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Tell us which you think are the best 1917 bestsellers today. Pick them from the poll, or tell us about them in the comments.

The theme of The Hundredth Chance is familiar: A rough but noble man offers a marriage of convenience to an impoverished gentlewoman.

Ethel M. Dell keeps the story moving so readers have little time to notice how preposterous the characters and story are.


The Hundredth Chance by Ethel M. Dell
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917.  1917 bestseller #10. Project Gutenberg Ebook #43069. My grade:B-.

Jack Bolton sits by Maud as he offers her marriage.

Jack offers Maud a marriage of convenience.

The poor gentlewoman is Maud Brian. Maud is 25 and worn out from caring for her 15-year-old brother.

Bunny is physically crippled from a fall in infancy and emotionally crippled by getting his own way ever since.

Maud refused rich Lord Saltash when he was named in an ugly divorce suit, but she remains infatuated with him.

Jake Bolton, a horse trainer for Lord Saltash, offers Maud marriage and Bunny a home.

The likelihood of the marriage succeeding is about 1 in a 100, but when Jake believes in the value of a horse or a human being, he’s willing to bet all on the hundredth chance.

Readers know how the story will end.

The real question is when will it end.

Dell’s characters are not believable enough to warrant close scrutiny.

The pasted on religious message is also suspect.

In the end, The Hundredth Chance fails because it does what 99 percent of novels on this theme do.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

photo of boxing gloves

 

The American setting of The Definite Object allows Jeffery Farnol to diversity his usual cast of minor characters with immigrants, gangsters, slumlords, and professional pugilists.

The variety adds complexity to the novel without noticeably changing Farnol’s usual story line.


The Definite Object: A Romance of New York by Jeffery Farnol
1917 bestseller #9. Project Gutenberg eBook #16074. My grade: C+.

Half-English Geoffrey Ravenslee is “so rich that [his] friends are all acquaintances.”

He wants a wife who wants him more than his money.

When Geoff catches Spike Chesterton breaking into his mansion, he decides not to prosecute if Spike will take him to Hell’s Kitchen to meet his sister, Hermione.

Geoff gets a room in the same tenement as the Chestertons and proceeds to charm everyone except gangster Bud M’Ginnis.

Spike hangs around M’Ginnis hoping to break into fighting. He’s sure he could make a fortune to give Hermione the country home she wants.

Geoff’s courtly behavior wins over women.

Men, except M’Ginnis, are more impressed with his boxing behavior.

As English characters are thrown in with American characters, neither comes off as believable. The large cast allows ample time for the absurdities of the characterizations to punish the never-strong plot.

Farnol gets in some of his delightful wry observations, but they aren’t enough to raise this novel beyond the level of mediocrity.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Quote from Roger Gale: "There's to be nothing startling in this quiet house of mine."

Roger Gale came to New York at 17 from New Hampshire looking for a business he could turn into the American dream.

He made it happen. He also married.


His Family by Ernest Poole
MacMillan, 1917. 1917 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg ebook #14396. My grade A-.

Three daughters and 20 years later, Judith died, leaving Roger “deaf and blind to his children.”

Another 20 years later, Roger is emerging from his emotional deadness. His daughters seem foreign.

When Judith had told him before she died, “You will live on in our children’s lives,” Roger hadn’t believed her.

Slowly he sees that his children take after him, for better and for worse.

Edith is prim, controlling, totally absorbed in her husband and three children.

Deborah mothers 3,000 children. She’s principal of a school in the tenements that’s drawing national notice as a community educational center.

Laura is “a spender and a speeder,” with morals as skimpy as her clothes.

The sisters irritate one another and, in varying degrees, their father.

World War I starts.

Life happens.

So does death.

Ernest Poole’s characters are vivid, complicated, and annoyingly human.

Their life-changing events are pretty ordinary.

Their self-awareness is as dull as most everyone else’s, their influence as modest as most everyone else’s.

That’s why His Family feels real 100 years after its first publication.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

dark landscape of forbidding  rocky hills

The wilderness is a frightening place.

In the Wilderness is an antidote to salacious later twentieth century bestsellers.

But Robert Hichens’ novel is strong stuff that many readers may find hard to swallow.


In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens
1917 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #4603] My grade: A-

Dion Leith is passionately in love with Rosamund Everard, who finds him a nice, clean-living young man. Though trained as a singer, Rosamund feels her vocation is in a religious order, not marriage.

A sermon convinces her to accept Dion’s proposal. They marry, have a son.

Rosamund’s love is all for their son. She scarcely notices when the woman in a notorious divorce case pays attention to Dion.

When the Boer War breaks out, Dion volunteers. In his absence, Rosamund moves to an English cathedral village where her music and religious interests are welcome.

When he returns from South Africa, Dion accidentally shoots his son while the two shooting together at Rosamund’s suggestion.

Rosamund screams, “Murderer,” and locks the cottage door against Dion.

Repudiating the values that locked the door on him, Dion leaves England for non-Western, non-Christian places, for drugs, debauchery, and the Other Woman.

Hichens doesn’t deliver a tidy, happily-ever-after ending.

It’s more of a “we’re going to grow up together” ending, a glimmer of hope that two very dissimilar people can create more happiness than unhappiness for each other.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Alice Cholmondeley’s author’s note to Christine prefaces what Cholmondeley says are letters written to her by her daughter, Christine, who was studying in Germany the summer World War I began.

A note saying the publisher chose to alter names of some individuals reinforces the idea that the letters are true.


Christine by Alice Cholmondeley¹
©1917. 1917 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg eBook #12683. My grade: C .

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to frontlines

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to the front, 1 August 1914.

In fact, Christine is a work not merely of fiction, but fabricated propaganda.

The letters’ details provide the proof.

Christine tells her mother a host of “facts” that a parent would have known without telling: the family is poor, Christine is to be away only one year, that no one else in the family has a talent for violin.

Cholmondeley is very good at detail, which gives the story a sense of “this happened.”

The text is strewn with German terms that monolingual American readers will need to look up.

Cholmondeley goes to great lengths to show the Germans as a nation are cruel, brutal, greedy, power-hungry, that they wanted war because war fit in with their philosophy and ambitions.

The value of Christine for today’s readers is less about its story — which is slender — than about its rhetorical strategy. As a study in persuasion, it’s well worth careful examination.

Techniques that Cholmondeley uses against the Germans might be used today against Muslims or Methodists.


¹Alice Cholmondeley is a pen name of Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, an Australian-born British novelist. By her first marriage she became Gräfin von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and by a second marriage, Countess Russell.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Wildfire is a horse story with people in it.

The setting — Utah wilderness bordering the Colorado River — becomes a part of the action.


Wildfire by Zane Grey
1917 bestseller #5. Project Gutenberg EBook #2066. My grade: C+.

Wildfire getting started high in the mountains.

   Wildfire includes a real wild fire.

If Lucy Bostil loves horses, her father might be said to lust after them. John Bostil wants to own all the fast horses.

In the mountains, Lin Slone is trailing a wild stallion called Wildfire.

At last, Slone gets close enough to lasso the red stallion.

Exercising one of her father’s racehorses, Lucy finds Slone’s mount and Wildfire, both exhausted, and Slone himself badly battered.

The horses and Slone both fall for Lucy.

Lucy and Slone decide to have Lucy ride Wildfire in the big race against her father’s Sage King.

That sets up Lucy to be kidnapped and held for ransom while her kidnappers are pursued by horse thieves.

The fast-paced story is told by an omniscient narrator through an annoying series of “meanwhile back at the ranch” shifts.

There’s little character development: People don’t analyze events or reflect on behavior.

But few novelists can match Zane Grey’s physical descriptions. I found myself holding my breath as Slone and his horse slid and scrambled down and up the Grand Canyon’s walls.

Despite its flaws, Wildfire is breathtaking reading.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni