Old Pybus Is Guilt-Free Romance

During the early days of World War I, bookseller John Pybus exhorted men to enlist. His own sons, Conrad and Probyn, preferred to serve in protected occupations that lined their pockets.

Their father disowned them.

Years later, they learn he is the “boots” at a country hotel.

Probyn’s son Lance learns of his grandfather’s existence and looks him up. They bond immediately. Lance calls his grandfather “the Venerable.”

When Lance wants to become a writer instead of going into his father’s business, Old Pybus supports him. Through his grandfather, Lance meets a woman with whom he falls in love. And the Venerable is also responsible for Lance developing an adult relationship with his parents.

Much of the plot of Old Pybus is predictable. However, the novel’s interest isn’t the plot but the characters. At first glance, Lance looks like a standard-issue hero, but on longer acquaintance he exhibits all sorts of quirks, becomes pig-headed and sometimes acts downright stupid. He is, in short, human — a very fine thing for a book character to be.

If Old Pybus had been written by someone other than Warwick Deeping, the story could have dissolved into sentimental claptrap. By making readers his confidants and reminding them real life isn’t this tidy, Deeping lets readers revel in the romance without the tiniest feeling of guilt.

Old Pybus
By Warwick Deeping
Alfred A. Knopf, 1928
350 pages
1928 bestseller #7
My Grade: B +
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My pics for the best bestsellers of 1928

Literature with a capital L topped the 1928 bestseller list in the form of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. That novel’s entertainment value has plummeted as badly as the bridge. Forget that turkey.

Fortunately some non-literary novels from 1928 provide great reading.

The Strange Case of Miss Annie Sprague is my top pick. Louis Bromfield weaves together threads as disparate as stigmata and the American frontier into a complex novel that raises more questions than it answers. Bromfield’s “I’m just reporting this” narrative style leaves readers wondering there’s really a sordid story beneath the surface of the novel or if the dirt is all in their minds.

Second place on my list is a tie between Clarie Ambler by Booth Tarkington  and All Kneeling by Anne Parish. Both books are about self-centered women who spend their lives deliberately constructing a public image. Claire has an occasional moment when she realizes the immorality of using other people. Such insight never occurs to Christable Craine.

Third place goes to Vina Delmar’s Bad Girl, an inside view of a teenage marriage doomed by poverty. Delmar deserves better than third place, but her subject is just too depressing. I cannot forget Bad Girl, but I wish I could.

Swan Song is great reading if you’ve read the rest of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte saga. If not, pass it up.

One final note. I haven’t yet been able to find a copy of Old Pybus by Warwick Deeping, which was number 7 on the 1928 bestseller list.

Tiny Dabs Produce Clear Portrait in All Kneeling

From its title, I expected All Kneeling to be a religious novel and, in a perverse way, it is.

The main character, Christabel Craine, is an attractive young woman with modest talent for writing but enormous talent for making people think she deserves to be worshiped.

Growing up in an extended family of well-to-do, elderly relatives, Christabel learns to control those around her in socially acceptable ways. She says she has only the highest motives for doing whatever she pleases, and people believe her.

All but Uncle Johnny.

Uncle Johnny doesn’t think much of Christable’s  writing or her conduct. The only credit he gives her is for not making people walk backwards from her presence.

Among literature’s self-centered females, Christabel stands out. She knows exactly what she is doing.

The fact that Christabel doesn’t violate laws or morality or even social conventions is doesn’t make her any less any less despicable — or any less fascinating.

All Kneeling has no plot to speak of; it is all about character. Anne Parrish paints Christabel and her circle with sure, tiny strokes, suggesting rather than telling.

Like a Monet painting, the little bits of this easy-reading novel add up to an insightful portrait.

All Kneeling
by Anne Parrish
Harper & Brothers, 1928
323 pages
1928 #8
My grade B+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg Is Understated Gem

If you can imagine a novel written by Alfred Hitchcock, you’ll understand the fascination of Louis Bromfield’s 1928 bestseller The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg.

Annie Spragg, an American, dies in a small Italian village. Her body shows what villagers say are stigmata. Mr. Winnery, who dabbles in writing, decides to investigate the “miracle.”

He learns Annie was one of 13 legitimate children of a frontier cult leader murdered by a jealous lover of one of the virgins who served him. After their parents’ deaths, Annie and Uriah, her creepy preacher-brother who idolized their mother, lived together until Uriah was murdered.

Suspicion fell on Annie. She was stripped, examined, and questioned. Investigators found she had unusual scars. There was a heavy whip in the cabin and handcuffs that Uriah used to chain her in her bed at night.

No one was ever charged in Uriah’s murder.

Like a horde of letters and newspaper clippings in somebody’s attic, Annie Spragg leaves plenty of clues but no conclusion.

Bromfield increases the fascination of the story by his squeaky-clean presentation. Readers grasping for clues can’t be sure whether the sordid story they infer is in the material or in their own dirty minds.

The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg
By Louis Bromfield
Grosset & Dunlap,  1928
314 pages
1928 #
My Grade: A
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Jalna Is a Sordid Bore

Mazo de la Roche wrote five novels about the Whiteoak family before writing Jalna, proving that producing a novel as boring as Jalna takes practice.

Jalna is the Whiteoak family estate in Ontario, Canada, where in 1923 Adeline Court Whiteoak waits for her 100th birthday surrounded by her family. The Whiteoaks fancy themselves aristocrats, but they’re really a bunch of slobs.

Think of Cold Comfort Farm, and you’ve got the picture.

Grandson Renny,  37, runs the farm and the family. He’s rude, coarse, sentimental, fond of pigs and horses, and according to de la Roche, irresistible to women.

Two of Renny’s nephews marry. Poet Eden brings home his New York publisher’s reader, Alayne, and farmer Piers brings home the neighbor’s bastard daughter, Pheasant.

Alayne takes up with Renny.

Pheasant takes up with Eden.

Renny’s sister Meg marries Pheasant’s father.

All the Whiteoaks abuse each other at the top of their lungs.

Grandmother has her hundredth birthday and the novel is over. Not a minute too soon for my taste.

Jalna reads as if it were written by someone whose day job is writing Cliff Notes. If there ever was any life in these characters or sense in the plot, it’s not here now.

by Mazo de la Roche
Little, Brown,  1927
347 pages
#5  1927   #9 1928
Grade: D+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Claire Ambler Is Seriously Funny

Clarie Ambler is a 1920’s version of a California Valley Girl. A beautiful American heiress, Claire has manners instead of morals, impulses instead of thoughts, and absolutely nothing between her ears.

At 18,  Claire’s total preoccupation with herself comes close to getting a boy killed. As she anguishes over how his death could have ruined her social life, she has the first thought of her life:  she realizes she isn’t the only person in the universe.

At 21, Claire is acutely sensitive to how she appears to others and totally unaware of the sometimes fatal consequences of her flirtations. Even when it’s pointed out to her, she can’t see how her behavior led to an assassination.

At 25, Claire sees her self-centeredness for the first time and acts with the closest she ever comes to disinterestedness.

Booth Tarkington makes Claire both a typical adolescent and a distinct person. Readers can — and will — laugh at Claire’s self-absorption. But they will realize long before she does that it’s not funny.

We have to take the Claires of the world seriously. An inability to see other people as people, “not just something . . . to use,” is the root of most human misery.

Claire Ambler
By Booth Tarkington
253 pages
#6 bestseller in 1928
My grade: B+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In Bad Girl is Teen Parents Struggle in Slums

In 1928, someone was “a bad girl” if she had sex before marriage. By that definition, Dot Haley deserves her title role in Vina Delmar’s novel Bad Girl. However, the epithet doesn’t do Dot justice.

A friend sums her up better: “You’re an awful nice kid,” Maude tells Dot, “but you’re a moron.”

Maude got it in one.

Dot meets Eddie Collins at a dance. The first time they have sex, Eddie says he’ll take off work the next day and marry her. When Dot announces her wedding plans, he brother calls her a bum and kicks her out of the apartment.

Dot and Eddie marry. Within weeks she learns she’s pregnant with a child neither she nor Eddie is ready to have.

Dot and Eddie are both back-of-the-room, bottom-of-the-class slum kids. They’ve grown up among adults too worn out from grubbing for a living to even talk to their kids.

If they could talk to each other, there might be hope for Dot and Eddie, but they all they know is lashing out, profanity, and withdrawing into silence.

Delmar swings from Eddie’s thoughts to Dot’s, letting readers see the limits of their adolescent minds. The total effect is morbidly depressing.

Bad Girl
by Vina Delmar
Harcourt, Brace,  1928
275 pages
1928 bestseller  #5
My grade: C+

© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Greene Murder Case Decent Potboiler

The Green Murder Case presents Philo Vance one of his most perplexing mysteries. Two women are shot, one fatally, in a New York mansion where four adult children and one adopted daughter live with their invalid mother, according to the terms of the father’s will.

The police think it was a robbery gone wrong. A brother of the murdered woman doesn’t believe that theory. Neither does Philo Vance, wealthy New York aristocrat and amateur sleuth.

Before long the brother is murdered, then a second brother.

By then, Vance and his friend the DA know the murders are being committed by someone in the household — and everyone seems to have a motive.

Could the “paralyzed” mother be the culprit? Or perhaps the doctor, who is treated almost as a member of the family? The butler? The cook?

S.S. Van Dine sprinkles clues and red herrings throughout the novel so readers can make some headway toward solving the mystery.

Despite its age, the novel doesn’t appear terribly dated. Van Dine translates any essential foreign quotations for the benefit of those whose Latin and German is rusty.

Vance is less obnoxious than usual in this case, making the novel a pleasant read.

The Greene Murder Case
By S.S. Van Dine
Grosset & Dunlap, 1928
388 pages
1928 bestseller #4
My Grade: C+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Swan Song Great Novel, Poor Overture

John Galsworthy is probably best known for The Forsyte Chronicles. He followed up the three volumes in that series about Soames Forsyte with another three focusing on Soames’ daughter, Fleur. Swan Song is the last of that second trilogy, which is called The Modern Comedy.

In Swan Song, Fleur’s first love, Jon, returns to England with his wife. Fleur tries to revive the old flame and very nearly succeeds.

Meanwhile, Fleur’s husband, Michael, is putting his energies into slum-conversion to distract himself from the knowledge that Fleur likes him but doesn’t love him.

Soames, 71, is puttering about on the sidelines, aware that Fleur wants something his money can’t buy for her.

Galsworthy is a master storyteller and superb crafter of characters. His people are complex: even at their most dastardly, they draw readers’ sympathy.

Although I love The Forsyte Chronicles and The Modern Comedy, I don’t recommend Swan Song to anyone who hasn’t read the other five novels in the series. You won’t understand why characters act as they do unless you know what’s happened in earlier books.

Start instead with the first Forsyte tale, The Man of Property. If it doesn’t whet your appetite for Galsworthy, nothing will.

Swan Song
By John Galsworthy
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928
360 pages
1928 Bestseller  #3
My grade:B+

© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Wintersmoon Never Catches Fire

Hugh Walpole’s Wintersmoon turns the romance novel on its head.

Janet Grandison and Wildherne Poole marry for companionship and convenience. Love isn’t part of the arrangement. Janet wants to give her sister Rosalind a home; Wildherne wants an heir to his title and estate that the married woman he loves can’t give him.

Nothing goes according to plan.

Rosalind and Wildherne can’t stand each other. She marries a man she doesn’t love to get out of living at Wintersmoon.

Janet gets on the wrong side of Wildherne’s mother and her entourage. Then she finds herself in love with her husband and pregnant with his child.

Wildherne has grown to love Janet as well, but neither says anything because they agreed to a loveless marriage. Their son’s death brings their marriage to a crisis that has far-reaching repercussions.

The plot is predictable. Walpole’s characters are not. They are very distinct personalities. I didn’t like Janet or Wildherne, but they won my respect by novel’s end. Walpole’s minor characters are well-drawn, the minor scenes extraordinarily realistic.

Selfishness masquerades as love throughout the novel, causing no end of problems, just as it does in real life.

Sadly, all Wintersmoon‘s fine points don’t add up to a great novel.

by Hugh Walpole
Grosset & Dunlap, 1927
446 pages
#2 1928
My grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni