Ordinary people, tempting plot tangles in The Devil’s Garden

Postoffice add general store in Boxhill, Surrey, England
Will Dale’s post office probably looked much like this one in Boxhill, Surrey, England in 2003.

The Devil’s Garden opens with postmaster Will Dale receiving notice that he’s been suspended for a trivial incident that the local MP used as an example of the officiousness of civil servants.

Will’s wife, Mavis, and Will’s temporary replacement, Mr. Ridgett, suspect Will won’t present himself well at his suspension hearing.

Will thinks Mavis frets unnecessarily, and he suspects Ridgett of interest in Mavis.

Mavis, however, is right to fret.

Will is officious.blue book cover, with "The Devils' Garden By W. B. Maxwell" in gold letters

If it were not for the intercession of Mr. Barradine, an ex-Cabinet Minister in whose house Mavis worked when Will met her, Will would have lost his job.

Before Will can resume his duties, Mr. Barradine is dead and the Dales are occupying separate bedrooms.

The narrative pushes forward relentlessly. Readers can guess at what happened, but have to wait for Will to tell how it happened and why he did what he did.

W. B. Maxwell’s characters are finely delineated and realistically colored. Will and Mavis feel like people you’ve met at one time or another.

Will is a loving husband, helpful neighbor, hard-working employee. His joining the chapel contains a believable mix of business acumen, faith, and doubt that makes the typical religious novel feel hokey.

The Devil playeth in a man’s mind like a
wanton child in a garden, bringing his filth
to choke each open path, uprooting the
tender plants, and trampling the buds that
should have blown for the Master.

The Devil’s Garden
by W[illiam]  B[abington] Maxwell
Project Gutenberg ebook #14605
1914 bestseller #9
My grade: B+

Photo credit: Postoffice By PeterD

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Red Pottage a Feast for Readers

Red Pottage is the story of a fashionable, young, 19th century Londoner, Hugh Scarlett, who like Esau in the Bible, threw away an honorable position to satisfy an immediate hunger.

As the novel opens, Hugh has decided to dump his mistress. He has met Rachel West and decided she “would save him from himself” if she became his wife.

Hugh is shocked when Lord Newhaven demands satisfaction for Hugh’s affair with his wife. Dueling being outlawed, Lord Newhaven offers an alternative: They draw straws with the loser to commit suicide within five months.

On that bizarre premise, Mary Cholmondeley grows a rich psychological drama about characters that are more believable than your next door neighbors.

In the small, intermarried British upper class, Hugh and the Newhavens have many mutual acquaintances and some mutual relatives. Cholmondeley enlists them to help her explore complex issues of love and marriage, justice and mercy, sin and repentance, and the art of writing novels.

Cholmondeley’s ability to craft a plausible story on an implausible premise makes James Hilton’s Lost Horizon look like writing by a third grader.

Cholmondeley’s characters are far more credible than Hilton’s as well. She gets even the tiny details right. You’ll want to read some of her sentences aloud to savor their sounds.

When, for example, Hester Gresley having written a critically acclaimed but unprofitable first novel, goes to live in the country with her clergyman brother, Cholmondeley says, “[Hester] now experienced the interesting sensation, as novel to her as it is familiar to most of us, of being nobody, and she disliked it.” Can’t you hear the sniff above the stiff upper lip in that sentence?

Red Pottage is a rich stew.

Enjoy it.

Red Pottage
By Mary Cholmondeley
Harper & Brothers, 1900
1900 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg #Ebook #14885
My grade: A-

@ 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Steinbeck celebrates freedom to choose

Beans under early morning sunlight
Beans in early morning sunlight

Adam Trask and his brother, never on good terms, part after Adam marries Cathy Ames, whose depravity is hidden by golden beauty. Cathy bears twin boys,  leaves Adam, and worms her way into the ownership of a brothel. Sam Hamilton intervenes to see that the twins are taken care of. He helps select their names after he, Adam and Adam’s Chinese servant, Lee, discuss the account of Cain and Abel.

The twins, Aron and Caleb, grow to manhood. Aron is everyone’s favorite, Caleb the overlooked boy yearning for his father’s love. The story of Cain and Abel is repeated again in their lives, but with a happier ending. Lee has studied the Biblical account and learned that people can turn from sin if they choose.

East of Eden starts slowly, but gathers momentum as Steinbeck begins to weave the lives of Adam, Sam and Cathy together. When the book was published, readers might have found Cathy’s sordid story unsettling. Today’s readers, I fear, have read far worse in the daily paper. They are more likely to be upset by Steinbeck’s treatment of the Bible as a true account worthy of study.

East of Eden
John Steinbeck
The Viking Press, 1952
1952 Bestseller #2
My Grade: B+
Photo credit: “Beans” uploaded by edu at http://www.sxc.hu/photo/346054
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni