Anna the Adventuress by E. Phillips Oppenheim ~ 1904. This edition: Ward, Lock & Co., circa 1904. Hardcover. 318 pages.

The girl paused and steadied herself for a moment against a field gate. Her breath came fast in little sobbing pants. Her dainty shoes were soiled with dust and there was a great tear in her skirt. Very slowly, very fearfully, she turned her head. Her cheeks were the colour of chalk, her eyes were filled with terror. If a cart were coming, or those labourers in the field had heard, escape was impossible.

Two lovely and nearly identical-in-appearance English orphans are living in an apartment in Paris. One is the volatile, pleasure-loving and risk-taking Annabel (see above: she’s just escaped a car crash she’s caused, leaving behind what she thinks is a dead man), the other is Anna, a strictly virtuous and self-denying art student.

When Annabel inadvertently has a chance to escape the consequences of her rake’s progress in Paris by marrying an English lord who thinks she is her virginal and sedate sister, Annabel grabs it with both hands, leaving Anna to step into her place. Anna, hoping that this über-respectable marriage (not to mention access to wealth and luxury) will help Annabel reform her wicked ways, staunchly takes upon herself all the messy loose ends her sister has left so suddenly behind.

These include the not-quite-dead man of the car accident, who turns out to have some astonishing claims upon the sister he thinks is Annabel, not to mention a whole string of handsome, fast-living English gentlemen who obviously are on rather intimate terms with Sister A, to the hidden (and not so hidden) shock of Sister B.

Realizing that she will never make a successful artist – her talents are genuine but not outstandingly so – Anna (as Annabel) decides to return to England, where her presence causes immediate issues with her sister’s masquerade, as Annabel’s (er, fake Anna’s) uptight noble husband (the wedding went off as planned) objects to his wife’s supposedly disreputable sister hanging about.

Our Anna, unable to attain employment as a shop girl, is reduced to appearing on the London stage, for though she is only an average painter, she’s an accomplished singer, much to her sister Annabel’s jealous dismay, as Anna steps into a role Annabel first initiated back in Gay Paree.

Real Anna proves herself up to it all, dealing with firm hand and cool brow everything that confronts her: overly familiar ex-boyfriends (of real Annabel’s), life in a boarding house (her respectable relatives have rejected her), the difficulties of making a living (she is utterly penniless), and setting to rights complications which the fake Anna manufactures as she starts to return to her old Annabellish ways.

Luckily, real Anna is as truly good as she is beautiful, and soon collects a devoted retinue of handsome young men, who serve to assist her in her endeavours, stopping every so often to bend a knee and propose. Anna rejects them all, very politely, of course, and goes on her rather lonely way, fixing the things that Annabel has ruined in the past, and mitigating the actions of her thoughtless and sometimes resentful sister as she kicks against the social expectations attendant upon her new place in life.

Will Annabel settle down? (And say a proper “Thank you” to her ever-sacrificing sister? And confess her past to her husband?)

Will Anna ever allow herself to love? (And get rid of that pesky “pseudo husband” who haunts her steps? And erase her dodgy adopted reputation and regain her proper place in society?)

Read it and see!

This is a hugely enjoyable period piece, for all of the expected reasons: almost-impossibly wonderful heroine (who is flawed enough to be likeable), high society snobbery, loads of action as the various men in Anna’s circle rally round in her (sometimes literal) defense, and all sorts of misunderstandings.

The language is lush, the plot deliciously ornate, the ending…well…let me just say that E. Phillips Oppenheim wrote over one hundred very popular thrillers from the 1880s till the 1940s, and he knew what his readers liked, and what they liked was the traditionally happy ending after a whole lot of adventuring.

Anna the Adventuress delivers.

My rating: 8/10. (Two whole points lost because of the too-adorable, deeply soppy, baby-kissing scene at the end of this first edition, cropped from later editions and in my opinion vastly improving the story by its absence.)

Just so you know, I adore Edward Phillips Oppenheim, and own a formidable stack of his books (nowhere near all of them, though), and I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve written up one of his dramatic romance-thrillers. He may pop up again, as I fill in the difficult gaps in this latest Century of Books; he’s one of those handy book-a-year (sometimes two!) writers, though as is usual with the ultra-prolific, the quality can vary.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting ~ 1920. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1962. Foreword by Hugh Walpole. Illustrated by Hugh Lofting. Hardcover. 223 pages.

Oh boy.

I don’t think I have the resources (time or energy wise) to do this topic – racism in “beloved” vintage children’s books – justice. But I don’t feel right in just passing it over undiscussed, either. So here I go. Bear with me.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle, based on a series of illustrated letters the author wrote from the Great War trenches to his young sons back home in England, was published in book form in 1920, to immediate popularity.

There’s an awful lot to like in here. Written in simple, frequently staccato sentences, the book introduces us to Doctor Dolittle, M.D., who is a prosperous and well-liked physician in the small town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. The good Doctor has a fondness for animals, and as he progressively fills his home with creatures, a tipping point is reached when the animal residents start causing problems with patients.  (An elderly lady sits upon a prickly hedgehog and so on.) Business falls off, until Docotor Dolittle’s only client remaining is the local Cat’s-meat-Man, who visits once a year at Christmas to get a remedy for indigestion.

What’s to be done? Doctor Dolittle is bemused. Then an epiphany occurs, when his pet parrot Polynesia, able to converse in English, initiates the Doctor into the mysteries of animal languages. He becomes a highly successful animal doctor, and all seems well, until the adoption of a crocodile sends all of his clients scurrying. Hard times again!

Then a message arrives from Africa. The monkeys there are all succumbing to some terrible disease. Will Doctor Dolittle come to the rescue? Of course he will! Borrowing a boat from a friendly sailor, off goes the Doctor, accompanied by several of his favourite pets, and also that troublesome crocodile, an ex organ-grinder’s monkey, and Polynesia the parrot, those last three intending to be repatriated to their native land.

As soon as they hit the shores of Africa, the reader’s real dilemma starts.

So far all has been quite good clean fun, but for a few casual era-expected racial slurs here and there easily glossed over by the keen-eyed adult reader-aloud – the usual, “We’ll have to work like n******!” pops up at least once.

The Doctor and his animal entourage crash their ship on the rocky shores of Africa, and head into the jungle, where they arrive at the mud palace of the King and Queen of Jolliginki. The King eyes the Doctor with displeasure.

“You may not travel through my lands,” said the King. “Many years ago a white man came to these shores; and I was very kind to him. But after he had dug holes in the ground to get the gold, and killed all the elephants to get their ivory tusks, he went away secretly in his ship— without so much as saying ‘Thank you.’ Never again shall a white man travel through the lands of Jolliginki.”

Then the King turned to some of the black men who were standing near and said, “Take away this medicine-man — with all his animals, and lock them up in my strongest prison.”

Fair enough, we’re thinking, though a bit hard on the beneficient Doctor. But he doesn’t need our concern, for he soon escapes, pursued by the soldiers of the King, and makes his way to the part of the jungle inhabited by the monkeys. There he easily cures the sick ones by means of wide scale vaccinating (Lofting doesn’t bother with pesky details such as how the Doctor comes by and/or manufactures this magical vaccine), and sets off to return to England.

The soldiers of Jolliginki soon capture him, and back into the dungeon he goes. This time he is rescued by a clever plot dreamt up by Polynesia (who is still hanging about, though she intends to stay in Africa when the Doctor departs) concerning the King’s son Prince Bumpo, who is enamoured of European fairy tales, and has been emotionally scarred by an episode so related.

Here, I’ll give you the works:

“Listen,” whispered the parrot, when John Dolittle’s face appeared: “Prince Bumpo is coming here to-night to see you. And you’ve got to find some way to turn him white. But be sure to make him promise you first that he will open the prison-door and find a ship for you to cross the sea in.”

“This is all very well,” said the Doctor. “But it isn’t so easy to turn a black man white. You speak as though he were a dress to be re-dyed. It’s not so simple. ‘Shall the leopard change his spots, or the Ethiopian his skin,’ you know?”

“I don’t know anything about that,” said Polynesia impatiently. “But you must turn this coon white. Think of a way—think hard. You’ve got plenty of medicines left in the bag. He’ll do anything for you if you change his color. It is your only chance to get out of prison.”

“Well, I suppose it might be possible,” said the Doctor. “Let me see—,” and he went over to his medicine-bag, murmuring something about “liberated chlorine on animal-pigment—perhaps zinc-ointment, as a temporary measure, spread thick—”

Well, that night Prince Bumpo came secretly to the Doctor in prison and said to him,

“White Man, I am an unhappy prince. Years ago I went in search of The Sleeping Beauty, whom I had read of in a book. And having traveled through the world many days, I at last found her and kissed the lady very gently to awaken her—as the book said I should. ’Tis true indeed that she awoke. But when she saw my face she cried out, ‘Oh, he’s black!’ And she ran away and wouldn’t marry me—but went to sleep again somewhere else. So I came back, full of sadness, to my father’s kingdom. Now I hear that you are a wonderful magician and have many powerful potions. So I come to you for help. If you will turn me white, so that I may go back to The Sleeping Beauty, I will give you half my kingdom and anything besides you ask.”

“Prince Bumpo,” said the Doctor, looking thoughtfully at the bottles in his medicine-bag, “supposing I made your hair a nice blonde color—would not that do instead to make you happy?”

“No,” said Bumpo. “Nothing else will satisfy me. I must be a white prince.”

“You know it is very hard to change the color of a prince,” said the Doctor—“one of the hardest things a magician can do. You only want your face white, do you not?”

“Yes, that is all,” said Bumpo. “Because I shall wear shining armor and gauntlets of steel, like the other white princes, and ride on a horse.”

“Must your face be white all over?” asked the Doctor.

“Yes, all over,” said Bumpo—“and I would like my eyes blue too, but I suppose that would be very hard to do.”

“Yes, it would,” said the Doctor quickly. “Well, I will do what I can for you. You will have to be very patient though—you know with some medicines you can never be very sure. I might have to try two or three times. You have a strong skin—yes? Well that’s all right. Now come over here by the light—Oh, but before I do anything, you must first go down to the beach and get a ship ready, with food in it, to take me across the sea. Do not speak a word of this to any one. And when I have done as you ask, you must let me and all my animals out of prison. Promise—by the crown of Jolliginki!”

So the Prince promised and went away to get a ship ready at the seashore.

When he came back and said that it was done, the Doctor asked Dab-Dab to bring a basin. Then he mixed a lot of medicines in the basin and told Bumpo to dip his face in it.

The Prince leaned down and put his face in—right up to the ears.

He held it there a long time—so long that the Doctor seemed to get dreadfully anxious and fidgety, standing first on one leg and then on the other, looking at all the bottles he had used for the mixture, and reading the labels on them again and again. A strong smell filled the prison, like the smell of brown paper burning.

At last the Prince lifted his face up out of the basin, breathing very hard. And all the animals cried out in surprise.

For the Prince’s face had turned as white as snow, and his eyes, which had been mud-colored, were a manly gray!

Need I really say more?

Now in the 1960s, after The Story of Doctor Dolittle and its numerous sequels had been selling steadily for some decades without much comment – though presumably not being embraced by families-of-any-sort-of-colour-other-than-white – people started to say “Hey! This is kinda-sorta-maybe-a-little-bit RACIST!”

Yeah, you think?

And so the troublesome bits were bowdlerized.

And Doctor Dolittle continued on as a steady seller in his now altered form.

And I don’t quite know what to say about all of this, being in general quite firmly against censorship and alterations to text of older books in response to subsequent adjustments to social standards of acceptance.

But I didn’t read this to my own children back-in-the-day when they were little because it made me utterly queasy, and I shelved that whole Dolittle series which someone had given to me as “charming children’s tales!”, packing it away in a box which still sits in storage because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the books.

Does one release something like that back into the world to be acquired by other unsuspecting parents? Destroy them? Which feels wrong too, on a wholly different level, because I think we can get an awful lot out of keeping intact reminders of how we used to think in days gone by, and by being shocked by it (or not, as the case may be) examine our own social consciences.

So there it is, and here I sit, looking at what I’ve written, and at the clock (because I need to be somewhere else very shortly) and wondering if I should just hit “post” and see if this inspires any sort of engagement, or if you, like me, are still wondering how best to deal with this particular issue.

Your thoughts are, as always, exceedingly welcome!

Lost Horizon by James Hilton ~ 1933. This edition: World’s Best Reading Series, The Reader’s Digest Association, 1990. Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. Afterword by Warren Eyster. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-89577-361-9. 191 pages.

 

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave…’

Remember the 1997 song ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles? Well, roll four decades or so back, and you could conceivably apply some of those iconic lyrics to James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, in particular the refrain about ‘What a lovely place, what a lovely face…’ And that last verse. Brrr…

Okay, maybe the parallels aren’t that close, really. ‘Hotel California’ is said by those who should know (the writers) to be all about the loss of innocence and the seductions of the high life (with all its connotations) connected to fame, while Lost Horizon, according to Warren Eyster’s afterword in my edition, is a metaphorical utopia offered as an an emotional escape hatch to a readership consisting of those deeply scarred by the Great War and now going through the Great Depression, with another war looming on the horizon.

Yeah, that gets deep, doesn’t it?

So let’s back up some, and take a look at the novel.

It’s 1930 or thereabouts, and away off in Afghanistan, where a local revolution has triggered the evacuation of the eighty or so Europeans resident in the city of Baskul. The area’s British Consul, Great War veteran Hugh Conway, his wet-behind-the-ears Vice-Consul Charles Mallinson, American businessman Henry Barnard, and a stray missionary, Roberta Brinklow, are all fortunate enough to be alloted seats on a luxurious, high-altitude-equipped airplane originally built for an Indian rajah.

Some way into the flight, strange things begin to happen. Their pilot, face masked with flying goggles and helmet, turns out not to be the expected fellow Caucasian, but a man of Asian countenance. Looking down, instead of the plains of Peshawar, there are snow-capped peaks, and as the flight continues and attempts are made to query the pilot on just where the heck are they, a revolver is produced and brandished in a businesslike way.

The plane sets down on an isolated airstrip, is refueled by an Asian crew, and takes off again. Where are they going? Are they being kidnapped to be held for ransom?! The unflappable Conway refuses to be distressed; since the war he has cultivated a demeanour of calm verging on apathy, hence his appointment to the backwater of Baskul versus a more lively location. His continued coolness sets the tone, but for occasional outbursts by the volatile Mallinson, which helps to maintain order when the pilot crash lands the plane on a rocky outcrop surrounded by vast peaks and promptly expires.

Now what?

Not to worry, for here comes a group of rescuers, the litter-born Chinese postulant-lama Chang and a group of useful locals, who escort the stranded travellers to a nearby lamasery, “Shangri-La”, perched over an astonishingly fertile Tibetan valley, with the massive mountain Karakal (“Blue Moon”) looming in the background.

Things just keep getting weirder, as the stranded travellers discover that though they are most welcome to settle into the unexpectedly lavish quarters assigned to them by Chang, there seems to be some difficulty about formulating plans to travel out of the mountain valley to India. Direct questions are met by evasively polite answers, and Mallinson in particular grows increasingly agitated as the days pass by.

Conway, on the other hand, decidedly welcomes this respite from the troubled outside world. Miss Brinklow settles down, too, occupying herself with the study of Tibetan in order to communicate her message of sin-needing-salvation to the heathens she has found herself amongst. As does Mr. Barnard, who cultivates a cheerful attitude and greatly enjoys his escorted trips down to the village, where he presumably indulges in some mild carousing with the local women-of-easy-virtue.

After some gentle scene-setting, the secrets of Shangri-La are slowly revealed to Conway by interviews with the incredibly (and I do mean incredibly) aged High Lama, who communicates with a combination of perfect English and mental telepathy, and a vital decision is faced by our protagonist and his companions. To stay is so easy…the valley is so secluded…the world outside is so troubled…

Most of you probably know how this plays out, but in case you don’t, I’m going to leave you there. Read this for yourself, in the interests of cultural literacy if nothing else. It’s a slender novel, a quick read, and though you may find (as I did) that there is little of substance to really grab on to, the general effect is curiously memorable.

Here I have to admit that though I don’t exactly dislike James Hilton’s style, I do find it occasionally underwhelming, and this is true of my response to Lost Horizon, though it was an astounding bestseller in its time, inspired at least two movies, brought the term “Shangri-La” into our vocabulary, and remains in print and presumably selling well today.

I model myself on early-in-the-novel Conway, refusing to get too worked up about it all. Hence my moderately positive rating: 6.5/10.

Oh! I forgot to mention the girl.

There’s also a mysteriously ageless (hint hint) girl.

The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells ~ 1901. This edition: W. Collins Sons & Co., 1901. Hardcover. 254 pages.

This was a first for me: one of H.G. Wells science fiction/fantasy novels.

I’ve read a few of his “straight” novels: The History of Mr Polly and Mr Britling Sees It Through, and quite liked them though they were fairly run of the mill, reminding me of J.B. Priestley’s Bright Day and similar “ordinary man” novels.

This one, however, was nothing like those ones. It’s pure sci-fi, in its founding form.

Mr. Bedford is a young(ish) businessman who has run into severe financial difficulties. His solution to bankruptcy is to retreat to the country to write a play, which would doubtless be instantly successful, as first plays by non-writers usually are. (Yes, I’m joking, as is Wells throughout this frequently humorous novel.)

Here:

It is scarcely necessary to go into the details of the speculations that landed me at Lympne, in Kent. Nowadays even about business transactions there is a strong spice of adventure. I took risks. In these things there is invariably a certain amount of give and take, and it fell to me finally to do the giving reluctantly enough. Even when I had got out of everything, one cantankerous creditor saw fit to be malignant. Perhaps you have met that flaming sense of outraged virtue, or perhaps you have only felt it. He ran me hard. It seemed to me, at last, that there was nothing for it but to write a play, unless I wanted to drudge for my living as a clerk. I have a certain imagination, and luxurious tastes, and I meant to make a vigorous fight for it before that fate overtook me. In addition to my belief in my powers as a business man, I had always in those days had an idea that I was equal to writing a very good play. It is not, I believe, a very uncommon persuasion. I knew there is nothing a man can do outside legitimate business transactions that has such opulent possibilities, and very probably that biased my opinion. I had, indeed, got into the habit of regarding this unwritten drama as a convenient little reserve put by for a rainy day. That rainy day had come, and I set to work.

I soon discovered that writing a play was a longer business than I had supposed; at first I had reckoned ten days for it, and it was to have a pied-a-terre while it was in hand that I came to Lympne. I reckoned myself lucky in getting that little bungalow. I got it on a three years’ agreement. I put in a few sticks of furniture, and while the play was in hand I did my own cooking. My cooking would have shocked Mrs. Bond. And yet, you know, it had flavour. I had a coffee-pot, a sauce-pan for eggs, and one for potatoes, and a frying-pan for sausages and bacon—such was the simple apparatus of my comfort. One cannot always be magnificent, but simplicity is always a possible alternative. For the rest I laid in an eighteen-gallon cask of beer on credit, and a trustful baker came each day. It was not, perhaps, in the style of Sybaris, but I have had worse times. I was a little sorry for the baker, who was a very decent man indeed, but even for him I hoped.

So Mr. Bedford, incipient playwright, quite soon makes the acquaintance of Mr. Cavor, scientist-inventor, who is working on a project to develop a gravitationally neutral material. When it becomes apparent that Cavor’s invention  is successful, Bedford is quick to scent the possibilities of sharing in the potential profits (as yet undetailed) of such a unique material, and he partners with Cavor in the enterprise.

Cavor’s ideas are large and scientifically ambitious. With his anti-gravity material – cavorite – the sky is (literally) the limit. He has apparently also been mulling over the logistics of building a vessel to travel through space, and this he immediately puts into production, with Bedford his cooperative though bemused assistant.

Finally, the spaceship is completed.  It’s a round, glass-lined, ball-shaped object, sheathed in moving panels of cavorite which will ingeniously allow steering, landing, etcetera, outfitted with all of the needs for space travel, not detailed by Wells, who merely assures us that the travellers will have every want provided for. And so they do.

For Cavor wants to go to the moon, in the interests of pure science, and he convinces the reluctant Bedford to come along with the tempting thought that perhaps the moon will yield valuable materials for export back to Earth. “Science!” cries Cavor. “Vast profits!” thinks Bedford, and off they go.

I shan’t go into detail of what they find on the moon, or how their adventures continue. I will merely tell you that the moon proves to be mostly hollow, full of tunnels and chambers and passages, with a huge subterranean ocean at its core, and it is inhabited by ant-like beings who live on the flesh of fungus-grazing “mooncalves”.

Oh, yes. There is also gold.

After some adventuring, Bedford and Cavor inadvertently part ways, with Bedfor returning to the space vessel, and “accidentally” (is it or isn’t it?) triggering its relaunch back to Earth, leaving Cavor at the mercy of the ant-people.

Now Bedford feels kind of bad for poor Cavor, but he quashes remorse and gets on with his own affairs, helped along by the large quantity of pure gold he has luckily managed to bring back with him.

Imagine then his surprise to find that Cavor is sill alive on the moon, and has been cared for by the Selenites/Moonies, and has crafted a wireless device capable of broadcasting details of moon-life back to Earth. And then, faintly and fading fast, comes a message concerning an intended invasion…

<Cue foreboding music.>

Did I like this book?

Hmmm.

Parts of it were fun, but in generally I have to say no, not entirely. It was well written and often drily humorous, but I soon found myself slightly bored with it, and instead of poring over every word I found myself skimming the very detailed descriptions of lunar flora and fauna and the inner workings of the anthill, as it were.

H.G. Wells undoubtedly had an ingenious sense of invention, and I am happy to give credit where it’s due, but I personally found this tale a bit of a slog. I don’t think I’ll be diving into any of his other sci-fi fantasias anytime soon, though I think I’d be open to more mild exploration at a later date, if ever the occasion arises. (Such as needing to fill a year on the Century of Books, for example.)

His other, more conventional novels are much more to my taste, and I will happily continue to broaden my acquaintance with those as opportunity allows.

So. The First Men in the Moon.

My rating: 5.5/10

 

The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart ~ 1914. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1918. Hardcover. 377 pages.

First off, I’ll tell you what this book isn’t. It’s not a murder mystery, and it’s not a gothic romance, no matter what later covers and sensationalistic publicists’ blurbs might say.

It’s merely one of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s early-career, sentimental love stories, padded out with a rather good depiction of immediately pre-war Vienna – that would be pre-Great War, in case you missed the publication date – and its fluid population of young foreigners seeking to further their education in one of the greatest centres of arts and sciences in their time.

American Harmony is a violin student, fellow American Peter is a young doctor; both are talented and driven; both are poor as church mice; both are determined to stick it out in Vienna for the boost their access to specialists in their field will give their future careers. Neither has room in their life for romantic love; neither plan to marry. Need I go further?

Point A will lead inevitably to Point B, but the path between is twisted and full of obstacles, such as friends with complicated love lives, a wee orphan boy dying of heart failure, and the judgemental frown of social mores, turning an innocent partnership to share expenses into a forbidden thing, if a young woman would retain her virtuous reputation.

The theme throughout is sacrifice, and every character grapples with it, from charmingly innocent Harmony and her hopes of a musical career, to Bulgarian spy Georgiev who slips up and loses his place in the quickening Great Game as Europe readies itself for open conflict.

The little Georgiev was in trouble those days. The Balkan engine was threatening to explode, but continued to gather steam, with Bulgaria sitting on the safety-valve. Austria was mobilizing troops, and there were long conferences in the Burg between the Emperor and various bearded gentlemen, while the military prayed in the churches for war.

The little Georgiev hardly ate or slept. Much hammering went on all day in the small room below Harmony’s on the Wollbadgasse. At night, when the man in the green velours hat took a little sleep, mysterious packages were carried down the whitewashed staircase and loaded into wagons waiting below. Once on her window-sill Harmony found among the pigeons a carrier pigeon with a brass tube fastened to its leg…

Though the chief love story of this standard sort of novel-of-its-kind progresses along traditional lines, some of the side stories diverge from the expected, and, along with the period atmosphere captured in brief by Rinehart’s facile pen, turn this slight, occasionally melodramatic period piece into something readable – and for the most part, very enjoyably so – a century past its time.

My rating: 7/10

White Hell of Pity by Norah Lofts ~ 1937. This edition: Corgi, 1972. Paperback. ISBN: 552-08393-3. 188 pages.

Get your head around that title. It’s a stunner, isn’t it?

This was Norah Lofts’ third published book, after a book of connected short stories, I Met a Gypsy (1935), and a historical fiction, Here Was a Man: A Romantic History of Sir Walter Raleigh (1936). White Hell of Pity went off on another tangent, that of contemporary realism, with a splash of the darkly gothic which was to show up so very often in Lofts’ subsequent 40+ books.

Let me say right now, this is a fantastic little novel, and it’s worth getting past that awful title.

Our young protagonist, Emmie Bacon, starts out in life with all the disadvantages possible, being raised in the rural country cottage equivalent of a dismal slum. Her mother tries to abort her, and that pretty well sets the scene for Emmie’s childhood years. She’s not a “wanted” child, nor are her numerous siblings.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily?) Emmie is an intelligent child, a natural scholar, and she catches the eye and attention of one of her school teachers, which comes in handy when the thirteen-year-old flees the maternal home to escape a brutal attempted rape by her mother’s boyfriend. Straight to Miss Stanton flees Emmie, and Miss Stanton does her best for her protegé. She staunchly confronts and turns away Emmie’s horrid mother when she comes looking for her offspring. (Mrs. Bacon is keen to have Emmie back, as when she turns fourteen she may leave school and start bringing home a wage.)

Miss Stanton finds Emmie a place in a well-regarded boarding school run by an old school chum, and pays Emmie’s fees out of her own not very generous teacher’s salary, regarding Emmie’s future as something of a sacred trust, and Emmie, blossoming in her new environment, seems set to fulfill all of Miss Stanton’s hopes.

This goes on for a few years, and then things come crashing down, with the sudden arrival of what will turn out to be one of Norah Lofts’ stock characters, an Evil Lesbian. Jealous Ella Frome has been impatiently watching Miss Stanton’s activities from the sidelines, and now wishes to resume their old Special Friendship, which Miss Stanton has sternly discontinued once she takes on young Emmie. (Just so you know, Miss Stanton is a Good Lesbian, or possibly a Conflicted Lesbian, who doesn’t appear to have sexual designs on Emmie; she is beautifully disinterested in Emmie’s person, loves her for her mind alone, and concentrates solely on helping her find a better place in the world than that she came from.)

Here’s Ella:

Ella Frome, who had been a plain and dowdy student, noticeable only for her style of hairdressing, had become an elegant combination of masculine trimness and feminine touches. Her hair was still cut short, but her nails were brilliantly lacquered. She wore a severe tailored suit and over it, when she arrived in her car, a mannish camel-hair coat: but she had large pearl earrings in her ears, and a sweet subtle perfume rose from her hair and her clothes. Her voice was hybrid too. Generally it was deep and abrupt, but now and then it sank unexpectedly into a caressing dulcet murmur. She was obviously extremely fond of Helen Stanton. For Emmie she had only the flintiest of stares, the most strident voice.

Ella promptly takes Emmie aside and gives her the what for, informing her that Miss Stanton is undergoing financial distress in order to keep Emmie in school, and Emmie’s over-developed sense of guilt flames up. Off she trots to find herself a servant’s job, and the sad decline of her young life from its brief peak has begun.

I’m going to stop right there, with the recommendation that if at all possible you like-minded Norah Lofts appreciators find this elusive novel and dig right in. Spoiler alert (of sorts): it doesn’t end well. Like, really not well.

Lofts has created a heroine in Emmie who truly engaged my interest, and I became very invested in her trials and tribulations, hoping beyond hope that she would get another break, quietly cheering at her moments of joy and inwardly sobbing at her continual setbacks. I even flipped ahead to read the last page, and let me tell you I wasn’t very happy at what I read, but I forgive Norah Lofts, because she made it all make sense from Emmie’s point of view, even as I wished for the authorial hand to pluck her character away from her sad fate.

Here’s the 1st edition dust jacket. I sure wish I could acquire a hardcover copy of this one – my paperback 1972 Corgi has deconstructed, and only a rubber band holds it together now. But sadly these are in the scarce-as-hen’s teeth category, save for one lonely hc on offer through ABE for $200. It’s a good book for its sort, but not that good.

Norah Lofts is a hard author to classify. She’s not what one would consider a literary writer, though her historical fictions are very well-regarded for their detailed verisimilitude. Lofts was an accomplished researcher, and well able to transform dry facts into poignant semi-fiction; her years as a history teacher before she became a bestselling writer stood her in good stead.

Lofts also isn’t afraid to go into some rather dark places in her stories; happy endings occasionally appear, but they are rather the exception. She’s a very smart writer; she never talks down; her standard is very high indeed, higher than the norm perhaps was in the popular fiction of her time. If one could cross Rose Macaulay with (maybe?) Mary Stewart, with a dash of something even grittier thrown in, one might come close to categorizing her.

So. This book.

My rating: 9.75/10 (Quarter point off jointly for that dismal title, and for the Evil Lesbian, who’s just too, too stereotypical.)

Good stuff, if you like this sort of thing.

I apparently do, as does writer Katherine Edgar, whose blog post Norah Lofts, and why you should read her makes a convincing argument for exactly that.

Caveat! There are some duds in Lofts’ ouevre, too. If you don’t hit it off with one, you might well love another. There are about fifty to choose from, written between 1935 and 1984. If you are looking for an entry-level Lofts, I would suggest Jassy for contemporary fiction, and The Concubine for historical fiction. Wikipedia has a list of all of her books.

Laddie by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ 1913. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1913. Illustrated by Herman Pfeifer. Hardcover. 541 pages.

I had a really long post written, but I’ve just deleted it. My troubled relationship with Gene Stratton-Porter seemed to be getting in the way – I enjoy large parts of her stories (except for the appallingly racist Her Father’s Daughter ) but there’s always something utterly improbable to jib at, and Laddie is no exception.

Here’s the (only slightly) condensed rewrite.

First, the good.

This tale is based on Gene Stratton-Porter’s own childhood as the “afterthought” child in a well-off Indiana farm family of mother, father, and twelve siblings. It takes place not too many years after the end of the Civil War, which is frequently referenced. The family was most fervently on the Union side, and there is a major incident concerning a hideaway built to shelter stoppers-by on the pre-war Underground Railway.

The memoir passages taken from GS-P’s personal experience are, for the most part, absolutely charming. Depictions of family dynamics, sibling squabbles, beloved pets, and of course nature rambles, all ring wonderfully true, and kept my interest during the “fairytale” scenes, which were much more of a chore to get through straight-faced.

The hero of this story is the family’s middle brother, “Laddie”, based on GS-P’s own beloved brother, who died in a drowning accident when she was nine years old. The Laddie of the novel is the embodiment af all the masculine virtues; he never (and I mean never) sets his foot wrong, or does a mean act to anyone. The girl he (ultimately successfully) courts throughout this tale is virtually his matched twin in physical perfection, athleticism, intelligence,  and kindliness.

The only star missing from the Princess’s (for that is her nickname) crown of virtues is that of fervent religiosity, and she attains that by the end through Laddie’s efforts (he has enough religion for two), so all will presumably be well going forward with them, graced as they are by a kind fate which has also endowed upon them abundant financial resources and aristocratic English heritages, those last two always a Very Big Deal in Stratton-Porter’s fictions.

Oops, I’ve strayed into the bad.

Snobbery.

Gene Stratton-Porter’s most unappealing trait. She’s a snob, and that sticks out in great big bumps in every single one of her novels.

Sure, mere common-place characters are allowed to toddle about with her mild approval, but she was a fervent advocate of the “good birth will tell” school of thought, and so it’s no great surprise when it is revealed that Laddie and his family have true blue blood a-sloshing away in their veins, having ancestors back in the old country (England) who were Crusaders. In the family treasure chest is the old family crest; there’s an Earldom (or something similar) in their background, and once the equally snobbish (and newly arrived from England) father of Laddie’s heart-throb learns this, all objection to his aristocratic daughter mating with a commonplace (though well-off, well spoken, morally pure, physically perfect etc etc) farm lad magically disappears.

I think I’ll stop right here. If anybody really needs a plot description, it’s basically a gentle family saga, children being children, the young narrator (she’s eight years old or thereabouts) running free and then adjusting to the imprisonment of school, and Laddie, on the cusp of adulthood, courting his future partner for 500 pages or so before the inevitable happens (everyone says yes) and things are tidied up. There is another blighted romance which gets fixed up, a mystery or two, an adventure involving stolen money, lots of riding around on Arab-Kentucky thoroughbred horses, and tons of charming nature-related anecdotes.

And God.

Lots and lots of God. GS-P’s own father was a lay preacher of sorts, and so is the father in the book, so Biblical references sprout up on every page.

The happy ending relies heavily on the hand of coincidence; it is by far the weakest part of what isn’t really as rotten a book as my niggling criticism might make you suspect.

I actually quite liked Laddie, despite the frequent annoying bits and the “God-given superiority of the British upper classes” strand. It’s long, it’s glacially slow-moving, it’s full of off-tangent excursions and rabbit trails of thought, but there’s a core of sweetness, too and an appealingly obvious love of the author for her family and her childhood home.

My rating: (deep breath) 7.5/10

Okey-doke. Bonus. If you’re still with me, here are the author’s own words, recorded in Gene Stratton-Porter: A Little Story of The Life and Work and Ideals of “The Bird Woman”. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1926.

In August of 1913 the author’s novel “Laddie” was published in New York, London, Sydney and Toronto simultaneously. This book contains the same mixture of romance and nature interest as the others, and was modelled on the same plan of introducing nature objects peculiar to the location, and characters, many of whom are from life, typical of the locality at a given period. The first thing many critics said of it was that “no such people ever existed, and no such life was ever lived.” In reply to this the author said: “Of a truth, the home I described in this book I knew to the last grain of wood in the doors, and I painted it with absolute accuracy; and many of the people I described I knew more intimately than I ever have known any others. Taken as a whole it represents a perfectly faithful picture of home life, in a family who were reared and educated exactly as this book indicates. There was such a man as Laddie, and he was as much bigger and better than my description of him as a real thing is always better than its presentment. The only difference, barring the nature work, between my books and those of many other writers, is that I prefer to describe and to perpetuate the best I have known in life; whereas many authors seem to feel that they have no hope of achieving a high literary standing unless they delve in and reproduce the worst.

“To deny that wrong and pitiful things exist in life is folly, but to believe that these things are made better by promiscuous discussion at the hands of writers who fail to prove by their books that their viewpoint is either right, clean, or helpful, is close to insanity. If there is to be any error on either side in a book, then God knows it is far better that it should be upon the side of pure sentiment and high ideals than upon that of a too loose discussion of subjects which often open to a large part of the world their first knowledge of such forms of sin, profligate expenditure, and waste of life’s best opportunities. There is one great beauty in idealized romance: reading it can make no one worse than he is, while it may help thousands to a cleaner life and higher inspiration than they ever before have known.”

Take that, nay sayers! Clean lives and high inspirations for all!

(Now I’m hitting the publish button, before I take it all down again. Cheers!)