Minor Characters Redeem David Corson

The Redemption of David Corson is about a backwoods youth who loses his faith that a loving God is making people progressively better.

Cover of The Redemption of David CorsonIn an Ohio valley, a stuttering patent medicine salesman and his teenage wife hear David Corson preach. Pepeeta is drawn to the message. The quack is drawn to David’s monetary value as a salesman.

After he hikes 20 miles to preach at an empty lumber camp, David decides being a shill for the quack and Pepeeta beats preaching.

Pepeeta’s awakened spiritual sense makes her resist David until, through bribery, he’s able to convince her that her first marriage was illegal.

As they flee, David kills the quack.

David’s morals continue to decline, Pepeeta’s continue to improve. Inevitably, they split.

Three years later, like the prodigal son, David goes home.

The summary sounds like a bad sermon, but Charles Frederic Goss’s characters — especially the minor characters — are intriguing mixes of flaws and virtues. Their actions arise from the interaction of heredity, upbringing, ignorance, immaturity, and choice.

The novel’s ending is just far enough from happily-ever-after to feel realistic while satisfying readers’ wishes for life to turn out OK.

The Redemption of David Corson
Charles Frederic Goss
1900 bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg eBook #14730
My grade B-

©2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Richard Carvel: Memoir of Macaroni Era

Winston Churchill’s Richard Carvel purports to be the memoir of a colonial Marylander. It’s really a formula romance decked in the manners and fashions of the 18th century “macaronis.”

Richard lives with his grandfather, a devout Tory, but imbibes the rebellious spirit growing in the colonies. He also falls for the girl next door. Dorothy’s father whisks the family “home” to London hoping the girl’s looks will win her a rich, titled husband.

Richard’s devious, greedy Uncle Grafton has him kidnapped and sold to a slaver. Richard meets a ex-patriot Scot and accompanies him to London. The two make friends of politicians who later will plead the American cause in Parliament.

When the colonies declare independence, Richard goes to sea under his pal John Paul Jones.

Richard wins fame, fortune, and fair lady.

Churchill tells only those things that Richard was likely to note. His singlemindedness would be welcome if the characters and plot were not stock items from the romance shelf.

Three days after you close the cover, you’ll have forgotten Richard Carvel entirely.

Richard Carvel
by Winston Churchill
Illus. Carlton T. Chapman and Malcolm Fraser
Macmillan, 1899
538 pages
1900 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg Ebook #5373
My grade: C

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

American Revolution Overshadows Janice Meredith

Paul Leicester Ford’s subtitle to his 1900 bestselling romance, Janice Meredith, reveals what’s good and bad about the novel: It’s about the American Revolution, not about Janice Meredith.

As the novel opens, a man calling himself Charles Fownes, newly arrived in New Jersey from England, begins a five-year indenture to Lambert Meredith.

Meredith’s pro-British sentiments and high-handedness with this tenant farmers have made him unpopular with the lower strata of society, which in 1774 is already seething with resentment against King George. Locals suspect Fownes is a deserter from the British army using a false name.

Fownes is immediately enamored of Meredith’s buxom, 15-year-old daughter, Janice, and almost as soon smitten with enthusiasm for the rebel cause. Before long, he’s doing work for General Washington.

Yorktown is under siege seven years later before Ford reveals who the indentured servant really is.

The implausibility of both the fictional characters and the plot makes this long novel seem longer than the Revolution.

Having generals Washington, Howe, and Cornwallis pour their top-secret plans into Janice’s shell-like ear beggars belief. She’s a brainless bimbo, with a mental age of about 4.

Janice Meredith would have been a much better book without Janice Meredith in it.

Janice Meredith: A Story of the American Revolution
By Paul Leicester Ford
Mary Mannering Edition
With a Miniature by Lillie V. O’Ryan
and numerous Scenes from the Play
Project Gutenberg EBook #5719
My grade: C-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Reign of Law Is a Dumb “Religious” Novel

The Reign of Law by James Lane Allen is the story of young man  with his heart set on becoming a minister.

David’s parents think he’s too stupid for college, but accept his desire to be a minister as an explanation of why he’s always been so peculiar.

After two years of hard labor in the hemp fields to earn college money, David finds the “nonsectarian” Bible college’s preoccupation with dogma abhorrent.

He visits churches of other denominations, which marks him as a heretic.

“I always knew there was nothing in you,” his father says when, after three semesters, David is expelled as unfit  for the ministry.

His dream destroyed, David goes back to the hemp fields to figure out what to do next.

Allen tries to make the novel about David’s loss of faith, but there’s no sign he had any more faith in God before college than after.

David’s real problem seems to be that he’s a friendless, only child, reared by weird parents in the middle of Kentucky’s hemp fields. Allen makes working with hemp seem idyllic compared to living with David’s parents.

Allen’s solution is to provide David with a nice girl.

If you believe that’s the answer, you have a lot more faith than David.

The Reign of Law: A Tale of the Kentucky Hemp Fields
By James Lane Allen
1900 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg Ebook #3791
My grade: C-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Unleavened Bread Deliciously Substantial Story

As Robert Grant’s Unleavened Bread opens, Selma White is becoming engaged to Lewis Babcock and giving up teaching — which she didn’t find “satisfying” anyway — for city life.

Benham society, however, fails to appreciate Selma’s gifts as much as it appreciates the money Lewis Babcock’s varnish business makes.

Selma throws herself into committee work and at the New York City architect designing the new church. While Selma is “saying goodbye” to the architect, their daughter dies of croup.

Selma divorces Lewis, whose unjust comments about her neglect of her child cut her cruelly.

Selma is scrimping along on her earnings from writing — the Benham press fails to appreciate talent such as hers — when the architect reappears, proposes, and the two marry that evening.

New York City also fails to appreciate Selma.

The upper eschelons of society are closed to her — not that Selma wants to fit into society — but as she tells her husband, “What I don’t understand is why such people should be allowed to exist in this country.”

Selma’s second marriage disintegrates long before her husband’s untimely death.

She deplored with a grief which depleted the curve of her oval cheeks the premature end of her husband’s artistic career — an aspiring soul cut off on the threshold of success — yet, though of course she never squarely made the reflection, she was aware that the development of her own life was more intrinsically valuable to the world than his, and that of the two it was best that he should be taken.

Selma moves back to Benham and marries a politician whose patriotism, spirituality, and gift for self-deception match Selma’s own.

Unleavened Bread deserves to be a Masterpiece Classic.

Unleavened Bread
by Robert Grant
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900
1900 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook #14645
My grade: A-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Red Pottage a Feast for Readers

Red Pottage is the story of a fashionable, young, 19th century Londoner, Hugh Scarlett, who like Esau in the Bible, threw away an honorable position to satisfy an immediate hunger.

As the novel opens, Hugh has decided to dump his mistress. He has met Rachel West and decided she “would save him from himself” if she became his wife.

Hugh is shocked when Lord Newhaven demands satisfaction for Hugh’s affair with his wife. Dueling being outlawed, Lord Newhaven offers an alternative: They draw straws with the loser to commit suicide within five months.

On that bizarre premise, Mary Cholmondeley grows a rich psychological drama about characters that are more believable than your next door neighbors.

In the small, intermarried British upper class, Hugh and the Newhavens have many mutual acquaintances and some mutual relatives. Cholmondeley enlists them to help her explore complex issues of love and marriage, justice and mercy, sin and repentance, and the art of writing novels.

Cholmondeley’s ability to craft a plausible story on an implausible premise makes James Hilton’s Lost Horizon look like writing by a third grader.

Cholmondeley’s characters are far more credible than Hilton’s as well. She gets even the tiny details right. You’ll want to read some of her sentences aloud to savor their sounds.

When, for example, Hester Gresley having written a critically acclaimed but unprofitable first novel, goes to live in the country with her clergyman brother, Cholmondeley says, “[Hester] now experienced the interesting sensation, as novel to her as it is familiar to most of us, of being nobody, and she disliked it.” Can’t you hear the sniff above the stiff upper lip in that sentence?

Red Pottage is a rich stew.

Enjoy it.

Red Pottage
By Mary Cholmondeley
Harper & Brothers, 1900
1900 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg #Ebook #14885
My grade: A-

@ 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

To Have and to Hold Ends in Exhaustion

To Have and to Hold is a gender-neutral novel. Mary Johnson provides heart-stopping adventure for men, and a heart-throb hero for women.

In 1621 when a shipload of women arrive at Jamestown , Capt. Ralph Percy, one of original settlers, buys a beautiful wife he can see is high born. He allows her to bar the bedroom door to him.

Lord Carnal arrives seeking the King’s run-away ward whom he was to marry. If Lord Carnal can get her back to England, the King will annul her marriage to Percy.

Ralph and his buddies have to get her away.

Before long, the Ralph finds himself captain of a pirate ship carrying his wife and his buddies and Lord Carnal.

Johnson gets everyone back to Jamestown in time for Ralph to learn his wife loves him and for him to be a hero when the Indians attack Jamestown.

When she runs out of space for any more plot complications, Johnson packs up her pen and sets the characters free.

Since 1900, when To Have and to Hold was the bestseller in the US, its plot lines have become familiar from dime novels and second-rate films. A taut ending might have camouflaged the interior flaws, but the novel’s slump to an exhausted ending magnifies them.

The history beneath the novel deserves better.

So do the novel’s readers.

To Have and to Hold
by Mary Johnson
1900 bestseller # 1
Project Gutenberg EBook #2807
My grade: C

@2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Round Out 2013 with 1900 Bestsellers

To finish out 2013, I’m going back to pick up seven novels from 1900 that I hadn’t located when their time rolled around in my normal cycle.

Red Pottage and Unleavened Bread are the best of the seven and they are both very good psychological studies. Red Pottage turns a totally preposterous situation into perfectly plausible story through keen observation of people and precisely chosen detail.  Unleavened Bread is a fascinating study of a horrible woman who believes herself to be the epitome of every talent and virtue.

Project Gutenberg

Here’s the list of the novels, with hyperlinks to the Project Gutenberg versions you can download and read for free. Dates of the reviews are in brackets.

I doubt many readers will be familiar with these novels or their authors. I hope, however, the titles of the first four novels will sound familiar; they are allusions that would have been immediately recognizable to readers in 1900.

Knighthood Was in Flower But Has Gone to Seed

When Knighthood Was in Flower is a late 19th century novel by Charles Major, writing under the pseudonym Edwin Caskoden. The  novel tries to pass itself off as an 18th century update of a 16th century memoir by a Caskoden forebear who was a minor functionary in the court of Henry VIII.

If all that distancing were supposed to keep readers from noticing the silliness of the plot, it doesn’t work.

A handsome knight named Charles Brandon acquires fame and a place in Henry VIII’s guard. Henry is trying to sell his sister, Mary Tudor, in marriage. Though so beautiful every man who sees her falls in love with her, Mary cares nothing for the suitors. In predictable romance tradition, Mary falls for Brandon, who doesn’t appear interested in her.

Major mingles fact with implausible fictions until even the historical facts seem corny and contrived.  The characters make so many trips between London and Winsor so they can talk without being overheard that readers may get saddlesores.

When Brandon is locked in a dungeon,  Mary wins his freedom by agreeing to marry old Louis XII of France.  As Louis is dying, Mary sends for Brandon, who immediately weds his still-virgin lady in Paris. Forced to accept the fait accomplis, Henry sends them back to Brandon’s impoverished family estate to get along as best they can.

Get along without reading this novel. View the scenes from the stage play below  instead.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When Knighthood Was in Flower
or, The Love Story of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor the King’s Sister, and Happening in the Reign of His August Majesty King Henry the Eighth
By Charles Major
© 1898
1900 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg eBook #17498
© 2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni