My picks of the 1916 bestselling novels

Picking the most enduring bestselling novels from 1916 presented a bit of a problem. Of the four that I found were best-written on worthwhile topics, I could remember only the barest information about three of them by the time I needed to pick my favorites.

The good novel I remember (I remember quite a bit about the novels I thought were awful) is The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster.

It, and two other good but forgettable novels, explore marriage in the twentieth century.

The Real Adventure

Director questions well-dressed Rose about her qualifications.
Rose asks for a job in the chorus.

Webster focuses on a bright young woman whose suffragette mother and University of Chicago education didn’t prepare her to do anything except be a society hostess.

After Rose Stanton becomes Mrs. Rodney Aldrich, however, she wants to be more than social hostess and mother to Roddy’s children.

She wants to be worthy of the same level of mutual professional respect Roddy accords his male friends.

That means Rose needs to find something she can actually do.

Adinner guest’s remark that the chorus line was the only good-paying line of work open to good-looking, unskilled young women with moral principles sticks in her mind.

After her twins are born, Rose packs a suitcase and leaves home.

She gets a room a few physical blocks but hundreds of Chicago socio-economic miles away.

As she hoped, Rose gets a job in a chorus line.

She has no talent for dance, but she’s good-looking, works hard, and gets along with everybody.

When new costumes are needed quickly, Rose volunteers to design and sew what’s needed.

Rose has found her niche.

She still has to develop a professional career on a par with that of her lawyer husband.

Webster makes the differences of Rose’s and Roddy’s response to settling into marriage seem perfectly plausible.

And Webster doesn’t take sides.

He makes the making of the Aldrich marriage a real adventure.

Life and Gabriella

Gabriella sports fashionable bobbed hair as she sits sewing
Frontispiece by C. Allan Gilbert for “Life and Gabriella.”

I suspect that Life and Gabriella: The Story of a Woman’s Courage is a better-written novel than Webster’s work, but Ellen Glasgow chose a more ordinary life for her heroine, one that had been used repeatedly in other novels.

Good, reliable Gabriella Carr sacrifices herself to take care of her irresponsible family and later her even more irresponsible husband.

I enjoyed Glasgow’s writing while I was reading it—her workmanship is delightful—but Gabriella herself made little impression.

She’s just one more self-sacrificing heroine in a long string of indistinguishable, self-sacrificing heroines in novels.

The Heart of Rachael

The Heart of Rachael is another kettle of fish entirely. Nobody would call Rachael Fairfax self-sacrificing or principled.

Rachael always chooses the path of least resistance.

She married a divorced man whom she did not love because that looked like an easy way out of spinsterhood.

Later she divorces him and marries another man when that looked easier than coping with an alcoholic husband and rebellious stepdaughter.

Kathleen Norris makes Rachael believable, but she can’t make her likeable: Rachael has too little core for readers to care about.

Norris focuses her attention on the topic of divorce. Even there her attention to detail is admirable, but not memorable.


© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Heart of Rachael divorced from self-awareness

Many early twentieth century novels explored the then still controversial topic of divorce, but none with the perseptivity of Kathleen Norris’s The Heart of Rachael.

Norris sets her novel among the Long Island country club set in the halcyon days before World War I.

Professional golfer Tom McNamara at 1915 U.S. Open
Golf was a big part of country club life in the early twentieth century.

The Heart of Rachael by Kathleen Norris

 1916 bestseller #10. Project Gutenberg ebook #4915. My grade: B+.


Because she knew she could manage his house and thought she got on well with his daughter, Rachael Fairfax married a divorced man whom she did not love.

Step-daughter Carol grows into a teenager and Clarence Beckenridge’s drinking becomes acute alcoholism.

Rachael confides her unhappiness to Dr. Warren Gregory, Clarence’s physician and a member of their social set.

Rachael leaves Clarence, who agrees to give her grounds for divorce.

Then she marries Warren Gregory.

For a time, it’s a happy marriage.

Then Warren takes an interest in a young, aspiring actress, who also is part of their social set.

When Rachael confronts Warren about Magsie, he gives all the same excuses Rachael used for leaving Clarence.

Author Norris walks over, under, around, and through the experience of divorce.

Her people are believable both in their self-awareness and in their blind self-absorption.

Unfortunately, Norris felt compelled to manufacture a quasi-happy ending.

The manufactured ending reveals the fundamental fact of divorce: It doesn’t change people.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni