Sir Hall Caine, island’s forgotten superstar

STRIKING APPEARANCE: A photo of Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine's distinctive features

STRIKING APPEARANCE: A photo of Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine's distinctive features

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AS the Manx General Election approaches, it is fitting to delve into history and recall one of the island’s most intriguing MHKs.

Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine represented Ramsey in the House of Keys in 1901, but he is best known as a hugely popular novelist and playwright of the late Victorian and the Edwardian eras.

August marked the 80th anniversary of the death of the writer whose novels were made into major cinema releases, including The Manxman in 1929, Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent movie.

Born in 1853 in Cheshire to Manx parentage, Caine moved to the island in 1894. The family bought Greeba Castle in 1896 which remained his home until is death in 1931, and is still under the ownership of the Caines.

He was a well travelled man of striking appearance, a prolific writer who’s plays opened around the world, films attracted huge crowds and books became bestsellers.

During World War I he worked in the USA as a correspondent for the New York Times and wrote a series of articles and delivered lectures urging America to join the war. It was for these patriotic efforts he received his knighthood.

In 1997 Vivian Allen released an biography of the author, Portrait of a Victorian Romancer, a record generally regarded as more accurate and less embellished than Caine’s own My Story. Allen says of the man: ‘Mention Hall Caine now and the likely response is “Hall who?” Yet in his day he was so famous he was recognised on the streets of London and New York. Crowds would gather outside the gates of his homes, in the Isle of Man and London, in hope of catching sight of him as he went in or out.’

Allen’s theory of why Caine’s international reputation gradually receded to obscurity lies in his style of writing. He was an emotional but serious writer, and his moralistic prose could lack charm or humour. He also received criticism for characters not clearly drawn and much the same from novel to novel, compared to another Victorian author Charles Dickens, a notable architect of developed and distinct characters.

Caine was also mocked in the famous satirical magazine Punch on the accusation that his stories were all variations on the same theme, in a 1902 caricature spread titled ‘Why read them all?’.

Caine moved in prestigious social circles, and was of particularly good acquaintance to writer Bram Stoker.Indeed, Stoker dedicated his classic Dracula to Caine with ‘To my dear friend Hommy-Beg’, Hommy-Beg (Manx for ‘Little Tommy’) being a family nickname for Caine.

This friendship was subject of a book introduced by Richard Dalby, in which he notes: ‘Hall Caine was an incredible literary phenomenon, becoming the richest and most popular novelist of the era, greatly outselling all of his rivals from Henry James to Joseph Conrad. By the end of the 20th century all of his novels were out-of-print, and ironically his major claim to fame now comes from being the dedicatee of Dracula.

‘It is a bizarre twist of fate that Bram Stoker is now so much more famous worldwide than Hall Caine — an unbelievable reversal of their roles one hundred years ago.’

The Manx National Heritage library has extensive material on the man, a catalogue that librarian Alan Franklin says is rarely explored: ‘As popular as it was, his writing dated quickly. I think if we asked people in 100 years’ time what they thought of Geoffrey Archer they would say “who?”. Hall Caine is the Victorian Geoffrey Archer. He was a brilliant self-publicist – we have in the library vast scrapbooks he collated, he clipped anything that mentioned him. In 1902 Edward VII toured the Isle of Man, and in every picture possible Caine has placed himself prominently, as close to the monarch and Speaker of the House of Keys A.W. Moore as he could.

Caine was a figure quite accustomed with controversy. He married Mary Chandler when she was 16, though she was pregnant at 14. The age of consent was 13, so the controversy lay in that she was under Caine’s care at the time.

He wrote a play, Mahomet, rejecting the common view of Islam as a heresy and illustrating Muhammad as an impostor, in favour of an alternative understanding of Islam as an authentic, divinely inspired religion and its leader as a man of sincerity and piety. The play was never staged amid The Lord Chamberlain’s fears, as licenser of plays, of generating animosity toward the Queen and the British government in India.

Caine reputably fall in love with Maughold Head, to the extent of buying a plot for his grave, but when in 1931 shortly before his death he found he could not manage the climb (and not liking the prospect that others would not then make the pilgrimage to it that he hoped for) he bought a plot in Kirk Maughold churchyard where he is buried with Mary (who died six months later) under a headstone designed by Archiblad Knox.

His son Derwent Hall Caine, who starred in some of his father’s films, fathered an illegitimate daughter Hall Caine and Mary raised as their own and went on to become an Member of Parliament financed a statue of Hall Caine which still stands in Summerhill Gardens in Douglas.

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