The Broken Shaft: Tales in Mid-Ocean (1886) edited by Henry Norman


This special anthology was published in 1885 (dated 1886) by T. Fisher Unwin as that year’s Unwin’s Christmas Annual. It is formed of seven stories, together with an introductory chapter setting up a framing narrative by Henry Norman (pictured above), which is returned to at the end of each subsequent tale. This connecting narrative concerns a group of travellers on a transatlantic crossing. When their ship, the Bavaria suffers a ‘broken shaft’, they are forced to remain becalmed mid-ocean, telling stories to pass the time.

As well as being an entertaining collection of late-Victorian short fiction in its own right, the annual represents the original publication of three classic supernatural stories – ‘The Upper Birth’ by F. Marion Crawford, ‘Markheim’ by Robert Louis Stevenson and ‘Marjory’ by F. Anstey. The other stories in the collection are; ‘The Action to the World’ by Walter Herries Pollock, ‘My Fascinating Friend’ by William Archer, ‘Riley, M.P.’ by Tighe Hopkins and ‘Love and Lightning’ by Henry Norman. A charming literary-historical feature is the caricatured versions of the writers, who figure as themselves in the framing narratives. Crawford is referred to as ‘the Novelist’, Stevenson as ‘the Romancer’, Pollock as ‘the Editor’ and Archer as ‘the Critic’ while, as a contemporary review from the Princetonian (the Princeton University newspaper) points out, ‘Beatrice’ and ‘the Eminent Tragedian’ are easily identifiable as Ellen Terry and Henry Irving (this anonymous review, together with another from the Saturday Review,  is included below as a curiosity).

The Broken Shaft: Tales in Mid-Ocean [Kindle]

The Broken Shaft: Tales in Mid-Ocean [Epub]

The Broken Shaft: Tales in Mid-Ocean [PDF]

Mr Brander Matthews, a critic of some note, drew public attention very forcibly, to the peculiar claims of the ‘Short-story’ by his article on ‘the Philosophy of the Short-story’ in a recent number of Lippincott’s Magazine. As one result, doubtless, of his plea, a demand has been created for that article, and the gentlemen dealing in the commodity have not been slow in stocking the market. “The Broken Shaft,” a collection of Short stories, has a pleasanter raison d’etre: its object is to record the means of enjoyment which some literary geniuses provided for themselves on the occasion of a disaster which rendered the steam-ship Bavaria helpless in midocean. These notables, among whom Henry Irving and Ellen Terry will be recognized under the thin disguise of the ‘Eminent Tragedian’ and ‘Beatrice,’ made good service of their abilities, and passed many a pleasant hour in story-telling. F. Marion Crawford, R. Louis Stevenson and F. Anstey, have given us three stories of the ghostly order. ‘The Upper Berth’ by Crawford is of the Ram Lal order, and succeeds admirably in creating a creepy sensation. ‘Marjory’ is a charming story of a phase of English school-life which Mr Anstey has so vividly treated in ‘Vice Versa.’ And so on, through the book, the Novelist, the Romancer, the Editor, and the Critic, the pseudonyms of well-known authors, each have a story to tell, and each succeeds as may be expected. The series of stories are pleasantly connected in narrative form by the Editor, Henry Norman, who also contributes the last of the stories.

 Princetonian, Volume 10, Number 84 (1 March 1886)

The demand for thrilling stories at Christmastide is an almost universal passion. There is at this season a positive yearning for a good story, and if it be “something dismal, a bloody murder, or about a ghost” – as the little girl and the boy plead in one of Southey’s grim ballads – so much the better. The collection of stories in The Broken Shaft (T. Fisher Unwin) possesses quite an old-fashioned gusto and inspiration and recalls the brave days of Christmas Annuals when Dickens was in our midst. Though not told in the firelight but, on the deck of a disabled steamer in mid-Atlantic, they have all one delightful quality in common – they produce the fresh, vivid impression of stories actually told, not transcribed for reading. The illusion is strengthened by Mr Henry Norman, the editor, who sketches with light and keen touches the more prominent of the story-tellers and their audience, and in the interludes that fill the pauses of narration cleverly preserves the vraisemblance of  their environment. The dramatic presentment owes not a little to the effective portraiture of the eminent tragedian, the adventurous novelist, the critic, the editor, the romancer, and their companions. The stories are naturally very diverse in style and subject, for they are all eminently characteristic. For mere horror- horror that seems studied after Fitzjames O’Brien – the palm is due to Mr F. Marion Crawford, even as Mr. F. Anstey’s “Marjory” may claim it for pure pathos. The fateful irony of Mr. W.H. Pollock’s story ends in a telling climax of mingled pathos and tragedy. Mr William Archer and Mr. Norman kindle the liveliest apprehensions; and Mr. Tighe Hopkins tells an electioneering episode in the genuine spirit of farce. Mr. R. L. Stevenson has seldom produced anything so finely imagined, so concentrated, so irresistible in cumulative force as the moment in “Markheim” when the murderer is suddenly staggered by the chiming of the clocks and the accusing reflections of the mirrors in the dingy curiosity shop. The finale is as striking and as finely imagined as it is original.

Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art, Volume 61, Number 1575 (1 January 1886)

4 thoughts on “The Broken Shaft: Tales in Mid-Ocean (1886) edited by Henry Norman

  1. Pingback: Wandering Ghosts (1903) by F. Marion Crawford | Mystery and Imagination

  2. Pingback: The Witching Time (1885) edited by Henry Norman | Mystery and Imagination

  3. Golodkin

    “‘The Upper Berth’ by Crawford is of the Ram Lal order'”…

    Who is Ram Lal? After a great deal of digging, I can find no reference to any likely author with that name. The referenced story is quite fine, and if there is another writer of such material (now almost certainly in the public domain), I should like to find those stories.

    Thanks for any insights!

    1. stylesofdying Post author

      I’m not actually sure. That bit of the post is from a contemporary review of the book from the Saturday Review. I had assumed it was a reference to a particular kind of story (perhaps a particular kind of ‘colonial story’) rather than an author. But I don’t honestly know and would be intrigued to find out! The only reference I can find is to a character called Ram Lal in a story called “The Boy Who Was Caught” from a 1913 anthology (edited?) by S. Mukerji. Aside from being a contender for inclusion on the blog though I’m not sure this really helps.

      In short – good question! I’ll keep digging…


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