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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Hichens’

The 1917 bestseller list contains three novels that are definitely read-again novels for 2017:  The Red Planet by William J. Locke, His Family by Ernest Poole, and In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens.

The only thing that common thread among my choices is that each is decidedly uncommon.

A domestic novel: His Family

Image of stick figure family group surprinted with His Family by Ernest Poole

I’ll start with Poole’s novel, which is in many ways the least unusual of the trio.

His Family is about a self-made man around the turn of the century.

When his wife died after 20 years of marriage, Roger Gale froze emotionally.

For the next 20 years, Roger kept his business going and saw to it that his three daughters were fed, clothed, and educated; he had no strength left to care for their emotional needs.

The novel explores Roger’s often ham-fisted attempts to connect with the adult children who he’d let grow up parent-less.

In one way, His Family is not a memorable book. The events are very much the sorts of things that happen in every family.

However, the ordinariness of the events the Gales experience makes His Family a novel one can come back to repeatedly to see how an ordinary family handles — or mishandles — life’s problems.

A cozy mystery: The Red Planet

Photo of Mars suprinted with text  The Red Planet by William J. Locke

Although the World War I provides the backdrop to much of the action of His Family, the war in Europe didn’t touch their lives significantly.

By contrast, the Great War permeates the pages of The Red Planet.

The Red Planet is a cozy mystery, presented as a memoir of a Boer War veteran living in a small English village when WWI broke out.

Duncan Meredyth, a paraplegic, is cared for by his ex-sergeant who was disfigured in the same shell blast that took Duncan’s legs.

When Duncan’s neighbors learn their son has been killed in France, Duncan remembers the Fenimore’s daughter, Althea, who was drowned less than a year earlier.

Duncan wonders what Althea had been was doing on the tow-path beside the canal at midnight.

His wondering leads to his listening, observing, and putting the clues together.

Readers of The Red Planet get far more than a good mystery.

They also get a peek into the great changes Britain experienced in 1914-18. Locke writes:

Thus over the sequestered vale of Wellingsford, far away from the sound of shells, even off the track of marauding Zeppelins, rode the fiery planet. Mars. There is not a homestead in Great Britain that in one form or another has not caught a reflection of its blood-red ray. No matter how we may seek distraction in work or amusement, the angry glow is ever before our eyes, colouring our vision, colouring our thoughts, colouring our emotions for good or for ill. We cannot escape it. Our personal destinies are inextricably interwoven with the fate directing the death grapple of the thousand miles or so of battle line, and arbitrating on the doom of colossal battleships.

A spiritual biography: In the Wilderness

Wilderness scene with surprinted text In the Wilderness a novel by The Garden of Allah author Ribert Hichens

In the Wilderness is a pre-war novel about a young man, Dion Leith, who was passionately in love with a woman who had turned him down numerous times.

Rosamund relinquished her plans and agreed to marry Dion after hearing a sermon urging “sharing a path” as a way to combat egoism.

Both Dion and Rosamund are intense and basically self-centered individuals, although their selfishness takes on very different expressions.

Dion thinks Rosamund’s religious faith stands between them, when the truth is that neither of them has real faith: Both have only emotion.

There’s nothing preachy about Hichens’ novel. His characters’ faith, or lack thereof, interests him as a facet of their personalities.

To the extent that Dion and Rosamund grow up, they outgrow the self-centeredness that marked their youthful religious beliefs.

Each of these three 1917 bestsellers is worth reading in 2017. Each is available to read for free at Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg

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When you read as many novels as I do—I read and reviewed more then 75 novels for Great Penformances this year—there’s a tendency to become jaded.

Plots get to feel familiar.

Characters seem to reappear in different outfits in different novels.

And the point of it all often is hardly worth the words expended in stating it.

As a reflected on the novels I reviewed here in 2015, four stood out as being distinctly different from the rest:

Although their subjects cover a wide range, each has the same central theme: the importance of having a moral compass.

The Ambassador

The Ambassador is a story about the politics of American involvement in the Vietnam War. The American Ambassador to South Vietnam says what his government pays him to say. In so doing, he assures the war will drag on, body bag after body bag, for years.

His career crisis underscores the Ambassador’s personal crisis: He had depended on his late wife’s faith to provide him with a moral compass. Without her, he can’t locate North.

Something of Value

Something of Value also is set against the backdrop of a war, this one between the white settlers of Kenya and the black guerrilla army, the Mau Mau.

The white colonialists have prohibited the blacks from practicing their culture and religion, but the tepid Christianity they demanded Kenyans substitute for traditional ways provide neither white or black with a moral compass.

The 40 Days of Musa Dagh

The 40 Days of Musa Dagh is a story about the events called, except in Turkey, the Aremnian genocide.

In 1915, the Ottoman Empire, part of Central Powers (which also included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria), ordered Armenians within its borders to the Syrian deserts.

Only a few Armenian communities resisted.

As World War I began, some 5,000 Armenian from the Mediterranean mountains due west of Aleppo, Syria, took up positions on Musa Dagh (“Mount Moses”) to repel the Turkish military.

They held out for 53 days (Werfel calls it 40 days, which sounds more biblical) before the Western Allies evacuated the Musa Dagh survivors by ship.

In Werfel’s novel, as in history, the moral question is about the responsibility of uninvolved observers. Without a moral compass, bystanders to brutality waver over their options until the possibility for action is gone.

The Garden of Allah

The Garden of Allah brings moral issues down to the level of marriage.

Both marriage partners had had strong faith at one time. Domini’s faith dwindled; Boris rejected his.

The central question of the novel and the marriage is whether the individual puts his or her needs above those of the spouse. The question can only be answered by a muscular faith in obedience to the moral compass.

You or I may not approve of the direction chosen by the characters in some of these novels. Yet each novel shows the value of having a moral in a world that sets its course by opinion polls.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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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

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The Garden of Allah begins with the arrival in North Africa of  an  Englishwoman headed to Beni-Mora.

Robert Hichens makes the vast, unpopulated Sahara a vivid backdrop flooded with colors and  vibrating with tom-toms, cymbals, castanets, and the howls of dogs for a story as unexpected as the scene.


The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens

Grosset & Dunlap, 1904. 1905 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #3637   My grade: A.


Domini Enfilden’s father, an English Lord, has recently died leaving her at 32 single, wealthy, and spiritually shaken by the collapse of her parents’ marriage and their Catholicism.

Domini hopes to find herself in the solitude of the desert, the vast empty space the Arabs call “The Garden of Allah.”

What she finds immediately is an annoying man said to be English, who is barely civil, and seems repelled by religion of every sort.

Aside from Count Anteoni, an Italian who is Arab in all but his failure to adopt Islam, the pair are the only Europeans in Beni-Mora.

The story is riveting.

Domini’s thoughts and mental corrections, her mood swings, her snobbery and charity all are perfectly believable.

Robert Hichens fascinates readers as he does Domini with the mysterious behavior of the man whose name they eventually learn is Boris Androvsky.

Then Hichens pulls readers into biggest mystery of all: the mystery of God’s love and forgiveness.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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