Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, June 1, 2021


 :Dr. Greatrex's Engagement" by Grant Allen (first piblished anonymously in The Cornhill Magazine #12, June 1884; reprinted in Grant's collection Strange Stories, 1884)

"Everybody knows by name at least the celebrated Dr. Greatrex, the discoverer of that abtuse molecular theory of the interrelations of forces and energies.  He is a comparitively young man still, as times go, for a person of such scientific distinction, for he is now barely forty; but to look at his tall, spare, earnest fugure, and his clearcut, delicate, intellectual face, you would scarcely imagine that he had once been the hero of a singularly strange and romantic story.  Yet there had been few lives more romantic than Arthur Greatrex's, and few histories stranger in their way than this of his engagement.  After all, why should not a scientific light have a romance of his own as well as other people/"


Fifteen years earlier Arthur Greatrex had been a new and promising medical student with a decided interest in "the wide points of cosmical significance."  Far outweighing this interest was his interest in pretty young Hetty Abury, the sweet and clever daughter of a leading authority on the treatment of the insane.  Arthur and Hetty are engage to wed, with the blessings of Dr, Abury, and Arthur's thoughts seldom drift away from Hetty.

One day Arthur attends one of Abury's lectures on diseases of the brain and nervous system.  Although his thoughts centered on Hetty, Arthur managed to stay through the entire talk and remember some of Abury's lecture.  In fact, on leaving the lecture, Arthur's thoughts swung back and forth from Hetty and "the premonitory symtoms of insanity" until the two seemed to merge.  Suddenly he came upon a young man with a distinctively ugly facial feature -- the man's lips kept pursing in a way that reminded one of a lunatic..A few seconds later he lealized that this was just himself approaching a mirror.  The fact that he was making unconscious facial grimaces disturbed him and he tried to stop it but couldn't.  He exited the building quickly.

Walking toward the home of Dr. Abury and Hetty, Arthur -- still concern about this disquieting facial tic -- saw a young girl playing with a kitten.  He bent to smile at her.  She looked at him and ran into her house with a scream of terror.  Luckily, by the time he approached Hetty's house he had managed to control his expression.  There he and Hetty spent an enjoyable two hours mooning and talking.  When he left to return to his rooms to study, he could not concentrate because of the thought of Hetty dancing among his mind.  Then he suddenly had an inspiration about the relationship between energy and force.  It was so clear now.  He immediately grabbed some paper and began writing furiously.  Forty page later he had the first draft of the theory that would make him famous.  As he went to bed he picked up a portait of Hetty to give it a kiss -- something he did every  night.  He happened to glance in the mirror, which revealed the grotesque image of earlier that day.  What was happening to him?

Looking up his symptoms in a medical textbook he discovered that hs symptoms were the precursor of acute demensia.  What if that were true?  He certainly could not marry the woman he loved if he were fated to go mad.  Another sympton was a break from reality where overly-intelligent ;people become convinced of a fact that flies in the face of common knowledge.  One so affected might prose -- and sincerely believe -- a theory that negated Galileo's thoughts on gravity, for example, or one that disputed some of the more basic and accepted theories in the world.  This euphoric delusion eventually leads to complete madness, according to the books Greatrex read.  The young physician sinks into despair.

Gathering the pages he wrote the night before, he visits a distinguished professor of molecular physics, Professor Linklight, and asks him to read the article and give his thoughts.  Greatrex told the professor that a friend had written it and wanted to find out if it could be true or jjust a baseless fantasy.  He then visited Dr. Warminster, who, along with Dr. Abury was the first living authority on the treatment of the insane in great Britain.  Greatrex explains his entire situation to Warminster and Warminster concludes that Greatrex might well be descending into madness.   Disheartened, he then meets Professor Linklight, who tells him that the paper Greatrex had given him to read was pure claptrap and possibly the result of a diseased mind.  What Greatrex did not realize was that Linklight ws as hidebound as he was respected.  In fact, Linklight had dismissed every new advance in science over the past forty years in the same manner as he did Greatrex's paper.

The young doctor returns to his rooms where he finds his friend Harry Freeling, a rising physiologist.  Gretrex tells Freeling that his theory is worthless.  This is something Freeling disputes based on earlier conversatins with Greatrex.  Freeling tells him his work is one of great genius and leaves with the paper to study the final product.

Greatrex tortures himself with the knowledge that he must break off his engagement to Hetty.  To do so would destroy him as much as it would he.  That evening he received two letters in the mail.  The first was from Hetty's father, informing himm that he is withdrawing his permission to marry his daughter.  Evidently he had been a meeting with Dr. Warminster and heard him relate Greatrex's case.  No names were mentioned but Dr. Abury realized that Wasminster ws talking about Greatrex and the he, Abury, onreflection had noted simlar indications in Greatrex.  The second letter was from a distrught Hetty.  Her father had just forbidden her marriage, giving no explanation.  Hetty just knew that Greatrex could never have done anything wrong to justify such a condemnation.  She begged Greatrex to come and resolve the matter.

Now, when Greatrex could not feel any lower, Harry Freeling returns to tell him that he had been called to Dr. Abury's house.  Hetty had thrown a fit and was now lung in a coma.  Not being a medical man mhyself and certainly not familiar with 19th century medicine, I assume this is a  very extreme form of the 'vapors."  No matter.  Whatever it is, Hetty is unresponsive and may well die.

Greatrex explains what Hetty has reacted to and goes into detail about his symptoms  and theie inevitable conclusions.  Pish-posh, replies Harry (or in words to that effect), you may be the s.anest person on earth, and he you are certainly not mad.   Greatrex disputes this, but his thoughts are on Hetty.  He insists on visting her, feeling that the sight of him might help her.  Off they go and greatrex spends a lot of time by Hetty's bed before she rouses a bit with the knowledge that he is there.

Anyway, Hetty recovers.  Harry tells Greatrex that his case is really common, caused by stress which affects the local paralysis of the inhibitories -- an explantion that appears medically sound to me.  Untreated, it could lead to tetanus.  The treatment is simple:  cutting a nerve behind the ear.  It is a safe and effective cure that san be done in half an hour.  Greatrex gets snipped.  The engagement is back on.  Then, just days before the marriage is to take place, Harry tells them that he had translated Greatrex's paper into French, typed it up, and sent it to the French Academie, which had just informed him that it had decreed a gold medal for discovery to Greatrex.

Can there be a happier ending?

Grant Allen (1848-1899) was a well-known , Canadian author of scientific texts and fiction, as well a vocal exponent of evolution during the last half of the nineteenth century.  His 1895 best-selling novel The Woman Who Did was higly controversial because of its approach to sexual mores.  His book The Evolution of the Idea of God (1897)reflected his beliefs as an atheist and socialist.  The early science fiction novel The Blue Barbarians (1895) parallels many of the ideas in H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, which was published around the same time and actually mentions Allen.  Among allen's other works were the thrillers The Great Taboo (1890) and Kalee's Shrine (1897), the classic crime collection An African Millionaire:  Episodes in the Life of the Illustrious Colonel Clay (1897), detective novel Miss Cayley's Adventures (1899), collections Strange Stories (1884), The Beckoning Hand and Other Stories (1887), and Twelve Tales:  With a Headpiece, a Tailpiece, and a Intermezzo (1899).  

Grant died of liver cancer in 1899 before he could fnish his detective novel Hilda Wade.  His friend Arthur Clonan Doyle completed the book, writing the last episode, and the book was ;published in 1900.

Grant Allen's Strange Tales, along with many of his other works, is available to read on the internet

1 comment:

  1. Grant Allen's Dr. Greatrex represents the fascination with Science and Technology at that time. Another fascinating short story! You know how to pick'em!