Thursday, November 27, 2014

Old Bestsellers: A Fool There Was, by Porter Emerson Browne

A Fool There Was, by Porter Emerson Browne

a review by Rich Horton

Last week I wrote about The Sheik, by E. M. Hull, one of the worst books in many ways among those I have reviewed on this blog. But The Sheik's badness was in large part its objectionable treatment of women and Arabs, especially of course the rape plot. Not to say that it's all that well-written a book either, but you can see if you squint why it was so popular. A Fool There Was is bad in a different way: it's just poorly constructed, and poorly written.

A Fool There Was shares something else interesting with The Sheik. The film version of The Sheik was critical to establishing the persona of one of the most famous male sex symbols of the silent era, in Rudolf Valentino. And the 1915 film version of A Fool There Was established the persona of one of the most famous female sex symbols of the silent era, Theda Bara. (Bara played a femme fatale who was regarded as sort of a Vampire, hence her nickname, the Vamp, and hence the term "vamping".)

I can find only minimal details of Porter Emerson Browne's career in searching the internet. He was born in 1879 and died in 1934. He was a journalist and a playwright. Supposedly he was for a time secretary to Pancho Villa, and also a speechwriter for Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote many plays, of which the most famous are probably A Fool There Was (which was filmed twice) and The Bad Man (filmed three times).

A Fool There Was was written for Broadway, apparently, and ran early in 1909. The copy I have is in novel form, and frankly doesn't seem very much like a play. I assume Browne adapted it for book publication. It was originally published in 1909 by H. K. Fly (this was, actually, most likely the play version), and my copy is a Grosset and Dunlap reprint (possibly the first novelized edition). It is illustrated, curiously, by two different people: there are a few lightly colored plates by Edmund Magrath, and quite a number of pen and ink illustrations W. W. Fawcett. (I preferred the Fawcett illustrations.) The book is dedicated to Robert Hilliard, who was the star of the Broadway production. It is quite short, about 42,000 words, divided into many often very short chapters.

The story is nominally based on an 1897 poem by Rudyard Kipling called "The Vampire". The play and book's title is the first four words of the poem, and the first stanza is given as an epigraph. (Apparently, when the 1915 movie version was presented, the entire poem was recited (live) several times during the showing.) The poem is about a man who gives up his "goods", and his "honour and faith", to a woman who didn't much care and eventually "threw him aside".

The novel tells of two men who grew up together in New York City, both falling for the same neighbor girl. John Schuyler eventually wins the girl, and they have a daughter, and all are happy. The other man, Thomas Blake, never marries, and continues as a good friend to the Schuyler family. Both men become quite successful.

There are a series of curious interludes, never adequately explained, set in Brittany, detailing the squalid birth of an illegitimate child, and later the now beautiful young woman encountering her father and killing him, and later an odd scene where a young man comes on a naked woman in a forest, and turns away. I can only assume these are scenes of the early life of the femme fatale character who turns up later (this is the character played by Theda Bara in the movie), but the novel never deigns to really connect things.

Eventually John Schuyler is appointed to a diplomatic post in England. He has to go alone, though Blake sees him off, and hears the story of the suicide of "Young Parmalee", who had been making a fool of himself over a wanton woman. Blake sees the woman briefly on the ship ... and also sees Schuyler see the woman ... Well, you see what happens. Schuyler is drawn helplessly (as if!) into the woman's arms, and begins an affair, which continues throughout his (apparently botched) mission, and even on his return to the US. Eventually he leaves his wife, loses his job, and falls into drunkenness. Blake makes a last attempt to save him from degradation, but the woman, contemptuously, insists Schuyler kiss her one more time before he leaves ... and all is lost.

And that's all!

So, a morality tale. The problem is the construction, and the oddly flippant prose. And the failure to really suggest much of anything believable in any of the relationships: certainly not Schuyler's with his wife, but also not his attraction to the "vampire" character. The only character who came close to convincing me was Schuyler's young daughter. As I noted, the prose is a bit odd -- flippant somehow, given to silly epigrams, and often just trailing off in a sort of dying fall. There isn't a lot of dialogue, which seems strange in a book apparently adapted from a play. Perhaps the play was better! And it is intriguing to have -- purely by accident! -- run across the source material for Theda Bara's first big film (even odder to have done so just after reading the source material for a crucial early Valentino film).

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Sheik, by E. M. Hull

Old Bestsellers: The Sheik, by E. M. Hull

a review by Rich Horton

The Sheik is still a somewhat famous and also somewhat notorious novel. Partly this is because it became a film starring perhaps the most famous romantic male lead of the silent period, Rudolf Valentino. (Along with another 1921 film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik established his reputation and persona.) It's also famous ... or notorious ... because it is an astonishingly sexist novel. It is sometimes considered the first novel in the "Romance" category (Georgette Heyer's first novel appeared two years later); and it introduced perhaps the least savory of Romance tropes: the woman who needs to be raped to teach her a lesson, and who then falls for her rapist.

The author was born Edith Maude Henderson in 1880 in London. Though as far as I can tell she lived her whole life in England, her father was American and her mother Canadian. They traveled widely however (her father was a shipowner), and so did young Edith. She married Percy Hull in 1899. During the first World War Edith began writing fiction. The Sheik was her first published novel, appearing in 1919. She published several further novels, including a sequel to The Sheik (The Sons of the Sheik). She died in 1947.

I'll present a brief quick review of The Sheik, followed by some more detail which will include spoilers for The Sheik as well as perhaps P. C. Wren's Beau Sabreur.

The Sheik concerns a very rich young woman named Diana Mayo, who has been raised from birth by her cold fish of a brother. Accustomed to having her own way, and uninterested in men, she decides to take a trip through the Sahara while her brother heads to the US to find a wife who wants his money enough to put up with his selfish ways. However, she is betrayed by her Arab guide, who allows her to be kidnapped by a Sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan. Ahmed makes his intentions clear, and despite Diana's expressed hate and fear, has his way with her again and again over the ensuing days.

Months pass as Diana's feelings change, and a few crises follow: an escape attempt, a meeting with a French friend of the Sheik, and Diana being kidnapped again by another Sheik, this one gross and evil ...

Well, it's obvious enough how it all works out. There is one slight (but all too predictable) twist, that I'll mention later. And what did I think of the book? In the first place, the rape plot is truly objectionable ... I don't really get people that defend the Sheik's actions. You can certainly argue that Diana was a stuck up prig, and that her privilege and her unconventional upbringing had led to certain emotional issues which were not healthy. But to suggest that the proper cure for that would be kidnapping and rape -- repeated rape, over months -- is simply sick. Besides that, the book is quite overtly racist in its treatment of Arabs. And finally, it's poorly written. The prose is bad, the pacing is off, Hull's paragraphs are too long (a nitpick, I know), and perhaps most importantly, the romance really doesn't convince, at least not from Diana's side. I suppose I could believe that the Sheik was truly falling for Diana, against his will (he prefers to regard women, especially English women, as disposable), but Diana's sudden realization that she is in love with the Sheik just seems pasted on. Also, though it's obvious that lots of sex (sick as it may be) is occurring, none is described, and quite frankly some more explicit description would have helped (though probably not enough).

A few more details about some additional, spoilerish, points of annoyance after some spoiler space ...

It's fairly obvious that the book's depiction of Arabs is racist, but it's made still worse in that the "good" Sheik, our hero (you know, "good" despite being a kidnapper and rapist) turns out to be actually European in ancestry -- with an aristocratic English father and a Spanish mother ... the same trick, more or less, features in P. C. Wren's Beau Sabreur.

I might also note that the producers of the movie version felt that the rape aspect was too controversial, so it was eliminated. (There were complaints from the book's readers.)

And finally, it seemed possible to me that there was a hint of strange incest in Diana's relationship with her brother, particularly in that he doesn't seem to like women at all, and that Diana is described as having a "boyish figure" and as often dressing in mannish clothes. If Hull had intended that, and had the skill to pull it off, it might have added some psychological interest ... but I think I'm overinterpreting.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Duchess Hotspur, by Rosamond Marshall

Old Bestsellers: Duchess Hotspur, by Rosamond Marshall

a review by Rich Horton

Rosamond Marshall was a popular writer for both children and adults. She was born in 1902, but her first novel (for children) did not appear until 1942. Her first adult (for its time, very adult) novel, Kitty, appeared the next year. For the rest of her life (she died, quite young, in 1957) she produced books in both categories. By repute, her adult novels, especially Kitty, sold very well, particularly in paperback. (There is a certain cultural judgement inherent in that statement as applied to books from the '40s, when paperbacks were still new and quite declassé.) Wikipedia knows little about her: she was American-born, briefly married to an Italian man and lived in Rome, later married Charles Marshall, over the last several years of her life split her time between Southern California and Vancouver. (Oh, and there is some controversy over her birthdate: perhaps she was born as early as 1893).

The back cover of my edition of Duchess Hotspur has more details: born in New York City, grew up in England, educated in France, Austria, Germany, and Italy, including some time at the Sorbonne. Spoke English, French, Italian, German, and Piedmontese (an Italian dialect, I presume?) Wrote extensively for foreign language papers, and published a number of adventure novels under pseudonyms. Also was an experienced moutain climber, being the first to break new trails to the tops of at least 22 mountains, with one Alpine peak that she was the first to scale named after her. Pretty impressive, really.

Kitty was made into a somewhat popular movie with Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland. Her last novel, The Bixby Girls, was also made into a movie.

Duchess Hotspur was published by Prentice-Hall in 1946. My edition is the Fifth Printing, and the dustjacket flap claims over 100,000 copies in print, so this book must have sold quite well itself. It's a romance novel set in 1771 or so. The title character is named Percy, Duchess of Harford, called Duchess Hotspur sometimes. (She is apparently so named as she is a descendant of Henry Percy, called Hotspur, probably best known these days for his somewhat innacurate depiction in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I.) She is Duchess in her own right, though she had to win a court case against her odious cousin Sir Harry Cunningham to confirm that. (I'm not sure if it was possible at that time for a woman to be in the House of Lords?) She is a widow, having eloped at 16, but her husband died on their honeymoon and since then she has had a string of lovers, but no one who has held her interest.

Meanwhile Thomas Ligonier is a poor journalist, hoping to attract investors to start a newspaper. He makes enough money to live on from freelancing and from modeling for a sculptor friend. One day the Duchess barges into the sculptor's studio to complain about some work he did for her, and sees Thomas, nude ... and falls hard for him, and he for her. Before long she has thrown over her current lover and is sleeping with Thomas.

Thereby runs the conflict ... can she stay with him? He is lower born than a Duchess (though not a peasant: his father is a clergyman, and he went to Oxford: seems like gentry, but not nobility). She is controlling (for example, she wants to gift him the newspaper) while he wants to earn his way. (And to rule his wife, as men were expected to do.) And what about their pasts? Thomas (presented as a rather implausible paragon) is apparently the one true passion of at least two other women, while the Duchess' string of noble lovers is quite jealous of her new paramour. And what of her evil cousin, who still has designs on the Dukedom?

We see some interesting details on the newspaper business at that time, as Thomas does successfully found a paper. And there is a bit of society life. And lots of sex, not explicitly described but clearly going on all the time. (Including some slightly kinky stuff, especially with one of Tom's former lovers, who discovers a taste for being beaten when she takes up with a new man.) The true action of the novel takes a while to start, but it gets pretty exciting towards the end, when the bad guys (especially Sir Harry) move against Tom. The ending is a bit flat, partly because of a bit of a deus ex machina aspect. It's not a particularly good novel, but after a slowish start it does hold the interest, and I can see why it might have sold well. The sex was probably a factor: tame by today's standards, but I gather pretty racy for the '40s. (One contemporary review I found on the Web all but accused Marshall of copying Kathleen Winsor's famous Forever Amber in that aspect, from two years before, which seems a bit unfair to me because while Forever Amber predates Duchess Hotspur, Marshall's Kitty predates Forever Amber, and as I understand it Kitty was full of sex as well.)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Old Non-bestseller: Venusberg, by Anthony Powell

Old Non-bestseller: Venusberg, by Anthony Powell

a review by Rich Horton

Another trip into the archives for a review I wrote nearly 20 years ago about a book by one of my very favorite writers. It wasn't a bestseller, though I think it got respectful notice: Anthony Powell was, I think, known as an up and comer. He was one of a remarkable cadre of writers to come out of Eton at about the same time: his exact contemporary was the great Henry Yorke, who wrote as Henry Green; while Eric Blair, who wrote as George Orwell, and Cyril Connolly were two years older, and Ian Fleming (a rather different sort of writer, excellent in his own way) was a few years younger. (Another friend of Powell's, born in 1903, though not an Old Etonian, was Evelyn Waugh.)

Powell was born in 1905 to a very upper middle-class, or somewhat lower upper-class, family (the nuances of British class divisions are sometimes a little hard to decipher for me). I suppose as Powell`s wife was the daughter of an Earl, and Powell himself attended Eton and Oxford, his background is more upper-class than not, a milieu certainly reflected in his novels. Powell spent a brief time in publishing (at Duckworth's, which also published his first few novels), a brief time in Hollywood, and then, after service in the War, he wrote for Punch and for various other journals, as well as of course writing novels. Late in his life he published four volumes of memoirs and three volumes of journals. (Powell's wife, by the way, Lady Violet Powell, was a fine writer herself (of memoirs), and she was the niece of Lord Dunsany, the sister of the notorious Lord Longford, and the aunt of Antonia Fraser. As well as being a descendant of Wellington (or perhaps of a Wellington in-law).)

Powell's most famous work is the 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), which is purely and simply one of the towering achievements of English letters. It treats the decline of English upper-class society between the two wars, and during and following the Second World War. It is nominally social comedy, and at times very funny indeed, but there is a distinct thread of regret mixed with realization that the society involved needed to change, and that most of the "decline" was a result of weaknesses inherent in the people involved.

Prior to the second World War, Powell published 5 novels, of which Venusberg is the second, published in 1932. These early novels are in some sense rehearsals for the themes and situations of Dance, but they are completely independent. They don`t seem dated to me at all, but they can be difficult to find. (This may be changing -- the University of Chicago Press recently reissued Powell's first novel, Afternoon Men, and perhaps a new edition of Venusberg will come along sometime soon.) I got Venusberg from my local library`s interlibrary loan program, and the edition I read, published in the States in 1953 or so, is a curious omnibus of Venusberg and another early Powell novel, Agents and Patients (1936).

This novel is the story of one Lushington, an English journalist who is sent by his paper to visit an unnamed Baltic republic, obviously modeled on one or more of the three, then-independent, Baltic states. He encounters a variety of quite unusual characters: American and British diplomats, emigre Russians, locals, expatriate Britons, and so on. He falls in love (or as much in love as he seems capable of) with an Austrian woman, the wife of a local Professor, but of course fate intervenes, and Lushington returns home eventually, alone.

As with all of Powell`s novels, the plot is the least of the points of interest. The novel is composed of short chapters, describing, in very humorous terms, the characters and the unusual situations into which they stumble. Powell is notorious for the economical but striking descriptions of his characters, and this talent of his is evident even in this early novel, though it is much developed in Dance. The characters in this book are generally likable (not always true of Powell`s characters), but they seem lost. They seem unable to commit themselves either to a career, or to other people. In this book, the young Powell is satirically observing these characters, of whose milieu he was a member. In his later novels, with the experience of life and a long war intervening, his purpose is less satirical, more ironical, and more understanding.

Obviously, I heartily recommend A Dance to the Music of Time, although it is quite a project (it took me 15 months to read, reading a trilogy at a time, then taking a few months off.) The early Powell novels, such as Venusberg, are perhaps not quite at the level of Dance, but quite worthwhile themselves.