Love, marriage, children, regrets: A Valentine’s Day look at three vintage bestsellers

Sign on tree: Eat, Drink, and Be Married

Happy Valentine’s Day.

I was tempted to label this post “for mature audiences.”

I don’t mean that it will be salacious or even titillating, far from it: This is a post about three married women in bestselling vintage novels whose grand passions are just memories.

Each woman’s story is told from her perspective. The novelists leave readers to determine how much to trust the woman’s judgment.

Since their glorious passion, occasionally recalled while hanging diapers to dry or when the in-laws’ all-too-familiar monologues beg the mind to wander, each of the women wonders if she might not be better off without her husband.

The reasons for their not walking out on their husbands are too complicated for immature readers to comprehend.

Again, happy Valentine’s Day.  I hope you find a novel you’re passionate about.

The Brimming Cup

teaser for The Brimming Cup on closeup of piano keys

The Brimming Cup is a 1921 novel by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher].  Its leading lady is a talented pianist, Marise Crittenden, who, as the novel opens, has just seen her youngest child off to his first year of boarding school.

Marise and her husband, Neale,  had pledged their love on the on the Rocca di Papa in 1909.  By most standards, they’ve had a good marriage.

But as she muses about life with Neale without the children in a tiny New England town far from Italy, Marise thinks, “This is the beginning of the end.”

Marise fears she and Neale will have nothing in common once their children are grown.

Just how far Marise and Neale are already mentally separated is revealed when she overhears a comment that suggests Neale has done something underhanded and she believes it: Marise would never have believed Neale capable of dishonesty back in their time in Italy.

When a retired office manager moves in next door, accompanied by the young son of his late employer, Neale is away on business. To be neighborly, Marise introduces the two men around the community.

The sexy, sophisticated younger man attempts to seduce Marise. She is, naturally, flattered by his attentions, as would any woman whose baby is about to become a teenager.

The novel is intricately crafted and the story rendered with watercolor nuances.

Canfield allows readers to look over Marise’s shoulder and into her mind as she works out whether to leave Neale and a childless house for Vincent and a career.

Years of Grace

teaser for The Years of Grace beside 1912 sculpure

Nine years after The Brimming Cup was published, Margaret Ayers Barnes published her Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller Years of Grace.

Barnes’s leading lady was born Jane Ward in 1877. She was as plain and respectable and solidly middle class as her name sounds. “The unexpected was never allowed to happen to her.”

As a teenager, Jane thought if the unexpected ever did happen, she’d embrace it with joy. But although the unexpected happens to her several times, Jane never embraces it with joy.

Jane’s respectable parents disapprove of her friendship with André Duroy, a French boy whose parents live in an apartment. When André proposes,  Jane’s parents refuse permission for her to marry  or for the couple to even exchange letters until Jane is 21.

Andre goes to Paris to study sculpture for those four years.

As a consolation prize, Jane’s parents do let her go East to college at Bryn Mawr, where she spends two happy years, studying what interests her and ignoring what doesn’t, and feeling “very trivial and purposeless.”

She didn’t really worry a bit as to whether or no she ever voted and she didn’t want to work for her living and, really, she only cared about pleasing André and growing up into the kind of a girl he’d like to be with and talk to and marry.

When Jane’s older sister marries, her parents summon Jane home. Jane’s mother insists she make her debut and enter the husband competition. Although she’s not after a husband—she’s betrothed to André—Jane enjoys being a debutante.

Andre doesn’t come for her twenty-first birthday. He writes that he’s been awarded the Prix de Rome, which means three years’ study in Italy.

Smarting over Andre’s rejection, Jane agrees to marry Stephen Carver, a safe, respectable banker, whom she likes but does not love.

Fifteen years and three children later, Jane at 36 wonders if she and Stephen had ever had romance.

Wasn’t it Stephen’s most endearing quality — or was it his most irritating? —that for ten years or more Stephen had never really thought about how she looked at all? To Stephen, Jane looked like Jane. That was enough for him.

Jane at 50 realizes with a slight pang of regret that she’s always gone in for “durable satisfactions.”

Life might have been very different had Jane been different.

A Lion Is in the Streets

Lion on prowl. How does his mate cope at home?

Adria Locke Langley’s 1945 novel A Lion Is in the Streets starts at the end of Verity and Hank Martin’s marriage.

Hank has been assassinated, and, as always, Verity has been left to cope on her own.

Verity was a Yankee schoolteacher when she fell for a sexy Southern peddler with dreams of becoming governor.

Verity stays home in a sharecropper cottage, making do and ignoring the rumors of Hank’s philandering that drift back from his frequent trips across the state building a political machine to take him to the statehouse.

Verity has known for almost as long as she’s known Hank that his sex drive threatened their marriage.

She gradually comes to realize his political ambition is an even greater threat.

The 1953 film version captures the events of the novel, but misses the real story, which is revealed by innuendo.

The novel takes its title from Proverbs 26:13 where the sluggard uses “a lion is in the streets” as an excuse for not going to work. The allusion is typically interpreted in political terms:  The lion is the political machine; the sluggard is the lazy public that lets it do what it wants.

The Martins remind me of Hillary and Bill Clinton: a cerebral woman with great potential whose friends regard her sexy husband as totally beneath her.

Perhaps that’s why I think a case can be made for a different interpretation of the allusion: that Langley intended readers to see Hank as a political lion and Verity as a moral sluggard who, by failing to exert the power she has, enables him.

Where to find the novels

The Brimming Cup can be found as a digital download at Project Gutenberg. If you’d rather have a 1921 hardback copy or a reprint in paperback, check Alibris.com, where independent booksellers display their wares.

Years of Grace is not yet in the public domain, so it’s not available digitally at Project Gutenberg. Copies of a 1976 reprint of the novel and a lovely 2007 reprint, which I own, can be found at Alibris.com

A Lion Is in the Streets also is not yet in the public domain. This past weekend Alibris.com had 69 copies of the novel for sale.

Final thoughts

It would be fascinating to read companion novels told from the husband’s perspective.

Anyone want to take on the challenge of writing one for NaNoWriMo 2017?

 

My picks of 1945 bestsellers have a political bent

My nominees for the three best of the best-selling 1945 novels are So Well Remembered by James Hilton, A Lion Is in the Streets by Adria Locke Langley, and Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham.

If nobody’s counting, I’ll add James Ramsey Ullman’s The White Tower to the list, not because it’s such a great book, but because it’s such an interesting one.

Each of my picks has something to do with politics.

So Well Remembered

Movie poster for film version of So Well Remembered shows mug shots of 4 of 5 principal actorsSo Well Remembered is a poignant story of an elected official who is a genuine public servant.

George Boswell is hard-working, scrupulously honest, totally dedicated to doing the right thing for his town, even if the right thing is not what the town wants.

We don’t often see people like that in government.

Although in this novel, as in most of his novels, Hilton overindulges in sentiment, I nevertheless find Boswell quietly heroic. I’ve met a few George Boswells in my years as a reporter, which perhaps biases my outlook.

A Lion Is in the Streets

A Lion Is in the Streets is decidedly a political novel, but its leading man is neither quiet nor heroic.

lion appears to be scowling at the camersThe story is loosely based on Huey P. Long,  who rode a tide of populism to the Louisiana governor’s mansion and then to a U. S. Senate seat before he was assassinated at age 42.

Unlike All the King’s Men, a more well-known fictional rendering of the machinations of the political wizard, A Lion Is in the Streets relates events from the perspective of a politician’s wife.

Verity Martin is passionately in love with her husband, but passion doesn’t blind her to his faults. I can’t help thinking of her as a 1940s Hillary Clinton.

Whereas So Well Remembered is easy reading, A Lion is in the Streets requires the same kind of serious concentration required in reading a play. The reader who doesn’t mentally envision the scene and hear the sound of the lines in his inner ear will miss much of this marvelous novel.

Earth and High Heaven

cover of paperback edition of Earth and High HeavenIn terms of reading difficulty, Earth and High Heaven is roughly half way between the Hilton and the Langley novels. Graham writes in a way that encourages, rather than requires, slow reading.

Earth and High Heaven explores the mindset of people who will quite willing to fight, even die on European soil for Jewish lives but totally unwilling to have a Jew in their Montreal living room.

They are also not willing to have a daughter enjoy the company of a man who is Jewish, even if he is in other respects an acceptable suitor.

That strange distinction between principles one is willing to die for and principles one refuses to live with strike me as a vital political issue. We see it today in people ready to lend a hand to save the migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean but unwilling to give them a place to live once they have been rescued.

The White Tower

Plane flies by snow-covered mountainWhile it’s obviously a mountain-climbing adventure, Ullman’s The White Tower has the Second World War as its political background:  What is war by politics taken to the extreme?

The crash that lands Martin Ordway’s plane in the Swiss Alps occurs as Ordway is on a bombing mission into Germany.

Switzerland, being neutral, offers escape from the war to combatants from both sides. Thus, it’s perfectly plausible that the party Ordway gathers to climb the White Tower includes a German soldier, the estranged wife of a Nazi, a Brit, a Frenchman, and an Alpine native.

The climbers seek not only the adventure of the climb, but glory for their respective nations.

Mountain climbing becomes a political act.

The White Tower is not a great book, but it is an exciting one.

That’s my list of the best of the 1945 bestsellers.

Next time here, I’ll preview the 1935 bestseller list for you

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Immortal Wife is a lifeless figure

Jessie, the favorite daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, grows up working with her father, breathing politics, and believing it is America’s manifest destiny to rule from Atlantic to Pacific.


Immortal Wife: The Biographical Novel

of Jessie Benton Fremont by Irving Stone

Doubleday, 1944. 450 pages. 1945 bestseller # 10. My Grade: B-.


Jessie Benton Fremont wears hair in pompadour style with ringlets, has cameo on ribbon around her neck
Jessie Benton Fremont

At 16, Jessie falls in love with John Fremont, a military topographer ambitious to make a name for himself that would override the tinge of his illegitimate origins.

Jesse is determined to make her marriage stronger than either of them.

John leads four expeditions to map the unexplored frontier so settlers could move west to keep the Spanish and British from annexing the Pacific Coast. He wins the respect of people on the frontier – and the displeasure of politicians in Washington.

John’s career is a series of great exploits and monumental failures.

He makes and loses a fortune in gold mining.

He is defeated in the 1860 presidential race, even though he wins more votes than the winner.

Lincoln strips Fremont of his command in the early days of the Civil War.

After John dies, Jessie reflects that she never understood him.

Readers will feel that they don’t understand Jessie either.

Irving Stone makes the period history interesting, but he fails to make his heroine come alive.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Earth and High Heaven takes anti-Semitism personally

Several bestselling novels of the 1940s explore the issue of anti-Jewish prejudice among people who fought the Nazis, but none do it better than Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven.

Marc Reiser, a Jewish lawyer, meets Erica Drake “one of the Westmont Drakes,” at a cocktail party at her Montreal home in June, 1942. Marc had come with Erica’s brother-in-law, René.


 

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

Lippincott, 1944. 288 pages. 1945 bestseller # 9. My Grade: A.


Marc and Erica hit if off immediately.

cover of paperback edition of Earth and High HeavenErica attempts to introduce Marc to her father, who snubs both Marc and René.

Later, Erica’s parents explain social relationships with Jews are impossible.

For the first time in her life, Erica refuses to do what her parents expect. She continues to see Marc, though her parents won’t let him in the house.

Marc’s parents are almost as set against the relationship as Erica’s.

Graham shows prejudice is not an isolated problem. It’s hopelessly intertwined with individual personalities and complex family and social relationships.

Graham slows readers down to feel what’s happening. She’s so deft that her omniscient narrator seems to be looking at the world through the characters’ eyes.

Readers will feel the confusion, pride, frustration, and misery of distinctive characters who look and act extraordinarily like themselves.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Captain from Castile finds love in a nasty era

The eponymous captain from Castile is Pedro de Vargus, a handsome young cavalier from a distinguished Spanish family of modest circumstances.

Pedro has taken Luisa de Carvajal as his lady, but the spirited serving wench Catana Perez has her sights on Pedro as well.


The Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger

Blakiston, 1945. 503 pages. 1945 bestseller # 8. My Grade: B.


Masts of replica of 16th century Spanish ship
The ship in which Pedro de Vargus sailed to Spain’s New World colonies probably looked much like this replica.

In 1518, Pedro sails for the Caribbean, followed soon by Cantana.

Hernando Cortes is raising an army to invade Mexico, contrary to the orders of the Spanish Governor of Cuba.

Pedro distinguishes himself in the campaigns to conquer, convert and loot the natives.

Cortes sends Pedro back to Spain to persuade the Crown to support further colonization. Pedro has trunks full of golden persuaders to use.

Pedro barely sets foot in Spain before he’s arrested.

He has to use his wits and his sword to save himself and his family, serve his General, and get the girl he truly loves.

Samuel Shellabarger keeps his focus on the story, refusing to make the novel into a history book. Without knowing a bit about 16th century history, however, readers will find it difficult to understand the plot.

The characters and general outline of this novel are romance staples. Its selling point is its setting: Shellabarger makes the Spanish Inquisition and Spain’s conquest of the Aztecs truly repugnant.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: The still photo is from a video of El Galeon, a 16th century replica Spanish sailing ship,  docked in New York Harbor.   The 2 minute video is at   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5U0CC4uxHQ

A Lion Is in the Streets. Look for it.

Thanks to Adria Locke Langley’s decision to let Verity Martin tell the story of her charismatic husband’s political career, A Lion Is in the Streets is a political novel that can be enjoyed by folks who don’t like political novels.

As the book opens, Hank Martin is dead, killed by an assassin’s bullet. As Verity listens to a reporter tell the story of Hank’s life, she recalls the events as she saw them.


A Lion Is in the Streets by Adria Locke Langley

Blakiston, 1945. 345 pages. 1945 bestseller #6. My Grade: A-.


cover of "A Lion is in the Streets" is solid gray with title in silver
Don’t judge this book by its cover. It’s not a boring novel.

A Yankee schoolteacher, Verity fell for a southern peddler with dreams of being governor.

While he was out organizing a political machine, she stayed home in a little share-cropper cottage.

Almost from the first, Verity knew Hank’s sex appeal was a potential threat to her marriage.

It took her years to realize Hank’s lust for power is even more destructive than his sex drive, not only for their family but also for the whole state.

Langley does a superb job of making these people seem real. They are complicated bundles of inexplicable contradictions.

In some ways, each character knows the others better than they know themselves.

Like politics, much of the plot has to be grasped from innuendo. You’ll need to read slowly, picturing the scenes, or you’ll miss the point.

The effort is worth it.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

So Well Remembered is a forgotten gem

I don’t often find a book that I want to buy for my own collection, but I found one in So Well Remembered.

It’s a novel that bears re-reading.


So Well Remembered by James Hilton

Little, Brown 1945. 328 pages. 1945 bestseller # 7. My Grade: A.


On Sept. 1, 1921 as the Great War ends, Browdley Mayor George Boswell sees the foundation stone laid for the slum-clearance project so dear to his heart.

That evening George learns his wife wants to marry a budding young diplomat she met in Austria.

George gives Livia a divorce and throws himself into local politics with renewed vigor.

Twenty years later, George meets Livia’s son, Charles, a badly wounded flyer. George and Charles become close friends, forcing George to face his past — and Livia — again.

Livia is either criminally selfish or certifiably insane. Given her history, both are equally possible.

Incorruptible and totally without rancor, George will work as long as it takes to provide decent housing, good schools and medical care in Browdley — even if the town doesn’t want those things.

In So Well Remembered, James Hilton produced a gem whose plot, characters, insight, optimism, and humor more than atone for the sentimental drivel of his more famous novels.

I hope you’ll like So Well Remembered as much as I do.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cass Timberlane has broken back, funny bits

Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives is really two books represented respectively by the title and subtitle.

In the main story, Cass Timberland, 41, an intellectually astute and emotionally dense Minnesota judge falls for a young girl with “fine ankles and a clear voice” who testifies in a negligence case.


Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives
by Sinclair Lewis

Random House, 1945. 390 pages.  1945 bestseller # 5. My Grade: B-.


When Jenny loses her job, Cass persuades her to marry him.

Without a job to go to, Jenny is bored. Cass encourages Jenny to go out with his buddy Bradd, whom he knows to be a womanizer.

What happens is predictable to everyone except Cass.

Cass is a hoot. He can recognize the stupidity of things he does when other people do them. What he doesn’t see is that dumb is dumb no matter who does it.

Sinclair Lewis sketches other characters — especially those in the other marriages —well enough to make them individuals, but not well enough to make them interesting. They add nothing to the main plot.

However, many of Lewis’s individual sentences are delightful. For example, Juliet Zago takes out a library book on “Freud’s translations from the original four-letter words.”

If you can be content with such small pleasures, you may enjoy Cass Timberlane.

As a novel, Cass Timberlane is a dud.

 

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The White Tower is shivery adventure

In The White Tower, James Ramsey Ullman turns several familiar themes inside out and upside down.

The result is World War II adventure story that appeals even to sedentary readers like me.


The White Tower  by James Ramsey Ullman

Lippincott, 1945. 479 pages. 1945 bestseller # 4. My grade: B+.


Spine art for The White Tower shows mountansand rocksHit by shrapnel during a bombing raid, Martin Ordway’s plane goes down in the Swiss Alps near a village where he spent his student vacations.

While friends arrange to slip him out of the country, Martin poses as a tourist. He organizes a group to climb the village side of Weissturm, the White Tower, which has never been scaled.

Besides Martin, the group includes an aging British geologist, a depressed French writer, an arthritic Alpine guide, an Austrian woman separated from her Nazi husband, and a German solider who is also a renowned mountain climber.

Sounds like a set-up for a Hollywood movie, doesn’t it?

Well, Ullman avoids that trap. No clichés for him.

Characters are well-drawn.

Action is tense.

Mountain settings are shiveringly vivid.

Contemporary readers may find the occasional German and French phrases difficult — today’s readers lack the language skills our 1940’s forebears had — but I could usually get the gist.

Whatever your linguistic skills, The White Tower remains a great book to climb into bed with.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni