The Definite Object is definitely second-rate

photo of boxing gloves

 

The American setting of The Definite Object allows Jeffery Farnol to diversity his usual cast of minor characters with immigrants, gangsters, slumlords, and professional pugilists.

The variety adds complexity to the novel without noticeably changing Farnol’s usual story line.


The Definite Object: A Romance of New York by Jeffery Farnol
1917 bestseller #9. Project Gutenberg eBook #16074. My grade: C+.

Half-English Geoffrey Ravenslee is “so rich that [his] friends are all acquaintances.”

He wants a wife who wants him more than his money.

When Geoff catches Spike Chesterton breaking into his mansion, he decides not to prosecute if Spike will take him to Hell’s Kitchen to meet his sister, Hermione.

Geoff gets a room in the same tenement as the Chestertons and proceeds to charm everyone except gangster Bud M’Ginnis.

Spike hangs around M’Ginnis hoping to break into fighting. He’s sure he could make a fortune to give Hermione the country home she wants.

Geoff’s courtly behavior wins over women.

Men, except M’Ginnis, are more impressed with his boxing behavior.

As English characters are thrown in with American characters, neither comes off as believable. The large cast allows ample time for the absurdities of the characterizations to punish the never-strong plot.

Farnol gets in some of his delightful wry observations, but they aren’t enough to raise this novel beyond the level of mediocrity.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

His Family is a kind of immortality

Quote from Roger Gale: "There's to be nothing startling in this quiet house of mine."

Roger Gale came to New York at 17 from New Hampshire looking for a business he could turn into the American dream.

He made it happen. He also married.


His Family by Ernest Poole
MacMillan, 1917. 1917 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg ebook #14396. My grade A-.

Three daughters and 20 years later, Judith died, leaving Roger “deaf and blind to his children.”

Another 20 years later, Roger is emerging from his emotional deadness. His daughters seem foreign.

When Judith had told him before she died, “You will live on in our children’s lives,” Roger hadn’t believed her.

Slowly he sees that his children take after him, for better and for worse.

Edith is prim, controlling, totally absorbed in her husband and three children.

Deborah mothers 3,000 children. She’s principal of a school in the tenements that’s drawing national notice as a community educational center.

Laura is “a spender and a speeder,” with morals as skimpy as her clothes.

The sisters irritate one another and, in varying degrees, their father.

World War I starts.

Life happens.

So does death.

Ernest Poole’s characters are vivid, complicated, and annoyingly human.

Their life-changing events are pretty ordinary.

Their self-awareness is as dull as most everyone else’s, their influence as modest as most everyone else’s.

That’s why His Family feels real 100 years after its first publication.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In the Wilderness character tells

dark landscape of forbidding rocky hills
The wilderness is a frightening place.

In the Wilderness is an antidote to salacious later twentieth century bestsellers.

But Robert Hichens’ novel is strong stuff that many readers may find hard to swallow.


In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens
1917 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #4603] My grade: A-

Dion Leith is passionately in love with Rosamund Everard, who finds him a nice, clean-living young man. Though trained as a singer, Rosamund feels her vocation is in a religious order, not marriage.

A sermon convinces her to accept Dion’s proposal. They marry, have a son.

Rosamund’s love is all for their son. She scarcely notices when the woman in a notorious divorce case pays attention to Dion.

When the Boer War breaks out, Dion volunteers. In his absence, Rosamund moves to an English cathedral village where her music and religious interests are welcome.

When he returns from South Africa, Dion accidentally shoots his son while the two are shooting together at Rosamund’s suggestion.

Rosamund screams, “Murderer,” and locks the cottage door against Dion.

Repudiating the values that locked the door on him, Dion leaves England for non-Western, non-Christian places, for drugs, debauchery, and the Other Woman.

Hichens doesn’t deliver a tidy, happily-ever-after ending.

It’s more of a “we’re going to grow up together” ending, a glimmer of hope that two very dissimilar people can create more happiness than unhappiness for each other.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Road to Understanding is a road not taken

If Burke Denby had not been given all the frosted cakes and toy shotguns he wanted at the age of ten, it might not have been so difficult to convince him at the age of twenty that he did not want to marry Helen Barnet.

That opening sentence of The Road to Understanding made me hopeful that the novel was going to be better than the pabulum I expect from Eleanor H. Porter.

I was disappointed.


The Road to Understanding by Eleanor H. Porter
Mary Greene Blumenschein, Illus., Houghton Mifflin, 1917. 373 pp. 1917 bestseller #4. Project Gutenberg eBook #35093. My grade: B-.

Man listens to woman holding baby girl
Helen seeks a Henry Higgens to turn her into a lady.

Burke Denby is rich and spoiled; Helen Barnet is poor and spoiled.

Their fairy tale romance turns sour: Neither has life skills, self-control, or experience considering anyone’s perspective but their own.

Other than giving Burke an entry-level job in his business, John Denby does not help the newlyweds.

The birth of their daughter adds to the strain.

John Denby steps in with an offer of separate vacations for the pair at his expense: Burke to come with him to Alaska, Helen to take the baby and go visit in her hometown.

Helen and baby Betty disappear without a trace.

Burke never sees either again until Betty is a grown woman.

After establishing the personalities and conflict, Porter doesn’t let them develop as their natures and situations suggest. She has the spoiled Burke happily accepted as a regular guy by the men at his father’s plant, and Helen learn to manage servants so she need not have to cook for her family.

The book ends with a happy family reunion as believable as a zombie Santa Claus.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Younger Set: Friends and marriage

The Younger Set is both a romance and a love story.

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The romance is between a divorced man, Capt. Philip Selwyn, 35, and his sister’s ward, Eileen Erroll, 19.

The love story that of Selwyn and his ex-wife, Alixe.


The Younger Set by Robert W. Chambers
G.C. Wilmhurst, illus. D. Appleton, 1907. 1907 bestseller #8. Project Gutenberg ebook #14852. My Grade: B.

Selwyn was on army maneuvers in Manila when Alixe ran off with Jack Ruthven.

Selwyn chose to be legally branded the guilty party rather than contest the divorce, and that dishonor forced him to resign his army commission.

Two years later, Selwyn is back in America, Alixe is married to Ruthven, and she’s also going around with a man whose wife is a friend of hers.

Selwyn has never given Alixe back her photograph, and his sister can’t interest him in other women.

Selwyn becomes friends with Eileen.

Eileen’s brother, Gerald, works for the same real estate firm for which Selwyn worked before the war.

When Gerald gets drawn into high-stakes card games at the Ruthven home, Selwyn plays big brother.

Robert W. Chambers treats even minor characters with respectful nuances. There are no sterotypes in view.

Chambers lends depth to his portraits with backdrops of marriages and romances against which readers can evaluate Sewlyn’s behavior and, perhaps, evaluate their own opinions.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Weavers an unromantic tangle of plot threads

The Weavers is a romance, but it’s mostly about David Claridge.

David leaves his English village around 1850 for Egypt, where his good looks, Quaker habits, and scrupulous honesty are novelties.


The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
1907 bestseller #2, 1908 bestseller #10. Project Gutenberg ebook #6267. My grade: C+.

Book illustration, statuary, and photograph of Spinx and pyramids
Artifacts of travels to Egypt in 19th and 20th centuries.

Prince Kaid asks David to be his right-hand man to bring European-style prosperity to Egypt.

Within five years David is “a young Joseph” to the pharaoh and the darling of the British public.

David’s favored status is resented by Egyptians who prefer the old ways of bachshesh, bribery, and brutality.

Defending an English girl from an Egyptian, David kills him with a single punch. The dead man’s brother covers up the murder, planning to use it later to make himself ruler of Egypt.

The girl goes back to England and marries a rising young politician who takes a dim view of David’s uncredentialed foreign activities.

The Weavers is chock-a-block with plots and characters, but Gilbert Parker doesn’t make any one of them believable. David himself is hardly more than a coloring book outline.

Today, The Weavers is useful primarily as a reminder of how long England has been involved in Middle Eastern affairs.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Shuttle is tightly-woven, multi-genre tale

When she learns of her sister’s engagement, eight-year-old Bettina “Betty” Vanderpoel cries, “He’ll do something awful to you….He’ll nearly kill you. I know he will.”

Sir Nigel Anstruthers turns out as nasty as Betty predicts.


The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1908 bestseller #5.
Project Gutenberg ebook #506. My grade: A-.

Green, hilly English countryside with a few sheep grazing, no people in sight.When he realizes Reuben Vanderpoel won’t support him, Sir Nigel craftily isolates Rosalie from family back in New York, then bullies her into transferring her property to him.

While Rosalie withers, Betty is educated in France, Germany, and in company of her astute capitalist father.

At 20, Betty goes to England to see Rosalie.

Sir Nigel has thoroughly cowed Rosalie and Ughtred, his son to whom the estate is entailed.

Betty takes charge, using her charm and her father’s money to make the estate liveable and her sister comfortable.

Inevitably, the Vanderpoel heiress is swarmed by suitors.

Betty’s heart, however, throbs for Lord Mount Duncan, who scorns the practice of marrying American money to put a deteriorating English estate to rights.

Although Frances Hodgson Burnett gives the novel the love-interest of a romance and the suspense of a thriller, the novel is deeper than those categories.

Burnett explores personalities, digs into gender roles, and shows how England and America were separated by culture and reunited by money.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Wheel of Life too much of a good thing

Writing fiction is like making pie crust; you need to know when you’ve done enough.

Ellen Glasgow hadn’t learned that lesson yet when she published her second bestseller, The Wheel of Life.


The Wheel of Life by Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow

Doubleday, Page & Co. 489 p. 1906 bestseller #10.
Project Gutenberg eBook #14696. My grade: B+.


The novel contains several stories that regularly idle alongside one another, like city transit buses at interchanges.

One story is about Laura Wilde, rising poet and seemingly confirmed spinster.

A second is about magazine editor Roger Adams, married to a woman with whom he has little in common. Adams’ wife, Connie, has mental problems, is using cocaine, and having an affair with a married man

A third story is about Gerty Bridewell, Laura’s best friend, and Gerty’s philandering husband, Perry, who, oddly enough, admires Roger Adams enormously.

A fourth story is about Arnold Kemper, a divorced cousin of Perry Bridewell reputed to have had an affair with opera star Madame Alta.

There’s much to admire and enjoy in this novel. Glasgow does all the right things, except cut out what she doesn’t need—like the budding playwright in love with Laura and the old lady selling kittens to finance her husband’s funeral

On the whole, however, the best we can say is, “It shows promise.”

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Awakening of Helena Richie joins orphan to widow

When Dr. Lavendar needs a home for orphan David Allison, he thinks the 7-year-old might be good for young, pretty widow, Helena Richie, newly arrived in Old Chester.

Sam Wright, son of Mrs. Richie’s landlord, thinks Mrs. Richie might be good for him. At 23, “Sam’s Sam” is ready to fall in love with anything or anyone not from Old Chester.


The Awakening of Helena Richie by Margaret Deland

1906 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg eBook #6315. My grade: A-.


David is good for Helena. He likes her well enough, though not as much as he likes Dr. Lavendar. Here are the two in conversation:

“That is a Bible picture,” Dr. Lavendar observed.
“Who,” said David, “is the gentleman in the water?”
Dr. Lavendar blew his nose before answering. Then he said that that was meant to be our Saviour when He was being baptized. “Up in the sky,” Dr. Lavendar added, “is His Heavenly Father.”
There was silence until David asked gently, “Is it a good photograph of God?”

David intensely dislikes Mrs. Richie’s widowed brother, Mr. Pryor, whose occasional, brief visits are too long and too frequent for David’s liking.

Margaret Deland makes her characters pop off the page. Even the most disreputable of them has some virtues, and the most virtuous has some flaws.

Helena’s best features, unfortunately, are skin deep: She’s neither bright nor perceptive.  You’ll have to read the novel to learn about her flaws.

The Old Chester community becomes the real story.

An A- is too high a grade for this book, but Helena’s spiritual awakening is believable, which is almost unheard of in a religious novel.

And David may be the funniest, serious, little boy to appear between the covers of a book.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Real Adventure harmonizes big ideas, great story

Rose Stanton’s mother, a women’s rights advocate, made a little money writing, but her daughter Portia was the real breadwinner, sacrificing to put her two brothers and Rose through college.

Unwittingly, Mrs. Stanton left Rose unsuited for any job but socialite wife, which is what Rose becomes shortly after meeting millionaire lawyer Rodney Aldrich on a tram.

Rose holds tight to Rodney's arm during their whirlwind courtship.
The lovers, Rose and Roddy

The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster

R. M. Crosby, Illus.  Bobbs-Merrill, 1916.  1916 bestseller #6.
Project Gutenberg eBook #15384. My grade: A.


The third week of their honeymoon, Rose panics when Rodney, pausing in reading a German textbook, tells her, “The insanity has worn off.”

How can she hold him apart from sexual attraction?

She wants to be someone he can respect for her work, as he respects his male friends.

What Rose does to earn Roddy’s friendship—and how it affects everyone around her—is the heart of the novel.

Henry Kitchell Webster not only has a yarn to spin through a host of crisply drawn characters, but he also has a subject to explore.

Webster wrote The Real Adventure as a serial, which would be the best way in which to read it:  The single-volume format makes it far too tempting to skip ahead to see what happens.

You’ll lose the book’s enduring value if you skip over the passages in which Webster probes the question of what makes a marriage good for both husband and wife.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni