My Favorites of 1914 Novels: No Stars But Some Twinkles

Perhaps the unsettled state of Europe in 1914 is to blame for the less-than-stellar list of bestsellers that year.

Of the lot, Penrod by Booth Tarkington is the most humorous, T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett the most uplifting, and Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter the most familiar.

None of the “mosts,” however, is much more than entertainment.

My choices for three 1914 bestsellers that combine entertainment with insight are The Devil’s Garden by W. B. Maxwell, The Salamander by Owen Johnson, and The Fortunate Youth by William John Locke. Each of these combines an original plot with at least a modicum of reflection on its significance.

The Devil’s Garden looks at a proud man whose respectability covers a violent temper.  Some rather nasty things happen in the novel, but Maxwell suggests redemption may be possible.

The Salamander is a psychological study of a liberated woman who represents the fast, post-Victorian young people whose easy morals and craving for fun appalled their parents. The book is interesting as a picture of young women, who like their brothers, left farms for the excitement of the city. It’s also intriguing because Johnson apparently intended to paint his main character as thoroughly bad, but the novel closes with her headed out of the city to a conventional life as wife and mother.

The Fortunate Youth is a novel about a young man who thinks he’s a prince and discovers he’s only a toad. Because of all the time he spent practicing princely behavior, he’s able to rise above toad-level.  It’s not a great novel, but it’s enough out of the mainstream to be memorable.

That wraps up 1914.

I’ll post the list of 1904 bestsellers on Saturday and begin their reviews next week.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Prince of Graustark Lacks Predecessor’s Thrills

Old, tall stone castle on mountain above Slovakian forest

George Barr McCutcheon’s first Graustark novel was a thriller with a bit of romance between between the action scenes. The Prince of Graustark hasn’t enough of either thrills or romance to be interesting.

Graustark wants Prince Robin to marry the daughter of the King of Dawsbergen. The young people have never met and refuse to consider marrying for reasons of political expediency. Their subjects blame the rebelliousness on the fact that each royal heir had one American parent.

Meanwhile, American multi-millionare William W. Blithers has decided nothing but marriage to royalty is good enough for his daughter. Rather than be humiliated by her father’s ham-fisted schemes to buy her a crown, Maud takes ship for Europe.

It just so happens Prince Robin also boards a ship bound for Europe on which he meets the girl of his dreams.

McCutcheon’s wisecracks about Mr. Blithers’ are funny, but they are confined primarily to the American episodes. Blithers’ deflation when he gets to the Graustark palace and sees what his money cannot buy rings too true to be laughed it.

The love-lorn Prince appears too dense to lead a cocker spaniel, let alone a country.

And the outcome is far too predictable for the romance to be entertaining.

The Prince of Graustark
By George Barr McCutcheon
Illustrated by A. I. Keller
Project Gutenberg EBook #6353
1914 bestseller #10

Photo credit: Slovakia by retrowiec

@ 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Ordinary people, tempting plot tangles in The Devil’s Garden

Postoffice add general store in Boxhill, Surrey, England
Will Dale’s post office probably looked much like this one in Boxhill, Surrey, England in 2003.

The Devil’s Garden opens with postmaster Will Dale receiving notice that he’s been suspended for a trivial incident that the local MP used as an example of the officiousness of civil servants.

Will’s wife, Mavis, and Will’s temporary replacement, Mr. Ridgett, suspect Will won’t present himself well at his suspension hearing.

Will thinks Mavis frets unnecessarily, and he suspects Ridgett of interest in Mavis.

Mavis, however, is right to fret.

Will is book cover, with "The Devils' Garden By W. B. Maxwell" in gold letters

If it were not for the intercession of Mr. Barradine, an ex-Cabinet Minister in whose house Mavis worked when Will met her, Will would have lost his job.

Before Will can resume his duties, Mr. Barradine is dead and the Dales are occupying separate bedrooms.

The narrative pushes forward relentlessly. Readers can guess at what happened, but have to wait for Will to tell how it happened and why he did what he did.

W. B. Maxwell’s characters are finely delineated and realistically colored. Will and Mavis feel like people you’ve met at one time or another.

Will is a loving husband, helpful neighbor, hard-working employee. His joining the chapel contains a believable mix of business acumen, faith, and doubt that makes the typical religious novel feel hokey.

The Devil playeth in a man’s mind like a
wanton child in a garden, bringing his filth
to choke each open path, uprooting the
tender plants, and trampling the buds that
should have blown for the Master.

The Devil’s Garden
by W[illiam]  B[abington] Maxwell
Project Gutenberg ebook #14605
1914 bestseller #9
My grade: B+

Photo credit: Postoffice By PeterD

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Diane of the Green Van Defies Description

I could not put Diane of the Green Van down.

It is the most bizarre novel I have ever read.

Leona Dalrymple must have pulled a paragraph out of every novel in a very large library to come up with the story.

I even cannot begin to summarize the plot. Let me just say the romance involves:

  • secret messages hidden in candlesticks,
  • murder attempts by night,
  • a mechanical music contraption,
  • a hay wagon,
  • a masked ball,
  • two run-away European princes,
  • an American flyer,
  • an alcoholic drug-user who invents an electrified chess set to torture people,
  • a Connecticut lass who may possibly  be the legitimate (or illegitimate daughter) of a prince, or an artist, or the man she called her father,
  • an Indian lass who may possibly be the legitimate (or illegitimate) daughter of a Indian, or an artist, or a European prince,
  • a doctor who does psychotherapy and holistic healing among the Seminole Indians in the Florida Everglades, and
  • an overweight aunt of the Connecticut lass and the alcoholic drug user who holds the secret to all the mysteries but is constitutionally incapable of uttering a coherent sentence.

There are also two dogs and lots of roasted potatoes.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Diane of the Green Van
by Leona Dalrymple
Illustrations by Reginald Birch
Project Gutenberg ebook #16101
1914 bestseller # 8
My grade: C-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Penrod Still Is Good for Laughs

Cover of 1914 edition of Penrod features an ink drawing of Penrod readingBefore the Great War, before iPods and video games, boys invented their own fun.

Penrod Schofield, age 11, is nothing if not inventive.

Silent films give him outlines of stories. Penrod’s imagination transforms them into stunning productions in which he plays the lead.

Booth Tarkington is justly famous for his word portraits of adolescents from a bygone era. His tongue-in-cheek comments and Gordon Grant’s sketches for Penrod are sure to tickle your funny bone.

In his imagination, Penrod is strong, brave, and powerful.

In his home, he’s a trial.

In his neighborhood he’s “the worst boy in town.”

Penrod’s family tries hard to control his behavior, but their idea of appropriate behavior for boys —Sunday School, attending dance classes — doesn’t appeal to Penrod. He’d rather spend his time with “Herman and Verman,” the neighbor kids whose father is in jail.

The worst insult that anyone can give Penrod is to call him “a little gentleman.” Anyone who attempts such vile language is apt to be tarred.

Fortunately, few people have reason to offer that particular insult.

The only person who actually understands Penrod is his ancient Aunt Sarah. She says boys are just like people, only “not quite so awful, because they haven’t learned to cover themselves all over with little pretenses.”

By Booth Tarkington
Illustrated by Gordon Grant
Grosset & Dunlap
306 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #402
1914 bestseller # 7
My Grade: C+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Fortunate Youth Makes Fortunate Readers

Close up photo of toad
Yes, my parents were a prince and princess.

The Fortunate Youth is far from a literary masterpiece, but William J. Locke knows how to spin a yarn so ideas worth pondering stick to it.

As the story opens, 11-year-old Paul Kegworthy  is living in a dirty industrial town with parents who are, in Locke’s tongue-in-cheek phrase, “not a model couple.”

A beautiful visitor to town says she’s sure Paul’s parents were a prince and princess. Paul thinks so, too. He itches to find his noble family.

A peddler gives Paul both a lift toward London, good food and good reading material.

Until he’s 23, Paul gets along on his good looks, first as an artist’s model in London, then as an actor in a rural touring company.

Every job that comes his way, Paul turns into an opportunity to develop noble behavior.

Paul has been selected a candidate for the House of Commons and as potential husband by the wealthy and lovely Princess Zobraska, when he discovers who is parents really are.

Needless to say, they weren’t of royal blood.

The candidate-suitor is revealed to be an imposter.

What can Paul do?

Locke keeps the story zipping along, slowing occasionally to let readers consider larger issues of determination, faith, and providence but never slipping into sermonizing.

The Fortunate Youth
By William J. Locke
Project Gutenberg EBook #4379
1914 bestseller #5
My grade: B

Photo credit: Toad by thegnome54

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Whiff of Danger Makes The Salamander Fascinating

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Like many novels before the Great War, The Salamander attempts to explain social changes that terrified people who had grown to adulthood during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Author Owen Johnson focuses on one of the young women — Salamanders — who, like their brothers, were leaving small towns for the easy money and fun of New York City.

For the most part, Salamanders don’t work. They live by their wits and their looks.

One Salamander, Doré Baxter, called Dodo by her city friends, is bright, impulsive, ambitious, and highly principled in a scatterbrained way.

Dodo has dozens of men who dote on her, buy her meals, give her flowers or wine she can sell, but she doesn’t take money or expensive gifts: She is not that kind of girl.

Dodo plays one man against the other until she accidentally sets up a rivalry among powerful men that threatens to tear her like a kitten in among wolves.

The plot skeleton is familiar, as are some of the scenes, but Johnson’s jerky, cinema verity story-telling makes Dodo appealing even to those who find her life appalling.

I found myself holding my breath for fear of what I knew could happen to Dodo that she believed happened only to other people.

Tip: Read the novel before reading the foreword.

The Salamander
By Owen Johnson
Illustrated by Everett Shinn
Project Gutenberg EBook #36355
1914 bestseller #4
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Eyes of the World Is More Sermon than Story

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In The Eyes of the World, Harold Bell Wright delivers a fire and brimstone denunciation of American culture on the eve of World War I.

Aaron King, a young painter whose dying mother sacrificed to finance his education and repay money his father embezzled, promises to be a success for her sake.

In hopes of lucrative commissions, Aaron goes West to a playground of American’s cultural elite. There he meets Conrad Lagrange. From her letters, Aaron knows his mother once had high respect for Lagrange’s writing.

At the time Aaron meets him, Lagrange has no respect for himself: He writes for money.

The plot and characters of Eyes will be familiar to every novel reader.  With Lagrange’s help, Aaron learns what true artistic success is. He meets good folk free untainted by city life. And, of course, he finds true love, as reward for his virtue.

Wright’s use of setting as a metaphor for morality will ring a bell with anyone who has read Zane Grey or Gene Stratton-Porter.

The only element that makes Eyes interesting is Wright’s harangue against artists who measure success in dollar bills.

That one who, for a price, presents a picture or a story without regard for the influence of his production upon the characters of those who receive it, commits a crime for which human law provides no adequate punishment.

Wright is so passionate in his denunciation that readers may wonder if perhaps Wright, the ex-clergyman, were preaching to himself.

The Eyes of the World
By Harold Bell Wright
Illustrations from oil paintings by F. Graham Cootes
Project Gutenberg EBook #11715
1914 bestseller #1
My grade: C+

Seven 1914 bestsellers to be reviewed in next four weeks

Readers of this blog will probably recognize a few of the titles and authors appearing on the 1914 bestseller list.

Orphans Pollyanna and T. Tembarom are back for a second appearance on the bestseller list.

George B. McCutcheon returns with another Graustark novel.

And authors Harold Bell Wright, Winston Churchill and Booth Tarkington who made the bestseller lists repeatedly in the early twentieth century are back to entertain readers.

Project Gutenberg

Below is the list of 1914 bestsellers on my review list, with the date of planned review in square brackets. Links will take you to a digital version of the novel  if one is available or, if I’ve previously reviewed it, to my review which includes a link to an e-book version.

  1. The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright [Aug. 19]
  2. Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
  3. The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill
  4. The Salamander by Owen Johnson [Aug. 23]
  5. The Fortunate Youth by William J. Locke [Aug. 26]
  6. T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  7. Penrod by Booth Tarkington [Aug. 30]
  8. Diane of the Green Van  by Leona Dalrymple [Sept. 2]
  9. The Devil’s Garden by W. B. Maxwell [Sept. 6]
  10. The Prince of Graustark by George B. McCutcheon   [Sept. 9]

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni