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Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

Alice Cholmondeley’s author’s note to Christine prefaces what Cholmondeley says are letters written to her by her daughter, Christine, who was studying in Germany the summer World War I began.

A note saying the publisher chose to alter names of some individuals reinforces the idea that the letters are true.


Christine by Alice Cholmondeley¹
©1917. 1917 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg eBook #12683. My grade: C .

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to frontlines

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to the front, 1 August 1914.

In fact, Christine is a work not merely of fiction, but fabricated propaganda.

The letters’ details provide the proof.

Christine tells her mother a host of “facts” that a parent would have known without telling: the family is poor, Christine is to be away only one year, that no one else in the family has a talent for violin.

Cholmondeley is very good at detail, which gives the story a sense of “this happened.”

The text is strewn with German terms that monolingual American readers will need to look up.

Cholmondeley goes to great lengths to show the Germans as a nation are cruel, brutal, greedy, power-hungry, that they wanted war because war fit in with their philosophy and ambitions.

The value of Christine for today’s readers is less about its story — which is slender — than about its rhetorical strategy. As a study in persuasion, it’s well worth careful examination.

Techniques that Cholmondeley uses against the Germans might be used today against Muslims or Methodists.


¹Alice Cholmondeley is a pen name of Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, an Australian-born British novelist. By her first marriage she became Gräfin von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and by a second marriage, Countess Russell.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Poem from frontpiece to The Red Planet superimposed on NASA photo of Mars

Poem from the front piece to The Red Planet

The Red Planet is a memoir narrated by Duncan Meredyth, a widowed Boer War veteran living in a small English country village in 1914. Duncan is cared for my his ex-sergeant who was disfigured in the same shell blast that took Duncan’s legs.


The Red Planet by William J. Locke
1917 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg eBook #4287. My grade: A-.

As friend to his peers and “Uncle” to local young people, Duncan gets to know nearly every thing that happens in Willingsford.

As the story opens, Duncan’s neighbors, the Fenimores, learn their son has been killed in France.

Less than a year earlier their daughter had drowned.

No one had asked aloud why Althea was on the tow-path at midnight.

While Fenimores mourn, Duncan learns Betty Fairfax, who had been engaged to the heroic Major Leonard Boyce, is going to marry Capt. Willie Connor, whom Duncan thinks a nonentity.

Duncan is also surprised to see upper-crust Randall Holmes with his arm around Phyllis Gedge, daughter of a socialist builder.

As Duncan hears village gossip, observes who is with whom, and puts two and two together, William J. Locke develops and redevelops the novel’s characters.

By turns funny, morose, sympathetic, and dogmatic, Duncan always seems like a real person whose opinions on patriotism, heroism, and human nature need to be taken seriously.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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I had no difficulty selecting my two two choices of the 1918 bestselling novels: Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter and The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Both novels have an anti-establishment and feminist edge. I suspect had they been written by newcomers to publishing instead of by highly successful authors noted for quite different sorts of  bestsellers—Rinehart is best known for her mysteries and Stratton-Porter for light romances—they might not have attracted a publisher at all.

For a third recommendation, I’ll add The Pawns Count, a mystery-thriller by E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Daughter of the Land

I admit I’m not a fan of Stratton-Porter.  She tends toward romances in which the leading character are too good to be true and the plots too contrived to be believable.  But she was popular: Michael O’Halloran, The Keeper of the Bees, Laddie, The Harvester, and Her Father’s Daughter each were bestsellers.

In Daughter of the Land Stratton-Porter breaks from her usual pattern.

Kate Bates, the daughter, is not breathtakingly beautiful nor is in thrall to a male figure. She’s smart, shrewd, hardworking, and she knows exactly what she wants: Kate wants to be given the same opportunities as her brothers. Each of them got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.

The best Kate could hope for was what her nine sisters got on their marriages: “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress.”

Unwilling to settle for anything less than 200 acres to farm, Kate strikes out on her own to seek her fortune from her only marketable assets: her brain and her kindness.

Stratton-Porter has Kate make a lot of mistakes and learn from each one of them. Some of her mistakes are deliberate acts of will. Many, however, are thoughtless choices she makes under physical and emotional stress—an unheroic type of mistake rarely made by leading characters in novels.

Not everyone likes Kate, but people respect her. They know she won’t lie to them; she won’t take advantage of them. Even her brothers accept that Kate’s method of settling their parents’ estate is fair to everyone.

Daughter of the Land is not great literature, but it’s a great story from which teenage girls and their parents today could learn a great deal—and enjoy the experience.

The Amazing Interlude

Like Stratton-Porter,  Rinehart was a prolific writer and for four decades a  popular one. A mystery, The Man in Lower Ten (1909), was Rinehart’s first bestseller. It’s probably still her most popular novel.

Rinehart followed that the next year with two more bestselling mysteries, The Window at the White Cat and When a Man Marries, which mingles comedy with mystery. By the time she published  K in 1915  her name had become firmly associated mysteries.

The Amazing Interlude was Rinehart’s first bestselling novel outside the mystery genre.

As she does in most of her books, Rinehart sets Interlude in settings that her readers would have recognized: small town America and the Western Front. The story is about a seemingly very ordinary young woman engaged to be married to a man she’s known all her life.  Sara recognizes that Harvey is dull and boring, but he’s the sort of man girls in her town marry.

When a letter describing the horrible conditions behind the front lines in Belgium is passed around town, Sara’s sympathy and imagination are stirred. She goes off to France to run a soup kitchen for soldiers.

Sara knows no French, has no foreign contacts, has no credentials, and she has no financial support other than from women of her church. Sara rises above her limitations, doing all sorts of things she would never have dreamed anyone could do, let alone herself.

While Sara scrubs floors and scrounges for food while shells explode around her, Harvey fumes because he thinks she’s playing instead of doing the accepted thing: staying at home tending to his wants.

Harvey gets the church women who funded Sara’s soup kitchen to quit sending her money to feed French soldiers. Without funds, Sara has to come home.

Rinehart makes readers understand that Interlude‘s Americans are not deliberately cruel or mean. They aren’t lacking in charity—as long as charity can be delivered by check from profits made doing activities one enjoys. It’s only when the enjoyment lags and the profits dwindle, or if the situation demands boring, dirty work, that compassion fatigue sets in.

Getting outside the security of her home, family, and town leads Sara to believe that being American means befriending people outside one’s home, family, and town; people who speak foreign languages, wear different clothes, have different religions; people who are dirty, smelly, lousy, contagious.

Sara comes home a changed person. Her idea of the world and America’s role in the world has changed forever.

The Amazing Interlude may find few enthusiasts in America’s current build-a-wall culture, but it’s all the more important reading for that.

The Pawns Count

E. Phillips Oppenheim was another popular and prolific author:  He turned out more than 100 novels. Oppenheim is best known for his thrillers, such as The Pawns Count.

Unlike my other two picks, Pawns’ is genre fiction whose continuing interest today beyond its entertainment value—it’s a good World War I-era thriller—is the insights it provides into how the war to end all wars laid the groundwork for World War II.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In Mr. Britling Sees It Through, H. G. Wells gives an account of World War I from the perspective of an intellectual with an optimistic view of human nature.

The title character, Mr. Britling, is a moderately well-known writer, who pens essays and articles from his study in Essex, England.


Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells

Macmillan, 1916. Project Gutenberg ebook #14060.
1916 bestseller #4. My grade B+.


Close up photo of HG Wells shows bushy eyebrows, tired eyes, and stubby mustache

Up until the German invasion, Britling tells anyone who will listen that the German people don’t want war.

When war is declared, Britling has to confront both the German support for the war and the British lack of preparedness for that war.

Soon he has to face harsher realities.

Britling is turned down for military service.

Members of his household, including his eldest son, enlist.

Britling’s understanding of war morphs from pins on a map into a girl delivering a telegram.

His political opinions change coincidentally.

Wells based Mr. Britling on his own experience. Indeed, the development of Britling’s thought as events unfold in Europe suggests reportage rather than imagination.

The plot, too, seems determined by historical events rather than story requirements.

Instead of fictionalizing, Wells follows the war so readers can have a sharp, nuanced perspective on one of the most significant events of the 20th century.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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As The Hounds of Spring opens, Cynthia Renner tells her Austrian-born husband she’s “not perfectly satisfied” with their children.

She fears they haven’t had enough disappointments to build character.


The Hounds of Spring by Sylvia Thompson

Little, Brown, 1926. 366 p. 1926 bestseller #4. My grade: A.


1926-04_houndsWithin hours, Austria declares war on Serbia. Within days England is sucked into the conflict.

Colin Russell, the elder Renner daughter’s fiancé, enlists. Two months later, he’s on the front lines in France.

Colin and Zina plan to marry when he gets his first leave. Before then, Colin is declared missing, believed dead.

John Renner, his mother’s favorite child, joins the R.N.A.S. He is shot down over France.

Deadened by her loss and feeling her mother cared for more John than for her, in 1918 Zina marries a man she doesn’t love rather than face the future alone.

While Zina is on her honeymoon, her father intercepts a telegraph message for her: Colin is alive.

Sir Edgar goes to Paris immediately.

When he learns that Zina didn’t wait for his return, Colin says, “So this is war.”

Sylvia Thompson’s quietly stunning novel about an English family whose lives were soaked by the social and political sea changes of 1914-1924 deserves to be rediscovered and reread by a new generation.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Gervais d’Alvery comes home from World War I to marry his sweetheart, Merry Randall, and make his Louisiana sugar plantation profitable again.

Gervais sees state politics as a means of improving the economic climate for planters like himself. His war-hero status, family name, and good looks make him a natural.


The River Road by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Julian Messner, 1945. 747 p. 1946 bestseller #3. My grade: B.


Workers load long stalks of sugar cane on a wagonBy their 10th anniversary, the couple have five children, a huge mortgage, and a none-too-well-hidden secret.

As Gervais tries to resuscitate his family fortunes, other men with less aristocratic origins —and some with far fewer principles — are making their mark in business and politics.

Louisiana in World War II will be far different than in World War I.

In The River Road, Frances Parkinson Keyes displays the story-telling flair that made her one of the top names in fiction in the middle of the last century.

The plot is intricate, but nothing seems extraneous in this well-crafted novel.

The characters are complex individuals. They have annoying foibles as well as some outright flaws, but they are believable, likable human beings.

A few weeks after you close the covers, you’ll have forgotten what The River Road was about,  but while you’re reading, it will give as much pleasure as it did in ’46.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In One Increasing Purpose, A. S. M. Hutchinson presents a nice guy, Simon “Sim” Paris, who survived World War I without a scratch.

Sim  wonders why he was spared.


One Increasing Purpose by A. S. M. Hutchinson

Little, Brown,and Company, 1925,  448 pp. 1925 bestseller #10. My grade: C+.


All his family call on Sim’s sympathy.

Andrew, Sim’s oldest brother, is married to a woman temperamentally her husband’s opposite; after 10 years of marriage they are finding passion a poor substitute for shared values.

Sim’s other brother, Charles, is fond of his wife and she of him, but their relationship ends with fondness.

Looking for a sympathetic ear for his own problems, Sims looks up girl he’d known before the war. When Sim tell Elizabeth he’s convinced he was spared for a purpose, she says the purpose “is of God.”

Sim spends the rest of the novel trying to find God’s purpose, while simultaneously trying to help his brothers and sisters-in-laws with their marital problems.

Sims is the sort of person you’d want as a friend, but he’s awfully dull as a male lead. Sim’s declaration of undying love is, “Elizabeth,” which is not a particularly memorable line.

To get the mess untangled, Hutchinson resorts to a deus ex machina, which perhaps is appropriate for a protagonist whose statement of faith is “Christ the Common Denominator.”

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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