Category Archives: Book Reviews

A Pioneering Gay Novel of 1919

Early this year, I was reading H.L. Mencken’s fiction roundup in the January 1920 issue of The Smart Set in search of a good book. I didn’t have much hope, given Mencken’s generally dim view of the novels of the day.

Smart Set cover, January 1910

So I was pleasantly surprised to come across his review of Henry B. Fuller’s novel Bertram Cope’s Year, which he calls “a very fair piece of writing, as novels go. A bit pizzicato; even a bit distinguished.” I enjoy academic novels, and Mencken described Bertrand Cope’s Year as a comic romp featuring a young college instructor who haplessly endures various townspeople’s attempts to ensnare him into romantic and social entanglements. I Googled the book, expecting to get the usual array of low-quality Amazon reprints and not much else.* To my surprise, I found a Wikipedia entry saying that Bertrand Cope’s Year is “perhaps the first American homosexual novel.”

I immediately downloaded it on my Kindle and started reading. I made it about halfway through, but, this being early March, life and COVID intervened and I ended up putting it aside.** When I resumed, it was in the much more palatable form of this attractive annotated edition by Broadview Editions:

Photo of Bertram Cope's Year by Henry B. Fuller

Bertram Cope is a 24-year-old instructor and master’s degree student at a Northwestern-like university in the Evanston-like town of Churchton, Illinois. Cope is strikingly handsome; I picture him as a young blond Cary Grant. As soon as he shows up, the entire population of Churchton, male and female, goes into a swoon and sets out to ensnare him. Medora, a prosperous widow, installs him in her social set and, although clearly pining for him herself, throws her three young artistic protégées in his path. Much sitting in parlors ensues.

Randolph, a middle-aged businessman, schemes to become Bertram’s “mentor,” but, you know, the kind of mentor who moves to a bigger apartment so as to have a more suitable setup in case Bertram comes over for dinner and gets snowed in for the night. (This fails, but he does finagle some skinny-dipping at the Indiana Dunes.)

Postcard of Indiana Dunes, early 20th century

Postcard of Indiana Dunes, ca. 1910-1920 (rootsweb.com)

Meanwhile, all Bertram wants to do is set up housekeeping with his devoted friend Arthur, who’s back home in Wisconsin. When Randolph invites Bertram to accompany him on an overnight trip, Arthur puts the kibosh on it, even though the “fickle” Arthur (Bertram’s word) has been known to go on similar weekend jaunts himself.

(We’re getting into spoiler territory here, so if you’re planning to read the book, or just find plot summaries tedious, skip down to the photo of Henry Fuller.)

Evanston lifesaving station, 1910.

Evanston Life-Saving Station, 1910 (Chicago Daily News)

Amy, the most determined protégée, takes to stalking Bertram. One day they just happen to meet on the university campus and end up going for a sail. The boat capsizes, the two struggle to the shore, and Amy turns this into a tale of heroism on Bertram’s part even though, in Bertram’s opinion, if anyone did any saving it was Amy. This is the most exciting thing that has happened in Churchton in months, even more exciting than the time when Bertram fainted during one of Medora’s soirées. Amy starts blathering about “happiness” on their walks, and, without Bertram knowing exactly what happened, they end up engaged.

Arthur, as you can imagine, is NOT happy. Neither are Medora and Randolph, who conspire to throw a hail-fellow-well-met type named Pearson into Amy’s path. Between that and Bertram’s unavailability to see Amy ever, which even she sees as a red flag, the engagement comes to an end, to Bertram’s huge relief.

Frances Willard House, Evanston, Illinois.

Frances Willard House, Evanston, Illinois, early 20th century

Bertram and Arthur set up a home together and live in blissful cohabitation, so blissful that it starts raising eyebrows. Their PDAs prompt Medora’s disabled relative Foster, whose main activity in life is making caustic comments, to recall the time when similar behavior by a newlywed couple in Sarasota prompted an elderly woman to complain that they “brought the manners of the bedchamber into the drawing-room.”

Further complications ensue in the form of Hortense, another of Medora’s protégées, who makes a play for Bertram by painting his portrait. When Bertram, having learned his lesson from the Amy fiasco, rejects her, she flies into a fury, tears the portrait in half, and tells Bertram that his “preposterous friendship” with Arthur will not last long.

Arthur, meanwhile, has thrown himself into his female part in the campus theatricals.

Their room came to be strown with all the disconcerting items of a theatrical wardrobe. Cope soon reached the point where he was not quite sure that he liked it all, and he began to develop a distaste for Lemoyne’s preoccupation with it. He came home one afternoon to find on the corner of his desk a long pair of silk stockings and a too dainty pair of ladies’ shoes. “Oh, Art!” he protested.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Triangle Club production, Princeton, 1915.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in a Triangle Club production, Princeton University, 1915

When the big night finally arrives, the townspeople squirm at Arthur’s all-too-convincing female impersonation at first, but his final number brings down the house. Unfortunately, Arthur doesn’t know when to stop, and his post-curtain pass at a male costar who can’t take a joke (if it was one) is met with a whack. No prizes for guessing who gets drummed out of town as a result of this incident.

Bertram, having earned his master’s degree, hightails it for the East Coast, where he has gotten a job at an “important university.” Medora and Randolph admit defeat, but Carolyn, the third protégée, is in hot pursuit. The story ends with us wondering whether Bertram ends up with her or with Arthur.

“AR-THUR, AR-THUR, AR-THUR, AR-THUR,” contemporary readers call out in unison. Given that Bertram managed to escape Amy’s clutches when she was a) right there in Churchton and b) actually engaged to him, I’m fairly confident that he’ll succeed in giving Carolyn the slip. But this wasn’t such a slam-dunk case in 1919. Once again, I picture Cary Grant’s desperate, trapped expression at the supposedly happy ending of every romantic comedy he starred in.***

Henry B. Fuller, ca. 1893

Who, I wondered, was Henry Fuller? And how did this book come to be published in 1919?

Fuller, it turns out, was a well-established 62-year-old Chicago writer when Bertram Cope’s Year was published. He got his start in his twenties with allegorical travel novels about Italy, which sound heinous but brought him attention among the genteel New England literary set. He then turned to realist novels about his gritty native city. Along the way, he wrote a play about a young man who commits suicide at the wedding of his former (male) lover.

Fuller also wrote literary criticism for The Dial and other publications. Once I looked up his reviews, I realized that I had read quite a few of them.**** If you want to save yourself the trouble of spending a year reading as if you were living 100 years ago, just take my word for it that all literary criticism, by Fuller and everyone else (except H.L. Mencken), sounds exactly like this snippet from Fuller’s review in The Dial of a book of lectures by Lafcadio Hearne:

Text from an article by Henry Fuller, The Dial, January 17, 1918.

The Dial, January 17, 1918

The depiction of homosexuality in Bertram Cope’s Year is often described as subtle, an argument I have trouble buying unless your definition of subtle is that no one marches down the street waving a rainbow flag. Judging from all the rejections Fuller received, the publishing industry had no trouble understanding what the book was about. It ended up being published, at Fuller’s expense, by a small Chicago publishing house owned by his friend Ralph Fletcher Seymour.

The Bookman headline, Good Novels of Several Kinds, May 1920

The Bookman, May 1920

The conventional wisdom, to the extent that there is conventional wisdom about Bertram Cope’s Year, is that the book was ignored or condemned by critics. However, in addition to Mencken’s write-up, it received favorable or semi-favorable reviews from The Bookman (“the kind of novel which must be enjoyed not for its matter so much as for its quality, its richness of texture and subtlety of atmosphere”), The Booklist (“live enough people and a sense of humor hovering near the surface”), and The Weekly Review (“a mild affair altogether whose sole and sufficient distinction lies in the delicate perfection of its setting forth”). This is a fair amount of press for a book from a small publisher. None of the reviews mention the homosexuality angle. Poor Arthur is nowhere to be seen, and some of the reviews portray Bertram’s desperate flight from Carolyn as a possible budding romance. It wasn’t until Carl Van Vechten published a laudatory essay in 1926 that the true subject of the book was acknowledged.

What was going on here? Did the reviewers just not get it? This seems impossible, but it’s hard, looking back from the knowing present, to see things through the lens of another era.***** Maybe they were just protecting the delicate sensibilities of their readers? But, in that case, why bother to review the book at all?

Title page, Bertram Cope's Year, by Henry B. Fuller, 1919.

HathiTrust Digital Library

It was a moot point in the end. Bertram Cope’s s Year sold very few copies. “My disrelish for the writing-and-publishing game is now absolute,” Fuller wrote to his friend Hamlin Garland in May 1920. ”There seems to be no way for one to get read or paid, so—Shutters up.” Fuller continued writing non-fiction, but he abandoned fiction for almost a decade, before writing one last novel that was published posthumously in 1929.

Fuller fell into obscurity after his death, but Bertram Cope’s Year has found a new life in the 21st century. The book was republished in 1998, with an afterword by Andrew Solomon, and a critical edition (the one I read) was published in 2010.

Wikipedia’s assertion that Bertram Cope’s Year is the first gay American novel falls apart upon examination. There is, for example, Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend, published in 1870, about a young Pennsylvania farmer who falls in love with a man who cares for him after a train crash. Edward Prime-Stevenson’s 1906 novel Imre: A Memorandum, is arguably the first American novel to depict an actual gay relationship, although some claim that it doesn’t count because it was published in Europe, where New Jersey-born Prime-Stevenson lived. Alan Dale, the hack drama critic whose play about an unrepentant unwed mother I wrote about a while back, published the gay melodrama A Marriage Below Zero in 1889, two years after he left Britain for the United States.

Vintage photo, young male couple.

boobob92******

So I guess the best claim we can make for Bertram Cope’s Year is that it’s the first novel by an American writer that was published in the United States, features a loving gay couple, and doesn’t end in a tragic death.******* Which is a bit of a mouthful as firsts go, but still one worth celebrating.

squiggle

*Don’t get me started on the shady business of print-on-demand. Four-point font! Typos on the cover! The totally wrong book (I’m talking to you, Robert Chambers’ The Tree of Heaven labeled as May Sinclair’s The Tree of Heaven)!

**Which is what I do with almost every book I start reading on my Kindle in any case.

***I didn’t actually re-watch every Cary Grant romantic comedy to fact-check this assertion, so I’m open to correction here. Still, I do get a “gay man trapped by determined women” vibe from his oeuvre as a whole.

****Among other things, Fuller started a heated debate about whether novels were too long or too short that I came in in the middle of. (No one thought that they were the right length, apparently.)

*****It wasn’t until probably my fourth reading of The Great Gatsby a decade or so ago that it struck me that the scene at the end of the second chapter where Nick is in Myrtle’s neighbor’s apartment is the aftermath of a gay sexual encounter. It seemed so unmistakable that I marveled that I could ever have missed it. I’ll try to remember to put in a link when the copyright expires at the beginning of 2021. If I forget, remind me. (P.S. If you didn’t look at the caption below the photo of the person wearing the hat, go back and check it out!)

******This photo was posted on the Flickr site of a collector of vintage postcards who thinks it looks a lot like Bertram and Arthur. I agree!

*******Although I worried a little, given that Bertram, in addition to his fainting episode, was constantly getting sick.

Illustration from Marion by Winnifred Eaton

An absorbing novel by an early Chinese-American writer

It’s been five months since the end of my year in 1918, but I still haven’t fully readjusted. A few weeks ago I was reading one of the recent novels I had looked forward to during my sojourn. There’s a child in the book who is so brilliant and sweet that I said, “Uh-oh, he’s too good to live.”

He dies!

Take me back to 1918, I said, and put the book down.

Since it’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month,* I decided to read a book by an Asian-American writer of that era. Or, rather, the Asian-American** writer of that era, Winnifred Eaton, author of, among many other books, Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model.

Winnifred Eaton AKA Onoto Watanna

Winnifred Eaton (The Bookman, January 1903)

Winnifred Eaton was the younger sister of Edith Maude Eaton, who wrote about the Chinese community in Seattle and San Francisco under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far. I read Mrs. Spring Fragrance, a collection of Sui Sin Far’s stories, last year, but she died before 1918 so I didn’t write about her beyond a brief write-up on the Book List.*** It was when I was looking into Edith’s life (okay, reading her Wikipedia entry) that I learned about Winnifred.

Edith Maude Eaton aka Sui Sin Far.

Edith Maude Eaton

Edith and Winnifred were two of the fourteen children of a British merchant named Edward Eaton and his wife Grace, who had been a Chinese slave, performing in the circus as the target in a knife-throwing act, before being rescued and adopted by British missionaries. (UPDATE 6/9/2019: I thought the knife-throwing story seemed kind of bogus, but it was in Edith’s Wikipedia entry with a footnote so I decided to include it–we’re not exactly the New Yorker here at MYI1918 when it comes to fact-checking. I’ve since looked this up in biographies of Edith and Winnifred. Both say that their mother’s origins are hazy and there is no evidence of the circus story beyond family legend.) Edith was born in England in 1865, shortly before the family moved to Canada. They moved back to England and then back to Canada, where Winnifred was born in 1875. Their father struggled to support his large family, working first as a clerk, then as an artist, then turning to smuggling Chinese people into the United States from Canada.**** Both Edith and Winnifred began writing for magazines as teenagers.

Cover of Chinese Japanese Cook Book by Sara Bosse and Onoto Watanna.

Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model was published in 1916. By this time, Eaton had written a number of best-selling romance novels under the fake Japanese name Onoto Watanna.***** She and her sister Sarah, whose married name was Bosse, had also published The Chinese-Japanese Cook Book, which reassured readers that “when it is known how simple and clean are the ingredients used to make up these oriental dishes, the Westerner will cease to feel that natural repugnance which assails one when about to taste a strange dish of a new and strange land.”

Marion wasn’t published under the pseudo-Japanese pseudonym; Eaton was identified on the title page only as “Herself and the author of ‘Me.’” Me: A Book of Remembrance was a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1915. It’s the story of Nora Ascouth, who, like Winnifred, moves from Canada to Jamaica and then to the United States.

Not having read Me, I assumed as I read Marion that it was autobiographical. It turns out, however, to be the story of Winnifred’s older sister (and cookbook co-author) Sarah. The Eaton family is clearly identifiable: there’s the struggling artist father (she leaves out the smuggling part); the foreign mother; killjoy older brother Charles (Edward Charles in real life), who complains about Marion looking at the naked Jesuses in the Catholic store; responsible older sister Ada (Edith), who’s always pestering Marion to send money home; and Nora again. The siblings’ Chinese heritage is never explicitly mentioned, but we do learn that they’re foreign-looking and that a neighbor calls them “heathenish.”

Marion is the flibbertigibbet of the family, and those around her predict that she’ll come to a bad end, but she’s a talented actress and artist. Also, as people constantly tell her, beautiful. She’s about to launch an acting career when she meets and falls in love with the Hon. Reginald Bertie (pronounced Bartie). He’s just her type, blond and handsome. Reggie convinces Marion to give up acting, they get engaged, and he strings her along for several years, afraid to tell his family about her. It’s because I’m poor, Marion tells herself, although her foreign origins probably aren’t helping.

When Reggie asks her to “be my wife in all but the silly ceremony,” Marion flees to Boston, where she gets work as an artist’s assistant and model. My first question, naturally, was, “Does she pose naked?” She does, but only once, when she’s practically starving, and it doesn’t go well. “The model is crying,” a student in the class she’s posing for observes. She yells at the class, calling them devils and beasts, and leaves.

When Reggie writes and says he’s coming for her (still no mention of a wedding), she takes off for New York. After turning down a job as a chorus girl, she settles in Greenwich Village and falls in with a group of artists, including one named Paul, who, if the book’s illustrations are to be trusted, looks exactly like Reggie. (That’s him at the upper left below.) Unlike the hacks who surround him, he has high artistic principles (which he expresses in vapid terms—art theory isn’t Eaton’s strength******). I won’t reveal the ending because I want you to read this book, but no prizes for guessing what happens.

Winnifred Eaton is no Jean Rhys or Edna Ferber as a stylist, but I loved reading about the large, bohemian Montreal family, the Boston art scene, and the struggling New York artists with their dingy boarding houses, cheap table d’hôte dinners, and unsanitary habits. (“Some of the artists in the building were pretty dirty,” Marion tells us, italics hers). There are wonderful period details, like when Marion is part of a “living pictures” show (symbolizing things like Youth and Rock of Ages) that takes Providence by storm. She gives us a wonderful sense of how a beautiful and educated but poor woman gets by in life, the compromises she makes, and the ones she refuses to make.

Eaton was evasive about her Chinese heritage even when writing under a pseudonym. She took her pretense of being Japanese beyond the made-up name, claiming to have born in Nagasaki, the descendant of noblemen. But she’s a vivid and honest chronicler of a fascinating milieu.

I can’t wait to read Me.

*But we are not, you will notice, “celebrating” APAHM. If you look to the right, you’ll see that I’ve fallen into a naming rut—my recent posts are a veritable fiesta.  If you’re reading this in the future (which I realized as I proofread this that you definitely will be, since this post will push the last celebration off the list), here’s what I’m talking about:

Screenshot of Recent Posts, most starting with Celebrating

**Well, Asian-Canadian-American.

***I highly recommend this collection, especially the first two stories.

****There’s a story on this topic in Mrs. Spring Fragrance.

*****That is, it’s not only not her real name, it’s also not a real Japanese name.

******Eaton does do a good job, though, of depicting social gradations among artists—the ones who paint on plates and cloth, the ones who knock off old masters, the society artists, and the art for art’s sake ones like Paul. Then there are the different levels of models—the ones like Marion who won’t take their clothes off so don’t make much money; the nude models at the art schools who drop their drapes when the teacher shouts, “Pose,” and at the lowest end, Marion’s friend Lil, who prances around in her birthday suit in the studio where Marion works.

Illustration from Marion, artist and nude model in drape

And the best novel of 1918 is…

Photo portrait of Willa Cather, 1918

Willa Cather, 1918 (Aime Dupont Studio, New York)

Hi everyone, I’m back! During the first few weeks of the year I’ve been weathering a somewhat rocky transition from 1918 to 2019, posting beautiful images from 1918 on Twitter, and finishing the last book I started in 2018, which was also the best novel I read all year. Which is…

My Ántonia by Willa Cather!

Cover of My Antonia by Willa Cather, first edition, 1918.

First edition, 1918

That’s right—I went out on a limb and chose the book that people today regard as the best novel of 1918*

Screenshot of Goodreads top 199 book published in 1918, with My Antonia at number 1.

and that was already recognized as a future classic in its own time.

Photo portrait of Randolph Bourne.

Randolph Bourne, date unknown

In one of his last reviews before he died of Spanish influenza at the age of 32, Randolph Bourne wrote of My Ántonia in The Dial on December 14, 1918, that

here at last is an American novel, redolent of the western prairie, that our most irritated and exacting preconceptions can be content with…It has all the artistic simplicity of material that has been patiently shaped until everything irrelevant has been scraped away. The story has a flawless tone of candor, a naïve charm, that seems quite artless until we realize that no spontaneous narrative could possibly have the clean pertinence and grace which this story has…Miss Cather’s even novel has that serenity of the story that is telling itself, of people who are living through their own spontaneous charm.

Photo portrait of young H.L. Mencken.

H.L. Mencken, date unknown

H.L. Mencken was downright swoony, writing in the February 1919 issue of Smart Set that My Ántonia was “sound, delicate, penetrating, brilliant, charming.” Cather, he said,

has arrived at last at such a command of the mere devices of writing that the uses she makes of them are all concealed—her style has lost self-consciousness; her feeling for form has become instinctive. And she has got such a grip upon her materials—upon the people she sets before us and the background she displays behind them—that both take on an extraordinary reality. I know of no novel that makes the remote folk of the western prairies more real than “My Ántonia” makes them, and I know of none that makes them seem better worth knowing.

Both Bourne and Mencken were depressed about the state of the American novel in 1918. My Ántonia gave them hope.

Cover of The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, first edition, 1918. Man and woman seen through window.

First edition, 1918

Not everyone thought (or thinks) so highly of My Ántonia, though. The Pulitzer Prize for that year (the second one ever for a novel) was awarded to Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. If you haven’t read it, take my word for it: Cather was robbed. The Magnificent Ambersons (which I wrote about herewas an enjoyable novel, but Tarkington’s portrayal of its central character was as hollow as Cather’s of Ántonia was masterful.** And My Ántonia didn’t make the Modern Library’s much-discussed 1998 list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century (although her 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop did). The Magnificent Ambersons made the cut, barely, at #100.

Still, My Ántonia’s status as a classic is unquestioned. For that reason, I struggled with how to write about it. The danger about writing about a recognized masterpiece is that you’ll end up sounding like you’re doing a high school homework assignment. In the end I decided to write about some things I learned about the book while reading it and reading about it (which I’m allowed to do now that I’m freed from the reading-in-1918 strictures). I learned a lot, as it turned out, so I’m splitting the discussion into two (or more) posts. (UPDATE 1/25/2020: Um, that didn’t happen. This is it.)

Photograph of Willa Cather's family home in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Willa Cather’s family home in Red Cloud, 2010 (Ammodramus)

First, a summary of the book in case you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in a while (as I hadn’t–I first read it when I was nineteen or so and remembered literally nothing except that it took place on the prairie). The story is narrated by Jim Burden, who moves to his grandparents’ Nebraska farm from Virginia after being orphaned at age ten. He arrives on the same train as a family of Bohemian immigrants, the Shimerdas. Ántonia Shimerda, four years older, becomes Jim’s inseparable companion. Their friendship continues when Jim’s grandparents move to town a few years later and Ántonia starts working for a neighboring family, the Harlings. The story doesn’t have much of a plot; the most dramatic incident is the suicide fairly early on of Ántonia’s father, a soulful musician ill-suited for hardscrabble farm life. Jim goes to college and Ántonia gets engaged to a railroad employee who abandons her, leaving her an unwed mother. The book ends with Jim, now a successful New York lawyer but unhappily married and childless, returning to Nebraska after a twenty-year absence and visiting Ántonia and her large, affectionate family.

Now for the things that I didn’t know about My Ántonia: 

The accent is on the first syllable of Ántonia.

Footnote from My Antonia explaining that the name Antonia is accented on the first syllable.

My Ántonia, 1918 edition, p. 3

This isn’t exactly a closely held secret. The accent mark is a dead giveaway, for one thing. And there’s a footnote on the first page of the first chapter explaining exactly how to pronounce it. But, like everyone else who knows enough not to pronounce it like anTOneea, I’ve been saying antonEEa all these years. If you want to go around saying, “Well, ACTUALLY, it’s…” you can hear the correct pronunciation here.

Ántonia was a real person.

Photograph of Anna Sadile Pavelka, the real-life My Antonia.

Anna Sadile Pavelka, date unknown

I wondered as I read My Ántonia whether it was based on a true story. It had the ring of truth, and not just in the way that good novels seem real. There was also Cather’s tendency to paint vivid portraits of secondary characters, like Nina Harling and Jim’s college teacher Gaston Cleric, and then not do much with them. It didn’t seem that she would have bothered to portray them at this level of detail if they weren’t real people.

My Ántonia is, it turns out, closely based on events in Cather’s life. She moved from Virginia to Nebraska with her parents when she was nine. Like Jim, she moved from a farm to the nearby town (Black Hawk in the book, Red Cloud in real life) later in her childhood. The real Ántonia was Anna (Annie) Sadile, who worked for Cather’s close friends the Miners, the inspiration for the Harling family. (My Ántonia is dedicated to Carrie and Irene Miner.) Annie’s father, like Ántonia’s, shot himself and was buried at the crossroads of the family farm. Annie, like Ántonia, was impregnated and abandoned by a railway worker. She later married a Bohemian man named John Pavelka and had a large family.

Photo portrait of Anna Sadilek Pavelka, the real-life My Antonia, and her family.

Anna Sadilek Pavelka and her family, date unknown

Jim’s later life parallels Cather’s too, although more loosely. Both attended the University of Nebraska, and both went on to have successful careers in New York. Cather, like Jim, returned to Nebraska after many years, reconnected with her old friend, and got to know her family.

After My Ántonia was published, Annie and her family proudly acknowledged that she was the original Ántonia. John Pavelka used to  introduce himself as “the husband of My Ántonia,” and one of her sons*** would say, until he was an old man, “I’m Leo, the mischievous one.” In 1955, at the age of 86, Annie wrote to a schoolgirl telling her that “most all is true that you read in the Book thoug most of the names are changed.”

Annie died not long after she wrote that letter. Her life wasn’t easy, but it seems to have been happy.

*This list isn’t a particularly good reflection of what people were reading in 1918. The Elements of Style, #2 on the list, was written by Cornell Professor William Strunk Jr. in 1918 as a brief pamphlet, but it wasn’t published (privately, for the use of students) until 1919. The Strunk and White version we know today was published in 1959, after Strunk’s death. Also, the #10 book on the list is La educación de Henry Adams.

**Cather did win the Pulitzer in 1922, though, for One of Ours. Have you read it? Me neither.

***If Cliff’s Notes can be believed, anyway. I couldn’t find this anecdote anywhere else.

Book Review: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to World War I as the centenary of the armistice approaches. So I put aside Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, which is excellent but pre-war and also loooooong*, and picked up Rebecca West’s 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier, which is war-related (well, sort of, see below) and short (90 pages).

Rebecca West, The Independent, April 13, 1918

Rebecca West (real name Cicely Isabel Fairfield) was already a fixture on London’s cultural scene when she published The Return of the Soldier, her first novel, at the age of 25. Born into an intellectual but financially struggling Anglo-Irish family, she had a brief career as an actress (her pseudonym came from an Ibsen play) before turning to literary criticism. She and H.G. Wells met like characters in a romantic comedy—she panned a book of his, calling him “the Old Maid among novelists,” and he requested a meeting. This led to a long affair with Wells, who was married and 27 years older. They had a son, Anthony, born in 1914. To disguise his illegitimacy, West made him call her “Auntie” and Wells “Wellesie” during his early years, and she sent him to boarding school at the age of three. Perhaps not surprisingly, he and West ended up estranged. West went on to have a highly successful career as a journalist and writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her best-known work today is her monumental book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Rebecca West and her son Anthony, ca. 1918

The Return of the Soldier tells the story of Chris, who is sent home from the war when a shell explodes and wipes out his memory of the last 15 years, during which he married and lost his only child. It’s narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin and ardent admirer, who for unexplained reasons lives with him and Kitty, his wife, on their vast estate. Chris, in his damaged mind, is living in the happiest period of his life, when he was in love with Margaret, the daughter of the proprietor of a charmingly ramshackle inn. He insists that he must see her or die. Jenny is afraid he’ll be shattered when he encounters present-day Margaret,

repulsively furred with neglect and poverty**, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.

But he loves her as much as ever and spends his days wandering around his estate with her, lost in his happy youth, while Jenny and Kitty agonize about how to bring him to his senses.

Illustration from “The Return of the Soldier,” Norman Price

As I read the first few chapters, I marveled that The Return of the Soldier, which received generally ecstatic reviews at the time of publication, is not better known today.*** Jenny’s initial visceral dislike of Margaret, she of the creaking stays and cheap plumes, says as much about the British class system as a Dickens novel. Speaking of her and Kitty’s sadness about Chris’s affliction, Jenny says that

grief is not the clear melancholy the young believe it. It is like a siege in a tropical city. The skin dries and the throat parches as though one were living in the heat of the desert; water and wine taste warm in the mouth and food is of the substance of sand; one snarls at one’s company; thoughts prick through one’s sleep like mosquitos.

Illustration from “The Return of the Soldier,” Norman Price

As I continued reading, though, the book’s flaws emerged. West was attempting to incorporate recent psychological discoveries into the story, but her account of Chris’s mental state rings false to the modern reader. His recent memory is completely wiped out, but beyond the 15-year gap it’s intact—he’s exactly the happy lad he once was. Later critics pointed out that this condition, however common it may be in the movies, doesn’t exist in real life.**** The way his amnesia is resolved (I won’t give spoilers, but you can look it up in the book’s Wikipedia entry if you’re curious) is equally dubious. This is the problem with novels that are based on psychological theories: psychology moves on and the novel remains full of discarded ideas about how the mind works.

Also, The Return of the Soldier isn’t really about the war at all. With Chris’s memory of his time at the front wiped clean and Jenny and Kitty living in sheltered luxury, the conflict doesn’t directly enter their lives. Aside from the implication that trauma might have played a role in Chris’s amnesia, and Kitty and Jenny’s anxiety about him being sent back to France if cured, the book could as easily have been called The Return of the Guy Who Fell off a Horse and Hit His Head.

In spite of these flaws, The Return of the Soldier is worth reading for its excoriating depiction of the British class system, its evocation of a lost world, and, above all, West’s wonderful writing.

(I read the Penguin Classics edition, which is pricey for a 90-page paperback but otherwise recommended.)

Illustration from “The Return of the Soldier,” Norman Price

*422 pages, which might not strike you as exceptionally long, but the median length of the books I’ve read for this project is about 100 pages, so I’ve developed a short attention span.

**In that early 20th century British sense of having only one servant.

***Not that it’s forgotten, exactly. After fading into obscurity even as West’s career took off, it gained a new readership when it was made into a film in 1982. It has fared much better than May Sinclair’s equally well-received 1917 war novel The Tree of Heaven, which is out of print today. (Both were named Book of the Month by the North American Review, a prominent literary journal.) Still, it’s hardly a fixture in the modernist canon.

****At least one critic at the time did as well—Dora Marsden of The Egoist. “As a tale of human emotion it is altogether quite indecently unjust,” she wrote in the magazine’s October 1918 issue. Marsden was preoccupied with the nature of consciousness, about which she wrote long, incoherent articles for the Egoist, which she founded and where T.S. Eliot served as literary editor.

An early 20th-century Bridget Jones

As I’ve mentioned, I worried about what I would do for comfort reading during My Year in 1918. Sure, I love Edith Wharton, and I look forward to discovering some of her lesser-known works. But what if I’m not in the mood for finely wrought prose? What if my brain is fried and I just want to relax?

Photograph of Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding and The Melting of Molly by Maria Thompson Daviess.

Well, having just finished The Melting of Molly by Maria Thompson Daviess, the #4 fiction bestseller of 1912, I can put that worry to rest. Molly Carter is an early 20th-century Bridget Jones, a ditzy diarist obsessed with men and weight loss. Bridget starts every diary entry by noting her weight and calorie consumption, but Molly doesn’t have to count calories, since she’s on a crash diet that requires her to eat the same thing every day. Here’s her daily fare:

  • Breakfast: one slice of dry toast, one egg, fruit and a tablespoonful of baked cereal, small cup of coffee, no sugar, no cream.
  • Dinner: one small lean chop, slice of toast, spinach, green beans and lettuce salad.
  • Supper: slice of toast and an apple. (“Why the apple?” Molly mourns. “Why supper at all?”)

Molly’s a more successful dieter than Bridget—she drops over thirty pounds in three months or so, and somehow doesn’t end up with scurvy. But she’s just as confused about her love life. Where Bridget’s romantic tribulations are modeled on Pride and Prejudice, though, Molly’s story seems to be inspired by Emma.

Married off to a rich older man at eighteen after her true love abandons her to join the diplomatic corps, Molly is widowed at age twenty-four. The story begins a year later, with her old flame announcing that he’s coming to town as she prepares to shuck off her widow’s weeds. Hence the crash diet—he expects her to greet him in his favorite blue muslin frock with the twenty-three inch waist. Meanwhile, she’s the mother figure to the five-year-old son of the widowed doctor next door, who keeps a fatherly eye on her (and prescribes the crash diet). Other suitors materialize, including a pompous judge and Molly’s rakish cousin Tom, who showers her with not-so-brotherly kisses. If you don’t see where this is going from the beginning, well, you’re not paying much attention, and you definitely haven’t read Emma.

Maria Thompson Daviess outsider her home with children, Book News Monthly, January 1914..

Maria Thompson Daviess at home (Book News Monthly, January 1914)

The Melting of Molly is no forgotten literary classic. Molly’s feelings for the doctor veer abruptly between love and hate, often in a single sentence, for no apparent reason other than to keep the suspense going. The arrival of Molly’s former beau, which the whole book builds up to, ends up being a non-event. And Molly’s ruminations can be difficult to follow at times, unless that’s just 21st-century me. The Melting of Molly was one of fifteen novels Daviess wrote between 1909 and 1918, and this torrid pace may explain the less-than stellar writing.

Still, I’m glad those other fourteen books are out there. I’ll have plenty to keep myself entertained between Edith Wharton novels.