Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Grant Allen (1848–1899)

THE IRISH-CANADIAN naturalist, Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen, who turns his industrious hand with equal facility to scientific writing, to essays, short stories, botanical treatises, biography, and novels, is known to literature as Grant Allen, as “Arbuthnot Wilson,” and as “Cecil Power.”

His work may be divided into two classes: fiction and popular essays. The first shows the author to be familiar with varied scenes and types, and exhibits much feeling for dramatic situations. His list of novels is long, and includes among others, ‘Strange Stories,’ ‘Babylon,’ ‘This Mortal Coil,’ ‘The Tents of Shem,’ ‘The Great Taboo,’ ‘Recalled to Life,’ ‘The Woman Who Did,’ and ‘The British Barbarians.’ In many of these books he has woven his plots around a psychological theme; a proof that science interests him more than invention. His essays are written for unscientific readers, and carefully avoid all technicalities and tedious discussions. Most persons, he says, “would much rather learn why birds have feathers than why they have a keeled sternum, and they think the origin of bright flowers far more attractive than the origin of monocotyledonous seeds or esogenous stems.”

Grant Allen was born in Kingston, Canada, February 24th, 1848. After graduation at Merton College, Oxford, he occupied for four years the chair of logic and philosophy at Queen’s College, Spanish Town, Jamaica, which he resigned to settle in England, where he now resides. Early in his career he became an enthusiastic follower of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, and published the attractive books entitled ‘Science in Arcady,’ ‘Vignettes from Nature,’ ‘The Evolutionist at Large,’ and ‘Colin Clout’s Calendar.’ In his preface to ‘Vignettes from Nature,’ he says that the “essays are written from an easy-going, half-scientific half-æsthetic standpoint.” In this spirit he rambles in the woods, in the meadows, at the seaside, or upon the heather-carpeted moor, finding in such expeditions material and suggestions for his lightly moving essays, which expound the problems of Nature according to the theories of his acknowledged masters. A fallow deer grazing in a forest, a wayside berry, a guelder rose, a sportive butterfly, a bed of nettles, a falling leaf, a mountain tarn, the hole of a hedgehog, a darting humming-bird, a ripening plum, a clover-blossom, a spray of sweet-briar, a handful of wild thyme, or a blaze of scarlet geranium before a cottage door, furnish him with a text for the discussion of “those biological and cosmical doctrines which have revolutionized the thought of the nineteenth century,” as he says in substance.

Somewhat more scientific are ‘Psychological Æsthetics,’ ‘The Color Sense,’ ‘The Color of Flowers,’ and ‘Flowers and their Pedigrees’; and still deeper is ‘Force and Energy’ (1888), a theory of dynamics in which he expresses original views. In ‘Psychological Æsthetics’ (1877), he first seeks to explain “such simple pleasures in bright color, sweet sound, or rude pictorial imitation as delight the child and the savage, proceeding from these elementary principles to the more and more complex gratifications of natural scenery, painting, and poetry.” In ‘The Color Sense’ he defines all that we do not owe to the color sense, for example the rainbow, the sunset, the sky, the green or purple sea, the rocks, the foliage of trees and shrubs, hues of autumn, effects of iridescent light, or tints of minerals and precious stones; and all that we do owe, namely, “the beautiful flowers of the meadow and the garden-roses, lilies, cowslips, and daisies; the exquisite pink of the apple, the peach, the mango, and the cherry, with all the diverse artistic wealth of oranges, strawberries, plums, melons, brambleberries, and pomegranates; the yellow, blue, and melting green of tropical butterflies; the magnificent plumage of the toucan, the macaw, the cardinal-bird, the lory, and the honey-sucker; the red breast of our homely robin; the silver or ruddy fur of the ermine, the wolverene, the fox, the squirrel, and the chinchilla; the rosy cheeks and pink lips of the English maiden; the whole catalogue of dyes, paints, and pigments; and last of all, the colors of art in every age and nation, from the red cloth of the South Seas, the lively frescoes of the Egyptian and the subdued tones of Hellenic painters, to the stained windows of Poictiers and the Madonna of the Sistine Chapel.”

Allen continued his various literary activities up to the time of his death. Under the pseudonym of Olive Pratt Rayner he published some novels which added little to his fame; his more serious works were ‘Evolution of the Idea of God’ (1897), ‘Flashlights on Nature’ (1898), and ‘The European Tour’ (1899). Besides these books, he has written for the series called ‘English Worthies’ a sympathetic ‘Life of Charles Darwin’ (1885).