Ernest Bramah: Introductory Essay

Thanks to Peter Gaspar for writing this introductory essay on Ernest Bramah specifically for the enjoyment and benefit of BiblioMANIA subscribers. Please note that Peter cites the web address of Mike Berro's excellent online bibliography of Bramah. I urge you to go to this site; it's a beautiful job, with great pictures.
Dan Wirt
, Listgruppenfuhrer

Ernest Bramah

Fifty-five years after his death at age 74, the British writer Ernest Bramah continues to bring pleasure to readers and challenge bibliophiles, and he remains an enigma to those who wish to understand him apart from his work. His obituary in the June 29 Times of London is headed "Creator of Kai Lung," and he was best known in his lifetime for the stories and maxims of that itinerent rogue. Set in the lush atmosphere of a China that never was, Kai Lung's adventures are related with humor and irony, his shrewdness and wisdom conveyed in euphemisms, paradoxes and parables. "It is a mark of insincerity of purpose to spend one's time in looking for the sacred Emperor in the low-class tea-shops." Even when loosely combined into novels, these are short stories, and they captured a large audience in the first half of this century. It is said that there was, in London political and literary circles, a Kai Lung Club whose members wrote to each other in Bramah's quasi-Mandarin style. The haute intelligentsia were not immune. In his preface to "Kai Lung's Golden Hours" Hilaire Belloc wrote that Bramah's work is "a thing made deliberately, in hard material and completely successful."

From their first appearance in book form "The Wallet of Kai Lung," Grant Richards, London, and L.C. Page and Company, Boston (from English sheets) 1900, the Kai Lung volumes have been popular with collectors as well as readers. The normal editions are handsome objects, and there were limited numbered and signed editions as early as 1923. Their popularity is indicated by the early appearance of "The Wallet of Kai Lung" as Penguin paperback no. 29 in 1936 and "Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat" as no. 108 in 1937.

Bramah was an extremely private man. For years my only biographical information (and the first photograph I saw of him) was provided by the back cover of the 1954 Penguin reprint of "The Wallet of Kai Lung". Bramah chose farming as a profession at seventeen, gave it up after three years (his first book was "English Farming and Why I Turned It Up," Leadenhall Press, London, 1894), and started as a correspondent for a provincial newspaper. He came to London as secretary to the humorist Jerome K. Jerome and did editorial work on several magazines before turning to writing as a full-time occupation. Bramah himself provided no information about himself even to prestigious reference volumes such as "Who's Who" in which he was listed, and once wrote: "I am not fond of writing about myself, and only to a lesser degree about my work. My published books are about all I care to pass on to the reader" (quoted by S. J. Kunitz and H. Haycroft, "Twentieth Century Authors," H.W. Wilson, N.Y., 1942, p. 1304). Bramah was said to be a shy man in private as well. As a result, inscribed copies of his books, other than the signed editions of 1923 are very rare, and I do not own one.

His writing in another genre, the mystery story, gave Bramah a second, dedicated following often quite separate from the readers of Kai Lung. The blind detective with remarkable compensatory abilities, Max Carrados, is described by E. F. Bleiler in his introduction to the 1972 Dover collection of "Best Max Carrados Detective Stories" as "a suave, kindly, resourceful investigator, whom nothing can dismay." When one reads the stories about Carrados (and they too are mostly short stories) his personality is the dominating force, as is true in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. But one suspects that Carrados accurately conveys to us the personality of his creator, and Carrados, like his creator (Ernest Bramah Smith), altered his name. Bleiler's impression of Bramah, obtained from his fiction is that of a man "subtle, highly intelligent, cynical, whimsical, charming, sophisticated, yet with a secret liking for coarse melodrama (enlivened with irony), remarkably painstaking in some areas of thought, yet careless in others.

Bramah gets full value from a word, so that each Carrados short story is a miniature novel with fully developed characters and plot. Some of the situations stretch credulity, but are set in an atmosphere such that disbelief is willingly surrendered. Bramah's endings can be as haunting as the writing of Arthur Machen and raise the question whether Bramah too was a member of The Golden Dawn. Several fantasy tales figure in the 1924 collection of 21 Bramah short stories (one Max Carrados, one of Kai Lung style), "The Specimen Case," that covered a 30-year period in Bramah's life and gave the date and place of writing of each piece.

A personal interest is that Max Carrados, like Bramah and me, was an avid numismatist, a student and collector of coins. More than a half-dozen of the Carrados stories feature coins. The author was on solid ground. Bramah's 1929 book on the copper coinage of England was the first to call attention to the significance of small variations in design as clues to the methods used to make the dies from which modern coins are struck. As in his short stories Bramah made a few words go a very long way, so that despite the lack of illustrations one can immediately recognize a specific coin described by Bramah. What sounds like a dry subject was enlivened by the wit that sparkles throughout Bramah's work. One of the Carrados stories, "The Mystery of the Vanished Petition Crown" describes an auction scam that may have been the model for a famous real-life 1970's coin theft from Glendining's in London. Another employs Carrados' knowledge of counterfeiting techniques and coin pedigrees as plot elements. Bramah is one of only a handful of fiction writers with sufficient knowledge to use numismatics to entertain rather than bore readers.

I have not attempted to catalog Bramah's books, because there is a complete bibliography by Mike Berro available on line at In brief there are six collections of Kai Lung stories, and, originally, three collected volumes of Max Carrados Stories plus a novel, "The Bravo of London" (1934). There have been many reprints. The original editions of Kai Lung seem less scarce than those of Max Carrados, perhaps reflecting their original popularity or the lack of bibliophilic interest in early detective fiction until the 1970's. Collecting Max Carrados is the subject of a piece by Otto Penzler in "The Armchair Detective," Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring 1983, pp. 199-201.

Unrelated to Kai Lung and Max Carrados, there is a very scarce "futurist fiction" novel by Bramah "The Secret of the League" (1907) that was reprinted in 1995 by the Specular Press (link from the Bramah website) with an excellent new introduction by Daniel Jencka who edited the reprint.

Ernest Bramah himself remains a mystery. Where he lived, did he ever visit China, was he related to the lock Brammahs, who were his friends, the name of his wife, even the date and place of his death are questions still being disputed. During his lifetime there were even rumors that there was no such person.

Peter Gaspar

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