My Favorite 1934 Bestselling Novels

As far as I’m concerned, there are only eight potential contenders among the 1934 top selling novels.  I found number 1 and number 10 books — Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse and Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales — boring and forgettable.

The most memorable of the 1934 list is Good-bye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton.  It’s not a great book, or even one of Hilton’s better novels, but it appeals to something in readers that wishes things would be today the way we chose to believe they once were.

The better novels of 1934 — Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller and So Red the Rose by Stark Young, bestsellers two and three respectively— are far less sentimental.

Readers won’t forget Lamb in His Bosom or So Red the Rose but may refuse to remember them because they are too hard to contemplate.

Raising 14 children on a farm in the 1800s, Lamb‘s Cean Carver  is indomitable but not embraceable. Her struggles would be more agreeable if only Cean didn’t accept them as the way life is. Most readers don’t want to be reminded that life is a struggle, let alone see someone who puts up with the struggle without complaint.

The  plantation families Young describes whose men are fighting at places like Chancellorsville and Gettysburg make do with what the Yankees don’t steal or destroy; their heroism is supra-human. Readers would rather read of daring do on a battlefield, which they don’t expect to ever experience, than to read about doing battle to coax food from the earth, which is within the realm of possibility.

Lamb in His Bosom and So Red the Rose could never be described as “feel-good” writing.

Perhaps that’s just as well.

The world could do with a little less feel good and a little more be good.


© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Share your favorite novels of 1934

Once again, it’s your turn to say which vintage novels you think retain their entertainment value — and perhaps offer something besides —for readers in 2014.  You can choose up to three novels from the list of 1934 bestsellers. If you want to share something about your favorites, please use the comment box.

Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales Multiply Horror

Castle that looks like it belongs in a fairy tale

Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales is a collection of stories too long to be short stories, too short to be novellas, and too depressing for anything. Andre Govia captures the mood in this photo.

Set primarily in 19th century Europe, they are part fairy tale, part philosophical treatise. The tales are usually told late on a dark night when a storm is threatening.

Several are set as stories within stories. In “The Dreamer,” there are actually four different stories, three of which are told at second- or third-hand — the literary equivalent of a story my cousin got from somebody at work.

My favorite story — the last! — is about a gentleman who loves the arts. The gentleman mentors a young poet. Thinking that a woman’s influence would be good for a poet, the gentleman proposes to a lovely young widow.

The poet and fiancée fall in love.

The poet shoots his mentor.

Dying, the mentor crawls to his fiancée’s feet. She picks up a stone and smashes him on the head with it while screaming, “You poet!”

After laboring through this book, I understand the impulse to murder someone for being a writer.

Isak Dinesen would be my first victim.

Seven Gothic Tales
By Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
Modern Library edition
420 pages
1934 bestseller #10
My Grade: D

Photo credit: FairyTaleCas by Steve011

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Oil for the Lamps of China Once Farsighted, Now Timely

oil lamps collage
Chinese Oil Lamps

Oil for the Lamps of China is a story of a company man in an alien culture. The novel’s detail reflects the lifetime Alica Tisdale Hobart spent in the Far East.

Stephen Chase goes to China in 1908 as a sales rep for an American oil company, leaving Lucy, his fiancé, behind: The company frowns on men dragging their wives along.

When Lucy throws him over, Stephen marries Hester Wentworth, whose father died on their voyage to China.

Stephen works hard, learning to stifle his personal wishes. He also learns to respect and value the Chinese culture. He becomes a real asset to the company.

Hester doesn’t fare so well. She never really adjusts to China.

At long last, Stephen realizes the company feels no loyalty to its employees. That realization frees him to chuck the whole thing.

Stephen and Hester are not vivid personalities, and their associations drain them. The company and China submerge individuals and become the novel’s real main characters.

China is just now becoming the consumer economy Hobart envisioned. And Americans have only recently realized that multinational companies don’t value employee loyalty.

It’s time to rediscover this far-sighted novel.

Oil for the Lamps of China
By Alice Tisdale Hobart
Grosset & Dunlap, 1933
403 pages
1934 bestseller # 9
My Grade: B+

Photo collage : Chinese Oil Lamps by Linda Aragoni

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mary Peters, Tender Novel with Backbone

Mary Ellen Chase’s novel Mary Peters is a hauntingly lovely tale of ordinary people who face life head on.

Mary Peters is not a great novel, but it’s a good novel.

It’s about giving your kids love and discipline.

It’s about compassion, about doing right just because it’s right, and about the futility of cursing the weather.

Maine Wild Rose
Maine Wild Rose

Born on a ship captained by her father in Singapore in 1871, Mary Peters’ home is the sea. When she is 16, her father’s ship sinks: Mary, her mother, Sarah, and brother, John, to go home to Petersport, Maine.

Sarah Peters welcomes Jim Pendleton, the charming bastard son of a man who jilted her years before, setting the town agog.

When Jim takes off, leaving Mary’s best friend to die giving birth to his child, Sarah counsels her children not to condemn him, but to take the long view and wait for things to change.

Mary and John wait.

Things get better, then worse, then better again.

The novel has the feel of 19th-century New England. Death, suffering, infidelity, poverty are treated as facts. These things happen. No one with backbone wallows in today’s misery.

Life goes on.

Wise men go on, too.

Mary Peters
By Mary Ellen Chase
Macmillan, 1934
377 pages
1934 bestseller list #8
My grade: C+

Photo credit: Maine Wild Rose by kklinzing

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Private Worlds explores the craziness of the sane

TItle page of Private WorldsOn one level, Private Worlds is a romance whose outcome is never is doubt. On another level, it’s a realistic story of alliances and jealousies in a closed world where the outcomes are unpredictable.

As the story opens, Jane Everett is waiting to hear whether Alex MacGregor has been named superintendent of the mental hospital at which they, respectively, head the men’s and women’s departments.

Jane is disturbed that instead of going first to his bride, Sally, Alex comes to her to say they should quit: The choice has gone to an outsider Alex’s own age who dislikes women doctors.

For Sally’s sake as well as Alex’s, Jane counsels patience.

Jane senses that though the new superintendent appears cold, he is fair and willing to listen. Jane is sure even Alex can work with Dr. Drummond if they give him a fair chance.

Trouble arises when Dr. Drummond’s sexy, manipulative sister comes to visit.

Phyllis Bottome is interested in the self-defeating behaviors of the legally sane. Instead of the horrific mental disturbances presented in The Snake Pit and Compulsion, for example, she gives us homely pictures of irrational thinking to which everyone falls prey.

Private Worlds isn’t a great novel, but its more than just entertainment. Bottome provides readers ideas to chew on.

Private Worlds
By Phyllis Bottome
Houghton, Mifflin, 1934
342 pages
My grade: B+
1934 bestseller #7

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Work of Art Unworthy of Its Name

hotel room, bed empty and unmade

Many novelists have written about what it takes for a writer to become good enough to create art.

In Work of Art, Sinclair Lewis attempts, with minimal success, to turn that familiar plot on end.

Ora Weagle aspires to be a renowned — and rich— Master Artist. He sees himself as too talented to need to learn anything.

Ora ends up pandering to a public that can’t recognize either quality or plagiarism.

As a teen, Ora’s older brother, Myron, seems to have no aspirations at all. He goes to school and does whatever is needed around the rural hotel their parents run.

Unsure what he wants to do with this life, Myron asks a traveling salesman if hotels are a good business. J. Hector Warlock paints a vivid picture of the importance of hotels and the vast learning hotel-keeping requires.

Myron is inspired.

He will work to become a Master Hotel Keeper.

Unfortunately, Lewis doesn’t make Myron’s story inspirational. Heaping sarcasm on the rubes who fail to appreciate the quality of Myron’s meals, beds, and service doesn’t make readers value the man more.

Myron appears to readers as he appears to Ora: hardworking but boring.

Lewis fails to to prove that any job done superbly is a work of art.

Work of Art
By Sinclair Lewis
Doubleday, Doran, 1935
452 pages
1934 Bestseller #6
My grade: B-
Photo credit: Going, Going, Gone by kmg

Within This Present Proves Need for Challenges

granny retro250Margaret Ayer Barnes, who published the haunting Years of Grace to popular and critical acclaim in 1930, pleased her public again in 1934 with Within This Present.

Both novels follow a character from the cusp of womanhood through midlife, allowing readers to live through a slice of history from a domestic perspective.

The woman in Within This Present is Sally Sewall, a girl from a wealthy, close-knit Chicago banking family. At 19, she marries Alan MacLeod before he goes off to the Western Front.

Alan sees only five days of fighting. He comes home feeling cheated of the opportunity to do something that matters.

When Sally says she’s pregnant, Alan says perhaps being a father is what matters. Alan goes to work in the Sewall family’s bank.

Ten years later, Alan becomes involved with a woman in their set. He and Sally are living apart in 1929 when the bank fails. The family crisis predictably brings them back together.

Although Within This Present is an entertaining and enlightening novel, Barnes lets Granny Sewall talk from beginning to end about how young people need challenges to show what they’re made of. Sadly, even dear, sweet Granny’s sermons grow dull with repetition.

Within This Present
By Margaret Ayer Barnes
Houghton Mifflin, 1933
611 pages
1934 bestseller #5

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: Granny Retro by unknown photographer

Good-bye, Mr. Chips Still Clears the Sinuses

Good-Bye, Mr. Chips is an an eccentric schoolmaster’s sentimental look back over his lifetime in a British boarding school for boys.

schoolboys sitting on benchMr. Chipping came to Brookfield to teach classics. He wasn’t much of a scholar or teacher, but he did his job. So he stayed.

In 1896, at age 48, he fell in love with a beautiful young woman half his age. She mellowed and sharpened Chips, making him a revered figure on campus. When she dies in childbirth, he hangs on, buoyed by the boys he loves.

He retired at 65 and moved across the road from the school, renting rooms from another former school employee.

When World War I depleted the pool of teachers, Chips was called back to act as headmaster until the war ended.

Then he went back into retirement, but he kept close ties to Brookfield to the day of his death.

In Good-Bye, Mr. Chips, James Hilton pays tribute to teachers who care more about their pupils than about their subject. There’s no plot to speak of, no real characterization. The novel is just an excuse to indulge in a few minutes of tearful nostalgia.

Make a cup of tea, butter a muffin, and enjoy this harmless indulgence.

Good-Bye, Mr. Chips
By James Hilton
Little, Brown, 1934
126 pages
1934 bestseller # 4
My Grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni


So Red the Rose Gives Back Home View of War

Thorns on a rose bush
Roses have thorns

So Red the Rose is a Civil War novel on which that label seems misplaced.

Stark Young looks at the war from the perspective of the people who stayed home. Instead of sweeping battle scenes, readers see women sweeping carpets, trying to keep their families and traditions alive.

Young writes the story as a series of scenes in the lives of the residents of two plantations along the Mississippi, Portobello and Montrose.  They learn about events from newspapers, letters, and gossip from someone whose cousin knew someone who was there.

You won’t catch these people crying in public.

It’s just not done.

When their homes are looted, their livelihood destroyed, their lovers and sons killed, their traditional courtesy requires the Southerners to sustain a semblance of normal life: To give in to misery would make others uncomfortable.

The novel is not a consecutive narrative. To understand what’s happening, readers have to imagine each scene, much as they would if they were reading a play.

Although So Red the Rose demands a lot from readers, it gives a unique perspective on ordinary life in a country at war.

So Red the Rose
By Stark Young
Charles Scribner’s’ Sons
431 pages
1934 bestseller # 3
My Grade: B+

Photo credit: Thorns by kriegs

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni