Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Mr Meeson's Will

"Augusta set her teeth and endured in silence"
Department of odd books by well-known writers. I've just been reading the 1888 Mr. Meeson's Will by Henry Rider Haggard (see Internet Archive ID mrmeesonswill00hagguoft) which is unusual for being a combination of romantic melodrama and courtroom procedural - completely out of Rider Haggard's best-known colonial adventure genre - and perhaps the first Victorian novel to focus on a mainstream character with a tattoo.

The story involves a ruthless Birmingham publisher, Meeson, who cheats a young author, Augusta Smithers, out of the rights to her work - dashing her hopes of earning enough money to take her sick little sister to convalesce abroad. Meeson's nephew and next-of-kin Eustace, who has fallen in love with Augusta, remonstrates with his uncle and gets disinherited. Augusta, disheartened after her sister's death shortly after, decides to visit a relative in New Zealand and sets sail on the RMS Kangaroo - only to find that Meeson is also aboard en route to visit the NZ branch of his firm.

In the vicinity of the Kerguelen Islands, the Kangaroo collides with a whaling ship and rapidly sinks, and a boatful of survivors - some sailors, a young boy, Meeson, and Augusta - are cast ashore on Kergeulen Island. Although they find shelter in the huts of the 1874 transit of Venus expedition, Meeson falls seriously ill from exposure and has a change of heart: he decides to reinstate Eustace as his heir. There being nothing to write the revised will on, Augusta volunteers for having it tattooed on her back by one of the sailors, Bill; this he does, with cuttlefish ink and a fishbone, and the will is duly signed and witnessed. Meeson, haunted by his guilt at his ruthless trading, dies; and so do the sailors, during a rum-fuelled fight. Eventually Augusta and the boy are rescued by another whaling ship.

On her return to England, Augusta is reunited with Eustace, who files a case with the Court of Probate to get the revised will accepted in his favour. Various points are argued-over - such as the dating and authenticity of the tattooed will, and whether a person can be considered a legal document - complicated by August'a embarrassment at having to repeatedly exhibit the tattoo, and the surrounding media circus when the press gets hold of the story. Ultimately, Eustace wins his case, and he and Augusta are discreetly married.

"Augusta turned her back to the judge, in order that
he might examine what was written on it".
It's a readable yarn with an interesting back-story (so to speak). In the preface, Rider Haggard dismisses the accusation that appeared after its original serialisation in the Illustrated London News in the summer of 1888. As The Critic reported on 4th August 1888:

—Rider Haggard seems to be pursued by a malignant fate. Now the papers are tearing in tatters 'Mr. Meeson's Will,' and printing parallel passages of that and a resurrected romance of Charles Aubert's, called ' Le Cas de Mile. Suzanne,' from which he is accused of plagiarizing.
This refers to Le Cas de Mademoiselle Suzanne (The Case of Miss Suzanne), a story in Charles Aubert's 1883 collection Les Nouvelles Amoureuses (The New Loves), which tells of a young woman whose birthright has been tattooed on her in encrypted form. More on this in the next post: Le Cas de Mademoiselle Suzanne.

Whatever the similarity, it joined a portfolio of similar accusations against Rider Haggard, culminating in an 1890 Fortnightly Review article, King Plagiarism and his Court. But ultimately, who is remembered? Rider Haggard or his accusers?

A further interesting angle to Mr. Meeson's Will is the episode when the RMS Kangaroo collides with the whaler. There is general panic as the ship sinks and the lifeboats prove insufficient; the unscrupulous Meeson tries to buy a place in a boat, and officers have to shoot some of the mob of men attempting to rush the boats reserved for women and children. It's an astute prediction of the circumstances that arose in the RMS Titanic disaster, and Haggard writes of this section:
The only part of this humble skit, however, that is meant to be taken seriously, is the chapter which tells of the loss of the R.M.S. Kangaroo. I believe it to be a fair, and in the main an accurate account of what must, and one day will happen upon a large and crowded liner in the event of such a collision as that described, or of her rapid foundering from any other cause ; and it is a remarkable thing that people who for the most part set a sufficient value on their lives, daily consent to go to sea in ships, the boats of which could not on emergency possibly contain half their number.
Nor was Rider Haggard the only author to make such a prediction; see pages 48-49, The Titanic in myth and memory (Tim Bergfelder, Sarah Street, 2004).

Mr. Meeson's Will was filmed in 1916 as The Grasp of Greed (aka Mr Meeson's Will): see the IMDb and

- Ray

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