"Men wander to and fro like damned souls or migratory salmon or caribou." - Morley Roberts

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

Morley Roberts wrote the first B.C. novel of outstanding literary merit, The Prey of the Strongest (1906), as well as the first B.C., a potboiler called The Mate of the Vancouver (1892). Despite having written more than 80 books, Roberts is only rarely cited in B.C. literary history for his travelogue of his ramblings in western North America during 1884-1885, The Western Avernus: Toil and Travel in Further North America (1887). About half of this highly readable account concerns B.C. It kindled the imagination of a young banking apprentice in Glasgow, Scotland, named Robert Service, who, after reading The Western Avernus, quit his job and came to Vancouver Island.

Roberts was attracted to B.C. as "almost the farthest place from anywhere in the world,"; but he subsequently observed, "Men wander to and fro like damned souls or migratory salmon or caribou."; Having arrived in New Westminster with 25 cents in his pocket, he took a job in the Dominion sawmill, working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for thirty dollars a month, plus board. He was discharged from the mill in April of 1885 following a fist fight at dinner with a Chinese waiter. He set off for Kamloops, taking with him Virgil, Horace, Coleridge and Keats as companions. A second altercation with a different "Mongolian"; in New Westminster forced a hasty exit via Victoria.

Back in England, Roberts conducted an affair with a married woman, Alice Selous, whom he eventually married in 1893. A year later he visited Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Pacific. He also published a fictionalized biography of his lifelong friend, George Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland (1912), and a study of another literary friend, W.H. Hudson: A Portrait (1924). Morley Roberts returned to B.C. for a second visit in 1926, described in On the Old Trail (1927), in which he looks askance at B.C.'s attempts at social progress. In his later years, Roberts turned increasingly towards pathology and sociology, enquiring into the nature and causes of cancer.

Charles Lillard once described The Prey of the Strongest (1906) as "our first accurate portrayal of life in the mills, in the woods and gambling halls; as well it is our first novel to honestly place the Indian and Oriental within B.C.'s labouring-class society."; Certainly it provides a rare, authentic account of working class life in late 19th-century B.C. based on Roberts' sophisticated perceptions and his "school-of-hard-knocks"; experiences.

Almost two-thirds of Roberts' melodramatic earlier novel, The Mate of the Vancouver (1892), is set in B.C. Thomas Ticehurst, a semi-reluctant sailor, sails from England on the Vancouver in 1881 to accompany his brother to the West Coast. He falls in love with a passenger named Elsie, is rejected by her and is stabbed in San Francisco by a villain named Matthias. Matthias goes to jail but vows revenge. Ticehurst recovers and follows Elsie northward. Ticehurst vanquishes Matthias and marries Elsie in Thomson Forks (ie. Kamloops).

Here is Roberts' description of the Dominion sawmill in 1885, likened to an orchestra: "The whole Mill was a tuned instrument, a huge sounding board. There was no discord, for any discord played its part, it was one organic harmony, pleasing, fatiguing, satisfying; any dropped note was missed: if the Lath Mill stayed in silence, something was wanting, when the Shingler said nothing, the last fine addition to the music fell away. And yet the one harmony of the Mill was a background for the soloes of the Saws, for the great diapason of the Hoes, for the swifter speech of the Pony, for the sharp cross notes of the Trimmers. The saws sang according to the log, to its nature, to its growth: either for the butt or the cleaner wood."; Born in London in 1857, Morley Roberts died there in 1942. He published almost 100 books, some of which are available via the internet, including The Western Avernus.

FULL ENTRY:

Morley Roberts is the author of the first notably British Columbian novel, The Mate of the Vancouver (1892), a story in which the protagonist leaves his ship in Victoria and heads to the Interior hoping to make his fortune and find true love. Almost two-thirds of this adventure romance is set in British Columbia.

More significantly, Morley Roberts was the first highly skilled writer to provide descriptions of working class life in B.C. Having worked as a labourer in a New Westminster sawmill during the winter of 1884-85 and as a CPR labourer in the Rockies, he made good use of those experiences in his novel, The Prey of the Strongest (1906), the first novel about British Columbia with undeniable literary merit.

But it is more likely Roberts' first book about British Columbia, The Western Avernus (1887), that will endure as a footnote in international literary history. Roberts writes that he was attracted to British Columbia as "almost the farthest place from anywhere in the world." His non-fictional descriptions of his experiences on a CPR railway and survey crew and his walk through the Selkirk Mountains and the Fraser Canyon to the coast kindled the imagination of a young banking apprentice in Glasgow, Scotland named Robert Service. Upon reading The Western Avernus: Toil and Travel in Further North America, Robert Service visited the Canadian immigration office and acquired pamphlets about the West. "Cattle ranching; that was the romantic side of farming," Service once recalled, "and it was romance that was luring me." Inspired by Morley Roberts, Robert Service quit his banking job after seven years of service. "I knew a joy that bordered on ecstasy as I thought: 'I too, will be a cowboy,," wrote Service.

Born in London, England on December 29, 1857, Morley Roberts was educated in Manchester where he began his long friendship with the Victorian novelist George Gissing. After a serious disagreement with his father, who was a tax collector, he set sail for Australia in 1867 and worked in the Australian hinterlands for three years. "I had gone out as a boy and came back a man, for I had had a man's experiences; work, adventure, travel, hunger and thirst."; He was a clerk for several years in the War Office and the India Office but left London in 1884 for a job herding sheep in Texas. He took a cattle train to Chicago, worked as a labourer in Iowa and Minnesota, and joined a railway camp in the B.C. interior. He hiked to the coast in the fall of 1884.

In New Westminster, after journeying nearly 8,000 miles in seven months, Roberts had twenty-five cents in his pocket. Extremely well-read and articulate, he took a job as a labourer at the Dominion Sawmill, working from 6 am to 6 pm for thirty dollars a month plus board. Roberts learned some Chinook, completed an autobiography (lost in the mail and never recovered) but was discharged from the mill in March following a fist fight at dinner with a Chinese waiter. He left for Yale on the Adelaide steamer, taking with him Virgil, Horace, Coleridge and Keats as his companions. He worked for a former boss in Kamloops and returned briefly to New Westminster where an altercation with a different "Mongolian" forced a hasty exit. "I thought it best to leave British Columbia, especially as I was told the Chinaman was going to take me to court and I should have been heavily fined if he had."; Roberts was to transform these two incidents of uncharacteristic violence into material for fiction.

In the Western Avernus, about half of which described his wanderings in British Columbia, Morley Roberts described the Dominion sawmill in 1885 as an orchestra: "The whole Mill was a tuned instrument, a huge sounding board. There was no discord, for any discord played its part, it was one organic harmony, pleasing, fatiguing, satisfying; any dropped note was missed: if the Lath Mill stayed in silence, something was wanting, when the Shingler said nothing, the last fine addition to the music fell away. And yet the one harmony of the Mill was a background for the soloes of the Saws, for the great diapason of the Hoes, for the swifter speech of the Pony, for the sharp cross notes of the Trimmers. The saws sang according to the log, to its nature, to its growth: either for the butt or the cleaner wood.";

Roberts left B.C. via Victoria, worked his way south by doing a variety of unskilled jobs, lived in San Francisco for three months, and returned to London in 1887. He was determined to make his living as a writer. He shared the poverty that George Gissing made famous in his novel New Grub Street. He quickly published six novels, six volumes of short stories and two travel memoirs, The Western Avernus (1887) and Land Travel and Sea Faring (1891). He also impulsively conducted an affair with a married woman, Alice Selous, whom he eventually married in 1893. During the 15 happy years of his marriage, Roberts wrote 20 more novels (he later dismissed 15 of these as potboilers), 16 more volumes of short stories, a volume of essays, The Wingless Psyche (1904) and another travel book, A Tramp's Notebook (1904).

Long after Robert Service had achieved his fame and fortune for his fanciful poems about the Klondike, Morley Roberts returned to B.C. for a second visit in 1926. In his second non-fictional book on British Columbia, On the Old Trail (1927), Roberts looks askance at the progress made by British Columbia during his 40-year absence. When Roberts' made his return visit to Vancouver, "this magic city of El Dorado,"; in 1926, he was keenly disappointed. "I laughed with sheer incredulity. It could not be! It was impossible and an absurd dream. I found Vancouver something like a Joke of the Gods... I recognized nothing that I knew... A preference for the Renaissance and a passion for thirteenth century ruins cannot predispose the mind to receive kindly the achievements of steel and stone in American-born towers of commercial Babal... The Canadians are not yet wholly Canadians. Sometimes they view the world through spectacles of which one glass is English and one American... Wake up, you dreamer and unnatural Kanuck, and reflect that as a northern nation you may some day annex the United States!... I own I have never met any Canadian with this notion of the future of his country... To me it seems so historically simple and so natural that I was surprised when some laughed... Here is the possibility of a great city.";

Illness plagued Roberts and his family. His stepdaughter died in 1909 and his wife died of cancer in 1911. "For a year and longer I practically spoke to no one. I was mad if ever man was. I used to go places where they played chess and would play from noon to midnight and never speak a word. Or I wandered about the streets and in and out of cinemas, being all the time in a nightmare."; He began to study the nature and causes of cancer. Simultaneously, he published his important fictionalized biography of George Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland (1912), his most highly valued novel, Time and Thomas Waring (1914), about a man on an operating table coming to terms with physical pain and illness, three more novels, ten more volumes of short stories, three more memoirs, two volumes of verse and another literary study of a friend, W.H. Hudson, A Portrait (1924).

In later years Roberts turned increasingly towards his layman's research in pathology and sociology. Warfare in the Human Body (1920) and Malignancy and Evolution: A Biological Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of Cancer (1926, 1934) essentially theorized that cancer was a response to stress and that tumour formation played a useful evolutionary role in the upkeep of an organism. He turned toward political philosophy with Bio-Politics (1938) and The Behaviour of Nations (1941). "I never sell,"; he said. "Oddly enough, if I'm remembered fifty years hence it will be perhaps in the history of cancer research."; Morley Roberts died in London on June 8, 1942.

Morley Robert's novel, The Mate of the Vancouver (1982) is a romance initially set aboard a ship called the Vancouver. Thomas Ticehurst, a semi-reluctant sailor, sails from England in 1881 to accompany his brother to the West Coast of North America. He falls in love with a passenger named Elsie, is rejected by her and is stabbed in San Francisco by a villain named Matthias. Matthias goes to jail but vows revenge. Ticehurst recovers and follow Elsie to Victoria. Matthias, who has since killed Ticehurst's brother, finds Ticehurst but loses a final fight with him. Ticehurst finally marries Elsie in a town called Thomson Forks.

Roberts' novel The Prey of the Strongest (1906) is a much less melodramatic. Critic Charles Lillard has noted that before the story succumbs to Roberts' Grub Street mentality, "it is our first accurate portrayal of life in the mills, in the woods and gambling halls; as well it is our first novel to honestly place the Indian and Oriental within B.C.'s labouring-class society."; Certainly it provides a rare, authentic account of working class life in late 19th century B.C.

BC-RELATED BOOKS:

The Western Avernus: Toil and Travel in Further North America (1887)
The Mate of the Vancouver (1892)
The Prey of the Strongest (1906)
On the Old Trail: Through British Columbia After Forty Years (1927)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Morley Roberts (Born Dec. 29. 1857; died June 8. 1942)

* The Western Avernus: Toil and Travel in Further North America (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1887; also 1896; London: S.C. Brown, Langham & Co. Ltd., 1904, retitled The Western Avernus: Three Years' Autobiography in Western America; also 1904/1924)

In Low Relief [1890
Land-Travel And Sea-Faring [n|1891
Songs Of Energy [p|1891
King Billy Of Ballarat.. [s|1891

* The Mate Of The Vancouver (London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1892; New York: Street & Smith, 1900)

The Purification Of Dolores Silva.. [s|1894
The Reputation Of George Saxon.. [s|1892
Red Earth [s|1894
The Adventures Of A Ship's Doctor [f|1895
A Question Of Instinct [f|1895
The Master Of The Silver Sea [1895
The Degradation Of Geoffrey Alwith.. [1895
The Earth-Mother [1896
The Great Jester (Being Some Jests Of Fate) [1896
The Courage Of Pauline [1896
The Circassian (w Max MONTESOLE) [1896
Maurice Quain [f|1897
The Adventure Of The Broad Arrow [f|1897
Strong Men And True [1897
The Keeper Of The Waters.. [s|1898
A Sea Comedy [1899
A Son Of Empire [1899
The Colossus [f|1899
The Plunderers [1900
The Fugitives [1900
The Descent Of The Duchess [1900
Lord Linlithgow [f|1900
The Shadow Of Allah.. (w Max MONTESOLE) [1900
Taken By Assault [f|1901
David Bran [1901
The Way Of A Man [1902
Immortal Youth [f|1902
Rachel Marr [f|1903
The Promotion Of The Admiral, And Other Sea Comedies [f|1903
The Wingless Psyche [1904
Bianca's Caprice.. [s|1904
A Tramp's Note-Book [e|1904
Lady Penelope [f|1905
Captain Balaam/Baldare Of The 'Cormorant'.. [s|1905
The Idlers [f|1905

* The Prey Of The Strongest (1906, also London: Hurst and Blackett n.d.)

The Red Burgee [f|1906
The Blue Peter [1906
Tales And Narratives Of Painted Rock, South Panhandle, Texas [1907
The Flying Cloud [f|1907
Lady Anne [1907
Painted Rock [s|1907
The Flying Cloud [f|1907
The Grinder's Wheel [s|1907-1922
David Bran [f|1908
(Adventures Of) Captain Spink.. [f|1908
Midsummer Madness [1909
Sea Dogs [s|1910
The Wonderful Bishop, And Other London Adventures [s|1910
Thorpe's Way [f|1911
Thorpe's Way [1911
Four Plays [d|1911
The Man who Stroked Cats, and Other Stories [s|1912
The Private Life Of Henry Maitland [f|1912/1923
Gloomy Fanny.. [s|1913
Salt Of The Sea [f|1913
Time And Thomas Waring [f|1914
Sweet Herbs And Bitter [1915
The Lords Of The Fo'c'sle, And Other Sea Comedies [f|1915
The Madonna Of The Beech Wood.. [s|1918
War Lyrics [p|1918
Ancient Mariners [1919
Hearts Of Women [1919
Warfare In The Human Body [e|1920
Lyra Mutabilis [p|1921
The Mirthful Nine [s|1921
Followers Of The Sea [f|1923
W H Hudson [b|1924
On The Earthquake Line [n|1924
Malignancy And Evolution [n|1926

*On The Old Trail: Through British Columbia After Forty Years [n|(London: Everleigh, Nash & Grayson, 1927.

Tales Of Changing Seas [s|1927
The White Mamoloi and Other Stories [s|1929
The Serpent's Fang [e|1930
A Humble Fisherman [e|1932
Bio-Politics [n|1938
The Behaviour Of Nations [n|1941

[BCBW 2010]