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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-11-18 22:57
The Heart of a Woman (Orczy)
The Heart of a Woman - Baroness Orczy The Heart of a Woman - Baroness Orczy

By the title, you'd think this might well be a romance, but although there's a young love element to the plot, it in fact is more of a murder mystery, albeit a fairly easily solved one. There are two (not) coincidentally similar deaths, both linked to certain estate-related shenanigans. One death is very much too coincidentally witnessed by the young lady who is the fiancée of the heir apparent to the estate in question.


Orczy, even though she's writing a generic "modern" novel, places her events firmly nine years after an actual natural disaster - a catastrophic volcanic eruption in Martinique in 1902, which would have been well within living memory for her readers. The novel was in fact published in 1911. This gives a slight but curious verisimilitude to an otherwise entirely hoary old plot device of missing heirs and missing documents destroyed in a catastrophe.


OK, herewith the reason for the spoiler tags. Two young men are murdered, each in a carriage with a stiletto through the throat; one in Brussels, one in London. In the latter case the murder weapon, a stiletto stick, indubitably belongs to our young hero, Luke, and he is known to have quarreled with the victim in a club just before.


In fact, Luke is protecting his elderly Uncle Radclyffe, a surrogate father to him, who has killed not once but twice (a real newly-discovered heir, and then a fraudster who impersonates the murdered man and blackmails the murderous uncle) in order to protect the inheritance of the only member of the younger generation of the family that Radclyffe cares for - Luke. Radclyffe also conveniently becomes terminally ill before he can convey to anyone his actions or his motives. It is Luke's beloved fiancee, behaving in ever-so-slightly unladylike (but not at all New Woman-ish) ways, who eventually ferrets out the truth and saves her stubborn self-sacrificing lover from the gibbet. There is no dramatic trial scene: just an arrest and a lot of society whispering at parties. There is also, of course a deathbed confession.


Orczy's weakness, as ever, is characterization. She is impelled to kill off wicked but beloved Uncle Rad because there really is no way to let him go on living, not because of his morality but because his continued existence imperils the social standing of her young couple; we never really get a convincing sense of why an established, if notoriously grumpy, member of the British upper classes would suddenly go on a killing spree to resolve matters that surely could have been worked out with a good lawyer.

The oddest, and yet not unexpected, characterizations are those of Luke and Louisa, who are constantly referred to with adjectives like "ordinary" or "common." This is particularly true for Louisa, but here's what the author writes of Luke: "Luke de Mountford was no fool. Men of his stamp - we are accustomed to call them commonplace - take a very straight outlook on life. They are not hampered by the psychological problems which affect the moral balance of a certain class of people of to-day; they have no sexual problems to solve. Theirs is a steady, wholesome, and clean life, and the mirrors of nature have not been blurred by the breath of psychologists."


Neither Luke nor Louisa is commonplace in any sense we'd recognize today. They both lead extremely comfortable upper-class lives, and they both repress their emotions and obey the conventions of their class to a rigorous degree: "The puppets were still dancing, moved by the invisible strings held by the hand of the implacable giant called Convention."


What this means, however, is that they have more than a whiff of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Orczy revels in the agonized repression of real emotion, especially by the man, and frankly the kind of man she writes as a hero comes off as highly emotionally damaged and constantly having to be rescued from his own self-obliterating impulses. Poor Louisa! She, however, is similarly "whole", "common", and, in the British title of the work, "a True Woman".


Notwithstanding the much over-praised lead characters, the tale is amusing, the plot unfolded well, and the depiction of of the tyranny of social mores in pre-WWI England instructive if hardly sympathetic.

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review 2017-01-08 23:23
Books of 1916: Part Two
The Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka
Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher,Eden Ross Lipson,Kimberly Bulcken Root
Illustrated Adventures in Oz Vol IV: Rinkitink in Oz, the Lost Princess of Oz, and the Tin Woodman of Oz - L. Frank Baum,John R. Neill
Pilgrimage 2: The Tunnel and Interim - Dorothy M. Richardson
Pointed Roofs - Dorothy M. Richardson
Collected Works of Ouida - Maria Louise Ramé
Leatherface - Emmuska Orczy
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Emmuska Orczy
The Convenient Marriage - Georgette Heyer

Books of 1916: Part Two


The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka


Since childhood I’ve been familiar with the plot of this short novel; people talk about it all the time because it’s so compelling. I even had the first sentence memorized thanks to my older brother. Reciting it was a warm-up exercise in some sort of theater class he was in, except for some reason they added an extra word, making it: “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unpleasant dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin sofa.” And yet I had never even read one word of The Metamorphosis before now! It was so much more awesome than I was even expecting. So dark and weird and sad but a little bit funny.


Gregor realizes straightaway that he has become a monstrous vermin, but he’s mainly worried about how he will get to work on time and what would happen to his family if he lost his job. I was thinking, oh Gregor, you’re worried about the wrong thing, you just can’t face what your real problem is. But you know what? He absolutely was worried about the correct things. It’s becoming more and more clear that I’m the one who’s always worried about the wrong thing.


My wife wanted to know what does this story mean, on a metaphorical level. I never think about stuff like that. But I think it is a metaphor for being a lowly creature trapped living at home with your parents. Gregor is the ultimate back bedroom casualty. He literally can't leave his room after he transforms into a bug. Also it's about humanity, and the way we treat the Other, including non-human animals. Gregor is the one who is no longer a human, but his family are the ones who treat him so cruelly without sympathy or understanding, even his sister who started out being the caring one.


Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield


I can’t even remember when I first read this; presumably as a child. I think it deserves a much greater reputation as a children’s classic than it has. It’s about a little orphan girl, Elizabeth Ann, who is being raised by her two overprotective, uptight, city-dwelling aunts. Poor Elizabeth Ann is frail and vaguely sickly and afraid of everything, just like her aunties who “understand” her and smother her with love. When a family illness means she must be sent away to stay with another branch of the family who live way out in the country, she is terrified. But she blossoms as she encounters nature, animals, having responsibilities, doing things for herself, and especially her brusque but kind, plain-spoken new family. Elizabeth Ann (now Betsy) begins attending a one-room school house that amazingly seems exactly like a Montessori school, and she makes friends for the first time. The part where Betsy is left behind at the Fair, and the ending where Betsy must choose where she is going to live, elevate this book into a masterpiece.


Rinkitink in Oz by Frank L. Baum


I love the Oz books. Rinkitink is a jolly king with a talking goat who has to go on a dangerous journey with young Prince Inga. As a matter of fact, they’re not in Oz but in a nearby fantastical land. Prince Inga has three magical pearls that guide him, and he tries to hide two of them in the pointy toes of his shoes. But the shoes get thrown away and then they’re really in trouble. You think you won’t see Dorothy but at the last minute she and the Wizard and Ozma show up to save the day.


Usually you can count on the Oz books to leave out the racist garbage that is so prevalent in the books of this time period, but there was a horrible bit at the end of this one that I had forgotten which involves transforming the talking goat back into Prince Bobo of Boboland, and there’s even an illustration. If I were reading this book out loud to a young child I would skip over that part.


Unfortunately there aren’t that many Oz books left as L. Frank Baum is due to die in 1919. Do you think I should keep on reading the sequels by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who took over the series after Baum’s death? I have a couple years to make up my mind.


Backwater by Dorothy Richardson


The second in Richardson’s modernist, stream-of-consciousness novels about an English girl who has to become a teacher because her family has fallen on hard times. There are thirteen of these books and the series is called Pilgrimage. Last time she was working at a German boarding school, and this time she is at an English school. I love the way the main character Miriam’s mind works. Her romantic mooniness is so real and relatable. The most touching part was when she discovers a lending library where she can read the complete works of Ouida, which have always been forbidden to her because they’re too smutty. This novel really shows how when you have a rich inner life you will find splendor and meaning somewhere, even in the most depressing or banal surroundings. Unfortunately there’s a section when she’s on holiday at the seaside and there are some musicians who are described with the n-word repeatedly.


Leatherface by Emma Orczy


Just like last year, the Baroness is the only one who takes the horrors of war head on. Again it is historical fiction, set in Belgium (who wouldn’t feel for brave little Belgium in 1916?) during the Spanish Inquisition. A dashing hero known only as Leatherface because of the mask he wears has been protecting the Prince of Orange and doing other brave deeds for the cause. Fans of Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel series won’t be surprised to learn that it is the lazy, good-natured, tavern-loving man about town character who is actually Leatherface, or that the female protagonist is torn between her family duty to unmask Leatherface and her love for him.


A bit of altar diplomacy has brought Leatherface and this beautiful Spanish lady together into a marriage in name only, but it turns out to be one of those things where they fall in love after they are married. (I asked my brother if there was a name for this trope, and he suggested A Convenient Marriage since Georgette Heyer wrote at least four novels on this theme and one of them was called A Convenient Marriage.) I ate all this intrigue up with a spoon. But the bulk of the novel is about the horrors of war and people getting killed, killed, killed.


In the end, the town of Ghent escapes complete annihilation but the people allow Spanish supervillain the Duke of Alva to go free. “Perhaps they had suffered too much to thirst for active revenge,” is the book’s closing line, which I found unexpectedly pacifistic and moving. Also hats off to Emma Orczy for FINALLY laying off the anti-Semitism for one entire book except for a single one-liner.


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review 2016-03-17 00:37
Books of 1915 (Part Two)
Of Human Bondage - Maeve Binchy,Benjamin DeMott,W. Somerset Maugham
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - T.S. Eliot
Grass on the Wayside (Michikusa) - Sōseki Natsume,Edwin McClellan
A Bride of the Plains - Emmuska Orczy
The Underdogs - Mariano Azuela
Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman,Ann J. Lane
Ammonite - Nicola Griffith
The Temple at Landfall - Jane Fletcher
Houston, Houston, Do You Read? - James Tiptree Jr.
The Scarecrow of Oz - L. Frank Baum

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham


It has been quite a few years since I read this novel, but I thought it was absolutely terrific and I remember it vividly. The story opens when the main character Philip is a lonely young boy with a club foot being raised by his aunt and uncle. As soon as he is old enough to get away, he moves to Germany and then France where he decides to become a visual artist. That part was extremely interesting to me, as it seemed that, although art and education and customs of every kind have changed so much in the last hundred years, the inner work and the shame of “becoming an artist” have not changed in any way. It seemed very fresh and relevant. There is a “Least Likely To” type of girl who falls in love with Philip and dies by suicide.


Phillip decides that he doesn’t have what it takes to be an artist either, so he returns to London to study medicine. There he meets a server at a restaurant who is incredibly toxic. He falls in love with her and is completely under her sway, supporting her when she gets pregnant by another man. He seriously needs to get himself to a meeting of Codependents Anonymous! I won’t spoil the whole story but let me just give you a couple of key words: “sex work” and “syphilis.” But you will be happy to know that Philip eventually finds happiness and even love.


“The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot


This poem is perfect, and I don’t even know what I could possibly say about it. The back of the copy of The Wasteland and Other Poems that I have says “Few readers need any introduction to the work of the most influential poet of the twentieth century.” So there you go. I remember when I was a kid I liked the way the poem is so interior (as in, the interior of someone’s head), and how it was about someone who was getting old, and I just liked how it sounds. My mom used to recite and read this poem to us and I can still clearly hear in my mind just the way she would intone


Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                              
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

  In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.


and then later:


  I grow old . . . I grow old . . .                                              
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

  Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

  I do not think they will sing to me.


She explained to me that when you’ve had certain kinds of dental work you don’t dare to eat a peach.


T.S. Eliot is an example of someone who was a horrible bigot but who managed to keep it out of his poetry (as far as I’m aware.) I wish Baroness Orczy and some others could be more like that. I’m psyched for more modernist poetry to come!



Grass on the Wayside by Natsume Soseki


I really enjoyed reading this. It was almost as great as Soseki’s 1914 book Kokoro. It’s about a middle-aged curmudgeon who doesn’t know how to get along with anyone, especially his wife and his family. This curmudgeon had been adopted into another family as a child, which was apparently a common Japanese custom of the period, but later the adoption was reversed and he returned to his original family. Now his onetime adoptive father has resurfaced, unsuccessful and unsavory and grasping for money, and our curmudgeon isn’t sure what the right thing to do is. According to the introduction, the story is autobiographical and the main character is supposed to be a very close match to Soseki. But I don’t understand how that can be—how could anyone who has social skills as poor as the main character have the insight to present the situation the way the author does? If the author were really as blinkered as the main character, there’s no way he could have written this book.


I’m looking forward Soseki’s next book in 1915. But oh no! It’s his last one!


A Bride of the Plains by Baroness Orczy


As you may know, I’m a big Baroness Orczy fan. This year I have to give her credit for something very special: although basically the entire world is embroiled in war, she is the ONLY author to address this. She was the ONLY one to write about war, and in Hungary in the Carpathian basin, more or less where all the trouble began. (Okay, I guess there’s also Mariano Azuela writing about the Mexican revolution. But still, props to the Baroness!) I know the production schedule for publishing a novel is pretty long, but a lot of these Edwardians wrote two books a year, and I do think some of them could have at least acknowledged in some way, even thematically, that there’s a world war going on, a pretty big deal! (PS. Are they still Edwardians? What am I supposed to call them now? Baroness Orczy ain’t no modernist!)


Anyway, no one seems to set their novels in the present day, and in fact Baroness Orczy is no exception; A Bride of the Plains is set in what seemed to me like a non-specific time in the past. But the book’s opening takes a pretty clear anti-war tone. It’s almost the day when young men in this little burg are conscripted into the army, a sad day for all:


On this hideous day all the finest lads in the village are taken away to be made into soldiers by the abominable Government? Three years! Why, the lad is a mere child when he goes—one-and-twenty on his last birthday, bless him! still wanting a mother’s care of his stomach, and a father’s heavy stick across his back from time to time to keep him from too much love-making.


Three years ! When he comes back he is a man and has notions of his own. Three years! What are the chances he comes back at all? Bosnia! Where in the world is that? My God, how they hate it! They must go through with it, though they hate it all-every moment.


By the way, I realize that there is probably a glut of war books coming down the pipe, and in a few years I’ll be very nostalgiac for the kind of books I read this year.


Anyway! This is the story of a girl, Elsa, who tries to be true to Andor, the boy she loves who’s been sent off to war. But when it seems that he’s been killed, she knuckles under to her mother’s pressure to marry the bad-tempered richest man in town. But on the eve of her wedding,

Andor returns!

(spoiler show)


The downfall of this book is the same problem that Orczy always has: anti-Semitism. Usually it’s just a few throwaway descriptions, but here the villains are an Evil Jew and Evil Jewess. Kind of ruined the book. That’s the whole thing about bigoted people; they just can’t let it go. If you hate Jews so much, Emma Orczy, why don’t you just stop writing about them? But no, she can’t help herself! Maddening. I will say that there’s a lot of suspense and action in this book, if you can get past the bad taste in your mouth.


The Underdogs (Los de Abajo) by Mariano Azuela


This interesting novel about the Mexican Revolution is cynical toward everyone concerned. The main characters are peasants who become rebels. There are a lot of funny bits. The most depressing part is how the women are treated like garbage by everyone. You get the impression that the people of Mexico will get the shaft, no matter who wins. This is the first Mexican novel I have encountered in this project and I hope I will find more.


Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


I like Herland even more than 1911’s Moving The Mountain, and almost as much as “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which I think is one of the finest short stories. Although Gilman is famous for being a feminist, I don’t think she gets as much credit as she deserves for being a speculative fiction writer.


Three male explorers hear of a country that consists only of women, so they decide to check it out, and with great trouble make their way in. Jeff is a tender soul who glorifies motherhood and believes in being a perfect gentleman to women. Terry is a handsome man about town, kind of rapey and full of himself, and he thinks women should be pretty and serve him. The narrator, Vandyck Jennings, is sort of in-between these two and in general presents a “rational” point of view.


They are amazed to discover a beautiful utopia populated only by women, with wildly different customs from their own. In this country they don’t have poverty, they raise their children communally, they wear comfy clothes, etc. Long ago, a volcanic eruption and slave uprising led to a group of women who were cut off from the rest of the world. A few of them were miraculously able to reproduce as the result of sort of an exalted mental state, and this ability was passed down through the generations. There are so many novels about all-female societies where this happens—Ammonite by Nicola Griffith and Jane Fletcher’s Celaeno series spring to mind—but Herland must be the first.


The women the three explorers meet are all strong, intelligent, athletic, good teachers, and able to get things done. They confound the explorers’ expectations at every turn because they have no idea how to “behave like women.” Gilman takes the gender binary away and everyone becomes a person; however, she certainly has a rosy view of how nice an all-female society, or any society, could be.


The three explorers each fall in love and insist on marrying their sweethearts, which the women agree to in order to humor them, although marriage is a meaningless concept to them. All this time there has been no romantic love in the country because, well, when the men are gone, it’s just impossible! But they haven’t been missing it.


Terry and his wife Alima don’t get along. He attempts to rape her, but she kicks him in the balls and summons help from her friend in the room next door. Terry is put on trial, and the local Over Mother sentences him to be sent back to the outside world, with his word as a gentleman not to tell anyone about their country. At first Terry is obstinate.


“The first thing I’ll do is to get an expedition fixed up to force an entrance into Ma-Land!”

“Then,” they said quite calmly, “he must remain an absolute prisoner always.”

“Anesthesia would be kinder,” urged Moadine.

“And safer,” added Zava.

“He will promise, I think,” said Ellador [Jennings’ wife.]

And he did.


(This part reminded me of Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree, Jr.)


So Terry leaves, with Jennings and Ellador to escort him. Next year is the sequel! From Gilman’s Wikipedia page I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know about her, including the fact that she married her first cousin, and that when she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer she “chose chloroform over cancer” (her words.)


The Scarecrow of Oz by L. Frank Baum


I love all the Oz books! This is the one in which a little girl named Trot and her sailor pal Cap’n Bill come to Oz. They meet a lot of lovable characters like the Bumpy Man and Button Bright, and they help the Scarecrow solve a problem with the monarchy of Jinxland.

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review 2016-02-18 12:10
Mam'zelle Guillotine
Mam'zelle Guillotine (Scarlet Pimpernel) - Baroness Emma Orczy

This book, seventh in the series chronologically, was first published around 1940. By then Orczy had apparently forgotten her own Pimpernel timeline, especially as it pertained to books written prior to 1920, as she makes mention of an adventure that hasn't happened yet and claims Lord Tony is among the single members of the Pimpernel's band. Not that I mind the thought of my darling Lord Tony being single again, but that's small consolation to my inner pedant.


Mam'zelle Guillotine features a female villain, who of course wears breeches and is built like a man and is as proficient an executioner as the Republic could hope for. I kind of wanted a female Chauvelin, all cunning and suave and silky. What I got was a cartoonish harridan with all the subtlety of a boot to the head. Which isn't all that surprising, really, and it also wasn't nearly as disappointing as the Pimpernel's own performance.


This is the book where we find out how low our intrepid hero is willing to go to achieve his aims. And it's pretty darn low. I lost a little respect for him. Not that I felt sorry for the villain, but . . . blech. It's my least favorite Pimpernel adventure so far, and I think I need to take a break from them for a while.


Oh, and while reading this book it's very important to note that back in the day, to "make love" to someone meant to woo them. Very important.

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review 2016-02-01 04:12
Lord Tony's Wife
Lord Tony's Wife (Scarlet Pimpernel) - Baroness Emma Orczy

Back when I fell in love with the 1982 Scarlet Pimpernel movie, I had a slight crush on Lord Anthony Dewhurst (Sir Percy was taken, obviously). After meeting his wife, Yvonne, in this book, all I can say is damn, Tony, you could've done so much better.


Yvonne's father is one of those aristos whose general awfulness sparked the French Revolution. He's a petty tyrant who has peasants hanged for trifling reasons and his coaches have a habit of mowing down any men, women, and children not spry enough to get out of the way. Orczy makes no apologies for him, which makes it hard not to root a little bit for the bad guy (who is, after all, only out to avenge his wrongfully hanged father, though he's not so noble as that makes him sound). Yvonne herself hasn't got much personality to speak of. When we first meet her she's a budding petty-tyrant-in-training who is less distressed by the dozen peasants her coach runs over than the single downtrodden soul who manages to get in the coach with her. When we next meet her, four years have passed and for reasons unknown Lord Tony thinks she's the best thing since Mechlin lace. Ah well. There's no accounting for taste.

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