A Forgotten Novel from the 1920s: The Van Roon, by J. C. Snaith
A review by Rich Horton
This week the book I consider does not seem to have been a bestseller, and its writer seems quite close to forgotten. At least, that is, by Wikipedia. I was able to discover another blog, Wormwoodiana, writing about an interesting-sounding early Snaith novel, William Jordan, Junior (1908) (http://wormwoodiana.blogspot.com/2009/06/genius-of-jc-snaith.html). And there were the expected Gutenberg copies of a few of his books. And not much else.
Except, as seems to happen surprisingly often, for the wonderful Science Fiction Encyclopedia, which notes that Snaith wrote quite a lot of early SF: the novels An Affair of State (1913), The Council of Seven (1921), and Thus Far (1925) all seem real SF, and rather dark in tone. He also wrote a Ruritanian-style romance (Mrs. Fitz (1910)) and a fantasy about the Second Coming (The Coming (1917)).
J. C. Snaith was a prolific English writer. He lived from 1876 to 1936, and wrote in a wide variety of genres and modes, as far as I can tell. According to Mark Valentine at Wormwoodiana, other novels to have received some praise are The Sailor (1916) and a novel about cricket, Willow, the King (1899). According to the SFE, much of his work was more sentimental romances, and it is to that category that the novel at hand, The Van Roon, belongs.
This was published in 1922 according to the copyright notice in my copy, which I found slightly confusing. My copy is from D. Appleton & Co. of New York and London, and the copyright page first says Copyright 1922 by D. Appleton and Company, but lower on the page says “Copyright 1922 by the Curtis Publishing Co. Printed in the United States of America.” Were D. Appleton and Curtis related somehow? Was Curtis the publisher of the first edition and the Appleton edition a reprint? I don’t know. [Update: I am informed that Curtis was the publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, and that The Van Roon was first serialized there.] My copy seems to have been bought as a Christmas present three years later – at any rate, it is inscribed “Geo. D. Miller, Dec 25 – 1025”.
The novel opens in a mode that seems to promise a light romantic comedy, and that is mostly what it is, though it takes a somewhat odd melodramatic turn towards the end. We begin in a small London antique shop, S. Gedge Antiques, operated by Simon Gedge, an aging and rather miserly man. He has an assistant, young William, who has become increasingly important to the business as Gedge gets older: William has a good eye for a bargain, but also an exceptional eye for art, and a lot of a ability, as well as extreme honesty (to the point of unworldliness). Yet Gedge still pays him a pittance. This day he is surprised by the arrival of his orphaned niece, June, who has no one else to turn to. Gedge is not very willing to help her, but agrees to take her in if she will take over the cleaning – it seems Gedge, who has no toleration at all for women, is on the outs with his char. And June, a sensible and hardworking girl, agrees.
William comes back with a couple nice things that S. Gedge can sell, as well as something he bought with his own money – an ugly daub of a picture. But William thinks he sees something interesting underneath the paint, and despite Gedge’s expressed opinion that he’s wasting his money and time, he begins trying to restore the painting. Meanwhile June, a pretty girl herself, and William make their acquaintance. And when William's efforts seem to bear some fruit, June, aware that her uncle will try to cheat him, begs him to give her the painting – which William innocently does. Of course, as we have all guessed, the painting is revealed as most likely a “Van Roon” – he being a painter of the Flemish school of whose works only a few survive, including one stolen sometime previously from the Louvre.
Once Gedge realizes that, he tries to buy the painting from William for a small sum … William refuses to sell it, but tries to convince June to give it to her uncle – surely the honest old man, William thinks, only wants the painting because he truly appreciates a lovely picture. Meanwhile June is becoming a bit jealous of a beautiful young rich lady who visits the shop occasionally to buy stuff she takes a fancy too. And Gedge is mad enough at June to decide to fire her … So June looks for a new job and innocently decides that a chance-met man’s offer to use her as a model is a nice opportunity – she is innocent enough not to realize what “in the altogether" means, nor that his main interest in her is her best asset, a “rather nice chest”. And Gedge finds a couple of potential buyers for the putative Van Roon …
So the plot thickens rapidly, and what had been a light romantic comedy swerves sharply in the direction of melodrama. This part of the book really didn’t work for me, and nor, to be honest, did the quite sappy conclusion that resulted. A shame, really, as I was enjoying the first half or so of the book a fair bit – June is a nicely depicted character, half innocent, but a mostly sensible person. And William, though an implausible paragon, is worth rooting for. And even S. Gedge, for all that he’s pure cliché, is a fitfully amusing character. It’s a book that suggests an author who could entertain, and probably did well enough with his career – but in itself The Van Roon is a very minor piece.