Thursday, October 1, 2015

Old Bestseller: Dora Thorne, by Charlotte Mary Brame ("Bertha M. Clay")

Dora Thorne, by Charlotte Mary Brame ("Bertha M. Clay")

a review by Rich Horton

OK, back to an Old Bestseller, a really old one this time, with an interesting (to me) publication history. I found this book, as with so many, in an antique store, and it looked like it would be an interesting, if not necessarily good, example of Victorian popular fiction. And so it proved to be.

My copy seems to date to around the turn of the 20th Century. The publisher is Donohue, Henneberry and Co., from Chicago. The title page simply reads Dora Thorne, by Bertha M. Clay. There is no copyright notice, no dating, no pictures, no author information.

I looked up Bertha Clay and found that it is a pseudonym, for Charlotte Mary Brame (1836-1884). Brame was an Englishwoman, who married a jeweler and had nine children (only 4 of whom survived to adulthood). Her husband was a drunk and a poor businessman, and Brame turned to writing fiction to help make ends meet. She had published some poems and Catholic themed short stories for a Catholic magazine, the Lamp, beginning in her teens. Her first commercial publications were a couple of books collecting these and similar stories, in the late '60s. Brame also began selling less uplifting tales to the Family Herald, a long running magazine (or story paper) aimed at middle- to lower-class readers. At first these were short stories, but soon she was placing serialized novels with them. She also sold series to similar markets such as Bow Bells, Young Ladies' Journal, and the Family Reader. This last was, beside the Family Herald, her most important market. Eventually she seems to have signed an exclusive contract with the Family Herald, and her subsequent fiction in other markets appeared anonymously or under ambiguous bylines.

She was quite remarkably prolific, publishing over 60 novels and quite a few short stories and novelettes in a career that lasted less than two decades. She made a reasonable amount of money from this (though less than she deserved, as we shall see) -- perhaps 2000 pounds per year or more at her peak. However, due to her husband's dissolute ways, and medical expenses, the family was in financial stress throughout, and indeed Brame's husband committed suicide a couple of years after Charlotte's death.

So, why "Bertha M. Clay"? It seems this was a pseudonym concocted by her American publishers (the initials, of course, are Charlotte M. Brame's initials backward). The first publisher to use "Bertha M. Clay" was Street & Smith (familiar to SF readers as the original publishers of Astounding), but they lost control of that pseudonym quickly. Indeed, after Brame's death, the Clay name became something of a house name, though perhaps not for any specific house, and quite a number of novels by other hands were published as by Clay, or even, in some cases, as by "Dora Thorne".

In fact, the name Bertha Clay has appeared in this blog before -- in my review of T. W. Hanshew's Cleek of Scotland Yard I quoted a newspaper article from the time of Hanshew's death debunking the apparently common rumor that he was the person behind the ""Dora Thorne" books by "Bertha Clay"".

More importantly, it seems likely that Charlotte Brame was never paid for the American editions of her books. Its worth noting that the US in those days was no respecter of foreign copyrights. Brame's books were apparently very good sellers in the US, but she didn't benefit from that. (Her brother-in-law, George Brame, who had moved to Canada, did complain about this after her death.)

I should credit my main source for most of this information, a bibliography compiled by Graham Law, Gregory Drozdz, and Debby McNally in 2011, available here . This sort of research is really wonderful, and I thank the compilers for it.

Well, after all that, what about the novel? Dora Thorne was always Charlotte Brame's most famous novel (as hinted by such things as the use of "Dora Thorne" as a faux pseudonym after Brame's death). It first appeared in the Family Herald in late 1871. It's the story of the disastrous marriage of Ronald Earle, the only child of Lord Earle of Earlescourt; to Dora Thorne, the pretty daughter of the lodge-keeper. Lord Earle banishes Ronald over the marriage, and the couple sets up in Italy, where Ronald becomes an only moderately successful painter. He quickly tires of the uneducated Dora, and the marriage breaks up over Dora's jealousy of a beautiful woman that Ronald's family had wished him to marry. Ronald's most successful painting uses this woman as a model, and even though they never truly betray Dora, they act suspiciously enough that Dora's anger is understandable, especially in light of Ronald's mistreatment of her. She leaves him, after some hard words on both sides, and takes their twin girls, Beatrice and Lillian, back to England, to live with her parents (who have moved away from Earlescourt).

Ronald vows never to see his wife again, and hares off to South Africa. Dora raises her two girls, oddly enough finally attaining the education she had previously lacked. Beatrice grows up a great but wilful beautfy, while Lillian is the more saintly character. And the lonely Beatrice, turning 16, makes a terrible mistake, promising to marry a young ship captain, much below her station as the daughter of a soon to be Lord, upon the captain's return from his next voyage.

The final third of the novel, then, comes after Lord Earle's death, and Ronald's return to claim his inheritance. His daughters move to Earlescourt, and become great successes. Beatrice falls in love with a very eligible Earl, while Lillian falls in love with a cousin, the heir to Earlescourt since Ronald has no son. (Convenient, that!) But Beatrice lies to everyone when asked if she has any past incidents that may cause future trouble. So of course when the ship captain returns to claim her hand, a terribly melodramatic conclusion is set up.

Of course Beatrice could have solved her problems by telling the truth at almost any time ... but by and large most of the problems are cause by stiffnecked and overly rigid men. Indeed, though the text of the novel seems to blame Beatrice (and before her, Dora) for the problems in their love lives, common sense tells any reader that the elder Lord Earle, his son, and indeed Beatrice's noble lover, Lord Airlie, as well as the ship captain who presumes on a 16 year old's promise; are much more to blame. The bibliographers suggest that Charlotte Brame's sympathies also lie with the women, but that she was to an extent writing to her particular market (the Family Herald), and they note that the stories she wrote for the Family Reader took a somewhat more feminist tack.

Anyway, Dora Thorne isn't by any means a great work. It's very melodramatic, and the characters are difficult to believe (though Beatrice, at least, comes somewhat to life). The prose is actually not bad, though a bit overwrought at times, and over descriptive fairly often. The novel's structure is loose, rather flat -- probably to a considerable extent reflecting its origins as a serial. As with so many books in this series of reviews -- it's not hard to see why it found a wide readership, but it's not likely to every again find much popularity.

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