Zora is Emmy's sister, Clem's muse, and Septimus's idol; her husband died just six weeks into their marriage because he was an alcoholic, and she swore off men and marriage only to draw into her orbit two of the oddest men who had ever been.

The book is aimless at times, but usually fun, and occasionally insightful and heartfelt. Septimus and Clem are perfectly ridiculous characters. Septimus, for example, hired a burglar as butler, but doesn't worry because one can't burgle a place if one lives in it, so he has nothing to fear; Septimus spends most of the year away from home, though, because he's afraid he gets on the butler's nerves, and he hates causing offense. Clem sells patent medicine, but unlike Edward Ponderevo in Wells's Tono-Bungay (serialized at almost exactly the same time), Clem earnestly believes in his medicine, and considers himself a Friend of Humanity for hawking it incessantly.

Septimus falls in love with Zora, Clem thinks Zora is his muse, Emmy gets in trouble by way of an extramarital affair, and basically this constellation of characters interact back and forth for 300 pages in increasingly weird circumstances. Over the course of the novel, they all grow up a little bit, thanks to the influence of the others; four people who had each removed themselves from humanity in some kind of way end up discovering the salvation than can only come from contact with other humans.

The one-volume publication was one of the ten bestselling books of 1909 in the United States (Locke himself was a British colonial), but as far as I know, it has mostly been forgotten in the present day and age, so I'm glad my incessant search for scientists in British literature brought me to it, and I'm sad I have to remove it from my list of them.

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