The Last Puritan: A dutiful attempt at a novel

The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel—the only novel written by philosopher George Santayana*—is a better novel than you’d expect a philosopher to write.

Unfortunately, there’s too much of it.


The Last Puritan by George Santayana

Charles Scribner’s, 1936. 602 p. 1936 bestseller #2 My grade: B-.


The last puritan is Oliver Alden, son and heir of a wealthy New England couple who should never have married.

Oliver’s father abandons Oliver to be brought up by his mother.

Oliver’s mother abandons him to be brought up by a governess.

At 17, Oliver joins his father for a cruise.

Oliver is bewildered by his father’s unconventional ideas and appalled by his drug use. Oliver is, however, is drawn to Jim Darnley, the yacht’s skipper, despite Jim’s womanizing and gambling.

Oliver does his duty, whether that’s being civil to mother, studying philosophy, playing football for his school, or proposing to Jim’s impoverished sister.

People who enjoy life, like his European cousin Mario, are incomprehensible to Oliver.

When America enters the war, Oliver does his duty and enlists.

He’s killed in a road accident after the armistice.

Santayana rattles on about the opposing philosophies with which Oliver struggles.

Underneath the torrent of words, there’s a sad story about a pathetic little kid who got big without getting hugged or growing up.

*Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Hilton’s Lost Horizon dead loss to literature

Lost Horizon‘s only contribution to literature was make Shangri-La synonymous with paradise on earth, thereby providing a name for raunchy bars.

James Hilton’s novel is just plain stupid.


Lost Horizon by James Hilton

William Morrow, 1934. 277 pages. 1935 bestseller # 8. My grade C-.


Cover of Lost Horizon shows Shangri La clinging to mountainsidesHilton presents Lost Horizon as a second-hand tale, a device that’s supposed to relieve the teller of responsibility for veracity. However, the story is so ridiculous, the characters so implausible, that it could be plausible only to British school chums who topped off an old school dinner with plenty of brandy.

The novel is about four people whose plane goes down in the Himalayas: Conway, a British consul; Mallison, his youthful vice-consul; Roberta Brinkow, a missionary; and Henry Barnard, an American fugitive.

Monks take them into Shangri-La, a Tibetan valley where people life very long lives.

The monks pick Conway to become High Llama when the current leader snuffs it. All but Mallison would be content to stay put.

Mallison scorns Conway’s story that Lo-Tsen, the girl he’s fallen for in Shangri-La,  is really an old woman.

Love and duty demand he get back to England.

Conway leads the pair get out.

Does Lo-Tsen really age overnight?

Does Mallison see his folly?

Can Conway ever get back to Shangri-La?

Does anyone outside a raunchy bar know — or care?

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Enchanted April: Sunny, Witty, Insightful

Wisteria in bloom
The Enchanted April  is a charming novel about four unhappy women, previously unacquainted, who vacation together in Italy for a month and find love.

Elizabeth von Arnim flits from character to character, telling sections of the narrative from different one’s view point. She employs the technique with finesse, making each character a deliciously distinctive individual.

The story begins one rainy day when Lotty Wilkins sees advertisement.

To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.
Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

On impulse, Lotty asks a woman with  whom she knows only by sight at chruch to rent the castle with her and split expenses, leaving their husbands behind. Rose Arbuthnot finds the idea of a vacation irresistible even with someone as decidedly peculiar as Lotty.

Unable to afford the rent, the pair seek two more companions. Their advertisement draws a snobbish elderly widow, Mrs. Fisher, who had known Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, and Lady Caroline Dester, 28, fleeing the host of suitors for her face and fortune.

In Italy, one after another, the women come realize their attitudes, rather than their circumstances, have been the root of their misery back home.

The novel bubbles with mirth at the folly of being disappointed by what one lacks instead of enjoying what one has, even if what one has is a not entirely satisfactory husband.

If you cannot enjoy this novel, perhaps you need a month’s holiday in Italy.

Incidentally, there’s an Academy Award nominated video version of The Enchanted April, which unfortunately omits von Arnim’s  funniest bits, but is otherwise faithful to the story and spirit of the novel.

The Enchanted April
by Elizabeth von Arnim
1923 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook #16389

Photo credit: Wisteria in Bloom 2  by Dubock

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Maria Chapdelaine, Teenage Pioneer

Maria Chapdelaine  opens in late winter, just ahead of the ice breakup in the river. With spring, Maria will awaken to love.

Instead of a gushy tale of teenage lovers, however, novelist Louis Hemon delivers something harder, more mature, and more incredible.

Old Quebec Coat of Arms
Old Quebec Coat of Arms

Maria’s good looks are enough to attract suitors willing to cross a river and trudge through a road-less forest to the compound where Samuel Chapdelaine’s pioneering family “make land” with axe and saw. Maria’s choice is Francois, a handsome woodsman and Indian trader.

When Francois is lost in a blizzard, Maria is numb with grief. What shall she do for the rest of her life?

She could marry Lorenzo Surprenant and go to live in Boston.

Or she could marry Eutrobe Gagnon and live on a half-cleared farm doing pretty much what she does on her father’s half-cleared farm. If she marries Eutrobe she might, like her mother, have a few words of praise from her husband after she’s dead.

The characters of this novel are the sort of folks you’d want as your neighbors if you were in any sort of trouble, but they aren’t probably folks you’d invite to a party. Simultaneously insignificant and magnificent, their idea of the good life is a game of cards with friends while a smudge pot keeps the mosquitoes at bay.

What Maria decides to do with her life, Hemon implies, is what any of the Quebec pioneers would do. They are “people of a race that knows not how to perish.” Duty and responsibility tied to a sense of community and of their roots gives them the courage to do what needs to be done.

Maria Chapdelaine: A Tale of the Lake St. John Country
Louis Hemon
Trans. W. H. Blake
Illus. Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté
New York 1921
1922 Bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook #4383

Photo Credit: Old coat of arms of Quebec (from the [[Wilfrid Laurier]] monument, Montreal) – personal snapshot by Montrealais. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni