This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

May 2002


14 May 1853:   Thomas Henry Hall Caine, Manx novelist, born.

At the north end of the seaside promenade in Douglas, Isle of Mann, stands a statue of a Shakespearian-looking fellow. The statue is of Hall Caine, Mann’s premier novelist, and one of the more flamboyant figures of the late Victorian literary world, whose fifteen novels were supposed to have sold some fifteen million copies.

Born in Cheshire, England, to a Manx father and an English mother, Hall Caine’s early familiarity with the Isle of Mann came from childhood sojourns on the island with his father’s family, and later on from working as an assistant to his schoolmaster uncle at Kirk Maughhold.

He came to his literary career by a somewhat roundabout route, training at first to be an architectural draftsman, and then later on switching to journalism. His introduction to the artistic and literary world of nineteenth century Britain came from a stint as the personal secretary to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the poet, painter, and leader of the “Pre-Raphaelite” school of artists, a group whose work is familiar to many Celtophiles for the classic depictions of scenes from Arthurian legends. Caine’s time as Rossetti’s secretary proved to be brief, lasting only from 1881 to Rossetti’s death the following year, but it had a tremendous influence on the development of Caine’s literary sensibilities, as avoluminous correspondence between him and Rossetti shows.

Caine’s chief Manx novel, and his most famous work, is The Manxman, a tragic tale of a love triangle which he later adapted as a play, and which in 1929 was turned into a silent film by a young Alfred Hitchcock. (The film is currently available on videotape.) The strength of The Manxman lies in its sympathy with the world of the local Manx fishing folk. Other Manx-based works by Caine include the novel The Master of Man, and the play The Deemster. Caine achieved a degree of notoriety in 1913 when his novel The Woman Thou Gavest Me was banned by the British Circulating Libraries Association on the grounds of indecency.

Despite the success of The Manxman, it seems that there were always those on the island who never quite accepted Caine as a real Manxman, seeing him more as a flamboyant British and trans-Atlantic literary figure. To a great extent this was true, as Caine was as much at home in London and New York as he was on the streets of Douglas. During a pub crawl in New York, for example, Caine was befriended by the colorful “Mayor of the Bowery” George Washington “Chuck” Connors and given an honorary membership in his “Chuck Connors Association” with an invitation to the association’s annual “Racket” at Tammany Hall. Caine only settled permanently on the Isle of Mann in his middle age, when he rented, and eventually bought, a crenellated houseknownas “Greeba Castle” which promptly became a local tourist site. Postcards were sold depicting the strange house with an inset portrait of Hall Caine,as the island’s leading celebrity.

Once settled on the Isle of Mann, Caine served for several years in the Manx parliament known as the House of Keys, and bore a sincere love for the island nation, and especially for the dramatic headlands around Kirk Maughhold on the northeast coast. Never shy about self-promotion, he at first selected a spot at the tip of Maughhold head for a dramatic and romantic burial site before settling for a more modest location down in the nearby Kirkyard, where his monument may be easily spotted by a visitor today. Caine died on the Isle of Mann on 31 August 1931.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2003 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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