The Old Countess adds terror to impressionism

While painting the Dorgone River Valley landscape, Richard Graham encounters a witch-like old woman who looks like a portrait by Goya. He accepts the Comtesse de Lomoudrie’s invitation to come to tea and bring his wife.

On the way, Richard and Jill visit a cemetery where one grave, that of Marthe Ludérac, stands isolated from the rest.

The Old Countess by Anne Douglas Sedgwick.
Grosset & Dunlap, 1927. 373 pp. 1927 bestseller #9. My grade: B+.

woman's hands folder in her lap.
Closeup of a Goya portrait.

At the Manoir, they find Mme. Lomoudire’s landlady is also a Marthe Ludérac. She’s the daughter of the woman in the lonely grave.

Jill, sensitive to suffering, feels sorry for the Countess, but knows instinctively that Marthe needs her as a friend.

Richard agrees to paint the Countess’s portrait to get a chance to see Marthe, which puts him in conflict with the jealous countess, his wife, and the attracted but self-controlled Marthe.

Anne Douglas Sedgwick portrays the four characters using tiny dabs of facts, details, and emotions. Jill and Marthe are straightforward, caring and incredibly good people; Richard and the Countess are manipulative and selfish and nasty.

Gradually the tiny bits add up to a crisis.

The atmosphere of The Old Countess is creepy, the plot contrived, the characters too all-of-a-piece to be believable.

And without a pretty good command of French, readers will miss much of the story.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Recommended 1920, 1929 bestsellers

Since I just recently reviewed a few of the bestsellers of 1920 and 1929 I missed when their anniversary years came up in my schedule, I’ll update my picks for the best of the lists now.

None from the 1920 bestsellers

There are really no titles among the 1920 bestsellers that are more than just mildly interesting today. The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim kept my attention while I was reading it, but aside from recalling that it’s about two men that exchange identities I can’t recall anything about it now.

I can recall a few impressions about others novels on the 1920 list, but none that calls me to reread them. You can check out the entire list on the bestsellers list page.

The 1929 list is another kettle of fish entirely.

Three durable novels from the 1929 list

Cover of All Quiet on the Western Front shows young German soldierThe top selling novel of 1929,  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, is still a powerful novel that deserves to be reread. And it’s still timely as the western world commemorates the 1914-1918 war that was to end all wars.

The story about German soldiers who left the schoolroom for the trenches draws on Remarque’s own experiences.

Before the war, he had been training to be a teacher. He was conscripted and fought for Germany on the Western Front, where he received shrapnel wounds that confined him to a hospital until the war ended.

His novel shows how the war changed schoolboys into soldiers, hardening them, but not quite destroying their sensitivity.

Although none of the other nine titles comes close to being as good as All Quiet, several are better than average.

Inside cover of Scarlet Sister Mary
Inside cover of Scarlet Sister Mary

Scarlet Sister Mary by Julie Peterkin is the second of my top picks for the year. It explores the experience of a proud, Southern black woman who by her early 30s has five children by five different fathers and two grandchildren to raise on her own.

Although the novel is set on a plantation just after the end of the Civil War, the story is not about race relations but about interpersonal relationships. That alone makes it worthy of rereading today.

Mary’s promiscuity makes her unwelcome in the church that called her  “Sister Mary” when she was a teen and there is no other support system she can call on as she sees herself growing old.

cover of Dark Hester is dark blueMy third choice from the 1929 list is Dark Hester by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. It is the story of a mother who has built her entire life around her son.

Monica can barely stand her daughter-in-law. Hester ruined all the plans she had for a happy life as the center of her son’s universe.  Monica thinks, “No one cared if old hearts break.”

The principal characters tip-toe around their distrust and resentment until events conspire to bring mother and daughter-in-law to a confrontation.

Despite its creakily concocted plot, Dark Hester has an air of reality. There’s no happy ending, only a slightly-less-unhappy-than-expected one.

And that is realistic.

Dark Hester Lifts Curtain on Adult Growing Pains

Steam locomotive coming down the track
In-law troubles can make a woman want to run away or throw herself under a train.

Dark Hester is less dark than Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s earlier bestseller, Tante, but it, too, confronts the problem of growing older.

After burying her husband in India, Monica Wilmott returned with their infant son to England. By hard work and good management, she provided Clive with a happy childhood and an Oxford education.

She even selected a woman for him to marry.

When Clive married Hester Blakeston,  after the Great War, Monica couldn’t like her.

Everyone knew it, including Clive, but he hoped for the best.

‘We are all nothing more than children,’ thought Monica…And we discover, as we grow old, that we never grow up’

As the novel opens, a man about Monica’s age buys an adjacent farm. He makes clear he’s interested in Monica. Despite an instinct, supported by gossip, that he’s the wrong sort, Monica is attracted to Captain Ingpen.

Her daughter-in-law, however, is repelled by him.

Monica realizes the two have met before. By some sleuthing, she learns Ingpen and Hester were lovers.

That knowledge could break up Clive and Hester’s marriage.

It could also shatter the close mother-son relationship.

Monica and Hester are sufficiently well delineated that their parts are plausible, but Clive appears too bloodless to inspire the devotion of either woman.

Despite all that goes wrong, Sedgwick holds out the possibility that, given the right incentives, even adults can grow up.

Dark Hester
By Anne Douglas Sedgwick
Houghton Mifflin, 1929
300 pages
1929 bestseller #3
My Grade: B+

Photo credit: Puffing Billy by timobalk

 © 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni



My picks of 1924: So Big, So Driven, So French, So Misplaced

Of the 10 novels that were bestsellers in 1924, four stand out for providing far more than just an entertaining story: So Big by Edna Ferber, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher], The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, and The Midlander  by Booth Tarkington.

Cover of So Big by Edna FerberAlthough the stories are very different, each explores obstacles that make understanding another person’s perspective difficult.

In Edna Ferber’s So Big, Selina Peake rejects her father’s philosophy that life is “just so much velvet” worth experiencing regardless of how good or bad it appears at the time.

Late in life Selina comes to regret teaching her son the only things worth having in life are earned through hard work. Dirk reaches mid-life without having enjoyed living.

In The Midlander (which became National Avenue when Booth Tarkington put it in his single-volume trilogy Growth in 1927), Dan Oliphant never varies from the real estate career he chose almost at random in his early twenties.

Dan is so sure that his housing development will be a success, he lets every personal relationship shrivel while he puts all his effort into the Ornaby Addition.
Spine of Anne Douglas Sedgwick novel The Little French Girl
Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s The Little French Girl is the only one of my quarter of favorites not set in America. Alix Vervier’s mother has decided her 15-year-old daughter will marry within the family of an English war-time acquaintance. Mme Vervier ships Alex across the cultural solar system from France to England.

Alix must mature enough to regard her mother with sufficient dispassion that she can determine what of her mother’s behavior is motivated by love and what is motivated by self-interest.

In The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield [Fisher] shows Eva and Lester Knapp trapped in roles they both hate. By accident, Lester becomes the stay-at-home mom and Eva becomes the wage earner.

There’s no doubt everyone in the household is financially and emotionally better off as a result of the switch. It is also clear, however, that those gains come at a significant moral cost that the family may regret in the future.

Cover of The Home-MakerEach of these insightful novels is worth reading. So Big and The Home-Maker are written in very accessible styles. The Midlander requires a bit more mental work, but it’s not difficult reading.

To understand what’s happening in The Little French Girl demands full concentration and either a French dictionary or a reading knowledge of French. Readers who give it a chance will find it worth the effort.

The Little French Girl Is Exquisitely Bi-cultural

Jacket of novel The Little French Girl
The Little French Girl is a novel that needs to be peeled, layer by layer, like a sweet onion. Reading it requires alertness and either some French or a good French dictionary.

The story opens with Alix Vervier being met at Victoria Station by Giles Owen. Madame Vervier, presuming on a war-time acquaintance with Giles’ deceased brother, has sent Alix to England to find a suitable marriage partner.

At 15, Alix has childish innocence at odds with her acute perceptivity. She immediately likes Giles and the late Capt. Owen’s fiancée, Topee.

The rest of the noisy, sports crazy Owen family take some getting used to.

The novel follows Alix as she tries to be an obedient French daughter without offending her English hosts who find the idea of a parent arranging a child’s marriage unthinkable.

A summary can’t do this exquisite, lavendar-gray novel justice. Anne Douglas Sedgwick makes Alix’s growth from precocious teen to sensitive adult unfold as naturally as a flower coming into bloom, even though the growth process is painful for Alix, her French family, and her English hosts.

The Little French Girl
By Anne Douglas Sedgwick
Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
508 pages
1924 bestseller #3
My grade: A-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My favorites from the 1912 bestseller list

It is easier to name the novels from the 1912 bestseller list that are not my favorites than to pick the ones I like best.  Here in no particular order are my favorites.

Their Yesterdays by Harold Bell Wright is either nostalgic or sentimental depending on how charitable you are feeling when you read it. I’ll admit it tugged at my tear ducts.

On a more cerebral level, however, Their Yesterdays is rather amazing technically. Wright breaks all the accepted novelistic rules and yet makes the novel feel right.

The Melting of Molly by Maria Thompson Daviess has to be on my favorites list because it made me laugh again and again. Molly is so droll, you just know you’d love having her live next door.

The Net by Rex Beach and Tante by Anne Douglas Sedgwick look at the dark side of human nature. Beach based his guns-and-gore novel on the true adventures of a New Orleans sheriff who took on the mafia. Beach’s fictional characters are not entirely believable, but the story overall was one I couldn’t put down long enough  to eat dinner.

Guns are too physical for Tante, the aging pianist in the title role of Sedgwick’s novel.  Tante’s weapon of choice is a sharper, less traceable instrument.  Reading about how Tante schemes is like watching a snake eyeing its prey in one of those up-close-to-reptiles PBS nature shows. Sedgwick shows in shuddering detail how one twisted woman can ruin lives with a few ill-chosen words.

Remember, you can read any of these bestsellers free. They are all available from Project  My reviews give a link direct to the download page.

Project Gutenberg

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tante succeeds where tabloids seek to tread

Tante is a fictional, behind-the-scenes account of an international celebrity of the late Victorian-era whose drug of choice is popular adulation.

Mercedez von Marwitz, 48, stage name Madame Osraska, is a still-beautiful and famous pianist with a tabloid past and a strange entourage.

When a good looking barrister Gregory Jardine shows more interest in Karen Woodruff, her 24-year-old “niece”  than in herself, Madame is insulted.

When Gregory proposes to Karen, Karen’s beloved Tante sees a way to get rid of an unnecessary expense and revenge herself on Gregory.

Karen is bland and almost pathologically self-effacing, but Gregory sees her as a Hans Christian Anderson heroine with braids and basket.

Gregory casts Tante as the wicked witch.

The woodcutter role falls to Mrs. Talcott, the homely American chicken farmer who has cared for Tante since birth.

At 70, “Tallie” can still sit on Tante, and literally does to rescue Karen and save the Jardine’s marriage.

Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s novel is long and uneven, the plot overly contrived, the atmosphere as murky as a Norwegian forest.

Those faults scarcely matter.  The characters are riveting: I read Tante in one 10-hour block, unable to put it down even for meals.

by Anne Douglas Sedgwick  (Mrs. Basil De Sélincourt )
1912 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg ebook #30115
My grade: B+
©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni