My picks of 1922 bestsellers

The bestseller list of 1922 has everything from comedy to social criticism. Neither category, however, is on my personal list of favorites for the year.

My favorites are the two novels by A. S. M. Hutchinson, If Winter Comes and This Freedom, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Head of the House of Coombe. All three explore facets of the human psyche in very different ways.

This Freedom is the better of the two Hutchinson novels. Hutchinson makes the characters feel real, their choices seem grounded in reality. The exploration of whether women can “have it all” is still timely, as are questions about how to run a two-paycheck household.

That said, I admit I prefer If Winter Comes. With his ability to see other people’s perspectives, his humor, his dedication to doing right the lead character is so un-heroic that I can’t help rooting for him. I’m quite willing to ignore the too-contrived ending as long as it ends well for Mark.

My third choice is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Head of the House of Coombe which takes readers behind the lace curtains to find the upper crust are as bad as the tabloids make them appear. The victim is a poor, fatherless child; to learn who the villain is, you have to read the novel.

Any of these novels will provide good entertainment. Each is available as a free e-book at Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg

Helen Has Little Romance, Lots of Gab in Old House

Helen Ward is young, unmarried, and at loose ends. The end of World War I left her with no meaningful occupation because,  as the daughter of a millhand who became rich from his patent on a process that revolutionized the mill operation, she can’t work for money.

Helen’s brother, John, runs the mill with too much respect for workers to suit his deranged father or Helen. She’s both pleased and miffed by her childhood sweetheart, John’s best friend, “knows his place” and makes no social overatures.

Adam Ward hopes his daughter will marry Jim McIver, another mill owner, and show John how workers ought to be treated.

As readers of romances know, Harold Bell Wright won’t let that  marriage happen.

However, this set-up for romantic froth about whether Helen will find happiness is overshadowed by more exciting questions:

Can communist Jake Vodell incite a strike at the mill?

If the mill workers stage a sympathy strike, will Adam Ward blow up his mill as he’s threatened?

Why does Adam have such contempt for his one-time friend Pete Martin?

The central character of  Helen of the Old House turns out to be The Interpreter, a larger-than-life character who  lost the use of his legs in a mill accident and now supports himself by making baskets.

The Interpreter’s dispassionate advice is as much sought now as his translation skills had been when he worked in the mill. Although confined to a wheel chair, The Interpreter doesn’t miss much that goes on. Sooner or later, all the characters end up at the Interpreter’s hut.

Wright lades the novel with inspirational speeches about the dignity of work and the brotherhood of men that sound like the script for a Pathe news reel.  The story is saved from death by sugar overdose by a couple disreputable characters of such nastiness they’ll leave you gasping for breath.

Helen of the Old House
Harold Bell Wright
Published 1921
1922 Bestseller # 10
Project Gutenberg ebook #9410
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Babbitt Sales Contradict Satire

Craftsman-style home, 1917
Craftsman-style homes like this were popular in George Babbitt’s day.

George F. Babbitt, 46 has vague yearning for something other than being making money, but he’s not sure what it is. In college, he had dreams of being a lawyer and doing battle for truth and justice. He settled for “selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”

He is bored with his wife and baffled by his children. Immersed in business deals, civic clubs and community boosterism, he usually manages to insulate himself from feeling or thinking.

When his pal Paul Riesling shoots his wife and lands in jail, Babbitt falls apart. Paul was Babbitt’s only link to his youthful ideals. Babbitt takes a mistress, drinks too much, offends his fellow businessmen.

His wife’s need for emergency surgery brings Babbitt back to himself.

Sinclair Lewis skewers Babbitt’s materialism, his ignorance, his self-delusion. Sadly, every character in the novel is the mental and moral equivalent of Babbitt. Babbitt’s son may wish to do great things, but nothing in the novel suggests anyone ever lives up to their ideals.

Lewis is funny in small doses but after by the half-way point his satire becomes depressing. If America in 1920 had been as bad as Lewis suggests nobody would have purchased this novel, let alone made it a best seller.

by Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1922
401 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #1156
1922 Bestseller #10 (shared honor)
My grade B-

Photo: Where my favorite dog lives by Linda Aragoni

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

To the Last Man‘s Frantic Pace Blurs History

Rams feeding Zane Grey based his 1922 bestseller To the Last Man, on the “Pleasant Valley War,” a notorious feud in the Tonto Basin of Arizona.

Grey whips through the narrative scarcely giving readers time to turn the pages, which is probably just as well. Neither plot nor characterization can withstand much analysis.

Jean Isbel’s father summons him from Oregon to Pleasant Valley to champion the cattlemen’s rights against the sheepherders who are trying to force them out. Jean is on his way to the ranch when he falls in love at his first sight of Ellen Jorth. When she learns he’s son to her father’s worst enemy, Ellen hardens her heart against Jean.

Although the outline of the story is a predictable, romantic Western plot, the novel reveals as many explanations for the feud as there were participants. Some novelists could make such ambiguity seem natural, but here it feels like poor plot development.

Grey doesn’t do any better with his character development. He changes Ellen in a matter of months from a morose, self-absorbed teenager into a perceptive, rational woman. Maybe love could do that, but I find it unlikely.

To the Last Man will keep you turning pages, but it won’t create any lasting impression. I was reading the final chapter when I realized I’d read the novel before: It’s that forgettable.

To the Last Man
Zane Grey
Project Gutenberg ebook #2070
1922 Bestseller #9
My grade: B-

Photo credit: “Animal” by Darryl J Smith,Freelance Photographer, Ardlethan, NSW, Australia

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Maria Chapdelaine, Teenage Pioneer

Maria Chapdelaine  opens in late winter, just ahead of the ice breakup in the river. With spring, Maria will awaken to love.

Instead of a gushy tale of teenage lovers, however, novelist Louis Hemon delivers something harder, more mature, and more incredible.

Old Quebec Coat of Arms
Old Quebec Coat of Arms

Maria’s good looks are enough to attract suitors willing to cross a river and trudge through a road-less forest to the compound where Samuel Chapdelaine’s pioneering family “make land” with axe and saw. Maria’s choice is Francois, a handsome woodsman and Indian trader.

When Francois is lost in a blizzard, Maria is numb with grief. What shall she do for the rest of her life?

She could marry Lorenzo Surprenant and go to live in Boston.

Or she could marry Eutrobe Gagnon and live on a half-cleared farm doing pretty much what she does on her father’s half-cleared farm. If she marries Eutrobe she might, like her mother, have a few words of praise from her husband after she’s dead.

The characters of this novel are the sort of folks you’d want as your neighbors if you were in any sort of trouble, but they aren’t probably folks you’d invite to a party. Simultaneously insignificant and magnificent, their idea of the good life is a game of cards with friends while a smudge pot keeps the mosquitoes at bay.

What Maria decides to do with her life, Hemon implies, is what any of the Quebec pioneers would do. They are “people of a race that knows not how to perish.” Duty and responsibility tied to a sense of community and of their roots gives them the courage to do what needs to be done.

Maria Chapdelaine: A Tale of the Lake St. John Country
Louis Hemon
Trans. W. H. Blake
Illus. Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté
New York 1921
1922 Bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook #4383

Photo Credit: Old coat of arms of Quebec (from the [[Wilfrid Laurier]] monument, Montreal) – personal snapshot by Montrealais. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

This Freedom Examines Wife as CEO of Home

In This Freedom, A.S.M. Hutchinson tells the story of the marriage of two people who never fall out of love, but fall out of harmony.

bank signFrom her high chair, Rosalie Aubyn found the world of men exciting, the world of women dull. She decides to become part of men’s world as a banker — a striking choice in the early 1900s when women in offices were a rarity.

Intent on a celibate life, Rosalie suddenly finds herself passionately in love and as suddenly married to Harry Occleve, a rising lawyer.

Rosalie views running a home like running her business: As CEO she plans, hires, and delegates housekeepers, cooks, nannies, and governesses.

Although Harry is proud of his wife’s career accomplishments, he feels she needs to be more of a mother and homemaker. He sees their children are remote, undemonstrative, and unloving.

Hutchinson’s character portraits mingle precision with nuance. He relates the tale in a way that makes readers understand why each of the main characters feels and acts as he or she does.

The novel’s themes are timeless, but in the last 50 years they have ceased to be topics of real public discussion. Rereading This Freedom might be a useful way to reignite debate once more about the “proper role of women,” that loaded phrase implying a broad range of behavior with significant implications for society.

This Freedom
A. S. M. [Arthur Stuart-Mentet] Hutchinson
1922 Bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg ebook #6415
My grade: B+
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Breaking Point Is Vintage Gem

Mary Roberts Rinehart House

In The Breaking Point, Mary Roberts Rinehart skillfully weaves mystery and romance into a page-turner peopled with characters that feel like old friends by the novels’ end.

The mystery concerns Dr. Dick Livingstone, the nephew whom Dr. David Livingstone and his sister Lucy are grooming to take over his uncle’s practice.

Dick came east from Wyoming, went to medical school, and served in WWI. Recently he discovered Elizabeth Wheeler and is thinking of marriage. He has little memory of his life in Wyoming except for being tended by David during a long illness.

A rumor has reached town that the Wyoming Livingstone never married. Dick thinks he ought to make sure there’s nothing in his past to prevent him from marrying Elizabeth.

Dick takes Elizabeth to the theater to see Beverly Carlysle, an actress once involved with the profligate son of a multimillionaire rancher implicated in the murder of the actress’s husband. Carlysle’s manager-brother thinks Dick is Judson Clark whom authorities believed died in a Wyoming blizzard. A reporter realizes if the man is Jud, he has the scoop of a lifetime.

Dick heads west.

The reporter heads west.

Elizabeth waits anxiously at home.

Though mysteries are usually stronger on plot than characterization, Rinehart manages her far-flung cast so they not only appear on cue but also age and mature chapter by chapter. The characters are enveloped in the small town atmosphere that wafts from each chapter, making Rinehart’s sweet-tart ending feel entirely natural.

The Breaking Point
Mary Roberts Rinehart
1922 Bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg ebook #1601

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons photo of Mary Roberts Rinehart House in  Pittsburgh’s Allegheny West Historic District where she lived  with her family from 1907 to 1912 .

©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

House of Coombe Pits Deserving Orphan Against Her Mother

In The Head of the House of Coombe, Frances Hodgson Burnett gives an unexpected twist to much-used tale of deserving orphan who triumphs over adversity.

Robin Gareth-Lawless might as well be an orphan. Her all-too-alive widowed mother has no interest in Robin at all until she realizes the child is beautiful enough to become her rival for men’s affections.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

“Feather” Gareth-Lawless is a mental and moral featherweight. Suddenly widowed, she agrees to be kept by Lord Coombe, a man of intelligence, impeccable tailoring, and disinclination toward marriage.

Robin is left in the care of a nurse, rarely sees “The Lady Downstairs,” and does not even know the meaning of the term mother.

At 6, Robin meets a Scots lad of 8 who is drawn to the beautiful, lonely girl. When Donal’s mother learns his young friend is the daughter of the woman Coombe keeps, she rushes her son home to Scotland. Momma thinks it’s bad enough Donal is in line to become Coombe’s heir; she draws the line at fraternizing with the bastard of his mistress.

Later, Robin overhears servant gossip that suggests Coombe deprived her of Donal and begins to hate her mother’s benefactor. Coombe, however, continues to act with Robin’s best interests in view.

Burnett tantalizes readers with speculations about why Coombe cares for the child, his relationship to Feather, and the depravity to which he stoops on his frequent “Friday to Monday” trips to the continent.

If Coombe is a mystery, Feather is not. Her particular brand of brainless nastiness makes Becky Sharp look saintly.

This is one romance that even those who hate the genre can love.

The Head of the House of Coombe
Frances Hodgson Burnett
1922 Bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg ebook #6491

Editor’s note: This review was scheduled to run July 25, but I failed to hit the right buttons. I apologize for the delay.

Photo Credit: Photo of Frances Hodgson Burnett from Stories by American Authors published by Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1900, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Simon Called Peter: WWI Doxies and Orthodoxies

Robert Keable’s Simon Called Peter is a World War I era staging of the Gospel story of how Simon was redeemed and refitted for God’s work after denying Christ three times.

Peter Graham is a young clergyman with a promising future in the Anglican church. When England declares war on Germany, Peter insists on going to France as a chaplain, where he has a cushy berth behind the lines.

Peter finds the platitudes that sounded good in England are meaningless to both soldiers and civilians behind the lines in France.

Depressed, and desperate, Peter writes his fiancée, “I am going to eat and drink with publicans and sinners; maybe I shall find my Master still there.”

She breaks the engagement.

Peter’s depression is relieved by Julie Gamelyn, a vivacious nurse from Africa, with whom he falls in love.

Julie wants to find her passion in sexual union; Peter wants to find his in spiritual union.  Julie tells Peter, “There’s only one real rule left in life for most of us, Peter, and that’s this: ‘Be a good pal, and don’t worry.’ ”

That’s not enough for Peter, yet he’s ready to ditch his orthodoxy for an ordinary doxy.

Keable makes it appear Peter does nothing during the war but smoke, drink, and think about why he’s such a failure as a clergyman. The plot is so absurd and Keable’s characters so stereotyped that it’s hard to see to take Peter’s quest for true faith seriously.

Like others of the era,  Keable’s novel skewers “contented backboneless religion,” which it assumes but never shows.

Keable offers the love of God as an alternative to religion. I’m not sure that’s any less platitudinous than the lines Peter rejected.

Simon Called Peter
Robert Keable
1922 Bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg ebook # 14579
My grade: C+
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni