My picks of the 1916 bestselling novels

Picking the most enduring bestselling novels from 1916 presented a bit of a problem. Of the four that I found were best-written on worthwhile topics, I could remember only the barest information about three of them by the time I needed to pick my favorites.

The good novel I remember (I remember quite a bit about the novels I thought were awful) is The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster.

It, and two other good but forgettable novels, explore marriage in the twentieth century.

The Real Adventure

Director questions well-dressed Rose about her qualifications.
Rose asks for a job in the chorus.

Webster focuses on a bright young woman whose suffragette mother and University of Chicago education didn’t prepare her to do anything except be a society hostess.

After Rose Stanton becomes Mrs. Rodney Aldrich, however, she wants to be more than social hostess and mother to Roddy’s children.

She wants to be worthy of the same level of mutual professional respect Roddy accords his male friends.

That means Rose needs to find something she can actually do.

Adinner guest’s remark that the chorus line was the only good-paying line of work open to good-looking, unskilled young women with moral principles sticks in her mind.

After her twins are born, Rose packs a suitcase and leaves home.

She gets a room a few physical blocks but hundreds of Chicago socio-economic miles away.

As she hoped, Rose gets a job in a chorus line.

She has no talent for dance, but she’s good-looking, works hard, and gets along with everybody.

When new costumes are needed quickly, Rose volunteers to design and sew what’s needed.

Rose has found her niche.

She still has to develop a professional career on a par with that of her lawyer husband.

Webster makes the differences of Rose’s and Roddy’s response to settling into marriage seem perfectly plausible.

And Webster doesn’t take sides.

He makes the making of the Aldrich marriage a real adventure.

Life and Gabriella

Gabriella sports fashionable bobbed hair as she sits sewing
Frontispiece by C. Allan Gilbert for “Life and Gabriella.”

I suspect that Life and Gabriella: The Story of a Woman’s Courage is a better-written novel than Webster’s work, but Ellen Glasgow chose a more ordinary life for her heroine, one that had been used repeatedly in other novels.

Good, reliable Gabriella Carr sacrifices herself to take care of her irresponsible family and later her even more irresponsible husband.

I enjoyed Glasgow’s writing while I was reading it—her workmanship is delightful—but Gabriella herself made little impression.

She’s just one more self-sacrificing heroine in a long string of indistinguishable, self-sacrificing heroines in novels.

The Heart of Rachael

The Heart of Rachael is another kettle of fish entirely. Nobody would call Rachael Fairfax self-sacrificing or principled.

Rachael always chooses the path of least resistance.

She married a divorced man whom she did not love because that looked like an easy way out of spinsterhood.

Later she divorces him and marries another man when that looked easier than coping with an alcoholic husband and rebellious stepdaughter.

Kathleen Norris makes Rachael believable, but she can’t make her likeable: Rachael has too little core for readers to care about.

Norris focuses her attention on the topic of divorce. Even there her attention to detail is admirable, but not memorable.


© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Which are your favorite 1916 bestselling novels?

Here’s your opportunity to say which of the 1916 bestsellers we’ve been reading get your vote as best of the top 10 novels for the year.

Unfortunately, the poll is open only for a week, but the comments section is always open. Don’t be shy.

I’ll do a wrap-up of my top picks of 1916 tomorrow, and then in September we’ll be on to the bestsellers of 1906.

Project Gutenberg

The Real Adventure harmonizes big ideas, great story

Rose Stanton’s mother, a women’s rights advocate, made a little money writing, but her daughter Portia was the real breadwinner, sacrificing to put her two brothers and Rose through college.

Unwittingly, Mrs. Stanton left Rose unsuited for any job but socialite wife, which is what Rose becomes shortly after meeting millionaire lawyer Rodney Aldrich on a tram.

Rose holds tight to Rodney's arm during their whirlwind courtship.
The lovers, Rose and Roddy

The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster

R. M. Crosby, Illus.  Bobbs-Merrill, 1916.  1916 bestseller #6.
Project Gutenberg eBook #15384. My grade: A.


The third week of their honeymoon, Rose panics when Rodney, pausing in reading a German textbook, tells her, “The insanity has worn off.”

How can she hold him apart from sexual attraction?

She wants to be someone he can respect for her work, as he respects his male friends.

What Rose does to earn Roddy’s friendship—and how it affects everyone around her—is the heart of the novel.

Henry Kitchell Webster not only has a yarn to spin through a host of crisply drawn characters, but he also has a subject to explore.

Webster wrote The Real Adventure as a serial, which would be the best way in which to read it:  The single-volume format makes it far too tempting to skip ahead to see what happens.

You’ll lose the book’s enduring value if you skip over the passages in which Webster probes the question of what makes a marriage good for both husband and wife.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Heart of Rachael divorced from self-awareness

Many early twentieth century novels explored the then still controversial topic of divorce, but none with the perseptivity of Kathleen Norris’s The Heart of Rachael.

Norris sets her novel among the Long Island country club set in the halcyon days before World War I.

Professional golfer Tom McNamara at 1915 U.S. Open
Golf was a big part of country club life in the early twentieth century.

The Heart of Rachael by Kathleen Norris

 1916 bestseller #10. Project Gutenberg ebook #4915. My grade: B+.


Because she knew she could manage his house and thought she got on well with his daughter, Rachael Fairfax married a divorced man whom she did not love.

Step-daughter Carol grows into a teenager and Clarence Beckenridge’s drinking becomes acute alcoholism.

Rachael confides her unhappiness to Dr. Warren Gregory, Clarence’s physician and a member of their social set.

Rachael leaves Clarence, who agrees to give her grounds for divorce.

Then she marries Warren Gregory.

For a time, it’s a happy marriage.

Then Warren takes an interest in a young, aspiring actress, who also is part of their social set.

When Rachael confronts Warren about Magsie, he gives all the same excuses Rachael used for leaving Clarence.

Author Norris walks over, under, around, and through the experience of divorce.

Her people are believable both in their self-awareness and in their blind self-absorption.

Unfortunately, Norris felt compelled to manufacture a quasi-happy ending.

The manufactured ending reveals the fundamental fact of divorce: It doesn’t change people.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dear Enemy is friendly romance

Dear Enemy picks up the story of the John Grier Home that Jean Webster began in her earlier epistolary novel Daddy Long Legs.

The leading characters in that romance have chosen vivacious socialite Sallie McBride to turn the orphanage into a model institution.

Drawing of Sallie opening basket containing a puppy.
Sallie finds a puppy, gift from her friends Jean and Jervis.

Dear Enemy by Jean Webster

Jean Webster, Illus.  Century Co., 1915.  1916 bestseller #9.
Project Gutenberg ebook #238. My Grade: B+.


Sallie accepts only until Judy and Jervis can find someone else.

Almost immediately, Sallie locks horns with tradition and rigidity personified by the dour Scots doctor Robin MacRae.

He finds her frivolous, unfit for her job.

His attitude puts Sallie’s back up.

She turns on the charm where it will do the most good.

Before long Sallie has everyone eating out of her hand except Dr. MacRae. Sallie sends him notes addressed, “Dear Enemy.”

When the doctor leaves to take care of some personal business Sallie learns the cause of his moroseness.

For warm-hearted Sallie, it’s just a step from sympathy to love.

For all its romance and charm, Dear Enemy overlays a snapshot of institutional life in early twentieth century America. While not quite Dickensian, it’s a long way from Boys Town.

Sadie Kate has had her pigtails cut off.
Sallie is determined someone will adopt Sadie Kate, now minus her awful pigtails.

Sadly, some of the issues Sallie faced youth workers face today.

You couldn’t learn about them any more pleasantly than through Dear Enemy.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nan of Music Mountain gets her gunman

Set in a railroad town “almost within gunshot of the great continental divide,” Nan of Music Mountain is all action.

Nan and di Silva fight the bad guys from a rocky cliff on Music Mountain.
From a rocky cliff on Music Mountain, Nan and di Silva fight the bad guys.

At every juncture where he could have produced something other than a formula piece, author Frank H. Spearman backs out.


Nan of Music Mountain by Frank H. Spearman

N. C. Wyeth, Illus. Gross & Dunlap, 1916,.432 p. 1916 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook #29571.  My Grade: C+.


Gunman Henry de Spain, summoned to represent Sleepy Cat in a shooting contest, loses the contest—and his heart—to Nan, “the little Music Mountain skirt.”

So when William Jeffries asks de Spain to stay on to run the Thief River stage line, de Spain does.

Phone calls from the gambling hall and stagecoaches made by Studebaker hint at a cultural clash between Old and New West, but Spearman stops at hints.

By turns droll, dry, or ingratiating as a presidential candidate before the Iowa caucuses, de Spain could have been an interesting character. Unfortunately, readers can’t be sure which is the real Henry de Spain.

Di Silva goes hand-to-hand with thieves closed hotel killing two, wounding two others.
In a gunfight inside a closed hotel, Henry de Spain kills two of his assailants, wounds two others.

Spearman keeps de Spain on the gallop, with a blend of every plot line that was hackneyed by the time of the talkies except tying for the leading lady to the railroad tracks.

That’s fortunate.

Nan of Music Mountain has so little personality that tied to the tracks, she’d be mistaken for a cross tie.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Bars of Iron hold religious novel

All too often, writers of “religious novels” write romances with religion sprinkled on top.

Bars of Iron flips that fraud, presenting a religious novel in the guise of a romance.

prison corridor with iron barred doors, overprinted with poem about freeing prisoners


Bars of Iron by Ethel M. Dell

1916 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg ebook #10509. My Grade: B-.


Avery Denys, a widow recently come to be a mother’s helper at the vicarage, stops Piers Evesham from beating his dog by dumping ice water on both.

For Piers, 25, grandson and heir to the irascible Sir Beverly Evesham, it’s love at first sight.

Four years older, Avery “left romance behind her” when she returned from Australia.

Her drunken husband was killed in a Queensland brawl, leaving her with an infant who lived only six months.

Piers shares Avery’s love for children. That brings the pair together—and into conflict with the vicar, whose cloth poorly conceals a sadistic temperament, and with Sir Beverly who hates women, particularly women fortune-hunters.

Ethel M. Dell moves the story so fluidly that her borrowings from the 100 most-used plots of the 19th century are hardly noticeable.

She also gives a multifaceted picture of religion, rare even in religious novels.

Where Dell falls notably short is in providing no reason for Piers’ murderous rages.

Even if no logical reason exists, novel readers demand some explanation—beyond man’s sinful nature—for premeditated murder.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Life and Gabriella have sometimes-happy end

In Life and Gabriella, Ellen Glasgow examines the life of a woman with a “vein of iron” in her.

(Glasgow would later use that title for a novel which became a bestseller in 1935.)

Suffragettes outside US Capitol in 1913
Gabriella made hats such as  those worn by suffragettes in this 1913 photograph.

Life and Gabriella:

The Story of a Woman’s Courage by Ellen Glasgow

Doubleday, Page,  1916. 500+ p. 1916 bestseller #5.
Project Gutenberg ebook #14571. My Grade: A-.


Gabriella sports fashionable bobbed hair as she sits sewingFrom childhood, Gabriella Carr had been the person those around her counted on.

When it’s clear that Gabriella’s self-martyring sister and incompetent mother would rather starve than work, Gabriella breaks her engagement and gets a job.

Hearing the news, George Fowler comes back from New York and sweeps Gabriella off her feet.

George is worthless in his father’s business and unfaithful to Gabriella, leaving her with two children.

Gabriella goes back to work for a clothing designer; by age 37, she owns the place.

Glasgow focuses on how Gabriella can be counted on as a single mother, as a businesswoman in an era when women stayed home, and as a woman without a man in her life.

However, Glasgow doesn’t neglect to observe that Gabriella can be headstrong, prejudiced, and ridiculously romantic even at 38.

Glasgow sprinkles the narrative with keen observations that made me laugh with pleasure at their just-rightness, even while I teared-up in the knowledge that life is the way she tells it.

Even the happy ending promises only to be happy sometimes.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mr. Britling Sees nuanced view of Great War

In Mr. Britling Sees It Through, H. G. Wells gives an account of World War I from the perspective of an intellectual with an optimistic view of human nature.

The title character, Mr. Britling, is a moderately well-known writer, who pens essays and articles from his study in Essex, England.


Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells

Macmillan, 1916. Project Gutenberg ebook #14060.
1916 bestseller #4. My grade B+.


Close up photo of HG Wells shows bushy eyebrows, tired eyes, and stubby mustache

Up until the German invasion, Britling tells anyone who will listen that the German people don’t want war.

When war is declared, Britling has to confront both the German support for the war and the British lack of preparedness for that war.

Soon he has to face harsher realities.

Britling is turned down for military service.

Members of his household, including his eldest son, enlist.

Britling’s understanding of war morphs from pins on a map into a girl delivering a telegram.

His political opinions change coincidentally.

Wells based Mr. Britling on his own experience. Indeed, the development of Britling’s thought as events unfold in Europe suggests reportage rather than imagination.

The plot, too, seems determined by historical events rather than story requirements.

Instead of fictionalizing, Wells follows the war so readers can have a sharp, nuanced perspective on one of the most significant events of the 20th century.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Just David is just dumb

Eleanor H. Porter produced Just David, a male version of “the glad girl,”  three years after Pollyanna.

The similarities are striking; the differences work to Just David‘s detriment.

violinist-1191808-639x431


Just David by Eleanor H. Porter

1916 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #440. My Grade: C.


As the story opens, David, a 10-year-old prodigy, is living in the remote woods with his father.

Realizing he’s seriously ill, the father starts down the mountain with his son, their violins, and a few belongings.

Two days later, the father dies in a Hinsdale barn in which they’ve sheltered.

The surly farmer and his wife take David in.

David transforms their village, has a nearly fatal illness, and recovers in time to arrange a marriage.

Sound familiar?

Whereas Pollyanna was notable for her unusual attitude, David is odd in nearly every way a boy can be:

  • He knows French and Latin but not his own last name.
  • He knows the names of all the local plants, but has no idea what money is.
  • He’s spent days in the woods, but never seen any dead animal.
  • He understands the necessity of training for a musical career, but not the necessity of having wood for a fire.

The other characters are as implausible as David.

You’ll be glad not to have to read this novel.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Credit: Violinist, a double exposure photograph by Dora Mitsonia