A Good Woman skewers Christian humbug

original "Good Woman" cover with author's dedicationEmma Downes is a good woman.

Deserted by her husband, she started a business, supported herself, raised their son, now a missionary in Africa, and became a force to be reckoned with in her church.


A Good Woman by Louis Bromfield
Frederick A. Stokes, 1927. 432 pp. 1927 bestseller #10. My grade: A.

When natives attack Phillip’s African mission, Phillip escapes, dragging his virgin wife back to the states with him.

Missionaries board steam locomotive in Congo about 1900.
Phillip and Naomi left Africa after their mission was attacked.

Naomi would have preferred martyrdom, but Phillip has lost faith in his mother’s God and in his missionary calling.

Back home, Phillip takes a laborer’s job in the mills while his mother tries to put a good face on things — tough work, especially when her husband shows up after a 26 year absence.

Louis Bromfield builds his complex plot from the story’s setting and the personalities of his characters.

Bromfield draws Emma with deft strokes. She has guts, stamina, business acumen, determination, but she’s also manipulative, controlling, and self-deluded.

Emma’s religion is “ a practical, businesslike instrument of success,” her God conveniently pocket-sized, but Emma doesn’t know that.

Some of the incidents are shocking, but not unbelievable. The superficial way Bromfield relates horrific events powerfully suggests they are too awful to be spoken of.

Emma hasn’t a clue what Christianity is all about. Her cluelessness makes this book important — and vastly entertaining—90 years after its initial publication.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Elmer Gantry is satire, not exposé

Handsome, aimless Elmer Gantry is sent by his mother to small Baptist college where he plays football, drinks, and chases women.

By a fluke, he becomes the champion of the campus preacher boys and is sucked into becoming a Baptist preacher.

religious tent meeting
Tent  were frequently used by itinerant ministers for large meetings.

Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace, 1927; 432 pp. #1 on the 1927 bestseller list; My grade: B.

Elmer escapes a shot-gun wedding at his first church, blows his chance at another church by getting drunk, and ends up as a traveling salesman for a farm equipment company.

On the road, Elmer falls in with a female evangelist, then with a “New Thought” lecturer until he attracts the notice of a Methodist bishop.

Elmer converts to Methodism, and uses his considerable talent for promotion and publicity to good advantage.

There’s money to be made in religion, plenty of applause, and lots of willing women.

Elmer comes close to catastrophe more than once, but he always seems to land on his feet.

The term “Elmer Gantry” has become synonymous with clerical hypocrisy. However, Sinclair Lewis is less concerned with Elmer’s womanizing than with the mercenary religious establishment that shelters him.

The novel is more satire than exposé. Elmer Gantry is too funny for anyone to take Lewis seriously.

I laughed out loud at lines like, “He had learned the poverty is blessed, but that bankers make the best deacons.”

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Heaven’s My Destination ridicules stupid faith

Some novels cross genres.

Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination tangles them.


Heaven’s My Destination by Thornton Wilder

Harper & Row, 1934. 304 pages. 1935 bestseller #7. My grade: B+.


Cover of "Heaven's My Destination" calls it as a famous novel by Thornton WilderThe book is a funny, coming-of-age, religious novel.

Handsome, young George Marvin Brush, a traveling textbook salesman, is the novel’s ridiculous central character.

George didn’t put himself “through college for four years and go through a difficult religious conversion in order to have ideas like other people’s.”

One of George’s ideas is to found “an American home,” which at 23 he has not yet been able to do.

He’s looking for the farmer’s daughter he comforted in a barn one night at age 22, which made him “her husband until she or I dies.”

Since that night, George hasn’t been able to find the farm or the girl.

Her name might have been Roberta.

Or Bertha.

Wilder’s story romps along Tristram Shandy-style as George stumbles along making enemies by trying to live up to his principles.

The story is saved from farce by George’s shout, “Can’t you see that you don’t know anything about religion until you start to live it?”

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My Friend Prospero Sweet and Light as Spun Sugar

Seeking admittance to a remote Italian castle containing a famous collection of fourteenth century portraits, Lady Blanchemain is delighted to discover the courtly Englishman who serves as her guide is a relative of her late husband. A centuries-old feud between the Catholic and Protestant branches of the family had kept them from meeting before.

The landscape is so romantic and John Blanchemain such a Prince Charming, Lady Blanchemain decides she must arrange for him to fall in love.

She doesn’t have to.

Long before John spies a woman pretty as a princess in the courtyard below, ten-and-a-half-year-old Annunziata is on the job taking care of her friend Prospero, whose impecunious present state she predicts will give way to incredible fortune.

The outcome of the romance is totally predictable.

Henry Harland takes the portraits the lovers straight from color illustrations in fairy tales. He gives them each a sense of humor and delight in word play so they are interesting to watch for the short time it takes to read Harland’s slim volume.

Unfortunately, Harland doesn’t give enough lines to Lady Blanchemain, “a young old thing” who is more interesting than either of the young lovers.

Despite its shortcomings, My Friend Prospero is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

My Friend Prospero
By Henry Harland
1904 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg ebook #14682
My grade: C+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Lamb in His Bosom Is Warm in Hard Times

lambCaroline Miller’s Lamb in His Bosom is a tale of women in the Georgia-Florida woods country in the 1800s when time was measured in tombstones.  These women endured incredible hardship to raise families.

Cean Carver is a pretty 16-year-old when she marries Lonzo Smith and moves to the farm he’s clearing for the family they are to raise.

While Lonzo goes to plant, Cean cares for the cabin, garden and animals before gladly joining him under the baking sun. They are poor, but Cean feels herself rich.

Children are born.

Before the first son, a series of girls, worthless as farm laborers, are born. Cean ages by years with every birth.

When Lonzo dies, Cean is left with 14 children to raise.

She marries a preacher newly come to the settlement. Cean hasn’t gotten used to her new name when her husband goes off to minister to soldiers in blue and gray. When he limps home after Appomattox, they are both white-haired and old.

Miller’s novel leaves a lasting impression of wiry women made indomitable by faith. In ordinary times, their faith is as unconsidered as breathing. In trouble, they “throw . . . back into God’s eternal face” His promise to never forsake them.

They are lambs in His bosom.

Lamb in His Bosom
By Caroline Miller
Grosset & Dunlap, 1933
345 pages
1932 bestseller #2
My grade B+

Photo credit: Lamb by magdaro

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Minor Characters Redeem David Corson

The Redemption of David Corson is about a backwoods youth who loses his faith that a loving God is making people progressively better.

Cover of The Redemption of David CorsonIn an Ohio valley, a stuttering patent medicine salesman and his teenage wife hear David Corson preach. Pepeeta is drawn to the message. The quack is drawn to David’s monetary value as a salesman.

After he hikes 20 miles to preach at an empty lumber camp, David decides being a shill for the quack and Pepeeta beats preaching.

Pepeeta’s awakened spiritual sense makes her resist David until, through bribery, he’s able to convince her that her first marriage was illegal.

As they flee, David kills the quack.

David’s morals continue to decline, Pepeeta’s continue to improve. Inevitably, they split.

Three years later, like the prodigal son, David goes home.

The summary sounds like a bad sermon, but Charles Frederic Goss’s characters — especially the minor characters — are intriguing mixes of flaws and virtues. Their actions arise from the interaction of heredity, upbringing, ignorance, immaturity, and choice.

The novel’s ending is just far enough from happily-ever-after to feel realistic while satisfying readers’ wishes for life to turn out OK.

The Redemption of David Corson
Charles Frederic Goss
1900 bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg eBook #14730
My grade B-

©2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Reign of Law Is a Dumb “Religious” Novel

The Reign of Law by James Lane Allen is the story of young man  with his heart set on becoming a minister.

David’s parents think he’s too stupid for college, but accept his desire to be a minister as an explanation of why he’s always been so peculiar.

After two years of hard labor in the hemp fields to earn college money, David finds the “nonsectarian” Bible college’s preoccupation with dogma abhorrent.

He visits churches of other denominations, which marks him as a heretic.

“I always knew there was nothing in you,” his father says when, after three semesters, David is expelled as unfit  for the ministry.

His dream destroyed, David goes back to the hemp fields to figure out what to do next.

Allen tries to make the novel about David’s loss of faith, but there’s no sign he had any more faith in God before college than after.

David’s real problem seems to be that he’s a friendless, only child, reared by weird parents in the middle of Kentucky’s hemp fields. Allen makes working with hemp seem idyllic compared to living with David’s parents.

Allen’s solution is to provide David with a nice girl.

If you believe that’s the answer, you have a lot more faith than David.

The Reign of Law: A Tale of the Kentucky Hemp Fields
By James Lane Allen
1900 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg Ebook #3791
My grade: C-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The One Woman Is Too Ridiculous

The early 1900s saw a spate of novels about clergymen who came under bad influences in big cities. Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The One Woman: A Story of Modern Utopia is one of the more ridiculous examples of group.

The One Woman contains some interesting insights into what today are sneeringly called traditional values, but the novel’s plot and characterization are implausible even by the standards of melodrama.

The title character, Ruth Gordon, is the jealous wife of the Rev. Frank Gordon, a handsome and charismatic preacher who is packing a New York City church with a beguiling blend of scriptures and socialism.

Ruth has reason to worry: Frank has an ego twice the size of his church’s sanctuary.

When sexy, sophisticated heiress Kate Ransom tells Frank his words seem divine, Frank’s a gonner.

Frank leaves Ruth and the kids for Kate.

Ruth throws herself at Frank's feet
Ruth is overcome when Frank says he’s leaving her

Frank invents a new, utopian religion that features open marriage.

When Kate tells Frank she’s leaving him, Franks kills her new lover.

In the nick of time, Ruth rescues Frank from the electric chair, restoring the confessed murder to his rightful place as husband, head of the household,  and father to their dear, innocent little children.

The One Woman: A Story of Modern Utopia
by Thomas Dixon Jr.
Life Country Press, 1903
350 pages
1903 bestseller # 9

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Woman Thou Gavest Me Is Worth What She Cost

Hall Craine’s The Woman Thou Gavest Me is a novel that will keep you turning pages and leave you wondering why you bothered.

The only offspring of an unhappy marriage, Mary O’Neill gets shunted off to convent school in Rome at age 8. At 18, Mary is about to declare her wish to become a nun when her father appears to bring her back to Ireland to wed the profligate Englishman who inherited the family estate and title.

Mary’s obediently marries, but voices her objection to being touched by her husband so loudly that he agrees to a marriage in name only until she falls in love with him.

Unable to get an annulment or a divorce, Mary does the next worst thing: She spends one night with her childhood sweetheart, Dr. Martin Conrad, the intrepid explorer who leaves the next day for Antarctica.

Martin returns in the nick of time to save Mary from becoming a prostitute to buy medicine for their sick baby.

Despite improbable characters in implausible situations, Craine  presents a cogent explanation of the Catholic position on marriage and divorce, showing through Mary’s experience where it pinches and why. You need not agree with the position or how Mary comes to terms with it, but you’ll at least understand it.

Perhaps that’s reason enough to keep turning pages.

The Woman Thou Gavest Me
By Hall Craine
1913 bestseller #7
over 500 pages
Project Gutenberg e-book #14597
My grade: C

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Enchanted April: Sunny, Witty, Insightful

Wisteria in bloom
The Enchanted April  is a charming novel about four unhappy women, previously unacquainted, who vacation together in Italy for a month and find love.

Elizabeth von Arnim flits from character to character, telling sections of the narrative from different one’s view point. She employs the technique with finesse, making each character a deliciously distinctive individual.

The story begins one rainy day when Lotty Wilkins sees advertisement.

To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.
Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

On impulse, Lotty asks a woman with  whom she knows only by sight at chruch to rent the castle with her and split expenses, leaving their husbands behind. Rose Arbuthnot finds the idea of a vacation irresistible even with someone as decidedly peculiar as Lotty.

Unable to afford the rent, the pair seek two more companions. Their advertisement draws a snobbish elderly widow, Mrs. Fisher, who had known Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, and Lady Caroline Dester, 28, fleeing the host of suitors for her face and fortune.

In Italy, one after another, the women come realize their attitudes, rather than their circumstances, have been the root of their misery back home.

The novel bubbles with mirth at the folly of being disappointed by what one lacks instead of enjoying what one has, even if what one has is a not entirely satisfactory husband.

If you cannot enjoy this novel, perhaps you need a month’s holiday in Italy.

Incidentally, there’s an Academy Award nominated video version of The Enchanted April, which unfortunately omits von Arnim’s  funniest bits, but is otherwise faithful to the story and spirit of the novel.

The Enchanted April
by Elizabeth von Arnim
1923 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook #16389

Photo credit: Wisteria in Bloom 2  by Dubock

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni