Posts Tagged ‘Melodrama’

k mary roberts rinehart p

This is not my personal copy, but the dust jacket of an older edition. Apparently “K” was made into a movie at one point.

“K” by Mary Roberts Rinehart ~ 1914. This edition: Blakiston 1944. Hardcover. 407 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

A melodramatic and exceedingly improbable story of an absolutely perfect heroine – beautiful, morally upright, self-sacrificing, pure through and through – you know the type! – and her three lovers. First is youthful and impetuous Joe, followed by brilliant (and fickle) young surgeon Max, and ultimately (somehow I doubt this will be a spoiler; especially as the cover pictured here completely gives it away) the mysterious “K”.

This vintage read was surprisingly good, considering the ridiculous storyline. The author has a lot to say about roles of women, the roles of marriage and child-bearing in female self-fulfillment, and the hypocrisy of society to those caught out in wrongdoing – the unmarried mother, the bastard child, the alcoholic rich man – and how each is viewed and sometimes excused merely on the basis of social status. How does that old song go? “It’s the same the whole world over, It’s the poor what gets the blame, It’s the rich what gets the pleasure, Ain’t that a blooming’ shame?”

Here we have a lovely young eighteen-year-old girl, Sidney, who decides to turn her back on marriage as offered by the infatuated Joe, and to make a career as a nurse. She is accepted as a probationer, and immediately falls head-over-heels in love with Doctor Max, a brilliant young surgeon whom she has known since childhood, but who has never realized what a lush young thing Sidney is until she pops up under his nose in nurse’s garb. Max is notoriously a lady’s man, with another love interest on the side, so the relationship seems questionable from the start, but Sidney succumbs (partially) to Max’s passionate advances. Her virtue remains intact, however, and she is saved from herself by the intervention of dark horse “K”.

K. Le Moyne – he never gives a first name – shows up one evening at Sidney’s mother’s house to rent a room, and though he is tenaciously reticent about his past, his quiet charm and readiness to help out with a myriad of domestic situations – from nurturing a pet ground squirrel to helping with the cooking – makes him the friend of all.

But what is K hiding? And why does Max reel in shock when the two men finally meet? What are they discussing behind closed doors on their subsequent nightly meetings? Did Sidney really mix up her medications and poison that pathetic young patient? Why is her superior Carlotta (incidentally Max’s main squeeze before Sidney’s entry) so alternately friendly and harsh to Sidney? And where did Joe get that gun?

See? Told you it was melodrama!

The cast of supporting characters is almost more interesting than the interconnected love triangles (quadrangles?) of the main protagonists.

Here we have a couple of middle-aged lovers, one a cook and the other a deaf-and dumb book salesman, communicating by notes to each other as they sit out each evening on the back steps. Another middle-aged spinster goes off to live in sin with a man whose wife is languishing in a mental home; her decision to put herself beyond society’s pale by her last-chance clutching at love is most sympathetically portrayed.

A young woman marries beneath herself socially, to a man with a drinking problem and a history of amorous dalliances; she knows this before she marries, and she knows she doesn’t truly love her husband-to-be, but she goes ahead anyway, to repent at leisure. (Subtext: Is marriage really such a socially desirable state that an intelligent well-off young woman will willingly enter into a questionably wise bond, particularly if love is not there?)

Dr. Ed, Dr. Max’s elder brother, is an old-school practical doctor in contrast to his younger brother’s cutting edge cleverness as a specialized surgeon. Dr. Ed, wiping his scalpel on his pant leg (sterilization dulls the edge, he maintains), proudly admires his brother’s accomplishments, and regards the sacrifice of his own career, his own never-attained wife and family as a worthy price to pay for his brother’s success. Dr. Ed has never married and has spent every penny he’s earned supporting his brilliant brother through medical school; his role in the story is as sort of a benevolent father figure, dispersing wisdom and keeping a high moral standard as an example to his friends and neighbours.

Sidney’s Aunt Harriet is one of my favourites. Long the drab neighbourhood seamstress, Harriet pursues a long-held ambition to design clothes for the local haut monde, and after borrowing money to set herself up, eventually makes it to Paris, from whence she sends engraved circulars to the customers eagerly awaiting her return. I absolutely loved the glimpses of practical yet creative Harriet getting dress-designing inspiration from crocuses in snow, or the colours of the early morning city sunrise. A happy spinster, Harriet, illustrating an independent womanhood and its rewards, in a world which still maintains that marriage and motherhood is a female’s highest calling.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was an exceedingly prolific writer of dramatic novels and mysteries, and a well-known feminist of her time. In “K”, her views on the rights of women come through loud and clear, though mixed rather oddly with this very traditional romance. She does allow her heroine to complete her goal to become a fully fledged nurse, though marriage awaits at the end of her qualification. I rather wonder what the after-story would turn out to be?

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