My picks of the 1907 bestselling novels

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

Half a Rogue mixes romance, politics and bon mots

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

The Doctor: Its plot is as rocky as its setting

ruggest mountains with light dusting of snow
The Doctor is the story of a love quadrangle that ends in a religious tract.

The Boyle family can afford college for only one son. Mrs. Boyle determines Dick will go to become a minister.


The Doctor : A Tale of the Rockies by Ralph Connor¹
1907 bestseller #9. Project Gutenberg ebook 3242. My Grade: C+.

Dick loves Margaret Robertson who loves his older brother, Barney.

Barney sets his heart on becoming a surgeon. He also sets his heart on marrying Iona Lane, who loves him but doesn’t want marriage until after she’s had a successful singing career.

Barney falls out with Dick in the mistaken impression that Dick and and Iona are lovers. Dick tries repeatedly for reconciliation, but Barney refuses.

Dick ends up working as a missionary in the Canadian Rockies where Margaret, now a nurse, is working.

Barney ends up as medical superintendent on the a railroad line being built in the Canadian Rockies.

Ralph Connor plays on readers’ emotions.

A few isolated bits of the story have the verisimilitude of reportage, but the plot is generally absurd.

Under Connor’s pen, all four principal characters get religion and either live happily or die happily.

A week after reading The Doctor, happily, you won’t be able to remember what it was about.


¹Ralph Connor is the pen name of the Rev. Dr. Charles William Gordon, who served first in the Presbyterian and later in the United churches in Canada.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Younger Set: Friends and marriage

The Younger Set is both a romance and a love story.

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The romance is between a divorced man, Capt. Philip Selwyn, 35, and his sister’s ward, Eileen Erroll, 19.

The love story that of Selwyn and his ex-wife, Alixe.


The Younger Set by Robert W. Chambers
G.C. Wilmhurst, illus. D. Appleton, 1907. 1907 bestseller #8. Project Gutenberg ebook #14852. My Grade: B.

Selwyn was on army maneuvers in Manila when Alixe ran off with Jack Ruthven.

Selwyn chose to be legally branded the guilty party rather than contest the divorce, and that dishonor forced him to resign his army commission.

Two years later, Selwyn is back in America, Alixe is married to Ruthven, and she’s also going around with a man whose wife is a friend of hers.

Selwyn has never given Alixe back her photograph, and his sister can’t interest him in other women.

Selwyn becomes friends with Eileen.

Eileen’s brother, Gerald, works for the same real estate firm for which Selwyn worked before the war.

When Gerald gets drawn into high-stakes card games at the Ruthven home, Selwyn plays big brother.

Robert W. Chambers treats even minor characters with respectful nuances. There are no sterotypes in view.

Chambers lends depth to his portraits with backdrops of marriages and romances against which readers can evaluate Sewlyn’s behavior and, perhaps, evaluate their own opinions.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Daughter of Anderson Crow told in illustrations

If you want to know why The Daughter of Anderson Crow was a bestseller, look at B. Martin Justice’s illustrations.

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If you want to know what’s wrong with the novel, look at Justice’s illustrations.


The Daughter of Anderson Crow by George Barr McCutcheon
B. Martin Justice, illus. Dodd, Mead 1907. 1907 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #14818. My Grade: B-.

George Barr McCutcheon’s starts out writing a funny novel about Anderson Crow, Tinkletown marshal, fire chief, and street commissioner who is just smart enough to not let Tinkletown see how dumb he is.

That first part of the novel is illustrated with cartoonish line drawings as funny as McCutcheon’s text.

The second part of the story is about Rosalie Gray, who the Crows raised like a daughter after finding her in a basket on their doorstep one winter night.

Her parentage was a mystery that even self-proclaimed super-sleuth Anderson Crow couldn’t solve.

A note in the basket said the Crows would receive $1000 a year to raise the child.

No one around Tinkletown had that kind of money.

The illustrations for Rosalie’s life as a young woman are lush scenes, suited to the Gothic romance style McCutcheon adopts whenever he focuses on her.

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Eventually McCutcheon gets Rosalie suitably married, and turns his attention back to Anderson Crow long enough to give readers one final laugh before the novel ends.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Satan Sanderson a patchwork of implausibilities

Called to witness a dying man’s will, the Reverend Henry Sanderson learns college friend Hugh Stires, is being disinherited as a wastrel.

Sanderson intercedes on Hugh’s behalf. He confesses his college nickname was “Satan” and that it was he who led Hugh to drink and gamble.


Satan Sanderson by Hallie Erminie Rives (Mrs. Post Wheeler)
A. B. Wenzell, Illus. 1907 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg ebook #39689. My Grade: B-.

As he pleads for Hugh, however, Sanderson tries to recall something—anything—to suggest Hugh is capable of reversing his downward spiral.

There is none. Hugh is “a moral mollusk.”

An elderly man and blind young woman in Victorian dress sit in drawing room.
Mr. Stires with his ward, Jessica.

David Stires says he wishes the resemblance between his son and Sanderson extended to more than physical appearance.

He agrees to think again before he signs his will leaving his fortune to his beautiful, blind ward, Jessica Holme.

The reprobate son reappears ready to be good long enough to woo and wed Jessica, thereby insuring he gets his father’s money one way or the other.

Sanderson realizes he not only started Hugh downhill, but aided his masquerade as reformed character.

From that set up, Hallie Erminie Rives could have aimed the plot in any of several directions.

She chose to take them all.

The novel is a patchwork plot of implausibilities performed by manikins.

Rives did give Sanderson a nice dog; he, at least, stayed in character.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Brass Bowl: A mystery for the least discerning reader

Millionnaire Daniel Maitland comes home as a young woman leaves his Manhattan apartment building whose other occupants are away.  Maitland senses someone has been in his rooms.

Nothing is missing, but there’s a small, woman-sized hand print on a table. Maitland sets a brass bowl upside down over it.

miscellanous brass bowls.
Any of these brass bowls would do to protect a woman’s hand print.

The Brass Bowl by Louis Joseph Vance
1907 bestseller #5. Project Gutenberg ebook #8741. My grade: B-.

Warned by his lawyer the family jewels kept at his country home could tempt burglar Dan Anisty, Maitland goes to retrieve them.

On the ferry, he sees the same woman he saw leaving his building earlier and falls madly in love.

She’s on her way to steal Maitland’s jewels.

So is Dan Ainsty.

By coincidence, Ainsty and Maitland look like identical twins.

Who is the woman?

How does Ainsty know which houses are unguarded?

Could a beautiful woman possibly be a bad one?

It’s all very mysterious and very confusing, especially to Maitland, whose mental processes are, at best, lethargic.

Like the plot, the main characters are too familiar to be interesting.

The Brass Bowl might have worked as a movie — it has chase scenes and gunfights plus a janitor and a detective straight out of silent films — but there’s not enough substance to satisfy any but the least discerning readers.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In The Port of Missing Mentwo cultures clash

At the birth of the twentieth century, Americans were obsessed with European royalty, their own recently ended Civil War, and their rising status among nations.

In The Port of Missing Men, Meredith Nicholson takes all three obsessions and weaves them into thriller that can still keep today’s readers’ full attention.

Emperor Franz Joseph looks frail in this 1901 photograph of him at a bridge dedication.
Aging Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I dedicates a bridge in 1901

The Port of Missing Men by Meredith Nicholson
1907 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook#13913. My grade: B.

Spies sent by the Austrian Prime Minister failed to recover an important document that can determine who will succeed the present ailing monarch.

Count von Stroebel meets in Geneva in March, 1903 with a young man calling himself John Armitage. Armitage owns a ranch in Wyoming but could easily make people believe he is the legitimate heir to the Austrian throne.

Von Stroebel shows Armitage a photograph of the thief, a man known to Armitage as Jules Chauvenet.

Armitage and Chauvenet are both pursuing Shirley Claiborne, the pretty daughter of an American ambassador.

Before they part, von Stroebel tells Armitage, “Do something for Austria.”

The novel has no more character development than necessary for a thriller: Nicholson puts all his energy into the complicated plot.

Needless to say, the story ends with criminals brought to justice and love triumphant.

The plot and characters are readily forgettable.

The tidbits of European and American cultural history Nicholson includes will stick.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Weavers an unromantic tangle of plot threads

The Weavers is a romance, but it’s mostly about David Claridge.

David leaves his English village around 1850 for Egypt, where his good looks, Quaker habits, and scrupulous honesty are novelties.


The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
1907 bestseller #2, 1908 bestseller #10. Project Gutenberg ebook #6267. My grade: C+.

Book illustration, statuary, and photograph of Spinx and pyramids
Artifacts of travels to Egypt in 19th and 20th centuries.

Prince Kaid asks David to be his right-hand man to bring European-style prosperity to Egypt.

Within five years David is “a young Joseph” to the pharaoh and the darling of the British public.

David’s favored status is resented by Egyptians who prefer the old ways of bachshesh, bribery, and brutality.

Defending an English girl from an Egyptian, David kills him with a single punch. The dead man’s brother covers up the murder, planning to use it later to make himself ruler of Egypt.

The girl goes back to England and marries a rising young politician who takes a dim view of David’s uncredentialed foreign activities.

The Weavers is chock-a-block with plots and characters, but Gilbert Parker doesn’t make any one of them believable. David himself is hardly more than a coloring book outline.

Today, The Weavers is useful primarily as a reminder of how long England has been involved in Middle Eastern affairs.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni