Posts Tagged ‘1905 Novel’

Not my dust jacket, but the one that my tattered red hardcover would have had when it hit the book shops.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy ~ 1905. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1950. Hardcover. 256 pages.

Do I really need to give a whole lot of details here? This one of those books which (almost) everyone knows the plot of, if not by actual reading then by osmosis through publicly shared cultural literacy.

Here’s an economical précis, from Oxford University Press:

Sir Percy Blakeney lives a double life in the England of 1792: at home he is an idle fop and a leader of fashion, but abroad he is the Scarlet Pimpernel, a master of disguise who saves aristocrats from the guillotine. When the revolutionary French state seeks to unmask him, Percy’s estranged, independent wife, Marguerite, unwittingly sets their agent on her husband’s track. Percy’s escapades, and Marguerite’s daring journey to France to save him from the guillotine, keep the reader turning the pages of Baroness Orczy’s well-paced romantic adventure.

No prizes for guessing that Sir Percy survives the attempt to bring him down, with his final escape being due 100 percent to his amazing skill at disguise (of a broad variety, but most successfully as a “loathsome Hebraic”, which, though it sounds dreadful in quotes, is actually more of a shot at 1700s’ French prejudice than at the Jewish population of France), which has aided him in his escapades to pull off his daring rescues. Marguerite is merely a bit of background decoration, as it were. The menfolk (Sir P and his team of fellow sporting English noblemen) have things well in hand from start to finish.

This book is thoroughly dated in style, but it has retained its status for over a hundred years as a pretty good romp of an adventure tale. I find it rather heavy on the superlatives, myself. Sir Percy, public persona that of a “demmed idiot” – stupidest man in England – is the most fashionable as well as the richest nobleman in his coterie, while Lady Blakeney, formerly a French actress, is widely touted as the most beautiful woman in her crowd, as well as the most fashionably dressed and the “wittiest woman in Europe”.

We have The Scarlet Pimpernel to thank for all sorts of tropes in subsequent popular fiction, as he flicks the priceless Mechlin lace of his cuffs out of his way when getting down to business disguised by his bipartite persona, all hooded eyes, telling glances, and double entendres.

I quite happily read The Scarlet Pimpernel a number of times in my school years, always experiencing a frisson of vicarious passion when the noble Sir Percy Blakeney kisses the ground whereupon his desperately misguided wife has just trodden, shortly before he heads off to risk his life to rescue another batch of French aristocrats from the guillotine, with a cold-hearted agent of the French government hot on his heels, primed with damning information provided (all unbeknownst to Sir P) by Lady Blakeney herself.

Reading this some decades later as a much more judgemental adult, I found the love scenes to be more humorous than romantic; a certain cynicism has obviously developed with my years.

This is worth reading as a period piece, and for a glimpse at how an early 20th Century popular fiction writer pulled off an 18th Century historical fiction. The Baroness Orczy certainly had an enthusiastic pen, and a keen sense of what would appeal to her readers, not to mention her audience of theatre lovers. The Scarlet Pimpernel started life as a play staged in 1903; the stunningly popular novelization followed.

A number of not-quite-so-well-known sequels followed. The Scarlet Pimpernel itself has never been out-of-print since its publication. Ridiculously easy to find secondhand, and available online through Gutenberg, along with oodles of other Orczys.

My rating: 7/10



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Where-Angels-Fear-to-TreadWhere Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster ~ 1905. This edition: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1995. Hardcover. ISBN: not found. 208 pages.

My rating: 6/10

My relatively high rating of 6 is mainly for the quality of some of the writing. If judged by the appeal of plot and characters alone, this would get about a 4 or so.

I felt that the author lost his way towards the end, and I couldn’t abide any of the characters by the final chapter, least of all the main male protagonist, young Italiophile Philip.

So, has anyone else read this first novel by E.M. Forster? And if so, what did you think?

I found it rather uneven, with moments of sheer brilliance interspersed with numerous rather shaky bits. And the ending was not what I’d expected. I think that is possibly a good thing in a literary sense, in that I was shocked out of my readerly complacency – I thought I was reading merely a satirically humorous tale for the longest time – but I felt it (the final tragic occurrence and its aftermath) ultimately rather artistically troubling, as none of the responses of the characters to the contrived situation felt genuinely satisfactory. (Sorry to be all  mysterious as to the nature of the tragedy – I don’t want to spoil the ending, in case someone is half way through and wondering where it’s all going.)

This is a very slender novel, really more of a novella in its limited scope, and not up to the standard of Forster’s later, longer, more complex and much better-known works such as A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and A Passage to India. But as I’ve already mentioned, there are passages of wonderful writing in Where Angels Fear to Tread, which show what Forster was capable of at his best.

A widowed Englishwoman, very much under the thumb of her in-laws, departs for a year in Italy in the company of a much younger woman, whom she is to chaperone. It is hoped by the in-laws that the beauties of Italian art, architecture and culture will have a refining effect on the rather common nature of slightly foolish, slightly crass Lilia Herriton, and everyone concerned draws a sigh of relief when the train bears her away. Even her young daughter is content to see her go, and her mother-in-law is positively gleeful to have a free hand with bringing up her deceased son’s only child.

At first all is well, and Lilia writes gushing epistles home full of wonder at the beauties of Italy, leading her in-laws to hope that she will return a changed-for-the-better woman. But then a further letter comes, announcing Lilia’s engagement to an Italian “met in a hotel”. Shocked inquiries by telegram bring in return a brief explanation from Lilia’s companion, that the fiancé is “of the Italian nobility”. Something doesn’t seem quite right, and an immediate intervention is put into action, with the dispatch of Lilia’s young brother-in-law, Philip, with orders to set things straight and bring Lilia back home unencumbered with an Italian second husband, “nobility” or not.

Philip finds himself arriving too late to prevent the worst, for Lilia has actually married her Italian swain. Far from being a member of the nobility, he turns out to be the impoverished son of the local dentist, and Philip finds Lilia defensive and unrepentant and her young travelling companion in the throes of guilty despair, for she has encouraged the unlikely lovers in their wedding plans, and has now, with the arrival of the appalled Philip, realized the extreme unsuitability of the liaison and her own role in it.

Lilia is cast off by her exceedingly genteel in-laws back in England, and left alone to make do the best she can in her new life. Needless to say things are not quite as rosy as she has expected, and even the fact that she is comparatively wealthy and can afford a high standard of living for herself and her husband in the small Italian town where they establish their nuptial home does not compensate Lilia for her subsequent bitter loneliness and boredom as she finds herself isolated by nationality, language, and personality from everyone around her.

Lilia is not left to linger long, as she exits the Italian scene as impetuously as she entered it, triggering new complications which again cause the family of her first husband much hand-wringing and heart-burning. Philip finds himself despatched once more to attempt a resolution to an exceedingly awkward state of affairs, this time accompanied by his impetuous and outspoken sister Harriet. They are hot on the heels of Lilia’s one-time lady-companion, who, still wracked with guilt over the original scenario, has also departed post-haste to Italy in order to effect her own attempted rescue mission of the only true innocent in the increasingly sordid tale.

There is plenty of room for farce in all of these goings on, and Forster plays his characters for comedic effect well, but the story turns relentlessly from comedy to tragedy, and all of Philip’s (and the young author’s?) anguished philosophizing cannot turn back the course of events.

A tacked-on sort of romantic coda at the very end felt to me out of place. I’m not quite sure what I would have had the author do in its stead. Perhaps stop sooner and leave us to use our imaginations at the point of the tragedy? As it was, to my mind the story lost much of its poignancy because of what came after.

I doubt I’ll be reading this book again, though it has reminded me how good Forster can be, if in a slightly patchwork fashion. I may be looking at him again in the new year, and reading some of his later works once the Century project is all tidied up.

Where Angels Fear to Tread is an excellent title, even to its gentle warning to the reader not to expect a completely satisfactory tale.

My final verdict: I felt this was an “interesting” book, rather than a particularly “good” one.




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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.”


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

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