Love, marriage, children, regrets: A Valentine’s Day look at three vintage bestsellers

Sign on tree: Eat, Drink, and Be Married

Happy Valentine’s Day.

I was tempted to label this post “for mature audiences.”

I don’t mean that it will be salacious or even titillating, far from it: This is a post about three married women in bestselling vintage novels whose grand passions are just memories.

Each woman’s story is told from her perspective. The novelists leave readers to determine how much to trust the woman’s judgment.

Since their glorious passion, occasionally recalled while hanging diapers to dry or when the in-laws’ all-too-familiar monologues beg the mind to wander, each of the women wonders if she might not be better off without her husband.

The reasons for their not walking out on their husbands are too complicated for immature readers to comprehend.

Again, happy Valentine’s Day.  I hope you find a novel you’re passionate about.

The Brimming Cup

teaser for The Brimming Cup on closeup of piano keys

The Brimming Cup is a 1921 novel by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher].  Its leading lady is a talented pianist, Marise Crittenden, who, as the novel opens, has just seen her youngest child off to his first year of boarding school.

Marise and her husband, Neale,  had pledged their love on the on the Rocca di Papa in 1909.  By most standards, they’ve had a good marriage.

But as she muses about life with Neale without the children in a tiny New England town far from Italy, Marise thinks, “This is the beginning of the end.”

Marise fears she and Neale will have nothing in common once their children are grown.

Just how far Marise and Neale are already mentally separated is revealed when she overhears a comment that suggests Neale has done something underhanded and she believes it: Marise would never have believed Neale capable of dishonesty back in their time in Italy.

When a retired office manager moves in next door, accompanied by the young son of his late employer, Neale is away on business. To be neighborly, Marise introduces the two men around the community.

The sexy, sophisticated younger man attempts to seduce Marise. She is, naturally, flattered by his attentions, as would any woman whose baby is about to become a teenager.

The novel is intricately crafted and the story rendered with watercolor nuances.

Canfield allows readers to look over Marise’s shoulder and into her mind as she works out whether to leave Neale and a childless house for Vincent and a career.

Years of Grace

teaser for The Years of Grace beside 1912 sculpure

Nine years after The Brimming Cup was published, Margaret Ayers Barnes published her Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller Years of Grace.

Barnes’s leading lady was born Jane Ward in 1877. She was as plain and respectable and solidly middle class as her name sounds. “The unexpected was never allowed to happen to her.”

As a teenager, Jane thought if the unexpected ever did happen, she’d embrace it with joy. But although the unexpected happens to her several times, Jane never embraces it with joy.

Jane’s respectable parents disapprove of her friendship with André Duroy, a French boy whose parents live in an apartment. When André proposes,  Jane’s parents refuse permission for her to marry  or for the couple to even exchange letters until Jane is 21.

Andre goes to Paris to study sculpture for those four years.

As a consolation prize, Jane’s parents do let her go East to college at Bryn Mawr, where she spends two happy years, studying what interests her and ignoring what doesn’t, and feeling “very trivial and purposeless.”

She didn’t really worry a bit as to whether or no she ever voted and she didn’t want to work for her living and, really, she only cared about pleasing André and growing up into the kind of a girl he’d like to be with and talk to and marry.

When Jane’s older sister marries, her parents summon Jane home. Jane’s mother insists she make her debut and enter the husband competition. Although she’s not after a husband—she’s betrothed to André—Jane enjoys being a debutante.

Andre doesn’t come for her twenty-first birthday. He writes that he’s been awarded the Prix de Rome, which means three years’ study in Italy.

Smarting over Andre’s rejection, Jane agrees to marry Stephen Carver, a safe, respectable banker, whom she likes but does not love.

Fifteen years and three children later, Jane at 36 wonders if she and Stephen had ever had romance.

Wasn’t it Stephen’s most endearing quality — or was it his most irritating? —that for ten years or more Stephen had never really thought about how she looked at all? To Stephen, Jane looked like Jane. That was enough for him.

Jane at 50 realizes with a slight pang of regret that she’s always gone in for “durable satisfactions.”

Life might have been very different had Jane been different.

A Lion Is in the Streets

Lion on prowl. How does his mate cope at home?

Adria Locke Langley’s 1945 novel A Lion Is in the Streets starts at the end of Verity and Hank Martin’s marriage.

Hank has been assassinated, and, as always, Verity has been left to cope on her own.

Verity was a Yankee schoolteacher when she fell for a sexy Southern peddler with dreams of becoming governor.

Verity stays home in a sharecropper cottage, making do and ignoring the rumors of Hank’s philandering that drift back from his frequent trips across the state building a political machine to take him to the statehouse.

Verity has known for almost as long as she’s known Hank that his sex drive threatened their marriage.

She gradually comes to realize his political ambition is an even greater threat.

The 1953 film version captures the events of the novel, but misses the real story, which is revealed by innuendo.

The novel takes its title from Proverbs 26:13 where the sluggard uses “a lion is in the streets” as an excuse for not going to work. The allusion is typically interpreted in political terms:  The lion is the political machine; the sluggard is the lazy public that lets it do what it wants.

The Martins remind me of Hillary and Bill Clinton: a cerebral woman with great potential whose friends regard her sexy husband as totally beneath her.

Perhaps that’s why I think a case can be made for a different interpretation of the allusion: that Langley intended readers to see Hank as a political lion and Verity as a moral sluggard who, by failing to exert the power she has, enables him.

Where to find the novels

The Brimming Cup can be found as a digital download at Project Gutenberg. If you’d rather have a 1921 hardback copy or a reprint in paperback, check, where independent booksellers display their wares.

Years of Grace is not yet in the public domain, so it’s not available digitally at Project Gutenberg. Copies of a 1976 reprint of the novel and a lovely 2007 reprint, which I own, can be found at

A Lion Is in the Streets also is not yet in the public domain. This past weekend had 69 copies of the novel for sale.

Final thoughts

It would be fascinating to read companion novels told from the husband’s perspective.

Anyone want to take on the challenge of writing one for NaNoWriMo 2017?


Years of Grace is compelling mid-life reading

“When you looked at a child, Jane reflected solemnly, you could never believe that it would grow up to disappoint you.”

Margaret Ayers Barnes story of a plain Jane was compelling enough to send Depression era readers to the bookstore in droves and timeless enough for the Pulitzer Prize committee to award Years of Grace the 1931 prize for literature.

Jane Ward is a dutiful daughter of a respectable 1880’s American family in all regards except her unseemly friendships with Agnes Johnson, a newspaperman’s daughter whose mother has a job, and a French boy whose parents live in an apartment.

When André proposes to Jane, her parents refuse to allow the marriage or an exchange of letters until Jane is 21. By way of consolation, Jane’s father lets her go to Bryn Mawr with Agnes for two years.

André  goes off to study art in France. André writes Jane for her twenty-first birthday. He has an opportunity for study in Italy and won’t be coming to America. Heartbroken, Jane accepts Stephen Carter and weds him before he leaves to fight to fight the Spanish in Cuba.

Jane and Stephen have a happy marriage, three children, no money troubles. Jane focuses on keeping things happy, even when she falls in love with her best friend’s husband.

It’s only in the 1920s—a graceless age—when the children are grown and married with children of their own that Jane seriously considers whether she might have had a better life had she chosen some glamorously wanton experience over “durable satisfactions” that gave “solid Victorian comfort.”

An unassuming novel with the solid strength  of an old family heirloom, Years of Grace is a perfect novel for end-of-the-year reflections. Copies of the original are rare (Depression-era paper was very poor quality) but a 1990 reprint on lovely paper stock is available.

Years of Grace
By Margaret Ayers Barnes
©1930 ©1958 Margaret Ayers Barnes
Published Houghton Mifflin, 1930
Reprint Cherokee Publishing, 1990
1931 bestseller #5
581 pages
@2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Life’s permanent transients stay at Grand Hotel

The post restante address in Berlin for the cream  and climbers of European social life in the years between the world wars was the Grand Hotel. Historically and symbolically, it’s the ideal setting for Vicki Baum to explore the lives of a handful of life’s permanent transients.

After learning he has only a short time to live, bookkeeper Otto Kringelein has come to the Hotel to live a few weeks as a rich man in the fleshpots of the capital. Unknown to him, the boss of the plant where Kringelein has worked all his life is also staying at the hotel while trying to pull off a major business deal, despite his twin handicaps of honesty and stupidity.

The famous and fading ballerina Grusinskaya is at the Hotel, devoting all her energies to living up to the publicity of her prime. Present, too, is the handsome adventurer Baron Gaigern whose gang is preparing to turn Grusinskaya’s famous pearls to cash within hours after he discretely removes them from her room.

Dr. Otternschlag, disfigured and spiritually maimed in the Great War, notes their comings and goings from behind his newspaper in the lobby.  Within the space of a few days, each has a chance to change their lives significantly. Only one seizes the opportunity.

Grand Hotel has a bleak grittiness that fascinates only to leave a sour taste in the mind.  Baum’s  characters are such distinct individuals that the world’s failure to give them their due seems horrific.

Grand Hotel
by Vicki Baum
Trans. Basil Creighton
Grosset & Dunlap, 1931
309 pages
1931 bestseller #4

Good Earth Top Seller Second Year in Row

In 1932, Pearl S. Buck’s fictional portrait of a Chinese peasant whose backbreaking work and sacrifice made him wealthy took the number one bestseller spot for the second year running.  In an era when being a bestselling author meant more than selling 79 copies of a 99¢ ebook, being top of the bestseller list two years in a row was a true achievement.

In addition to winning  popular acclaim, The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. A half-dozen years later, The Good Earth was influential in winning Buck the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature although by that time she had already published the other two novels in the trilogy she began with The Good EarthSons in 1932 and A House Divided in 1935.  (Look for a review of Sons here at GreatPenformances in June.)

Today The Good Earth is probably more highly regarded by critics than by readers. Contemporary readers are less interested in farmers than in the murder and mayhem found in some of Buck’s less-well-known novels, like Dragon Seed,

Nonetheless, the novel is still good reading, and remarkably easy reading for such an acclaimed literary success.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1931 top novel picks are not for those who skim

My choices for the most enduring novels of 1931 are an odd lot. Though very different,  each is difficult reading for readers accustomed to stereotypical characters and happy endings.

Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth surely belongs on the list both for its vivid prose and its glimpse into nearly extinct Chinese culture. However, I don’t think the novel is appealing to most people in the world today. In a metropolitan world that values  property, The Good Earth celebrates an agrarian society that values land.

Maid in Waiting by John Galsworthy has a similar set of vitues and deficits. I’m afraid the self-controlled, cultured, public-sprited citizens who keep populate this and others of Galsworthy’s 9-volume Forsyte saga will appear as preposterous to today’s readers as farmer Wung Lu. However, Galsworthy has amazing facility to reveal character in undramatic contexts, and he’s a wonderful writer.

The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque is a glimpse of Germany after World War I. As soldiers return home, they find their country and themselves changed forever. The novel provides  insight into the origins of World War II. It also is a powerful glimpse into the effects of post traumatic stress.

Equally compelling reading is Fannie Hurst’s Back Street. This novel about  a kept woman might better be called a novel of an ill-kept woman. Even the son is appalled by the conditions in which his father’s mistress was forced to live while her financier-philanthropist lover lived in luxury.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

What are your favorite 1931 bestsellers?

My review of Maid in Waiting posted yesterday wraps up my reviews of 1931 bestselling novels. I have not been able to find either Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers Barnes or Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum.

Before I reveal my pics for the 1931 bestsellers with most appeal to novel readers today, you can click to share your preferences in the reader poll.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

Maid in Waiting Is Worth Waiting For

In Maid in Waiting John Galsworthy takes up the post-war fortunes and misfortunes of Dinny Charwell, a young woman with sense, humor, loyalty, breeding, and a big, extended family.

Although he is a marvelous writer, John Galsworthy isn’t an easy read. His characters talk about politics, religion, art, culture — everything except their personal miseries. There’s nothing of  21st century exhibitionism about these people, but they are delightfully real.

Dinny’s brother is facing extradition to Bolivia on murder charges in connection with an expedition mounted by an American, Hallorsen, who blamed Hubert for the trip’s failure.

Dinny pushes Hubert’s case with politicians, makes a match for Hubert with the rector’s daughter, and finds herself pursued by both the rector’s son and Hallorsen.

Meanwhile, the mentally ill husband of the woman Dinny’s Uncle Adrian loves has come home. Dinny stays with Diana until her husband flees the house to end his life at the bottom of a mining pit.

The British  Home Office gets Hubert off, and Adrian goes abroad to give Diana a year to recover.

That leaves Dinny still waiting for love to come to her.

Readers of the ’30s wrote Galsworthy to let Dinny marry somebody nice.

You’ll feel that way, too.

Maid in Waiting
By John Galsworthy,
Charles Scribner’s, 1931
My grade: A
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Finch’s Fortune Is Readers’ Misfortune.

Finch’s Fortune is the ninth of Mazo de la Roche’s 16-volume series about the Canadian Whiteoak family on the farm called Jalna.

Finch’s Fortune opens on Finch Whiteoak’s 21’s birthday, reluctantly celebrated by his relatives who thought Gran should have  given her $100,000  to them.

Finch buys one brother a car and piggery, assumes his sister’s mortgage, and takes his two elderly uncles off to visit their sister in England, frittering away money as he goes.

After his uncles go home, Finch stays in England doing nothing in particular, but doing it, for him, remarkably well. Finch falls in love with a cousin who marries his best friend. Finch accompanies them on their honeymoon.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, Finch’s sister-in-law, Alayne, has gone to stay with an aunt.  Her husband, Renny, is busy with his horses and dogs and doesn’t seem to notice her absence.

Both Alayne and Finch return home.

The homecoming is marred by Renny stomping off in a snit after yelling about Finch wasting the money his grandmother left him.

Renny is found later in his grandmother’s bed whimpering, “No one has ever understood me but Gran.”  The family accepts this as proof the mantle of family leadership has fallen to Renny.

The novel ends as Finch’s nephew is born on Finch’s birthday and named for him.

Unfortunately, Mazo de la Roche’s novel is as ridiculous as the summary makes it sound.

If you are smart, you’ll find something else to read.

Finch’s Fortune
By Mazo de la Roche
Little, Brown 1931
443 pages
1931 bestseller #9
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Back Street View Unforgettably Stark

Fannie Hurst’s Back Street is a novel about what really happens to a  “kept woman.” Its smaller-than-life characters are as vivid on the page as Rhett and Scarlett were on the wide screen.

When Ray Schmidt walks down the streets of Cincinnati in 1890, men’s heads turn: Ray has style.

Men accuse her of leading them on but refusing to go all the way: Ray’s generosity stops with kisses.

Ray falls for a Jewish lad, Walter Saxel, who marries a woman who doesn’t turn heads but has better East Coast financial connections than Ray.

To forget Walter, Ray leaves her step-family and goes to New York. She’s doing well when she runs into Walter again. Before long, Ray becomes his mistress, leaves her job, becomes a dutiful pseudo “wife.”

Through his legal wife’s connections and Ray’s coaching, Walter prospers. He becomes a millionaire, civic leader, philanthropist.

Even Ray cannot understand her total absorption with Walter, who is totally wrapped up in himself.

Walter is as stingy with money as with emotion: He gives Ray barely enough to money cover the rent.  Walter promises to make provision for Ray but never does.

When Walter dies, Ray slides further into poverty. In her last days, Ray is reduced to scrounging chicken feet from a restaurant garbage can.

Back Street
by Fannie Hurst
A. L. Burt, 1930
481 Pages
1931 bestseller #8 My grade: A-
© Linda Gorton Aragoni

Bridge of Desire Needs Less Romance

Bridge of Desire is a bit of a departure for Warwick Deeping from the overdone sentimentality of his more famous works like Sorrell and Son.

Unfortunately, he reverts to sentimentality at a crucial point in the plot, giving a happy-ever-after ending to a story that demands less romance and more nuance.

Here’s the gist of the plot:

Martin Frensham has achieved success as a dramatist thanks in large measure to his wife, Nella, who created the home atmosphere in which he could write.

In the seventh year of a happy marriage, Martin gets restless.

Looking for new ideas, he leaves Nella for a rich American widow whose hobby is collecting men. Nella tells friends her husband is traveling for his health. She is sure Martin will come to his senses and return to her.

Deeping’s probing of the male mid-life crisis is observant rather than psychoanalytical, his prose incisive rather than lyrical. The novel gives the impression of saying something that has to be said, even if the telling gives pain.

Even though Bridge of Desire is not a great novel, it’s one whose story will linger in your memory longer than many better ones.

 Bridge of Desire
by Warwick Deeping
Robert M. McBride, 1931
303 pages
My grade B
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni