‘The Upas Tree’ by Florence Barclay (1912)

Review by Sylvia D

The plot can be summarised as follows:

Budding author Ronald West is married to lovely heiress Helen.  He has decided it is imperative he travel to Central Africa to carry out research for his new novel.  He is so obsessed with this idea that his wife decides not to tell him her own news.  On the return journey Ronald, who has been feverishly writing as he travels, stops in Leipzig and purchases a small organ which his wife has requested for their local church.  He is also smitten by an old violoncello which he purchases for £150 – the organ for his wife cost £24!  He also falls into the clutches of the dastardly Aubrey Treherne, Helen’s cousin and former suitor, whom his wife has told him not to trust.   Ronald, behaving in an increasingly strange way, returns home where he appears to his wife totally obsessed with the cello and insensitive to the news she has sent him by letter.  She accuses him of being “utterly, preposterously, altogether, selfish” – p.148.   After a weird psychic experience, Ronald comes to believe he is a Upas tree which, legend has it, is an African tree that alters the psyche when one sleeps under it.  He suffers complete mental collapse and is only rescued by his medical friend, Dick Cameron.  After further misunderstandings, everything resolves joyously on Christmas Eve.

I really struggled to get through The Upas Tree: the characters are unbelieveable, the plot is ludicrous, and the writing overdramatic and over sentimental.   Ronald West is too insufferable – “he took himself so seriously, that he was obliged to compensate by taking everything and everybody else rather lightly” p.37 – , Helen too noble – “when a woman loves a man enough to wed him, he comes to her as her life – her very self” p.123 -, Aubrey Treherne too black – “Aubrey’s smile. In the flare of the candle, was the grin of a hungry wolf” p.108 – and Dick Cameron too energetic – “this brisk young man, with an atmosphere about him of always being ten minutes ahead of time” p.98.  The whole narrative hangs on what we would consider a very old-fashioned kind of marital relationship which it would be impossible to imagine could happen today: Helen, for instance, when writing to her cousin talks about the “summit of the holy temple of wifehood and motherhood (p.121).

Although I haven’t read any of her other novels, I’ve seen it said that this is not one of Florence Barclay’s best.   She does briefly address the question of whether eccentric and self-centred behaviour can be justified in an artist:

“but there the artistic temperament comes in, which always creates a world of its own in which it dwells content, often at the expense of duties and obligations connected with outer surroundings” p.158.

Her philosophy as an author seems to be summed up when Helen questions the wisdom of Ronald travelling to Africa,

“I am so anxious that, in your work, you should keep the object and motive at the highest; not putting success or popularity in their wrong place.  Let success be the result of good work well done – conscientiously done.  Let popularity follow unsought, simply from the fact that you have been true to yourself, and to your instinctive inspiration; that you have seen life at its best and tried to portray it at its highest” pp.22-23.

Was she following her own dictum when she wrote this novel?

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