Posts Tagged ‘1936 Novel’

The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter ~ 1936. This edition: Knopf, 1973. Hardcover. 149 pages.

Writer Conrad Richter, 1890-1968, occupies a place in the pantheon of lesser American literary gods just a little below Willa Cather, so any critique flavoured with negativity feels slightly blasphemous; we feel we’re supposed to kneel down and enthusiastically worship, not surreptitiously peer at the idol for a glimpse of feet of clay.

But autre temps, autre moeurs, as the saying goes, and times are different now, and some writing hasn’t aged well. The vaguely embarrasing lush prose and predictable plot line of this short novel being a case in point.

A hint is given in the dust jacket teaser:

Narrated by a nephew of the leading male character, this novel – novella? – is passionately presented, though sketchy on background details. It reads like the screenplay for a old-style Western movie, and by golly! – lookie there – it was indeed filmed, in 1947, with Katharine Hepburn playing erring wife Lutie, and Spencer Tracy the stoic cattle baron James Brewton.

The film seems to have received mixed reviews. Though successful from a box office perspective, director Elia Kazan, thwarted in his creative desires throughout the filming, was disappointed in the final version and reportedly advised his friends against watching it. This contemporary film review from March of 1947 is an interesting read.

The novel’s plot is simplistic enough. New Mexico cattle baron James Brewton runs an immense operation, mostly consisting of government-owned rangeland, which he oversees as if it were his very own. Prospective homesteaders crowding across the state line and their political sponsors have their eye on Brewton’s private domain, and a certain Judge Brice Chamberlain has set his sights on knocking the region’s wealthy ranchers down a notch or two.

Enter Lutie Cameron, James Brewton’s ladylike citygirl bride, who disembarks from a train to be met by Brewton’s callow and resentful nephew. Tripping daintily up the dusty cowtown street in her high-heeled shoes, utterly ignoring the stares of the local layabouts, ducking under the feet of the hanged man gracing the water tower, Lutie brings a breath of perfumed air to enhance the local scene, and soon-to-be-nephew Hal is utterly smitten.

James and Lutie wed, and for a while it looks like all will be well. They’re apparently in love, though neither say so much aloud, James because of his leathery stoicism, Lutie because of her reticent ladylikeness, but children start to appear, so something’s going on. A girl, a boy, and another boy, this last child bearing a strong resemblance to – oh my! can it be?! – James Brewton’s arch-nemesis Brice Chamberlain.

For Lutie has apparently slipped quietly off the marital rails. So much so that next thing we know she is boarding that same train that brought her into town, to return to the bright lights of the city. It’s an open secret that Brice Chamberlain will be accompanying her, so when he stands Lutie up at the station, and she departs with head held high and eyes bright with unshed tears, the gossip swells to epic proportions.

Not to worry, she’ll be back, wafting in some years later once her estranged husband is on the verge of losing his ranch, while her child-of-(presumed)adultery is succumbing to gunshot wounds sustained during a brush with the law, for he has gone very much to the bad.

A marital reconciliation takes place over the dead body of the young man, then the scene fades to grey, and we are left with the image of the once-vibrant ranch house falling into decay, James and Lutie vanished to who-knows-where, and only Hal left to cherish the memories of what-once-was.

As a period piece this slender book both satisfies and disappoints. Occasional detailed and evocative descriptive passages bring the physical scene vividly to life, but the over-the-topness of much of Richter’s prose makes me grit my teeth.

Example, as Lutie prepares to board the outbound train:

And now I was sure that all those happy friends were frantically playing a part and that they really had no more belief that Lutie Brewton was going to St. Louis than I had. And when I stumbled by as if I noticed nothing, I saw that for all her gay animation, her high lace collar was a pale branch whipsawing in the pounding stream of blood at her throat and that the veins on one of my uncle’s hands stood out like long-suppressed whipcords of blue lightning.

I couldn’t have gone now if I had wished. I could see the grim bulge in my uncle’s coat of gray broadcloth and an untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke, flaring in his dark eyes. Several loafers had risen to their feet licking their lips. Following their eyes, I glimpsed up the street the unmistakable tall figure of Brice Chamberlain in a new brown suit coming out of the Exchange House and pausing for a moment on the high stone steps, a Mexican behind him with a pair of gripsacks. Then both approaching figures were blotted out by the gray clot of rounded emigrant canvas.

“Whipcoards of blue lightning”! “Grim bulge”! “Untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke”! Oh, my. Fanning myself wildly – those are stirring words. Is it just me or is it getting hot in here?!

Richter’s characterizations in this novel are stock, clichéd, so that one can’t believe in them as real people, who might have lived. They do everything so much to pattern, stepping through their choreographies of behaviour so rigidly, so predictably, so reminiscently of so many off-the-shelf novel and movie characters that one can’t get past that deadly over-familiarity.

Now I’m going to change gears, and say that though I am dreadfully cruel in my assessment of this extremely dated novel, it wasn’t all that bad. Conrad Richter’s sincerity shines through the deficiencies of his prose and plotting. He had a story to tell, and he told it. A point to make, and he hammered it home.

That point being, once all the romantic brouhaha is cleared out of the way, that the great American grasslands were never suited to the plow, that homesteading brought a fatal destruction of the eons-old sod, and that the epic tragedy of the 1930s’ “dust bowl” of the North American prairies was brought about by human ineptitude.

Probably worth a read, this novel, for cultural literacy reasons, if nothing else.

The characters – well – I got a lot of perverse enjoyment out of mildly despising each and every one of them, for being such cardboard cutouts, and for bringing on their own various downfalls. Lutie in particular. Oh, she annoyed the heck out of me!

And where did she go after abandoning her silent but infatuated husband and her sweet children, and being abandoned by her callous lover? She reappears a good ten years later, still beautiful and well-dressed, still exuding that “fragrance of violets” so beloved of Victorian-and-later writers, still capable of winning hearts with the merest glance of her “liquid eyes”. She’d turned down James Brewton’s financial support, she’d set herself outside of society’s pale, so where was she? How did she feed and clothe herself? Who financed her costly wardrobe, her daintily feminine personal needs? Radio silence!

Okay, rating. How about a 6/10. The Sea of Grass had its moments, and it was fun to growl at as I read it through. Nice and short, too, so it wasn’t like I wasted that much time on its reading. Appreciated the eco-message, good for Conrad Richter on putting that out there.

 

 

 

 

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e-m-channon-little-g-1936-greyladies-cover-2012Little G by E.M. Channon ~ 1936. This edition: Greyladies Press, 2012.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-907503-21-4. 226 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Still playing catch-up with those January-read books. (Not to mention the ones I’ve got stacked up here from February.) Maybe I should try a bit harder to condense my reader’s responses?

Little G, with its rather mysterious title, was, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier round-up post, a whole lot of fun.

It’s a decidedly charming summer-set fluff piece about a misogynistic (and youngish – this is important) Cambridge mathematics don who is sent off to the country by his doctor, with orders to eschew overtaxing his brain, and to get himself into some habits of healthful exercise.

“And you really want to banish me to this beastly village, Cardew?” he inquired, with pathos.

“You can make your own choice, my man. Six months in Challingley, leading the sort of reasonable life that I’ve suggested, or a real genuine breakdown, with a real genuine rest-cure in a nursing home to follow.”

“Good Lord!” said the Mathematician, in blank horror, with a swift vision of himself quite helpless, at the mercy of innumerable designing young hussies in becoming uniforms.

“I can tell you,” said the Doctor, “that I’d be glad enough to change places with you. I’ve spent more than one holiday in Challingley, and always been sorry to come away. Plenty of people would envy you your luck.”

“Rotten luck,” said the Mathematician, uncomforted.

The Doctor, looking round for inspiration, found it suddenly on his companion’s knee.

“You can keep a cat of your own there.”

The Mathematician did not like cats. He adored them.

His gloomy face relaxed a very little.

“Now you’re talking!” he said.

“A dozen cats, if you like,” said the Doctor, encouraged.

“I’m a monocattist,” said the Mathematician.

He stood up suddenly, putting the black kitten down, but with all possible consideration for its feline feelings.

“It’s no use trying to get round me like that, Cardew,” he said. Im not going. ”

Three days later – considerably alarmed by the recurrence of the unpleasant symptoms which had induced him to call in the Doctor – he went.

So there John Furnival is, domestically settled into a picturesque thatched-roof cottage, cared for by a blithely cheerful cook-housekeeper who rather sets his teeth on edge by her unremitting good nature, and her welcoming in of his numerous neighbours making their polite social calls.

Despite his crankiness, Furnival is absorbed into the community and finds himself not only going out to tea but hosting others in his turn, playing tennis, going for long country walks, and, yes, adopting a cat.

And to his horror (for he carefully inquired as to the presence of predatory females before agreeing to relocate to the village), he discovers that one of his neighbours is a very attractive young widow, one who is doubtless on the lookout for an unattached male such as himself as her next potential victim!

So focussed is Furnival on this (wholly unfounded) threat to his bachelor freedom, that he fails to realize that the true danger to his single state is approaching from a very different direction…

A cheerful, effortless read; witty throughout and wickedly funny in parts. I enjoyed it immensely.

Ethel Mary Channon wrote quite a number of books in her time (she died in 1951), most of them being “school stories” targetting the girls’ market, as well as mysteries and a number of adult novels of varying degrees of seriousness.

Little G is definitely on the “light” side; it is also said to be one of Channon’s best works, which might be seen as a warning off of sorts for her others, but I’d happily sample her “lesser” novels merely on the strength of this likeable concoction.

Long out of print, Little G was reprinted by Greyladies Press in 2012, but that run appears to be sold out as well, and the book is currently rather elusive in the second-hand lists. Perhaps all of its readers are hanging onto their copies for pleasant revisiting? I know I am.

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a-harp-in-lowndes-square-rachel-ferguson-1936A Harp in Lowndes Square by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1936. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-911413-73-8. 287 pages.

My rating: 10/10

2016 continues to throw an eclectic array of all sorts of unpleasant things our way. Thank goodness for good books. Escape reading has been a slender but strong lifeline in a stormy personal (and societal) sea.

This past week has been particularly rewarding in this aspect, and I found I used up most of my writing time for reading, as I was seduced first by Sinclair Lewis’ highly likeable Dodsworth, then by Will Ferguson’s snarky Generica (aka Happiness™) and, last and best, by Rachel Ferguson’s dense and rewarding A Harp in Lowndes Square.

All three demand discussion. The last-read will be the first. These reviewlets will be short on original analysis, because Real Life is relentless in pounding at the door, but with the thought that any mention is better than none, here we go.

A Harp in Lowndes Square is the most “serious” of the three of Rachel Ferguson’s works I’ve read so far, and the most “conventional” (relatively speaking) in its structure and its plot.

Where The Brontës go to Woolworths was frequently giddy, and sometimes deliberately ridiculous, and A Footman for the Peacock evolved on occasion into pure farce, A Harp transcends the author’s stylistic playfulness in those other works – for to me that is what it often seems, a deliberate, gently ponderous frolicking garbed harlequin-wise in sardonic humour – and attains a higher ground in its characters and its plot.

This despite the reader-challenging dependence on an acceptance of the theory of a parallel stream of time for much of the book. It’s almost what the reviews label it as – a sort-of ghost story – but at heart it’s purely of its time, a self-assessing, slyly humorous, poignantly troubling novel revolving around the thoughts and feelings of a sympathetic narrator.

From the Dean Street Press website, a pared-down précis of the basics of the plot, hinting very slightly at the intricacies of this absorbingly complex novel:

Description

In the schoolroom in Lowndes Square, a child, in her ugly, unsuitable frock of plum-coloured satin, cut down when discarded from one of her mother’s, bent over the cutting out of a doll and its cardboard wardrobe, and shivered as she worked.

Hilarious, shocking, and heartbreaking in turn, A Harp in Lowndes Square is like no other Rachel Ferguson novel. Perhaps her most personal work – and the closest she ever came to a ghost story – it tells of Vere and James, twins gifted with ‘the sight,’ which allows them to see and even experience scenes from the past (including one, at Hampton Court, involving royalty).

The twins are already aware of their mother’s troubled relationship with her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant, but the discovery of an Aunt Myra, who died young and of whom their mother has never spoken, leads them to uncover the family’s tragic past. Against the backdrop of World War I and Vere’s unexpected relationship with an aging actor (and his wife), and rife with Ferguson’s inimitable wit, the novel reaches a powerful and touching denouement when the twins relive the horrifying events of many years before …

A Harp in Lowndes Square was originally published in 1936. This new edition features an introduction by social historian Elizabeth Crawford.

Praise

‘It is only (now) that I realise how much … my work owes to the delicacy and variety of Rachel Ferguson’s exploration of the real and the dreamed of, or the made up, or desired.’ A.S. BYATT

‘A wonderful concoction … the true stuff of storytelling.’ GILLIAN TINDALL

The above is of course overly dramatized, as is the wont in back cover blurbery, but essentially correct in summation.

I didn’t find much hilarity here, though there was abundant intelligent humour, and the so-called denouement, though indeed powerful and touching, wasn’t particularly surprising as the narrative contained abundant hints as to what it was that actually happened one bitter night in the late 1800s, on the stairs outside the drawing room door.

The real reward of this gem of a novel is in its depiction of the best possibilities of human relationships. Narrator Vere, one of the psychically-sensitive twins, never finds romantic love in the conventional sense, but, looking back on her earlier life from the age of fifty, she reflects on what she did instead experience, and it seems to me to be, in this case at least, an acceptable alternative.

The morally monstrous mother figure in the background – family matriarch Lady Vallant – serves to accentuate the determined rejection of such parental coldness by her youngest daughter Anne, mother of twins Vere and James and the finely-drawn Lalage, their beloved elder sister.

All three of the Ferguson novels read by me to date stand out, despite their sometimes bizarre structure, as warm depictions of familial unity as bulwark against a sometimes-bitter outside world, and these affirmative passages are, to me, perhaps the finest part of these intellectually rich, fascinatingly convoluted novels.

I liked this book much more than I had expected too – and I had high expectations indeed. I’d ordered it with a view to reading it in 2017 as part of my second prospective Century of Books project, but in a moment of weakness I opened it “just to preview”, was drawn in, and here I am, happily contemplating a 1936 replacement on my want-to-read list. Luckily it shouldn’t be too hard to find something else, in that rich literary era.

For more on A Harp in Lowndes Square, I’m going to send you over to this review by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, whose fervent hunting out, re-reading, and articulate reviewing of out-of-print mid-century female novelists has led to this particular republication.

Grateful kudos again to Scott, and to Dean Street Press.

Many of us, myself included, hear “print on demand” and our first response is to cringe in disgust, because of the many horrible examples of Gutenberg-mining  hack “presses” so prolifically invading the ABE and Amazon lists, but Dean Street Press is a shining beacon of How To Do It Right. Beautifully produced paper editions, perfectly re-set, with scholarly new forewords and appropriate cover art, made wonderfully (and affordably!) available for those of us who struggle with reading from a screen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Full disclosure, in case anyone is wondering at my enthusiastic promotion of DSP: A Harp in Lowndes Square is not a review copy; I bought it with my own hard-earned dollars. Worth every penny. Check these guys out.

 

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the american flags kathleen norris 1936

First edition Doubleday dust jacket illustration from 1936. (Not my copy, which is the 1937 Sun Dial Press edition.) The illustration emphasizes the “we Flaggs are united in our happy prosperity” in comparison to Miss Fitzpercy’s solitary advancement.

The American Flaggs by Kathleen Norris ~ 1936. This edition: The Sun Dial Press, 1937. Hardcover. 403 pages.

My rating: Parts of this were an easy 10, but other parts not so much. This might change on further mulling over, but right now I think a 6.5/10 is a fair assessment of the reading experience as a whole.

A beautiful young woman with a troubling family background (deserted by father, mother a not very successful writer/poetess, three siblings who moon about wasting their days and ignoring the squalor of their shabby rented bungalow situated in a subdivided California orchard on the outskirts of San Francisco) makes the acquaintance of a wealthy local family, the Flaggs.

The Flagg way of living is gracious to the extreme, and our heroine, Penelope Fitzpercy, who has come to see if she can sell an heirloom embroidery sampler to the family matriarch, is treated with unexpected courtesy and grace. She catches the eye of handsome and impulsive Jeff Flagg, who proceeds to woo Penelope with overwhelming enthusiasm. Much to her own surprise, she resists Jeff’s advances, out of a combination of pride in knowing that the Flaggs suspect her of having her eye on a rich husband and honest reluctance to marry someone she doesn’t truly love.

Back and forth the romance goes, until one tragic night in which Jeff almost dies in an accident, and Penelope is begged by the Flagg family members gathered around Jeff’s bed of pain to marry him, so he can die in peace at having attained his heart’s desire.

Needless to say Jeff makes a stunning recovery, and Penelope is trapped in a marriage which she never wanted. A chance for an annulment is secretly offered to her by Jeff’s grandmother, but Penelope refuses, mostly because she is too proud to back down from the promise she made to Jeff upon their hasty midnight marriage.

Jeff is a most definitely spoiled rich kid; he proceeds to squander his parents’ generous allowance, and becomes caught up in drink and gambling, while Penelope feebly wrings her hands in despair. When Jeff carelessly abandons her on the night of their baby’s birth, Penelope is rescued and comforted by Jeff’s cousin Tom, and the two, already friendly, enter into an emotional relationship which is emotionally if not physically a breaking of Penelope’s marriage vows.

When Penelope and Tom announce that they wish to marry after Penelope divorces Jeff, the rest of the family joins together in an agitated plea that Penelope give Jeff yet another chance, until the family matriarch unexpectedly speaks out in Penelope’s support.

What follows is an agony of indecision by Penelope, who thought she knew what she wanted…

I picked this up recently in one of my favourite used book shops, The Final Chapter in Prince George, thinking from my brief browse that it was something of a family comedy, a humorous romp, albeit a rather sustained one, at 400 pages plus. This initial assessment turned out not to be the case; this novel is at heart a serious sort of thing, and I closed it feeling like I’d just been subjected to an mesmerizingly earnest sermon by a preacher with a fine way with words but very little sense of humour.

Let me elaborate.

The finest thing about this book by the super-prolific Kathleen Thompson Norris (80-some books published from 1911 to 1959, according to her Wikipedia biography) is that it is decidedly readable, at least in the set-up phase, which takes up the first few hundred pages. (The last few hundred suffer from a certain amount of repetition and going on and on and on, rather like this post is starting to do! Must be catching…)

The author sets a wonderfully detailed scene, and her characters are, for the most part, believably flawed and therefore human enough to hold our interest, though as the tale progresses we note that many stay completely one-dimensional, while others – the very obviously “chosen” ones – are allowed an extreme degree of personal development, to support and justify author’s increasingly obvious point-of-view.

There is a goodish dose of melodrama early on, quite nicely handled; this was a point in favour.

What I didn’t care for was the way in which the author fast-forwarded her ending, taking us from agonizing, hyper-detailed moral dilemma to it’s-all-better-now without providing much in the way of explanation. She merely asks us to take on faith the idea that everyone has been able to pull themselves together and reach a higher moral plane, once the “correct” decisions have been made.

“A happy life is a reward for correct moral behaviour.”  I feel like a real heel sneering at this noble ideal, but in this case it just felt too easy, and rather ruined the last part of the book for me.

Though I must say that I quite liked the final scene which was an unexpected reconciliation between the heroine and her high-principled but perhaps not quite-so-perfect-as-once-assumed grandmother-in-law.

Would I read another Kathleen Norris book?

I do believe I would, though from the plot descriptions of several others which I’ve just discovered and from quick browses through the Project Gutenberg offerings by the author, I see a strong similarity of theme: Young woman decides to seek happiness over old-fashioned moral duty, has a spiritual awakening, and realizes that the old ways are the best.

There were a few places here and there in The American Flaggs where the chiming of church bells came through loud and clear, though they quickly subsided; the preaching was more implied than open, but it was definitely there.

For a portrait of a particular time and place, California just after the turn of the 20th Century, this was a fascinating snapshot, and I hugely enjoyed the details of the setting, as well as the author’s pull-no-punches descriptions of the Fitzpercy family’s lazy housekeeping and messy, messy lives.

Period snobbishness is evident throughout as well, and a version of a feudal class system. There are servants in abundance in the Flagg enclave, going about their duties meekly and modestly, and they are accepted as part of the background support system, with only a very few – the butler, the housekeeper – being named and given speaking roles.

Even the indigent Fitzpercys hold that they are somehow higher than servant class. Early on Penelope bemoans the fact that though she and her mother and sisters are of a higher social status than those who stoop to menial labour they are much worse at keeping their surroundings clean and neat, but this thought doesn’t seem to inspire a prolonged effort to raise the standard of living by washing a few dishes and sweeping the floor.

Towards the end of the story, after Penelope has her epiphany and her chance at a remade life, her humbling herself is made obvious by the mention that she is now on almost equal terms with her Mexican cook-housekeeper, though she retains an edge of unquestioned social superiority.

A rather decent discussion on what it is to be American takes place near the end of the book, balancing the theoretical rejection of “American values” by some of the more outspoken Fitzpercys and their bohemian friends early on. The Flaggs are held up to scorn for their strong patriotism and holding to tradition, but events go to show (and here is the author obviously trotting out her own pet theory) that the melting pot of America and the moral American standard upheld by the united Flaggs is more truly good than any nonsense of “communism” coming from Russia, or of the ways of those troublesome Italians and Germans making headlines in the newspapers.

Grand stuff in a highly opinionated period-appropriate sort of way!

I’d never heard of this author before, but I’m sure I’ll be noticing her in future, much as I now see Gene Stratton-Porter and Frances Hodgson Burnett and Mary Roberts Rinehart here, there and everywhere. She shares qualities with these others who were her contemporaries, a mix of (generally) positive and (occasionally) negative which makes for an unusual and vaguely unsettling reading experience. Not a great writer, but decidedly an accomplished one in this particular genre.

 

 

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