At the turn of the century, Wesleyan pastor John Tillyard, his wife and their three children emigrate from their rural England home to Pepperell, Maine. They bring little with them but their love, good sense, and John’s copy of Walden.
John’s faith is primarily in the goodness of people, his religion not overly concerned with liturgy and theology. The Tillyards are just good people.
Thanks to the housekeeper who comes with the Methodist parsonage, the family settles into with relative ease. When John is given five dollars for a Memorial Day speech, Hilda insists her husband use it to visit Walden Pond.
On the trip, he meets the administrator of the state asylum and is invited to become its chaplain. John becomes convinced some of the residents are lonely rather than insane. He invites them to stay in the family home. Mrs. Gowan becomes a family and community favorite.
Mary Ellen Chase lets the family’s younger daughter narrate the story, which gives the novel the intimacy of memoir. The move from Old England to New England makes description of the two settings natural and vivid.
The result is a warm, homey novel as comfortable as overstuffed armchairs and flowered chintz.
The Lovely Ambition
By Mary Ellen Chase
W.W. Norton, 1960
My grade A-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Needing a housekeeper for himself and his five grown sons, widowed farmer Benjamin Geaiter hires a young woman he sees scrubbing a doorstep: He’s impressed by her muscular arms.
Nancy’s cooking and housekeeping skills soon have the sons vying for her favor. When she becomes pregnant, Benjamin confesses he’s the father.
The farm is the center of the Geaiter’s lives. They live and die on it; they measure success by its yields. Though the boys fear their father will leave the farm to the son of his old age, they love Joseph devotedly.
Thanks to his half-brothers, when Benjamin dies, Joseph would hardly have missed his father had Nancy not married a n’er-do-well she thought she could reform through her love.
As Nancy’s fortunes fall, the brothers take Joseph in. Together they get the farm back. When Joseph wants to marry and move to the city, his brothers find a way to keep him on the farm.
H. W. Freeman describes character through behavior. His details capture individuals with photographic insight. You’ll remember bits of Joseph and His Brethren long after you’ve forgotten the plot.
Joseph and His Brethren
by H. W. Freeman
Henry Holt, 1929
My grade: B-
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Dodsworth is the story an American businessman’s midlife crisis.
Sam Dodsworth built a successful automobile manufacturing business while his wife ran the house and their social life. When the company is bought out in the late ’20s, Fran suggests they go off to Europe to have some fun.
They are hardly on the boat before Sam realizes Fran is a social-climbing snob. Fun to her is infidelty to Sam.
Gradually Sam realizes Fran’s not as intelligent, sophisticated, or cultured as he thought either. It comes as a shock to him when he realizes, “She’s my child.”
Sinclair Lewis devotes half his attention to the Dodsworths’ marriage and the other half to exploring the differences between American and European cultures. He makes both threads interesting, but he doesn’t make them mesh.
The failure of the Dodworth marriage has nothing to do with Sam’s patriotism or Fran’s Europhilia. Besides that, Lewis makes Sam out to be ignorant — a pose that’s at odds with his Yale University education and business success.
Sam’s problem isn’t ignorance but infatuation.
Lewis develops both his themes well enough to hold your attention, but not well enough to make you really care about either the culture wars or Sam’s broken heart.
By Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace, 1929
1929 #2 bestseller
My grade: B+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni
During the 1600s, England, France, and Spain struggled for world domination. Intrigues in the European courts had effects around the globe. F. Van Wyck Mason takes readers back to that time with Cutlass Empire, a based on the true story of a privateer who became governor of Jamaica.
The novel is a swashbuckler whose swash has long since buckled.
Washed up — literally — on a Caribbean island, Harry watches helplessly as Spaniards torture and murder. Harry determines to get revenge and make his fortune doing it.
He takes commissions from the British or French to attack Spanish shipping. But land fighting, not sea battles, are Harry’s forte.
Seeing that England needs only control a few critical islands to keep Spain from exploiting all her New World possessions, Harry goes for the kill.
In 1670, he marches his ruffians across the Isthmus of Panama and captures Panama City — months after England and Spain have penned a peace treaty.
Harry’s brilliant campaign was a criminal act.
Mason has written an historical novel with emphasis on history. The plot feels threadbare. The main characters are shallow creatures from romance novels.
If Mason had attempted a narrower story, he might have achieved a far better novel.
F. Van Wyck Mason
1949 Bestseller # 8
My Grade: C-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni
When it was first published, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in America. I doubt if most contemporary readers would plow through D. H. Lawrence’s ponderous paragraphs to get to the passages that offended censors.
Lawrence uses some barnyard terminology when he discusses barnyard activities, but his real offense appears to have been his lyric descriptions of sex. The eroticism of those scenes is heightened by contrast to the dull, tweedy prose of the rest of the novel.
Constance and Clifford Chatterley married in 1917 a month before he shipped out for France. He came home paralyzed from the waist down.
Clifford inherits his family’s country seat and takes up writing. Constance takes care of him.
It’s all too dull for her.
Clifford says he wouldn’t mind if Constance bore another man’s child, providing he didn’t know who the father is. That’s all the encouragement Constance needs.
She takes up with the married-but-separated groundskeeper, Mellors. Both divorce their spouses to marry and raise their child. People are shocked, not by the affair, but by her having an affair outside her class.
Lawrence said he rewrote Lady Chatterley three times, but the book feels as if he never figured out what he wanted to say. The characters are dull, the story duller.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
By D. H. Lawrence
Grove Press, 1959
#5 on the 1959 bestseller list
My Grade: C-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni
John Galsworthy is probably best known for The Forsyte Chronicles. He followed up the three volumes in that series about Soames Forsyte with another three focusing on Soames’ daughter, Fleur. Swan Song is the last of that second trilogy, which is called The Modern Comedy.
In Swan Song, Fleur’s first love, Jon, returns to England with his wife. Fleur tries to revive the old flame and very nearly succeeds.
Meanwhile, Fleur’s husband, Michael, is putting his energies into slum-conversion to distract himself from the knowledge that Fleur likes him but doesn’t love him.
Soames, 71, is puttering about on the sidelines, aware that Fleur wants something his money can’t buy for her.
Galsworthy is a master storyteller and superb crafter of characters. His people are complex: even at their most dastardly, they draw readers’ sympathy.
Although I love The Forsyte Chronicles and The Modern Comedy, I don’t recommend Swan Song to anyone who hasn’t read the other five novels in the series. You won’t understand why characters act as they do unless you know what’s happened in earlier books.
Start instead with the first Forsyte tale, The Man of Property. If it doesn’t whet your appetite for Galsworthy, nothing will.
By John Galsworthy
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928
1928 Bestseller #3
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Pilgrim’s Inn is Elizabeth Goudge’s gentle novel of an English family pulling themselves back together after World War II.
Lady Lucilla Eliot gets her daughter-in-law to the country to interview a prospective governess. She lures Nadine’s husband and their five children out the same weekend to see a nearby country inn that’s for sale.
George and the children fall in love with Herb o’ Grace, and Nadine succumbs to their enthusiasm. The Eliots return to their roots in a setting the children recognize as being straight out of The Wind in the Willows.
Before long they are in residence and remodeling. They take in paying guests, including a famous painter and his daughter.
Meanwhile, Lucilla’s grandson, David, a noted actor before the war, has come home to recover from a mental breakdown.
The house is discovered to have been an inn for pilgrims. The renovation of the Herb o’ Grace becomes an opportunity for each member of the extended household to find peace and to restore and build relationships.
Goudge is not a great writer — her perspective shifts are a bit disorienting — but she is a kind one. Her compassion for people keeps The Pilgrim’s Inn readable when better but more cynical novels have been laid aside.
By Elizabeth Goudge
Bestseller # 9 for 1948
My Grade: C
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni
In The Years, Virginia Woolf lifts the curtain on one English family over a 50-year period.Woolf’s novel isn’t a story in the conventional sense. It’s a collection of episodes, like pieces of a drama. There’s little description of people or settings. No one character predominates. Readers have to figure out who is who before they can figure out what is going on.
When the book opens, it’s 1880 and the Pargiters of Abercorn Terrace are waiting for the Mrs. Pargiter to die. She’s been an invalid so long, her death is a relief to her husband and children.
Woolf pops in on the family periodically over the years. Several of the children marry and have children of their own. The family home is put up for sale. The long-time housemaid is dismissed. The unmarried Pargiter children become poorer and more eccentric.
The Years is not a book to read when you are recovering from the flu. It’s a book that requires all your concentration, and maybe even a notepad to keep the characters straight. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t warrant the effort. Woolf’s genius is evident, but the novel fails to make her characters or their world come alive for readers.
By Virginia Woolf
Harcourt, Brace 1937
#6 on the 1937 bestseller list
My grade: C+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni