19 September 2022

Martha Ostenso's Forgotten Masterpiece?

And the Town Talked
Martha Ostenso
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1949
159 pages

The town is Bloomhill; the talk is of Elsbeth Payson. A few days before her eighteenth birthday, young Doctor Frederick Stowell catches Elsbeth at the Van der Water house. Priscilla Van der Water, a former "acrobatic dancer" now married to a brickyard foreman, is giving the girl a lesson on how to do a split. Stowell is horrified; Elsbeth lives in wealthy North Hill, and girls from North Hill do not visit Patchtown, Bloomhill's working class neighbourhood. The doctor orders her away, but she stands her ground: "Did you know, Freddie, that even for classical or professional ballroom dancing you should be able to do what's known as a 'split'?"

Elsbeth Payson's dream is to become a professional dancer. Her late mother approved, which is how she came to know Priscilla Van der Water in the first place. Her father, also late, looked to set his daughter off on a more conventional path, and so left almost everything to his two spinster sisters.

Almost everything. 

On her birthday, Elsbeth is due to receive an inheritance of three thousand dollars (roughly $68,350 today). She intends to take the money, travel to New York, and study dance. A long-held plan, it comes off almost as Elsbeth had always envisioned, except that she's accompanied by pregnant Patchtowner Sadie Miller, whose fiancé was killed in one of Bloomhill's frequent industrial accidents.

Spanning 1933 and 1936, And the Town Talked is a Depression-era novel. I was interested in tensions between Bloomhill's classes, particularly after reading this early passage:

But And the Town Talked isn't much concerned with the plight of the proletariat. Though treated with sympathy, they're all pretty much the same: hard-working, cheerful, largely content with their lot in life. The exception is bad boy Cecil Andrews, who left Bloomhill's Patchtown for a life as a professional musician. He's a complex character, but only in relation to the others – Elspeth included.

Because And the Town Talked is my first Martha Ostenso – I have not read Wild Geese – I cannot speak as to whether it is "in her vigorous and inimitable style." I can say, without reservation, that Ostenso's writing in this novel is on par with most News Stand Library authors. The plot is rushed at times, particularly in the concluding pages, which may have something to do with writing to word count.

And the Town Talked first appeared, marginally longer, in the February 1938 edition of McCall's.* Later that same year, Ostenso published Mandrake Root, which was subsequently translated to Norwegian, Hungarian, and Czech. Other novels followed: Love Passed This Way (1942), O River, Remember! (1943), Milk Route (1948), The Sunset Tree (1949). Her last book has my favourite title: A Man Had Tall Sons (1958). All were published by Dodd, Mead, but not And the Town Talked, which somehow ended up with a cheap paperback house located in the suburbs of Toronto, and is missing from nearly all her bibliographies.

And this is why I read it. 

Is And the Town Talked a masterpiece, as News Stand Library claims? Most certainly not!

Is Wild Geese a masterpiece, as academics have claimed? Here's hoping.

I'm moving my copy to the night table.

* Thanks to bowdler of Fly-by-Night, who spared me the task of comparing the McCall's and News Stand Library versions. His finding is that the latter cut short four of the novel's twenty-two chapters.

Object: A typical News Stand Library production, meaning that there is certain to be some sort of flaw. In this case, centre margins are so tight as to make it nearly impossible to read. 

My copy was purchased earlier this year. Price: C$60.

The cover – uncredited – misleads in that Elsbeth has no child. Is she babysitting? Or is that meant to be minor character Sadie Miller?

Access: As of this writing, no copies are listed for sale online. It's held by Library and Archives Canada and six of our academic libraries.

The February 1938 McCall's can be read through this link to the Internet Archive. 

Related post:

14 September 2022

Born Again Infidel

The Right of Way
Gilbert Parker
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, [c.1907]
419 pages

I don't like it when a novel opens with a line of dialogue; seems so lazy. The first sentence of the The Right of Way has got to be the worst:
"Not guilty, your honor!"
And yet, I really enjoyed The Right of Way. The story begins in a crowded Montreal courtroom on a sweltering August day. The acquitted is a mystery man. Charged with the brutal murder a timber baron, he'd offered nothing more than his name. Through much of the trial, Charley Steele, the prisoner's counsel, had appeared indifferent to his client's fate, only to rise, "quietly, unnoticeably drunk," and give a most brilliant defence... which, of course, leads back to the novel's first sentence.

After returning to his office, Charley considers his victory:
"I was dull, blank, all iron and ice; the judge, the jury, the public, even Kathleen, against me; and then that bottle in there — and I saw things like crystal! I had a glow in my brain, I had a tinge in my fingers; and I had success, and” — his face clouded — “he was as guilty as hell!”
Charley drinks a great deal. Perhaps the most interesting aspects of this interesting novel, composed as the temperance movement was growing, is its depiction of alcohol as something that can both inspire and destroy. In Charley it does both. 

He marries the aforementioned Kathleen, though he does not love her. To Charley, she is "the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, but he had never regarded her save as a creation for the perfect pleasure of the eye; he thought her the concrete glory of sensuous purity, no more capable of sentiment than himself."

In other words, Kathleen is a trophy wife.

It makes sense that of the sixteen illustrations that decorate this edition, only one features Kathleen. Even before the marriage, Charley had a reputation as the most brilliant lawyer in Montreal. As his practice flourishes, his marriage withers. Unbeknownst to his wife, Charley has taken to slumming it at Charlemagne's, a working man's tavern to the east of Montreal's east end. Here Parker's omniscient narrator turns discreet. Sure, Charlemagne's serves drinks, but for Charley barmaid Suzon is the greater draw. The regulars, primarily farmers and river-drivers, put up with Charley's presence until the night he decides to make a grand show of his intellect.

Badly beaten, he's thrown into the St Lawrence, only to be pulled onto a raft piloted by the very man who's acquittal features on the novel's first page. The two drift eastward toward the outskirts of the town of Chaudiere, at which the supposed murderer – “he was as guilty as hell!” – has a lonely cabin. Charley is nursed back to physical but not mental health. A head wound has left him as a child. He remembers nothing of his past and lives each day as something of an innocent, until operated on by a "great Parisian surgeon," who happens to be visiting his brother, the local curé.

Charley regains his memory, and with it his ability to read. And this is how he discovers, by way of a newspaper story, that seven months have passed, that he's been declared dead, and that his wife is now married to Captain Thomas Fairing, a former rival for Kathleen's hand.

Charley faces a dilemma:

What was there to do? Go back? Go back and knock at Kathleen’s door, another Enoch Arden, and say, "I have come to my own again”? Return and tell Tom Fairing to go his way and show his face no more? Break up this union, this marriage of love in which these two rejoiced? Summon Kathleen out of her illegal intercourse with the man who had been true to her all these years?
I believe that last sentence counts as a bloomer.

Charley chooses to stay in Chaudiere, where he finds work with the town's elderly tailor. The locals are suspicious if not hostile, particularly after the stranger lets slip that he is not a Catholic. His acceptance comes gradually, aided by his friendship with the curé and numerous good deeds. He gives to the Church, he gives to those in need, he provides free legal advice, and he saves a man's life by leaping on the back of a runaway horse (as soldiers look on). Oh, and he also translates Oberammergauer Passionsspiele to French, provides illustrations to go with the text, and designs and sews the costumes for Chaudiere's passion play.

What risks becoming a tiresome train of good deeds, is saved through the introduction of lovely Rosalie Evanturel, the postmaster's daughter. Charley is in love for the first time, but knows he cannot marry her. He also knows he cannot share his reason. And so their love is accompanied by tension and, on Rosalie's part, a measure of resentment. Though this illustration suggests otherwise,  their scenes together are oddly contemporary, rising well above Victorian melodrama.

And make no mistake, The Right of Way is a Victorian novel. What's more, it was a popular Victorian novel, bringing with it coincidence and contrivance. Sleepwalking does figure. It is a fever fantasy about a man who is given a second chance at life. For it to work, the reader must believe that Charley not only acknowledges his wrongs, but cares so much for Kathleen, a woman he never loved, that he cannot return to reclaim his wealth and his social standing. 

The Charley of Chaudiere is not the Charley of old. Might it be that his brain surgery wasn't wholly successful?

Trivia: The working title was Charley Bell.

Trivia II: In a candid introduction penned for the twenty-volume Works of Gilbert Parker, the author reveals that Charley Steele was based on someone – sadly unnamed – whom he'd known as a boy.

Trivia III: The Right of Way was adapted for the stage (1907) and twice to the silent screen (1915 and 1920). Both films are lost. In 1931, it returned to the screen as a talkie. In this clip Loretta Young (Rosalie) and Fred Kohler (Jo, the murderer) bravely attempt French Canadian accents.

Probably better as a silent film.

Object: One of the nicer Grosset & Dunlap's in my collection, this "SPECIAL LIMITED EDITION" uses the plates and A.I. Keller illustrations from the 1901 Harper first American edition. The novel proper is followed by twelve pages of ads for other Grosset & Dunlap titles. I purchased my copy earlier this year from a Las Vegas bookseller. Price: US$12.99.

Access: Anything but a rare book, in 1901 The Right of Way was the fourth biggest selling novel in the United States. The following year, it held the sixth spot. I'm betting it did even better in Canada

Online prices range from US$1.89 to US$185.01. As expected, there's nothing at all special about the most expensive, a Grosset & Dunlap reprint lacking jacket. A New York bookseller lists the 1931 Grosset & Dunlap photoplay edition for US$76.00. The most intriguing is a Nelson Library edition "in RARE Color DustJacket of Dead Man on Floor & Woman Kneeling with Apron, Holding Back a Large Brown Dog with Sharp Teeth," offered at US$60.00 by a California bookseller. Something similar does feature in the novel, but the scene is inconsequential (and the man involved isn't dead).

Several editions are available for download at the Internet Archive.

06 September 2022

The Dustiest Bookcase: Y is for Young

Short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).

Phyllis Brett Young
Toronto: Longmans, Green, 1959
319 pages

 was Phyllis Brett Young's first book. My copy, signed by the author and inscribed by her mother, was purchased two years ago for £20 from a bookseller in Wallingford, UK. It should have cost me a small fortune.

Canadian literature has not done right by Phyllis Brett Young. Her writing career came and went in ten years – 1959 to 1969 – during which she produced six remarkable books. Well-received, they were published in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia; French, German, Finnish, and Dutch translations followed. And yet, Phyllis Brett Young's name doesn't feature in The Canadian EncylopediaThe Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature or the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. I first learned of Young with the 2007 McGill-Queen's University Press reissue of The Torontonians (1960), her second novel.

A novel titled The Torontonians, set in Toronto, written by a Torontonian, rescued from obscurity by a Montreal-based press. At the time, San Grewal wrote a good piece on the novel and its rediscovery for the Toronto Star:
The story of a lost local literary gem, lost and found
McGill-Queen's reissued Psyche the following year.

In thirteen years of the Dusty Bookcase, both here and in Canadian Notes & Queries, the only Young I've reviewed is The Ravine (1962). A psychological thriller, it stands somewhat apart from her other work. The Ravine made my 2019 list of books deserving return to print. Ten months later, it became the fifteenth Ricochet Books title.

The author's three remaining books – Anything Could Happen! (1961), Undine (1964), and A Question of Judgement (1969) – have now been out of print for more than a half-century. 

In a country plagued by indifference regarding its literary heritage, Phyllis Brett Young remains the most unjustly neglected writer.

Phyllis Brett Young
1914 - 1996

01 September 2022

H.C. Mason Votes Twice for September

A celebration of September from Harold Campbell "Hal" Mason's Three Things Only... (Toronto: Thomas Nelson, 1953). Much cheerier than his 'March, 1918' and 'Easter, 1942'.


                  Let others sing of May and June —
                      To me it doth appear
                  September is the finest month
                      Of all the rolling year.
                  September days are warm and bright
                      As children trudge to school,
                  And weary folk may sleep at night —
                      September nights are cool. 
                  She borrows from all seasons,
                      She lends upon them all,
                  Prolongs the spring and summer
                      And draws them into fall,
                  Prepares the way for winter
                      And yet delays him, too —
                  September, ah, September,
                      I vote, both hands, for you! 
                  Now by the reddening apple,
                      Now by the ripening corn,
                  By every cheerful pullet
                      That crackles in the morn,
                  By harvest safely gathered,
                      By fields no longer sere,
                  September is the finest month
                      In all the rolling year!