During the early days of World War I, bookseller John Pybus exhorted men to enlist. His own sons, Conrad and Probyn, preferred to serve in protected occupations that lined their pockets.
Their father disowned them.
Years later, they learn he is the “boots” at a country hotel.
Probyn’s son Lance learns of his grandfather’s existence and looks him up. They bond immediately. Lance calls his grandfather “the Venerable.”
When Lance wants to become a writer instead of going into his father’s business, Old Pybus supports him. Through his grandfather, Lance meets a woman with whom he falls in love. And the Venerable is also responsible for Lance developing an adult relationship with his parents.
Much of the plot of Old Pybus is predictable. However, the novel’s interest isn’t the plot but the characters. At first glance, Lance looks like a standard-issue hero, but on longer acquaintance he exhibits all sorts of quirks, becomes pig-headed and sometimes acts downright stupid. He is, in short, human — a very fine thing for a book character to be.
If Old Pybus had been written by someone other than Warwick Deeping, the story could have dissolved into sentimental claptrap. By making readers his confidants and reminding them real life isn’t this tidy, Deeping lets readers revel in the romance without the tiniest feeling of guilt.
By Warwick Deeping
Alfred A. Knopf, 1928
1928 bestseller #7
My Grade: B +
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Literature with a capital L topped the 1928 bestseller list in the form of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. That novel’s entertainment value has plummeted as badly as the bridge. Forget that turkey.
Fortunately some non-literary novels from 1928 provide great reading.
The Strange Case of Miss Annie Sprague is my top pick. Louis Bromfield weaves together threads as disparate as stigmata and the American frontier into a complex novel that raises more questions than it answers. Bromfield’s “I’m just reporting this” narrative style leaves readers wondering there’s really a sordid story beneath the surface of the novel or if the dirt is all in their minds.
Second place on my list is a tie between Clarie Ambler by Booth Tarkington and All Kneeling by Anne Parish. Both books are about self-centered women who spend their lives deliberately constructing a public image. Claire has an occasional moment when she realizes the immorality of using other people. Such insight never occurs to Christable Craine.
Third place goes to Vina Delmar’s Bad Girl, an inside view of a teenage marriage doomed by poverty. Delmar deserves better than third place, but her subject is just too depressing. I cannot forget Bad Girl, but I wish I could.
Swan Song is great reading if you’ve read the rest of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte saga. If not, pass it up.
One final note. I haven’t yet been able to find a copy of Old Pybus by Warwick Deeping, which was number 7 on the 1928 bestseller list.
From its title, I expected All Kneeling to be a religious novel and, in a perverse way, it is.
The main character, Christabel Craine, is an attractive young woman with modest talent for writing but enormous talent for making people think she deserves to be worshiped.
Growing up in an extended family of well-to-do, elderly relatives, Christabel learns to control those around her in socially acceptable ways. She says she has only the highest motives for doing whatever she pleases, and people believe her.
All but Uncle Johnny.
Uncle Johnny doesn’t think much of Christable’s writing or her conduct. The only credit he gives her is for not making people walk backwards from her presence.
Among literature’s self-centered females, Christabel stands out. She knows exactly what she is doing.
The fact that Christabel doesn’t violate laws or morality or even social conventions is doesn’t make her any less any less despicable — or any less fascinating.
All Kneeling has no plot to speak of; it is all about character. Anne Parrish paints Christabel and her circle with sure, tiny strokes, suggesting rather than telling.
Like a Monet painting, the little bits of this easy-reading novel add up to an insightful portrait.
by Anne Parrish
Harper & Brothers, 1928
My grade B+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni
If you can imagine a novel written by Alfred Hitchcock, you’ll understand the fascination of Louis Bromfield’s 1928 bestseller The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg.
Annie Spragg, an American, dies in a small Italian village. Her body shows what villagers say are stigmata. Mr. Winnery, who dabbles in writing, decides to investigate the “miracle.”
He learns Annie was one of 13 legitimate children of a frontier cult leader murdered by a jealous lover of one of the virgins who served him. After their parents’ deaths, Annie and Uriah, her creepy preacher-brother who idolized their mother, lived together until Uriah was murdered.
Suspicion fell on Annie. She was stripped, examined, and questioned. Investigators found she had unusual scars. There was a heavy whip in the cabin and handcuffs that Uriah used to chain her in her bed at night.
No one was ever charged in Uriah’s murder.
Like a horde of letters and newspaper clippings in somebody’s attic, Annie Spragg leaves plenty of clues but no conclusion.
Bromfield increases the fascination of the story by his squeaky-clean presentation. Readers grasping for clues can’t be sure whether the sordid story they infer is in the material or in their own dirty minds.
The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg
By Louis Bromfield
Grosset & Dunlap, 1928
My Grade: A
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Mazo de la Roche wrote five novels about the Whiteoak family before writing Jalna, proving that producing a novel as boring as Jalna takes practice.
Jalna is the Whiteoak family estate in Ontario, Canada, where in 1923 Adeline Court Whiteoak waits for her 100th birthday surrounded by her family. The Whiteoaks fancy themselves aristocrats, but they’re really a bunch of slobs.
Think of Cold Comfort Farm, and you’ve got the picture.
Grandson Renny, 37, runs the farm and the family. He’s rude, coarse, sentimental, fond of pigs and horses, and according to de la Roche, irresistible to women.
Two of Renny’s nephews marry. Poet Eden brings home his New York publisher’s reader, Alayne, and farmer Piers brings home the neighbor’s bastard daughter, Pheasant.
Alayne takes up with Renny.
Pheasant takes up with Eden.
Renny’s sister Meg marries Pheasant’s father.
All the Whiteoaks abuse each other at the top of their lungs.
Grandmother has her hundredth birthday and the novel is over. Not a minute too soon for my taste.
Jalna reads as if it were written by someone whose day job is writing Cliff Notes. If there ever was any life in these characters or sense in the plot, it’s not here now.
by Mazo de la Roche
Little, Brown, 1927
#5 1927 #9 1928
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Clarie Ambler is a 1920’s version of a California Valley Girl. A beautiful American heiress, Claire has manners instead of morals, impulses instead of thoughts, and absolutely nothing between her ears.
At 18, Claire’s total preoccupation with herself comes close to getting a boy killed. As she anguishes over how his death could have ruined her social life, she has the first thought of her life: she realizes she isn’t the only person in the universe.
At 21, Claire is acutely sensitive to how she appears to others and totally unaware of the sometimes fatal consequences of her flirtations. Even when it’s pointed out to her, she can’t see how her behavior led to an assassination.
At 25, Claire sees her self-centeredness for the first time and acts with the closest she ever comes to disinterestedness.
Booth Tarkington makes Claire both a typical adolescent and a distinct person. Readers can — and will — laugh at Claire’s self-absorption. But they will realize long before she does that it’s not funny.
We have to take the Claires of the world seriously. An inability to see other people as people, “not just something . . . to use,” is the root of most human misery.
By Booth Tarkington
#6 bestseller in 1928
My grade: B+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni
In 1928, someone was “a bad girl” if she had sex before marriage. By that definition, Dot Haley deserves her title role in Vina Delmar’s novel Bad Girl. However, the epithet doesn’t do Dot justice.
A friend sums her up better: “You’re an awful nice kid,” Maude tells Dot, “but you’re a moron.”
Maude got it in one.
Dot meets Eddie Collins at a dance. The first time they have sex, Eddie says he’ll take off work the next day and marry her. When Dot announces her wedding plans, he brother calls her a bum and kicks her out of the apartment.
Dot and Eddie marry. Within weeks she learns she’s pregnant with a child neither she nor Eddie is ready to have.
Dot and Eddie are both back-of-the-room, bottom-of-the-class slum kids. They’ve grown up among adults too worn out from grubbing for a living to even talk to their kids.
If they could talk to each other, there might be hope for Dot and Eddie, but they all they know is lashing out, profanity, and withdrawing into silence.
Delmar swings from Eddie’s thoughts to Dot’s, letting readers see the limits of their adolescent minds. The total effect is morbidly depressing.
by Vina Delmar
Harcourt, Brace, 1928
1928 bestseller #5
My grade: C+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni