Archive for the ‘Robert Grant’ Category

the orchid robert grant 001The Orchid by Robert Grant ~ 1905. This edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905. Hardcover. 229 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

In this short novel – really more of a novella, as its 200+ pages are of the “big print, lots of margin and wide line spacings” sort – Robert Grant clothes a barbed comment or two on the hypocrisy of American society in the garb of an amusing light novel.

I was initially a bit disappointed in the superficial nature of the book, having hoped for something as complex as Grant’s ambitious Unleavened Bread , but as I read on I realized that the voice of the writer was still there, still saying the same thing, though here in a minor key.

As I wouldn’t recommend that anyone run out willy-nilly and find this book – it’s very much a minor work, though quite nicely readable – I’ll go ahead and summarize the key points of the tale, which takes place in a fictional American east coast setting – near real-world Boston, perhaps? – with the characters being the wealthy social set, most with two homes, one in the city and the other in the rural retreat of “Westfield”, where the lavish estates of the brash nouveau riche coexist with the more modest homes of the more staid “old money” American aristocrats of the time.

Miss Lydia Arnold is the orphaned just-in-her-early-twenties daughter of a socially prominent but not tremendously wealthy “aristocratic” couple. She is by way of being a shining star amongst the other young women of her set; much admired by everyone for her sharply brilliant wit, athletic ability, and physical beauty. As the story opens, Lydia is about to accept the marriage proposal of Herbert Maxwell, first generation member of the smart set, made acceptable by the wealth backing him from his father’s success in trade.

For Herbert Maxwell was a new man. That is, the parents of the members of the Westfield Hunt Club remembered his father as a dealer in furniture, selling goods in his own store, a red-visaged, round-faced, stubby looking citizen with a huge standing collar gaping at the front. Though he had grown rich in the process, settled in the fashionable quarter of the city and sent his boy to college in order to make desirable friends and get a good education it could not be denied that he smelt of varnish metaphorically of not actually, and that Herbert was, so to speak, on the defensive from a social point of view. Everybody’s eye was on him to see that he did not make some “break,” and inasmuch, as he was commonly, if patronizingly, spoken of as “a very decent sort of chap,” it may be taken for granted that he had managed to escape serious criticism…

Self-contained and luxury-loving Lydia (the “Orchid” of the title, a creature which flourishes best in a hothouse setting, flauntingly beautiful but decidedly touch-me-not) decides to follow the money, and she and Herbert in due course produce a child, the small Guendolen, treated by her mother as a slightly annoying doll to be occasionally dressed up, and by her father as the beloved apple of his eye. I rather enjoyed the nice little aside the author included at Guendolen’s birth, with Lydia’s lady-friends debating the pros and cons of nursing one’s own child, and the social benefits of freeing oneself from constant attendance on an infant by employing wet nurses and “artificial food”, with some holding out for the “old-fashioned” habit of mother-child bonding through breastfeeding, “to give the children the benefit of the doubt as to any possible effect on character by being suckled by a stranger.” (!)

No second baby follows Guen, and Lydia obviously considers that by providing her spouse with a child the great part of her marital bargain has been met. She proceeds to employ herself by pursuit of her sporting interests: riding with the Hunt Club, and the newest craze fresh over from England and Scotland, golfing. Needless to say she excels on the greens as much as she does in the equestrian field, and she soon catches the eye of recently arrived Harry Spencer, one of the “poorer” members of the Westfield social set who has been off travelling for some years.

Handsome Harry has broken hearts by the dozen, but has never succumbed himself, until the sight of lovely Mrs Maxwell undoes him completely. The two come together like steel and magnet, until at last Herbert Maxwell is moved to ask his wife just what the heck is going on. She responds by requesting a separation, commenting that she intends to take little Guen with her. Herbert refuses categorically, and the conjugal fight is on, watched with breathless gossiping interest by the members of the Westfield set.

Then Lydia comes up with what she views as a win-win scheme. For a two million dollar settlement, she will renounce her claim to Guen and allow Herbert to divorce her, and with the money she and Harry will be able to set up house in the manner in which they’d both like to be maintained.

“She’s sold her child!” the Westfield matrons cry, and for a while the skirts are primly twitched back as Lydia passes by. But once she’s safely married to Harry, living in her old house which she has snagged from her ex, and driving a posh new automobile – “bridal white and luxurious” – the society ladies glance at each other out of the corners of their eyes. Will they accept Lydia and Harry back into the fold and attend her tennis party – tennis being the latest craze, trumping that yawningly boring old-fashioned golf – and grand reception?

What do you think?

Robert Grant thinks that they will squash their inconvenient morals, and so they do, with the last hold-out, the stern matriarch of the set, coming round at the end.

“Everyone is going, and most of the nice people are coming from town. So why should I be stuffy and bite my own nose off? Which goes far to prove, my dears,” she added sententiously, “that the only unpardonable social sin in this country is to lose one’s money. Nothing else really counts.”

Indeed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Read Full Post »

unleavened bread 1900 robert grant 001Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant ~ 1900. This edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900. Hardcover. 431 pages.

My rating: 8/10

This turn-of-the-century American novel is an ambitious three-stage portrayal of a woman’s rise from rural schoolteacher to Congressional Senator’s wife. While first and foremost an even-handed but deeply damning portrait of the protagonist, the ambitious and utterly humourless Selma White, the novel also acts as an intriguing picture of several decades of American social change.

Selma White was born with a high regard for herself and her abilities, and her position in the world has by and large supported that self-conception.

To be an American meant to be more keenly alive to the responsibility of life than any other citizen of civilization, and to be an American woman meant to be something finer, cleverer, stronger, and purer than any other daughter of Eve. Under the agreeable but sobering influence of this faith she had grown to womanhood, and the heroic deeds of the civil war had served to intensify a belief, the truth of which she had never heard questioned. Her mission in life had promptly been recognized by her as the development of her soul along individual lines, but until the necessity for a choice had arisen she had been content to contemplate a little longer. Now the world was before her…

Disillusioned by the less pleasant aspects of school teaching after only a short time presiding over a classroom of rural children, Selma has accepted the marriage proposal of an up and coming young man from the fictional small city of Benham, located somewhere along the Eastern seaboard, inland and presumably equidistant from Boston and New York. Lewis Babcock is a jolly, rather common sort of fellow, who is flourishing in the paint and varnish business during the post civil war building boom.

Without a backward glance Selma moves up a notch in the social scale, but is taken aback to find that she is a very small frog indeed in the larger pond of the city. A lightning fast learner, Selma ingratiates herself to all the right people and finds a measure of social success. She has a child, but though she does feel a certain fondness for her infant, she is relieved rather than heartbroken at the little girl’s death from croup. Having taken pains to prevent any more children – Selma has learned all about the current birth control methods through her friendship with a socially active suffragette – she eventually ditches the hapless Lewis (by divorce after his adultery) and attempts to support herself by writing for a newspaper.

Working for a living soon pales, and Selma is fortunate in that her ethereal appearance – she takes great pains to cultivate her thinness, scorning those who are “fleshy” as unintellectual and coarse – attracts the attentions of a young architect who soon becomes her second husband. (Lewis meanwhile is shattered by the death of his child and the dissolution of his marriage and turns to drink; the adultery was a minor glitch which foreshadowed his future decline.) This new marriage runs its predictable course until an early death releases Selma’s second unfortunate spouse. A third matrimonial experiment sees Selma united at last to a man of similar ambitions, and her rise to the top of her particular pile continues apace, built as it is on the happiness of those she has relentlessly crushed beneath her neatly shod feet.

This novel was a strong bestseller at the time of its publication, and I found that it held up well to a modern day reading. Selma is a fascinating character, being manipulative, selfish, humourless and an utter snob. An increasingly accomplished sociopath, one might say, to use modern day jargon. Robert Grant moves his mesmerizingly unsympathetic character through a variety of social settings, and provides not only an imaginative portrait of Selma but a keen and rather damning look at the “American way” which allows her to flourish at the expense of those more scrupulous in their moral states.

Not a particularly happy read, but deeply interesting, wryly well-written, and a worthy way to begin this year’s Century of Books Project.

Unleavened Bread felt rather reminiscent of the works of Sinclair Lewis, Main Street and Babbitt in particular, though a check of dates shows that Lewis was a mere teenager when Selma’s saga was having its popular success. Perhaps the seeds of inspiration were planted in the younger man by Grant’s work? In any event, I liked this novel well enough to order another by Robert Grant, The Orchid, which I intend to report on in due time.

Here is the only current review I could find of Unleavened Bread, at the Great Penformances blog.

The novel is also available through Project Gutenberg, along with several more of Robert Grant’s works.

Read Full Post »