The motoring novel is one of my favorite things about Edwardian popular fiction. By the mid-1910s, most wealthy families in books have cars, but if you go ten years beck, cars are something new and exciting, and if there’s a car in a book, it’s often pretty central. The books are still romance novels, or mystery novels, or adventure novels, but along with your romance, mystery or adventure, you get a healthy dose of snapped belts, empty fuel tanks, unreliable chauffeurs, and real and imaginary brands of automobiles.
I haven’t found as many Edwardian motoring novels as I would like, but fortunately if I’m really wanting to read one, I can always turn to the Williamsons. Alice Muriel Williamson was a novelist, and her husband Charles Norris Williamson was an early automotive journalist,and together they wrote novels (she said “Charlie Williamson could do anything in the world except write stories” and “I can’t do anything else”). I’ve read, oh, eight or nine of them at this point, and while not every book contains all of the same elements, I can say pretty definitively that the Williamsons really liked cars, travel, alternating points of view, and people going incognito.
The Lightning Conductor, as far as I can tell, was the first novel they co-wrote — it’s from 1903 — and it contains all of the above. The story is a pretty familiar one: boy meets girl, boy disguises himself in order to get close to girl, boy and girl fall in love, girl discovers deception and boy has to come up with an excuse for being kind of an ass. This story is another thing the Williamsons really liked, judging by the number of times they used it, but they do it so nicely that it’s hard to care.
The girl and boy in question are Molly Randolph, the daughter of an immensely wealthy American businessman, and the Honourable Jack Winston, similarly wealthy but dissimilarly English. Soon after their arrival in England, Molly and her Aunt Mary meet a young man who convinces them that the best way to see Europe is from a car, and sells them his. And it’s 1903 or thereabouts, so even fictional cars break down every fifty miles, but this one is particularly terrible. It’s on one of the many occasions on which it is broken down that Jack Winston comes to Molly’s rescue, passing himself off as his own chauffeur and hiring his car out to her. People in Williamsons books are abnormally prone to disguising themselves as chauffeurs.
Everyone is impressed by Molly’s new chauffeur and his gentlemanly air and his ability to act as a tour guide at all the French chateaus they visit. At times they suspect him (in the guise of James Brown the chauffeur) of having murdered himself (in the guise of the Honourable John Winston), but his skill as a mechanicien makes up for a lot of things.
There are a bunch of moderately forgettable supporting characters, most of them show up for the big reveal at the end, and a lot of filler in the form of long descriptions of scenery — most Williamsons books are half travelogue — but the whole thing is exceedingly enjoyable, and a great introduction to the Williamsons, and to their peculiar sub-genre of early twentieth century romance/adventure.
Read The Lightning Conductor at the Internet Archive or at Google Books.
Visit Melody’s blog, Redeeming Qualities for more vintage reviews and commentary!