The Lost Parables of F. W. Boreham

As I have been editing the F. W. Boreham Signature Edition series, I have learned almost everything anyone could want to know about which books, articles, and magazines Boreham used in the formation of his esssays. I have meticulously searched up his original sources, whenever available, using the best digital archives online: Google Books, the Internet Archive, Early English Books Online, and other more specialised sites, like Project Canterbury.

This has been no small undertaking. Take for instance, Boreham’s essay on John Woolman in A Faggot of Torches, the latest Boreham volume slated for re-release. Boreham quotes repeatedly from John Woolman’s journal: from John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1871 introduction; from Alexander Smellie’s 1898 introduction; and from Amelia Mott Gummere’s notes included with a 1922 edition of John Woolman’s journal. Several of the quotations are paraphrased or updated to make them more readable; nonetheless, it appears that he quoted from two or three different editions of the same book.

The side-effect of all this sleuth-work has been a trail of un-footnoted material—the narratives where Boreham is not quoting or paraphrasing from anyone. Frequently, Boreham based entire essays on classic or contemporary novels. But sometimes he tells stories that simply have no references. He artfully presents these stories such that we accept them as history. But I know Boreham and his library well enough, that I believe these are his hidden contributions to the world of fiction. They are the lost parables of F. W. Boreham.

Boreham’s Historical Fiction

The Love of Brother Pacificus (The Ivory Spires, I, IV)

“The Love of Brother Pacificus” is a tragic tale of unrequited love between Brother Pacificus, a monk, and Mary Selwyn. We can surmise that the story takes place around a medieval double monastery, but beyond this the narrative is not historically grounded. Pacificus leaves the Monastery of St. Bede’s, ashamed of his love for Mary; at the same time, Mary, impressed by Pacificus’ piety, joins the Convent of St. Cecilia.

Neither the Monastery of St. Bede’s nor the Convent of St. Celicia refers to a real location. Probably Boreham’s intention is that the monastery was founded by Bede, and so this dates the story to the eighth century or the centuries that follow.

Again, “Selwyn” is the name of one of Boreham’s heroes, George Augustus Selwyn, whose biography Boreham wrote; and it is likely that he included this as Mary’s last name as a way of alluding to one of his heroes.

Enoch Stapleton (A Faggot of Torches, XII)

“Enoch Stapleton’s Text” tells the story of Enoch and Hannah Stapleton, who left Sussex to settle in Virginia in the eighteenth century. It is a chapter in A Faggot of Torches, which is slated to be reprinted this year. This book is in the Texts That Made History series, in which each essay recounts the impact of a single Scripture passage in someone’s life. Most of these are historical figures; only a few are characters from novels, such as Uncle Tom, Sim Paris, Hepsy Gipsy, and Robinson Crusoe—and in each of those, Boreham expressly tells us what novel he is drawing from. Enoch and Hannah Stapleton, then, are presented as historical figures.

In the story, the Stapletons travel on the Queen o’ the West and settle in a place called Newhampstead, on the Ohio River. A search will show that there were people by these names in colonial Virginia, but no record gives the level of detail that Boreham does. It appears that Boreham simply wrote this story himself.

Boreham couches the story of the Stapletons in true narratives found in colonial letters and in Bancroft’s History of the United States—but the main thrust of the story, as far as I know, is an original historical fiction.

Issachar and Ruth (In “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Text,” A Faggot of Torches, XXII)

Woven into the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe—another installment from the Texts That Made History—is the story of Issachar and Ruth, first-century believers, a father and daughter. Boreham ties in a quotation from F. B. Meyer. But I have found no other record of these names used of first-century Christians in Rome.

Like the stories of the Stapletons (eighteenth-century Virginia) and Pacificus (medieval England), the story of Issachar and Ruth is framed around a specific time and place (first-century Rome), but is a creation of the author’s fertile imagination.

Boreham’s Modern Fiction

Blackadder Lane (The Blue Flame, II, IV)

For years, my favorite Boreham book has been The Blue Flame (1930). It has many stellar essays that draw heavily from literature:

  • “A Lovers’ Quarrel,” from Florence Barclay’s novel Mistress of Shenstone, 1910;
  • “The Raven,” from the famous poem by Edgar Allen Poe, 1845;
  • “The Treasure in Coward’s Castle,” drawing on A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers, 1902;
  • “Leap Year,” drawing on Charles Lamb’s essay “Rejoicings upon the New Year’s Coming of Age” in The Last Essays of Elia, 1833.

Another essay, “Add! Add! Add!”, has an illustration about Handley Page’s plane being threatened by electrical failure. But in the true story, found in the Aerial Age Weekly for January 6, 1919, there is no mention of electrical failure. I am not sure if Boreham dramatised the story, or misread it, or it is just as likely that Boreham plucked the story from one of the many preaching magazines that he read. In any case, in the church, it has never been considered immoral to tell such parables with the intent of illustrating a spiritual truth.

But the story of “Blackadder Lane” is on another level—a full essay, grounded in late Victorian Lancashire, with first and last names, dialogue, and picturesque details. Boreham begins with an elaborate dramatic frame for how he heard the story of Blackadder Lane from a stranger on a railway journey in the late 1890s.

Blackadder Lane, she explained, was the darkest, dirtiest, and vilest quarter of the town. Decent people could only imagine what it was like, for decent people never went there.

F. W. Boreham, The Blue Flame

Blackadder Lane, of course, was transformed by a little girl named Dora Manning, who was a student at a boarding school at Preston (a city in Lancashire) and who was stirred by a revival at the Primitive Methodist Church. Knowing that “Blackadder Lane is a short cut from High Street to George Street,” she began to walk it nonchalantly with her friend, eventually resulting in a reversal of attitudes toward the decrepit neighbourhood.

The only problem is, there is no “Blackadder Lane” in Preston. English place names are remarkably well documented, and many of these records are digital; but a search for “Blackadder Lane” returns zero hits. It’s possible that Boreham dramatised a narrative he knew well; but I believe that it is simply a parable of his own creation. “High Street” and “George Street” are probably the most common street names in all of England—analogous to “Main Street” and “Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive” in the United States—and so including them also gives us nothing.

Let’s go to some fictional stories that relate to Boreham’s life and ministry down under.

Old Eternity (The Home of the Echoes, I, III)

One of my favorite essays in The Home of the Echoes (1921) is “Old Eternity.” The essay begins:

Old Eternity was a mystery—a fascinating but inscrutable mystery. What was his real name? Where did he come from? How did he live?

F. W. Boreham, The Home of the Echoes

Boreham recounts quite specifically meeting a hermit while on a hunting trip in Piripiki Gorge.

I extended my hand to take farewell of him.
‘But you haven’t told me your name!’ I said.
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I have no name; at least, I have no need of a name up here!’
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘if you don’t tell me a name, I shall have to give you one. I must have a name of some kind in my mind to associate with you!’
‘And what would you call me?’ he inquired.
‘I think,’ I said, remembering the observation which formed the climax of his philosophy, ‘I think I should call you Old Eternity!’
‘Capital!’ he replied, his eyes sparkling. ‘Call me Old Eternity! For eternity won’t seem long, you know; eternity won’t seem long!’

F. W. Boreham, The Home of the Echoes

The essay concludes with a hint as to the identity of the old hermit. Boreham says that John Broadbanks told him that Old Eternity had died. He states that some years later he found the following advertisement in a paper:

ANY PERSON possessing information as to the whereabout of Professor COURTNEY PENNINGTON, who lost his wife and children, and was himself badly injured in the great railway disaster at Taddington Junction, on March 3, 1871 …

There is a clue, here, though. March 3, 1871 is Boreham’s exact birthday; and Boreham himself was injured in a railway accident at the age of 15. He walked with difficulty for the rest of his life, but never wrote of the incident in his essays. Could it be that Old Eternity is a fantastic bundle of personal allusions? Could Boreham have done this in his other essays?

Crusty (The Crystal Pointers, I, IV)

Similar to Old Eternity, Crusty is a hermit of the extremely remote outback. Boreham goes far out of his way to describe how far he was from civilization when he met Crusty.

Crusty’s distinguishing characteristic is that he has refused all dealings with women due to an unrequited love, Mary Chambers. Mary had left Crusty high and dry and married another man, many years since. Crusty had only learned of her wedding a month later and a few towns over, when he read ut in a newspaper.

Like in “Old Eternity,” the story hinges on archival research! Boreham writes that the remains of Crusty’s love, Mary, had been discovered in a quarry; she had apparently died in a tragic accident, and all Crusty’s bitterness had been for nought. The “Mary Chambers” who married around that time had been an unrelated person. As Crusty learns the news, his heart slowly warms.

The story teaches us to avoid holding grudges, to think the best of people whenever possible, and that even the hardest heart can be healed. “Crusty” was such a beloved story, that it was even printed as a little board book.

A pattern is emerging here: lonely hermits, remote reaches down under, the tragedy of unrequited love, and unlikely reunions, reversals, and restorations. I can neither verify or deny the story of Crusty, but it smacks more of legend and parable than of a true story.

Conclusion

I have said nothing here about the many essays in which Boreham absolutely lets loose—talking paper, visits to distant planets, time travel, and paintings come to life. Those that come to mind are “The Congress of the Universe” (The Nest of Spears, II, VII) and “The Uttermost Star” (The Uttermost Star, I, I).

I have also had no time here to speak of the level-headed John Broadbanks, F. W. Boreham’s apparently-fictional best friend, who appears in perhaps dozens of essays. He is apparently a placeholder for fictional dialogues and adventures. If John Broadbanks is fictional, there is almost no telling which other characters are real and which are imaginary.

For my own part, I believe that Boreham was simply filling in parables as he thought necessary for good preaching and teaching. Boreham did not live in the Information Age. Jesus himself does not clarify whether the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a historical narrative or not; and truthfully, it matters nothing.

Other stories told by Boreham include far-fetched coincidences. This would be poor grounds for disbelieving them, unless they follow a pattern, like “Crusty” does. Take, for instance, “His Worship the Mayor” (The Uttermost Star, III, III), which hinges on a mayor being reunited with a long-lost son after decades. I can verify nothing about that story; but neither can I claim it is definitely false. To Boreham’s contemporaries, it may have clearly rang of fiction. I do not know. But it is almost immaterial for the genre in which Boreham dealt—if a parable teaches something true and real, it does not matter so much whether it is a fact-driven narrative couched in an airtight bibliography. I think Boreham’s generation understood that better than ours, and for that, I thank God.

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