Isabel Paterson on Four Neglected Books by Women

In this year of reading the work of women writers, I should take a moment to note the remarks of Isabel Paterson, whose 1933 novel, Never Ask the End, was one of the earliest neglected masterpieces I came across after starting this site, on four of her contemporaries whose own work has long gone unread. These come from some of the book reviews Paterson wrote for The Bookman magazine before and after it was bought by her mentor, Burton Rascoe.

Entranced, by Grace Flandrau (1924)

There is much more sting and sharpness to the work of Grace Flandrau in Entranced. It is like the difference between the American and English air. And Mrs. Flandrau’s special quality, which is brought to perfection in this book, is her ability to render atmosphere; not mere local color, nor even a personal background, but the tension and temperature, the shading and tone, of a certain group of persons involved in a given relation to each other at a definite place and time.

The action of Entranced passes in St. Paul, and it really is St. Paul, not even Minneapolis, or perhaps anything but Minneapolis, since unplumbed spiritual abysses separate the Twin Cities. So this is no vague, delocalized ‘midwestern metropolis,’ but St. Paul. The Robinsons belong in it, are rooted there. Richard and Rita Malory, marrying into the Robinson family, attempt to amalgamate themselves with it. They fail.

That is the story. Richard and Rita are not of the same stuff as the Robinsons; there is a difference in texture, in density and specific gravity. The Robinsons are solids and the Malorys are fluids. They are cursed with the curse of Reuben: “unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.” Richard Malory is a dilution of Lucien de Rubempre, a man lacking in that inner integrity which is essential to success. Rita does not lend herself to glib definition. I should like to read more of her — what happened to her and Ives and Gordon, afterward. There is, by the way, an especially delicious chapter — what a woman thinks about when she is annoyed at her husband. Don’t miss this.

From “Drawing Room Fiction,” The Bookman, December 1924

Entranced is so rare now that there appear to be only two copies for sale at the moment, both priced over $100. It was Flandrau’s second novel. Of her first, Being Respectable (1923), F. Scott Fitzgerald said it was “better than Babbitt” and reported that Edith Wharton liked the book “better than any American novel in years.” Joel Van Valin published a long article on Flandrau’s life and work in his Whistling Shade literary magazine in 2008.

The Matriarch, by G. B. Stern (1925)

In The Matriarch Miss Stern accepts the universe. She presents a panorama stretching over almost a century, but focused on the figure of a gorgeous, eccentric, autocratic old lady. To get so much into one volume requires a perilous process of foreshortening. All the same, it is a fine rich jumbled hamper Miss Stern has packed.

One is willingly subjugated by old Madame Anastasia Rakonitz, chieftainess of a far spreading Jewish clan noted for its masterful womenkind and its straight Greek noses. Disraeli sprang from just such a brilliant, mercurial strain as this. I believe he had a grandmother very like Anastasia. They are the kind of Jews who form a yeasty element in the countries of their adoption, who make an adventure of business, a business of art, and an art of living. Their essential stability consists in their strong family feeling; they rise and fall and rise again together, so tightly interlocked that an outsider pitchforked among them comes near to suffocation. One could pick flaws, but the main point is that The Matriarch is a decidedly likable book.

From “Deuces Wild in the Spring Fiction,” The Bookman, March 1925

G(ladys) B(ronwen) Stern, who was one of most successful and prolific of that generation of successful and prolific British women “middlebrow” writers that included Ethel Mannin, Storm Jameson, and Phyllis Bottome that collectively published thousands of novels over of course of fifty-some years between 1920 and 1970. From The Matriarch alone, Stern produced as much as some writers do in an entire career, turning it into a play that was a hit in both London and New York, and following it up with three more novels about the Rakonitz family–A Deputy was King (1926), Mosaic (1930), and Shining and Free (1935)–that were then combined in a massive 1400-page tome titled, The Matriarch Chronicles, in 1936. The Matriarch was reissued several times in paperback, most recently in the mid-1980s as a The Matriarch“>Virago Modern Classic. It was originally published in England as Tents of Israel (1924).

Orphan Island, Rose Macaulay (1925)

We may as well swallow the bitter pill first, reserving the jam for consolation. But since Miss Macaulay’s tonic is sugared with tolerant amusement, it goes down most easily. It is an antidote to Victorianism, containing a salutary reminder that we may have achieved a distinction without a difference in our Georgian emancipation. If the Victorians were self righteous, aren’t we a little smug in our superiority to those benighted creatures? The plot belongs to the great universal stock; Miss Macaulay helps herself to it gracefully. She premises that in 1855 there sailed from England a shipload of some forty orphan children of tender years, London waifs philanthropically destined for San Francisco under the aegis of a virtuous maiden lady of the Anglican persuasion, a clergyman’s daughter. Miss Charlotte Smith had all the prejudices proper to her social status. A decent Scotswoman had been brought as a nurse. The ship’s doctor was Irish, bibulous. Rabelaisian, and a Roman Catholic.

The ship was wrecked in the lee of a fertile and uninhabited South Sea Island. Seventy years later a rescue party arrived. They found that the orphans had thrived and multiplied, preserving in their island home an undiluted mid-Victorian atmosphere. Miss Smith, aged ninety eight, was a reduced but still majestic replica of the late dear Queen. The social, political, and economic problems of the tight little island had reproduced themselves with the same grotesque fidelity. If the microcosm is funny, the author implies, what of the original? And if they were funny, what of ourselves? How shall we look to our grandchildren?

It is all done in good humor, with a touch of broad comedy for a high light in the distressing circumstances of Miss Smith’s marriage. She had been deceived by the doctor; he had a wife in Ireland. Miss Smith never knew it until she had borne ten children in this bigamous union; and she kept the secret thereafter, reacting to her hidden shame by a more rigid respectability in law making. Illegitimacy she would not tolerate. On principle she was also a teetotaler, though she fuddled herself on palm wine with great dignity, calling it fruit juice prescribed for her health. It is excellent satire, and if to youthful readers it seems inapposite, that is because they can’t visualize the object. Their elders will enjoy it.”

From “Deuces Wild in the Spring Fiction,” The Bookman, March 1925

Orphan Island is among the hundreds of books by fine mid-century British men and women writers that have been reissued in e-Book format by Bloomsbury Press in the last couple of years. You can find a Kindle version on Amazon.

The Crystal Cup, Gertrude Atherton

For me to assume an attitude of impartial criticism of ” The Crystal Cup, or any other of Gertrude Atherton’s novels, would be sheer pretence. I am biased, if not totally disqualified, by my enthusiastic admiration of the author, which cannot be set aside, even hypothetically, for the consideration of her work “on its merits”, because her books are charged with her personality. Not that they are intimate confessions nor factual autobiography; it is self-evident that they are very far from being anything of the kind; but the dynamic quality with which she was so greatly and fortunately dowered by nature flows through the point of her pen; and her attitude toward life, which she has not only accepted but welcomed and enjoyed, determines her choice and treatment of material.

Always her characters are positive. Confronted by the dilemma which is prerequisite to a story, they arrive at definite decisions and act upon them with energy and even ruthlessness. And, though in some instances the power which moves them is felt as directly owing to the writer rather than to the fictive characters in their own right — which is the final achievement of creative art — nevertheless it is genuine, and it serves its purpose: to rivet the reader’s attention. The degree of illusion she creates varies considerably. In The Crystal Cup, the problem is the main thing, rather than the subtleties of character analysis, although the story hinges on character. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a question of a certain type breaking through fortuitous and adverse circumstance to find a normal channel of expression.

Gita Carteret, inheriting the beauty and charm which made the women of her family successively the reigning belles of their period, was warped by the unhappy experiences of her girlhood into a fierce antagonism toward men. Her father was a rake, a spendthrift, and a drunken brute. Besides reducing his wife and child to poverty, he exposed them to the insulting gallantries of his raffish associates. Gita grew up hating her own femininity, wishing herself a man; and in self defense she dressed and acted as much like a boy as possible. But at twenty-two, already an orphan, she found herself an heiress in a small way, through the death of her grandmother. The singular expedient to which she resorted to secure her share of life while excluding men from her personal scheme of things, and the unexpected result of it all, provides a very brisk plot, enlivened with a touch of melodrama and one scene (at least) of fine tense drama. It is safe to say The Crystal Cup will be among the best sellers. It marches.”

From “Men, Women, and Manikins,” The Bookman, September 1925

Not all reviewers shared Isabel Paterson’s enthusiasm for Atherton’s work. In the Saturday Review, H. W. Boynton wrote, “Again Mrs. Atherton has made an elaborate gesture and produced a stuffed rabbit out of the hat. Its skin is real but its eyes are glass, and its little insides are cotton and excelsior.” The Crystal Cup is available in a ridiculously over-priced direct-to-print paperback–or you can get an original edition for just $2.99.

Thanks to her canonization* as a Libertarian saint, Paterson’s own works, including Never Ask the End, are in print now in Kindle format. You can get one for $9 from Laissez Faire Books, or without an introduction for $0.99. Or you can just get the PDF version for free from the Mises Institute and convert it (also for free) using Calibre. Which option would a good Libertarian choose?

*I do have to say that I fear this embrace of Paterson by Libertarians has put the kibosh on her chances of getting accepted by academia and published by any mainstream reissue press (e.g., New York Review Books) anytime soon.