My Personal Favorites from 1923

The 1923 bestseller list doesn’t include any great books, but it includes a trio that I’d like in my personal hardback collection:  a light, but thoughtful romance and two very different thrillers.

The Enchanted April enchanted me

My favorite 1923 bestselling novel is The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim. It’s a sunny novel, full of descriptions that made me laugh out loud before reading  the lines aloud to savor their sounds.

Beyond that, though, the novel is wise and reflective. The four female leads discover their unhappiness is due more to their attitudes than to their circumstances.

A little vacation away from home, housework, husbands, and London’s rain, give them enough physical and mental rest that they can see their lives are really pretty good.

Running through the novel is the suggestion that life is to be enjoyed as it happens. Living in the past, as Mrs. Fisher is inclined to do, or loathing the present in anticipation of happiness in heaven as Rose does, are as unsatisfactory as Lottie’s and Lady Caroline’s teeth-gritting through every day.

If The Enchanted April sounds too feminine for you, my two other top picks from 1923 may be more appealing.

Wanderer of the Wasteland left me gasping

Zane Grey’s The Wanderer of the Wasteland pits man against Mother Nature and against his human nature. The plot is not a typical western either. Grey has some surprises that show real mastery of his craft.

The wasteland of the novel is Death Valley. It looks inhospitable when seen from the highway. Zane Grey takes readers there on foot, to experience a climate that’s not just hot, but poisonous. Grey’s descriptions left me gasping.

The Sea Hawk had unusual 16th century view

My third choice from the  1923 bestseller list is another thriller about hunk with a cranium: The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini. The Sea Hawk is an action thriller; it’s easily to imagine Errol Flynn playing Sir Oliver in a film version of the story.

The conflict in The Sea Hawk is man against man: Sir Oliver Tressilian will tackle anyone who stands in his way, whether they be Spanish,  Islamic, or his own half-brother.

Though the novel is very physical, Sabatini gives Sir Oliver brains and a developing moral sense that, along with the context of  state-sponsored piracy in the 16th century,  raise The Sea Hawk above the slash-and-burn level.

That wraps up my reading of the 1923 bestsellers.

Through the first week in September, I’m going to be picking up some novels I missed when they should have been reviewed a couple of years ago.

Share your favorite 1923 bestseller titles

Although 1923 didn’t have any titles that are going to show up on anybody’s list of the top 100 novels of all time, it did produce some works that are still worth reading today for the picture they give of a bygone time or for just plain escape reading.

Click up to three of your favorites from 1923 below. If you’d like to tell why you chose a particular title, use the comment section to share your reasons.

The Sea-Hawk Grabs and Won’t Let Go

Triple-masted pirate ship at sea with mountains in distance
Pirate Ship at Sea

In the first chapter of The Sea-Hawk, Rafael Sabatini whispers the broad outline of his plot just loudly enough that dedicated novel readers will catch it. Tte foreshadowing barely has time to register before Sabatini plunges his 16th century hero into an adventure that shows off his thoughtful, complicated personality as well as his biceps.

The story starts out in traditional romance fashion.

Sir Oliver Tressilian repaired his family’s fortune by preying on the Spanish Armada. Now he wants to marry  but Rosamond’s brother, Peter Godolphin, doesn’t want her to wed a pirate.

Oliver’s half-brother murders Peter Godolphin, then covers the murder by having  Oliver kidnapped and sold as a galley-slave. Oliver’s disappearance looks like an admission of guilt.

When fighters of the Basha of Algiers take the ship, Oliver turns Muslim. His prowess in attacking ships of Christian nations wins him the name Sakr-el-Bahr, Hawk of the Sea.

Learning Lionel is to marry Rosamond, Oliver seeks revenge. He makes a raid on Cornwall to abduct Lionel.

The raid raises questions about Oliver’s loyalty to Islam. The wrong answer would mean death.

The plot sounds rather Errol Flynn-ish, but there’s no hint of central casting in Sabatini’s characters. They react and develop in psychologically plausible ways.

You need not be fan of nautical thrillers, to enjoy The Sea-Hawk. It is worth reading just for its insights into Islamic culture.

The Sea-Hawk
by Rafael Sabatini
1923 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg EBook #3294

Photo credit: Pirate Ship at Sea by KBlack

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Wanderer of the Wasteland a Thoughtful Thriller

Death Valley Zane Grey fans expecting an upright hero fighting bad guys may be disappointed by The Wanderer of the Wasteland. This is a harsh, relentless story about a young man growing prematurely old wandering the American desert in a vain attempt to escape  his guilty past. Readers willing to take the novel on its own terms will be rewarded with astute musings on the meaning of life mingled with heart-stopping action.

Adam Larey worships, his older brother, who hates him. After Guerd steals the girl Adam had slept with the previous night, the brothers quarrel. Adam shoots Guerd in a saloon full of witnesses.

Terrified he will be hung for the murder, Adam runs into the desert.

Days later, a prospecter named Dismukes finds Adam barely alive. Dismukes teaches Adam enough to survive—just—until he learns desert ways. Dismukes predicts Adam will find God in the desert.

Adam wanders in the Death Valley area for 14 years. Grey always treats nature more as a character than just as a setting. In Wanderer, nature is a malevolent force, symbolic of all that’s selfish in human nature contending against God for Adam’s allegiance.

Often, it looks as if Adam won’t last another day. Thirst, starvation, poisoned water, poison gas, and desperadoes work him over.

At 26, when he looks 40, Adam meets a girl he’d like to marry. He has to decide whether to follow his natural instincts or do what he knows is right.

Readers will gasp for breath right along with Adam right down to the last page when they gasp at Grey’s perfectly plausible, but totally unexpected, ending.

The Wanderer of the Wasteland
By Zane Grey
1923 bestseller # 8
A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook

Photo Credit: Death Valley 2 by pr3vje

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Mine with the Iron Door Isn’t Played Out Yet

“Love ain’t no big deposit that a feller is allus hopin’ to find but mostly never does. Love is just a medium high-grade ore that you got to dig for.”

Harold Bell Wright’s The Mine with the Iron Door is an easy-reading western with a faint whiff of ideas clinging to it.

The story ‘s center is Marta Hillgrove and her “fathers,” Bob Hill and Thad Grove. She was a toddler when the prospectors rescued her from people who were clearly not her family. Unable to locate her real family, the men settled in the hills near Tuscon to raise her.

Seventeen years later, a handsome young stranger arrives. Hugh quickly wins Marta’s heart and buckles down to digging for gold enough to marry Marta and get out of the country before he is recaptured and sent back to jail.gp_mineopendoor

A secondary plot about Natachee, an educated Indian with a grudge against whites, temporarily overshadows the romance. Then Marta is abducted; Natachee joins Hugh in getting her back.

The orphaned toddler is a familiar romance plot; Wright himself used it elsewhere.

Marta and Hugh are also standard issue. You’ll have forgotten about them a few hours after you’ve closed the book covers.

The memorable bits of the book are in the minor characters. Natachee in particular is unforgettable in his resentment of the education that renders Indians unfit for either the Indian or the white world.

The Mine with the Iron Door
by Harold Bell Wright
D.Appleton and Company, 1923
339 pages
1923 bestseller # 7

Photo front piece of The Mine with the Iron Door. The illustrator is not identified.

 © 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Dim Lantern Gives a Warm Glow

black piglet The Dim Lantern is old-fashioned romance that, despite a well-worn theme and predictable plot lines, is as cozy as hot tea and scones in a room smelling faintly of lavender.

Jane and Baldwin Barnes live in an unfashionable suburb of Washington, D.C. in mortgaged house inherited from their parents. Baldy is artistic, but works in an office to pay off the mortgage. Jane exercises her creativity by stretching money and having faith that good will ultimately prevail. There’s a nice boy next door, badly traumatized by his experiences in The Great War. Jane is a dim lantern in the blackness of his depression.

On his way to work, Baldy gives a ride and his heart to a young woman who obviously has never had to make her money stretch. Socialite Edith Towne is running away after the humiliation of her bridegroom’s failure to appear at their wedding.

Baldy enlists Jane to speak for Edith to her wealthy bachelor uncle, Frederick Towne. He falls for Jane, luring her with the prospect of how his wealth can provide the medical care her ailing sister desperately needs.

By page 344, Temple Bailey has provided all the answers everyone who has ever read a romance novel expects except one: Where did city-bred Edith acquire her knowledge of black Berkshire pigs?

The Dim Lantern
by Temple Bailey
Grosset  & Dunlap,  1923
344 pages
1923 bestseller #5

Photo credit: Black Pigs 2 by nedbenj

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Enchanted April: Sunny, Witty, Insightful

Wisteria in bloom
The Enchanted April  is a charming novel about four unhappy women, previously unacquainted, who vacation together in Italy for a month and find love.

Elizabeth von Arnim flits from character to character, telling sections of the narrative from different one’s view point. She employs the technique with finesse, making each character a deliciously distinctive individual.

The story begins one rainy day when Lotty Wilkins sees advertisement.

To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.
Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

On impulse, Lotty asks a woman with  whom she knows only by sight at chruch to rent the castle with her and split expenses, leaving their husbands behind. Rose Arbuthnot finds the idea of a vacation irresistible even with someone as decidedly peculiar as Lotty.

Unable to afford the rent, the pair seek two more companions. Their advertisement draws a snobbish elderly widow, Mrs. Fisher, who had known Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, and Lady Caroline Dester, 28, fleeing the host of suitors for her face and fortune.

In Italy, one after another, the women come realize their attitudes, rather than their circumstances, have been the root of their misery back home.

The novel bubbles with mirth at the folly of being disappointed by what one lacks instead of enjoying what one has, even if what one has is a not entirely satisfactory husband.

If you cannot enjoy this novel, perhaps you need a month’s holiday in Italy.

Incidentally, there’s an Academy Award nominated video version of The Enchanted April, which unfortunately omits von Arnim’s  funniest bits, but is otherwise faithful to the story and spirit of the novel.

The Enchanted April
by Elizabeth von Arnim
1923 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook #16389

Photo credit: Wisteria in Bloom 2  by Dubock

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

His Children’s Children Disappointingly Good

Rufus takes an axe to his home's rooftop statue
Rufus takes an axe to his home’s rooftop statue

Arthur Train’s His Children’s Children is too good not to be better.

The novel focuses on the children and grandchildren of Peter “the Pirate” Kayne, an old rip who made his pile in mining and railroads and used it to start his family up the social ladder. By 1921, his son Rufus has achieved social respectability; his granddaughters have achieved social acceptance.

As the novel opens, lawyer Lloyd Maitland is assigned to deal with Rufus’s attempt to get his daughter Claudia and her children away from her philandering husband.

The story quickly veers off to the unwed Kayne sisters, both of whom seem to Lloyd to have no moral values. That doesn’t stop Lloyd being smitten with Diana.

The novel is an indictment of materialism and bad parenting. Train takes care to make his case largely through dialogue, underscoring it with descriptions that impale characters on his pen point.

Train never lets go of his thesis, but he seems to lose the thread of the plot. When the curtain comes down on a contrived ending, situations have changed but people have not.

We have to put up with such reality in life; in a novel, it feels like an insult.

His Children’s Children
by Arthur Train
Illus. By Charles D. Mitchell
1923, Grosset & Dunlap
391 pages
1923 bestseller #2

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nothing about Black Oxen Is Plodding

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The years like Great Black Oxen tread the world
And God the herdsman goads them on behind.
—W. B. Yeats

From it’s title, I expected Black Oxen to be a story of rural life. From its, author, Gertrude Atherton, I expected a fireworks plot that fizzled after a brilliant beginning, as her 1921 Sisters-in-Law did.

I was hopelessly wrong on both counts.

Lee Clavering, a young New York drama critic, is intrigued by an attractive, obviously European woman attending a bad opening night performance.

Clavering’s cousin says the woman must be the illegitimate daughter of Madame Zattiany, née Mary Ogden, a New York socialite with whom he and the city’s most eligible bachelors were in love 30 years before. The lovely socialite married a Hungarian diplomat, from whom she was later estranged, then widowed.

The mystery lady’s lawyer—one of the long-ago suitors of Madame Zattiany—refuses to be pumped by his friends. The mystery makes the lady even more attractive to Clavering.

Alert readers will figure out the mystery long before the besotted Clavering does half way through the book, but nobody could predict what Atherton will do with the story after that.

Black Oxen‘s extraordinary characters behave in totally plausible ways as she explores issues of generational differences, ethics, marriage, international politics, medical research, sexuality, and human motivation.

The well-crafted plot is enhanced by peripheral episodes whose irrelevance to the plot lends a strong sense of reality. And Atherton combines lyric prose with razor-sharp dialogue.

Black Oxen will knock your socks off, stand you on your head, and make you wonder what hit you.

Black Oxen
by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
A. L. Burt Co., 1923
Illustrated with photos from the screen version
1923 bestseller #1
Project Gutenberg ebook #25542

© 2013 by Linda Gorton Aragoni

1923 Bestsellers Slated for Review Here

The authors on the 1923 best sellers list represent were popular and prolific writers. Today, however, I doubt many readers will recognize many of these bestselling titles.

If I read the e-book version from Project Gutenberg, clicking the link in the list will take you the download page. If I previously reviewed the book, the link will take you to my review.

  1. Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton [review July 7]
  2. His Children’s Children by Arthur Train [review July 10]
  3. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth [review July 14]
  4. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, second year on the bestseller list
  5. The Dim Lantern by Temple Bailey [review July 17]
  6. This Freedom by A.S. M. Hutchinson, second year on the bestseller list
  7. The Mine with the Iron Door by Harold Bell Wright [review July 21]
  8. The Wanderer of the Wasteland by Zane Grey [review July 24]
  9. The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini [review  July 28]
  10. The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart, second year on the bestseller list

You will find some good entertainment, as well as some insights into cultural history in these volumes.

Project Gutenberg

The poll of reader’s favorites of the 1923 novels is slated for the last day of July.