Struck dumb: A Safety Match, Ian Hay (1911)

I couldn’t bring myself to like this story at all. It’s similar to Knight on Wheels, in that it’s clearly a romance, but this time the focus is much more on the heroine, than the hero. Again it’s written in omniscient third, with lots of asides to the reader, and many comments that made me want to slap the narrator.

This is one of Hay’s early works, and I don’t think he’s very good at writing women at this point. Consequently, since much of the focus is on the heroine, it never quite works for me: I could never feel much sympathy for her, and her actions seem to be the result of a contemporary male construct of how women behave, rather than any observation of how we really do. I realise times have changed, but I don’t think that if one had been living with a man for four years in the knowledge that he was a hard bastard, and had separated from him because of that, the discovery that he had been making secret charitable donations, would be enough to make one suddenly fall in love with him. Since this is in fact what happens, it does rather affect my suspension of disbelief.

Our heroine is the eldest daughter of an impoverished, but fecund vicar. He drafts her into ‘woman’s highest office’, when her mother dies in childbirth when she is 11. We are introduced to this family, and then barely see them again for most of the novel. In the second chapter we meet the hero, a heartless mine owner, beating down the oppressed and uneducated workers, although the way they are described is mocking and patronising. By this point I’d pretty much lost any sympathy I might have had with either party.

They are brought together when the hero comes to stay with his old school friend, the vicar. At this point the reader realises he must be in his forties. The heroine is nineteen. Since the hero is not the Duke of Avon, this is not an age difference on which I look with any great favour, especially as, when he inevitably asks her to marry him, it’s because he wants a housekeeper and someone to bear his children. She agrees.

But three years later, despite the appearance of a son and heir, all is not well, and they eventually separate, even though the hero has apparently decided that he loves her. Since she’s not psychic, and he hasn’t changed his behaviour in any way at all, it isn’t surprising that she has no notion of it. The requisite happy ending is contrived by the means described above.

At which point one would think that would be it. But there is more. We meet some of the oppressed and downtrodden workers from chapter 2 again, when there is a mine accident, and our hero is the man of the hour, being instrumental in saving those trapped underground. In the process, very much, à Rochester, he is blinded. There then follows a syrupy epilogue set four years down the line, with our hero still blind, and everything hunky dory. This whole last section seemed entirely superfluous to the story, it doesn’t do anything except increase the desire to throw the book away.

My great grandmother’s copy, illustrated above, although undated, is probably an early edition. I like the cover, with the art noveau matches embossed on it.

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3 responses to “Struck dumb: A Safety Match, Ian Hay (1911)

  1. I’d been wondering whether to take a look at this book, and on the basis of your description, I think I will. In his best-selling war book, The First Hundred Thousand, Hay is a “Kitchener’s Army” officer, charged with turning stroppy Glasgow trades unionists into loyal soldiers. He describes them with patronising affection there, so it’ll be interesting to compare their representation in this book.
    It’s interesting that he finishes with the heroine looking after the blinded (emasculated?) hero – a la Rochester, as you say. An ending more common in women’s books than men’s, I’d guess.

  2. Oh it’s easy to see the antecedents of the stroppy Glaswegian trade unionists in the Nottinghamshire miners in this book. Although it’s more mockery than affection I think here.

    I really don’t know what to make of the ending. As I said in the post, the story is resolved when the hero and heroine get together and realise they love each other – there is no need for the mining accident; it’s not the solution to anything, as the fire in which Rochester is blinded is the solution to a problem. I wonder if the publisher had felt the book wasn’t long enough, or wanted a more ‘suitable’ ending?

  3. Pingback: One to Shun: A Safety Match by Ian Hay | Leaves & Pages

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