Archive for August, 2016

storm drift ethel m dell 1930Storm Drift by Ethel M. Dell ~ 1930. This edition: Ryerson Press, 1930. Hardcover. 376 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

Picture yourself on a boat on the ocean, just out of Bombay, heading to England…

Here’s Tiggie, our hero. He’s a wealthy bachelor looking forward to a few months of convalescence from his latest bout of some tropical ailment.

Tiggie can’t keep his eyes off a fellow passenger, the ethereally beautiful and frantically anxious Mrs. Viola Norman, whose husband appears to have missed the sailing. Tiggie steps up to soothe the perpetually shrinking Viola, and discovers that her nervous condition is apparently well justified, for not only is she pretty well stone broke and bereft of her (apparent) spouse, she is also in the family way.

The overwrought Viola attempts to end it all by taking a dive off the ship’s railing, but Tiggie intervenes in a dramatic rescue. As he pulls the frail Mrs Norman to safety, he is suddenly overwhelmed by a rush of feelings for her. Full on, instant infatuation. He’s on fire!

Confined as they are to the first class deck of a ship at sea, Tiggie and Viola can’t avoid each other, and Tiggie focuses his ever-more-fevered gaze on the trembling little grass widow. He is rewarded when Viola reveals herself to be a woman with an unexpectedly passionate inner core, as Tiggie discovers when he manages to corner her one post-rescue night on a secluded corner of the deck. As his lips meet hers, and she yields meltingly to his masterful embrace, fireworks go off, volcanoes erupt, etcetera. (Too bad she’s MARRIED. And PREGNANT.)


Viola looks a bit green in this cover depiction. Could it be the combined queasiness of pregnancy, the rolling ship, and her recent suicide attempt, or merely the overwhelming effect of the masterful Tiggie’s manly grip and burning lips?

Tiggie belatedly gets a grip on himself and does the Correct Gentleman’s Thing. He pulls himself off with an apology, which Viola whisperingly accepts. They mustn’t see each other once they reach England! Viola, having confessed to being abandoned by the father of her coming child, insists that she will be able to find employment and care for herself, and that she will quickly repay the money which Tiggie forces upon her to tide her over. He’ll never see her again; she won’t be beholden to him; their mutual smoldering passion will just have to be firmly quenched. They must forever part!

Need I go on? (I will, of course. The question is purely rhetorical; I could stop right there and let you guess the rest quite successfully yourself.)

For of course their paths reconnect, and through an elaborately coincidence-ridden plot, the two tortured lovers almost immediately reunite. Viola has a rather convenient miscarriage, just to neaten things up on that end. A whole bunch of stuff happens regarding Viola’s shady past as a cabaret dancer, her surprising familiarity with Tiggie’s artist brother-in-law, and the re-surfacing Mr Norman, who turns out to be not so imaginary as once thought.

The key players in the story – Tiggie, Viola, the lost husband, the artist brother-in-law – all find themselves together in a small coastal village, well-furnished with cliffs convenient for adding an element of potentially fatal danger to the ongoing action. No prizes for guessing the sad fate of Viola’s rejected husband.

Yup. He’s doomed.

Now rid of both incipient unwanted baby and pesky previous relationship, Viola is fully Tiggie’s own. The curtain falls on their happy ending.

My word. I can’t quite believe I made it through this thing. I feel like I deserve a prize. It was, increasingly, a slog, though I do have to give Ethel M. Dell credit for writing just well enough to keep me at it. There was certainly a lot of action, which helped.

I do have to say that if I’d been there in any capacity, I would have happily pushed the whole cast of characters off that tall, tall cliff. By the time their romance came right, I warmly hated both Tiggie and Viola, and Harvey-the-eccentric-genius-artist was push-worthy just by association.

The only character I liked by the end was Harvey’s wife – Tiggie’s sister Janet – who avoids being involved with any of this nonsense by staying sensibly home and running her chicken farm while her male connections are off making idiots of themselves. (Ha! Didn’t expect that little detail, did you? I immediately gave Dell an extra point for the hens. It was so darned unexpected, and really kind of sweet.)

So there you have it. Me and Ethel M. Dell. Oh boy.

A bit of background stuff.

Ethel M. Dell was a highly successful romance novelist of her time – thirty novels from 1911 to 1938 – and her target markets were under-employed spinsters whiling away their long afternoons, and working class women looking for a titillating read for their infrequent leisure hours.

Dell specialized in semi-exotic locations, masterful men, trembling women, and sex-soaked situations. She stopped just short of explicit in her descriptions of romantic encounters, but the veil she left drawn was rather on the thin side.

Those of us who read any amount of early and mid 20th Century middlebrow fiction are very familiar with Dell’s name, and by extension her genre, even if we’ve never cracked the covers of one of her passion-filled productions. Other writers of the time loved to scorn her; occasionally there is the tangy whiff of sour grapes, for Dell did financially very well with her particular  line, one suspects much more so than many of the “serious” writers of her day.

Contemporary fellow writer (and professional literary critic) Rebecca West famously condemned Ethel M. Dell’s work as decidedly “tosh”. (The exact quote, in reference to another of Dell’s torrid romances, 1922’s Charles Rex, was this: “(I)n every line that is written about him one hears the thudding, thundering hooves of a certain steed at full gallop; of the true Tosh-horse”.)

On the abundant evidence of this particular novel, I must agree.

Storm Drift was my first and possibly last Dell, though I may succumb to curiosity and explore this writer some more, just to fill in the details in some of those references. I have a few more specimens of Dell’s work on hand, and, much as I hate to say it, I’ve read worse. Not much worse, but occasionally one is desperate for something – anything! – to read…




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Crossing the Skeena River by 2-car reaction ferry, Usk, B.C.

Crossing the Skeena River by 2-car reaction ferry, Usk, B.C.

Since my last post a good two weeks ago quite a lot has happened in my world. The most exciting thing being an immensely enjoyable week-long road trip to Alaska in our old Triumph Spitfire. Top down all the way, though we were pretty chilly those cool northern British Columbia summer mornings!

An overwhelming magnitude of most excellent scenery. Glaciers and totem poles, the tock-tock of ravens everywhere we went, and the fragrance of sweet clover from the hayfields and roadsides overcoming our little car’s perpetual miasma of Old British Car over-fuelled exhaust.

It was grand.

Bear Glacier, near the Canada-U.S.A. border towns of Stewart, B.C. and Hyder, Alaska

Bear Glacier, near the Canada-U.S.A. border towns of Stewart, B.C. and Hyder, Alaska

Lichen-covered lava flow at the Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park near Terrace, B.C., site of Canada's last volcanic eruption in the mid-1700s.

Lichen-covered lava flow at the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park near Terrace, B.C., site of Canada’s last volcanic eruption in the mid-1700s.

Totem poles near Kitwanga, B.C. These are memorial poles erected over the graves of band chiefs. The figures depict clan memberships and significant connections of the people they memorialize.

Totem poles near Kitwanga, B.C. These are memorial poles erected over the graves of band chiefs. The figures depict clan memberships and significant connections of the people they memorialize.

So. Books.

Just before we took off on our drive, a kind neighbour passed on to us three boxes full of dusty vintage hardcovers she’d been shuffling from shelf to shelf for years. In between the collections of sermons and prayers-for-the-day, the moralizing children’s tales, and the expected classics were some now-obscure popular novels which were bestsellers in their day. E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, and Ethel M. Dell, anyone? Or how about Kathleen Norris?

I packed a random handful of the most promising along on our trip, but was so exhausted each night from the miles of windy driving and the glorious sightseeing (and possibly the brisk northern air combined with those afore-mentioned exhaust fumes) that I only managed to make my way through one of them.

An Apple for Eve by Kathleen Norris, 1942, was a contemporary romance novel by the prolific San Francisco writer. If you’re not familiar with the name, here’s a brief biography, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Kathleen Thompson Norris (July 16, 1880 – January 18, 1966) was a popular American novelist and newspaper columnist. She was one of the most widely read and highest paid female writers in the United States for nearly fifty years, from 1911 to 1959. Her stories appeared in the Atlantic, The American Magazine, McClure’s, Everybody’s, Ladies’ Home Journal and Woman’s Home Companion, and she wrote 93 novels, many of which were best sellers. She used her fiction to promote values including the sanctity of marriage, the nobility of motherhood, and the importance of service to others

An Apple for Eve by Kathleen Norris, 1942. This edition: P.F. Collier and Son, 1942. Hardcover. 340 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

an apple for eve kathleen norris 1942An Apple for Eve was the fourth novel by this writer that I’ve read, and based on past experience I assumed it would be a readable, well-detailed, decidedly earnest though not off-puttingly preachy, easy to take up and put down light read. And it was all of that.

Teenage Loveday, daughter of a much-respected family of once-wealthy California Quakers, falls tempestuously in love with a young man of not quite top-drawer origins. She promises eternal faithfulness, and sends her fiance off to flight school with the promise to marry him as soon as he can finish his training and set up a modest starter home.

Much drama then ensues. Loveday becomes orphaned; we learn of a mysterious family fortune possibly hidden somewhere in the decaying family mansion; Loveday is semi-adopted by a wealthy family and introduced to high society and rich living; Larry-the-fiance stops writing; Loveday finds herself in a mutually-attracted relationship with an already-married playwright; heart rendings all round!

Eventually Loveday and Larry reunite and marry, but things go swiftly downhill. For Larry is something of a ne’er-do-well. He can’t keep a job, he argues with any sort of authority figure he comes across, he’s deeply jealous of Loveday’s affection for her adopted family, who keep swooping in with welcome cash donations to ease Loveday’s continual financial woes, for she and Larry and their three small children are sliding ever deeper into a lower strata of society than either of them started out in.

Re-enter Loveday’s other lover, the wealthy playwright Chris. His wife has just died, and he feels himself free to woo the still-lovely Loveday, as her husband is obviously unwilling to man up and support her in the way which she deserves. And Loveday must admit that she returns the illicit passion. But will she be able to set aside her marriage vows and divorce her sad-sack spouse? Larry, though continually inadequately employed, occasionally sullen, and generally slightly mopey, is quite a sweet guy at heart, who has never done anything to deserve spousal desertion.


Take a peek up to the bit about Kathleen Norris’s championship of the sanctity of marriage vows and the nobility of motherhood for a Great Big Clue as to what our heroine eventually decides.

I’ve occasionally seen this author’s work classified as “Christian Romance Fiction”, and while I wouldn’t go that far myself – she seldom directly references God or religion, and her characters get up to some rather worldly shenanigans – I can see why that is a tidy and appropriate categorization in this current anything-goes age.

This not particularly top rate novel is redeemed by its generous period detail and its depiction of rural California life in the early World War II years, when America was poised on the brink of committing to the overseas conflict. There is ongoing discussion of the situation in Europe and the role which America should play in the escalating war; some characters go north to Canada to join the R.A.F.; during the course of the novel the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, precipitating the U.S.A.’s decision to jump into the fray. Back on the home front, wives and mothers scramble to compensate for breadwinners heeding the call to arms, and, just a little later on, to deal with the inevitable deaths of loved ones and the return of the wounded.

By 1942 Kathleen Norris had honed her writerly craft to a very competent level, and working one’s way through this melodramatic tale some 75 years after its publication is no great hardship, with the expected allowances for era-expected attitudes, as well as a soupçon of bigotry and racial slurs. Those of Chinese ethnicity come in for most of the little digs, as Loveday’s household staff (for of course our heroine has devoted family retainers despite her desperate poverty) are descendents of the California Gold Rush “coolies” of a generation or two before. A typical off-the-cuff comment from Loveday, in reference to her housekeeper: “The Chinese are trustworthy because they find it pays better to be honest.”

As in the other Norris novels I’ve read, the chief heroine is almost impossibly beautiful, universally admired, and stunningly competent at everything she does. Though she temporarily allows herself to be tempted – remember that clue-providing title? – “Eve”, “apple”? – I couldn’t work up any surprise upon finding out that she ultimately does the morally right thing. And of course earthly rewards follow thick and fast, though Norris pleased me by not tying up quite every loose end.

Some years ago I read and reviewed 1937’s The American Flaggs. My opinion of the writer’s style engendered by that first experience of her work have not changed in my subsequent readings; I’ve since acquired and read The Venables (1941), Bread Into Roses (1936), and, just the other day, Butterfly (1923). Good summertime books, not too deep, and the annoying bits are easily brushed aside. Next in the queue is The Heart of Rachael (1916), which I may dip into this evening, before setting aside Norris’s all-of-a-pattern heroines for something with a bit more oomph.



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