I love to read old books. The way books were published a hundred years ago fascinates me (and most of them are still in wonderful shape and will likely be readable for another hundred years, which makes them far superior to what we publish today.) The language in the books is also beautiful in ways that have evaporated over time; we don't talk like this anymore. Reading century-old books allows you to listen to the past as well as visit places that were important to their readers.
When I pick up an old novel, that saying always comes back to me: In a hundred years, will it matter? Did the author wonder that while writing this book? Did they hope someone on the other side of the century would read it?
Recently I found 3 hundred-year-old or better novels at a rare book store that I liked a lot, and I thought I'd write up my impressions of them:
A Spinner in the Sun by Myrtle Reed, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons/The Knickerbocker Press, 1909. Premise: Poverty drives spinster Evelina Grey back to her abandoned home 25 years after being disfigured in an explosion caused by her fiance (who she saved from also being burned up.) Said fiance showed his gratitude by marrying someone else.
Although the prose is definitely over-the-top dramatic, the story grabs you from the first chapter, when Evelina arrives home. On the surface it's a simple train-wreck plot -- burned/disfigured heroine comes home to face the ghosts of her past -- but then it starts getting very interesting. The story also has an amazing plot twist, which the Muses would never forgive me if I revealed, and frankly I never saw coming. It completely knocked my socks off, and you just don't expect a book to do that after 100 years to another experienced storyteller. Excellent book.
St. Elmo by Augusta J. Evans, published by Grosset & Dunlap, 1896. Sweet, perky twelve-year-old Edna Earl witnesses a duel, loses her only living elderly relative, and is in a train wreck (an actual/real one) from which she is rescued by a kindly couple and their ungrateful, nasty, suspicious son (whom they named St. Elmo.)
Some of the novels women authors wrote a hundred years ago were extremely dense, hefty reads, and St. Elmo is one of those. The author must have mainlined the Bronte sisters for a few years before starting out on her own writing career because I kept thinking "Jane Eyre knockoff." She's also very fond of the exclamation point. At the moment I'm working my way slowly through this one, which is a constant wade through over-descriptive passages and dialogue that consists mainly of indignant and declarative speeches -- but even that has some quaint appeal and charm. I haven't finished it yet so I can't give it a thumbs up or down, but I haven't put it aside, so after 113 years it still has staying power.
The Mistress of Shenstone by Florence L. Barclay, G.P. Putnam's Sons/The Knickerbocker Press, 1911 edition. While entertaining a local doctor at the Shenstone estate, slightly neurotic Lady Myra Ingleby learns that her husband Michael has been killed in an explosion during the war.
The Mistress of Shenstone must have been one of the novels that Barbara Cartland read; it has the same sweetness and wholesomeness to it. Everyone is so nice; my mother would love it. But it's also very readable, as if it were written just a couple of decades ago by some sweet romance writer like Cartland instead of 99 years ago (the first edition was published in 1910.) I liked this book a lot because it was elegantly written, all the characters have very good manners, and yet it still managed to keep me involved. I saw the plot twist coming early on -- the author didn't bother with veiling it too much -- but it's also a classic that I doubt will ever go out of style.
The sale pages Putnam put in the back of their novels a hundred years ago are funnier than hell now to read. Myrtle Reed actually has a page for another of her novels, Master of the Vineyard in the back of Florence's book, with this full-page blurb:
"A book of attractive plot, of pure morals, of lofty ideals, which deserve a reading by young and old. We take some pleasure in unequivocally asserting these qualities in Miss Reed's latest novel, because some of those arrogant coteries of unbaked thought, of narrow vision, of too utterly utter estheticism, and that bluestockingism which Moliére so well ridiculed, have affected to underwrite her ability as a writer. The indictment of sentimentality is heard from these bumptious dictators of the community's literary diversions. Miss Reed is not George Eliot, nor George Sand. She probably never pretended to be, and perhaps prefers not to be. She is not a preacher, but her books have a good purpose, are delightful in description, are irradiated with a glow of humor, and if sentimentalism be accepted as a good prescription, in proper doses they are admirable. In the present volume the publishers have outdone themselves in decoration on cover and pages. It is a sumptuous affair." -- Pittsburgh Leader
How would you like to have all that plastered on the front of your novel? Or maybe some tasteful excerpts: "[Not] Bluestockingism" "Too utterly utter" ". . . decoration on cover and pages . . . is a sumptuous affair!"
Myrtle, Augusta, and Florence, it's been a hundred years, and your books still matter -- at least to me. Thanks for some enjoyable time travel.