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.