Since Thanksgiving is just days away and kindergarten kids are drawing pictures of Pilgrims in funny hats, today seemed like a good time to recommend rereading The Winthrop Woman, Anya Seyton’s historical novel about one of America’s more famous — some would say more infamous — Puritans.
“The Winthrop Woman” was Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, born 1610 to Thomas and Anne Winthrop Fones. Anne was sister to John Winthrop, who was to become an early settler of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and later its Governor.
Elizabeth married one of her first cousins, a son of John Winthrop, which is how she got the moniker “the Winthrop Woman.”
Elizabeth led a fascinating life. (At least it’s fascinating for readers; living it must have been an entirely different matter.) She had bad luck with husbands in an era when having a husband was practically a requirement for survival.
But she survived, as Seyton’s novel shows. Today “the Winthrop woman” is considered one of the founders of Greenwich, Connecticut.
She’s also an ancestor of Howard Dean, Vermont governor and 2004 presidential candidate; aviator Amelia Earhart; former Secretary of State John Kerry; and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
The portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop shown below was done by English painter George Richmond who lived about 200 years after Winthrop. He’s made her appear far more genteel than did the book jacket artist.
By far the durable of the novels on the 1958 bestseller list are The Winthrop Woman by Anna Seton and Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Travers.
Seton’s fictional biography draws on historical accounts of life in Puritan New England for its story and even its dialog, but there’s not a dust mote in sight. Seton will keep you on the edge of your chair.
Travers’ story is a courtroom murder mystery that puts Perry Mason to shame. We know the defendant committed the murder. We suspect the hero will get him acquitted. The real mystery is whether the guy ought to be acquitted.
If I had to make a third choice, I’d pick The Enemy Camp by Jerome Weidman over heavyweights like Loita and Doctor Zhivago. Weidman’s protagonist, George Hurst, is a fairly ordinary guy who gets a bum deal sometimes because he’s a Jew and sometimes because he’s gullible. It’s not a great book, but it is insightful and entertaining.
Victorine is a surprising novel for Frances Parkinson Keyes. It’s about half her usual length, and, though it sets out to be one of her typical romances, it turns out to be an engrossing murder mystery.
Bachelor Prosper Villac manages one of his family’s two rice mills. He’s smitten by a dance hall musician who is the girlfriend of the club’s sleazy owner. When Titine announces she wants gold slippers, Prosper determines to get them for her.
Then Prosper meets gorgeous, rich Victorine LaBranche That would have been the end of Titine—except that Prosper had already delivered and received payment from Titine for the gold slippers.
Two nights later, Titine is found dead, buried in a bin of rice in Prosper’s mill. She’s wearing gold slippers.
When Prosper has to view the body, he sees the slippers Titine is wearing are not the ones he bought for her.
Romance has to take a back seat to the murder investigation, which is fortunate. The mystery is well-plotted, the characters in it surprisingly vivid. By contrast, Prosper and Victorine are stock characters that could have come out of any romance novel.
Victorine makes me wish Keyes had decided to write mysteries instead of romances.
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
Julian Messner, 1958
My grade: C+
In The Enemy Camp, Jerome Weidman looks at Jewish-Gentile relations through a Jew’s eyes.
Taken from an orphanage, George Hurst was raised on the Lower East Side by “Aunt” Tessie. He accepted her values as he accepted her love, without question, on all but one thing: his best friend, Danny Schorr.
Tessie thinks Danny is no good — and she’s right.
Danny uses George, kills his chance of a law degree, steals his girl, and goes on to make a fortune.
George pulls himself together, becomes a successful accountant, and marries a Main Line Philadelphia girl.
Suddenly, with one phone call, George’s past threatens to undo the respectable suburban commuter life he’s built for himself.
Weidman is a fine storyteller with a keen eye for characterization. He weaves a complex story about a basically nice guy with a few blind spots. George is likable, trustworthy, and caring— even though he sometimes does things that are stupid and mean.
It’s temping to see The Enemy Camp as a tribute to our contemporary lack of prejudice.
That would be a mistake.
We haven’t eliminated prejudice. We’ve merely changed the subjects about which we are prejudiced.
The Enemy Camp
by Jerome Weidman
Random House, 1958
My Grade: B+
Historical fiction doesn’t get any better than The Winthrop Woman, Anya Seton’s fascinating tale of Puritan America.
Elizabeth, the novel’s heroine, is niece and daughter-in-law to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Widowed before she reaches America, Elizabeth marries Robert Feake, a strange, weak young man. The Feakes flee Massachusetts when Elizabeth is accused of witchcraft. They settle in Greenwich, buy land, and seek the protection of Dutch citizenship.
Unhinged by an Indian attack, Robert returns to England. In order to get a divorce so she can marry again, Elizabeth says she committed adultery. That lie almost does her in. Elizabeth and her third husband, William Hallet, barely escape being tried for both adultery and bigamy.
Beneath all the exciting stuff—passion, witchcraft, massacres, madness—is a fascinating picture of Puritans. Far from being united by faith, they bickered constantly among themselves over doctrinal points and united only in contempt for Catholics, Baptists, and other heathen.
Readers would never guess this story wasn’t invented, but the facts, dates, and circumstances are all true. Sexton said the story didn’t need any additions to make it exciting. (She’s right.) She even incorporated characters’ written words into the novel’s dialog.
Don’t miss The Winthrop Woman. It’s a great read.
The Winthrop Woman
by Anya Seton
Houghton, Mifflin 1958
1958 Bestseller #8
My grade: A
Edna Ferber dazzled readers in 1958 with Ice Palace, a tale that went behind the headlines of Alaska’s fight to become a state.
The story is about Christine Stone, a beautiful and brainy young Alaskan woman brought up by her two grandfathers, both Alaskan pioneers. Grandfather Thor Stone is passionate about the land and its people; Grandfather Czar Kennedy is passionate about getting rich from Alaska’s resources.
Czar is maneuvering to get Chris to marry Bay Husack, son of one of his wealthy “outside” friends. He wants Bay to be the first governor of Alaska and then become President.
Thor is working equally hard at undermining Czar.
The future of Alaska hangs in the balance.
Ice Palace is part travelogue, part tract. Ferber takes readers through Alaska with the enthusiasm of Rick Steen, then lambastes corporate greed with the zeal of John Bunyon. Even the names Thor and Czar are reminiscent of the symbolic names in Pilgrim’s Progress.
There are some interesting factual tidbits in Ice Palace, but if you want a plausible plot and believable characters, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
P.S. The guys in the white parkas win.
by Edna Ferber
1958 bestseller #7
My Grade: C-
Eloise at Christmastime is another in Kay Thompson’s highly successful books “for precocious adults” illustrated by Hilary Knight.
There’s no real plot here. Eloise at Christmastime is more merchandise than storybook: the literary equivalent of Disney-character drinking glasses sold for 99¢ with a McDonald’s cheeseburger. It it weren’t for Knight’s drawings, there would be no book.
Thompson captures the self-absorption of a six-year-old to perfection, letting Eloise narrate her own story. Talking about herself is what Eloise does best.
Her usual brattiness accentuated by holiday excitement, Eloise runs wild through the Plaza Hotel where she lives on the top floor with Nanny. Poor Nanny does her best to provide some structure and stability for Eloise, but her orthopedic oxfords can’t keep up with Eloise’s Mary Janes.
Mother, as usual, is off traveling. She sends Eloise a cartwheel hat and calls her long distance from the Mediterranean on Christmas Eve.
I didn’t find previous Eloise books amusing, but this one struck me as downright depressing. There’s something about see a six-year-old exchanging gifts with a dog and a turtle while Mother works on her tan in the Mediterranean that makes me want to howl.
Sadly, there are too many Eloises in the world today—and too few Nannies.
Eloise at Christmastime
by Kay Thompson
Drawings by Hilary Knight
Random House, 1958
1958 Bestseller #6
My Grade: D
John O’Hara is a fine writer, but he wrote some boring books. From the Terrace is one of them.
The novel is about Alfred Eaton, second son of a small Pennsylvania industrialist. Alfred makes his mark as an investment banker, then serves as an undersecretary of the Navy during World War II. Along the way he has two wives, three children, and numerous affairs.
At 50, after nearly hemorrhaging to death, Alfred retires to a terrace in California to consider his options. He could work for someone else or start his own business.
He does neither. Instead, he lives off his investments and does favors for people who know he has time on his hands.
O’Hara implies Alfred’s post-terrace life is wasted. Wasted compared to what? His earlier life of womanizing and money-grubbing? What’s valuable and noble about that?
O’Hara blames Alfred’s wasted retirement on his never having made any real friends. Alfred doesn’t seem to notice whether he has friends or not. Perhaps sleeping with his friends’ wives cured him of expecting to have friends.
Be that as it may, I couldn’t help feeling O’Hara would have done me a favor by retiring Alfred about 500 pages earlier.
From the Terrace
By John O’Hara
Random House, 1958
1958 Bestseller #5
My Grade: D+
Patrick Dennis won instant celebrity in 1955 with his first novel Auntie Mame. Three years laster, he cashed in on his success with its prequel: Around the World with Auntie Mame.
In this novel, Patrick recalls his 1937 trip with his flamboyant aunt. Patrick tells his wife a sanitized version of the trip. Readers learn what really happened.
In 1937, Mame was filthy rich, knew everyone, and was ready to do anything that was not boring, especially if it involved sexy men and stiff drinks. Patrick was 18 and mature for his age—but then, almost anyone of any age seems mature compared to Mame.
Patrick and Mame met cons and kooks from Paris to Singapore. Between them, they defeated scam artists, punctured pretenders, and deflated windbags.
The novel is broad farce, sprinkled with sophomoric humor. Example: The Austrian castle when Nazis train is Schloss Stinkenbach.
Many of the allusions are dated. Dennis’ attempts to reproduce accents becomes irritation very quickly, too.
As to characterization, the roles of Mame and Patrick could be played by Miss Piggy and Kermit.
The highlight of the novel for me was the name of the woman Mame hires to get her introduced at court in England: Lady Gravell-Pitt. Now that’s funny.
Around the World with Auntie Mame
by Patrick Dennis (pen name of Edward Everett Tanner III)
Harcourt, Brace, 1958
1958 Bestseller #4
My Grade: D+
Lolita is not the novel the movie poster leads you to expect.
Humbert, a middle-aged, wacko French writer narrates the story. Humbert takes a room in the New England home of a widow, Charlotte Haze. Smitten with her pre-adolescent daughter, Delores, whom he calls Lolita, Humbert marries Charlotte.
After finding a diary in which Humbert confides his lust for her daughter, Charlotte runs from the house and is conveniently run over and killed. Humbert runs off with Delores/Lolita.
Forget the heart-shaped sunglasses. This is not a book about a seductress. Humbert has to bribe and bully Loilta into sex. Afterward, she cries.
After a couple years of being both Humbert’s “daughter” and mistress, Lolita disappears. Humbert finds her married and pregnant and finds out why she left him. Humbert hunts up the pervert who stole her away and kills him. Humbert dies of a heart attack before his trial.
There’s no smutty language in the novel, no graphic description of sex acts. Vladimir Nobokov doesn’t glorify Humbert’s perversion.
But Nobokov has too much fun writing this novel for me to take him seriously. He revels in word play and makes Humbert’s difficulties in dealing with his teenage mistress howlingly funny.
The topic deserves more serious treatment.
by Vladimir Nobokov
Putnam’s Sons, 1958
1958 Bestseller #3
My Grade: C+