The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

An African Millionaire: Episodes in the Life of the Illustrious Colonel Clay (1896-1897)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

An African Millionaire was written by Grant Allen and first appeared as a serial in The Strand Magazine (June 1896-May 1897). Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen (1848-1899) was a British author, philosopher, and scientist who is remembered for his The Woman Who Did (1895), which shocked its readers with its New Woman heroine and its frank (for the era) discussion of sex.

The main character of An African Millionaire is not Colonel Clay, but rather Sir Charles Vandrift, an unpleasant and unscrupulous diamond millionaire. The notorious thief “Colonel Clay” (not his real name) has, for reasons initially unclear, chosen Vandrift as his preferred victim. Vandrift is paranoid about being swindled out of his money, a paranoia unfounded at first but increasingly justified as the stories go by and Clay repeatedly does Vandrift out of his money. Clay is a master of disguise, and is so good at altering himself that Sir Charles and his personal secretary, though forewarned about Clay, is continually swindled by him. Clay poses as a number of characters, including a Scottish parson and a Mexican seer, and finagles Vandrift out of great sums of money. Clay’s technique is nothing so crude as second-story work; Clay leaves Raffles (see: The Amateur Cracksman) far behind in terms of style. Clay allows Vandrift to swindle himself. When Clay poses as a parson he lets Vandrift’s greed get the better of him, so that Vandrift thinks he is swindling the parson, when in the end Clay fools Vandrift and steals his diamonds and bank notes. Clay repeats this pattern over and over. He gets Vandrift to write his own signature on a sheet of paper concealing a blank check, which Clay then cashes. He lifts two of the diamonds from Amelia, Vandrift’s wife, and wears them, knowing that Amelia will lust after the diamonds so much that she will force Vandrift to pay any price to buy them. Clay pretends to sell a Tyrolean castle to Vandrift. Clay creates a phony diamond-manufacturing machine which provokes a panic on the stock market, which prompts Vandrift to sell the shares in his own company, which Clay then buys, waits until the scam is revealed and the shares’ value returns to normal, and then sells. Vandrift hires a private detective to capture Clay, and after several months of taking Vandrift’s money the private detective is revealed to have been Clay all along. Clay takes Vandrift for several thousand dollars in a poker game. Clay is caught when a photograph of him comes to light, and a specialist in the Bertillon method is able to reconstruct Clay’s real face from it. Vandrift discovers that Clay is actually Paul Finglemore, the lover of Amelia Vandrift’s maid Cesarine. Finglemore is apprehended in Cesarine’s room. He is put on trial and is convicted and sentenced to fourteen years’ hard labor, but he conducts his own defense skillfully and cross-examines Vandrift, exposing Vandrift’s unscrupulous character to the world and disgracing him in the eyes of Society.

Colonel Clay is important as the first Gentleman Thief in modern crime fiction, predating Guy Boothby’s Simon Carne (see: A Prince of Swindlers) by seven months and E.W. Hornung’s much more famous A.J. Raffles by a full two years. Clay had prototypical predecessors, of course: the aristocratic swindlers of Newgate novels (see: Proto-Mysteries) like Henry Cockton’s George St. George Julian, The Prince of Swindlers (1841) and sensation novels such as Charles Lever’s Davenport Dunn (1857-1859), and the real-life well-heeled swindlers of Victorian England, such as Henry Fauntleroy (1784-1824), who swindled his bank out of £250,000,1 and John Sadleir (1813-1856), who left an impressive trail of ruin behind him. But Allen’s inspiration was to make the swindler the unabashed hero of the story, by setting him against someone far more contemptible than he was. This was the logical evolution of the villain-as-protagonist fiction of the latter half of the nineteenth century; “indeed, as reader interest heightened through the second half of the nineteenth century for the villain-as-protagonist, the brilliant sleuth who made fools of the professional police was no longer the detective hero, but instead the gentleman thief."2 Colonel Clay was not a wholly original character—who is?—but he was an evolutionary leap forward in the portrayal of heroic villains and swindler protagonists.

It is regrettable that Colonel Clay and Simon Carne have been overshadowed by A.J. Raffles, since the Clay stories are, if not immortal, at the least pretty good. The Clay stories are competent, consistently entertaining 1890s commercial prose, light on description, heavy on dialogue. They are not witty, but are generally good-humored. In one or two there is too great a reliance on luck and the reader’s suspension in disbelief, but generally the plots are cleverly done. And nearly every story is enjoyable purely as a reading experience; the reader is always wondering how Clay is going to pull off his latest scam, especially since Vandrift is always on his guard against Clay. Even when the reader knows how the swindle is being done, it is still entertaining to watch the process by which Vandrift is gulled.

Clay is the first modern Gentleman Thief, but he is different from his successors, especially Carne and Raffles, in several ways. The circles in which Clay works are much more elevated than theirs: Raffles is a member of Society by virtue of his achievements in sports, and Carne steals from royalty, but Clay steals from millionaire financiers, a more select group than Carne’s targets. (This reflects the aristocratic swindlers, real-life and fictional, who were Clay’s predecessors). Clay is a swindler, rather than a thief, and Clay does nothing so risky as breaking into another man’s house. Like all the best swindlers Clay makes the target cheat themselves: as Vandrift’s secretary Seymour says, “He doesn’t go out of his way to cheat us; he makes us go out of ours to be cheated.” And because Vandrift and Seymour are willing to cheat others, they are all the more easily taken in. Clay has rules about what he will and won’t do, and when Vandrift acts in a moral manner Clay refuses to steal from him. However, Vandrift generally acts like a scoundrel, and Clay, at the end of a successful swindle, taunts Vandrift, either by letter or in person, an act of bravado and bad sportsmanship that neither Carne nor Raffles would engage in. Clay is indifferent to the police, but the Clay stories treat the police with much more respect than most later Gentlemen Thief stories; Clay’s cross-examination of Vandrift is devastating to the case against Clay, and it is the “cleverness and trained acumen” of the police which convict him.

In addition, the Colonel Clay stories have a political subtext which later Gentleman Thief stories and series usually avoided. It is not initially clear why Clay has chosen Vandrift, of all people, as his target, but Clay eventually explains:

...regard me, my dear sir, as a microbe of millionaires, a parasite upon capitalists¼You are a capitalist and a millionaire. In your large way you prey upon society. You deal in Corners, Options, Concessions, Syndicates. You drain the world dry of its blood and its money¼you absorb the surplus wealth of the community. In my smaller way, again, I relieve you in turn of a portion of the plunder. I am a Robin Hood of my age.3

Clay is no more a Robin Hood than Dick Turpin (see: Rookwood) and the other gentleman highwaymen (see: The Gentleman Thief) were, and the stolen money is redistributed no farther than Clay’s bank account. But Clay’s political motivation for victimizing Vandrift is repeated throughout the series and seems honestly meant, and Clay’s anti-capitalist sentiments are far more radical than the anti-New Money sneers which occasionally appear in the Simon Carne stories.

Allen’s own politics briefly emerge at the end of the series, when it is revealed that Clay practices “occasional marriage” and is a bigamist, married to both Cesarine (Amelia Vandrift’s maid) and “White Heather,” the woman who often assisted Clay in the execution of his crimes. Allen was a feminist (see: Miss Cayley’s Adventures) and scorned the harsh and hypocritical sexual ethics of the Victorian upper class, and it was in character for him to use as a hero a bigamist who loves both his wives dearly, treats them both well, and is loved by both, a concept that would offend the Victorian Mr. And Mrs. Grundys who took such offense at Allen’s The Woman Who Did (1895), with its open (for the time) discussion of sex and its New Woman heroine.

An African Millionaire is historically significant as the first appearance of the modern Gentleman Thief, but beyond that it is well-done late-Victorian villain-as-hero crime fiction, a novel that makes for top-notch comfort reading.

Recommended Edition

Print: Grant Allen, An African Millionaire: episodes in the life of the illustrious Colonel Clay. New York: Penguin, 2012.



1 The entire interesting story is told in Sara Malton’s “Forgery, Fiscal Trauma, and the Fauntleroy Case,” European Romantic Review 18.3 (2007): 401-415.

2 Hoppenstand, “Introduction,” i.

3 Grant Allen, An African Millionaire: episodes in the life of the illustrious Colonel Clay (New York: Penguin, 2012), 75.

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