Lady Baltimore is multiple-layer novel

I had to read Owen Wister’s Lady Baltimore a second time last week, having failed to save the review I wrote of the bestselling novel in May of 2015.

Despite its confectionary name, it’s a novel that withstands repeated reading.


Lady Baltimore by Owen Wister

1906 bestseller # 2. Project Gutenberg Ebook #1386. My grade: B.


A young gentleman named Augustus tells the story. His snobbish aunt has sent him to Kings Port, South Carolina, to research family history.

Augustus is having lunch at the Women’s Exchange, when a young man comes in and orders a Lady Baltimore cake for the following Wednesday.

It’s clear to Augustus and to pretty, young counter clerk (who also happens to bake the cakes) that young man is ordering his own wedding cake.

When he’s not in the library, Augustus uses his letters of introduction and his fondness for Lady Baltimore cake to find out about the would-be bridegroom, John Mayant; his finacée, Hortense Rieppe; and the charming cake baker.

Readers must pay close attention to figure out how Augustus figured out what happened.

Wister called Lady Baltimore a romance. It’s that and more: Mystery, history, social criticism, and generous dollops of humor mingle pleasantly in its pages.

Augustus’s view of the American “Negro” may offend readers—but it’s an accurate picture of “enlightened” whites’ attitudes in the 1906.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Readers will find mouthwatering photographs, historical information, and recipes for the Lady Baltimore cake on the What’s Cooking America website.

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

When You Read The Virginian, Smile

In the late 1800s, Owen Wister fell under the spell of Wyoming. The result of his infatuation was The Virginian. 

It is an episodic novel, loosely tied together by a clash between two men, the dastardly Trampas and the heroic Virginian, who lived in and off the rugged land.

The story is told by an Easterner who comes to visit Judge Henry at Sunk Creek. The judge sends the Virginian to meet his guest at Medicine Bow. Under the Virginian’s tutelage, the greenhorn grows into a friend and companion the Virginian is happy to ride with.

The Virginian is the novel that gave us the famous line, “When you call me that, smile.”

All the elements we’ve learned to expect in a Western first came to public attention in this novel: the strong, silent hero; the challenge over a poker hand; the pretty school teacher from the East; the shootout on the public street.

What’s surprising is the humor. The Virginian’s story of the frog farm is a marvelous tall tale with a satiric bite. And I love the story of what happens when the Virginian feels sorry for Emily, the hen, and gives her a clutch of eggs that another hen has been sitting on for 10 days.

Even if you aren’t normally a person who enjoys westerns, I think you’ll like this granddaddy of the genre.

The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains
By Owen Wister
1902
350 pages
1902 Bestseller # 1
1903 Bestseller #5
Project Gutenberg ebook #1298
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni