Fabulous Plot-Oriented Escape Reads: Ada Leverson, Susan Howatch, & Early Henry James

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…and a book!

It isn’t officially the holidays, but you may be plotting your holiday reading, or perhaps taking the break before the holidays.  

Here are a few notes on three fabulous plot-oriented escape reads to add to your TBR.   

bird of paradise leversonAda Leverson’s Bird of Paradise (1914).   Leverson, a friend of Oscar Wilde, is best known for The Little Ottleys (Virago), a witty trilogy which consists of Love’s Shadow, Tenterhooks, and Love at Second Sight. I recently read one of her lesser-known novels, Bird of Paradise, and found it equally charming.

The heroine, Bertha Kellynch, is exceptionally intelligent, fashionable, and very much in love with her husband Percy, who describes her as a bird of Paradise.  Leverson emphasizes Bertha’s uniqueness.  She is not just beautiful: she gives sensible advice. Her lovelorn friend Madeline pines for the affections of a caddish aesthete who lends her architecture books; her snobbish mother-in-law dithers at an at-home party until Bertha steps in to chat with a nouveau riche former chorus girl;  and Bertha deals tactully with her former boyfriend, Nigel, who visits her house a tad too often and makes his wife jealous. We know everything will end well, beccause Bertha is so calm, but there are a few tense moments in this sweet, comical novel.

the wonder worker howatchSusan Howatch’s The Wonder Worker.  About 10 years ago, one of my former English professors taught a class on Howatch’s brilliant six-book Starbridge series, which is slightly reminiscent of Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Starbridge is a fictitious Anglican diocese in England which seethes with intrigues.

I recently read The Wonder Worker, which is set at St. Benet’s Church in London in the ‘80s.  It is entrancing.  I dare you to put it down!   Howatch describes the chaos of a ministry of healing which goes astray.  The charismatic Nicholas Darrow changes strangers’ lives but neglects his family;  his wife Rosalind, a successful businesswoman, has grown to despise his hypocrisy and wants a divorce; Lewis Hall, a priest who was Nicholas’s former spiritual adviser, has a troubled past and rages in his diary about his ambivalence toward women and hatred of modern times; and Alice, an obese gourmet cook, stumbles into the church to get out of the rain and finds help for her dying aun; she also finds a job as the cook at St. Benet’s.  I couldn’t get enough of this book; it is the first of a trilogy.

9780140390827Henry James’s The American.  Do you like your Henry James with a plot?  That is not his strength, but this early novel  does have action. Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, travels to France and meets Claire de Bellegarde, a beautiful widow whom he wants to marry.   Her aristocratic family does not think he is good enough for her. There are complications and Gothic elements:  dire family secrets,  a mysterious death, ties to a nunnery… you  won’t think this is  James at all.

Henry James’s “The Bostonians”

If you are a fan of Henry James, you probably peruse his elegant sentences in your study or office where husband, cats, dogs, in-laws, friends, and political canvassers are unlikely to interrupt you.  While reading The Bostonians, NEVER open the door to well-meaning Democratic presidential canvassers, because they’ll talk your ear off just as verbosely as James’s political enthusiasts do in The Bostonians

The Bostonians, published in 1886,  is a strange, intricate, often playful narrative about a tussle of love and politics between the sexes, set appropriately after the Civil War.  Though this novel is not his his subtlest, it is very enjoyable.

In this partly satiric novel, an emotional tug-of-war is fought between post-Civil War progressives and conservatives. Naturally, the well-educated New Englanders are the best-organized.  The Bostonian abolitionists have triumphed, and now they are fighting for women’s suffrage.

The Bostonians is also a twisted love story,  in which two suitors contend for the affections of Verena Tarrant, a young woman who is an up-and-coming lecturer for the Women’s Movement.  Olive Chancellor, a wealthy, neurotic spinster in Boston, becomes obsessed with Verena, to the point that she pays off Verena’s unsuitable parents so she and Verena can live together undisturbed.  She insists she is training Verena—but her sexual feelings are obvious to the reader.  Whether Verena returns them is unclear—it seems unlikely—but their friendship is not only close but characterized by hysteria and sexual jealousy.   At one point, Olive tries to procure a promise that Verena will never leave her for a man.  Realizing she has gone too far, Olive does has the sense to withdraw this request.

Olive’s rival is her cousin, Basil Ransom,  who lost his estate in Mississippi during the Civil War.  He is an unsuccessful lawyer in New York City and an arch-conservative writer whose right-wing essays have  not been published.  He believes women belong in the home, that only the most intelligent should be educated, and and that masculinity is undermined by the rise of the suffrage movement.  

Some critics read this novel as a satire of the women’s movement, and it is true that Olive is not James’s cup of tea, nor anyone else’s.  On the other hand, he is sympathetic to an aged abolitionist-turned-feminist, Miss Birdseye, who has given everything she has to various causes, and to Dr. Prance, who is so absorbed by her medical studies that she ignores all politics.  In her view, there are few differences between men and women.  

Verena is the character we all love.  She is charming, kind, talented, and very smart.  She does not want to hurt Olive, who has taught her so much; the two are genuinely close friends.  But Olive’s tantrums whenever a man approaches, especially Basil, with whom Verena falls in love, are unmanageable.  Verena is willing to sacrifice everything for Olive, or thinks she is.  Fortunately, Henry James will not be cruel to Verena–but he undercuts the traditional “happy ending.”  We reluctantly realize that neither the hysterical Olive nor the domineering Basil are likely to make Verena  happy.

The unfavorable portrait of  lesbians does seem to be common in 19th- and 20th-century literature.  In D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox, two women, Banford and March, struggle to run a farm on their own, but a fox keeps stealing their chickens.  When a soldier (another fox) shows up and begins to work for them,  March, the more “masculine” woman, is threatened.  (I haven’t read this in years, so I’m not quite sure if the women are lesbians or if it’s only latent.)  I can’t think of any other anti-lesbian novels at the moment, but I’m sure I’ve read some.

The Bostonians is beautifully-written, sometimes comical, other times frustrating and horrifying.  I can’t pretend I agree with James’s politics, but then what are they?  He’s not entirely on either political side in The Bostonians.  Whatever he believed, this is a classic.