My picks of the 1907 bestselling novels

I’m afraid 1907 wasn’t a great year for bestselling novels. They were lightweights, one and all.

The Lady of the Decoration

The best of the lot is Frances Little’s The Lady of the Decoration, a sunny epistolary novel purporting to be written by Southern widow working as a nursery school teacher at a mission school in Japan.

Her husband’s untimely death had left her practically penniless. The teaching job offered not only a salary, but also an escape from reminders of of her unhappy marriage.

The Lady finds she has a natural aptitude for organizing and a gift for teaching. She adores and is adored by her students.  Before long, the adults of Hiroshima are enthralled by her as well.

Although the lady is often lonely and unhappy far from home, her natural good humor and her fascination with Japan and its people keep her from giving in to unhappiness.

The story is gentle and sweet and funny, just serious enough to avoid sentimentalism but not so serious as to sound preachy. It’s not a great book, but it’s a good one.

The Daughter of Anderson Crow

The only other 1907 novel that still is likely to attract a twenty-first century reader is The Daughter of Anderson Crow by George Barr McCutcheon.

It’s the story of a baby left on the doorstep.

The doorstep belongs to Anderson Crow, the Tinkletown marshal and holder of various other town offices which Anderson Crow and most of the town residents think only Anderson Crow has the mental capacity to fill.

In fact, Anderson Crow’s brainpower falls far short of brilliance and a stone’s throw short of common sense: He’s a pompous rube among groveling rubes.

McCutcheon’s plot is tangled and implausible. He can’t seem to make up his mind what his authorial perspective on his characters should be.

However, McCutcheon’s humor glosses over the novel’s flaws and makes the novel’s silliness seem a virtue.

The Younger Set

My third choice is The Younger Set by Robert W. Chambers, which by comparison to Lady and Anderson Crow feels like an academic treatise.

Chambers focuses on Capt. Philip Selwyn who had been planning on an army career until his wife ran off with another man. Selwyn “did the decent thing” and  allowed himself to be branded the guilty party to the divorce, which ruined her career.

It does not, however, stop him loving his wife or feeling unable to consider marriage to another woman while his wife lives.

The Younger Set is remembered today—if it is remembered at all—as the source of the quotation, “He shaves the dead line like a safety razor, but he’s never yet cut through it.”

Chambers’ contemporaries noted the book for another passage, which Vera Brittian refers to in her nonfiction memoir Testament of Youth:

I should like to know…something about everything. That being out of the question, I should like to know everything about something. That also being out of the question, for third choice I should like to know something about something. I am not too ambitious, am I?

Neither of my two top picks is a great novel or a particularly memorable novel, but each one will provide entertainment without over-exerting a reader’s mental faculties.

The Younger Set is a better novel than the other two, but most of today’s readers will be baffled or amused by Selwin’s reaction to his unfaithful wife. They’ll probably be content with no more than the few lines I quoted.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Daughter of Anderson Crow told in illustrations

If you want to know why The Daughter of Anderson Crow was a bestseller, look at B. Martin Justice’s illustrations.

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If you want to know what’s wrong with the novel, look at Justice’s illustrations.


The Daughter of Anderson Crow by George Barr McCutcheon
B. Martin Justice, illus. Dodd, Mead 1907. 1907 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #14818. My Grade: B-.

George Barr McCutcheon’s starts out writing a funny novel about Anderson Crow, Tinkletown marshal, fire chief, and street commissioner who is just smart enough to not let Tinkletown see how dumb he is.

That first part of the novel is illustrated with cartoonish line drawings as funny as McCutcheon’s text.

The second part of the story is about Rosalie Gray, who the Crows raised like a daughter after finding her in a basket on their doorstep one winter night.

Her parentage was a mystery that even self-proclaimed super-sleuth Anderson Crow couldn’t solve.

A note in the basket said the Crows would receive $1000 a year to raise the child.

No one around Tinkletown had that kind of money.

The illustrations for Rosalie’s life as a young woman are lush scenes, suited to the Gothic romance style McCutcheon adopts whenever he focuses on her.

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Eventually McCutcheon gets Rosalie suitably married, and turns his attention back to Anderson Crow long enough to give readers one final laugh before the novel ends.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nothing buttoned-down about The Man From Brodney’s

As The Man From Brodney’s opens, “Taswell Skaggs was dead and once more remembered.”

Three law firms on two continents are fighting to win Skaggs’s fortune for their respective clients: Skaggs’s grandson, Robert Browne; his late partner’s granddaughter, Lady Agnes Deppingham; and the inhabitants of Japat, the South Sea island on which both men lived and died.

Small island in vast ocean.


The Man From Brodney’s by George Barr McCutcheon
Illus. Harrison Fisher. 1908 bestseller #9.
Project Gutenberg ebook #11572. My grade: B+.

To inherit, Browne and Lady Agnes must be man and wife a year from Skagg’s death.

Both are already married.

As the hopeful inheritors hasten to the island, American Hollingsworth Chase is kicked out of the Grand Duchy of Rapp-Thorberg: The man he struck for annoying Princess Genevra was her fiancé.

The parties of the two grandchildren are already in residence when the Brodney law firm’s agent representing Japat’s inhabitants arrives.

Brodney’s man is Hollingsworth Chase.

All that—and more—happens in just the first three chapters.

Although Skaggs’s will sounds crazy, it’s in keeping with his life. In fact, George Barr McCutcheon makes all the crazy things the characters do appear plausible for them in their circumstances.

McCutcheon keeps the story in high gear to the end with murder and mayhem, spies and sabotage, romance and retribution, and sprinkles it all with laugh-out-loud lines.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

June Cable a mystery with Dickensian overtones

In Jane Cable, George Barr McCutcheon gives readers a break-neck paced mystery with characters that make zombies look benign.

The mystery is the Jane Cable’s parentage.


June Cable by George Barr McCutcheon

1906 bestseller # 5. Project Gutenberg EBook #5971. My grade: B+.


David Cable’s wife led him to believe Jane was his own daughter. Jane was actually a founding Frances had adopted.

Frances has never told either David or Jane that Jane is adopted.

Jane, now 20, is devoted to the couple she calls her parents.

The lawyer who handled the adoption, James Bamsemer, learned Jane’s parents’ identity and blackmailed Jane’s father’s family.

When Bamsemer turns up in Chicago, Frances knows she has to tell her secret.

Bamsemer terrifies her, but she’s even more frightened of his law clerk, Elias Droom.

James Bamsemer develops a crush on Frances; his son Graydon and Jane fall in love.

The story gets more complicated and more exciting with every chapter.

McCutcheon gives his charming characters flaws and softens the dastardly ones with an occasional generous impulse.

Droom is worthy of Charles Dickens: Ugly and devious in aiding Bamsemer, Droom grows geraniums and loves Graydon like a son.

Droom also invents things, such as a do-it-yourself guillotine.

You’ll stay up past your bedtime to see how McCutcheon fits that into the plot.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Truxton King battles real villians in fairy-tale setting

Truxton King is the third of George Barr McCutcheon’s novels about Graustark, a tiny East European monarchy.

Graustark’s fairy-tale existence is threatened by forces making their presence felt worldwide at the dawn of the 20th century.

Truxton King talks with 7-year-old Prince Robin, who leads a collie.
Truxton King talks with Prince Robin, heir to the throne of Graustark.

Truxton King by George Barr McCutcheon

Harrison Fisher, illus. Dodd, Mead 1909. 1909 bestseller #3.
Project Gutenberg EBook #14284. My grade: B-.


Graustark’s titular head is 7-year-old orphan Prince Robin. Three regents rule for the Prince.

The task of raising Robin belongs to his father’s American friend John Tullis.

Truxton King stops in Graustark hoping to find romance so he won’t have to settle down to “domestic obsolescence” when he gets back to New York.

King finds romance.

He also uncovers a double conspiracy: One is by malcontents intent on killing the Prince and establishing a socialist state. The other is by exiled “Iron Count” Marlanx to use the Reds’ assassination of the Prince to make himself king of Graustark.

McCutcheon develops his characters only to a level of realism suitable to fairy-tales. He covers that shortcoming by a story replete with secret passages, spies, double crosses, and dark-of-night adventures by the intrepid hero and the less intrepid, but well-informed, travel agent who aids in his escapades.

The novel’s strength is its weakness: Abhorrent topics are treated with a light touch so they don’t seem abhorrent at all.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

 

Nedra: A diversion with cannibals

George Barr McCutcheon, who can deliver a great plot when the mood strikes him, appears not to have been in the mood when he wrote Nedra.

The novel is the prose equivalent of a game of solitaire.

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Nedra by George Barr McCutcheon

Illlus.Harrison Fisher, 1906. 1905 bestseller #5. Project Gutenberg ebook #13967. My grade C+.


Life-long friends Hugh Ridgeway and Grace Vernon have decided to marry when Grace reaches 23, which her late father considered the age of discretion.

Dreading a big society wedding, they elope.

Posing as brother and sister, they sail for Manila, planning to marry there.

To Hugh’s annoyance, bachelors flock around Grace. Henry Veath is particularly attentive.

Hugh is forced to rely for company on beautiful and young Lady “Tennys” Huntingford, whose elderly husband despises her for marrying him for his position.

When the ship strikes a reef in a storm, Hugh and Tennys wash ashore on an island inhabited by cannibals.

The story gets increasingly silly until the U.S. Navy rescues the couple and allows McCutcheon to end the story the way readers expected it would since chapter 5.

Early on, McCutcheon gives Hugh some laugh lines in a manner reminiscent of Jeffrey Farnol.

He soon gives it up.

Neither Hugh or the women are clever enough for word games.

They’re all solitaire types.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Three Flavors of Romance for Novel-Lovers

Guys, did Miley Cyrus turn you down for Valentine’s Day?

Sketch of fantiful castle high up mountain.
Castle in the air. How romantic!

Gals, do you think the only appropriate accessories for your little black dress tonight would be thermal underware and two pairs of socks?

Or perhaps you feel like you’re coming down with the flu?

Whatever the reason you’re planning to stay by your own hearth Valentine’s Day, here are three novels that aren’t too long or too cerebral for a cozy evening at home.

Graustark

Graustark is a romance in the princess-and-castle style.

It’s love at first sight for Grenfall Lorry on an east-bound train from Denver.  He’ll absolutely die if he can’t marry the lovely Miss Guggenslocker.

When Miss Guggenslocker sails for Europe, Lorry isn’t far behind. He tracks her down, only to find she’s really the princess of Graustark.

Can an American commoner win the heart and hand of a princess?

George Barr McCutcheon gives the Lorry moves worthy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, so it’s not too gushy for guys. And the Princess has a streak of independence that feminist readers will applaud.

The novel’s available for free download to your preferred digital reading device at Project Gutenberg.

Queed

Queed is a droll romance about a most unromantic young man and the young woman whose tough love makes him human.

Sharlee tells Queed  his "cosmos is all ego."
Sharlee tells Queed his “cosmos is all ego.”

Queed is totally absorbed in his own affairs–he’s writing the definitive text on evolutionary sociology–when Sharlee Weyland takes pity on him.

She finds him a job that, with his own dogged determination, enables him to grow beyond the limits of his stifling childhood. From being pathetic, he becomes loveable and loving.

Queed is also available to download free at Project Gutenberg. The author is Henry Sydnor Harrison.

Gone With the Wind

My third recommendation is an old staple of romance literature: Gone With the Wind. This classic is still under copyright protection, but if your local library doesn’t have one, you can pick up a copy for a few dollars at an online publisher such as AlibrisABEbooks,  or Amazon.

If you know the novel just from the movie version, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how good the print version is. Margaret Mitchell’s prose flows and her characters develop organically.

Although the novel is long, it’s fast reading. After all, you already know the basic plot, right?

There you have three options to help you pass a romantic evening alone in the comfort of your favorite chair.

Project Gutenberg

Beverly of Graustark Isn’t Even Graustarkian

Bridge in rough forest setting.
Does that bridge look safe enough to bear the coach of a princess?

Beverly of Graustark picks up the story George Barr McCutcheon began in his 1901 bestseller, Graustark.

Since their marriage Graustark’s Princess Yetive and her husband, Grenfall Lorry, have lived in Washington, D.C., but threats of war by neighboring Axphain brings them home to lead the defense of their East European kingdom.

Yetive’s good friend Beverly Calhoun, daughter of a US congressman, and her maid follow close behind. In the Graustark mountains, their coach is stopped by a band of ragged men, led by a handsome, English-speaking goat-herder who mistakes Beverly for Princess Yetive.

Beverly allows the misunderstanding because it suits her; Boldo pretends to believe it because it suits him.

Once in Edelweiss, Beverly learns there are actually three royal princes hiding out in Graustark. Surely the handsome Baldo must be one of them in disguise, mustn’t he?

McCutcheon says Beverly has a “graceful form” and Baldo has a “splendid figure.” That basically takes care of character development.

For plot development, there’s a lot of running about in cloaks in the dark, but nothing actually happens. Even the war ends without a skirmish.

Graustark’s leaders, so sensible and dedicated in the earlier novel, are frivolous and incompetent here.

Perhaps that comes of living in Washington, D.C.

Beverly of Graustark
by George Barr McCutcheon
1904 bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg EBook #6801
My grade: C-

Photo credit:  Forest Bridge by Colin Broug

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Prince of Graustark Lacks Predecessor’s Thrills

Old, tall stone castle on mountain above Slovakian forest

George Barr McCutcheon’s first Graustark novel was a thriller with a bit of romance between between the action scenes. The Prince of Graustark hasn’t enough of either thrills or romance to be interesting.

Graustark wants Prince Robin to marry the daughter of the King of Dawsbergen. The young people have never met and refuse to consider marrying for reasons of political expediency. Their subjects blame the rebelliousness on the fact that each royal heir had one American parent.

Meanwhile, American multi-millionare William W. Blithers has decided nothing but marriage to royalty is good enough for his daughter. Rather than be humiliated by her father’s ham-fisted schemes to buy her a crown, Maud takes ship for Europe.

It just so happens Prince Robin also boards a ship bound for Europe on which he meets the girl of his dreams.

McCutcheon’s wisecracks about Mr. Blithers’ are funny, but they are confined primarily to the American episodes. Blithers’ deflation when he gets to the Graustark palace and sees what his money cannot buy rings too true to be laughed it.

The love-lorn Prince appears too dense to lead a cocker spaniel, let alone a country.

And the outcome is far too predictable for the romance to be entertaining.

The Prince of Graustark
By George Barr McCutcheon
Illustrated by A. I. Keller
Project Gutenberg EBook #6353
1914 bestseller #10

Photo credit: Slovakia by retrowiec

@ 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Graustark Thrills in Storybook Setting

George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark begins as a mystery, but quickly turns into a romance before accelerating into a thriller climaxed by a story-book ending.

On an east-bound train from Denver, Grenfall Lorry meets the lovely Miss Guggenslocker heading back to the Graustark capital, Edelweiss, accompanied by her aunt and uncle.

With help from the Paris postal service, Lorry and his Harvard pal Harry Anguish set out to find Lorry’s dream girl. When they find her, she turns out to be the princess of Graustark, and Graustark is in the throes of a financial crisis.

Castle in the Night
Castle in the Night

Lorry and Anguish overhear a plot to kidnap the princess. In true  American hero fashion, they rush in to save the day, thereby creating a real muddle. Every time Lorry opens his mouth, the muddles gets messier.

Graustark is the literary equivalent of a Strauss waltz, full of sound and movement, engrossing but not distinctly memorable.

McCutcheon provides enough castle dungeons and moonless mountain chases to satisfy the most devoted fans of gothic fiction. He’s less strong when it comes to developing character.

His Princess Yetive is a heroine worthy of the terms—smart, courageous, wise beyond her years—but she has all those characteristics from the first chapter. Between them, Lorry and Anguish manage to fill the hero role. Aside from falling in love, the men are basically unchanged by their experiences.

Like the characters, readers will be wrapped up in the events of the novel, but remain unchanged by anything they read in its pages.

Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne
By George Barr McCutcheon
1901 Bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg e-book #5142
 
Photograph “Castle in the Night” by Adiju
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni