“A Remarkable Coincidence”

Review: “A Remarkable Coincidence”, Arthur Machen, 1890.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe.

In 1890, the British short story market was booming. The Education Act of 1870 had increased general literacy. The three-tier novel and the monopolies of lending libraries affiliated with publishers were giving way to magazines.

In 1887, after he had been in London for four years, Machen inherited some money from his father, and he had the time to devote himself full-time to writing.

The explosion of magazines meant many an author was experimenting with different styles and subjects to see which ones would make their reputation and make money.

In the year that it took Machen to complete all of the installments of the serialized “The Great God Pan”, he also turned his hand to society stories, or, as Machen dubbed them, “smart tales”. (And he said he knew absolutely nothing about “society”.)

S. T. Joshi, in his introduction to volume one of Machen’s collected fiction, describes them as being written for “society papers” which no longer exist. They are “purportedly humorous or whimsical, often with covert sexual implications”.  From the examples from Machen, stories of this genre seem to usually be short, between four and eight pages, and heavy on dialogue.

This is a somewhat enigmatic story and, interestingly, prefigures the minor motif of plagiarism which shows up later in Machen’s The Hill of Dreams.

The characters are James Marvell and William Walters. 

The story starts with them well off now, long-time friends reminiscing about their Bohemian days in Soho. 

Back then, Walters came up with the idea of them collaborating on a novel, a romance.

They submit the manuscript to a publisher who rejects it on the grounds that, incidentally, he just published a novel resembling their manuscript “almost to the smallest detail”. However, the publisher would like to see their next book. 

But it’s all a clever ploy by Walters. He recopied the manuscript and submitted it as one Henry Smart. 

It’s implied that the publisher, having two similar novels show up, thought he was on the verge of cashing in on some new change in the public’s taste and bought Smart’s book. 

There is some ambiguity in the tale.

Perhaps the publisher thought Marvell and Walters skilled thieves and hoped they could steal something else. Or, maybe, they made a name for themselves and became published authors.  Or, maybe, Walters (who came up with the project) just cut his friend out of a collaborative credit, and Marvell had his own career.

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