Saturday, September 19, 2009

In a Hundred Years

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 MoliƩre 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.


  1. Anonymous10:53 AM

    Thanks for the links - I'll give them a try.

  2. I LOVE old books. I collect them. Fantastic. I will look for these!

  3. I *love* old books. Whenever I go on holidays anywhere, I usually seek out the antique shops and/or used book stores for that very reason.

    Currently I am collecting old etiquette books, which are just a hoot to read. Baby, we've come a long way from when you were expected to greet your husband at the end of the day with a fresh coat of makeup, a clean frock & apron, and a martini in hand (50s). Although the chapters on how to deal with servants when at a house party are very useful (early 20th century).

    — Bonz

  4. What an interesting thing to ponder--what did the authors of 100 years ago think?

  5. Oh, gosh, those sound awesome. :)

    My school library is giving away a ton of old books, and I've had to stop myself from seizing all of them and keeping them all for my own. As it is, I've already snagged several stacks. One of the ones I grabbed was first published in 1897, and it's still in great condition. Ahh, old books...I love them so. :D

  6. I love old books as well, both fiction and non-fiction. It's fascinating how well some hundred-year-old novels by long forgotten writers have held up, though you can also come across real stinkers. On the other hand, you can also find fascinating tidbits such as a description of a flight across the English channel in a novel first published in 1914. The description was so specific that I suspect the author must have been inside an airplane at some point.

    "St Elmo" is actually the only one of the books you list that I've heard of, though I haven't read it. It was apparently a big success at the time.

  7. helen9:40 PM

    Spinner in the sun was ok. Loved the ending. You might like Precious Bane by Mary Webb. PG only has her book Gone to Earth but I did not think that was nearly as good as Precious Bane. Here's a brief wiki on it-

  8. Edward Tufte, who's responsible for some of the most beautifully designed books published today, tells a story about an encounter with his printer.

    Newton's Principia Mathematica contains an illustrative fold-out model of a pyramid. Tufte wanted to reproduce it in one of his books on design, but the printer declared that it was impossible to get the foldable piece to stick to the underlying page. So Tufte took his copy of Principia to the printer, showing him that after 300 years, the foldout stuck just fine. The printer took this as a personal challenge, redoubled his efforts, and solved the problem.

    Well made books are still possible, but the printer and publisher need to care.

  9. I too love old books. I've bought many reference books for my writing research that are from the mid to late 1800's. The information has changed little in the newer versions, but what I like most is wondering who else sat over the book looking for information and were they looking for the same thing as me? How many hands touched the pages? Did anyone read the book from front to back?


    Myrtle Reed only lived to 37 years. I wonder how many books she finished and what happened to her. Was she a 'famous author' during her time? Did she die too young to accomplish notoriety? Just more things I think about when I hold/read those old books...


  10. Theo wrote: Myrtle Reed only lived to 37 years. I wonder how many books she finished and what happened to her. Was she a 'famous author' during her time? Did she die too young to accomplish notoriety? Just more things I think about when I hold/read those old books...

    Most people outside Chicago don't know who Myrtle Reed was, but she's almost an institution in the city's history. She wrote about thirty books; half were romance novels under her name and the others were cookbooks. She was a huge bestselling author (equivalent to the Danielle Steele of her time.) Dan Carlinsky wrote an excellent article about her here.)

    Little known fact: her second book, Lavender and Old Lace, was adapted by Joseph Kesselring and became the much more famous play & movie Arsenic and Old Lace.

    Myrtle died young because she comitted suicide after her marriage failed. To her as to many women of her time, divorce was not an option.

  11. I collect books published from the mid-19th to early 20th century. Most are non-fiction. I know I have one or two fiction works -- at least one from my grandmother.

    I'm studying Reconstruction, The Gilded Age, and early Progressive Era to better understand the current world I'm finding myself in. I prefer to read works published close to events to balance context.

    Obviously, period fiction can help with that, so I've been planning to look for some of that as well.

  12. I'm with you. I've got a couple of old books, and they are gorgeous. It's always interesting to see how stories were told differently through time as well, either in content or in form.

  13. Shelley8:36 PM

    I love old books and always look for them in used books stores. One of the fun things I have been doing recently is seeing what is avail on my Kindle. Suprisingly a lot of older content - everything from Chatterbox and Scribner's magazines to several of Myrtle Reed's and other older authors novels. Sometimes not the same as the older book but fun to look up.


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