Two books by Ernest Bramah (1868-1942), a writer whom George Orwell admired in print, have been re-issued this year As both have been particularly difficult to obtain these new editions allow us to fill in some of the gaps in Bramah’s work, and to see how it changed during his writing career.
“[Rather than Penguin re-publish The Wallet of Kai Lung, which Orwell found “tedious”] [i]t would have been better to have reprinted Ernest Bramah’s excellent detective stories, Max Carrados  and The Eyes of Max Carrados . Together with those of Conan Doyle and R. Austin Freeman they are the only detective stories since Poe that are worth re-reading.”
[Review of Penguin Books 1936]
Orwell’s wartime friend Julian Symons in Bloody Murder, a history of detective stories, points out that “[u]nlike most crime writers, Bramah sometimes linked his stories to actual social problems of the period”. For instance, “The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem” includes a defence of Indian Nationalism, while “The Missing Witness Sensation” concerns a Sinn Fein kidnapping, both political issues of the moment. Symons says “Bramah ignored the limited idea, which had almost become established by the time of his first Carrados book, that every investigation must concern a murder, and the stories are the more interesting for it”, something with which Orwell probably agreed.
In his Introduction to The Bravo Of London, Tony Medawar says that it uses the plot of “The Missing Witness Sensation”, but if so it is almost unrecognisable. It begins as villains plan to steal the paper on which the Bank of England print bank notes, partly at the behest of gangsters but partly at the behest of foreign agents, all masterminded by an ugly disabled antiques dealer. The story includes substituting doubles for innocent men, and ends as a kidnapping, resolved by the efficiency of the London Water Board. Consistency by the characters seems to be as of little concern as plotting to the author.
In 1936, though, Ernest Bramah must have caught Orwell’s review of his short stories and wrote to thank him for his praise of Carrados while allowing that The Wallet of Kai Lung was not of the best, as Peter Davison records in his footnote in the Complete Works.
Orwell returned to Bramah in July 1940 when he wrote a collective review of four reprinted novels, now treated as an essay called “Prophecies of Fascism”. The last of the four was Ernest Bramah’s The Secret of the League which “treats the class struggle from the upper of rather the middle-class point of view”. Orwell gives a synopsis of the book and says of the Upper Classes, “After their victory they abolish the trade unions and institute a ‘strong’ non-parliamentary régime that we should now describe as Fascist. The tone of the book is good-natured, as it could afford to be at that date, but the trend of thought is unmistakable.”
The effect of the 1936 letter must have remained with him, for Orwell – plainly shocked – asked “Why should a decent and kindly writer like Ernest Bramah find the crushing of the proletariat a pleasant vision?” before giving his explanation for the psychology of fascism and fascist thinking.
The Secret of the League, though, was the abbreviated, edited and re-organised version of Bramah’s original novel, What Might Have Been: The Story Of A Social War, which has now been republished by Handheld Press, with a long introduction by Jeremy Hawthorn explaining the changes made by Bramah between the two books.
It is worth drawing attention to Jermey Hawthorn’s short article in Notes And Queries (July 2018) on Bramah and Orwell, for he deals with a recent and mistaken claim that Orwell admitted The Secret of the League as an inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four. This false claim is now commonly spread across the internet, and yet must have spread very recently and very quickly. One did not find this claim made as recently as 2014, as one can see in this article on the Kai Lung stories and Bramah’s other work by Tim Martin in the Daily Telegraph.
Ernest Bramah died in 1942, two years after Orwell’s negative response. One wonders how he would have explained away What Might Have Been and The Secret of the League.
Perhaps Penguin Books took Orwell’s 1936 plea to heart, albeit seven years later. In 1943 they released their edition of Max Carrados, the collection which includes “The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem”.
Finally it is worth noting the disclaimer inserted by Collins in their edition of The Bravo Of London: “This book is presented in its original form and may depict ethnic, racial and sexual prejudices that were commonplace at the time it was written”. Prejudice is there, and anti-semitism, too. Strangely, though, the villain Joolby is never identified as Jewish, though some of his accomplices are. Still the street children shout “Jew” at the disabled man when he goes out in public, based on the first syllable of his name. This all adds to the generally inconsistent tone of the book; one with a villain with whom one sometimes sympathises. If Orwell never read it he did not miss much. Today, though, it acts as a time machine to see what was and was not acceptable and is worth studying for that.
For any one interested in George Orwell and his intellectual milieu these are two books worth reading, along with their introductions. The Collins reprint series is now well established, we hope that Handheld have similar success – their forthcoming lists look very promising.
L. J. Hurst
Uploaded 1st December 2018