Molly Make-Believe Sunk by Realism

Molly Make-Believe has a clever plot device and two witty lead characters that a better writer than Eleanor Hallowell Abbott might have developed into a marvelous novel instead of a merely pleasant diversion.

fountain pen and ink
Cornelia won’t pick up a pen to write to Carl

Carl Stanton, 32, a rubber broker suffering from rheumatism, is confined to his bed one Boston winter. His finacee, Cornelia, “big and bland and blonde and beautiful,” has gone to Florida with her mother.

Carl realizes Cornelia is stingy with affection when she refuses to write to him even weekly when she’s away.

Cornelia gives Carl an ad for The Serial-Letter Company, which advertises “Real Letters for Imaginary Persons.” Carl orders a six-week ‘edition de luxe’ subscription to love-letter serials, which he plans to paste into a scrap book to give Cornelia as a textbook for the “newly engaged girl.”

When the handwritten, clever, and utterly charming letters begin arriving from “Molly Make-Believe,” accompanied by appropriate gifts, Carl is entranced.

Up to that point, the novel is wonderful.

When Carl decides to find Molly, things fall apart.

The plot calls for detective work, and all Carl can do from his bed is hire a detective.

That’s not romantic enough for a romance novel, not even one whose hero is a rubber broker with rheumatism.

Molly Make-Believe
Eleanor Hallowell Abbott
Illus. Walter Tittle
1910 bestseller #9;  1911 bestseller #8
208 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #18665

Photo Credit: “write if you want 2” by danjaeger

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My favorites of 1911 bestselling novels

My favorite of the 1911 bestsellers is Queed by Henry Syndor Harrison.  I don’t know any novel with such an emotionally inept leading man that manages to be so endearing. Harrison makes Queed believable by not letting him totally overcome his emotional tone-deafness.

The Broad Highway by Jeffery Farnol is a sunny, romatic tale with a lightweight hero and lightweight plot. It’s a charming diversion for an summer afternoon in a hammock or a winter evening with tea and scones by the fire.

The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright is not particularly interesting as a romance, but it’s fascinating in its description of geology of the West. The clash between local Imperial Valley interests and eastern financial interests is an “Occupy Wall Street” event, circa 1911.

I’m tempted to add The Prodigal Judge by Vaughan Kester to my list. It isn’t a particularly good novel, but Kester makes an absurd a plot and ridiculous characters come together in a tale that shows the best in people you wouldn’t have thought had a best side.

Don’t forget you can express your opinions in the reader poll.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dullness in defense of marriage: The Common Law

The Common Law is treatise in defense of marriage masquerading as a romance novel. Robert W. Chambers intertwines the two themes  but never succeeds in blending them.

Artist Louis “Kelly” Neville, a facile and prolific artist, is at work when Valerie West knocks at his door seeking modeling work. Neville hires her, finding her intellect, youth, and enthusiasm for life as enchanting as her form.

Valerie adores Neville, but enjoys the company of other creative people of her age as well. The artists all want to sleep with the lovely lass, but she’s giving nothing away.

Neville proposes marriage, but Valerie won’t have it. She thinks, rightly, Neville’s social set would snub him if he married a model. She offers to become his mistress instead. Neville won’t have that.

The characterizations don’t work, the implausible plot plods, and the philosophical discourse is depressing.

All the while they are bickering over whether they will or won’t marry, Valerie confines her caresses to the cat and Neville gives his kisses to his mother. I’ve seen more passionate displays by people selecting mangoes in the grocery produce department.

Finally Chambers resorts to drastic action in the form of two attempted rapes to wrap things up so his characters can live happily ever after and readers can find something more interesting to read.

The Common Law
by Robert W. Chambers
Illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson
D. Appleton, 1911
Project Gutenberg e-book #13813
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Rosary Is Jane Eyre Made Worse

Florence L. Barclay’s 1911 bestseller, The Rosary,  is Jane Eyre with a twist.

The Honorable Jane Champion, age 30, “a perfectly beautiful woman in an absolutely plain shell,” is chum, confidant, and adviser to the unmarried young men of her social set.

When she volunteers to fill in for a noted singer with laryngitis at an informal concert at the home of her aunt, the Duchess of Meldrum, Jane’s rendition of “The Rosary” convinces painter Garth Dalmain she is his soul mate.

Jane turns down Dal’s proposal, believing a lover of beauty couldn’t stand to see her plain face every day at breakfast. She doesn’t know that a plain woman, loved, is beautiful to the man who loves her.

When  Dal  is blinded in a freak accident, Jane comes home to nurse him. To keep him from thinking she’s come out of pity, she uses an assumed name and tells Dal people have remarked on how similar her voice is to that of Jane Champion.

Barclay’s plot is very romantic and totally preposterous. Fortunately there are some delightfully unromantic and down-to-earth characters (like Dal’s GP,  the Duchess, and a tucan named Tommy) who rescue the story every time it threatens to drown in a sea of saccharine.

The Rosary
by Florence L. Barclay
1911 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg EBook #3659
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Molly Make Believe Lacks Substance Where It’s Needed

Carl reads a letter in bed
Carl Reads Molly’s letter

Molly Make-Believe has a clever plot device and two witty lead characters.  A better writer than Eleanor Hallowell Abbott might have developed them into a marvelous novel instead of  just an amusing bit of fluff.

Carl Stanton, 32, a rubber broker, is confined to his bed one Boston winter with rheumatism. His fiancée, Cornelia, who is “big and bland and blonde and beautiful,” has gone to Florida with her mother.

Carl realizes Cornelia is stingy with affection when she refuses to write to him even weekly when she’s away.  Instead she gives him an ad for The Serial-Letter Company, which advertises “Real Letters for Imaginary Persons.”

Carl orders a six-week  ‘edition de luxe’ subscription to love-letter serials, which he plans to paste into a scrap-book to give Cornelia as a textbook for the “newly engaged girl.”

When the handwritten, clever, and utterly charming letters begin arriving from “Molly Make-Believe” accompanied by appropriate gifts, Carl is entranced.

Up to that point, the novel is wonderful.

When Carl decides to find Molly, things fall apart.

The plot calls for detective work, and Abbott simply has Carl hire a detective. That’s not a sufficiently challenging task for the hero of a  romance novel, not even one who is a rubber broker with rheumatism.

Molly Make-Believe
Eleanor Hallowell Abbott
Illus. Walter Tittle
208 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #18665
1911 bestseller #8
1910 bestseller #9
My grade B+
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Long Roll buries romance beneath history

The Vedette
The Vedette

The Long Roll is a long novel in search of a plot.

The story opens with the passage in 1860 of the Botetourt Resolutions declaring Virginia’s willingness to secede from the Union if that becomes necessary.

When war starts the following year, some of Botetourt County’s finest men serve under the command of Stonewall Jackson. Mary Johnson marches her readers with the Jackson troops three years and nearly 800 pages from first Manassas to the Wilderness campaign in 1864.

Keeping track of who’s who among dozens of characters is tricky, and flipping back through page-long paragraphs is not a good option.

the lovers embrace in illustration by Wyeth
The Lovers

An eccentric, Bible-thumping, lemon-sucking disciplinarian without a trace of personal magnetism, Jackson is not an ideal protagonist for a novel. The romantic subplot in which  the lovers meet fewer than a half-dozen times in the novel is equally exciting.  Before the story is half over, the invented elements collapse under the weight of history.

If Johnson had stuck to history, the book might not have been better, but it would have been more honest. As it stands, The Long Roll is a novel only the most loyal of Civil War buffs can really enjoy.

The Long Roll
by Mary Johnston
Illus. by N. C. Wyeth
Houghton Mifflin Co.
1911 bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg E-book  # 22066
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

An 1911 Interactive Novel: The Iron Woman

Margaret Deland’s The Iron Woman opens conventionally enough but  quickly develops into a complex psychological study that winds up as an interactive novel in which readers select the ending.

A pair of half-siblings whose mother runs Maitlin Iron Works and two other local children settle their conjugal futures one afternoon in an apple tree. Blair Maitlin will marry Elizabeth Ferguson,  whose uncle is the mill superintendent; Nannie Maitlin will marry David Richie, the adopted son of a widow newly moved to town.

Mrs. Maitlin showers money on Blair. When he refuses to go into the family iron business and instead marries Elizabeth, Mrs. Maitlin cuts Blair out of her will. She decides to endow a clinic and put David, now a doctor, in charge.

As Mrs. Maitlin is dying, Nannie forges her mother’s name so  Blair gets the money intended for the clinic.

All the remaining characters are  miserable except Elizabeth’s uncle, who has gotten widow Richie to say she’ll marry him.

At that point Deland addresses her readers directly, laying out the options available to each character. She leaves readers to figure out how to end the book.

To do that, they have to decide whether the  title refers to Mrs. Maitlin, who runs the iron mill; or to the widow whose sweetness belies a steely determination; or to Elizabeth, who finally decides she can master her temper.

A fiction writers’ group or book club looking for a novel that will engage readers need look no further than The Iron Woman.

The Iron Woman
by Margaret Wade Campbell Deland
1911 bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg EBook #6474
My grade: A-
©Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Harvester has fairy-tale charms & flaws

The Harvester is an old-fashioned romance with fairy-tale charm, an  implausible tale of a gorgeous hunk with a fat bank account who loves doing chores around the house.

David Langston has developed a prosperous business raising medicinal herbs. He dreams of a lovely raven-haired girl who will be the passion of his life. David builds a home for her, then sets off to find her.

He rescues her from poverty and abuse and gives her the protection of his name. When she becomes dangerously ill, he saves her with an herbal mixture he compounded.

Ruth responds with gratitude and trust but not passionate love. David has to chance losing Ruth entirely before he can win her completely.

The story keeps threatening to turn into a bodice-ripper but stops before a single button is disturbed. And Gene Stratton-Porter uses language so discrete it wouldn’t offend Queen Victoria.

The novel has all the faults of any fairy-tale: the setting is stylized,  the characters are types rather than individuals,  the plot is implausible.

The book’s charm is in those faults. Gene Stratton-Porter’s story is so preposterous it could never happen.

But that doesn’t keep us from wishing it could happen—to us.

The Harvester
By Gene Stratton-Porter
Grosset & Dunlap, 1911
374 pages
1911 Bestseller #5
@2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Queed’s ‘cosmos is all Ego,’ his story all pleasure

Sharlee Weyland tells Queed of his deficiencies
Sharlee Weyland tells Queed of his deficiencies

Queed is a witty, charming, romantic comedy about a brilliant but decidedly un-charming young man with the emotional intelligence of a newt.

Called “The Professor” by all but his two friends whose surname he bears, Queed moved to Richmond, VA., at the request of the father he has never met. When the book opens, Queed is writing the definitive text on evolutionary sociology while waiting for a further communication from his parent.

By accident, Queed meets Miss Sharlee Weyland. He strikes her as “the most frankly and grossly self-centred person she had ever seen in her life.”  Sharlee also finds him pitiable. She gets the city’s most eligible bachelor, Charles Gardiner West, to wrangle an editorial-writing job for Queed on the local paper.

Faced with dismissal for “crushing all the interest out of any subject he touches,” Queed sets out to master editorial writing. In the process, he grows to know his adopted city, finds a passion for the news business, and develops some self-awareness and empathy.

By contrast, the well-connected West flounders when his charm fails to conceal his lack of character.

Henry Sydnor Harrison sets his story against the background of South rising above the debilitating attitudes of Reconstruction. The novel ridicules the ridiculous aspects of Queed’s self-absorption without either attacking or excusing the man. Harrison shows Queed maturing without shaking off entirely the behaviors he learned as a child. That realism elevates Queed from a pleasant story to a serious study of emotional growth.

And Harrison throws in enough laugh-out-loud lines to make the study enormous fun to read.

Queed
by Henry Sydnor Harrison
Houghton Mifflin Co.
The Riverside Press
1911 bestseller # 4
Project Gutenberg EBook #14303
My grade: B+
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni