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Poem from frontpiece to The Red Planet superimposed on NASA photo of Mars

Poem from the front piece to The Red Planet

The Red Planet is a memoir narrated by Duncan Meredyth, a widowed Boer War veteran living in a small English country village in 1914. Duncan is cared for my his ex-sergeant who was disfigured in the same shell blast that took Duncan’s legs.


The Red Planet by William J. Locke
1917 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg eBook #4287. My grade: A-.

As friend to his peers and “Uncle” to local young people, Duncan gets to know nearly every thing that happens in Willingsford.

As the story opens, Duncan’s neighbors, the Fenimores, learn their son has been killed in France.

Less than a year earlier their daughter had drowned.

No one had asked aloud why Althea was on the tow-path at midnight.

While Fenimores mourn, Duncan learns Betty Fairfax, who had been engaged to the heroic Major Leonard Boyce, is going to marry Capt. Willie Connor, whom Duncan thinks a nonentity.

Duncan is also surprised to see upper-crust Randall Holmes with his arm around Phyllis Gedge, daughter of a socialist builder.

As Duncan hears village gossip, observes who is with whom, and puts two and two together, William J. Locke develops and redevelops the novel’s characters.

By turns funny, morose, sympathetic, and dogmatic, Duncan always seems like a real person whose opinions on patriotism, heroism, and human nature need to be taken seriously.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Light in the Clearing begins with its narrator saying, “Once upon a time I owned a watermelon.”

From that magical opening, Barton Baynes escorts readers through his Adirondacks childhood.


The Light in the Clearing: A Tale of the North County in the Time of Silas Wright
by Irving Bacheller.  Grosset & Dunlap, 1917. Illus. with scenes from the photoplay.
414 pp. 1917 bestseller #2. Project Gutenberg ebook #14150. My grade: B+.

Orphaned at 4, the lad is brought up by his Aunt Deel and Uncle Peabody, a poor, hardworking brother and sister.

A bright, polite child, Bart attracts the attention of Silas Wright Jr., then New York’s comptroller, later to be a U.S. senator.

Wright helps Bart get an education and enter law practice.

By himself, Bart attracts pretty Sally Dunkelberger. The two plan to marry when both are 21.

Scene from photoplay version of The Light in The Clearing

In Light, Irving Bacheller combines the best features of the juvenile novel, historical fiction, romance, and coming of age novels—and does them all well.

The chapters in which Bart tells of his childhood convey the sense of a child’s view point, much in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoirs. As he tells of his teens, you can feel the tug between Bart’s inbred values and his acquired desires.

Bacheller weaves all-but-forgotten tidbits of history into the novel, such as the New York State’s rent wars and Silas Wright’s refusal to be nominated for vice president in 1844. None of it seems pasted on or extraneous.

Whatever your tastes in novels, you’ll find something to like in this far-from-ordinary 1917 bestseller.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Some of the early twentieth century’s most popular novelists are represented on the  bestseller list for 1917, but few of them are known to today’s readers.  I dare say Zane Grey is the only author on the list who still has a fan club.

I hope my reviews will whet readers’ appetites for reading some of these novels published 100 years ago.

As always, if I’ve previously reviewed a novel, the link goes to the review. Otherwise, the link is to the free, downloadable digital version of the novel at Project Gutenberg.Project Gutenberg

  1. Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells [Also  1916]
  2. The Light in the Clearing by Irving Bacheller [Feb. 21, 2017]
  3. The Red Planet by William J. Locke  [ Feb. 25, 2017]
  4. The Road to Understanding by Eleanor H. Porter [Feb. 28, 2017]
  5. Wildfire by Zane Grey [Mar. 4, 2017]
  6. Christine by Alice Cholmondeley [Mar. 7, 2017]
  7. In the Wilderness by Robert S. Hichens  [Mar. 11, 2017]
  8. His Family by Ernest Poole  [Mar. 14, 2017]
  9. The Definite Object by Jeffrey Farnol [Mar. 18, 2018]
  10. The Hundredth Chance by Ethel M. Dell [Mar. 21, 2017]

Reader poll [Mar. 25, 2017]

My favorites of 1917 [Mar. 28, 2017]

Starting in April, we’ll move on to the bestselling novels of 1927.

Sign on tree: Eat, Drink, and Be Married

Happy Valentine’s Day.

I was tempted to label this post “for mature audiences.”

I don’t mean that it will be salacious or even titillating, far from it: This is a post about three married women in bestselling vintage novels whose grand passions are just memories.

Each woman’s story is told from her perspective. The novelists leave readers to determine how much to trust the woman’s judgment.

Since their glorious passion, occasionally recalled while hanging diapers to dry or when the in-laws’ all-too-familiar monologues beg the mind to wander, each of the women wonders if she might not be better off without her husband.

The reasons for their not walking out on their husbands are too complicated for immature readers to comprehend.

Again, happy Valentine’s Day.  I hope you find a novel you’re passionate about.

The Brimming Cup

teaser for The Brimming Cup on closeup of piano keys

The Brimming Cup is a 1921 novel by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher].  Its leading lady is a talented pianist, Marise Crittenden, who, as the novel opens, has just seen her youngest child off to his first year of boarding school.

Marise and her husband, Neale,  had pledged their love on the on the Rocca di Papa in 1909.  By most standards, they’ve had a good marriage.

But as she muses about life with Neale without the children in a tiny New England town far from Italy, Marise thinks, “This is the beginning of the end.”

Marise fears she and Neale will have nothing in common once their children are grown.

Just how far Marise and Neale are already mentally separated is revealed when she overhears a comment that suggests Neale has done something underhanded and she believes it: Marise would never have believed Neale capable of dishonesty back in their time in Italy.

When a retired office manager moves in next door, accompanied by the young son of his late employer, Neale is away on business. To be neighborly, Marise introduces the two men around the community.

The sexy, sophisticated younger man attempts to seduce Marise. She is, naturally, flattered by his attentions, as would any woman whose baby is about to become a teenager.

The novel is intricately crafted and the story rendered with watercolor nuances.

Canfield allows readers to look over Marise’s shoulder and into her mind as she works out whether to leave Neale and a childless house for Vincent and a career.

Years of Grace

teaser for The Years of Grace beside 1912 sculpure

Nine years after The Brimming Cup was published, Margaret Ayers Barnes published her Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller Years of Grace.

Barnes’s leading lady was born Jane Ward in 1877. She was as plain and respectable and solidly middle class as her name sounds. “The unexpected was never allowed to happen to her.”

As a teenager, Jane thought if the unexpected ever did happen, she’d embrace it with joy. But although the unexpected happens to her several times, Jane never embraces it with joy.

Jane’s respectable parents disapprove of her friendship with André Duroy, a French boy whose parents live in an apartment. When André proposes,  Jane’s parents refuse permission for her to marry  or for the couple to even exchange letters until Jane is 21.

Andre goes to Paris to study sculpture for those four years.

As a consolation prize, Jane’s parents do let her go East to college at Bryn Mawr, where she spends two happy years, studying what interests her and ignoring what doesn’t, and feeling “very trivial and purposeless.”

She didn’t really worry a bit as to whether or no she ever voted and she didn’t want to work for her living and, really, she only cared about pleasing André and growing up into the kind of a girl he’d like to be with and talk to and marry.

When Jane’s older sister marries, her parents summon Jane home. Jane’s mother insists she make her debut and enter the husband competition. Although she’s not after a husband—she’s betrothed to André—Jane enjoys being a debutante.

Andre doesn’t come for her twenty-first birthday. He writes that he’s been awarded the Prix de Rome, which means three years’ study in Italy.

Smarting over Andre’s rejection, Jane agrees to marry Stephen Carver, a safe, respectable banker, whom she likes but does not love.

Fifteen years and three children later, Jane at 36 wonders if she and Stephen had ever had romance.

Wasn’t it Stephen’s most endearing quality — or was it his most irritating? —that for ten years or more Stephen had never really thought about how she looked at all? To Stephen, Jane looked like Jane. That was enough for him.

Jane at 50 realizes with a slight pang of regret that she’s always gone in for “durable satisfactions.”

Life might have been very different had Jane been different.

A Lion Is in the Streets

Lion on prowl. How does his mate cope at home?

Adria Locke Langley’s 1945 novel A Lion Is in the Streets starts at the end of Verity and Hank Martin’s marriage.

Hank has been assassinated, and, as always, Verity has been left to cope on her own.

Verity was a Yankee schoolteacher when she fell for a sexy Southern peddler with dreams of becoming governor.

Verity stays home in a sharecropper cottage, making do and ignoring the rumors of Hank’s philandering that drift back from his frequent trips across the state building a political machine to take him to the statehouse.

Verity has known for almost as long as she’s known Hank that his sex drive threatened their marriage.

She gradually comes to realize his political ambition is an even greater threat.

The 1953 film version captures the events of the novel, but misses the real story, which is revealed by innuendo.

The novel takes its title from Proverbs 26:13 where the sluggard uses “a lion is in the streets” as an excuse for not going to work. The allusion is typically interpreted in political terms:  The lion is the political machine; the sluggard is the lazy public that lets it do what it wants.

The Martins remind me of Hillary and Bill Clinton: a cerebral woman with great potential whose friends regard her sexy husband as totally beneath her.

Perhaps that’s why I think a case can be made for a different interpretation of the allusion: that Langley intended readers to see Hank as a political lion and Verity as a moral sluggard who, by failing to exert the power she has, enables him.

Where to find the novels

The Brimming Cup can be found as a digital download at Project Gutenberg. If you’d rather have a 1921 hardback copy or a reprint in paperback, check Alibris.com, where independent booksellers display their wares.

Years of Grace is not yet in the public domain, so it’s not available digitally at Project Gutenberg. Copies of a 1976 reprint of the novel and a lovely 2007 reprint, which I own, can be found at Alibris.com

A Lion Is in the Streets also is not yet in the public domain. This past weekend Alibris.com had 69 copies of the novel for sale.

Final thoughts

It would be fascinating to read companion novels told from the husband’s perspective.

Anyone want to take on the challenge of writing one for NaNoWriMo 2017?

 

I’m afraid 1907 wasn’t a great year for bestselling novels. They were lightweights, one and all.

The Lady of the Decoration

The best of the lot is Frances Little’s The Lady of the Decoration, a sunny epistolary novel purporting to be written by Southern widow working as a nursery school teacher at a mission school in Japan.

Her husband’s untimely death had left her practically penniless. The teaching job offered not only a salary, but also an escape from reminders of of her unhappy marriage.

The Lady finds she has a natural aptitude for organizing and a gift for teaching. She adores and is adored by her students.  Before long, the adults of Hiroshima are enthralled by her as well.

Although the lady is often lonely and unhappy far from home, her natural good humor and her fascination with Japan and its people keep her from giving in to unhappiness.

The story is gentle and sweet and funny, just serious enough to avoid sentimentalism but not so serious as to sound preachy. It’s not a great book, but it’s a good one.

The Daughter of Anderson Crow

The only other 1907 novel that still is likely to attract a twenty-first century reader is The Daughter of Anderson Crow by George Barr McCutcheon.

It’s the story of a baby left on the doorstep.

The doorstep belongs to Anderson Crow, the Tinkletown marshal and holder of various other town offices which Anderson Crow and most of the town residents think only Anderson Crow has the mental capacity to fill.

In fact, Anderson Crow’s brainpower falls far short of brilliance and a stone’s throw short of common sense: He’s a pompous rube among groveling rubes.

McCutcheon’s plot is tangled and implausible. He can’t seem to make up his mind what his authorial perspective on his characters should be.

However, McCutcheon’s humor glosses over the novel’s flaws and makes the novel’s silliness seem a virtue.

The Younger Set

My third choice is The Younger Set by Robert W. Chambers, which by comparison to Lady and Anderson Crow feels like an academic treatise.

Chambers focuses on Capt. Philip Selwyn who had been planning on an army career until his wife ran off with another man. Selwyn “did the decent thing” and  allowed himself to be branded the guilty party to the divorce, which ruined her career.

It does not, however, stop him loving his wife or feeling unable to consider marriage to another woman while his wife lives.

The Younger Set is remembered today—if it is remembered at all—as the source of the quotation, “He shaves the dead line like a safety razor, but he’s never yet cut through it.”

Chambers’ contemporaries noted the book for another passage, which Vera Brittian refers to in her nonfiction memoir Testament of Youth:

I should like to know…something about everything. That being out of the question, I should like to know everything about something. That also being out of the question, for third choice I should like to know something about something. I am not too ambitious, am I?

Neither of my two top picks is a great novel or a particularly memorable novel, but each one will provide entertainment without over-exerting a reader’s mental faculties.

The Younger Set is a better novel than the other two, but most of today’s readers will be baffled or amused by Selwin’s reaction to his unfaithful wife. They’ll probably be content with no more than the few lines I quoted.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Select up to three of the best—or your favorites—of 1907’s bestselling novels.

I’ll share my picks the next time we meet.

Harold MacGrath has the happy facility of producing novels that are better than they have any right to be.

In Half a Rogue, he does unexpected things with a predictable plot while keeping up a steady stream of commentary that makes a reader feel like MacGrath’s chosen confidant.

Times Square 190The New York Times building towering over nearby 4-story buildings as horse-drawn carraiges plod the street.s

                                              Times Square, 1905


Half a Rogue by Harold MacGrath
1907 bestseller # 10. Project Gutenberg ebook #4790. My grade: B.

Richard Warrington, a playwright newly come to fame, becomes close friends with Kate Challone, a young actress who stars in his plays.

When Kate announces she’s to marry Jack Bennington, a man in Dick’s hometown with whom he roomed in college, Dick is delighted.

With Kate leaving the city for Herculaneum, Dick decides he’ll move back home.

Herculaneum society is not happy its biggest employer has married an actress.

It’s also not happy that Jack’s younger sister prefers Dick to the local boys.

And, when Dick is tapped to run for mayor, the corrupt local political machine is not happy.

A private eye is sent to New York to dig up dirt on Dick.

Half a Rogue is a most unromantic romance.

Harold MacGrath has given a true story about fictional people in an imaginary town.

The story ends not with a “happily ever after,” but with a sigh and a terse, “Could have been worse.”

As, indeed, every life might have been.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni