Irving Bacheller had two novels among the top 10 bestsellers for 1901. Like Eben Holden, which was published in 1900, Bacheller’s 1901 novel D’ri and I draws on his knowledge of New York’s North County.
Ramon Bell’s father, who fought in the war for independence from Britain, teaches his son swordsmanship and national pride. When the second war against the British errupts in 1812, Ray and the Bell’s hired hand, Darius “D’ri” Olin, eagerly sign up. Before long, General Brown is trusting his most difficult assignments to the pair.
Ray and D’ri have more adventures during the short war than most people have in a lifetime. The action stops only long enough for Ray to fall in love with two French girls whose father has sent them to America to keep them from meeting undesirable young men in Paris.
Using Ray as narrator means Bacheller’s plot contains lumps of history, romance, and adventure with very little in the way of character development to bind them together. D’ri and Ray are no more lifelike than paper dolls. Bacheller’s attempts to render D’ri’s dialect in print makes him seem particularly remote.
Bits of D’ri and I are vividly written and quite exciting. On the whole, however, the book is ho-hum reading for the 21st century novel lover.
George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark begins as a mystery, but quickly turns into a romance before accelerating into a thriller climaxed by a story-book ending.
On an east-bound train from Denver, Grenfall Lorry meets the lovely Miss Guggenslocker heading back to the Graustark capital, Edelweiss, accompanied by her aunt and uncle.
With help from the Paris postal service, Lorry and his Harvard pal Harry Anguish set out to find Lorry’s dream girl. When they find her, she turns out to be the princess of Graustark, and Graustark is in the throes of a financial crisis.
Lorry and Anguish overhear a plot to kidnap the princess. In true American hero fashion, they rush in to save the day, thereby creating a real muddle. Every time Lorry opens his mouth, the muddles gets messier.
Graustark is the literary equivalent of a Strauss waltz, full of sound and movement, engrossing but not distinctly memorable.
McCutcheon provides enough castle dungeons and moonless mountain chases to satisfy the most devoted fans of gothic fiction. He’s less strong when it comes to developing character.
His Princess Yetive is a heroine worthy of the terms—smart, courageous, wise beyond her years—but she has all those characteristics from the first chapter. Between them, Lorry and Anguish manage to fill the hero role. Aside from falling in love, the men are basically unchanged by their experiences.
Like the characters, readers will be wrapped up in the events of the novel, but remain unchanged by anything they read in its pages.
Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne
By George Barr McCutcheon
1901 Bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg e-book #5142
Photograph “Castle in the Night” by Adiju
The Life and Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay is a fictionalized biography of the man known to most readers as Richard the Lionhearted, leader of the Crusades.
Maurice Hewlet’s narrator tells readers in the first chapter that Richard had two natures, one deeply spiritual and the other beastly cruel. The novel elaborates on that theme.
Richard Count of Poictou is one of two living sons of King Henry of England. Richard loves Jehane Saint-Pol but his father wants him to marry to further the Angevin family’s political future. Richard agrees, then backs out on suspicion that his father is dallying with his intended bride.
Brilliant as a military strategist and battlefield leader, Richard treats his allies with less respect than he accords his soldiers. Before long, Richard has offended most of the European nobility. When he succeeds to the throne, his allies are all his enemies.
But for Jehane, Richard would have died even earlier than he did at the hands of enemies in the camp of his allies.
Hewlet’s narrator is a 12th century contemporary of Richard’s. That pose adds verisimilitude to the tale, but it makes for hard reading: familiar words are used with unfamiliar meanings, unfamiliar words pepper the prose, and critical passages are in French.
What interest there is in the novel is in the historical details, such as the fact that Richard of England didn’t even speak English. On the whole, contemporary readers are not likely to find much in this novel to capture their interest.
After a slow opening, Harold MacGrath’s The Puppet Crown turns a geeky sovereign bond situation into a complex tale of political intrigue.
King Leopold of Osia, cousin of the late king, came to throne because a confederation disposed the king’s brother, Josef, and “placed him on [a] puppet throne, surrounded by enemies, menaced by his adopted people, rudderless and ignorant of statecraft. ”
The Diet authorizes Leopold to borrow for public projects; a departing British diplomat purchases the bonds.
When the loan is due 10 years later, in order to effectively foreclose on government of Osia shadowy political power brokers attempt to prevent the loan from being paid or extended.
The main character is Maurice Carewe, an American journalist turned diplomat. He arrives as Osia is preparing for the wedding of Princess Alexia to the crown prince of Carnavia. The prince will pay off the bonds as the bride’s dowry if the bond holder, Baronet Fitzgerald, does not extend the loan period. The prince, however, has disappeared. Maurice unwittingly identifies Fitzgerald, who is using an assumed name. Thus begin cloak-and-dagger, dark-of night adventures with skilled swordsmen and uncloaked, dark-of-night adventures with deceitful damsels.
The Puppet Crown ends in a shockingly unexpected manner: realistically, not novelistically.
The valiant hero does not get the princess.
The cruel, scheming duchess does not get her comeuppance.
And there’s no happily-ever-after with the Austrian Empire on the rise.
The Visits of Elizabeth by Elinor Glyn consists of a series of letters written by a 17-year-old girl to her invalid mother while visiting relatives who are obliged by family ties to see that Elizabeth meets eligible men.
Elizabeth is a pretty, vivacious, and principled debutant. Her keen powers of observation and highly developed sense of the ridiculous get plenty of exercise among her aristocratic relatives and their not-so-aristocratic hangers-on. Elizabeth regularly misunderstands the significance of what relates. Readers less innocent than Elizabeth will see what she doesn’t.
Elizabeth’s relatives and their cronies may not rate high on morals, but the family knows too well the importance of unblemished reputation if a girl is to make a good match for them to let the girl’s naïveté to get her into serious trouble.
The Visits of Elizabeth bubbles with fun and laugh-out-loud lines for those who know French and enough about 19th century European society to grasp the allusions Elizabeth misses. Many contemporary readers, however, will miss a great deal of the plot and the most of the pleasure of this novel.
In New York’s bitterly cold, bleak North Country where calamity lies behind every cloud, people need enormous reservoirs of strength and courage just to survive.
Though only a hired farm hand and no relation, Eben Holden carries 6-year-old Willie in a basket on his back from Vermont to New York, where “Uncle Eb” finds work on the Brower farm after the boy’s parents drown.
Elizabeth and David Brower grow to regard Willie as their lost son. To Hope Brower he’s closer than a brother.
Willie grows up, goes to college. Hope grows up, becomes a professional singer. Uncle Eb is always around to help with practical advice and carefully saved cash. He brings Willie and Hope together, restores their long-lost “son” to the Browers.
Although the plot line sounds romantic, Eben Holden: A Tale of the North Countryis not. There’s no romantic sentimentality in Irving Bacheller’s plot or his people.
Willie endures the North Country, but doesn’t enjoy it. By contrast, Almanzo Wilder in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story of the North County, Farmer Boy, bubbles with zest for pitting himself against nature’s challenges.
Eben Holden is heroic because he does what needs to be done, even when life is hard.
Gilbert Parker’s The Right of Way is the story of man devoid of human emotion and human intimacy.
The novel opens with a man being acquitted of murder in Montreal thanks to the brilliant summation Charley “Beauty” Steele delivers while “quietly, unnoticeably drunk.”
That night Charley proposes to Kathleen Wantage.
After five years of marriage, Kathleen tells Charley she despises him for ruining her brother, the local minister, and her life. Charley goes off to a dive where the locals beat him up. One man would have fought for Charley, but Charley spurns him with the question, “Have I ever been introduced to you?”
To that point, the novel is absolutely electrifying. But when Charley is fished out of the river by the acquitted murderer to begin a new life in the Canadian forest, the story becomes increasingly implausible with every page.
Parker doesn’t help by trying to shift attention from Charley’s personality to Charley’s lack of religious faith. By comparison to the electrifying picture of Charley the drunkard Montreal lawyer, Charley the agnostic tailor is a bore.
Parker gets his power back in the deathbed scene:
“I beg—your—pardon,” [Charley] whispered to the imagined figure, and the light died out of his eyes, “have I—ever—been—introduced—to you?”
Unfortunately, by that time eventually clichés and coincidences have sucked the oxygen from the plot. If Parker had only written a shorter novel, as his foreword says he originally intended, he might have produced a great piece of literature.
Bertha Runkle’s Helmet of Navarre is a thriller set in 16th century France with a new intrigue at every turn of the page and a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.
France is in turmoil after the murder of Henry III. Huguenots under Henry of Navarre battle the Catholic League led by the Duc Mayenne. After three years’ deliberation, the Duc of St. Quentin has decided to throw his weight behind Navarre, although his son Etienne is in love with the Lorance, ward of the head of the Catholic party.
When St. Quentin openly goes to Paris, which is controlled by the Catholic League, his page, Felix Broux, follows him to the city. His first night, Felix sees three men in a supposedly unoccupied haunted house. He gets in through an unlocked window and drops into a plot to have Etienne kill St. Quentin.
Runkle pulls out every cliché to keep the story going: mistaken identity, secret tunnels, stolen ciphers, and the obligatory disguised hero visiting his girlfriend in the enemy camp.
Runkle’s fast pace keeps readers from noticing the string of coincidences substituting for a plot is too thin to support scrutiny or that the characters are no more substantial than the plot. If readers notice how weak the novel is, that realization won’t come until after they’ve enjoyed swashbuckling entertainment.
Maurice Thompson got the idea for Alice of Old Vincennes from a scrap of a letter by Gaspard Roussillon dated 1788. The letter aroused Thompson’s curiosity. His research stirred his imagination to plug gaps in the historical record.
Roussillon, a wealthy and influential French trader, has adopted the lovely orphaned Protestant child, Alice Tarleton, and is bringing her up as his daughter.
When the colonies declare war on the Crown, the French at Vincennes side with the colonies against the British and their Indian allies.
Colonel George Rogers Clark sends the rough Lt. Helm and the suave Lieutenant Fitzhugh Beverley to take charge of the miliary post at Vincennes.
The British under Hamilton take the fort, but they don’t get the American flag: Alice takes it down and has it hidden. Hamilton determines to break “the frogs” of Vincennes.
Beverley escapes and heads for Clark’s encampment, surviving torture by Indians and torture by the elements of nature. Clark, though outnumbered, outsmarts Hamilton and retakes Vincennes.
Alice and Beverley marry and go to live with their kin in Virginia.
The facts Thompson unearthed were sufficiently romantic that little embroidery was necessary to create a plot. Unfortunately, the historical facts appear totally implausible when presented in novel form.
Literature demands plausibility that life does not produce.
Winston Churchill sets The Crisis amid the crinolines and cavalry officers of nineteenth century St. Louis.
Stephen Bliss and his mother are Bostonian aristocrats who lost their fortunes. They move to St. Louis where Stephen is to study law with the eccentric Judge Whipple, a friend of his father.
Stephen is barely off the boat when on impulse he buys a slave to free and return to her mother. The deed charms the judge, a vehement abolitionist, and infuriates Virginia Carvel, who had hoped to acquire the girl as her servant.
Since Virginia’s father and Judge Whipple are best friends, Colonel Carvel soon meets Stephen., whom he likes.
Another New Englander, Eliphalet Hopper, is already working in the Carvel’s business where his thrift, shrewdness, and lack of scruples bode ill for his employer.
The tale is the usual romantic nonsense about a Southern belle captivated against her will by a horrible Yankee who turns out not to be horrible.
Churchill brings some historical figures into the story, but his focus is the cliché-ridden love story. It’s a shame, really. The book is chock-full of minor characters who deserve to star in novels of their own.