EDITOR’S NOTE: Herewith a wonderful article (from the December 23, 1996, issue of National Review) providing the classic books that our Dear Misanthrope enjoys the most–”old favorites that I re-read when I’m too tired to do anything else but not tired enough to go to bed.” It is a very worthwhile read, and, of course, a funny one too, as is anything Florence King writes. N.B.: Reagan lovers will be happy to know that the novel Kings Row (the Gipper starred in the movie version, with critics considering it his best-ever performance) makes Florence King’s row.
Miss King is best known in these parts for her glorious column, “The Misanthrope’s Corner,” which reigned on NR’s back page for over a decade. So popular was it that NR has faithfully collected and republished each and every one of her columns in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002. We are certain that you will want to have it. STET, Damnit is available only from NR, and may/must be ordered (securely!) here.
“Character,” said J. C. Watts, “is doing the right thing when nobody is watching.” Recommending books is a golden opportunity to do the sublime thing while everybody is watching, which is why so many book lists kick off with the Bible or War and Peace and pitch “the complete works of” with such lofty certitude.
Oh, please. Breathes there a man with soul so dead that he could read the complete works of Sir Walter Scott? Nobody has read all of Scott except Scott, and that only because he had to read proof.
I’ve read my share of classics and reviewed countless new books in the last 15 years, but the books I enjoy most are old favorites that I re-read when I’m too tired to do anything else but not tired enough to go to bed. Most are out of print now, but they sold so many copies in their day that they continue to turn up regularly in used-book stores. They might be a little dog-eared but they still make good stocking stuffers. If your loved ones object to secondhand presents, keep the old books and get some new loved ones.
‐”It was on an afternoon in May of 1844 that the letter came from Dragonwyck.” I challenge anyone to read that opening sentence and put this novel down. Its structure is flawless. By the end of the first page we know who the heroine is, her age, her appearance, where she lives, and what she’s like–all the things that Joan Didion may or may not get around to revealing by the last page of hers. My initial reaction to Anya Seton’s Dragonwyck (1944) corroborates the feminist group on the Internet who called me an elitist psychopath. The villain of this gothic tale is Nicholas Van Ryn, a reactionary Hudson River patroon who murders his wife with oleander leaves ground up in a nutmeg mill, but the first time I read it at the age of 13 I thought he was the hero and didn’t realize my mistake for several years.
The aristocratic Nicholas is still my idea of Mr. Right, and so is the real-life enemy of populist democracy who makes a cameo appearance in the book: James Fenimore Cooper.
‐Another favorite Anya Seton novel is Katherine (1954), about the love affair between John of Gaunt, the ambitious younger son of Edward III, and Lady Katherine Swynford, whose four bastard children became the progenitors of the York and Tudor lines in fulfillment of the ancient prophecy, “Thou shalt get kings though thou be none.” Richly descriptive of medieval life, the story dramatizes major events of late-fourteenth-century England–the Black Plague, the Lollard heresy, the storming of the Savoy palace in the Peasants’ Revolt–and presents a brilliant fictional portrait of Katherine’s brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer.
Like many who read Katherine the year it came out, I thought Charlton Heston and Susan Hayward should star in the movie, but it was never made, probably because Katherine lived openly as John’s mistress and produced those four bastards. They were legitimized by Richard II when John married Katherine late in life, but even so, this movie wasn’t possible in the Fifties. Ironically, the sex scenes in the book achieve an exquisite balance between eroticism and sweetness that isn’t possible in the Nineties.
‐The town in Kings Row was modeled on Fulton, Missouri, which erupted when native son Henry Bellamann published his 1941 novel of sex and sadism in the heartland. Fulton got better press in 1946 when Winston Churchill made his “iron curtain” speech at its Westminster College (Aberdeen College in the book), but by then Ronald Reagan’s performance in the movie had immortalized another line of demarcation.
Reagan’s character is far from the only medical victim in the book. Omitted from the movie are Patty Graves, who becomes a fanatic housekeeper after Dr. Gordon spays her; Ludie Sims, the complaisant grass widow whose face is disfigured after Dr. Gordon treats her earache; and the excitable Lucy Carr, who dies after Dr. Gordon gives her a sedative.
In contrast to Dr. Gordon’s busy HillaryCare practice, Dr. Alexander Q. Tower has no patients at all, just a worn shingle flapping outside his gloomy house. In the movie Dr. Tower shoots himself after poisoning his daughter Cassandra to save her from the insanity she has inherited from her mother, but that’s a toned-down Hollywood version of what happens in the book. My lips are sealed. Suffice to say that Kings Row is immensely satisfying to read during political campaigns when the Trad Vals pile up too high.
‐Betty Smith’s first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, was such a smash hit that her later work was never fully appreciated. My favorite is her third novel, Maggie-Now (1957). As usual it’s set in pre-World War I Brooklyn, but for once we get a Smith heroine who is not a compulsive reader.
Maggie Moore (her childhood reprimand, “Maggie, now,” becomes her nickname) is a simple Irish-Catholic girl who wants only to marry a good man and have children. But along comes Claude Basset, a Protestant-agnostic college graduate with an ironic wit that goes over her head and a wanderlust she doesn’t find out about until after she marries him.
The O. Henry-like twist here is the blissful marriage of this mismatched pair. Under normal conditions they would grow to hate each other, but their strange modus vivendi inadvertently keeps the dew on the rose.
Claude lives with Maggie in Brooklyn during the cold months and takes off as soon as the weather turns warm. She doesn’t know where he goes but he always comes back, and when he does it’s like a honeymoon again. They go on like this for years, until Claude finds what he’s looking for, and the provincial Maggie, her vistas expanded by their unconventional life, is able at last to understand him.
‐Sisterhood eludes feminist novelists, but it fairly leaps off the pages of Gwen Bristow’s Jubilee Trail (1950), a good girl/bad girl western in which the male characters are all satellites.
Garnet Cameron of Washington Square, a privileged daughter of Old Knickerbocker society who won the politeness medal at finishing school, and Florinda Grove, a dancehall girl on the lam from a murder rap, are members of a covered wagon train headed for California.
Garnet soon loses confidence in her handsome but weak young bridegroom and turns to Florinda for companionship. Together they do men’s work–shooting, dressing game, building fires, reading Indian prints, and fighting off the savage hordes. When Garnet takes an arrow in the shoulder, Florinda helps in the cauterization even though she has a terror of fire and hideously burned hands from a mysterious incident in her past. Each crisis they meet together increases their mutual admiration. They learn to take pride in their strength, both moral and physical, especially the ladylike Garnet, who can’t help gloating, “The men I used to dance with–I could break them in two.”
Much, much more happens–Garnet’s husband is murdered, she and Florinda open a saloon, etc.–but her ultimate liberated moment comes when she contemplates her cauterized wound: “She was going to be proud of that scar when she got back to New York. She was glad she had been wounded in the arm, instead of some unmentionable spot that she could not boast about.”
‐Henry Morton Robinson touches on partial-birth abortion in The Cardinal (1950), except that it’s called a “craniotomy” and involves crushing the skull while the entire baby is still in the womb.
Father Stephen Fermoyle’s brother-in-law is a Catholic doctor who loses his hard-won residency at a Protestant hospital when he refuses to perform the operation. Later on, when Steve’s erring sister Monica is taken in labor to the same hospital, he must decide whether to let them kill the baby to save her life. He cannot, and gives her the last rites as the baby is born.
The Cardinal opens in 1915 and traces Steve’s rise from Boston parish priest to prince of the church. My favorite parts are the behind-the scenes accounts of how the Vatican works, and the descriptions of the Roman contessa’s salon: a hierarchy of ecclesiastical guests, their rank denoted by the colors of their flowing capes and birettas (the book answers all the Protestant questions about vestments), soignée women kissing rings, learned Jesuits swapping bons mots, and Cardinal Merry del Val capping quotations from Horace while juggling oranges. That’s what I call a party. It’s enough to make me religious.
‐Today we have constipated little novels that tell the story of a three-hour car trip. In 1942 we had The Valley of Decision by Marcia Davenport. It begins with 15-year-old Mary Rafferty’s first day as a maid in the Scott family’s Pittsburgh mansion in 1873, and ends with her listening to the news of Pearl Harbor with a Scott great-granddaughter.
In between, Mary becomes the mainstay of the Scotts. As strong as the steel they produce, she devotes her life to bringing out the best in them, saving them from themselves, and loving Paul Scott even though she must withhold herself from him in penance for the terrible event that keeps them from marrying.
This novel has everything: sex amid the Johnstown Flood, labor-union strife, an expatriate adventuress, a playboy turned monk, a society wife who goes mad, a Czech violinist fleeing the Nazis. And if all this weren’t enough, the author even keeps us glued to the page when she describes the operation of the open-hearth furnace, a tour de force of “writing like a man” that won her high praise from male reviewers in that benighted pre-feminist age.
I could go on, but I’ve reached my word limit and it’s 3:00 A.M. so I’m going to have a drink and unwind with Forever Amber. Its descriptions of seventeenth-century London goldsmiths allow economists to skip the sex and read the good parts.