Reviews by Leah A. Zeldes

His Lordship's Leopard

by David Dwight Wells

Sillier but not as funny as Wells' earlier "Her Ladyship's Elephant," this comic novel, published in 1900, is set during the Spanish-American War of 1898. A young author, feeling that war news has interfered with publicity for his new novel, "The Purple Kangaroo," hires some out-of-work actors to talk it up. Meanwhile, spies for Spain decide that the obscure book's unique title makes a perfect password.

Unfortunately, their plot is overheard by an ambitious journalist, who writes it up, and one of the troupe, a pretty young actress, is mistakenly arrested as a spy. The author and company rescue her by stealing a paddy wagon, which leads to a series of unlikely adventures while they try to stay ahead of the authorities and the none-too-scrupulous newspaperman, who are convinced they're all part of a Spanish plot.

As a little light reading, this is fine, but don't expect P.G. Wodehouse.

Reviewed on 2015.01.07

Clayhanger

by Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett's 1900 Bildungsroman follows Edwin Clayhanger, the mild-mannered son of a tyrannical and foul-tempered self-made man. This novel, though nothing at all like Bennett's fun mystery/thriller "The Grand Babylon Hotel," at first seems promisingly Dickensian, but peters off as disappointingly, as does Clayhanger's life and that of most of his circle.

Growing up in an industrial, provincial English town, Edwin aspires to be an architect, but his father, Darius, pulls him out of school at age 16 and becomes incensed at the idea of his son doing anything but coming to work in his printing business. Edwin has two sisters, the placid older Maggie and the waspish younger Clara; an insinuating aunt, Clara Hamps, widowed sister of his late mother; and a slightly younger, more brilliant schoolfriend, Charlie Orgreave, unaccountably nicknamed "The Sunday."

The book is full of things like that — ideas that are brought in and seem to be significant, but which are never explored or explained. In a later example, Darius Clayhanger, in his death throes, calls continually for "Clara," but we're left uncertain as to whether he means his daughter, as Edwin assumes, or his sister-in-law, because nothing in the preceding text shows his having any strong partiality for either. More importantly, the author — apparently deliberately — withholds the explanation of a mysteriously event with a profound impact on Edwin, central to the plot and really the main thing that kept me reading to the abrupt, unenlightening and exceedingly dissatisfying conclusion.

The years roll on, and Edwin seems to be drifting along. Charlie Orgreave comes from a larger, wealthier, better educated and more affectionate family than Edwin's; he remains in school after Edwin leaves and then goes off to train to be a doctor. Nevertheless, the two remain friendly, and Edwin becomes a friend of the family, particularly Charlie's architect father, Osmond, and his charming and sympathetic sister, Janet. The Orgeaves influence Edwin in a variety of ways, especially in exposing him to the arts.

Through them, he meets Hilda Lessways, an abrupt young woman whom at first he finds repellent, yet he falls in love with her, and she with him. Directly after they reveal their feelings to each other, she rushes off — for reasons she doesn't explain. They exchange letters, in which she says she his wholly his. The next he hears of her, she's married someone else. Edwin gets no explanation, not even a "Dear John" letter.

Years go by. Edwin, Maggie and Janet remain single. Maggie might be in love with a celibate vicar, but there's no hint of suitors for either young woman, and no explanation of why they appear so unsought. Edwin, we assume, is too heartbroken to look at other women, even the admirable Janet. He ponders the futility of their lives.

Edwin is past 30 when Hilda reappears on the scene. She remains, however, abrupt, elusive and close-mouthed until the very end. At that point she tells Edwin that she's only ever loved him, and that she'll explain everything. Then the book ends.

The reader never finds out Hilda's reason for jilting Edwin, what happened to her, why she told him nothing and omitted the real truth of her circumstances when they met later on, or whether they're finally going to get together at last. More than a decade later, Bennett wrote "Hilda Lessways," which supposedly tells her side of the story, but after wading through this one, I'm not sure I'm curious enough to read it.

Reviewed on 2015.01.03

The Puppet Crown

by Harold MacGrath

If this were a Shakespearean play, it would be titled "The Tragedy of the Puppet Crown," and readers would be forewarned that it ends in death and unhappiness. Like "Hamlet" and "MacBeth," this is a story of dark and treacherous doings among rulers, those who would be rulers and all their self-serving backers, in this case in the 19th century in a small kingdom in the Austrian Empire.

It's reasonably well plotted if you like that sort of thing, but MacGrath is not Shakespeare, and it comes across as somewhat stilted and overdone.

Reviewed on 2015.01.03

The Wheat Princess

by Jean Webster

In an unprecedented act in the late 1890s, a young Chicago financier, Joseph Leiter, cornered the wheat market on the Chicago Board of Trade. Essentially, he owned all the wheat produced in America and contracts for all of it that was going to be produced the next season. Ultimately, he lost big and had to be bailed out by his father, but for a brief period, Leiter was the King of Wheat.

This act of financial wizardry — or chicanery, depending on your point of view — inspired quite a few novelists of the time, most notably Frank Norris in his 1903 "The Pit," which makes the action at the CBOT surprisingly thrilling. In "The Wheat Princess" (1916), Jean Webster, author of the much lighter weight "Daddy Long-Legs," focuses on the impact of such a wheat monopoly abroad, specifically in Italy, which then, as now, relied strongly on imported wheat to feed its pasta-dependent populace.

Newly unified as a nation, the Kingdom of Italy suffered with corrupt and incompetent politicians, bank scandals, a weak economy, a massive national debt, a debased currency, rampant unemployment, crippling taxes on the poor, police oppression, including secret police who spied on citizens and read their mail, and a large population of impoverished peasants about whom the country's upper classes were callously unconcerned—except in regards to crushing their protests. (Sound familiar? How history repeats itself!) Against this setting, Webster depicts a community of rich American expatriates, including the brother and daughter of an off-stage, fictional Wheat King.

The brother, Howard Copley, a millionaire in his own right, is a meddlesome do-gooder who believes that handouts to the starving beggars will "pauperize" them, and they should instead be rounded up and made to work. The daughter, Marcia, blithely ignorant of both the peasants' plight and her father's role in doubling the price of their staple foodstuff, believes that since they appear happy as they are, they aren't in real hardship and don't want anything better. And anyway, they are picturesque, and bringing in McCormick reapers and other tools for efficient agriculture will spoil the view. Italy is her playground.

The novel's plot is a coming-of-age story of Marcia as her eyes are opened — with, of course, the help of a man. Her slow awakening is somewhat tiresome, but seems realistic for a young woman of her time and background. (I imagine that many children of today's 1% are equally dim-witted.) The romance is predictable. However, Webster's evocative descriptions of Italy at the end of the 19th century and her grasp of its sociopolitical and economic situation, along with the fascinating parallels to 21st-century America, make "The Wheat Princess" well worth reading.


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Reviewed on 2014.12.29

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