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Wyndham Lewis: Mrs. Dukes’ Million

This book, his first novel, was actually written in around 1908-1909 but was not published till 1977. It is a strange book so it is easy to see why publishers might have hesitated. Mrs. Dukes, sixty-five years of age, has a house in Golden Square (which would now be worth millions). She has a shop which sells old furniture but does not seem to renew its stock. She also rents rooms to respectable gentlemen though preferably not foreigners. Her husband left her thirty years ago, with a son, Cole, who is now thirty-four and lives with his mother and helps her out, though says very little. At the beginning of the book, she has a lodger, Mr. Ernest Nichols, who seems to like to paint her. She is not too happy with the idea but acquiesces. However, when he seems to appear in her bedroom late at night, nominally to be asked to be woken up the next day, she becomes very perturbed and is resolved that he should leave. The next day he has disappeared, leaving a note and money for the rent owed. When the police turn up looking for him, Mrs. Dukes is even more worried but glad to be rid of him. The police then ask her to accompany them to a house where Mr. Nichols is said to be, so that she can identify him. This she does but, when the police move in to arrest him, the lights go out, he escapes and Mrs. Dukes is knocked unconscious.

We are as mystified as Mrs. Dukes when she turns up at home, apparently unscathed and with little to tell about her adventures. We are even more surprised when Mrs. Dukes seems also to be in some sort of hospital, injured and undergoing treatment. Meanwhile, we meet Henry Fane, a young poet, who earns his living in bit parts in the theatre. One evening, while performing, he sees a beautiful young woman with an obviously rich Eastern gentleman in a box. After the performance, he is approached by the man’s servant and asked to meet the man. The man offers him a job with an acting troupe, a sort of improvisational group and, as the money is substantially more than his current job and he will have more time to concentrate on his literary activities, he accepts. Meanwhile, we learn the truth of the matter. The Mrs. Dukes who has returned home is not Mrs. Dukes but Mr. Ernest Nichols in disguise. His disguise apparently fools everyone, except for Cole, who spots the impersonator by his eyes but, in fact, seems quite happy with his new surrogate mother, not least because (s)he paid attention to him in his previous incarnation. The reason for the impersonation we soon learn, if we have not learned it from the title. Mrs. Dukes’ husband, when he had left her, had gone on to make a million pounds. He had not remarried so, when he died, he left all his money to his wife. Mr. Nichols/Mrs. Dukes belongs to a group called the Actor-Gang, led by a man called Sarandur Khan, the Eastern man seen by Henry Fane in the theatre. Henry Fane has now been added to their number.

The rest of the book is a complex plot involving Mr. Nichols, Henry Fane and Lucy, the beautiful half English/half Persian woman Henry Fane saw at the theatre, Surandur Khan and his gang, the rather incompetent police and a gang of Americans, who all seem to be called Passion, and their attempt to get hold of the million pounds. Things go wrong, there is a third Mrs. Dukes, in the form of Henry Fane, there is a love affair, there is a houses with secret passages and a mysterious butler, a kidnapping, hypnotism, murder and mayhem. It is good fun and fairly complicated but Lewis tells a good if somewhat strange tale. You can see why publishers at that time were reluctant to publish him but, for us it is interesting to see Lewis’ early work but also to read a tale where life and art mix in with the world of violence, carried out as theatre.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Coach House Press, Toronto