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
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.
The Kingdom Round the Corner, Coningsby Dawson’s 1921 romance, is distanced by omniscient narration, riddled by implausible coincidences, and ultimately sunk by a main character as colorless as cream cheese.
In March 1919, Lord Taborley, familiarly called “Tabs,” leaves the service by the door of a hospital. Optimistically Tabs believes, “We find everything that we’ve lost or longed for, if we’ll only press on.”
He finds his beautiful, prewar girl friend has already pressed on.
Terry was 17 when Tabs left. At 22, she’s madly in love with a general who came up through the ranks. Before the war, General Braithwaite was Tabs’s valet.
Over innumerable pots of tea, the characters discuss the impact of the 1914-18 war. Terry is impatient for “what we’ve spent in the lost years,” while her aging father wants “the old world back—the womanly women, everybody labeled, and Beethoven.” Braithwaite wants a meritocracy. Tabs is comfortable with his inherited title.
Through Terry’s family, Tabs meets a lovely, thrice-widowed woman and her even more beautiful widowed sister.
Which of the three beauties will get Tabs?
Does anyone really care?
The Kingdom Round the Corner: A Novel Project
By Coningsby Dawson
Illustrated by W.D. Stevens
1921 bestseller #10
Gutenberg E-Book #25702
In Maid in Waiting John Galsworthy takes up the post-war fortunes and misfortunes of Dinny Charwell, a young woman with sense, humor, loyalty, breeding, and a big, extended family.
Although he is a marvelous writer, John Galsworthy isn’t an easy read. His characters talk about politics, religion, art, culture — everything except their personal miseries. There’s nothing of 21st century exhibitionism about these people, but they are delightfully real.
Dinny’s brother is facing extradition to Bolivia on murder charges in connection with an expedition mounted by an American, Hallorsen, who blamed Hubert for the trip’s failure.
Dinny pushes Hubert’s case with politicians, makes a match for Hubert with the rector’s daughter, and finds herself pursued by both the rector’s son and Hallorsen.
Meanwhile, the mentally ill husband of the woman Dinny’s Uncle Adrian loves has come home. Dinny stays with Diana until her husband flees the house to end his life at the bottom of a mining pit.
The British Home Office gets Hubert off, and Adrian goes abroad to give Diana a year to recover.
That leaves Dinny still waiting for love to come to her.
Readers of the ’30s wrote Galsworthy to let Dinny marry somebody nice.
You’ll feel that way, too.
Maid in Waiting
By John Galsworthy,
Charles Scribner’s, 1931
My grade: A
In The Road Back, Erick Maria Remarque follows the remnant of a German platoon returning home after for years in the trenches of France. They expect life to be as they remember it from their school days.
Some things haven’t changed. Mothers still dote on sons. Father still expect obedience. School administrators still wave the flag and talk about the glory of dying for one’s country.
But much has changed. The poor are poorer, the war profiteers richer.
And the boys have changed. They each suffer what we today call post-traumatic stress. The only people they can trust to understand are their buddies from the trenches.
Several of the men can’t adjust to post-war life.
Two commit suicide.
One is committed to a mental institution.
One ends up in jail for assault.
Remarque’s soldiers rail against the society that turned them from idealists into angry, bitter men — and which is already preparing to send another generation into war. Remarque’s fiction rings with such truth the Nazis banned his work.
As horrific as their experience has been, these men do not evoke sympathy. By necessity, they have hardened themselves until they seem a species apart.
Remarque’s novel is not the least bit entertaining. That’s why it remains an engrossing and an important novel.
The Road Back
By Erick Maria Remarque
Trans. by A. W. Whreen
1931 bestseller #6
My grade: A