3 clear winners on 1905 bestseller list

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens, and The Marriage of William Ashe by Mrs. Humphrey Ward are clearly at the top of the list of 1905 novels with that still have something important to say and say it well.

Despite each being 110 years old and each exploring themes at odds with contemporary culture, the three are remarkably accessible for contemporary readers.

The House of Mirth

The shortest of the three, Edith Wharton’s novel is also the best known today, due no doubt in large part having been translated into a TV production in 1981 and a movie in 2000.

Lily Bart, Wharton’s leading lady, is a lovely young woman who wants to marry for love, providing the man she loves is incredibly wealthy.

Wharton’s presents the story in precise detail that piles criticism on New York City’s late Victorian high society, making The House of Mirth feel like a true account of the ultra-rich circa 1900.

The weakness of The House of Mirth is Lily herself. She’s all adolescent drama, no adult sense—a real drawback for an adult heroine in today’s book market.

The Garden of Allah

The Garden of Allah is about as different from The House of Mirth as it possibly could be.

It’s long.

It’s set in the vast vacancy of the Sahara Desert.

And its leading characters focus on moral, ethical, and spiritual problems: They wouldn’t know what make of Lily Bart.

Hichens makes the novel part mystery, part spiritual biography, part travelogue.

He makes the Sahara sands come alive with color, sound, and unceasing movement. Intrigue and danger seem to lurk around every corner, terrible and enticing.

The characters, too, are alive with color, sound, and movement: They breathe aloud in the pages.

Now that I know how the story ends, The Garden of Allah is definitely a novel I’ll pick up again to linger over.

The Marriage of William Ashe

The Marriage of William Ashe is, in an odd way, a sort of midpoint between the other two novels.

There’s an upper class male who must marry an upper class female who will be the vital hostess for his promising Foreign Office career: the male equivalent of Lily Bart’s situation.

There are also moral, ethical, and religious values to be considered, ones not terribly different from those faced by the main characters in The Garden of Allah.

Ashe promised his wife he would give her freedom and support her choices. When those choices are a more exciting life with other men, alcohol, and drugs, does he let her go?

And when the consequences of her choices take their toll on her, what does he do then?

Addendum

A couple other observations before I leave the 1905 bestseller list.

First, against less-strong competition The Gambler by  Katherine Cecil Thurston would have had a good chance of being short-listed.

Second, The Clansman, a badly written novel, is worth reading for its perspective on slavery and history.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Marriage of William Ashe

From its title and the author’s designation of herself as Mrs. Humphrey Ward, readers might expect The Marriage of William Ashe to be a light romance.

They would be wrong.


The Marriage of William Ashe by Mrs. Humphrey Ward

Albert Sterner, illus., 1905, 570 pp (approx.) 1905 bestseller #1. My grade: A


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William  Ashe is a young man of ability backed by a family with money and influence. Until he’s named undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, he’s always pretended not to care whether he appeared successful or not.

The post challenges his talents as nothing has previously done.

William knows he must marry if he’s to have a political career.

His family deplores his choice of Lady Kitty Bristol, who “comes of  a bad stock.”

William loves Kitty because she’s so un-English, so sexy, and so clearly destined to become the prey of a man as undisciplined as herself unless William’s  love can change her life.

William’s problems with his impulsive child-wife may remind readers of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. Unlike Glencora Palliser, however, Kitty is not just interfering; she swings from sleepless, manic hyperactivity to depression that borders on suicidal.

Also unlike Trollope, Ward uses politics merely as the backdrop to the story. Ward couldn’t care less about the Reform Bill. Her interest is in finding out what makes her characters tick.

Today’s readers will find that exploration equally intriguing.

1903’s Best Novels None Too Good

Although the bestsellers of 1903 include some good stories and some intriguing detail, none of the novels is literature. Most are not even novels you’d seek out for a second reading.

With the exception of Owen Wister’s The Virginian, each seems to be very much a novel of its era. It’s hard to imagine any of the 10 becoming a bestseller even a decade later.

Lady Rose’s Daughter by Mrs. Humphrey Ward was arresting enough while I was reading it, but within a few weeks I’d forgotten all but the broad outline of the story.  The same was true of The Pit, by Frank Norris, and The Letters of a Self-Made Merchant to his Son, by George Horace Lorimer.

Unfortunately, those three are so much better than the others from 1903, that I have to chose them as my top picks.

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni