Dudley & Gilderoy: A Nonsense, by Algernon Blackwood – Book Review by Fred Patten.
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Dudley & Gilderoy: A Nonsense, by Algernon Blackwood.
London, Ernest Benn Ltd, December 1929, hardcover 8/6 (281 pages).
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was a prominent British author who wrote many literary fantasies and ghost stories during the early 20th century. His John Silence was one of the most popular psychic detectives during the heyday of that literary genre just before World War I. H. P. Lovecraft named him as a “modern master” of supernatural horror.
Dudley & Gilderoy, published toward the end of his literary career, is an anomaly. Because it features a talking cat and a parrot, and is not a supernatural novel in the horror sense, it has been described as a children’s fantasy although there is no evidence that Blackwood or the book’s British or American publishers ever considered it to be for children. Everett F. Bleiler, in his monumental The Guide to Supernatural Fiction (1983), describes it as “A moving story, although the tragic ending is disconcerting.”
The novel begins with a quotation from the then-recent The Modern Cat: Her Mind and Manners. An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, by G. S. Gates (Macmillan, 1928):
“an attempt to prove that the cat is a more delicate organism and of a higher order of intelligence than any other four-footed beast … also possesses a language much like the Chinese and possibly derived from it. In the word part of the language there are, probably, not more than 600 fundamental words, all others being derivatives.”
The late 1920s and early 1930s were a period of several “scientific” attempts to prove that animals had their own languages or could understand whatever human language the researcher spoke; see Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, by Jon Bondeson (Cornell University Press, May 2011) for a description of some of the “talking dogs” experiments, especially in Germany. Blackwood’s “nonsense” may have been to some extent a commentary on this. The intelligence of the West African grey parrot, on the other hand, has been long recognized.
The leisurely novel begins in “The country house in Kent, dreaming among its well-kept gardens”, in early March:
“Something, apparently, was astir at the unearthly hour of 5.30 A.M., though it was not the human occupants of the Elizabethan building, and assuredly not the servants. [Note the pre-World War II British upper-class attitude that servants are less than human.] Colonel Sir Arthur and his Lady still slept audibly; Molly, their thirteen-year-old daughter, at the other end of the house, made no move; the younger children, lying in crumpled heaps, equally held steady; the French Governess showed no symptoms of élan; and the staff, as already mentioned, gave no sign.” (p. 10)
“The Day Nursery, whence it proceeded, lying away from the rest of the house in the eastern wing, held at this early hour two occupants, neither of whom slept; one, a biped, denizen of the air; the other a quadruped, denizen of the world. The speaker was a West African Grey Parrot, a King Grey Parrot, to give him his full title, with red feathers among the grey, and his name was Dudley; the other was a common red-haired cat with a flat-topped skull, and his name was Gilderoy. Dudley belonged to Molly, Gilderoy to himself, and the Day Nursery was their home, the parrot having occupied it for years, the cat for months. […] The two animals were very great friends. In appearance, Dudley was dignified, solemn, austere, aristocratic, his sleek feathers glistened, he was extremely soigné. Gilderoy was – otherwise.” (p. 11)
Dudley sets off the adventure.
“‘I am tired of this dowdy room,’ he announced.” (p. 18)
“‘Let’s go,’” Gilderoy replies, and they are off. Dudley leads. “Whoever went first would, of course, be first to meet the dangers. ‘You look best from behind,’ observed Gilderoy admiringly. ‘Your back view, I consider, is lovely.’” (p. 19)
The two animals get out of the Manor House through an open skylight, and set out walking:
“‘You waddle,’ remarked Gilderoy, his tail in the air like a ramrod. He made himself very big and protective. ‘I’m behind you, remember.’ ‘My wings,’ replied Dudley some twenty yards later, ‘are clipped and I possess two feet.’ He stalked on. ‘I need only – two,’ he added presently. There was a touch of grandeur in his attitude.” (p. 21)
Presently they reach the main road:
“Gilderoy watched him. ‘D’you know where you’re going?’ he flashed with his whiskers, not stirring an inch himself.
‘Er – not exactly,’ the bird replied, indifferently. He did not stop. ‘London, anyhow,’ he added.
‘Wrong direction, then,’ Gilderoy informed him bluntly, as he stood there sniffing the air with little twitching jerks.
Dudley turned in a slow circle till he faced the other way. ‘For where?’ he asked again gently.
‘Train,’ said the cat, watching him with steady eyes. ‘You walk like nothing on earth,’ he commented, as his friend, turning another half-circle, drew alongside with his odd waddling gait.” (p. 25)
The pair agree that they are traveling too slowly:
“‘Then please carry me, he [Dudley] signified. ‘The dust bother my toes rather.’
‘Hop on!’ agreed the other, lowering his scrawny back to an easy position. ‘And don’t scratch or tickle.”
Dudley, without further ado, fluttered on to the red back, raising a cloud of dust as he did so, and the then raced down the long hill towards the station. The cat went at a good speed, though, out of consideration for his friend’s disabilities, hardly his top speed, and the bird held on and kept his balance without undue loss of dignity. The wind blew out his tail feathers grandly.” (p. 29)
The animals have their first encounter with humans at the tiny station at Muddlepuddle:
“He [The Ticket Man] gasped, he paled, he took a step backwards. The pencil dropped from behind his ear, the cap fell off his head, the spectacles slipped down his nose. He stumbled over a chair behind him and collapsed in a heap against the iron stove.
‘Thank you,’ said Dudley, using Mother’s patient voice the children heard when they asked for one more story. He turned away, leaving the tickets where they were. ‘Now, cat!’ he signaled with a shrill, peremptory gesture. ‘Hop for it! Quick!’
Gilderoy, though resenting being spoken to like that in public, was ready in a flash, so that the bird dropped straight down on to his back below the window–ledge, and a second later the pair were racing along the platform among the rolling milk-cans, looking for an empty carriage.
‘I said ‘Leave it to Me,’ didn’t I?’ proclaimed the bird’s attitude proudly, as they scampered along.
‘Use my proper name before people, please,’ said Gilderoy stiffly.
‘Sorry,’ said Dudley promptly in a child’s voice.” (p. 36)
The many adventures that the two friends have in London would be tedious to list. It is difficult to read Dudley & Gilderoy today without thinking of Disney’s The Aristocats, although in detail the two are nothing like each other. Dudley’s imitative vocabulary, switching abruptly from an upper-class woman’s refined tones to a working-man’s roaring epithets, cause much amusing confusion. They take refuge in the home of Mrs. de Mumbles and her lower-class maid Mrs. Dibbs. They are never secure, however:
“… but danger was in the air and his [Gilderoy’s] whole body knew it.
Both creatures realised clearly that they had escaped, that they were being followed, and that steps were being taken for their recapture. A bell would ring … Hawley [the Manor House butler] would enter and enquire for them … they would be taken ignominiously away. Dudley, of course, would play the master rôle, for the cat, true to his evasive nature, had attracted little attention. The point was: how was the Muddlepuddle Manor House menial to be defeated? It called for careful planning.” (p. 163)
The eventual conclusion, which returns Dudley & Gilderoy to their starting point, is both emotionally satisfying and disappointing. The unexpected coda, however, reveals that one of the animals is much older than is realized, and leads to a tragic ending.
Around the late 1950s, s-f fans were reading s-f books faster than they were being published. Everett F. Bleiler’s pioneering The Checklist of Fantastic Literature (Shasta Press, 1948), described in a review in Astounding Science-Fiction (July 1949) as “indispensable to librarians, book dealers, and especially antiquarians,” was pored over by fans for more to read, although its 5,000+ titles are dominated by what could be better described as pre-s-f, such as Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (1726), and Hercule-Savinian Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World: or the States and Empires of the Moon (1657). Blackwood was one of the more readable authors indexed, and Dudley & Gilderoy was one of his more popular titles. (The “talking” animals communicate by body-language without speech, however.) Today, with more than enough s-f & fantasy for the most devoted bookaholic, Dudley & Gilderoy is forgotten.
Dudley & Gilderoy was published simultaneously by Ernest Benn Ltd. in London, and by E. P. Dutton in NYC, in December 1929.
Pre-1850 fiction gets less and less readable. The 1830s & 1840s fiction of Charles Dickens or Edgar Allan Poe is still good. The 1820s & 1830s fiction of Alexandre Dumas is rousing fun, although it is usually “modernized” today. Are the novels of James Fenimore Cooper still read? Nathanial Hawthorne is mostly assigned reading in school. Okay, Jane Austen and Washington Irving for the 1800s to 1820s. Pre-1800? There are two patronizing talking-animal fantasizes for children from the 1780s, with introductions carefully explaining that they are only fantasizes because animals can’t REALLY talk. Does anyone still read “Robinson Crusoe” or “Gulliver’s Travels” rather than modern plot synopses of them? Cyrano de Bergerac’s 1650s political parodies of the Kingdoms of the Moon and the Sun — forget it. Okay — Miguel Cervantes’ 1610-1620 “Don Quixote de la Mancha”, although it’s also usually modernized. When I was in college, I tried reading the 1510s Spanish novel that a 1540s Spanish explorer got the inspiration for the name “California” from. Unbelievably bad; I couldn’t imagine that anyone even in 1510 would read it for pleasure. It was named specifically in “Don Quixote” as one of the awful novels that had rotted Don Quixote’s brain. I am in awe of Geoffrey Chaucer and “Canterbury Tales”, still readable after 600+ years, although it has to be translated from medieval English today.