The bestselling novels of 1908 provide some good entertainment and a couple contains some historical insights, but none really stand out as novels you can’t afford to miss.
Of the lot, The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by the prolific and versatile Louis Bromfield and The Shuttle by the equally prolific but less versatile Frances Hodgson Burnett are the best: They are certainly the most unusual.
The plots of both novels are set in motion by some really despicable characters.
For something lighter, appropriate perhaps to kicking back after the presents are opened, the Christmas dinner dishes washed and put away, I suggest The Man from Brodney’s by George Barr McCutcheon, another prolific author. Its light humor won’t upset your digestion.
The Shuttle is touched off by a titled and nearly penniless Englishman’s attempt to restore his fortunes by marrying the the daughter of a rich American businessman.
Any heiress will do: Sir Nigel Anstruthers isn’t fussy as long as the girl is rich and easily cowed.
Rosalie Vanderpoel seems to fit the bill. She’s young, pretty, malleable, and next to brainless.
Sir Nigel doesn’t realize that Reuben Vanderpoel made his money the hard way, and he’s not about to throw it away in supporting a son-in-law he rightly suspects is a leech as well as a loser.
Unable to live in New York City on his father-in-law’s money, Sir Nigel takes Rosalie home to England where he gets her to sign over all her property to him. He leaves her and their son, Ughtred, at Anstruther’s crumbling county estate, while he enjoys Rosalie’s money in London.
Rosalie is so pathetic a doormat that readers will want to smack her up the side of the head and tell her to brighten up.
Rosalie’s younger sister, Betty, grows up under her father’s influence and with his financial acumen. At age 20, Betty comes to England to save Rosalie from her husband and herself.
What keeps The Shuttle interesting today is the historical setting. The titled Englishman who went to America for a rich bride to restore the family fortunes was a familiar tale from the late 1800’s to the World War I. Not all of the cross-Atlantic matches were as successful as the one in Downton Abbey.
The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg
The villain in Annie Spragg was her father.
Or perhaps it was her brother.
Or perhaps there were several villains.
Annie Spragg was an old woman when she turned up in an out-of-the-way village in Italy, not quite right in the head but seemingly harmless.
When she died, the women who laid her out found what they said were stigmata on her body.
An investigation by an amateur writer turned up some background on Annie, but he was unable to find out how she got the odd marks.
He learned Annie grew up in the days when America’s heartland was mostly empty acres. Travelers were few. Those who came were accepted with few questions about their background.
Annie’s father was a cult religious leader who moved his wife and 13 legitimate children around in a covered wagon, setting up wherever he could rally a small following, and staying until he wore out his welcome.
Eventually “Reverend” Spragg set himself up as a prophet, keeping to a tent from which he gave orders to his congregation. The only people allowed to see him were young virgins who attended to his needs.
Eventually Spragg was murdered by a jealous lover of one of the virgins who served him.
After their parents’ deaths, Annie and her preacher-brother lived together. When Uriah was found murdered, suspicion fell on Annie.
There was a heavy whip in the cabin and handcuffs that Uriah used to chain her in her bed at night.
When she was she was stripped and examined, investigators found she had unusual scars. They let her go without probing too deeply.
Neither The Shuttle or The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg is cheerful holiday reading. You might want to save them for a February evening when the wind is howling outside.
© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni