My top picks of 1908 bestselling novels

The bestselling novels of 1908 provide some good entertainment and a couple contains some historical insights, but none really stand out as novels you can’t afford to miss.

Of the lot, The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by the prolific and versatile Louis Bromfield and The Shuttle by the equally prolific but less versatile Frances Hodgson Burnett are the best: They are certainly the most unusual.

The plots of both novels are set in motion by some really despicable characters.

For something lighter, appropriate perhaps to kicking back after the presents are opened, the Christmas dinner dishes washed and put away, I suggest The Man from Brodney’s by George Barr McCutcheon, another prolific author. Its light humor won’t upset your digestion.

The Shuttle

The Shuttle is touched off by a titled and nearly penniless Englishman’s attempt to restore his fortunes by marrying the the daughter of a rich American businessman.

Any heiress will do: Sir Nigel Anstruthers isn’t fussy as long as the girl is rich and easily cowed.

Rosalie Vanderpoel seems to fit the bill. She’s young, pretty, malleable, and next to brainless.

Sir Nigel doesn’t realize that Reuben Vanderpoel made his money the hard way, and he’s not about to throw it away in supporting a son-in-law he rightly suspects is a leech as well as a loser.

Unable to live in New York City on his father-in-law’s money, Sir Nigel takes Rosalie home to England where he gets her to sign over all her property to him. He leaves her and their son, Ughtred, at Anstruther’s crumbling county estate, while he enjoys Rosalie’s money in London.

Rosalie is so pathetic a doormat that readers will want to smack her up the side of the head and tell her to brighten up.

Rosalie’s younger sister, Betty, grows up under her father’s influence and with his financial acumen. At age 20, Betty comes to England to save Rosalie from her husband and herself.

What keeps The Shuttle interesting today is the historical setting. The titled Englishman who went to America for a rich bride to restore the family fortunes was a familiar tale from the late 1800’s to the World War I. Not all of the cross-Atlantic matches were as successful as the one in Downton Abbey.

The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg

The villain in Annie Spragg was her father.

Or perhaps it was her brother.

Or perhaps there were several villains.

Annie Spragg was an old woman when she turned up in an out-of-the-way village in Italy, not quite right in the head but seemingly harmless.

When she died, the women who laid her out found what they said were stigmata on her body.

An investigation by an amateur writer turned up some background on Annie, but he was unable to find out how she got the odd marks.

He learned Annie grew up in the days when America’s heartland was mostly empty acres. Travelers were few. Those who came were accepted with few questions about their background.

Annie’s father was a cult religious leader who moved his wife and 13 legitimate children around in a covered wagon, setting up wherever he could rally a small following, and staying until he wore out his welcome.

Eventually “Reverend” Spragg set himself up as a prophet, keeping to a tent from which he gave orders to his congregation. The only people allowed to see him were young virgins who attended to his needs.

Eventually Spragg was murdered by a jealous lover of one of the virgins who served him.

After their parents’ deaths, Annie and her preacher-brother lived together. When Uriah was found murdered, suspicion fell on Annie.

There was a heavy whip in the cabin and handcuffs that Uriah used to chain her in her bed at night.

When she was she was stripped and examined, investigators found she had unusual scars. They let her go without probing too deeply.

Neither The Shuttle or The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg is cheerful holiday reading. You might want to save them for a February evening when the wind is howling outside.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Shuttle is tightly-woven, multi-genre tale

When she learns of her sister’s engagement, eight-year-old Bettina “Betty” Vanderpoel cries, “He’ll do something awful to you….He’ll nearly kill you. I know he will.”

Sir Nigel Anstruthers turns out as nasty as Betty predicts.

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1908 bestseller #5.
Project Gutenberg ebook #506. My grade: A-.

Green, hilly English countryside with a few sheep grazing, no people in sight.When he realizes Reuben Vanderpoel won’t support him, Sir Nigel craftily isolates Rosalie from family back in New York, then bullies her into transferring her property to him.

While Rosalie withers, Betty is educated in France, Germany, and in company of her astute capitalist father.

At 20, Betty goes to England to see Rosalie.

Sir Nigel has thoroughly cowed Rosalie and Ughtred, his son to whom the estate is entailed.

Betty takes charge, using her charm and her father’s money to make the estate liveable and her sister comfortable.

Inevitably, the Vanderpoel heiress is swarmed by suitors.

Betty’s heart, however, throbs for Lord Mount Duncan, who scorns the practice of marrying American money to put a deteriorating English estate to rights.

Although Frances Hodgson Burnett gives the novel the love-interest of a romance and the suspense of a thriller, the novel is deeper than those categories.

Burnett explores personalities, digs into gender roles, and shows how England and America were separated by culture and reunited by money.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Orphan Stories My Favorites from 1913

To say bestsellers of 1913 haven’t held up well is an understatement.

Of the 10 novels that topped the sales charts in 1913, only Pollyanna is a title that will ring a bell  with most modern readers. It’s fame is probably due more to the 1960 movie version starring Hayley Mills than to Porter’s novel.  In most of the other bestsellers  of 1913, the message gets in the way of the story.

Forced to choose my favorites of the 1913 bestselling novels, I’d pick two  novels by women authors known for juvenile fiction:  Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter, and T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Both of my picks are eponymous novels about orphans . (Orphans were as common in America up to World War I as children from single-parent homes are today.)   Neither novel is realistic, though T. Tembarom is marginally superior to Pollyanna on that count.

Both orphans have cheerful dispositions and a willingness to make the best of whatever comes their way.

And, since I’m a sucker for cheerful kids, I’ll choose these two as the best of a bad crop of bestselling novels.

T. Tembarom Engagingly Quirky “Orphan” Novel

Orphaned at 10, T. Tembarom goes to work selling newspapers. Cheerful and practical, the lad makes do with whatever comes his way, even discarding his name for a less embarrassing one.

Through hard work and good sense, Tembarom eventually gets a foot in the newsroom door. He hopes to become a news reporter.

While pounding the pavement, Tembarom finds a man with a wad of money but no idea who he is. Tembarom gives his amnesiac friend, whom he calls Mr. Strangeways, his own boarding house bed.

When Tembarom inherits an English estate, the Brooklyn girl whom Tembarom hoped to marry refuses to  even to write him until he’s lived a year under his legal name in his new role in England. From England herself, the Brooklyn realist knows she wouldn’t be socially acceptable as Mrs. Temple Temple Barholm.

The Brits are embarrassed by Tembarom’s Yankee slang and off-the-rack clothes. Gradually, however, his kindness and ability to see things from the other person’s viewpoint win them over. He even wins the friendship of the marriageable daughters whom he has no interest in marrying.

Frances Hodgson Burnett does such a good job of foreshadowing the surprise ending that it’s no surprise. It is, however, a pleasure. Burnett’s characters are so engagingly quirky that the lack of substance in this offbeat, rags-to-riches novel don’t matter.

T. Tembarom
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1913 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg ebook #2514
My grade B

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My picks of 1922 bestsellers

The bestseller list of 1922 has everything from comedy to social criticism. Neither category, however, is on my personal list of favorites for the year.

My favorites are the two novels by A. S. M. Hutchinson, If Winter Comes and This Freedom, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Head of the House of Coombe. All three explore facets of the human psyche in very different ways.

This Freedom is the better of the two Hutchinson novels. Hutchinson makes the characters feel real, their choices seem grounded in reality. The exploration of whether women can “have it all” is still timely, as are questions about how to run a two-paycheck household.

That said, I admit I prefer If Winter Comes. With his ability to see other people’s perspectives, his humor, his dedication to doing right the lead character is so un-heroic that I can’t help rooting for him. I’m quite willing to ignore the too-contrived ending as long as it ends well for Mark.

My third choice is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Head of the House of Coombe which takes readers behind the lace curtains to find the upper crust are as bad as the tabloids make them appear. The victim is a poor, fatherless child; to learn who the villain is, you have to read the novel.

Any of these novels will provide good entertainment. Each is available as a free e-book at Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg

House of Coombe Pits Deserving Orphan Against Her Mother

In The Head of the House of Coombe, Frances Hodgson Burnett gives an unexpected twist to much-used tale of deserving orphan who triumphs over adversity.

Robin Gareth-Lawless might as well be an orphan. Her all-too-alive widowed mother has no interest in Robin at all until she realizes the child is beautiful enough to become her rival for men’s affections.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

“Feather” Gareth-Lawless is a mental and moral featherweight. Suddenly widowed, she agrees to be kept by Lord Coombe, a man of intelligence, impeccable tailoring, and disinclination toward marriage.

Robin is left in the care of a nurse, rarely sees “The Lady Downstairs,” and does not even know the meaning of the term mother.

At 6, Robin meets a Scots lad of 8 who is drawn to the beautiful, lonely girl. When Donal’s mother learns his young friend is the daughter of the woman Coombe keeps, she rushes her son home to Scotland. Momma thinks it’s bad enough Donal is in line to become Coombe’s heir; she draws the line at fraternizing with the bastard of his mistress.

Later, Robin overhears servant gossip that suggests Coombe deprived her of Donal and begins to hate her mother’s benefactor. Coombe, however, continues to act with Robin’s best interests in view.

Burnett tantalizes readers with speculations about why Coombe cares for the child, his relationship to Feather, and the depravity to which he stoops on his frequent “Friday to Monday” trips to the continent.

If Coombe is a mystery, Feather is not. Her particular brand of brainless nastiness makes Becky Sharp look saintly.

This is one romance that even those who hate the genre can love.

The Head of the House of Coombe
Frances Hodgson Burnett
1922 Bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg ebook #6491

Editor’s note: This review was scheduled to run July 25, but I failed to hit the right buttons. I apologize for the delay.

Photo Credit: Photo of Frances Hodgson Burnett from Stories by American Authors published by Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1900, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni