To say bestsellers of 1913 haven’t held up well is an understatement.
Of the 10 novels that topped the sales charts in 1913, only Pollyanna is a title that will ring a bell with most modern readers. It’s fame is probably due more to the 1960 movie version starring Hayley Mills than to Porter’s novel. In most of the other bestsellers of 1913, the message gets in the way of the story.
Forced to choose my favorites of the 1913 bestselling novels, I’d pick two novels by women authors known for juvenile fiction: Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter, and T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Both of my picks are eponymous novels about orphans . (Orphans were as common in America up to World War I as children from single-parent homes are today.) Neither novel is realistic, though T. Tembarom is marginally superior to Pollyanna on that count.
Both orphans have cheerful dispositions and a willingness to make the best of whatever comes their way.
And, since I’m a sucker for cheerful kids, I’ll choose these two as the best of a bad crop of bestselling novels.
Which of the 1913 bestsellers are your favorites? Select up to three choices in the poll. If you’d like to say what you like about those novels, use the comments section to talk as much as you want about your favorites.
Orphaned at 10, T. Tembarom goes to work selling newspapers. Cheerful and practical, the lad makes do with whatever comes his way, even discarding his name for a less embarrassing one.
Through hard work and good sense, Tembarom eventually gets a foot in the newsroom door. He hopes to become a news reporter.
While pounding the pavement, Tembarom finds a man with a wad of money but no idea who he is. Tembarom gives his amnesiac friend, whom he calls Mr. Strangeways, his own boarding house bed.
When Tembarom inherits an English estate, the Brooklyn girl whom Tembarom hoped to marry refuses to even to write him until he’s lived a year under his legal name in his new role in England. From England herself, the Brooklyn realist knows she wouldn’t be socially acceptable as Mrs. Temple Temple Barholm.
The Brits are embarrassed by Tembarom’s Yankee slang and off-the-rack clothes. Gradually, however, his kindness and ability to see things from the other person’s viewpoint win them over. He even wins the friendship of the marriageable daughters whom he has no interest in marrying.
Frances Hodgson Burnett does such a good job of foreshadowing the surprise ending that it’s no surprise. It is, however, a pleasure. Burnett’s characters are so engagingly quirky that the lack of substance in this offbeat, rags-to-riches novel don’t matter.
The Valiants of Virginia hooked me with its first paragraph:
Failed!” ejaculated John Valiant blankly, and the hat he held dropped to the claret-colored rug like a huge white splotch of sudden fright. “The Corporation—failed!”
Indeed, the company started by John’s father has failed.
John uses his private fortune to rectify what he can. He’s broke when he receives a twenty-fifth birthday gift of property in Virginia bequeathed to him by his father before his death 19 years before.
With no family and nowhere else to go, John heads south.
Damory Court has been vacant for 30 years since John’s father shot a man named Sassoon there, then lit out for New York. Locals believe there was a duel over a woman whose name was never revealed.
John falls in love with having a home and with a red-haired neighbor with whom he’d like to share it.
After providing an illustrated history of Proper Southern Behavior, novelist Hallie Erminie Rives brings about a happily-ever-after ending.
Instead of showing how John matures after that “white splotch of sudden fright,” Rives merely drops a synopsis of it on her way to the romantic stuff. Aside from one very funny scene in which local children play Sunday School, the rest of the novel i sn’t nearly as good as it opening paragraph.
The major characters, plot, and setting are so familiar they might have been ordered from a Sears Roebuck catalog.
I suggest you download the Valiants of Virginia to read when you’re home with a really bad cold. The novel is improved by the distraction of blowing one’s nose.
The Valiants of Virginia
by Hallie Erminie Rives (Mrs. Post Wheeler)
A. L. Burt, 1912
Illus by André Castaigne
1913 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg E-Book #33963
Orphaned at 11, Pollyanna Whittier comes to stay with her spinster aunt in Vermont. Aunt Polly never approved of her sister’s marriage to a penniless preacher, but she feels it is her duty to give her niece a home.
Friendly and outgoing, Pollyanna was taught by her father to look for something to be glad about in every bad situation. Before long, she’s taught dozens of people in Beldingsville to “play the glad game.”
Pollyanna assumes her aunt is kind and generous, leaving Aunt Polly little choice but to live up to her expectations.
Aunt Polly lets Pollyanna bring home a stray kitten and stray mutt, but draws the line at adopting orphan Jimmy Bean.
When bachelor John Pendleton wants to adopt her, Pollyanna gets the idea he was once Aunt Polly’s suitor. She’s wrong. Pendleton was in love with Pollyanna’s mother.
Aunt Polly’s suitor was Dr. Thomas Chilton. When Pollyanna is struck by a car, need you guess what doctor comes to the rescue?
Of course, the plot and characters are totally implausible, but Pollyanna herself is totally engaging.
And the cliché that you can be happy by looking for happiness has enough truth in it to make Pollyanna worth rereading.
Hall Craine’s The Woman Thou Gavest Me is a novel that will keep you turning pages and leave you wondering why you bothered.
The only offspring of an unhappy marriage, Mary O’Neill gets shunted off to convent school in Rome at age 8. At 18, Mary is about to declare her wish to become a nun when her father appears to bring her back to Ireland to wed the profligate Englishman who inherited the family estate and title.
Mary’s obediently marries, but voices her objection to being touched by her husband so loudly that he agrees to a marriage in name only until she falls in love with him.
Unable to get an annulment or a divorce, Mary does the next worst thing: She spends one night with her childhood sweetheart, Dr. Martin Conrad, the intrepid explorer who leaves the next day for Antarctica.
Martin returns in the nick of time to save Mary from becoming a prostitute to buy medicine for their sick baby.
Despite improbable characters in implausible situations, Craine presents a cogent explanation of the Catholic position on marriage and divorce, showing through Mary’s experience where it pinches and why. You need not agree with the position or how Mary comes to terms with it, but you’ll at least understand it.
Perhaps that’s reason enough to keep turning pages.
The Amateur Gentleman follows the adventures of Barnabas Barty, son of a champion prizefighter. Thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Barnabas has cash to “learn to be a gentleman.”
The Amateur Gentleman reads like a first novel, packed with episodes and characterizations drawn on the author’s reading in Dickens, Fielding, and Trollope. Had he been writing today, Jeffrey Farnol would have put in zombies and a werewolf.
The windfall in the opening chapter sets the direction Farnol takes in the remainder of the novel. Something unexpected happens in each chapter, and each unexpected occurrence is less plausible than the one before.
Barnabas is as implausible as the plot in which he’s tangled. Even before he begins his lessons in genteel deportment, Barnabas can tame a wild horse and charm an elderly duchess with equal ease.
Barnabas has all the manly virtues and roughly a quarter of the manly brain. His virtue is apparent to everyone except his enemies and the lovely heiress he wants to marry, all of whom are his intellectual equals.
Farro’s whimsical chapter titles are the only hint of the delightful light entertainment he went on to produce once he got his reading out of his system.
John Fox Jr.’s Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come was on the 1903 and 1904 bestseller list. His The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was on the lists in 1908 and 1909. By 1913, readers were ready for a new novel by the popular author.
Fox obliged with The Heart of the Hills.
The story concerns two pairs of cousins, one pair bred from the the feuding Hawns and Honeycutts of the Cumberland Mountains, the other carrying the more genteel bloodline of the Blue Grass. Fox repeatedly drags the cousins up the mountains and back down so they and readers can see the vast difference between the two cultures.
That’s about all readers see.
The characters are rudely drawn, the plot so disjointed it reads like Fox dropped the manuscript and failed to get the pages back in the right order before publication.
The story is padded out with long passages about Kentucky politics, the importance of education for the development of the frontier, and the disastrous impact tobacco had on the state’s environment and economy.
The Judgment House is a complex novel about the marriage of a beautiful woman thwarted in love who settles for power.
Jasmine Grenfel loves the poor but ambitious diplomat Ian Stafford, but marries the unpolished Rudyard Byng and the three million pounds he’s made in South Africa.
Jasmine’s intelligence and social skills make their English home a center of political and financial power. Unfortunately, Jasmine is too self-centered to hear when her husband tells her he finds their London life meaningless.
Meanwhile, Byng’s financial and political interests are threatened by a traitor who is passing information to Paul Krueger, Byng’s and England’s arch enemy in South Africa. Byng refuses to think his native servant could be the traitor.
The second Boer War erupts as their Byng’s marriage teeters on the brink of collapse. Byng and Ian go off to fight for British interests in South Africa.
Jasmine takes advantage of the war to discretely leave her husband under the guise of running a hospital ship for the wounded soldiers.
In The Judgment House, Sir Gilbert Parker wrote a female lead as complex as Fleur Forsyte, a male lead as exciting as Rhett Butler, and a superb supporting cast, yet not one of the characters comes to life.
Gilbert pulls all the threads together with a too-neat, too romantic ending for a story that begs for mature realism. Sadly, Gilbert just doesn’t have the dialog-writing skill to make The Judgment House story real.
Laddie is the pride and joy of the Stanton family and hero to his youngest sister, who tells his story.
When Laddie asks Little Sister to deliver a letter to a Princess in the big wood, she discovers Laddie has fallen for a English lovely girl just moved to the neighborhood. Little Sister approves of the courtship, although her mother doesn’t.
Pamela Pryor’s family got off to a bad start with their God-fearing neighbors in the 1900s mid-west farming community. They think the English newcomers are heathen.
With Little Sister’s help, Laddie’s romance prospers and the Pryor family brought into the good graces of the community.
The plot is hackneyed and the main characters straight off the shelf, but the minor characters and minor incidents are jewels.
Although Gene Stratton-Porter imbues Little Sister with a child’s literal mind, no one would ever think the writing was by an elementary school child.
Nor is the story written for children. Stratton-Porter is talking to adults about how to live out Biblical principles in everything from showing hospitality to environmentally friendly farming practices.
Part romance, part morality play, Laddie escapes being saccharine because Little Sister and her older brother Leon are funny kids.