Thursday, July 31, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Ladies and Gentlemen, by Irvin S. Cobb

Ladies and Gentlemen, by Irvin S. Cobb

A review by Rich Horton

Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944) was an extremely popular author early in the 20th Century, probably best known for his Judge Priest stories and for his newspaper writing. He was born in Paducah, KY, and was managing editor of the Paducah Daily News by the age of 19! By 1904 he had moved to New York, where he worked for the Evening Sun and later the Saturday Evening Post. Later he was part of the staff of Cosmopolitan, and he also wrote a widely syndicated humor column. He also worked on silent films, and by the '30s he was even acting in a few films. He was also the host of the 1935 Academy Awards ceremony. And he was a leading opponent of Prohibition.He was, for a time, on top of the world.

His daughter was a writer herself, of novels and plays and also a memoir of Irvin S. Cobb: My Wayward Parent. Her daughter, Cobb's granddaughter, was Buff Cobb, a television personality of the 1950s and the second wife of Mike Wallace.

And by now, it's fair to say, I think, that he's all but forgotten. Sadly, this process seems to have started while he was still alive. His writing seems to have dated rather quickly. He also apparently grew somewhat bitter in his last years -- perhaps his health was an issue, likely finances were an issue, his declining popularity (underscored by the abrupt cancellation, in about 1940, of his humor column) was a major issue. Early in his career he had a fairly good reputation on matters of race: he was a vocal opponent of the Klan, he wrote an influential article for the Saturday Evening Post praising black soldiers in World War I. But, still, he was a creature of his time -- born in the South shortly after the Civil War (albeit not born in a Confederate state) -- and his attitudes about black people, which seem to have been somewhat patronizing, never changed, and what seemed, perhaps, almost mainstream in 1915 was offensive in 1940.

I should add that he wrote some well-regarded horror stories, perhaps most notably "Fishhead"  and "The Unbroken Chain", both of which are regarded as significant influences on Lovecraft.

Ladies and Gentleman is a collection of stories, published by Cosmopolitan Book Corporation in 1927. Those stories that I can trace to earlier magazine publication appeared in Cosmopolitan between 1924 and 1927 -- I'm not sure if the other stories appeared in other magazines or if they are new to this book. The stories have definitely dated -- they are slickly enough done, often fitfully amusing, but they don't convince, and they can seem quite contrives. One critic called him "the last disciple of O. Henry", and not in a good way. As with many writers of the past, he doesn't compel revival on his merits, but he does seem worth a look simply to understand what was very popular in those times, and to acknowledge those skills he had, which were not negligible.

Here's a quick look at each of the stories. The dominant mode is somewhat comic, and some of that remains, despite the datedness, but some is lost on the contemporary reader. But that's by no means the only mode -- there's some sentimentalism, and some stories more in a crime mode.

"A Lady and a Gentleman" (7100 words) ... an aging Confederate veteran gets lost looking for a place to stay in a town hosting a reunion of Civil War veterans, and ends up being hosted by a mysterious woman. The two, over the brief time of his stay, strike up a friendship, even though it is clear that the man has no idea that she is not a "Lady", nor does he realize what business her house in engaged in.

"The Order of the Bath" (10300 words) ... somewhat sub-Wodehousian comedy about an English novelist visiting a town in New Jersey on a lecture tour, and the chaos that ensues when the lady of the house is convinced by her brother to employ a butler during the novelist's stay.

"Two of Everything" (8300 words) ... a man narrowly avoids getting caught in a landslide in northern Montana, and realizes he can fake his death to escape a trying marriage. The title turns on his habit of always carrying two of everything, and how that messes up his plans.

"We of the Old South" (9700 words) ... another story of an aging Confederate veteran treating a woman of iffy character with great respect and getting good results... this time the man has been lured to Hollywood to do character acting. He stays in a boarding house and strikes up a friendship with a starlet who hasn't had a break yet. She pretends to be Southern, and he chooses to believe her story ... His kindness ends up getting her her big chance while he takes a role in a Civil War film -- alas, it's about the battle of Gettysburg, and he chooses to "fight" for the wrong side.

"Killed with Kindness" (6600 words) ... Another story about a Madam ... in this case, she and one of her clients become associates ... he helps out her business dealings, all the while becoming more and more prominent, which has unfortunate consequences when he runs for the Senate ...

"Peace on Earth" (10800 words) ... another comic story: a New York couple decide to skip the over-commercialized Christmas in the city, and engage a house in rural upstate New York, only to realize that neither the area nor the inhabitants match their idea of innocent traditional bucolicness.

"Three Wise Men of the East Side" (6200 words) ... a bit of a caper story: a man on death row inveigles his lawyer into helping him escape the chair in exchange for the location of some stolen money ... all three people involved in the scheme end up the worse for things.

"The Cowboy and the Lady and her Pa" (8600 words) ... a rich man from Pittsburgh and his wife are appalled when their daughter falls for a cowboy at the dude ranch they are visiting. The man hatches a scheme to separate the two ... wobbly in tone and uncharitable, to my mind.

"A Close Shave" (2700 words) ... Story of a state Governor, a violent prisoner, the warden and his pretty wife ... again, people's bad motives end up leading them into trouble.

"Good Sam" (8000 words) ... The title character is a Good Samaritan whose every attempt at benevolence turns out wrong.

"How to Choke a Cat without Using Butter" (2200 words) ... a nouveau rich man foolishly allows himself to be written up in a business magazine, which his wife is convinced will ruin their chances of being accepted in society.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley

 The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley

A review by Rich Horton

The Haunted Bookshop is a 1919 novel by Christopher Morley, apparently a big bestseller at the time. It has retained considerable popularity, at least to the extent that I had heard of it, so when I saw it for a song at a used book sale I bought a copy. And of course buying a copy of The Haunted Bookshop used seems very appropriate: it's about a used book store. The edition I found is a later reprint, from 1955.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was a journalist, poet, and novelist, quite well known in his day. He was one of the founders of The Baker Street Irregulars. I noted in my post on John Reed Scott that one of my daughter's college visits was to Scott's alma mater, Gettysburg College; so I should note here that my daughter also visited another Pennsylvania college, Haverford, which is where Morley went to school. (Indeed, he was the valedictorian.) (I liked Haverford a lot, though again it was way too expensive for us to send Melissa there.) (Three parens in a row: I thought to mention as well that one of my favorite novelists, Nicholson Baker, is also a Haverford graduate.) Besides The Haunted Bookshop, which came early in Morley's career, he is probably best known for Kitty Foyle, which came much later (in 1939), and which became a film with Ginger Rogers in the title role. (And with two very well-regarded screenwriters: Dalton Trumbo and The Philadelphia Story's Donald Ogden Stewart, both of whom were later blacklisted.)

It is very much a post World War I novel, a direct reaction to the war. Which in a way is odd because it's also a feather light comedy. It's also the sequel to an earlier novel, Parnassus on Wheels, which apparently concerned Roger Mifflin's traveling bookstore. Indeed, much of this new novel (and I would guess much of the earlier one) appeared in The Bookman, a magazine devoted to bookselling concerns. The Haunted Bookshop is Mifflin's nickname for his non-traveling bookstore in Brooklyn.

Roger Mifflin is a pleasant and rambling middle aged man, devoted to the trade of selling used books. He is very idealistic about this, and about reading in general. Indeed, he's rather a snob about reading, not going in much for popular fiction, unless it happens to be popular fiction he likes. Which would be OK except for the way he disapproves of other people reading stuff he doesn't like.

The action of this story starts when a young advertising man, Aubrey Gilbert, stumbles into Mifflin's store, hoping to convince him to open an account. Of course Mifflin will have none of that, but he does invite the young man to dinner. Shortly thereafter Mifflin takes on an assistant, a very pretty and very rich young woman named Titania Chapman, the daughter of the owner of the Daintybits company, which by coincidence is the biggest account for Gilbert's firm.

You can see where THAT's going! Of course Gilbert has occasion to visit Mifflin's shop again, and is smitten by Titania's charms. At the same time, a book keeps going missing and turning up at Mifflin's shop: Carlyle's Oliver Cromwell. Gilbert soon realizes something fishy is going on, and indeed gets a bop on the head for his pains. He begins to spy on Mifflin's shop, partly to protect Titania, partly because he thinks Mifflin is in on a sinister plot. And it turns out there is a sinister plot, involving disaffected Germans, but of course Mifflin is completely innocent.

Besides this somewhat silly plot, much of the book is taken up with Mifflin's perorations about books and bookselling, but also about war, and the futility of the just-completed war. Mifflin is basically a pacifist, and the book itself argues for Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations idea with some passion. (The German plot in the book turns out to involve Wilson.)

All in all the feather light and silly aspect of the book prevails. It's a fairly enjoyable read, but it doesn't strike me as truly memorable. On the other hand, it's still being read getting on to a hundred years since its publication, which is certainly something pretty impressive.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Night of Temptation, by Victoria Cross

The Night of Temptation, by Victoria Cross

a review by Rich Horton

Perhaps my primary goal in this series of reviews is to find books and authors that were once big sellers and are now totally (or all but) forgotten. And all the better if the writer has an interesting story. That's certainly the case with Victoria Cross.

Victoria Cross was born Annie Sophie Cory in 1868. Her father Arthur was a Colonel in the British Army, and also editor of the Civil and Military Gazette. This is the same newspaper for which Rudyard Kipling wrote --  Arthur Cory almost certainly knew Kipling (and Kipling's father was a contributor to the newspaper as well) -- but seems to have left the paper about when Rudyard joined it. Annie had two older sisters. The family was apparently well off and to some extent upper class. She grew up in India but by the age of 20 was in England attending London University. She seems to have continued to travel widely throughout her life. One of her sisters also became well known for her literary efforts: Adela Florence Nicolson, who wrote faux-Indian poetry as "Laurence Hope". Both of Annie Sophie Cory's sisters ended up committing suicide -- the fate also of some of her female heroines. Annie Sophie Cory (or Vivian Cory Griffin as she later called herself) died age 84 in 1952.

In 1895 her first published story appeared: "Theodora: A Fragment", which was in fact one chapter of a novel she had finished in 1894 but did not publish until 1903, perhaps because its unconventional eroticism made it a hard sell for a new writer: the title heroine was androgynous in appearance, had a mustache, had no interest in marriage, and ended up committing suicide after being gang-raped. Her first published novel, The Woman Who Didn't (1895), concerns an unconsummated shipboard affair between a man and an unhappily married woman. Her most famous novel by far, Anna Lombard, appeared in 1901. It is a love story set in India between a young woman and an idealized man (according to Cross, he was supposed to be a Christ figure). The kicker is that the woman has an affair with her Pathan servant, and her English lover does not reject her or even ask her to stop the affair. However, he does not marry her until her Pathan lover dies, and until she kills the newborn child of that union. All this was shocking enough to get it banned in New Zealand (or so I assume -- at any rate Cross had to fight a court case on its behalf), and to sell some 6,000,000 copies. SF readers may find one of her later novels rather interesting: Martha Brown, M.P., A Girl of Tomorrow (1935), which is set in a future in which women and men in England have exchanged traditional gender roles. The novel ends, however, with Martha Brown abandoning her English political career and going to America, where, apparently, men are still real men.

A note on the author's names: she wrote variously as Victoria Cross (sometimes spelled "Crosse"), Vivian Cory, and V. C. Griffin. Griffin was her mother's maiden name, and also of course the name of her uncle, Heneage Griffin. Annie Sophie Cory never married, but after her father's death she moved in with Heneage Griffin (who was independently very wealthy), and they lived together (traveling constantly) until his death in 1939. It is not clear whether their relationship was sexual, but it was certainly rumored to be so at the time, and some later researchers have come to the same conclusion. (Indeed, Cory once claimed (falsely) that she had been bequeathed to her uncle upon her father's death.) That said, her mother was also part of the household. She did fall in love with a younger man after Griffin's death (when she was 71): this man reportedly stole some £100,000 from her. I should note that the book I have, The Night of Temptation, though published as by "Victoria Cross", is copyrighted by "Vivian Cory Griffen [sic]". It appears that she called herself "Vivian Cory" in everyday life from about 1895, and added the "Griffin" after joining her uncle's household.

Most of the above details I owe to Charlotte Mitchell, who compiled a bibliography of Cross's work for a series of Victorian Fiction Research Guides. Mitchell's take on Cross's work seems to me fairly level-headed, even accounting for her general advocacy. Mitchell writes:  "Even her most enthusiastic readers acknowledge that her work is characterized by lapses in taste and logic, vulgarity, implausibility and craziness." And also, after noting that many readers laud Cross for her seemingly modern attitudes towards interracial love affairs and extramarital sex, she adds: "As I read more, however, I became conscious that its appealing features coexist with and are inseparable from others which are less well adjusted to the taste of early twenty-first-century academic critics. To portray her as a heroine of feminism, or of racial tolerance, which was my first thought, seems to present more difficulties than can simply be resolved by pointing out that, naturally enough, she was influenced, for all her impatience with conformity, by the ideas of her time."

Mitchell seems to me to have the right of it. In fact, I would say, based mainly on the evidence of The Night of Temptation, that Victoria Cross was rather a nutter. Her attitudes on class -- mainly represented by utter contempt for the "lower classes" -- were revolting. Her attitudes on gender were odd: on the one hand she thought women indisputably the superior sex: men, she wrote, had no interest at all in intellectual pursuit. On the other hand once a woman met her true lover she was bound to be submissive to him -- a truly worthwhile man, if rare perhaps, was apparently far superior to any woman. I was reminded of Ayn Rand. (And, indeed, some of Cross's economic views also appear to be vaguely Randian.) She also expresses, in this book, some downright weird theories about genetics and the influence on a person's character of the time spent in the womb.

Anyway, on to The Night of Temptation. This book was first published in 1912 in England, by T. Werner Laurie, and in the US in 1914 by Macauley. I have a copy of the latter edition, possibly a first, but in no better than fair condtion, no DJ.

The book opens in a rectory in Stossop, England. Regina Marlow is 18, the youngest daughter of the Rector and his wife. In reality, it seems, she is illegitimate, the product of an affair her mother had, never acknowledged. But, due to Cross's eugenic theories, this means she is a superior child, because her mother's love for her father affected her positively during her gestation, while her older sisters were ruined because the mother hated their father (her husband). At any rate, Regina is a beautiful young woman (as are her sisters, physically), but she is little liked by her family. She spends her time studying, painting -- she is (Mary Sue-like) approximately the greatest painter in the history of England -- and communing with nature in her garden. She had managed to attract the attention of three local men, whom she rejected of course. (One of them subsequently committed suicide.)

One of her father's college acquaintances, Everest Lanark, comes to visit. Everest, some 30 years Regina's senior, is the most perfect possible specimen of manhood. The Rector of course hopes he'll take one of his daughters off his hands, and both the older girls have a go at him. Everest, naturally, is repelled by their vulgarity and lack of intellectual depth. Before long he is visiting with Regina privately, and within a week they have begun a sexual affair. (Alas, though the book makes it clear they are sleeping together, there are no intimate details.) Everest is a bit concerned -- is this merely a temporary infatuation? He resolves to leave and break off the affair, but becomes too involved, and proposes marriage. But Regina rejects him -- she intuits that to marry him would be to unfairly tie him to her. Instead she offers to marry him if he still wants to after spending some time away. And so he leaves. But soon her family's insufferability makes it clear she can't stay, and she follows Everest to London, moving in with him and resuming the affair, but still refusing to marry him. She also establishes financial independence (a key theme for many of the women in Cross's books) by selling one of her paintings for £500.

After a while they travel to Africa, planning to sail down the Nile and then hunt lions. Regina decides she will marry Everest once she is sure she can provide him an heir ... but then Everest's extremely beautiful but terribly stupid cousin joins him. It is clear that the cousin believes she is Everest's rightful mate, and before long she too is sleeping with him. (It seems that Everest, as the alpha male, has the right to sleep with whichever women he wishes.) Just then Regina realizes she is at last pregnant -- but what shall she do if Everest prefers his stupid cousin? But then comes the lion hunt, which of course provides a means of revealing the true worth of each of the young women!

I have to say, after an agonizingly slow opening, I found the novel engaging enough on a plot level. I had to ignore the Mary Sue-ism, and the repugnant social views, and the rather one-dimensional characters. Cross also throws in a brief reference to her novel Anna Lombard. And, as I hinted, I regretted the lack of explicit sex -- it really seems this is a novel that would be improved if there was just a bit of detail on the obviously rather active sex lives of the protagonists. I can't by any means call this a good novel ... the prose is indifferent and sometimes awful, the action melodramatic, the characters thin, the attitudes nutty ... but, except for the first couple of excessively slow and far too long chapters, the story is entertaining. I can see why Victoria Cross's books sold well, and also why they are largely forgotten, and also why a few (apparently feminist) critics have chosen to revive them at least to a mild extent. On balance, I'm happy to have read this novel, though I don't think I'll seek out any more.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Through Space to Mars, by Roy Rockwood

Through Space to Mars, by Roy Rockwood

a review by Rich Horton

I found this book at a flea market some years ago ... in 2005, actually. I didn't know anything about it -- it looked like a pretty early children's novel about travel to Mars, so I picked it up on a whim, and I read it, and it was, in my judgement, pretty bad.

I'll get to my review later, as I wrote it in 2005, but I'll say right now that I think I was a little bit harsh. I didn't take into account sufficiently the time of writing, and the type of book it was. Relative to its category, perhaps this book isn't quite as bad as I said. Put another way -- perhaps I came to it expecting too much.

"Roy Rockwood" was a pseudonym, a house name, used by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The syndicate was founded by Edward Stratemeyer to package childrens' books for publishers. Stratemeyer originally wrote many of the books himself but sooned turned primarily to other writers, who often worked from outlines by Stratemeyer. The book series were extremely successful -- none of these would have been on bestseller lists, in some part because childrens' books weren't considered for such lists, but as a whole the books sold very well indeed. Stratemeyer's most famous series were the Nancy Drew books, the Hardy Boys books, the Bobbsey Twins books, and the Tom Swift books.

The series attributed to "Roy Rockwood" included the Deep Sea adventures, the Dave Fearless books, Bomba the Jungle Boy, and the Great Marvel books. Through Space to Mars is from the latter series, which comprised 9 books, appearing between 1906 and 1935. Through Space to Mars was #4, and it came out in 1910. At least the first 5 books of the Great Marvel series were written by Howard R. Garis, one of the best known Stratemeyer writers. Garis wrote the great bulk of the first Tom Swift books as well. He also, under his own name, wrote some 15,000 (!) Uncle Wiggily stories for the Newark Evening News (and for syndication) -- many of these were collected in 79 books. His wife Leslie was also a writer for the Stratemeyer Syndicate (and for the Newark Evening News) -- she is credited with many of the Bobbsey Twins books, among others.

The Great Marvel books were originally published by Cupples and Leon, but my copy is a reprint from Whitman. No dust jacket, only about "good" condition.

The Science Fiction Encyclopedia has entries for Garis and Rockwood. The latter, credited to John Clute and Everett F. Bleiler, two writers I respect greatly, praises the early books in the Great Marvel series highly (relative, it should be said, to other books of their type, such as the Tom Swift books) -- and others such as Jessica Amanda Salmonson have written about the joys of collecting the books (admittedly, not necessarily the same thing as enjoying reading the books). This gives me pause, I admit, when placed next to the harsh judgement I offer below. Perhaps I simply was not reading the book with the right mindset. And, I should note, I have read almost none of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books -- a couple of my sister's Nancy Drew books back in the day, and maybe one or two Tom Swift books. That said, I'm reproducing what I wrote back in 2005.

Is Through Space to Mars any good? Hmmmmm, that would be a NO. Or, rather, NO NO NO NO NO!!!! One of the worst books I have ever read, more like. Luckily it's only about 45,000 words. But not only is the science silly -- and mind you I'm not measuring it by very high standards -- but the plot is stupid and poorly structured as well.

The story involves two friends, orphans raised by a Professor Henderson, now students at college (after several adventures with the Professor -- a trip to the center of the Earth, for example). They are summoned back to the Professor's house -- it seems a German named Roumann wants his help in making a spaceship to go to Mars. Why? Apparently he has decided that the substance that makes Mars red is fabulously valuable and he wants to steal some.

The boys help the Prof and Mr. Roumann make the ship. One measure of the stupidness of the plot is that this takes almost half the book -- with no action except occasional mysterious vandals trying to sabotage the spaceship. Do we ever really learn their motives? No.

Finally they head off to Mars, and we are subjected to excruciating scientific stupidities. There are really too many to mention. Just a couple -- the "etherium motor" shuts off in the middle of space and they start "falling". I.e. not heading to Mars any more. They encounter a comet, which somehow attracts them. It seems comets are fiery mini-suns -- well, mini? Not exactly -- this one is described as being hundreds of thousands of miles across. There are many more even worse absurdities. Oh -- here's one -- the red stuff that makes Mars look like it does is only visible on Mars' night side -- I guess it's only red when it's glowing at night. But in reality of course we always see the day side of Mars.

Finally on Mars they meet the highly advanced Martians, and in a very brief time they decide to steal some of the red stuff and escape, because the highly advanced Martians superstitiously believe that if any of it leaves Mars the planet will be destroyed. And that's pretty much the end.

I haven't even mentioned the outrageously racist (if I suppose sympathetic) depiction of the Professor's black servant, Washington White, who speaks in a mixture of a Stepan Fetchit dialect and an absurd farrago of misused long words, some of them made up.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Woman in Question, by John Reed Scott

The Woman in Question, by John Reed Scott

a review by Rich Horton

John Reed Scott (1869-1942) was born in Gettysburg, PA. He attended Gettysburg College (here I will note that we visited the college a few years ago when my daughter Melissa was looking for a school -- I was impressed, but it was too expensive). He became a lawyer and practiced from 1891 to 1907, in Gettsyburg and in Pittsburgh, before returning to Gettysburg to write. He had a fair amount of success with romantic adventure fiction, such as his first novel, The Colonel of the Red Huzzars (1907 or perhaps 1906 (sources disagree)), and its sequel, The Princess Dehra. He has an entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia because his 1914 novel, The Duke of Oblivion, has slight science-fictional elements (it concerns an underground English colony in Mexico) -- there it is said that he was only active from 1907 to 1916, which seems curious as he was only 47 in 1916, and he lived for 26 more years. Perhaps he returned to the practice of law? He is referenced as being involved in efforts to preserve Gettsyburg as an historical site. He died in Maryland, but was buried in Gettysburg. (Some of these biographical details come from a 1911 book that I was able to "look into" via Google: Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania, others need to be credited to the sleuthing of Denny Lien and Steve Holland, who found information in the National Cyclopedia, and an obituary in the Gettysburg Times.)

Here's a 1909 portrait of John Reed Scott.

The Woman in Question is not an adventure story -- it's pretty much pure romance fiction. I have a J. B. Lippincott first edition (no DJ, only Good condition) from 1909. It opens with a young and beautiful widow, Evelyn Leicester, at her country club, in "Northumberland". She has just come out of mourning, and there is some (sometimes catty) speculation on her next husband. Could it be her longtime friend, Colleton Harwood? He is revealed to be an excellent tennis player, if somewhat indolent and apparently allergic to the prospect of marriage.  But he has just inherited an estate in rural Egerton -- and Evelyn quickly inveigles him into hosting a house party at his new place.

A quick aside: where is Egerton (and for that matter, the big city: Northumberland)? Well, it is said to be somewhat isolated and quiet. Its only claim to fame is that a major Civil War battle occurred there. It was founded in "the first year of the last century". Now, let's see: John Reed Scott was born, and lived the bulk of his life, in Gettysburg, PA. Certainly a major Civil War battle was fought there! It is quite isolated (as I can attest, having driven the twisty roads on the way there). It was settled in 1780 and incorporated in 1806. Seems reasonably consistent with The Woman in Question's Egerton! Which would presumably make Northumberland either Philadelphia or perhaps Pittsburgh (where Scott lived for a time). This latter question was resolved when Denny Lien found an old biographical entry on Scott that says, of The Woman in Question: "the scenes in which are laid in and around Pittsburg [sic], and the book caused considerable flutter among the smart set of the smoky city, who thought they recognized a number of their prominent townsfolk among its characters."

Back to the story: on arriving in Egerton, Harwood all but immediately falls in love with his estate and its history. He is also immediately intrigued by his neighbor, a very mysterious (and beautiful) young widow, Mildred Gascoyne. His lawyer, the crusty old Judge Casson, assures him that Mrs. Gascoyne, despite her mysterious past, is a "lady". Hmmm ... it seems Evelyn Leicester may have a rival!

The house party arrives -- a group of guests chosen by Mrs. Leicester. All are unexceptionable people from Northumberland society except for one -- Henry Landor, who, it seems, is that most awful of things: a social climber!

We quickly learn that Mrs. Gascoyne must have some past, unhappy, acquaintance with Landor, for she is terribly upset to see him. Except that somehow he doesn't quite recognize her -- surely the lady he remembers had black hair, and Mrs. Gascoyne's is red. And indeed Colleton Harwood realizes he has encountered Mrs. Gascoyne before -- in Venice, where he decided that she was the only woman to rival Evelyn Leicester in beauty.

That sets up the plot, which bounces along nicely enough over the week or so of the house party. No point in detailing it: it's clear already that all will turn on the mystery of Mrs. Gascoyne's past and on her connection with Henry Landor. We have already been told quite clearly who the heroine is (she is, after all, the Judge tells us, "a lady") and who the villain is (he is, gasp!, a social climber). It's pretty readable stuff, enjoyable in a forgettable fashion -- it never surprises, and doesn't really convince, but it's kind of fun.

Except ... well, the book was published in 1909. It is "of its time". But, I have to say, some of the attitudes expressed seemed more virulent to me than in most popular fiction I have read of its time. Some of it is expressed in the attitude towards Henry Landor (who, to be sure, is later revealed to be a truly bad person, guilty of both financial bad dealings as well as abusive treatment of women: but the author puts his fingers on the scale to lay those failings on his quote low unquote birth.) Worse, though, are the attitudes toward black people -- which are introduced for no particular reason (they don't really affect the plot).  Some quotes: from Judge Casson: "The negro is a child, sir -- easy to manage if you understand him, worthless and trifling if you don't." Casson also objects that Harwood's butler, William, was allowed to attend college. Harwood responds: "William has told me he thinks his education was likely a mistake -- that God meant the negro for a servant and learning only unfitted him." Harwood is also unsettled when he thinks William has been reading a learned journal, and relieved to find that it was not him but Mrs. Gascoyne. For a brief time I thought maybe Scott was setting us up to reveal how wrong those views were ... but no -- he just made sure to have them expressed (by Judge Casson, a sort of "wise old man" figure) -- and then no more mention is made -- they're of no importance to the plot.