The Mettle of the Pasture Probes Ethics of Truthfulness

The Mettle of the Pasture by James Lane Allen combines two of life’s most essential themes—  love and ethical behavior — into an incredibly forgettable novel.

The plot pivots on the question of whether it is ethically necessary for a couple about to marry to reveal their moral lapses to their intended partner.

When he proposes to Isabel Conyers, Rowan Meredith decides that he must reveal his dark secret.

She would rather not have known.

Knowing, Isabel sees no option open to her but to uphold her virtue by refusing to marry. For Rowan’s sake, Isabel attempts to conceal the reason for the break-up.

Her grandmother, an accomplished scandalmonger, makes a shrewd guess.

Allen clearly wants readers to admire Rowan and Isabel for their “mettle.” Readers might admire Rowan if his honesty were accompanied by a realistic appraisal of the situation.

Rowan, however, doesn’t see having sex outside marriage as in any way immoral. He expects Isabel to regard it as unfortunate at worst — which shows how little he knows Isabel.

Rowan comes out looking like a fool.

Isabel is not much better.

Her high moral standards generally take back seat to her high regard for her own social standing. She (and Allen) may wish to believe her acquaintances respect her, but from what Allen shows, I believe that, like her grandmother, her acquaintances fear Isabel’s tongue.

The Mettle of the Pasture
by James Lane Allen
1903 Bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg eBook #12482

The Woman Thou Gavest Me Is Worth What She Cost

Hall Craine’s The Woman Thou Gavest Me is a novel that will keep you turning pages and leave you wondering why you bothered.

The only offspring of an unhappy marriage, Mary O’Neill gets shunted off to convent school in Rome at age 8. At 18, Mary is about to declare her wish to become a nun when her father appears to bring her back to Ireland to wed the profligate Englishman who inherited the family estate and title.

Mary’s obediently marries, but voices her objection to being touched by her husband so loudly that he agrees to a marriage in name only until she falls in love with him.

Unable to get an annulment or a divorce, Mary does the next worst thing: She spends one night with her childhood sweetheart, Dr. Martin Conrad, the intrepid explorer who leaves the next day for Antarctica.

Martin returns in the nick of time to save Mary from becoming a prostitute to buy medicine for their sick baby.

Despite improbable characters in implausible situations, Craine  presents a cogent explanation of the Catholic position on marriage and divorce, showing through Mary’s experience where it pinches and why. You need not agree with the position or how Mary comes to terms with it, but you’ll at least understand it.

Perhaps that’s reason enough to keep turning pages.

The Woman Thou Gavest Me
By Hall Craine
1913 bestseller #7
over 500 pages
Project Gutenberg e-book #14597
My grade: C

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Inside of the Cup is empty for today’s reader

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

Years of Grace is compelling mid-life reading

“When you looked at a child, Jane reflected solemnly, you could never believe that it would grow up to disappoint you.”

Margaret Ayers Barnes story of a plain Jane was compelling enough to send Depression era readers to the bookstore in droves and timeless enough for the Pulitzer Prize committee to award Years of Grace the 1931 prize for literature.

Jane Ward is a dutiful daughter of a respectable 1880’s American family in all regards except her unseemly friendships with Agnes Johnson, a newspaperman’s daughter whose mother has a job, and a French boy whose parents live in an apartment.

When André proposes to Jane, her parents refuse to allow the marriage or an exchange of letters until Jane is 21. By way of consolation, Jane’s father lets her go to Bryn Mawr with Agnes for two years.

André  goes off to study art in France. André writes Jane for her twenty-first birthday. He has an opportunity for study in Italy and won’t be coming to America. Heartbroken, Jane accepts Stephen Carter and weds him before he leaves to fight to fight the Spanish in Cuba.

Jane and Stephen have a happy marriage, three children, no money troubles. Jane focuses on keeping things happy, even when she falls in love with her best friend’s husband.

It’s only in the 1920s—a graceless age—when the children are grown and married with children of their own that Jane seriously considers whether she might have had a better life had she chosen some glamorously wanton experience over “durable satisfactions” that gave “solid Victorian comfort.”

An unassuming novel with the solid strength  of an old family heirloom, Years of Grace is a perfect novel for end-of-the-year reflections. Copies of the original are rare (Depression-era paper was very poor quality) but a 1990 reprint on lovely paper stock is available.

Years of Grace
By Margaret Ayers Barnes
©1930 ©1958 Margaret Ayers Barnes
Published Houghton Mifflin, 1930
Reprint Cherokee Publishing, 1990
1931 bestseller #5
581 pages
@2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Babbitt Sales Contradict Satire

Craftsman-style home, 1917
Craftsman-style homes like this were popular in George Babbitt’s day.

George F. Babbitt, 46 has vague yearning for something other than being making money, but he’s not sure what it is. In college, he had dreams of being a lawyer and doing battle for truth and justice. He settled for “selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”

He is bored with his wife and baffled by his children. Immersed in business deals, civic clubs and community boosterism, he usually manages to insulate himself from feeling or thinking.

When his pal Paul Riesling shoots his wife and lands in jail, Babbitt falls apart. Paul was Babbitt’s only link to his youthful ideals. Babbitt takes a mistress, drinks too much, offends his fellow businessmen.

His wife’s need for emergency surgery brings Babbitt back to himself.

Sinclair Lewis skewers Babbitt’s materialism, his ignorance, his self-delusion. Sadly, every character in the novel is the mental and moral equivalent of Babbitt. Babbitt’s son may wish to do great things, but nothing in the novel suggests anyone ever lives up to their ideals.

Lewis is funny in small doses but after by the half-way point his satire becomes depressing. If America in 1920 had been as bad as Lewis suggests nobody would have purchased this novel, let alone made it a best seller.

Babbitt
by Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1922
401 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #1156
1922 Bestseller #10 (shared honor)
My grade B-
 

Photo: Where my favorite dog lives by Linda Aragoni

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni