Thursday, May 24, 2018

Old Bestseller Review: The Chauffeur and the Chaperon, by C. N. and A. M. Williamson

Old Bestseller Review: The Chauffeur and the Chaperon, by C. N. and A. M. Williamson

a review by Rich Horton

Back at last to the original purpose of this blog -- Bestsellers from the first half of the 20th Century. C. N. and A. M. Williamson were a husband and wife team (Charles Norris and Alice Muriel) who had two books appear on the Publishers' Weekly list of bestselling novels of the year, The Princess Passes in 1905 and Lord Loveland Discovers America in 1910. They published most of the their novels first as serials, and, as Richard Rex, in his biography of Alice M. Williamson, suggests, book sales aren't the only measure of popularity. Rex's book quotes the Leeds Times: "who is the most popular serial writer? ... a few voted for Hall Caine, Ian Maclaren had also a fair share of support, but the verdict of the majority was given to Mrs. Williamson." And, indeed, the Williamsons wrote not just for magazines like Smith's, or the Grand, or the Delineator, or the Strand, but also for weeklies like Lloyd's, and daily newspapers like the Daily Mail.

The Williamsons were an interesting couple for other reasons. Both were journalists. C. N. was an editor, of a magazine called Black and White. A. M. sold a piece to C. N. soon after she came to England. Which hints at another interesting feature of their association -- Alice was an American. She came to England in 1892. After they became professional comrades, they married, around the turn of the century. And much of their married life was spent travelling, and as journalists, they wrote about their travels. According to Alice's memoirs, their first collaborative novel came about after the magazine they had contracted with for a travelogue of one of their trips folded, and they decided to wrap a story about their travel account and sell it as a novel.

Their dates were 1869-1933 for Alice, and 1859-1920 for Charles. Alice published some short stories in the United States before moving to England, and continued to publish fiction after Charles' death. She was once quoted as saying "Charlie Williamson could go anything except write stories, and I could do nothing but write stories." This suggested a question as to who was the real writer of their collaborative works? It's notable that several of their stories (the novel at hand included) featured both American and British main characters, and indeed sections written from those different points of view are features of several of these novels. It was assumed aty the time that Charlie wrote the sections from the POV of men and/or English people, and Alice the sections from the POV of women and/or Americans.

Richard Rex, however, comes to a different conclusion, that I find convincing. He believes that Alice was the actual writer of all their collaborative fiction. Charles probably contributed stuch stuff as notes about their travel itinerary (critical to their rather travelogish books), and he may also have taken a key role in the business side of writing. One thing Rex discovered was a couple of stories first published as by Alice Livingstone in the US, and later republished under different titles as by C. N. and A. M. Williamson in the UK. Clearly those were Alice's work alone.

The story gets more interesting however, in Rex's accounting, when he digs into Alice's history in the US. Apparently her actual maiden name was Kent, and she married, very young (about 16) a man named Hamilton. Her marriage was not a success, and she became an actress, first as Alice King Hamilton. After a divorce, she changed her name to Alice Livingstone (presumably adopting her maternal grandfather's surname), and over time all mention of her earlier career was elided from her accounts of her life. She represented herself in her autobiography as 17 years old when she came to England in 1892 (in fact she was 23), and apparently Charles never knew of her previous marriage.

All fascinating stuff -- and I recommend Richard Rex's book, Alice Muriel Williamson: The Secret History of an American-English Author, to anyone interested in more details. In the end, it seems that Alice made a very satisfying life for herself, and that Charlie Williamson was happy as well. I can't blame her if she told a few fibs along the way.

So what of this novel? My edition was published by the McClure Company in 1908. A short story called "The Chauffeur and the Chaperon" was published in the Delineator for October 1906, while a serial called "The Botor Chaperon" appeared in The Grand Magazine (the first true British pulp) between August 1906 and January 1907. (It's not at all certain that "The Botor Chaperon" and The Chauffer and the Chaperon are the same story, but it seems plausible.) The Chauffeur and the Chaperon is copyright 1906/1907.
(Cover by Arthur H. Buckland)


My edition is illustrated by Karl Anderson, and the cover illustration is by Arthur H. Buckland.

As for the story -- two girls, stepsisters living in England, come into a small legacy. The girls' parents were an American woman and a British man, who remarried after their first spouses died. Then they died themselves. The two young women live together, making do with income from the American's serial writing, and the Englishwoman's typing. The American girl is Helen (Nell) van Buren, and the Englishwoman if Phyllis Rivers. Their inheritance is a couple hundred pounds and a boat in Holland. Nell insists that the claim the boat and make a tour of Holland.

(Interior illustrations by Karl Anderson)
When they get there they find the boat has already been let to an American painter, Ronald Lester Starr. A compromise is reached -- Ronald will hire a chauffeur, and ask his Scottish aunt, Lady MacNairne, to act as chaperon, and they will tour Holland together. Unfortunately, Lady MacNairne is hard to find, and Ronald engages an impostor. Nell van Buren's Dutch cousins learn of her existence, and sparks fly immediately between Robert van Buren and Phyllis.-- but Robert is all but engaged, to a rather unattractive and unpleasant woman, Freule Menela. The chauffeur Ronald engages is one Rudolph Brederode, a wealthy and very privileged Dutch Jonkheer, who has fallen head over heels for Nell. Meanwhile, Ronald is sure he is in love with one of the girls, though whether he prefers Phyllis or Nell seems uncertain. And Nell has unaccountably taken a dislike to Jonkheer Rudolph.

The novel continues, following their journey through the canals of Holland. We see any number of cute Netherlands cities -- this really is, to a great extent, a travelogue, and reasonably enjoyable on those terms. There is in addition the romance plot -- Robert van Buren is in love with Phyllis, and Jonkheer Rudolph Brederode is in love with Nell. And Ronald Lester Starr loves both girls. But who do the girls prefer? And what of Robert's intended, Freule Menela? And for that matter, what of the mysterious faux Lady MacNairne?

It's actually quite a fun book. The writing is downright sprightly -- Alice Williamson (assuming it was she) was a very accomplished popular writer. The resolution of the romance is obvious from the word go, but it's nice enough anyway. The travelogue aspects are interesting enough as well. This is really pretty good popular fiction of its time.

1 comment:

  1. Several of the Williamson books are available on archive.org and Project Gutenberg (including this one). The pre-WWI ones are great fun, but with the onset of the Great (so-called) War, the Williamsons' seemed to lose their grip.

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