My picks of the 1907 bestselling novels

I’m afraid 1907 wasn’t a great year for bestselling novels. They were lightweights, one and all.

The Lady of the Decoration

The best of the lot is Frances Little’s The Lady of the Decoration, a sunny epistolary novel purporting to be written by Southern widow working as a nursery school teacher at a mission school in Japan.

Her husband’s untimely death had left her practically penniless. The teaching job offered not only a salary, but also an escape from reminders of of her unhappy marriage.

The Lady finds she has a natural aptitude for organizing and a gift for teaching. She adores and is adored by her students.  Before long, the adults of Hiroshima are enthralled by her as well.

Although the lady is often lonely and unhappy far from home, her natural good humor and her fascination with Japan and its people keep her from giving in to unhappiness.

The story is gentle and sweet and funny, just serious enough to avoid sentimentalism but not so serious as to sound preachy. It’s not a great book, but it’s a good one.

The Daughter of Anderson Crow

The only other 1907 novel that still is likely to attract a twenty-first century reader is The Daughter of Anderson Crow by George Barr McCutcheon.

It’s the story of a baby left on the doorstep.

The doorstep belongs to Anderson Crow, the Tinkletown marshal and holder of various other town offices which Anderson Crow and most of the town residents think only Anderson Crow has the mental capacity to fill.

In fact, Anderson Crow’s brainpower falls far short of brilliance and a stone’s throw short of common sense: He’s a pompous rube among groveling rubes.

McCutcheon’s plot is tangled and implausible. He can’t seem to make up his mind what his authorial perspective on his characters should be.

However, McCutcheon’s humor glosses over the novel’s flaws and makes the novel’s silliness seem a virtue.

The Younger Set

My third choice is The Younger Set by Robert W. Chambers, which by comparison to Lady and Anderson Crow feels like an academic treatise.

Chambers focuses on Capt. Philip Selwyn who had been planning on an army career until his wife ran off with another man. Selwyn “did the decent thing” and  allowed himself to be branded the guilty party to the divorce, which ruined her career.

It does not, however, stop him loving his wife or feeling unable to consider marriage to another woman while his wife lives.

The Younger Set is remembered today—if it is remembered at all—as the source of the quotation, “He shaves the dead line like a safety razor, but he’s never yet cut through it.”

Chambers’ contemporaries noted the book for another passage, which Vera Brittian refers to in her nonfiction memoir Testament of Youth:

I should like to know…something about everything. That being out of the question, I should like to know everything about something. That also being out of the question, for third choice I should like to know something about something. I am not too ambitious, am I?

Neither of my two top picks is a great novel or a particularly memorable novel, but each one will provide entertainment without over-exerting a reader’s mental faculties.

The Younger Set is a better novel than the other two, but most of today’s readers will be baffled or amused by Selwin’s reaction to his unfaithful wife. They’ll probably be content with no more than the few lines I quoted.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Younger Set: Friends and marriage

The Younger Set is both a romance and a love story.

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The romance is between a divorced man, Capt. Philip Selwyn, 35, and his sister’s ward, Eileen Erroll, 19.

The love story that of Selwyn and his ex-wife, Alixe.

The Younger Set by Robert W. Chambers
G.C. Wilmhurst, illus. D. Appleton, 1907. 1907 bestseller #8. Project Gutenberg ebook #14852. My Grade: B.

Selwyn was on army maneuvers in Manila when Alixe ran off with Jack Ruthven.

Selwyn chose to be legally branded the guilty party rather than contest the divorce, and that dishonor forced him to resign his army commission.

Two years later, Selwyn is back in America, Alixe is married to Ruthven, and she’s also going around with a man whose wife is a friend of hers.

Selwyn has never given Alixe back her photograph, and his sister can’t interest him in other women.

Selwyn becomes friends with Eileen.

Eileen’s brother, Gerald, works for the same real estate firm for which Selwyn worked before the war.

When Gerald gets drawn into high-stakes card games at the Ruthven home, Selwyn plays big brother.

Robert W. Chambers treats even minor characters with respectful nuances. There are no sterotypes in view.

Chambers lends depth to his portraits with backdrops of marriages and romances against which readers can evaluate Sewlyn’s behavior and, perhaps, evaluate their own opinions.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Fighting Chance doesn’t land a punch

The Fighting Chance is about upper crust young Americans who have nothing they must do but can’t do nothing well.

Leading lady Sylvia Landis hails from a line of promiscuous women. She’s engaged herself to filthy-rich bachelor Howard Quarrier hoping—but not believing—his money will secure her fidelity.

The Fighting Chance by Robert W. Chambers

Project Gutenberg EBook #7492. My Grade: B.

Although Sylvia is sure she needs mega-millions for happiness, she falls for Stephen Siward, who has only enough to live on without working.

Stephen was recently dropped from an exclusive club for conduct unbecoming a gentleman while drunk.

Drink has been the downfall of the Siwards for generations.

The story begins to get interesting when a sharp, amiable young businessman with upwardly mobile ambitions comes on the scene.

Beverly Plank is socially inept, but he’s the sensitive, tough-minded friend Siward needs.

Plank not only gets Siward off booze, but provides him with challenging work figuring out what financial shenanigans Quarrier is up to.

When it was that [Siward] first began to like Plank very much he could not exactly remember. He was not, perhaps, aware of how much he liked him. Plank’s unexpected fits of shyness, of formality, often and often amused him. But there was a subtler feeling under the unexpressed amusement, and, beneath all, a constantly increasing sub-stratum of respect. Too, he found himself curiously at ease with Plank, as with one born to his own caste. And this feeling, unconscious, but more and more apparent, meant more to Plank than anything that had ever happened to him. It was a tonic in hours of doubt, a pleasure in his brief leisure, a pride never to be hinted at, never to be guessed, never to be dreamed of by any living soul save Plank alone.

Robert W. Chambers does a lot that’s right in his characterization, plot development, and refusal to do the expected, yet somehow the novel doesn’t work.

The romance is too prosaic for escapism, and the most intriguing component of the plot—the friendship between the two men—is inadequately developed to become the novel’s core.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My nominees for best of 1919 bestsellers

Nine of the 10 bestsellers of 1919 are each about some aspect of the world war that had so recently concluded.

The Re-Creation of Brian Kent by Howard Bell Wright is not only the oddball in the group, but it’s also easily the least good of the set.

Scratch that.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez is the best novel of the 1919 bestsellers. The main character’s explanation of how he served in the war “merely as a victim,” has to rank as one of literature’s most horrifying insights into the nature of war.

However, Blasco’s long paragraphs and high page count won’t draw most modern readers beyond a few pages, so I’ll reluctantly remove it from my list.

Three other novels can be eliminated from my short list immediately:  The Arrow of Gold by Joseph Conrad, The Desert of Wheat by Zane Grey, and Dawn by Gene Stratton Porter.  While each of these has interesting elements, none has a strong story that grows from the personalities of the characters.

I will also scratch The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land by Ralph Connor.  While having a military chaplain as the lead character makes for a memorable war novel, having the chaplain remain glowingly healthy in the midst of trench warfare after the Army declared him unfit for military service is a major flub.

In Secret by Robert W. Chambers belongs on my list of recommendations. In Secret is a thriller that truly lives up to that designation.

Chambers cleverly leaves out whole blocks of the story which in a Hollywood version would become the story. Instead Chambers focuses on the characters’ emotional and mental responses to terrifying circumstances.

Even knowing the ending doesn’t drain the tension from this novel.

In Secret is a keeper.

Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart and The Tin Soldier by Temple Bailey each look at how the war abroad affected families back home. I’ll choose Rinehart’s novel over Bailey’s: Rinehart’s major characters are far more interesting individuals than Bailey’s.

The remaining novel rises by default to my top picks.

Christopher and Columbus by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim wraps a caustic exploration of anti-German hysteria in America in a witty and rather charming romance. The novel isn’t one of the Countess’s best, but she never fails to entertain.

So there you have my recommendations for the best 1919 novels for today’s reader:

  • In Secret by Robert W. Chambers
  • Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • Christopher and Columbus by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim

In Secret: Ciphers, Espionage, Murder, and Mystery

In an American secret service office, Evelyn Erith opens a coded letter. It says the Germans believe Kay MacKay, an American concentration camp escapee, knows The Great Secret.

MacKay must be eliminated.

From that beginning, In Secret’s author, Robert W. Chambers,  sets up familiar scenarios which he promptly turns on their heads.

The novel’s series of shattered expectations generates incredible tension.

Evelyn finds MacKay, dries him out — the Germans had gotten him addicted to alcohol in hopes of getting information — and they go to Germany to get proof of what MacKay knows.

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps

MacKay believes that for 40 years the Germans have been building a tunnel under Switzerland into France. Soon the tunnel will let them attack the French from behind French lines.

The proof the Americans need is accessible only from Mount Terrible, a peak in a part of Switzerland between Germany and France.

The Germans pursue them relentlessly.

What began as a series of attacks becomes a battle of attrition: The manpower, firepower, food, water, and winter clothing are controlled by the Germans.

Chambers works readers to the edge of their chairs, then pulls the chairs out from under them with a perfectly plausible but totally unexpected ending.

In Secret
By Robert W. Chambers
1919 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg ebook #5748
My grade: B+

Photo credit: Mont Blanc 9 by marco_cecc

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dullness in defense of marriage: The Common Law

The Common Law is treatise in defense of marriage masquerading as a romance novel. Robert W. Chambers intertwines the two themes  but never succeeds in blending them.

Artist Louis “Kelly” Neville, a facile and prolific artist, is at work when Valerie West knocks at his door seeking modeling work. Neville hires her, finding her intellect, youth, and enthusiasm for life as enchanting as her form.

Valerie adores Neville, but enjoys the company of other creative people of her age as well. The artists all want to sleep with the lovely lass, but she’s giving nothing away.

Neville proposes marriage, but Valerie won’t have it. She thinks, rightly, Neville’s social set would snub him if he married a model. She offers to become his mistress instead. Neville won’t have that.

The characterizations don’t work, the implausible plot plods, and the philosophical discourse is depressing.

All the while they are bickering over whether they will or won’t marry, Valerie confines her caresses to the cat and Neville gives his kisses to his mother. I’ve seen more passionate displays by people selecting mangoes in the grocery produce department.

Finally Chambers resorts to drastic action in the form of two attempted rapes to wrap things up so his characters can live happily ever after and readers can find something more interesting to read.

The Common Law
by Robert W. Chambers
Illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson
D. Appleton, 1911
Project Gutenberg e-book #13813
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni