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

God’s Little Acre

Never prosperous even in the best of times, during the Great Depression Ty Ty Walden and his extended family are trying to get by in rural Georgia on nothing but libido, hostility, and holes.

Dust jacket of God's Little Acre, first edition.Ty Ty has turned over to black sharecroppers the responsibility for the cotton and vegetable crops on which the family depends.

Ty Ty, his son Shaw and son-in-law Buck spend their days digging for gold.

They’ve dug up most of the farm except God’s Little Acre, the proceeds of which Ty Ty has devoted to the church.

Whenever Ty Ty gets a feeling that the mother lode lies beneath God’s Little Acre, he moves the boundaries of the acre.

Believing in “scientific” knowledge that albinos have miraculous powers to find gold, Ty Ty and the boys capture an albino they learn is working nearby.

Ty Ty summons daughter Rosamond and her husband, Will, an unemployed mill worker, to come help them dig in the place the albino points out.

Will and Buck have never gotten along.

Buck thinks, correctly, that Will is after his wife, Griselda.

Shaw thinks whatever Buck thinks.

It’s not long before the three men come to blows.

Ty Ty, Rosamund, and Griselda go to wheedle money from another of Ty Ty’s sons, Jim Leslie.

Jim Leslie abandoned his father’s gold-diggings for real estate investments.

One look at Griselda, and Jim Leslie is determined to have her.

There are more characters and more couplings, but you get the idea. By comparison to God’s Little Acre, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a a moral treatise.

Ty Ty sums up the point of the novel thus:

God put us in the bodies of animal and tried to make us act like people. That was the beginning of trouble. If He had made us like we are, and not called us people, the last one of us would know how to live. A man can’t live, feeling himself from the inside, and listening to what the preachers say. He can’t do both, but he can do one or the other. He can live like we were made to live, and feel himself on the inside or he can live like the preachers say, and be dead on the inside….When you try to take a woman or a man and hold him off all for yourself, there ain’t going to be nothing but trouble and sorrow the rest of your days.

The term God’s little acre has come to stand for hypocrisy, setting aside something worthless for God while living without any regard for Him.

That really doesn’t fit the novel.

The Waldens shouldn’t be called hypocrites: They haven’t enough moral sense to rise that far.


This is one of GreatPenformances’ occasional reviews of notable novels that didn’t make the bestseller lists. First published in 1933, God’s Little Acre  didn’t make the bestseller list or win a Pulitzer Prize, but Erskine Caldwell’s novel has become an American classic.  The edition I read: God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell.  The Modern Library, 1961. 303 pp.

The Gambler visits sins of father on daughter

The Gambler is a novel about an Irish girl whose life is imperiled by her genes, her upbringing, and her own innocence.

The danger to Clodagh is moral rather than mortal—and it’s terrifying.

 After gambling with her father, Milbanke encounters Clodagh
After gambling with her father, Milbanke encounters Clodagh who begs him not to encourage her father’s gambling habit.

 

Asshlin angrily refuses to let his old friend Milbanke refuse to accept payment for his gambline debt.
Asshlin angrily refuses to let his old friend Milbanke refuse to accept payment for his gambling debt.

 


The Gambler: A Novel by Katherine Cecil Thurston

Illus. John Cameron. Toronto: Fleming H. Revell,1905. 1905 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg ebook #33490. My grade: B+.


When Denis Asshlin is fatally injured, his daughters write their father’s school friend, James Milbanke, for help.

Asshlin’s gambling has beggared his girls.

Milbanke can send Nance to boarding school, but what can he do with 17-year-old Clodagh?

Milbanke proposes marriage.

“I suppose it is what father used to call a debt of honour,” Clodagh says.

Four unhappy years later, while her husband talks about archaeology, Clodagh meets titled society people.

She envies—and fears—them.

After Milbanke dies leaving Clodagh a comfortable income, she rejoins her high society acquaintances.

Soon Clodagh’s gambling debts are larger than her annual income.

When she looks in the mirror, Clodagh sees her father’s face.

She accepts 1000£ from Lord Deerehurst realizing it obligates her but unaware what payment he expects.

A less adept writer than Katherine Cecil Thurston couldn’t have made Clodagh more than a pretty doll.

Thurston makes her a complicated woman-child, craving love and respect but traumatized by a childhood she cannot ever outgrow.

  © 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Coast of Folly Explores the “Compulsion of Failure”

Jelly fish washed up on sandy beach
“Directionless and flabby. Jellyfish washed up on the coast of folly.”

Coningsby Dawson’s The Coast of Folly explores a real but rarely discussed individual and social problem: the extent to which individuals are responsible not only for their behavior but for the impression their behavior is likely to give others.

Dawson sets the story when America was reeling from the social upheavals caused by World War I and drowning its disillusionment in bootleg liquor.

All summer, unattached Joyce Gathway’s too-rich-to-work friends have paired her with Larry Fay whose wife has begun divorce proceedings against him. Their relationship has remained open and friendly, but both know it could easily descend into a sexual affair.

When a gossip columnist suggests Joyce will be named as co-respondent in the divorce, she is forced to acknowledge that the appearance of immorality is destructive even among her peers who speak of conventional morality with disdain.  Her grandfather says people like Joyce aren’t deliberately wicked, “merely directionless and flabby. Jellyfish washed up on the coast of folly.”

The novel follows Joy’s attempts to see whether her behavior was wrong and how to repair the damage she’s done. Dawson calls this  “the compulsion of failure.”

Although The Coast of Folly is dated in many ways and the plot overtly contrived, the questions Joyce has to answer are questions all young adults need to answer for themselves.

The Coast of Folly
By Coningsby Dawson
Grossett & Dunlap, 1924
341 pages
1924 bestseller #8
My grade: B+
 

Still photos from the 1925 movie version of the novel here suggest some of the ways the novel appears dated today.

Photo credit: “Jelly Fish” by Liessel

©2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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

A Modern Chronicle Is No Vanity Fair

Winston Churchill’s A Modern Chronicle starts off well, with Tom and Mary Leffingwell assuming charge of his late brother’s infant daughter along with the brother’s debts.

From a beautiful baby, Honora grows into a beautiful woman, steeped in romance and convinced her late father was rich, respected, and distinguished. Readers are ready to see Honora learn the truth about her parents, grow up, and recognize that nice, dull, Peter Erwin is the man of her dreams.

By the end of volume 1, however, Churchill forgets the background he so carefully established.

In the turning of a page, Honora acquires Amelia Sedley’s moral code and Becky Sharp’s ambition. A Modern Chronicle goes to ruin faster than Becky Sharp did.

The next seven volumes of A Modern Chronicle show Honora using her looks and charm to climb the social ladder. By 30 she’s been married, divorced, remarried, and widowed. Through it all she’s rarely missed church and never been seen with uncoiffed hair.

The novel has occasional scenes that prove Churchill has a keen eye for telling detail and true scene-painting skill.

Too bad he didn’t deploy them in support of a better story.

A Modern Chronicle
Winston Churchill
1910 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg EBook #5382

The Wanderer of the Wasteland a Thoughtful Thriller

Death Valley Zane Grey fans expecting an upright hero fighting bad guys may be disappointed by The Wanderer of the Wasteland. This is a harsh, relentless story about a young man growing prematurely old wandering the American desert in a vain attempt to escape  his guilty past. Readers willing to take the novel on its own terms will be rewarded with astute musings on the meaning of life mingled with heart-stopping action.

Adam Larey worships, his older brother, who hates him. After Guerd steals the girl Adam had slept with the previous night, the brothers quarrel. Adam shoots Guerd in a saloon full of witnesses.

Terrified he will be hung for the murder, Adam runs into the desert.

Days later, a prospecter named Dismukes finds Adam barely alive. Dismukes teaches Adam enough to survive—just—until he learns desert ways. Dismukes predicts Adam will find God in the desert.

Adam wanders in the Death Valley area for 14 years. Grey always treats nature more as a character than just as a setting. In Wanderer, nature is a malevolent force, symbolic of all that’s selfish in human nature contending against God for Adam’s allegiance.

Often, it looks as if Adam won’t last another day. Thirst, starvation, poisoned water, poison gas, and desperadoes work him over.

At 26, when he looks 40, Adam meets a girl he’d like to marry. He has to decide whether to follow his natural instincts or do what he knows is right.

Readers will gasp for breath right along with Adam right down to the last page when they gasp at Grey’s perfectly plausible, but totally unexpected, ending.

The Wanderer of the Wasteland
By Zane Grey
1923 bestseller # 8
A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook

Photo Credit: Death Valley 2 by pr3vje

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

His Children’s Children Disappointingly Good

Rufus takes an axe to his home's rooftop statue
Rufus takes an axe to his home’s rooftop statue

Arthur Train’s His Children’s Children is too good not to be better.

The novel focuses on the children and grandchildren of Peter “the Pirate” Kayne, an old rip who made his pile in mining and railroads and used it to start his family up the social ladder. By 1921, his son Rufus has achieved social respectability; his granddaughters have achieved social acceptance.

As the novel opens, lawyer Lloyd Maitland is assigned to deal with Rufus’s attempt to get his daughter Claudia and her children away from her philandering husband.

The story quickly veers off to the unwed Kayne sisters, both of whom seem to Lloyd to have no moral values. That doesn’t stop Lloyd being smitten with Diana.

The novel is an indictment of materialism and bad parenting. Train takes care to make his case largely through dialogue, underscoring it with descriptions that impale characters on his pen point.

Train never lets go of his thesis, but he seems to lose the thread of the plot. When the curtain comes down on a contrived ending, situations have changed but people have not.

We have to put up with such reality in life; in a novel, it feels like an insult.

His Children’s Children
by Arthur Train
Illus. By Charles D. Mitchell
1923, Grosset & Dunlap
391 pages
1923 bestseller #2
 

© 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

The Tree of Heaven Needs Pruning

Ash tree in autumn against blue sky
A tree of heaven in autumn

The Tree of Heaven, May Sinclair’s 1918 bestseller, just misses being a great book.

The Harrisons are raising their four children in an English home whose backyard is dominated by a tree Frances calls by the country folks’ name Tree of Heaven and her timber-dealer husband calls an ash.

Frances’ life is wrapped up in her three sons; daughter Dorothy doesn’t interest her much.

The book follows the family from the late 1890s up to the First World War. In ways peculiar to their own personalities, the children seek to establish their own identifies.

All four instinctively back away from the vortex, the homogenizing crowd behavior that flings off morality as it spirals downward, looking instead for a firmly rooted principles that will endure. They want a personal, moral Tree of Heaven.

Sinclair’s characters are cleanly drawn, the plot gives a sense of inevitability. Readers get a fascinating glimpse into the family life of a decent, well-off household who earn their livelihood and have no aspirations to power and prestige.

Sinclair explores parent-child relationships, the origin of patriotism, the extent of self-deception, the clash of the prosaic and imaginative.

Real life has room for all those philosophical threads, a novel does not.

 
The Tree of Heaven
by May Sinclair
Macmillian, 1917
408 pages
1918 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg ebook #13883
My Grade: B+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: “Swedish Autumn Colours 2” by Marmit