Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley ~ 1917. This edition: J.B. Lippincott, 1955. Introduction by John T. Winterich. Illustrations by Douglas Gorsline. Hardcover. 160 pages.
My rating: 9/10. An unexpected story, boisterously told. The point off is for narrator Helen’s continued refrain of “I’m so fat and plain! I’m so dull and unintellectual!” Well, Helen, if you continue to sell yourself short like that, don’t be surprised if people treat you like a doormat. A minor issue, but one that I ground my teeth at a bit. Helen’s actions negated her sorry opinion of herself, by the way.
This is the prequel to the perennially popular 1919 bestseller, The Haunted Bookshop. Though the books share a certain joie de vivre, they are quite different in style and presentation. Parnassus on Wheels is much less consciously intellectual; the narrator has a distinctive voice which is exclusive to her story, while Bookshop is a different kettle of fish entirely. I liked them both, in different ways.
Thirty-nine-year-old spinster Helen McGill lives a contented life on the small farm she owns with her brother Andrew. At least, it was contented, a happy contrast from her previous occupation as a governess in the city, which she joyfully left in order to join her brother in his quest for a more congenial way of life to combat his ill-health. The farm was just the ticket; Andrew has been usefully occupied with crops and pigs and mild rural pleasures, while Helen has kept the home fires burning and her chickens productively producing eggs.
But something has happened to change all of that. An elderly great-uncle has died, leaving the two his library, and Andrew, stimulated by the sudden abundance of literature at his disposal, has decided to become a writer himself. He pens an ode to the rural life, Paradise Regained, and sends it off to a New York publisher. The book catches the fancy of the jaded city dwellers everywhere, and Andrew is suddenly a best-selling author. He has started neglecting the farm to hob nob with the urban literati, and between city visits tramps the countryside looking for new material. Happiness and Hayseed follows, and then a book of poems. Through all of this Helen keeps the home fires burning and the farm on an even keel, but she is starting to get rather jaded herself in her role as “rural Xantippe” and “domestic balance-wheel that kept the great writer close to the homely realities of life”, as she has seen herself described by one of Andrew’s doting biographers.
Helen is ripe for rebellion, and when her chance to shake her brother up a bit comes she seizes it with both hands. Andrew is out one day, when up drives a horse-drawn van, with the following legend painted on its side:
GOOD BOOKS FOR SALE
SHAKESPEARE, CHARLES LAMB, R.L.S.
HAZLITT, AND ALL OTHERS
The driver of the van, one Roger Mifflin, is looking for Andrew McGill. He presents Helen with his card:
ROGER MIFFLIN’S TRAVELLING PARNASSUS Worthy friends, my wain doth hold Many a book, both new and old: Books, the truest friends of man, Fill this rolling caravan. Books to satisfy all uses, Golden lyrics of the Muses, Books on cookery and farming, Novels passionate and charming, Every kind for every need So that he who buys may read. What librarian can surpass us?
Helen chuckles, and is immediately interested. She does, after all, appreciate a good book herself, though not to the excess her brother has shown. And Roger Mifflin has a business proposition of sorts. The van is a travelling bookshop, and he thinks it would be just the thing for Andrew to take over. Roger announces his intention of selling his business, lock, stock, horse Peg (short for Pegasus), and all.
Helen, imagining an even more complete neglect of the farm should her brother take on this attractive offer, is aghast. She tries to send Mifflin on his way, with no success.
The two joust back and forth, and Helen gets the gleam of an idea. She will purchase the travelling bookstore, and leave Andrew to watch the farm. She has some money saved, and turn-about is fair play, after all…
The deed is duly done, and, leaving the Swedish hired lady in charge, Helen hits the road with Roger along to show her the ropes. Needless to say, Andrew is flabbergasted at his sister’s sudden whim, and sets out in hot pursuit.
Hi-jinks ensue for numerous chapters, until a satisfyingly romantic conclusion is reached.
A grand little romp of a book, something of a period piece, but happy and playful, and well worth the short few hours it takes to gobble it up.
Lippincott’s 1955 edition, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon in Langley last week, has the extra bonus of a very informative explanatory foreword by John Winterich, which added greatly to my understanding and enjoyment of both Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop – I believe it was written to accompany the omnibus volume of both stories which I’ve seen listed on ABE – though this is a stand-alone volume. Clever line illustrations by Douglas Gorsline added an extra fillip to the tale.
After I’d read Parnassus, I stumbled upon a little bit of interesting news regarding Christopher Morley’s inspiration for the story. Turns out that this novel is a send-up of another contemporary novelist of best-selling “rural odes”, one Ray Stannard Baker, writing under the pseudonym David Grayson. Baker-Grayson’s 1907 book, Adventures in Contentment, was immensely popular and gained a large following of people yearning after “the simple life”; it was followed by eight other volumes. Though Baker himself lived a completely urban lifestyle, as a hard-hitting newspaper reporter and journalist, his alter-ego “Grayson” fictionally left the city for the peaceful rural life of a small farm, where he was joined by his sister “Harriet”; the two enjoyed a rural idyll centered on the simple pleasures of country life and wholesome labour.
A detailed exposé of Baker-Grayson can be found here . Fascinating stuff!
And I’m also linking to a great review of Parnassus by Christine at The Book Trunk.