Inheritance a Study in Chips from Old Blocks

Loom in New Lanark Mill
Phyllis Bentley’s Inheritance follows two intertwined Yorkshire families, the Oldroyds and the Bamforths, for almost 120 years.

The story begins in 1812. William Oldroyd decides to mechanize his woolen mill, a move that will put many workers out of jobs. Joe Bamforth, a foreman whose job is secure, joins his fellow mill hands, taking the Luddite oath. A quartet of Luddites murder the elder Oldroyd. Although Joe is guiltless, he chooses to be hanged with his mates.

Young Will takes over the business, spurning Mary Oldroyd whom he loves and who, unknown to Will, carries his child. Much later, as a widower, Will takes Mary as his second wife and acknowledges his son Jonathan, to the distress of the children of both wives.

In the decades through World War I, the Oldroyd’s financial fortunes rise and the Bamforth’s decline.

The Oldroyds are respected for financial savvy, the Bamforths for their moral standards.

The Oldroyds scramble to stay on top; the Bamforths reach a hand to help others rise.

Bentley is superb at showing ordinary people caught up in historic events. Readers can learn a great deal about the contemporary economic situation from this novels. The Luddites, rather than being old-fashioned fuddy-duddies, seem very much like contemporary workers sucked into the Occupy movement.

Bentley’s characters, however, are bundles of character traits rather than true individuals. The children in the book, in particular, appear to replicas of their dominant parent from the moment of birth. At the last, Bentley’s novel sinks beneath the implausibility of a preteen jumping from a train to change the world.

Inheritance
Phyllis Bentley
MacMillan, 1931
1932 Bestseller #9
592 pages

Photo credit: Loom in  in New Lanark Mill, Scotland uploaded by hazelharp http://www.sxc.hu/photo/207250

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Innocent Visits of Elizabeth Ridicule Immorality

The Visits of Elizabeth by Elinor Glyn consists of a series of letters written by a 17-year-old girl to her invalid mother while visiting relatives who are obliged by family ties to see that Elizabeth meets eligible men.

Elizabeth is a pretty, vivacious, and principled debutant. Her  keen powers of observation and highly developed sense of the ridiculous get plenty of exercise among her aristocratic relatives and their not-so-aristocratic hangers-on. Elizabeth  regularly misunderstands the significance of what relates. Readers less innocent than Elizabeth will see what she doesn’t.

Elizabeth’s relatives and their cronies may not rate high on morals, but the family knows too well the importance of unblemished reputation if a girl is to make a good match for them to let the girl’s naïveté to get her into serious trouble.

The Visits of Elizabeth bubbles with fun and laugh-out-loud lines for those who know French and enough about 19th century European society to grasp the allusions Elizabeth misses.   Many contemporary readers, however, will miss a great deal of the plot and the most of the pleasure of this novel.

Project Gutenberg

The Visits of Elizabeth
By Elinor Glyn
1901 Bestseller 6
Project Gutenberg e-book #10959

©Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Broad Highway is bathed in silliness and sunshine

The Broad Highway, Jeffrey Farnol’s highly visual novel of the late 1800’s English countryside, took top honors on the 1911 bestseller list, and its good-natured, bookish hero’s absurd adventures still draws guffaws from readers.

The story starts in a mock fairy tale manner. Peter and Maurice Vibart inherit 20,000 pounds and 10 guineas, respectively, from their late uncle, with the promise that whichever succeeds in marrying Lady Sophia Sefton within a year will inherit the rest of the estate.

The cousins know each other only by reputation. To Peter, Maurice is a blackguard; to Maurice, Peter is a “terrible example of Virtue run riot.”

As Peter’s tastes in women (of whom he knows nothing) incline him to soft, clinging females, he decides to hike around England until he finds a way to earn a living short of marrying the tempermental Lady Sophia. By the end of the first day’s hike, the story has more loose ends than a yarn basket full of kittens.

A series of misadventures transforms Peter into an apprentice blacksmith, living in cottage believed by locals to be haunted. As Peter Smith, he rescues beautiful Charmian Brown from being abducted. And that’s just the beginning of Peter’s adventures.

In a style reminiscent of Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, Farnol mingles slapstick with witty commentary on his hero’s deficiencies, all amply illustrated in a string of absurd situations.

Farnol dawdles to let Peter be ridiculed, then streaks through more active scenes with hardly time for readers to note who was in them.

The Broad Highway is not a great novel, but it’s sunny silliness is a joyous escape from the gloomy seriousness of the twenty-first century. I wish someone would make it into a Masterpiece Classic presentation.

The Broad Highway
by Jeffrey Farnol
1911 bestseller #1
Project Gutenberg E-text #5257
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Kingdom Round the Corner is optimistic but dull

The Kingdom Round the Corner, Coningsby Dawson’s 1921 romance, is distanced by omniscient narration, riddled by implausible coincidences, and ultimately sunk by a main character as colorless as cream cheese.

In March 1919, Lord Taborley, familiarly called “Tabs,” leaves the service by the door of a hospital.  Optimistically Tabs believes, “We find everything that we’ve lost or longed for, if we’ll only press on.”

He finds his beautiful, prewar girl friend has already pressed on.

Terry was 17 when Tabs left. At 22, she’s madly in love with a general who came up through the ranks. Before the war, General Braithwaite was Tabs’s valet.

Over innumerable pots of tea, the characters discuss the impact of the 1914-18 war. Terry is impatient for “what we’ve spent in the lost years,” while her aging father wants “the old world back—the womanly women, everybody labeled, and Beethoven.” Braithwaite wants a meritocracy. Tabs is comfortable with his inherited title.

Through Terry’s family, Tabs meets a lovely, thrice-widowed woman and her even more beautiful widowed sister.

Which of the three beauties will get Tabs?

Does anyone really care?

The Kingdom Round the Corner: A Novel  Project
By Coningsby Dawson
Illustrated by W.D. Stevens
1921 bestseller #10
Gutenberg E-Book #25702
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Maid in Waiting Is Worth Waiting For

In Maid in Waiting John Galsworthy takes up the post-war fortunes and misfortunes of Dinny Charwell, a young woman with sense, humor, loyalty, breeding, and a big, extended family.

Although he is a marvelous writer, John Galsworthy isn’t an easy read. His characters talk about politics, religion, art, culture — everything except their personal miseries. There’s nothing of  21st century exhibitionism about these people, but they are delightfully real.

Dinny’s brother is facing extradition to Bolivia on murder charges in connection with an expedition mounted by an American, Hallorsen, who blamed Hubert for the trip’s failure.

Dinny pushes Hubert’s case with politicians, makes a match for Hubert with the rector’s daughter, and finds herself pursued by both the rector’s son and Hallorsen.

Meanwhile, the mentally ill husband of the woman Dinny’s Uncle Adrian loves has come home. Dinny stays with Diana until her husband flees the house to end his life at the bottom of a mining pit.

The British  Home Office gets Hubert off, and Adrian goes abroad to give Diana a year to recover.

That leaves Dinny still waiting for love to come to her.

Readers of the ’30s wrote Galsworthy to let Dinny marry somebody nice.

You’ll feel that way, too.

Maid in Waiting
By John Galsworthy,
Charles Scribner’s, 1931
My grade: A
 
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Sun is My Undoing is true blockbuster of a novel

No matter how you look at it, Marguerite Steen’s 1941 novel The Sun Is My Undoing is extraordinary.

Three times average novel length, it covers 40 years, intertwines characters on three continents, and its hero is a slave trader.

Plenty of books tell about how slavery degraded slaves; this one tell how slavery degraded the slave traders. A mediocre writer couldn’t have envisioned this story, let alone written it.

In Bristol in 1760, the old reprobate Hercules Flood dies. His heir, Matthew Flood, sets up as a slave trader like his grandfather, even though it costs him marriage to lovely abolitionist Pallas Burmester.

After selling his first slaves, Matt “marries” his African concubine in a drunken mock ceremony in Havana. He leaves their daughter to be cared for by nuns and goes back to sea.

Years later, Matt’s quadroon granddaughter comes to Bristol to inherit the Flood money. She is shunned by everyone except Pallas Burmester.

When a lunatic slave captured by the British Navy turns out to be Matthew Flood, the news turns Bristol on its ear. I’ll leave you to read the heart-stopping ending for yourself.

The Sun Is My Undoing is a novel you won’t soon forget.

The Sun Is My Undoing
By Marguerite Steen
Viking, 1941
1176 pages,
1941 bestseller #4
My grade: A-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Great Impersonation Is Great Mystery

Photo of Kaiser Wilhelm
Kaiser Wilhelm photo from The Library of Congress

The Great Impersonation is a mystery set in duplicity and compounded by international espionage.

In German West Africa around 1910, Everard Dominey, a gone-to-seed Englishman whose only asset is fluent German, runs into a school mate, now a German commander. The two had always looked remarkably alike.

Von Ragastein has been exiled by the Kaiser for killing his lover’s husband. Dominey is self-exiled after a fight that left his wife unbalanced, threatening to kill him, and the defeated opponent missing, believed murdered.

Von Ragastein decides to kill Dominey and assume his identify.

Shortly thereafter, a man calling himself Everard Dominey arrives in England. He’s rich, abstemious, and highly principled—a miraculously changed man.

This new Dominey takes up life as an English lord. Only a German-born colleague knows Dominey is being planted to provide political intelligence when Germany attacks England.

The plot quickly gets complicated as Dominey is recognized by his former lover while Lady Dominey refuses to recognize him as her husband.

The story gets increasingly murky as Dominey gets involved in the  discussions about whether the German pre-1914 military build-up means England should prepare for war.

Despite the corny look-alike plot hook, E. Phillips Oppenheim pulls off a clever and sophisticated mystery that will keep readers intrigued to the last page.

The Great Impersonation
by E. Phillips Oppenheim
1920 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook #1484
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg

Take Chances Without Thinking

If you don’t look too closely, A. Hamilton Gibb’s 1930 bestseller, Chances, is a heart-warming tale of love between brothers.

Tom and Jack Ingleside are 15 and 13½ respectively when they are packed off to boarding school in France to crack their British insularity.  Until they are finished at Oxford and launched on their careers, the brothers share everything.

Then both boys fall for Molly Prescott, a Paris-educated artist they knew as children. Neither brother is aware of the other’s interest in her. After a squabble with Jack, Molly accepts Tom.

The brothers go off to war.

On leave from France, Jack and Molly reunite. When Tom learns his fiancee has left him for his brother, he refuses to even speak to Jack.

When the push comes, however, Tom proves blood is thicker than water.

Beneath the melodrama, the plot won’t hold up. It is incredible that two boys nearly as close as twins can both be madly in love and neither have an inkling of the other’s feelings.

Apparently the continental education didn’t achieve its aim. The boys developed good accents, but remained emotionally insulated when it comes to the most basic of human relationships.

Chances
by A. Hamilton Gibbs
Little, Brown,1930
285 pages
1930# 8
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Rogue Herrie Is a Spellbinder

In Rogue Herries, Hugh Walpole turns a trunkful of novelistic faults into a drama that makes Wuthering Heights seem cheerful.

The Herries household moves to northwest England, a dark, foggy, isolated place whose superstition and backwardness is legendary even by 1735 standards.

Some years after his wife dies, Herries falls in love with a girl 30 years younger than he. When her lover is killed, Herries marries Maribell, hoping his love will be reciprocated.

Rogue Herries’ manic-depressive behavior is counterbalanced by the stalwart pleasantness of his unfailingly loyal son, David. The novel gives the impression that Walpole set out to write a book about David, but found his father more interesting.

Walpole opens one secondary plot after another only to abandon it, leaving a trail of red herrings worthy of Agatha Christie.

The ending is so melodramatic as to be laughable if it were not that the entire story is touched with insanity that makes absurdity seem normal.

In this hodgepodge, readers can never be sure whether what Rogue Herries says of his own motives is true. The violence of the period and the gloom of the landscape add to the general impression of a man trapped in a nightmare of his own creation.

Rogue Herries
by Hugh Walpole
Doubleday, Doran, 1930
524 pages
1930 bestseller # 7
My grade B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mrs. Miniver Finds Something Good Every Day

Of all my favorite novels, Mrs. Miniver is undoubtedly the worst.

The characters are pleasant, but not memorable.

It doesn’t have a plot; Jan Struther’s chapters were originally printed as short stories in The Times of London, and they remain short stories.

The writing is good, but not brilliant.

Despite all those flaws, I usually spend New Year’s Day reading Mrs. Miniver.

The Minivers are an intelligent, cultured, fundamentally decent couple. As a second world war becomes inevitable, the household gets gas masks, the children are evacuated to safer schools, Clem joins the anti-aircraft corps, his wife signs on as an ambulance driver.

In a topsy-turvy world, the Miniver household is emotionally stable and comfortable. The Minivers don’t dwell on worst-case scenarios. They concentrate on looking for something good today to be thankful for. Even the youngest, Toby, lugging his Teddy bear as he goes to be fitted for his gas mask, finds something to chuckle about.

Without preaching, Mrs. Miniver reminds us of the debt each person owes to the world, and shows that the most ordinary human interaction can be an extraordinary blessing if we allow it to be.

Mrs. Miniver
By Jan Struther
Harcourt, Brace 1940
288 pages
My grade: B-

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni