Posts Tagged ‘1900 Novel’

Well, hello, 2017! You’re three days old, already. Racing right along, aren’t you?

Surfacing from a very quiet and blessedly peaceful Christmas season, marred only by a viral thing which has been going the rounds locally. We thought we’d dodged it, but no such luck! – it’s hopped gleefully from family member to family member, morphing merrily into an eclectic assortment of unpleasant symptoms.

We’re all still delicately sniffling, but the worst appears to be over (touch wood!) so holding onto the thought that our immune systems will be all the stronger for it.  I rather suspect 2017 will be much about finding silver linings, so this is an appropriate start, don’t you think?

Christmas brought books galore, a nice assortment of local history and horticultural tomes, with a dash of vintage fiction.

I won’t be talking about it quite yet, but I just want to mention to fellow Heyerites that I did indeed receive The Unknown Ajax, and, as you all promised me, it is utterly excellent. I read it immediately upon receipt – such a treat!

An Infamous Army is en route, too, though it appears to be hung up in the postal system. I hope to have my hands on it soon, and my expectations are high.

I did manage to start my Century of Books off quite appropriately with 1900, with a bit of what can only be deemed as literary “fluff”. About as challenging as candy floss to consume, and, expectedly, just as sustaining. But it did have a certain appeal, and it was a very quick read, and it gives me an excuse to perhaps further explore the works of this rather notorious writer.

Elinor Glyn it is.

You know:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err
With her
On some other fur?

The reference is of course to the exotic and (for their time) shockingly erotic bestsellers penned by Mrs. Glyn, beloved by the female working classes as the epitome of “escape literature”, and deeply scorned by the literary critics for all the usual reasons.

The Visits of Elizabeth was Elinor Glyn’s first literary effort, and it is a mild little concoction compared to what came after. The book had an immediate success. My personal copy was printed in 1901, the ninth impression, which is indicative of an enthusiastic reception by the book-buying masses.

visits-of-elizabeth-cover-elinor-glyn-1900The Visits of Elizabeth by Elinor Glyn ~ 1900. This edition: Duckworth & Co., 1901. Hardcover. 309 pages.

My rating: 6/10

At some point at the close of the 19th Century – Victoria is still very much on her throne – 17-year-old Elizabeth sets off on a series of visits, accompanied by her maid Agnes, and the good advice (via unseen letters) of her mother.

It was perhaps a fortunate thing for Elizabeth that her ancestors went back to the Conquest, and that she numbered at least two Countesses and a Duchess among her relatives. Her father had died some years ago, and, her mother being an invalid, she had lived a good deal abroad. But, at about seventeen, Elizabeth began to pay visits among her kinfolk…

visits-of-elizabeth-elinor-glyn-frontispieceAs we can see by the delicately engraved “portrait” so thoughtfully provided as a frontispiece, Elizabeth is a lovely young thing.

She cultivates a strong line in unconscious naïvety, which supplies most of the humour throughout this otherwise rather cynical, one-sided epistolary novel. (We read all of Elizabeth’s letters to her stay-at-home Mama, but nary a one from her Mama to her.)

She’s always going on about the various quirks of personality, manners, dress and appearance of the people she bumps up against, and for a while we’re not quite sure if her outspoken assessments are meant to be as cutting as they at first appear, but it soon becomes evident that Elizabeth is not harbouring any particular malice, but rather merely a child-like propensity to burble on about the first thing that crosses her mind.

This rather astonishes the worldly, mostly wealthy people she finds herself among. The more experienced and hardened of the women generally find themselves rather jealous of her fresh beauty and unmarred reputation, while the men uniformly fall at least a little bit in love with her, to absolutely no avail, because Elizabeth isn’t playing the flirtation game.

Well, not very seriously, anyway. With the possible exception of one particularly “objectionable” man, whom she has turned off with a slap early on, but who keeps popping up when least expected.

No surprises in how this frothy story ends, and, though blatantly classist and occasionally racist (the French and the Germans come in for some serious slamming, not to mention the upstart nouveau riche Jews who dare to assault the ever-more-fragile glass ceiling of the British class system) in general our heroine settles herself down enough to become quite likeable by the turning of the final page.

Her Mama would undoubtedly be pleased.

There are little hints here and there of Elinor Glyn’s keen eye for the provocative moment which she evidently developed in her future novels, lots of to-ing and fro-ing in midnight corridors, and veiled glances, and double entendres, misunderstood to great comic effect by our innocent heroine.

Elinor Glyn herself led a rather fascinating life, and it is claimed that many of her amorous plotlines came from her own broad experience, including the tiger-skin novel itself, Three Weeks, which featured an anonymous woman-of-nobility enjoying a temporary erotic dalliance with a much younger man.

Elinor moved to Hollywood in 1920 to work as a screenplay writer. Her own novel It was made into a highly successful silent movie in 1927, propelling actress Clara Bow to super-stardom as “The It Girl”.

Glyn’s novels are probably of most interest to today’s readers in the “cultural literacy” sense alone, and I rather doubt that I myself would have chosen to track down and read The Travels of Elizabeth if it weren’t for the need for an interesting 1900 book for my Century. But its promise of light entertainment and my curiosity about a writer I had only known by reference combined to bring it into my hands, and I must say I would be very willing to read another of the later books, if only to see what all the fuss was about.

A small digression here about the antique (or vintage) book as an artifact in its own right. I do love to read books in as close to the original edition as I can find them. There is something deeply satisfying in handling a book in the form in which its author would have seen it go into the world. Dog-eared pages and marginal notes and affectionate inscriptions all add to the appeal, to the feeling of connection with fellow readers of long before our time. Never mind foxing or a bit of mustiness – if the pages are intact and readable I’m all for it no matter how tattered.

This is a handsome little production in the purely physical sense, its green cloth covers enhanced by silver embellishments. The end papers at first glance look to be merely of an interesting checkerboard pattern, but on closer examination proving to be made up of 4-book stacks with spines all reading “Mudie” in different fonts. (For the famous Mudie’s Lending Library, one assumes.There is also an embossed Mudie & Co. Limited stamp on the back cover.)

A really lovely engraving of the titular character is inserted opposite the title page, protected by a glassine sheet.

And, most intriguing of all, we find a page listing a tempting array of other Duckworth and Co.’s Novels, not a single one of which I have heard of, including In the Cage by Henry James. Is it the Henry James? Let me see…. Why, yes, it is. A novella from 1898, apparently.) But, oh! – how I wish I could get my hands on a few of these for their titles alone. Children, Racehorses & Ghosts, anyone? Or how about Omar the Tentmaker? The Crimson Weed? The Monk Wins?


Potentially delicious book discoveries wait round every corner!

Cheerio, all.

And a slightly belated but most sincere Happy New Year!




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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.

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