Map of Afghanistan, 1930, courtesy of Probert Encyclopædia (http://www.probertencyclopaedia.com/photolib/maps/Map%20of%20Afghanistan%201930.htm)

Billet, Mabel Broughton. The Shadow on the Steppe. London: Hutchinson, [1930].

The Shadow on the Steppe

Another sensational novel by Canadian author Mabel Broughton Billett. This time, I must admit, the novel unwaveringly returns me to the adage: “Write what you know.” Broughton Billett, in this case, certainly did not.

The Shadow of the Steppe belongs to a genre of literature of Asia–begun with Sydney Owenson’s The Missionary (1811)–written by women and men who had never been there, but wished to capitalize on the exoticism of any one of the multitude of cultures populating the Indian subcontinent. Sydney Owenson admitted to gleaning her information from Sir Charles Ormsby’s extensive oriental library (see Mary Campbell, Lady Morgan: The Life and Times of Sydney Owenson [London: Pandora, 1988], especially 108). Given the rather sparse biographic detail available for Broughton Billett, I have no idea where she went for her information, but the accumulation of fictional accounts of life, love, and conflict in Central and South Asia had increased exponentially since Owenson began the trend. With so much to choose from, Broughton Billett’s sources could have been any of the Imperialist novels published so frequently, and indeed seems to have been many of them.

The only connection in the novel to the locale that is represented so faithfully and effectively in both Calamity House (1927) and The Robot Detective (1932) is that the uncle of the European protagonist (for there is also, fortunately, an Afghani protagonist, albeit raised in America) had worked on the construction of the Kettle Valley Railway, which runs from Midway, BC; through Merritt, where Broughton Billett lived for a spell; to Hope, BC, where it joined the regular CPR trans-Canada railway route. Our protagonist, Captain Frederick Stacpoole, had thus lived for a short spell in what is now the Thompson-Okanagan district, but returned to his native England in 1916 to enlist with the British military in World War I.

So much for the Canadian connection. The first 180 pages of the novel focus almost entirely on the political unrest in Afghanistan which results in our Afghani protagonist, Haider Khan, heir to Kinsunkush, being spirited as a child out of Afghanistan and ending up in an American circus, then travelling back as a young man to claim his inheritance through intrigue and bloodshed. Captain Stacpoole, representative of British unofficial interests, assists Haider Khan in his endeavours, and the plot includes the requisite Russian spy, a noble Indian princess as Haider Khan’s lover, a conniving Indian woman who foils his romantic plans, a multitude of feuding Afghani, Waziri, and Indian factions, and of course the dependable British soldiers who follow Captain Stacpoole. The second half of the novel is more comprehensible, although not more authentic. All the elements are there for the stereotypic novel of Imperialist dominance. While Broughton Billett knows too little of military tactics and life to make her novel either engaging or realistic, she does at least give significant agency to her native characters, and in the end leaves her Afghani Khan on his Afghani throne, with her British character–having both saved and been saved by Haider Khan and other native characters–retreating from the scene, leaving the locals in charge of their own lands. This, at least, differs significantly from earlier British novels of Imperialist India. Broughton Billett’s representation of military characters, though, relies too heavily on stereotypes: Russian, Asian, or British. Having read hundreds of such novels in my capacity as an academic, I have to admit that despite the refreshing balance of power we are left with, I found The Shadow on the Steppe to be one of the hardest to wade through. In the end, the American circus comes to save the day; I leave you to fathom the significance of that…

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