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1909 (or The Cousin From Canada)

1909. It wasn’t a particularly memorable year when one thinks of grand, sweeping world events. It certainly wasn’t – to borrow from The Tale of Two Cities – the best or the worst of times.

Not like 1900, the beginning of a new century, or 1914 and 1918, the beginning and end of the Great War. Or one year later when the flu epidemic took hold and swept through the world, wreaking even more death, or even the 1929 stock market collapse in the US that heralded the Great Depression.

It was merely one year in an age of imperialism, prosperity and increasing tension prior to the storm of war. It was one year in the midst of countervailing movements (anarchism, the avant garde, Freud). It was one year when new trends (impressionist art, music and modern dance) began to take hold.

The year did mark the beginning of a U.S. Presidential term, albeit a man few remember today – William Howard Taft, who came after the dynamic Theodore Roosevelt and served only one term. It was not the end of a monarch’s reign (Great Britain’s King Edward VII died the next year). In Canada, Wilfred Laurier had two years to go in his fifteen unbroken years in office (still the record!). It was also one year prior to Imperial Japan’s annexation and 35 year occupation of Korea.

Google gives access to several history sites, but the initial summation for 1909 (by Wikipedia) is surprisingly brief: political upheaval in the Ottoman Empire, the April 14 Adana massacre of 15,000–30,000 Armenian Christians, the April 18 beatification of Joan of Arc and the incorporation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (modern-day British Petroleum).

But the more one delves into other sites, the more one uncovers. “On this day in History”, provides a long list of events, of which I note a few of the more consequential (chronologically):

  • Panama becomes independent (Jan. 5)
  • NAACP formed (Feb. 12)
  • Russia invades northern Persia to support Mohammed Ali Shah’s coup d’etat (Mar. 26) (a sad but familiar story)
  • Robert Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole (April 6)
  • Mary Pickford makes her screen debut at the age of 16 (June 7)
  • French chemist Eugène Schueller founds L’Oréal (July 30)
  • the Burgess Shale fossil site, one of most diverse and best-preserved in the world, is discovered in Canadian Rocky Mountains (now British Columbia’s Yoho National Park) (Aug. 30)
  • the world’s first patent for synthetic rubber is granted to German chemist Fritz Hofmann (Sept. 12)
  • Italy and Russia sign the Racconigi Pact in which both nations promise to support the status quo in the Balkans (Oct 24)
  • Construction of a US navy base begins at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (Nov. 11)
  • Inventor Leo Baekeland patents the first thermo-setting plastic, Bakelite, sparking the birth of the plastics industry (Dec 7)

And much else occurred, in both small and big ways, socially, culturally and economically, many of which had lasting impacts. In the UK, a national old age pension came into being; it was a big year for high and discount-end shoppers (both Selfridges and the first Woolworth branch were opened); Manchester United won its first FA Cup; the Victoria and Albert Museum was opened; MI-5 was established (but only in secret!); and the first force-feeding of a suffragette (Mabel Capper) recorded (not so nice). France changed Prime Ministers (Clemenceau to Briand; both will be heard from again, many times) and the Ballets Russes opened a tour produced by Sergei Diaghilev at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, with 55 dancers, including Nijinsky. In the US, the first commercial sale of a US-made airplane (Glen Curtiss) occurred, the Wright brothers formed a manufacturing company, the Indianapolis Speedway opened, Sigmund Freud’s lectures on psychoanalysis in Worcester, Mass. provided public recognition to the subject in the English-speaking world and colored moving pictures were shown in Madison Square Garden, presaging the birth of Hollywood, the movie industry and much, much more.

In sum, 1909 sees the foreign power machinations in the Balkans that set the stage for the outbreak of the First World War, the origins of new major industries (rubber, plastics, airplanes) and several notable first performances (Mahler, Richard Strauss, Strindberg, Paderewski and Rachmaninoff, most notably) that led to a transformation in musical taste.

Popular songs of 1909 were: By the Light of the Silvery Moon and From the Land of the Sky Blue Water. Popular books – the fifth in the 14-book Wizard of Oz series (The Road to Oz) and the first edition of the 25-volume Harvard Classics were published. In England Norman Angel’s The Great Illusion was released. The ironies abound – his thesis – that the integration of the economies of European countries had grown to such a degree that war between them would be entirely futile, making militarism obsolete, predated World War 1 by five years. Although he was wrong (not once but twice), he still had great influence in society and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933.

It was a great era for popular writers – Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, Rudyard Kipling, E.M Forster and G.K. Chesterton – and the serialization of their stories in monthlies like the Strand, Idler and Windsor.

Anbd this brings me to my point – why am I even bothering to talk about a year of little consequence? The answer lies in literature and in my own personal library.

The Windsor Magazine, billed as “An Illustrated Monthly For Men and Women”, was published by Ward, Lock & Co. from 1895 to 1939, with two bound six-monthly editions printed each year. My bound copy, which I purchased at a used-book sale many years ago) is dated June to November 1909. Not surprisingly the cover picture is of Windsor Castle.

And here’s the story I am talking about today, “The Cousin From Canada”.

Robert Barr (1849-1912) was a Scottish Canadian teacher, newspaper editor and author who moved back and forth between England and Upper Canada in the late 1800’s. His work is described in Wikipedia as follows:

“Barr’s volumes of short stories were often written with an ironic twist in the story with a witty, appealing narrator telling the story… His narrative personae also featured moral and editorial interpolations within their tales…His protagonists were journalists, princes, detectives, deserving commercial and social climbers, financiers, the new woman of bright wit and aggressive accomplishment, and lords. Often, his characters were stereotypical and romanticized.”

“The Cousin From Canada” (I couldn’t resist the title) is of this genre – a ne’er do well British noble who, having wasted past opportunities and his inheritance, now must marry his plain, “business-like” (and older) cousin from Canada as she now stands to inherit the family estate. It is a classic Edwardian upper-class tale, reminiscent of the popular Downton Abbey television annals.

In eight pages (plus some nice illustrations), we have a despairing Earl who comes to recognize his failings [too much time spent in the clubs, gambling rooms and racecourses (“with some foreign relaxation thrown in”) rather than doing his duty in service of the Empire], some asides about the nature of patriotism in Canada, appealing characters, a high-spirited modern woman, the importance of hard work, ambition and making one’s own fortune instead of inheriting it, a case of mistaken identity, a reformation and a nice happy resolution.

Nothing too challenging and all very easy to digest for the new middle-class readers of this era.

Cover Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash