The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens, and The Marriage of William Ashe by Mrs. Humphrey Ward are clearly at the top of the list of 1905 novels with that still have something important to say and say it well.
Despite each being 110 years old and each exploring themes at odds with contemporary culture, the three are remarkably accessible for contemporary readers.
The House of Mirth
The shortest of the three, Edith Wharton’s novel is also the best known today, due no doubt in large part having been translated into a TV production in 1981 and a movie in 2000.
Lily Bart, Wharton’s leading lady, is a lovely young woman who wants to marry for love, providing the man she loves is incredibly wealthy.
Wharton’s presents the story in precise detail that piles criticism on New York City’s late Victorian high society, making The House of Mirth feel like a true account of the ultra-rich circa 1900.
The weakness of The House of Mirth is Lily herself. She’s all adolescent drama, no adult sense—a real drawback for an adult heroine in today’s book market.
The Garden of Allah
The Garden of Allah is about as different from The House of Mirth as it possibly could be.
It’s set in the vast vacancy of the Sahara Desert.
And its leading characters focus on moral, ethical, and spiritual problems: They wouldn’t know what make of Lily Bart.
Hichens makes the novel part mystery, part spiritual biography, part travelogue.
He makes the Sahara sands come alive with color, sound, and unceasing movement. Intrigue and danger seem to lurk around every corner, terrible and enticing.
The characters, too, are alive with color, sound, and movement: They breathe aloud in the pages.
Now that I know how the story ends, The Garden of Allah is definitely a novel I’ll pick up again to linger over.
The Marriage of William Ashe
The Marriage of William Ashe is, in an odd way, a sort of midpoint between the other two novels.
There’s an upper class male who must marry an upper class female who will be the vital hostess for his promising Foreign Office career: the male equivalent of Lily Bart’s situation.
There are also moral, ethical, and religious values to be considered, ones not terribly different from those faced by the main characters in The Garden of Allah.
Ashe promised his wife he would give her freedom and support her choices. When those choices are a more exciting life with other men, alcohol, and drugs, does he let her go?
And when the consequences of her choices take their toll on her, what does he do then?
A couple other observations before I leave the 1905 bestseller list.
First, against less-strong competition The Gambler by Katherine Cecil Thurston would have had a good chance of being short-listed.
Second, The Clansman, a badly written novel, is worth reading for its perspective on slavery and history.
© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni
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