Bestseller by Claud Cockburn
I have been thinking about blog history a fair bit lately, and I have just updated my ABOUT THIS BLOG page – something I haven’t done in years. Do go and take a look. In my description, I said ‘the blog has a particular emphasis on crime fiction of all eras, classic literature, 'women's fiction' of the mid 20th C, and children's books.’ But that misses out another of my much-loved genres (and really I should amend the page): high-grade tosh in the form of massive bestsellers from a bygone age, mostly now forgotten. A snappy little category description, but many of you will know exactly what I mean.
|Who knows where singing will lead? Heroines like to give it a go|
And my bible for this kind of book is Claud Cockburn’s Bestseller, subtitled The Books that Everyone Read 1900-1939 – already mentioned several times on the blog. It is a perfect work of literary criticism, joyful and funny and (mostly) non-judgemental, and I have been re-reading it regularly since I first got hold of a copy, soon after publication,, and slowly working my way through his titles. He has a number of categories for the books, and he gives you the background, the author biog, the sales record (usually frankly astonishing – the numbers are staggering), lengthy excerpts and hilarious comments. He deals honestly with problematic anti-semitism and other issues.
It is an excellent book, and someone should republish it. Alternately, I am available to write an updated edition with chapters on my favourite books in the genre.
Most of my version is already written. Just for starters, I have featured Beau Geste, WJ Locke and the Beloved Vagabond, Margaret Kennedy’s Constant Nymph. There’s Michael Arlen: his The Green Hat was one of the original inspos for the blog. I had always idly wondered what the hat looked like, and although I love the hat I chose, here:
I have never felt that it was exactly the right one, I’m still looking.
More of Cockburn’s choices on the blog: Enid Bagnold and National Velvet, Cold Comfort Farm, Mary Webb, blog favourite Georgette Heyer.
There’s the very strange When It Was Dark by Guy Thorne, which lives in between categories: I was glad I’d read it, but I’m not sure I would actually recommend it. I got three rather mystified blog entries out of it, and this picture.
|sultry actress with a heart of gold - essential character|
I have now enticed my friend Chrissie Poulson into the cult, via the cunning means of finding a copy of Bestseller and sending it to her. Of course part of the fun is adding the names of books you think should have been included – her choice is The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, and I must say she makes a valiant case: I will have to read it. Her blogpost on it here. (I note there is a Hawaiian edition of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Not something you see often.)
My own additions to the Cockburn Canon might be the lost bestsellers which I categorize as ‘I read this so you don’t have to’ – particular reference to my appalled reaction to Ouida (blog verdict: ‘I have a very high threshold for tosh of a certain kind…but Under Two Flags is just TERRIBLE’) and The Babe BA by EF Benson. (Both of these pre-1900 so earlier than his timeframe.) Owen Wister’s The Lady Baltimore is - of all excellent things – a book named after a cake, but sadly receive this verdict from me:
Unfortunately, just as you are thinking that it’s a bit of a hoot in its long-winded way, we get onto the subject of the aftermath of the American Civil War, and the position of coloured people, and the feelings of the defeated South. And there, I’m afraid, the book must completely lose all modern readers with its most discomforting and nasty views on such matters.But also, more positively – I have enjoyed ventures into Elinor Glyn, famed for her Three Weeks, but with a large back-catalogue and a very interesting biography.
|Tigerskin- essential Glyn accessory|
There’s Dora Thorne by Charlotte M Brame – so popular it spawned a whole genre of books, and yes if you think you might get mixed up with which is the title and which the author, so did everyone else at the time. I read that one because it was mentioned (as an example of bad literature) in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie - an acknowledged classic. If there’s one thing I enjoy about the blog it’s that kind of high/low connection – and also the fact that in this Internet age I can find the forgotten books easily online.
|Easy to impersonate?|
I have been to some very obscure corners of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s work – both for children and adults. She ranges from the child spies in The Lost Prince ,
via the very weird The Shuttle, to 'she is fatuous, he looks clean' from The Making of a Marchioness, mentioned approvingly in both Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford, of course).
And now - I have found another splendid lost bestseller to feature on the blog later this week – an absolute classic of the genre, and I can’t imagine why Claud C missed it out. It is called The Rosary, by Florence L Barclay, from 1909, and it is … well I can’t even, as the young people say. Wait till you read the plot outline and the description of the romantic heroine…