In the Wilderness character tells

dark landscape of forbidding rocky hills
The wilderness is a frightening place.

In the Wilderness is an antidote to salacious later twentieth century bestsellers.

But Robert Hichens’ novel is strong stuff that many readers may find hard to swallow.


In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens
1917 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #4603] My grade: A-

Dion Leith is passionately in love with Rosamund Everard, who finds him a nice, clean-living young man. Though trained as a singer, Rosamund feels her vocation is in a religious order, not marriage.

A sermon convinces her to accept Dion’s proposal. They marry, have a son.

Rosamund’s love is all for their son. She scarcely notices when the woman in a notorious divorce case pays attention to Dion.

When the Boer War breaks out, Dion volunteers. In his absence, Rosamund moves to an English cathedral village where her music and religious interests are welcome.

When he returns from South Africa, Dion accidentally shoots his son while the two are shooting together at Rosamund’s suggestion.

Rosamund screams, “Murderer,” and locks the cottage door against Dion.

Repudiating the values that locked the door on him, Dion leaves England for non-Western, non-Christian places, for drugs, debauchery, and the Other Woman.

Hichens doesn’t deliver a tidy, happily-ever-after ending.

It’s more of a “we’re going to grow up together” ending, a glimmer of hope that two very dissimilar people can create more happiness than unhappiness for each other.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Christine is fake, not fiction

Alice Cholmondeley’s author’s note to Christine prefaces what Cholmondeley says are letters written to her by her daughter, Christine, who was studying in Germany the summer World War I began.

A note saying the publisher chose to alter names of some individuals reinforces the idea that the letters are true.


Christine by Alice Cholmondeley¹
©1917. 1917 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg eBook #12683. My grade: C .

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to frontlines
Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to the front, 1 August 1914.

In fact, Christine is a work not merely of fiction, but fabricated propaganda.

The letters’ details provide the proof.

Christine tells her mother a host of “facts” that a parent would have known without telling: the family is poor, Christine is to be away only one year, that no one else in the family has a talent for violin.

Cholmondeley is very good at detail, which gives the story a sense of “this happened.”

The text is strewn with German terms that monolingual American readers will need to look up.

Cholmondeley goes to great lengths to show the Germans as a nation are cruel, brutal, greedy, power-hungry, that they wanted war because war fit in with their philosophy and ambitions.

The value of Christine for today’s readers is less about its story — which is slender — than about its rhetorical strategy. As a study in persuasion, it’s well worth careful examination.

Techniques that Cholmondeley uses against the Germans might be used today against Muslims or Methodists.


¹Alice Cholmondeley is a pen name of Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, an Australian-born British novelist. By her first marriage she became Gräfin von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and by a second marriage, Countess Russell.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Doctor: Its plot is as rocky as its setting

ruggest mountains with light dusting of snow
The Doctor is the story of a love quadrangle that ends in a religious tract.

The Boyle family can afford college for only one son. Mrs. Boyle determines Dick will go to become a minister.


The Doctor : A Tale of the Rockies by Ralph Connor¹
1907 bestseller #9. Project Gutenberg ebook 3242. My Grade: C+.

Dick loves Margaret Robertson who loves his older brother, Barney.

Barney sets his heart on becoming a surgeon. He also sets his heart on marrying Iona Lane, who loves him but doesn’t want marriage until after she’s had a successful singing career.

Barney falls out with Dick in the mistaken impression that Dick and and Iona are lovers. Dick tries repeatedly for reconciliation, but Barney refuses.

Dick ends up working as a missionary in the Canadian Rockies where Margaret, now a nurse, is working.

Barney ends up as medical superintendent on the a railroad line being built in the Canadian Rockies.

Ralph Connor plays on readers’ emotions.

A few isolated bits of the story have the verisimilitude of reportage, but the plot is generally absurd.

Under Connor’s pen, all four principal characters get religion and either live happily or die happily.

A week after reading The Doctor, happily, you won’t be able to remember what it was about.


¹Ralph Connor is the pen name of the Rev. Dr. Charles William Gordon, who served first in the Presbyterian and later in the United churches in Canada.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Satan Sanderson a patchwork of implausibilities

Called to witness a dying man’s will, the Reverend Henry Sanderson learns college friend Hugh Stires, is being disinherited as a wastrel.

Sanderson intercedes on Hugh’s behalf. He confesses his college nickname was “Satan” and that it was he who led Hugh to drink and gamble.


Satan Sanderson by Hallie Erminie Rives (Mrs. Post Wheeler)
A. B. Wenzell, Illus. 1907 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg ebook #39689. My Grade: B-.

As he pleads for Hugh, however, Sanderson tries to recall something—anything—to suggest Hugh is capable of reversing his downward spiral.

There is none. Hugh is “a moral mollusk.”

An elderly man and blind young woman in Victorian dress sit in drawing room.
Mr. Stires with his ward, Jessica.

David Stires says he wishes the resemblance between his son and Sanderson extended to more than physical appearance.

He agrees to think again before he signs his will leaving his fortune to his beautiful, blind ward, Jessica Holme.

The reprobate son reappears ready to be good long enough to woo and wed Jessica, thereby insuring he gets his father’s money one way or the other.

Sanderson realizes he not only started Hugh downhill, but aided his masquerade as reformed character.

From that set up, Hallie Erminie Rives could have aimed the plot in any of several directions.

She chose to take them all.

The novel is a patchwork plot of implausibilities performed by manikins.

Rives did give Sanderson a nice dog; he, at least, stayed in character.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Awakening of Helena Richie joins orphan to widow

When Dr. Lavendar needs a home for orphan David Allison, he thinks the 7-year-old might be good for young, pretty widow, Helena Richie, newly arrived in Old Chester.

Sam Wright, son of Mrs. Richie’s landlord, thinks Mrs. Richie might be good for him. At 23, “Sam’s Sam” is ready to fall in love with anything or anyone not from Old Chester.


The Awakening of Helena Richie by Margaret Deland

1906 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg eBook #6315. My grade: A-.


David is good for Helena. He likes her well enough, though not as much as he likes Dr. Lavendar. Here are the two in conversation:

“That is a Bible picture,” Dr. Lavendar observed.
“Who,” said David, “is the gentleman in the water?”
Dr. Lavendar blew his nose before answering. Then he said that that was meant to be our Saviour when He was being baptized. “Up in the sky,” Dr. Lavendar added, “is His Heavenly Father.”
There was silence until David asked gently, “Is it a good photograph of God?”

David intensely dislikes Mrs. Richie’s widowed brother, Mr. Pryor, whose occasional, brief visits are too long and too frequent for David’s liking.

Margaret Deland makes her characters pop off the page. Even the most disreputable of them has some virtues, and the most virtuous has some flaws.

Helena’s best features, unfortunately, are skin deep: She’s neither bright nor perceptive.  You’ll have to read the novel to learn about her flaws.

The Old Chester community becomes the real story.

An A- is too high a grade for this book, but Helena’s spiritual awakening is believable, which is almost unheard of in a religious novel.

And David may be the funniest, serious, little boy to appear between the covers of a book.

© 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

White Banners entertains inoffensively

White Banners is the best sort of bad religious novel.

Its religion is so nondescript it won’t offend an ardent atheist; its story’s so entertaining the devout won’t notice the religion is tepid.


White Banners by Lloyd C. Douglas

P. F. Collier and Son., 1936, 400 p. 1936 bestseller #6. My grade: B.


A woman selling apples knocks on Paul and Marcia Ward’s door one snowy afternoon. Marcia buys an apple from her, gives her a meal, learns she’s just been released from the hospital after having a child.

Hannah feels as sorry for Marcia as Marcia feels for her, though for different reasons.

Hannah talks Paul Ward into letting her stay as housemaid until after Marcia’s third child is born.

By the time infant Sally joins the other two children, Hannah is an indispensable part of the Ward home.

Wards are so pleased with Hannah, they overlook her peculiar belief that refusing to fight those who hurt her makes her stronger than her antagonists.

Wards also don’t inquire where Hannah goes on her days off.

The plot is complicated and, in many respects, absurd.

The Wards and Hannah’s friends are sufficiently endowed with peculiarities to make them seem human.

Lloyd C. Douglas sees that virtue is rewarded, sin is punished enough to jog repentance, and that everyone gets a chance to try living happily ever after.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tell No Man shows muscular faith

Tell No Man is the story of a rising young stockbroker involved in a passionate affair with a sexy socialite to whom he’s been married several years.

Service in Korea shook Hank Garvin badly. When a long-time friend commits suicide, Hank’s foundation gives way.


 

Tell No Man by Adela Rogers St. Johns

Doubleday, 1966. 444 pages. 1966 bestseller #7. My grade: A.


1966-07_tellnomanShortly thereafter, Hank has a Damascus Road experience.

Like Paul, Hank’s ready to chuck everything to follow Jesus, believing he will do the same works Jesus did.

Mellie, Hank’s atheist wife, is ready to chuck Hank if he persists in going into the ministry.

Hank is convinced Mellie will stick with him.

She does, but soon realizes she “didn’t come first with Hank any more. God came first.”

That changes their marriage.

Adela Rogers St. Johns chose Mellie’s godmother, a Bible-reading Catholic and veteran Chicago newspaper reporter, to tell the story.  Her credentials give the narration authority: She is well-placed to know, to see, to speak truth.

I rarely find religious novels inspiring. This one is not just inspiring but inspiring in practical ways.

The events that lead up to the story’s climax will be familiar to anyone who’s read religious novels.

The climax, itself, however, is both a logical outgrowth of St. Johns’ plot line — and an absolutely stunning surprise.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In Garden of Allah weak, lapsed Catholics revive

The Garden of Allah begins with the arrival in North Africa of  an  Englishwoman headed to Beni-Mora.

Robert Hichens makes the vast, unpopulated Sahara a vivid backdrop flooded with colors and  vibrating with tom-toms, cymbals, castanets, and the howls of dogs for a story as unexpected as the scene.


The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens

Grosset & Dunlap, 1904. 1905 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #3637   My grade: A.


Domini Enfilden’s father, an English Lord, has recently died leaving her at 32 single, wealthy, and spiritually shaken by the collapse of her parents’ marriage and their Catholicism.

Domini hopes to find herself in the solitude of the desert, the vast empty space the Arabs call “The Garden of Allah.”

What she finds immediately is an annoying man said to be English, who is barely civil, and seems repelled by religion of every sort.

Aside from Count Anteoni, an Italian who is Arab in all but his failure to adopt Islam, the pair are the only Europeans in Beni-Mora.

The story is riveting.

Domini’s thoughts and mental corrections, her mood swings, her snobbery and charity all are perfectly believable.

Robert Hichens fascinates readers as he does Domini with the mysterious behavior of the man whose name they eventually learn is Boris Androvsky.

Then Hichens pulls readers into biggest mystery of all: the mystery of God’s love and forgiveness.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

One Increasing Purpose seeks answer to “Why me?”

In One Increasing Purpose, A. S. M. Hutchinson presents a nice guy, Simon “Sim” Paris, who survived World War I without a scratch.

Sim  wonders why he was spared.


One Increasing Purpose by A. S. M. Hutchinson

Little, Brown,and Company, 1925,  448 pp. 1925 bestseller #10. My grade: C+.


All his family call on Sim’s sympathy.

Andrew, Sim’s oldest brother, is married to a woman temperamentally her husband’s opposite; after 10 years of marriage they are finding passion a poor substitute for shared values.

Sim’s other brother, Charles, is fond of his wife and she of him, but their relationship ends with fondness.

Looking for a sympathetic ear for his own problems, Sims looks up girl he’d known before the war. When Sim tell Elizabeth he’s convinced he was spared for a purpose, she says the purpose “is of God.”

Sim spends the rest of the novel trying to find God’s purpose, while simultaneously trying to help his brothers and sisters-in-laws with their marital problems.

Sims is the sort of person you’d want as a friend, but he’s awfully dull as a male lead. Sim’s declaration of undying love is, “Elizabeth,” which is not a particularly memorable line.

To get the mess untangled, Hutchinson resorts to a deus ex machina, which perhaps is appropriate for a protagonist whose statement of faith is “Christ the Common Denominator.”

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni