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original "Good Woman" cover with author's dedicationEmma Downes is a good woman.

Deserted by her husband, she started a business, supported herself, raised their son, now a missionary in Africa, and became a force to be reckoned with in her church.


A Good Woman by Louis Bromfield
Frederick A. Stokes, 1927. 432 pp. 1927 bestseller #10. My grade: A.

When natives attack Phillip’s African mission, Phillip escapes, dragging his virgin wife back to the states with him.

Missionaries board steam locomotive in Congo about 1900.

Phillip and Naomi left Africa after their mission was attacked.

Naomi would have preferred martyrdom, but Phillip has lost faith in his mother’s God and in his missionary calling.

Back home, Phillip takes a laborer’s job in the mills while his mother tries to put a good face on things — tough work, especially when her husband shows up after a 26 year absence.

Louis Bromfield builds his complex plot from the story’s setting and the personalities of his characters.

Bromfield draws Emma with deft strokes. She has guts, stamina, business acumen, determination, but she’s also manipulative, controlling, and self-deluded.

Emma’s religion is “ a practical, businesslike instrument of success,” her God conveniently pocket-sized, but Emma doesn’t know that.

Some of the incidents are shocking, but not unbelievable. The superficial way Bromfield relates horrific events powerfully suggests they are too awful to be spoken of.

Emma hasn’t a clue what Christianity is all about. Her cluelessness makes this book important — and vastly entertaining—90 years after its initial publication.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Reign of Law by James Lane Allen is the story of young man  with his heart set on becoming a minister.

David’s parents think he’s too stupid for college, but accept his desire to be a minister as an explanation of why he’s always been so peculiar.

After two years of hard labor in the hemp fields to earn college money, David finds the “nonsectarian” Bible college’s preoccupation with dogma abhorrent.

He visits churches of other denominations, which marks him as a heretic.

“I always knew there was nothing in you,” his father says when, after three semesters, David is expelled as unfit  for the ministry.

His dream destroyed, David goes back to the hemp fields to figure out what to do next.

Allen tries to make the novel about David’s loss of faith, but there’s no sign he had any more faith in God before college than after.

David’s real problem seems to be that he’s a friendless, only child, reared by weird parents in the middle of Kentucky’s hemp fields. Allen makes working with hemp seem idyllic compared to living with David’s parents.

Allen’s solution is to provide David with a nice girl.

If you believe that’s the answer, you have a lot more faith than David.

The Reign of Law: A Tale of the Kentucky Hemp Fields
By James Lane Allen
1900 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg Ebook #3791
My grade: C-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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Bible in pew

When the aged rector of St. Johns dies in a booming mid-western city, the vestry look East for “a level-headed clergyman about thirty-five years old who will mind his own business.”

They hit on John Hodder.

For a year, Hodder more than lives up to their expectations. But gnawing at the back of his mind is a sense that the business of the church is making Christians.

Hodder learns that people living around St. John’s despise the church because they suffer daily from the effects of the church leaders’ “sound business sense.”

On the verge of chucking his job, Hodder meets a former member of St. Johns known throughout the city as a man who helps others. Mr. Bentley inspires Hodder to rethink his theology.

Hodder denounces his congregation’s Pharisees, including the major financial contributor whose daughter Hodder loves.

The central dilemma of Winston Churchill’s  The Inside of the Cup is ageless. The novel, however, is done in by Churchill’s ponderous prose. Hodder appears incapable of ordering coffee in less than 500 words.

Whatever value readers of 1913 found in The Inside of the Cup has evaporated.

Or perhaps it just was displaced by the weight of all those words.

The Inside of the Cup
by Winston Churchill
Illustrations by Howard Giles
MacMillan, 1913
513 pages
Project Gutenberg e-book #5364
My grade: C

Photo credit: Bible in Pew by sraburton

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Tea pot, books & typewriter in Barbara Pym Society

Web site of the Barbara Pym Society

[This is one of our occasional reviews of notable novels that didn’t make the bestseller list .]

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is a quiet novel of keen observation and droll wit.

Narrator Mildred Lathbury, a nondescript, mousy, 30ish spinster, lives in post-war London very much as she lived in a rural rectory when her parents were alive.

Publicly, Mildred is regarded as able to dispense tea and platitudes at appropriate times. Privately, her observations are tinged with irony. Mildred sees herself exactly as readers will see her; she finds the sight both depressing and funny.

Crisis comes into Mildred’s life second hand. An unlikely couple move into the flat below her. Mrs. Napier is an anthropologist, her husband a former Navy officer. Mildred is drawn into the Napiers’ life and caught in their marital tensions.

About the same time, Mildred’s vicar and his sister rent part of the rectory to a war-widow, throwing the parish into a tizzy. Mildred enjoys the novelty of these intrigues at the edges of her life, but she also resents the way people presume on her good will and intrude on her solitude.

Nothing actually happens to Mildred in the novel, but she finds it possible to have “a full life” at the fringes of the lives of more interesting characters.

Excellent Women
By Barbara Pym
Cape, 1952

Excellent Women is readily available in hardback, paperback, new and used versions.

For information about the author, whose work is often likened to that of Jane Austen,  see the website of The Barbara Pym Society.

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Harold Bell Wright’s The Calling of Dan Matthews is so unusual a religious novel, it deserves to be called unique.  Although it didn’t make the bestseller list when it was published in 1909, I’m reviewing it here as one of the notable novels of the 20th century.

The Calling of Dan Matthews rontpiece illustration and title page

While fishing, an Ozark Mountain doctor meets a boy who impresses him with his mind and personality. Dr. Oldham hopes the boy will become a doctor, too. Instead Dan Matthews chooses to go into the ministry.

Dan’s first pastorate is in Corinth where the now-retired doctor is on hand if needed. Dan’s good looks and ignorance of human nature land him in hot water almost immediately.

Although his congregation finds no fault with his sermons, (except that they aren’t what they are used to) Brother Matthews offends them by his undignified behavior: he does manual labor on a farm to win the respect of farmers and get them to church, and helps a crippled Catholic lad with the garden that he and his mother depend on for their livelihood.

Dan’s growing affection for a young nurse who thinks the church is an un-Christian organization is the final straw for the Corinth church people.

Dan is not merely a good Christian with a heart for people. There are plenty of religious novels with that sort of central character. What makes Dan such an unusual lead character is his naiveté.

Nothing in his backwoods upbringing or his theological training prepared Dan for church politics. At the denomination’s annual convention, as his enemies convey the unmistakable message that no God-fearing congregation would want him, Dan knows he’s done for, but scarcely knows how it happened.

Wright’s own experiences provide details that outsiders couldn’t invent. Because of  what his congregation regarded as anti-church sentiment in the novel, Wright was forced out of the ministry.

The novel suffers from the usual flaws of religious-romance novels: both the religion and the romance are too sentimental. A more serious problem, however, is that Dan—and perhaps Wright himself—seem to label folks as hypocrites when they are merely stupid. The outcomes may be the same, but their causation is not. I suspect the God who looketh on the heart would know the difference, even if the novel’s author doesn’t.

In 1935, The Calling of Dan Matthews was made into a black and white film that turned  the church leaders into villains so evil that the Borgias look saintly by comparison. Sadly, film is remembered as a story of what really goes on in churches.

Wright’s nuanced novel is merely footnoted  as the first American novel to sell over a million copies—and it achieved that prominence without making the bestseller list the year it was published. Wright is said to be the first novelist to become a millionaire.

The Calling of Dan Matthews
by Harold Bell Wright
Illustrated by Arthur I. Keller
The Book Supply Company, 1909
364 pages
Not on the 1909 bestseller list
Project Gutenberg Ebook #9314

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County Church

County Church

The Gown of Glory is a quaint, gentle novel, ideally suited to an afternoon when your cold is a little better but not all gone yet.

David and Mary Lyall came to the small village of Ladykirk planning to stay at most five years—just long enough for the world to see what a wonderful choice David would be to pastor a big city congregation. Twenty-five years and three children later, they are still in Ladykirk, still hoping for better things to come.

The Lyalls have good sense, kind hearts, abundant humor, and enough faults to be believable. Their world may be provincial, but its crises are none the less real: envy is envy, whether its object is a millionaire’s wealth or an evangelist’s converts.

Surely there’s no funnier scene in religious fiction than when Mary realizes she’s given all her savings for a much-wanted kitchen cabinet to a visiting missionary and sobs, “I hate the heathen. I want my cabinet.”

The Gown of Glory is not great literature, but it’s a durable novel that will make you smile, perhaps shed a tear, and maybe even decide to go to church next Sunday.

The Gown of Glory
Agnes Sligh Turnbull
Houghton Mifflin, 1952
284 pages
1952 Bestseller # 8
My grade: B

Photo credit: “Country Church” uploaded by organmaster

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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