Earlier this week I wrote about how updating my ABOUT page – see it here -made me think about how much I enjoy reading and writing about the lost bestsellers of yesteryear. I listed a few such books which have featured – and promised an absolute humdinger today. And here it is:
The Rosary by Florence L Barclay
It was published in 1909, and as with many of these books, the sheer weight of its bestsellerdom is startling, given it is completely forgotten now – the Wikipedia entry on Barclay is worth a look.
There are many features of interest.
Barclay is not an author who is reluctant to tell the reader what to think: in the very early pages she hammers home (repeatedly) that heroine Jane Champion is plain and enormous, but also a wonderful creature.
Jane Champion was now in her thirtieth year. She had once been described, by one who saw below the surface, as a perfectly beautiful woman in an absolutely plain shell; and no man had as yet looked beneath the shell, and seen the woman in her perfection. She would have made earth heaven for a blind lover who, not having eyes for the plainness of her face or the massiveness of her figure, might have drawn nearer, and apprehended the wonder of her as a woman, experiencing the wealth of tenderness of which she was capable.She is very good at golf, and early on we have this glorious exchange on her return from the links:
"What did you go round in, Miss Champion?" inquired one of the men.
This – could it be more Clothes in Books? - is possibly my favourite line in the whole book, though disappointingly Barclay immediately credits the joke to Punch – and it is true that neither author nor heroine shows much sign of a sense of humour in the rest of the book.
"My ordinary clothes," replied Jane.
This is the plot: Jane is huge and no-one wants to marry her, though she is a lovely person. She is very friendly with an artistic young man called Garth Dalmain, but they are just pals. Then one night Jane sings at a country house party – the acclaimed opera singer has to drop out, so Jane steps in. She sings a song called The Rosary, and everyone is transfixed by her wonderful voice – including her mate Dal who suddenly decides he loves her. He proposes, but she can’t accept him because he is artistic so needs a beautiful wife.
She goes off on a long trip abroad to forget him. While she is away, he loses his sight in a shooting accident (he is trying to save some animals). Jane comes back and disguises herself as a nurse to tend to him (impersonation! A great favourite theme!) There is then a lot of her being the nurse and him almost thinking she is familiar. And then, one night she sings to him…
Bet you’re wishing you hadn’t read the spoilers now, so you could read The Rosary not knowing what will happen.
The book is in one way beyond criticism, it is so very much of its time (except even then, I don’t think it was a realistic look at life). It is underpinned by a strong Christian faith, and all the usual notions of honour and shame. And Jane at least makes a change by not being a beautiful heroine – Barclay goes on and on about how plain and how huge she is. (FYI, she is 5 ft 11 and weighs 12 stone.)
There is a fascinating tiny detail about the death of Queen Victoria a few years before, and the effect this had on singing the National Anthem:
“You recollect how recently we had had to make the change of pronoun, and how difficult it was to remember not to shout: 'Send HER victorious'?”Barclay is didactic and sentimental and often cringe-making, but it has to be said that The Rosary is an easy read (with a little judicious skimming), and gallops along in its annoying and readable way. You want to strangle Jane, and Garth Dalmain, and Florence Barclay at various points.
Nice clothes though.
She wore an evening gown of soft material, with old lace at her bosom and one string of pearls round her neck.[This is to sing in. Picture of Mrs Adeline Hurry, John Maler Collier from the athenaeum website.]
Jane wore a tailor-made coat and skirt of grey tweed, a blue and white cambric shirt, starched linen collar and cuffs, a silk tie, and a soft felt hat with a few black quills in it.
In general rather mannish clothes, with Norfolk jackets and plenty of pockets. She is later described as ‘the Venus of Milo in a tailor-made coat and skirt’. And apparently wears ‘handsome’ silk petticoats beneath her skirt, peeping out for the alert companion:
--just like this from NYPL.
Dal wears a ‘pale violet shirt, and dark violet tie’ with white flannels, and crimson socks with his evening clothes.
And Jane can get dressed up when necessary:
… in a long blue cloth coat and skirt, handsomely embroidered with gold, and suiting her large figure to perfection; a deep yellow vest of brocaded silk; and old lace ruffles at neck and wrists.One final mystery: at one point we are privy to the thoughts of Pauline – a young, beautiful and rich woman who seems the ideal wife for Garth Dalmain. She knows, however, that he is a lost cause and she pretends to address him (ie she is alone, these are her thoughts):
“when you find the moon is unattainable, you will not dream of seeking solace in more earthly lights—not even poppa's best sperm".Very difficult to know what to make of that.
****[Added later:] Ellie, below in the comments, has a very persuasive possible explanation for this.
Pauline is correct about one thing: she cannot compete with the likes of this:
There was a quiet strength and nobility about [Jane’s] attitude which thrilled the soul of the man who stood watching her. All the adoring love, the passion of worship, which filled his heart, rose to his eyes and shone there.Those were the days.
Don’t forget to look at the list of similar books in Tuesday’s entry.
[Added later: there was some entirely justified criticism of lack of clarity about the picture credits, so have redone them, they are now in order as they appear in the post.]
Picture: After Lunch by Gerard Chowne
Lady in a car coat from NYPL.
Picture of Mrs Adeline Hurry, John Maler Collier from the athenaeum website.
Petticoat advert from NYPL.
Lady dressed for snow from the Tyne and Wear archives.
Petticoat advert from NYPL.
Lady in a Yellow Straw Hat by Alexei von Jawlensky.
To my utter surprise I realise that I have read this book in a Swedish translation when I was in my late teens or possibly early twenties. I cannot remember exactly how I came about it, but I think I might have seen the volume in a second-hand bookshop and bought it because it was so prettily bound. Florence L. Barclay must have been extremely popular in her time. I remember hardly anything about the plot except for my distinct disbelief when coming to the scene where (SPOILER ALERT) it turns out that the artistic genius is an absolute thing which will transform from painting to composing music (in both cases masterpieces, needless to say) just like that. I am flabbergasted to discover that there are other living creatures about who are familiar with this book!ReplyDelete
Isn't it magical to find a shared obscure book? It is one of the finest results of doing this blog. And am so impressed that you have read it. I guess it was SUCH a bestseller that it was translated into other languages - though what people made of it I can't imagine.Delete
There is much that is extraordinary about the book that I didn't even touch on, like the thread you mention...
On the one hand, Moira, I can see how this is very much a book of its time. So I'm not surprised that the values, etc.. reflect that. But I do like that wit! And what an interesting look at a female protagonist who isn't a beautiful naif or something like that. You know, this whole post has got me thinking about our standards for beauty, and what our values are, and how that's changed. You certainly see it here, of course, but you see it in a lot of other places, too. Hmmm...delicious 'food for thought,' for which thanks.ReplyDelete
Oh Margot I'd be fascinated to hear more about your thoughts on that - perhaps will come out in one of your books! It is certainly interesting to find a 'romantic' heroine of the era who is so 'plain' and the emphasis on the importance of her inner soul.Delete
How marvellous. I will definitely try and get hold of it. Really delighted to see this genre in your blog!ReplyDelete
I was so intrigued by the reference to “poppa’s best sperm” that I had to look into it a bit more. Do you think that in the context of “earthly lights” it might refer to lamp oil? Wikipedia says that “Sperm oil was particularly prized as an illuminant in oil lamps, as it burned more brightly and cleanly than any other available oil and gave off no foul odor. It was replaced in the late-19th century by cheaper, more efficient kerosene.” Maybe that’s how Pauline’s family made their fortune...!
Thanks for your researches, that's fascinating, and absolutely would make sense: I was really puzzled by the reference, to the extent that I looked up another copy to check it wasn't a spelling mistake. I will insert a note above.Delete
Artists going blind seemed to be a contemporary obsession - ther was Kipling's The Light that Failed a few years before.ReplyDelete
It isn't clear which picture is which in the list.
Yes, you can see it could be so symbolic and metaphoric, as well as a great plot device, giving rise to endless possibilities. And there's Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre of course.Delete
Point taken re: pictures, and I have re-done credits!
Came across this some years ago and have read others by her since. I think The Rosary was the most readable!ReplyDelete
You've read others! Wow, impressive. Is there any one you would recommend....?Delete
Try "Returned Empty" - what a plot! "The Upas Tree" was the worst. If I remember I liked "The White Ladies of Worcester".Delete
Ooh thank you, I will go off and look them up.Delete
It does sound like a full blown romance.ReplyDelete
Many many years ago I acquired Through the Postern Gate, by Florence L Barclay. Sentimental Tosh indeed (but I enjoyed it nonetheless). Shall I tell you the plot? Our heroine, at 36 (pretty, clever accomplished, nice, whatever) is courted by a young man of....26! It seems they met one summer, 20 years ago, when she was 16 and he was 6, and she offered to help him build a fort or dam or something, and he scorned her, saying "Fanks, but I don't like girls."
Now, she tells him to go court a younger woman, and his response is the same.
This and that happen, and he is a pilot, and he crosses the Channel, and is feared lost, blah blah blah.
It ends romantically well for them.
(I think I may have released it from my library long ago.)
I have a terrible feeling that this plot is going to be irresistible and I am going to read this, when there are so many worthier books I should be reading.Delete
Her books do seem to be downloadable, either for free or for very little cost...
Lots of these 'tosh' books would also fit the category of books found in old holiday cottages - especially the sort of holiday cottage that's been in a family for a generation or more. I found 'Constant Nymph' in a cottage in North wales and was simultaneously fascinated and appalled.ReplyDelete
Some of them would also fit into a category of books that are referenced by characters in other books. If I'm remembering correctly, the girls in one of Nancy Mitford's books swooned over 'Constant Nymph' as did Ginty Marlow.
Yes exactly you are so right - I think the modern shiny airbnbs tend more to Lee Child and John Grisham. I once stayed in a faded-grandeur house in Cork, bed and breakfast, and the room was FULL of books I wanted to read or at least look at. I literally stayed up most of the night trying to take in as much as possible before having to leave the next day.I just wanted to move in. (I was about 13 I suppose).Delete
Yes, now that's a very good category: referenced in other books. I actually did this for Constant Nymph, as a play version features in one of Pamela Brown's Blue Door books: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2014/08/dress-down-sunday-golden-pavements-by.html
I just looked, and there's Mitford and Ginty, but had forgotten that the budding author in Sayers' The Nine Tailors wants to write books like Constant Nymph.
Ginty also likes Brat Farrar, another book that I think gets mentioned in other books. If only I could just spend days tracking down the links and connections....
The other thing about these 'tosh' books is that they are very easy to read, so must have been widely read by children, especially in the days before 'Young Adult' fiction. I know I was galloping through the Scarlet Pimpernel books (Sir Percy - my first crush!) at an age when most modern kids are still on the 'Wimpy Kid' or Harry Potter (- not that I'm not knocking either of those). Quite young readers were introduced to adult themes in often melodramatic or romanticised ways.Delete
Yes, absolutely. My own daughter was a very advanced reader, and giving her old-fashioned books was a way of challenging her, she has an unexpectedly wide frame of reference as a result.Delete
This book certainly does suggest some nice images. I especially love the one at the top. I can easily see the books by this author and other similar books being read by older children of that time looking for more variety, as Ann suggests.ReplyDelete
I know, I love the lunch party picture.Delete
I'm a great believer in children reading whatever takes their fancy, as I did growing up, but when my daughter (see my comment above) was reading huge quantities, I looked at the modern fiction for older children and surprised myself by NOT wanting her to read some of the more complex stories available: this was the years between, say, ages 7 and 10, and I felt the issues were too advanced for her. The solution was finding more classic, or just plain old, stories - which would challenge her and introduce their own themes.
And then I wrote an article about children's literature and the issues around it, which was successful/controversial, so everybody won...
Love that blue in the first pic. CheersReplyDelete
Thank you! I am mesmerized by that picture, just a lucky find for the blogpost, but isn't it gorgeous?Delete
The descriptions of clothes are excellent = I love the ‘handsome’ silk petticoats beneath her skirt, peeping out for the alert companion.' Why shouldn't big girls have nice underwear!ReplyDelete
I know - I had such a good time finding the pictures for this one. Florence L Barclay paid proper attention to clothes.Delete
One to avoid which shouldn't be difficult I think.ReplyDelete
My mind is slightly boggling at the thought of your reading this one - I think your decision is the right one!Delete