A frivolous narrative – Knight on Wheels by Ian Hay (1914)

I’m not sure quite how this book would be categorised these days. It’s really romance, but the focus is all on the male protagonist and unlike most romance novels, it’s written by a man. I think at the time it was classified as ‘light fiction’.

It’s written in omniscient third, with a very present narrator – lots of asides to the reader, which isn’t something you see too much of in contemporary novels. Referring to the story as a frivolous narrative is one such aside and used as an excuse for not detailing a letter wherein the hero unburdens himself of his deepest feelings to the heroine (and not before time!).

It is the tale of an orphan left to the care of his misogynistic uncle – a retired Lt Col of the Indian Army, who suffered a Disappointment in his youth. The uncle spends his time soliciting money from credulous females by sending outrageously fraudulent begging letters and then disbursing the money collected, in a perfectly proper manner. Our Hero, aged fourteen, acts as his amanuensis. This idyll comes to an end when one of the credulous females Our Hero writes to, pays a visit – our hero having inadvertently put his correct address on the letter rather than the accommodation address they usually use.

This act of stupidity is forgivable as it does not come out of the blue and is consistent with the character’s state of mind at the time, resulting from the boy’s growing sense that these begging letters are not quite the thing. This is unusual; acts of stupidity on the part of the protagonist to further the plot are rarely forgivable.

Less forgivable is the fact that the widowed visitor turns out to be none other than the duplicitous female who turned the uncle to a life of misogyny – the plot of this novel is rather fuller of coincidence than I would like, but it is entertaining nevertheless because it is well done.

Enter the uncle who falls into his erstwhile fiancee’s arms leaving our poor hero feeling rather de trop. So he decides to take himself off to Coventry as he is interested in motor cars – I think by the timeline of the novel it must be around 1900 at this point. Fortunately perhaps, he runs into an eccentric novelist who has a recalcitrant car of uncertain pedigree and who recognises a fellow enthusiast. Our hero finds himself unofficially adopted and spends the next few years getting an education.

We then follow him through a motor apprenticeship (an interesting note is that this is a private apprenticeship, wherein the apprentice or his friends, pays through the nose for the privilege. I noticed a similar practice in Louise Gerard’s book ‘Days of Probation’ in reference to student nurses) and into a job with a garage in London. A very up market garage you understand, which he manages. During this time our hero has transformed into a quintessential geek – no social skills, extremely shy and reserved etc. At this point he runs into a lady he last saw as a child when he met her shortly before his uncle realised he wasn’t a misogynist at all. They become friends. In fact our hero falls deeply in love with her, but being a geek with no social skills, is unable to make this fact known, or even ascertain whether his regard is returned.

Meanwhile he is persuaded to move from the scabby flat he rents and share with one of his few close male friends. This chap is constantly falling in and out of love with all sorts of females, but at last, he declares, he has met The One. “Oh jolly good,” says our hero. He has finally decided that he has to do something about his love, and being so shy and all, decides that there’s nothing for it but to write her a letter, Telling All. He’s just finished writing it when there’s a knock at the door and none other but his Love walks in. She wants his advice – she’s had a proposal of marriage and isn’t sure whether to accept or not. Our hero, ‘playing the white man’ (a phrase used several times in the book) naturally tells her to marry his friend, although it breaks his heart to do so. He goes off to get her a taxi home, and she, sitting in the flat, finds his letter, which the attentive reader will have realised he hadn’t posted. I don’t think I need to spell out the rest.

Interestingly, in doing a search for online versions of contemporary reviews of this I came across a number of references to the book in online Great War diaries and letters. It seems to have been liked.

For example, one diarist listed all the books he had been reading at the end of his diary, Knight on Wheels was one of them. Another received a copy from his girl friend.

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3 responses to “A frivolous narrative – Knight on Wheels by Ian Hay (1914)

  1. One reason why this book may have been read by Great War soldiers is Hay was the chronicler of Kitchener’s army in The First Hundred Thousand and Carrying On.

    I think Hay was most comfortable when writing about men. His oddest book (which I’ve not read for years) is Little Ladyship, about a grown man’s love for a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. It’s not exactly Lolita, but today it would probably be regarded as very dubious.

  2. You’re possibly right about that. I read the First 100k last year, although I remember thinking that it was probably aimed more at the home front than the chaps in the trenches.

    I also think you’re probably right about your second point. Not so much in this novel, but certainly in his previous one, A Safety Match, which I’ll post about in a day or two, I felt his depiction of the female characters to be very weak.

    Having been reading a number of contemporary women writers and then jumping to Hay, the difference in the way women were portrayed is very obvious. Which is interesting.

    I think I’ll pass on Little Ladyship then, it sounds positively creepy.

  3. Brlliant comedy novel. I read in one go and felt enormously cheered by the authors wit, fluidity of writing and it’s educational value. I had frequent recourse to dictionary & Google. Excellent

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