Old Bestseller: The Visits of Elizabeth, by Elinor Glyn
a review by Rich Horton
Here’s a true Old Bestseller again. The Visits of Elizabeth was the 6th bestselling novel of 1901, according to Publishers’ Weekly. The writer, Elinor Glyn, had an interesting life. She was born on the island of Jersey in 1864 (making her a subject of the Queen but not precisely a citizen of the United Kingdom – indeed, as the Channel Islands were part of the Duchy of Normandy they like to refer to the Queen as their Duke, not their Queen), but she moved to her mother’s native Canada after her father died when she was an infant. They returned to Jersey when Elinor was 8. She married Clayton Glyn when she was 28, and had two daughters, but the marriage was soon in trouble, and Elinor had numerous affairs.
The Visits of Elizabeth was her first novel. With her later novels she developed a reputation for scandal: her novels often featured extramarital sex, and more erotic detail than common at that time, and her notorious personal life no doubt added some spice to her reputation as a writer. Given her husband’s spendthrift ways, their rocky marriage, and her own doubtless expensive tastes, she continued to write prolifically for the money. Three Weeks was perhaps her most famous book, about the romance of a Balkan Princess with a much younger man. She also wrote the story “It” (1927) – Clara Bow starred in the movie version and became known as “the It Girl”. During the 1920s Glyn moved to Hollywood and was a very prominent screenwriter. She returned to England in 1929 and died in London in 1943.
The Visits of Elizabeth, first published in 1900 (though some of the sections were previously published in The World, beginning I think in about 1898), is a bit more innocent on the surface than many of Glyn’s later books (though a lot is implied to be going on behind the scenes – but Elizabeth is innocent of all this intrigue, to comic effect). It is a novel in correspondence, comprising a series of letters from 17-year old Elizabeth to her mother as she visits a series of relatives in England and France. (There was a 1909 sequel, Elizabeth Visits America, in which the now married Elizabeth writes to her mother during a trip to the colonies.)
Elizabeth is well-born, wealthy though not titled, naturally somewhat snobbish but in an innocent fashion, and evidently very pretty. The book opens with her visiting Nazeby Hall, for a cricket party. One of the cricketers is the Marquis of Valmond, who takes to Elizabeth right away, even though his mistress, a Mrs. Smith, is also of the party. Elizabeth is offended and slaps him, and we can guess where that might lead eventually. The bulk of her letter is taken up with observations about her fellow guests that aren’t quite catty because of her lack of malice, her willingness to praise when due, and her funniness. She also remarks on some behavior that she regards naively but the reader knows is her fellow guests either engaging in sexual intrigue or making fools of themselves or both simultaneously.
This pattern is repeated throughout the book – she visits a relative or acquaintance, she remarks on how dull or pleasant the place is, she notices people sneaking around and remarks on their doings with innocence, men, some married, some not, fall in love with her, and try to steal kisses or set up trysts, and occasionally even propose marriage … It somehow avoids ever seeming too repetitive (though it is repetitive a bit) … the foibles of the various characters are generally different each to each.
An extended part of her travels are in France, where she manages to facilitate her plain cousin’s marriage, mainly by rejecting the suit of the man her Godmother intends to marry the cousin. There are plenty of observations about the differences between French and English mores. Finally Elizabeth returns to England, and, of course, eventually true love …
This isn’t a great book, by any means, but it’s fairly fun, often quite funny, and stays on the sweet side of satire. There is, by the by, some presumably fairly accurate depiction of the habits of life of the very rich, and about their physical environs. Elizabeth stays nice, and noticeably comes down (mostly) on the side of a social-climbing Jewish woman, as opposed to the snobbish but only too happy to sponge folks who make nasty and anti-Semitic remarks. Elizabeth’s naivete never seems stupidity, nor does it seem a put on. Not bad stuff at all.