3 clear winners on 1905 bestseller list

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens, and The Marriage of William Ashe by Mrs. Humphrey Ward are clearly at the top of the list of 1905 novels with that still have something important to say and say it well.

Despite each being 110 years old and each exploring themes at odds with contemporary culture, the three are remarkably accessible for contemporary readers.

The House of Mirth

The shortest of the three, Edith Wharton’s novel is also the best known today, due no doubt in large part having been translated into a TV production in 1981 and a movie in 2000.

Lily Bart, Wharton’s leading lady, is a lovely young woman who wants to marry for love, providing the man she loves is incredibly wealthy.

Wharton’s presents the story in precise detail that piles criticism on New York City’s late Victorian high society, making The House of Mirth feel like a true account of the ultra-rich circa 1900.

The weakness of The House of Mirth is Lily herself. She’s all adolescent drama, no adult sense—a real drawback for an adult heroine in today’s book market.

The Garden of Allah

The Garden of Allah is about as different from The House of Mirth as it possibly could be.

It’s long.

It’s set in the vast vacancy of the Sahara Desert.

And its leading characters focus on moral, ethical, and spiritual problems: They wouldn’t know what make of Lily Bart.

Hichens makes the novel part mystery, part spiritual biography, part travelogue.

He makes the Sahara sands come alive with color, sound, and unceasing movement. Intrigue and danger seem to lurk around every corner, terrible and enticing.

The characters, too, are alive with color, sound, and movement: They breathe aloud in the pages.

Now that I know how the story ends, The Garden of Allah is definitely a novel I’ll pick up again to linger over.

The Marriage of William Ashe

The Marriage of William Ashe is, in an odd way, a sort of midpoint between the other two novels.

There’s an upper class male who must marry an upper class female who will be the vital hostess for his promising Foreign Office career: the male equivalent of Lily Bart’s situation.

There are also moral, ethical, and religious values to be considered, ones not terribly different from those faced by the main characters in The Garden of Allah.

Ashe promised his wife he would give her freedom and support her choices. When those choices are a more exciting life with other men, alcohol, and drugs, does he let her go?

And when the consequences of her choices take their toll on her, what does he do then?


A couple other observations before I leave the 1905 bestseller list.

First, against less-strong competition The Gambler by  Katherine Cecil Thurston would have had a good chance of being short-listed.

Second, The Clansman, a badly written novel, is worth reading for its perspective on slavery and history.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Love and laughs in Rose O’ the River

Nineteen-year-old Rose Wiley’s good looks, personality, and cooking attract young men for miles around.

Foremost among them is Stephen Waterman, who, as the story opens is about to propose to Rose a fourth time.

Rose O’ the River by Kate Douglas Wiggin

Illus: George Wright. Grosset & Dunlap, 1905. 177 pp. 1905 bestseller #1.
Project Gutenberg ebook #1033. My Grade: B-.

Believing she loves Steve as much as she could love anyone, Rose accepts his proposal.

Rose would, however, like an opportunity to see the world, especially Boston.

While Steve builds the cottage they will share, a salesman from Boston sweet-talks Rose. Rose doesn’t love Claude; she just thinks he loves her.

After seeing them together, Steve releases her from their engagement.

She had imagined that Stephen would be his large-minded, great-hearted, magnanimous self, and beg her to forget this fascinating will-o’the-wisp.

Rose quickly finds out she’s better off in York County, Maine, with Steve than in Boston with Claude.

Kate Douglas Wiggin’s plot has many threads that don’t go anywhere: Steve’s recklessness at log driving, his brother’s blindness, the two local boys who come home as doctors, for example.

Wiggin’s characterization, too, seems off base.

She makes Steve and Rose only passably believable, but makes Rose’s grandparents memorable.

In the end, it’s the novel’s humor rather than its love story, that sticks in the mind.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Princess Passes is flawed but fabulous

Every so often a flawed novel comes along that is delightful in spite of its deficiencies.

The Princess Passes is one of those.

The Princess Passes: A Romance of a Motor-Car

by Alice Muriel Williamson and Charles Norris Williamson

Illus. Henry Holt, 1905. 1905 bestseller #9. Project Gutenberg eBook #14740 My grade: C+ .

Having proposed and gotten a kiss, Lord Montague Lane is shocked to hear at dinner the announcement that his love will marry “the richest grocer in the world” instead of himself.

Monty accepts friends’ invitation to let them drive him to Lucerne where he can go on a walking tour down into Italy while his broken heart mends.

Alert readers will see in chapter two how the story will end—and that’s long before they’ve met the Princess.

Though the plot of the romance is familiar, the Williamsons redeem The Princess Passes by presenting Marty as a late-Victorian Rick Steves: an adaptable, uncomplaining traveling companion with a sense of humor.

Monty chats knowledgeably about history, literature, art, architecture, and local cuisine.

His descriptions of Alpine scenes are virtual reality immersions without the fancy headsets. Witness:

The shadows lengthened and thinned, like children who have grown too fast.

Monty is delighted by his guide’s description of a precipice as rocks that “go down immediately, not bye-and-bye.”Photograph of Annecy with moutains in background.

The sense of being there with Monty is heightened by a combination of whimsical drawings and what appear to be vintage photographs.

Such genial companionship transforms a so-so novel into a fictional travelogue that made me wish for a map and a video footage of Monty’s trek.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Life inThe House of Mirth is no laughing matter

The House of Mirth is a Jane Austen plot set in 1900’s New York City in which everything goes wrong.

Like Miss Eliza Bennett, Lily Bart must marry money soon.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905, 1951. 329 pp. My grade: A.

Beautiful and witty, Lily is already 29, living on the charity of an aunt who dislikes her, and racking up debts for her bridge losses.

Lily’s choice would be bachelor lawyer Lawrence Seldon, but they both know he hasn’t enough money to satisfy her.
Lily examines a crowd of potential husbands from beneath her parasol.

Lily hooks one of the city’s most eligible bachelors, but when it’s time to reel him in, she can’t bear the thought of living with him.

She vamps a friend’s husband into investing money for her—his money, not hers—and when he wants payment of her gambling debts in services, she bolts.

Bertha Dorset invites Lily on their yacht, then dumps her in Europe, giving friends the impression Lily had been having an affair with her husband.

Within two years, Lily is dead in a rooming house.

Edith Wharton’s characters are more complex and self-aware than Austen’s, but without their practicality and willingness to make do.

New York is as rigid a society as Austen’s England, only far more savage.

Instead of social snubs, Wharton’s characters administer body blows.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Gambler visits sins of father on daughter

The Gambler is a novel about an Irish girl whose life is imperiled by her genes, her upbringing, and her own innocence.

The danger to Clodagh is moral rather than mortal—and it’s terrifying.

 After gambling with her father, Milbanke encounters Clodagh
After gambling with her father, Milbanke encounters Clodagh who begs him not to encourage her father’s gambling habit.


Asshlin angrily refuses to let his old friend Milbanke refuse to accept payment for his gambline debt.
Asshlin angrily refuses to let his old friend Milbanke refuse to accept payment for his gambling debt.


The Gambler: A Novel by Katherine Cecil Thurston

Illus. John Cameron. Toronto: Fleming H. Revell,1905. 1905 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg ebook #33490. My grade: B+.

When Denis Asshlin is fatally injured, his daughters write their father’s school friend, James Milbanke, for help.

Asshlin’s gambling has beggared his girls.

Milbanke can send Nance to boarding school, but what can he do with 17-year-old Clodagh?

Milbanke proposes marriage.

“I suppose it is what father used to call a debt of honour,” Clodagh says.

Four unhappy years later, while her husband talks about archaeology, Clodagh meets titled society people.

She envies—and fears—them.

After Milbanke dies leaving Clodagh a comfortable income, she rejoins her high society acquaintances.

Soon Clodagh’s gambling debts are larger than her annual income.

When she looks in the mirror, Clodagh sees her father’s face.

She accepts 1000£ from Lord Deerehurst realizing it obligates her but unaware what payment he expects.

A less adept writer than Katherine Cecil Thurston couldn’t have made Clodagh more than a pretty doll.

Thurston makes her a complicated woman-child, craving love and respect but traumatized by a childhood she cannot ever outgrow.

  © 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nedra: A diversion with cannibals

George Barr McCutcheon, who can deliver a great plot when the mood strikes him, appears not to have been in the mood when he wrote Nedra.

The novel is the prose equivalent of a game of solitaire.

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Nedra by George Barr McCutcheon

Illlus.Harrison Fisher, 1906. 1905 bestseller #5. Project Gutenberg ebook #13967. My grade C+.

Life-long friends Hugh Ridgeway and Grace Vernon have decided to marry when Grace reaches 23, which her late father considered the age of discretion.

Dreading a big society wedding, they elope.

Posing as brother and sister, they sail for Manila, planning to marry there.

To Hugh’s annoyance, bachelors flock around Grace. Henry Veath is particularly attentive.

Hugh is forced to rely for company on beautiful and young Lady “Tennys” Huntingford, whose elderly husband despises her for marrying him for his position.

When the ship strikes a reef in a storm, Hugh and Tennys wash ashore on an island inhabited by cannibals.

The story gets increasingly silly until the U.S. Navy rescues the couple and allows McCutcheon to end the story the way readers expected it would since chapter 5.

Early on, McCutcheon gives Hugh some laugh lines in a manner reminiscent of Jeffrey Farnol.

He soon gives it up.

Neither Hugh or the women are clever enough for word games.

They’re all solitaire types.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Clansman: Racisim writ large, romance writ small

In his forward to The Clansman, Thomas Dixon says his novel shows how the Klu Klux Klan “against overwhelming odds…saved the life of a people.”

Readers can judge that for themselves.

The Clansman by Thomas Dixon

An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Illus.with scenes from photo-play The Birth of a Nation.
Grossett & Dunlap, 1905. 374 pages. Project Gutenberg EBook #26240.
1905 bestseller #4. My grade: C.

The novel opens April 10, 1865. Having won the war, Lincoln intends to win the peace by helping the South to recover.

Lincoln’s opposition includes Austin Stoneman, the power behind Congress.

Stoneman’s daughter and son have fallen for South Carolinians Ben and Margaret Cameron.

When Stoneman’s health requires a warm climate, Elsie and Phil select South Carolina for their father’s recuperation.

Quicker than you can butter a biscuit, Elsie and Phil turn Southern.

Ben Cameron organizes the Clan.

Stoneman recuperates in time to try to defeat the Clan.

You can guess the rest.

Stockman is the only interesting character in this dumb story, yet Dixon suggests no plausible explanation of Stoneman’s hatred of the South.

As a novel, The Clansman is a dud.

As a cultural and historical phenomenon, it’s dynamite.

I can’t recall a novel that gives a better sense of the nation’s emotional response to the Lincoln assassination, nor think of a better illustration of how Civil War mythology perpetuates itself in the South.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In Garden of Allah weak, lapsed Catholics revive

The Garden of Allah begins with the arrival in North Africa of  an  Englishwoman headed to Beni-Mora.

Robert Hichens makes the vast, unpopulated Sahara a vivid backdrop flooded with colors and  vibrating with tom-toms, cymbals, castanets, and the howls of dogs for a story as unexpected as the scene.

The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens

Grosset & Dunlap, 1904. 1905 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #3637   My grade: A.

Domini Enfilden’s father, an English Lord, has recently died leaving her at 32 single, wealthy, and spiritually shaken by the collapse of her parents’ marriage and their Catholicism.

Domini hopes to find herself in the solitude of the desert, the vast empty space the Arabs call “The Garden of Allah.”

What she finds immediately is an annoying man said to be English, who is barely civil, and seems repelled by religion of every sort.

Aside from Count Anteoni, an Italian who is Arab in all but his failure to adopt Islam, the pair are the only Europeans in Beni-Mora.

The story is riveting.

Domini’s thoughts and mental corrections, her mood swings, her snobbery and charity all are perfectly believable.

Robert Hichens fascinates readers as he does Domini with the mysterious behavior of the man whose name they eventually learn is Boris Androvsky.

Then Hichens pulls readers into biggest mystery of all: the mystery of God’s love and forgiveness.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Orphan Sandy is best left alone

Novels about orphans who won fame, fortune, and family were a staple of popular literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Alice Hegan Rice’s Sandy is an example of the deserving orphan novel at its worst.
Sandy waves his jacket in salute to his new homeland, America.

Sandy by Alice Hegan Rice

New York: The Century Co., 1905. Project Gutenberg ebook # 14079. 1905 bestseller #2. My grade: C.

The novel opens with Sandy Kilday, age 16, stowing away on a ship bound for America. He’s been on his own since age 14 when he ran away from nasty relatives.

Cover art shows Sandy leaning on a post, looking out on a ship heading to America.On board ship, Sandy sees a pretty girl, meets a minor crook, and decides to be a doctor.

When he gets off the ship, Sandy gives up plans of medicine and goes off with the crook who is going to Kentucky where the pretty girl lives.

After exciting adventures, such as losing his kitten, Sandy is taken in by Judge and Mrs. Hollis in Clayton, Kentucky, which is where the pretty girl lives.

Sandy has more exciting adventures, such as having to sit out most of a dance with a girl he doesn’t like, before he can prove his heroism.

By the time the novel ends, Sandy is a married lawyer with the maturity of a 10-year-old.

Rice’s novel reads like a collaborative project by an elementary school writers’ group.

Adult readers should seek entertainment elsewhere.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni