Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Allen, Grant
ALLEN, GRANT (1848–1899), man of letters and man of science, whose full name was Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen, was born at Alwington, near Kingston in Canada, on 24 Feb. 1848. He was the second but only surviving son of Joseph Antisell Allen, a clergyman of the Irish Church who emigrated to Canada in 1840, and survived his son by eleven months, dying at Alwington, near Kingston, in Canada, on 6 Oct. 1900. His mother (Charlotte Catherine Ann) was the only daughter of Charles William Grant, fifth baron de Longueuil, a title created by Louis XIV in 1700, and the only one in Canada that is officially recognised. The mother's family of the Grants came to Canada from Blairfindie in Scotland.
Grant Allen (as he always styled himself) spent the first thirteen years of his life among the delightful surroundings of the Thousand Isles, on the Upper St. Lawrence, where he learnt to love animals and flowers. His earliest teacher was his father. In about 1861 the family moved to Newhaven, Connecticut, where he had a tutor from Yale. In the following year they went again to France, and he was placed for a time in the Collège Impérial at Dieppe, before being finally transferred to King Edward's School, Birmingham. In 1867 he was elected to a postmastership at Merton College, Oxford. His undergraduate career was hampered by an early marriage—his first wife was always an invalid and soon died; but he gained a first class in classical moderations, and a second class in the final classical school after only a year's reading. In 1871 he graduated B.A., but proceeded to no further degree. For the next three years he undertook the uncongenial work of schoolmaster at Brighton, Cheltenham, and Reading. In 1873 he was appointed professor of mental and moral philosophy in a college at Spanish Town in Jamaica, then founded by the government for the education of the negroes. The experiment of the negro college was a failure. The half-dozen students that could be got to attend required only the most elementary instruction, and the principal died of yellow fever. In 1876 the college was finally closed, and Allen returned to England with a small sum of money in compensation for the loss of his post. These three years, however, in Jamaica had an important influence on the development of Allen's mind. He had leisure to read and to allow his ideas to clarify. It was during this time that he acquired a fair knowledge of Anglo-Saxon for the benefit of his pupils. He also studied philosophy and physical science, and framed an evolutionary system of his own, based mainly on the works of Herbert Spencer. In later years he was not much of a student. His views were formed when he came back from Jamaica, and such they remained to the end.
While at Oxford Allen had contributed to a short-lived periodical, entitled 'The Oxford University Magazine and Review,' of which only two numbers appeared (December 1869 and January 1870). On re-settling in England in 1876, he resolved to support himself by his pen. His first book was an essay on 'Physiological Æsthetics' (1877), which he dedicated to Mr. Herbert Spencer and published at his own risk. The book did not sell, but it won for the author some reputation, and introduced his name to the editors of magazines and newspapers. He began to find a ready market for his wares—popular scientific articles, always with an evolutionary moral—in the 'Cornhill,' the 'St. James's Gazette,' and elsewhere. But such stray work did not yield a livelihood; and Allen was glad to accept an engagement of some months to assist Sir William Wilson Hunter [q. v. Suppl.] in the compilation of the 'Imperial Gazetteer of India.' 'I wrote,' he says, 'with my own hand the greater part of the articles on the North-Western Provinces, the Punjab and Sind, in those twelve big volumes.' For a short time he was on the staff of the 'Daily News,' but nightwork did not suit him, and he was one of the regular contributors to that brilliant but unsuccessful periodical, 'London' (1878-9). During this period he published another essay on 'The Colour Sense' (1879), which won high approval from Mr. Alfred Russell Wallace; three collections of popular scientific articles ('Vignettes from Nature,' 1881, 'The Evolutionist at Large,' 1881, and 'Colin Clout's Calendar,' 1888), the value and accuracy of which are attested by letters from Darwin and Huxley; two series of botanical studies on flowers ('Colours of Flowers,' 1882, and 'Flowers and their Pedigrees,' 1883); and a little monograph on 'Anglo-Saxon Britain' (1881).
If the last-mentioned be excepted, all Allen's early publications from 1877 to 1883 were in the field of science. Unfortunately, he could not live by science alone. He has himself described how he became a novelist. His first essays in fiction were short stories, contributed to 'Belgravia' and other magazines under the pseudonym of J. Arbuthnot Wilson, and collected under the title of 'Strange Stories' (1884). In the opinion of his friends he never wrote anything better than some of these psychological studies, notably 'The Reverend John Creedy' and 'The Curate of Churnside,' both of which appeared in the 'Cornhill.' His first novel was 'Philistia,' which originally appeared as a serial in the 'Gentleman's Magazine,' and was published in the then orthodox three volumes in 1884, again under a pseudonym—this time Cecil Power. This book is largely autobiographical. Though it did not take with the public, the author received sufficient encouragement to go on. During the next fifteen years he brought out more than thirty books of fiction, of which the only one that need be mentioned here is 'The Woman who did' (1895). This is a Tendenz-Roman, written, as he said, 'for the first time in my life wholly and solely to satisfy my own taste and my own conscience.' The heroine is a woman with all the virtues who, out of regard to the dignity of her sex, refuses to submit to the legal tie of marriage. The disastrous consequences of such a scheme of life are developed by the author with remorseless precision. He intended the book, in all seriousness, to be taken as a protest against the subjection of women, and he dedicated it to his wife, with whom he had passed 'my twenty happiest years.' The lack of humour in it puzzled his friends. The public read it eagerly, but were shocked. He followed it up with another 'hill-top' novel, 'The British Barbarians' (1896), which was an equally inconsequent satire on the existing social system, and then quietly returned to the writing of commonplace fiction, some of which appeared under the fresh pseudonym of Olive Pratt Rayner.
But Allen's intellectual activity was by no means confined to novel writing. He contributed regularly to newspapers, magazines, and reviews, which contain some of his best work, often not reprinted. Of those that were republished in book form, the fullest light was thrown on the author's real views of life in 'Falling in Love, with other Essays on more exact Branches of Science' (1889),and 'Postprandial Philosophy' (1894). Twice he returned to the more abstruse science of his earlier days. In 1888 he brought out 'Force and Energy,' which embodies the results of his lonely reading and cogitations in Jamaica, where the first draft of it was privately printed (1876). Physicists generally declined to discuss his novel theory of dynamics as being that of an amateur. Nevertheless Allen persisted in it, and when the book passed into the remainder market in 1894, he presented a copy to a friend with this inscription: 'It contains my main contribution to human thought. And I desire here to state that, when you and I have passed away, I believe its doctrine will gradually be arrived at by other thinkers.' His other serious work was 'The Evolution of the Idea of God' (1897), an inquiry into the origin of religions. This book is crowded with anthropological lore, and contains numerous brilliant aperçus, but it labours under the defect of attempting to explain everything by means of a single theory. In connection with this should be read an essay on the origin of tree worship that he prefixed to a verse translation of the 'Attis' of Catullus (1892). In 1894 he issued a volume of poems which he modestly entitled 'The Lower Slopes' (1894). In technique they are the verses of a prose writer, though they reveal not a little of the heart of the author, and the ideals of his youth, when most of them were actually written. In the later years of his life Allen found a fresh interest in art, and particularly in Italian art. To art as a handicraft he had always been attracted, as may be seen in his very first contribution to the 'Cornhill' on 'Carving a Coco-nut.' The appreciation of painting and architecture came later, as the result of repeated visits to Italy. To his scientific mind they fell into their place as branches of human evolution. It is this unifying conception of art, as well as of history, that inspires the series of guide-books which he wrote in his last years on Paris, Florence, Venice, and the cities of Belgium (1897, 1898).Grant Allen never enjoyed robust health. London was always distasteful to him. In 1881 he settled at Dorking, where he delighted in botanical walks in the woods and sandy heaths; but nearly every year he was compelled to winter in the south of Europe, usually at Antibes, though once or twice he went as far as Algiers and Egypt. In 1892 he bought a plot of ground almost on the summit of Hind Head, and built himself a charming cottage which he called the Croft. Here he found that he could endure the severity of an English winter amid surroundings wilder than at Dorking, and with the society of a few congenial friends. Continental trips he still made, chiefly to prepare his guide-books. His favourite holiday resort was on the Thames, near Marlow. Early in 1899 he was seized with a mysterious illness, the real nature of which was not detected till after his death. After months of suffering he died on 28 Oct. His body was cremated at Woking, the only ceremony being a memorial address by Mr. Frederic Harrison. In 1873, just before starting for Jamaica, he married his second wife, Ellen, youngest daughter of Thomas Jerrard of Lyme Regis. She survives him, together with one son, the only issue of the marriage.
[Grant Allen, a Memoir, by Edward Clodd, with portrait and bibliography, London, 1900.]