This week I would like to bring you into The Club of Queer Trades. Penned at the turn of the 20th century by G. K. Chesterton, it is a collection of stories centered around Basil Grant, a friend of the narrator, and their ability to stumble over members of the eponymous club. The members all make a living by creating work for themselves in trades hitherto unknown.
Each of the stories reveals one or two of these trades, often with a number of bizarre twists and turns. For anyone fond of late Victorian mysteries, full of dim, gas-lit, foggy Victorian alleyways, this is a book for you. It’s also a book for you if you like looking up topical references and arcane vocabulary every few pages.
While the stories feature many of the same characters, each one stands well on its own. The conversations and commentaries are witty and strange, and the tales are peppered with descriptions of eccentrics and their inclinations. Basil thusly describes one Lord Beaumont of Foxwood:
I admit he has the slight disadvantage of being, beyond all question, off his head. He has the real disadvantage which has arisen out of the modern worship of progress and novelty; and he thinks anything odd and new must be an advance. If you went to him and proposed to eat your grandmother, he would agree with you, so long as you put it on hygenic and public grounds, as a cheap alternative to cremation.
Chesterton has a way with word painting that is nearly cinematic. The way in which he describes objects, locales, and people turns simple print into clear, entertaining pictures:
He rose at my entrance, flapping like a seal; I can use no other description. He flapped a plaid shawl over his right arm; he flapped a pair of pathetic black gloves; he flapped his clothes; I may say, without exaggeration, then he flapped his eyelids, as he rose. He was a bald-browed, white-haired, white-whiskered old clergyman, of a flappy and floppy type.
You can see him, can’t you?
I will say that, as much as I enjoyed this book, I had the same issue that I often have with books of this era authored by those who have a poetic bent: it took me about 20 pages to get into the rhythm of the words. Then I had to go back and re-read the first chapter. Writers of the era expected their readers to be as literate as they; while I’m no dunce, I’m not immediately familiar with many of the references Chesterton uses as allusions.
Opening the book, he references Rabelais, Doré, and Gargantua, all in the first paragraph. He references fictional secret clubs – the Ten Teacups and the Cat and Christian among them – which play on many fraternal clubs of the era. The name “Club of Queer Trades” could be a reference to The Oddfellows, as that order’s name may have come about because members held various odd jobs (as opposed to being members of specific guilds). Clubs of the era ranged from stoic to silly:
Enumerating the particular trades men invent to belong to this club would give away the suspense of the stories, but most of them seem to be out to create mystery and adventure for unwitting observers. There’s at least one company which is currently doing that today. (My sister and I have utilized their services to great advantage.)
If you would like to be enveloped by the mystery of The Club of Queer Trades, Feedbooks has it for FREE right over here.
If you’ve been saying to yourself, “I know that name…why do I know that name?” It might be because Chesterton is better known for another set of mysteries, featuring Father Brown (both his Innocence and his Wisdom).
If you’re interested in the author, Cheryl wrote about this Prince of Paradox right here on the blog.