I knew I was going to enjoy Lois Cayley and her adventures from the opening line: "On the day when I found myself with twopence in my pocket, I naturally made up my mind to go around the world." (From a reference to the Queen's Jubilee, these stories seem to be set in 1896-1897). As she explains, her widowed mother married a scoundrel who wasted her small fortune, leaving just enough to educate Miss Cayley at Girton. Now even that is gone, and she is alone in the world, except for an aunt "who lurked in ladylike indigence in Blackheath." Her friend Elsie Petheridge suggests the usual career of educated women, teaching, but Lois shocks her by stating that she will instead set out in search of adventure (preferably paid, of course):
"What adventure may come, I have not at this moment the slightest conception. The fun lies in the search, the uncertainty, the toss-up of it. What is the good of being penniless - with the trifling exception of twopence - unless you are prepared to accept your position in the spirit of a masked ball at Covent Garden?"Strolling through Kensington Gardens, Miss Cayley overhears a conversation, which leads to her first position, and the first step of her journey around the world. Each adventure funds the next, and each leads her further east, to Italy, Egypt, India, and then Japan. I was amused to realize that her travels follow something of the same route as General Grant's (though in one year rather than two). Along the way Miss Cayley encounters a con man, much less successful than Colonel Clay in Grant Allen's The African Millionaire - or rather she is more successful in foiling him than Sir Charles and Seymour. The detective skills she develops in dealing with him come in handy when she is drawn into a mystery involving a missing will and accusations of forgery. In the course of her adventures she also meets an attractive and very eligible young man, but she feels it is her duty to reject him, because she cannot bring alliance with an adventuress to his noble family.
Like Colonel Clay's, Miss Cayley's adventures were originally published in The Strand Magazine, in 1898 and 1899. According to the introduction to this book, the reviewers were not kind. Perhaps the heroine was a little too much ahead of her time, a little too modern for them. They may also have objected to what the editor calls "Allen's liberal views on race" and his characterization of British colonial attitudes, particularly clear in the chapters set in India.
I enjoyed this book very much, for the picaresque adventures, but even more for Miss Cayley herself. She is smart, focused, ambitious, open to adventure and possibility, a loyal friend. She insists that Elsie Petheridge join her on her travels, to escape from her London school and the threat of tuberculosis. At the same time it is convenient to have Miss Petheridge as a companion; as a lady and an officer's daughter, Miss Cayley can't completely ignore social conventions. All in all, she is a wonderful character, whose rather sardonic narrative voice reminds me of both Amelia Peabody Emerson and Mary Russell Holmes. In fact, I think she and Amelia Emerson would get on very well, despite Miss Cayley's lack of enthusiasm for Egypt!