The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
A Bid for Fortune, or Doctor Nikola's Vendetta (1895)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
A Bid for Fortune, or Doctor Nikola’s Vendetta was written by Guy Boothby and first appeared in Windsor Magazine (Jan-Dec 1895). The Australian Boothby (1867-1905) was a mediocre but quite successful author of genre fiction. A Bid for Fortune and the four sequels to it were far and away Boothby’s most successful creations.
A Bid for Fortune is about Richard Hatteras, an Australian fortune hunter who has the misfortune to become entangled in a scheme of Doctor Nikola, a mysterious schemer. Nikola’s plot involves revenge on the Marquis of Beckenham (for what reasons the reader is never told) through the Marquis’ son, and a plot against Phyllis Weatherell, who becomes Hatteras’ sweetheart. A convoluted series of plot twists, kidnappings, escapes, and theatrical appearances by Nikola eventually reveals that Nikola’s ultimate goal was the acquisition of a certain Chinese walking stick which the Marquis owns. Why Nikola is after the stick is never revealed, and Hatteras foils Nikola’s plans in the end.
A Bid for Fortune was popular on publication, and the modern reader will likely catch glimpses why. It moves quickly, has more than its fair share of entertaining pulpy moments, and has a memorable villain. Unfortunately, the novel’s flaws negate most of the reader’s enjoyment. Boothby’s style is stiffer here than in Pharos the Egyptian. The plot holes, coincidences, and hard-to-credit complications are too numerous to count. Boothby gives far more attention to the annoying Hatteras than to the much more interesting Nikola. The novel seems not to know where the plot was going, even as late as the novel’s ending. (Boothby wrote quickly and in volume, and most of his novels were written without an outline or any forethought or planning whatsoever). And Nikola is derivative of George Du Maurier’s Svengali (see: Trilby) and H.G. Wells’ Doctor Moreau (see: The Island of Doctor Moreau).
But Nikola overcomes his sources and becomes a noteworthy villain. He can be viewed as a (very) late version of the Gothic Hero-Villain, but the reader never gets the sense that Nikola’s passions overcome his judgment, as with the traditional Hero-Villain. Rather, Nikola has chosen the path of crime and power because it is what he wants and because he enjoys the game. He is urbane, charming, and genial in person, with a superior intelligence. Despite his world-conquering aims he is relatively reluctant to kill, sparing Hatteras on a number of occasions. When Nikola kidnaps Phyllis Weatherell he acts as a perfect gentleman to her, and at the end of A Bid for Fortune, when Phyllis has married, Nikola sends the pair a collet of diamonds, with a note reading “With heartiest congratulations and best wishes to Lady Hatteras, in memory of an unfortunate detention and a voyage to the Southern Seas, From her sincere admirer, Dr. Nikola.”1
No, Nikola isn’t so much a Gothic Hero-Villain as the continuation of the modern supervillain character type established by Frederic Van Rensselaer Dey’s Dr. Quartz (see: The Dr. Quartz Mysteries) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty (see: “The Adventure of the Final Problem”). Nikola is a notable form for the supervillain character, both in himself and in his influence on other characters; it has been reasonably argued that Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu (see: Yellow Peril) and Ian Fleming’s Dr. No are the direct descendant of Nikola.2 Nikola is not an entirely new departure from previous supervillains. He is the evolutionary next step of the Hero-Villain form, a transformation begun by Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White with Count Fosco. Like Fosco Nikola is a version of the Yellow Peril character type, the Italian supervillain whose roots can be found in the Italian villains of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater. But like Fosco, only more so, Nikola is a creature of the modern world. Nikola’s mesmerism is a modern version of the Gothic glare of the Hero-Villain. Nikola’s occultism is an updating of the Rosicrucian interests of mid-nineteenth century villains. And Nikola’s interests are pseudo-Theosophical, a much more topical set of interests for the 1890s. Like Dr. Quartz, Nikola is a vivisectionist, an anticipation of the Evil Surgeon character type of the pulps. And, in anticipation of Dr. Fu Manchu, Nikola is a skilled chemist; in Doctor Nikola he creates a drug that can extend life indefinitely. Nikola, as mentioned, is a notable example of the supervillain, for he was the first supervillain—not the more honorable Gentleman Thief, but the actual villain of a text—to be the protagonist of a novel. (Dr. Quartz only appeared in dime novels, a far less respectable form for contemporary readers, and the women criminals of the sensation novels, fine and villainous though they are, are not supervillains). The success of A Bid for Fortune and its four sequels proved that there was an audience for action/adventure texts which had supervillains as protagonists. Every modern text with a supervillain as its lead, whether comic book, movie, or mainstream novel, owes something to Dr. Nikola and A Bid for Fortune.
On a deeper level, Nikola and A Bid for Fortune have something to say about British anxieties and fears at the end of the century, the fin-de-siècle unease that afflicted so many Britons from the 1870s until Queen Victoria’s death. The Australian Boothby—no fan of England, as A Prince of Swindlers shows—consciously or unconsciously pressed down on the intellectual and emotional sore spots of his English readers. Those worried about Great Britain under threat of an alien invasion had to read about Nikola’s threat to a set of citizens “virtually blind to whatever goes beyond their interests and the routine of their daily lives¼Boothby opposed too weak a contender (Britain) to a too strong one (Nikola).”3 Moreover,
if, in Boothby’s fiction, Dr. Nikola’s criminal organisation provides one source of peril to the British Empire, the Chinese people as a race are depicted as another, yet more insidious, threat. Embedded in the colonial perspective that Boothby brought with him to England was the white Australian settler attitude to the Chinese, and this is abundantly reflected and developed in his fiction.4
Those worried about British racial degeneration and intellectual and physical decay are confronted with the “the freakish Gwendoline,” Phyllis’ decayed uncle, and Beckenham, a physical, intellectual, and attitudinal inferior to Hatteras.5 Those worried about the state of the Empire find a portrayal of British colonialism that confirms “the late Victorian paranoia that Britons might be unfit for colonial enterprise.”6 And those worried about the overly-rationalistic system of Victorian England have to endure the portrayal of Nikola, who “has happily married the Western rationalism to the Eastern esotericism” and found much to praise in the latter.7
A Bid for Fortune, and to a lesser extent its four sequels, is moderately entertaining, if not of particularly good quality. It is certainly of greater interest to scholars and those interested in the literary conversation about the British fin-de-siècle unease than to casual readers.
Print: Guy Boothby, A Bid for Fortune, or, Dr. Nikola’s Vendetta. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
For Further Research
Emilio Zampieri, “Guy Boothby: The ‘Dr. Nikola’ Novels (1895-1901),” PhD diss., Università degli Studi di Padova, 2002.
1 Guy Boothby, A Bid for Fortune (New York: Appleton, 1895), 301.
2 Tom Mack, “The Transmigrating Evil Genius: From Boothby to Rohmer to Fleming,” School of Visual Arts 25th National Conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists: Crossing the Borders, Round Table Presentations and Talks on the Arts, New York, Oct. 19-21, 2011.
3 Emilio Zampieri, “Guy Boothby: The ‘Dr. Nikola’ Novels (1895-1901)” (PhD diss., Università degli Studi di Padova, 2002), 64.
4 Ailise Bulfin, “Guy Boothby and the ‘Yellow Peril’: Representations of Chinese Immigrants in British Imperial Spaces in the Late-Nineteenth Century,” Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 20, no. 1 (2015): 26.
5 Zampieri, “Guy Boothby,” 66-70.
6 Zampieri, “Guy Boothby,” 73.
7 Zampieri, “Guy Boothby,” 74.