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Monday, January 13, 2014

Mary Roberts Rinehart, part 3

1912 fashions for men
Here is Part 3 of my reviews of the Mary Roberts Rinehart books I read last summer. These are the first two of her romance books, and because they include some very interesting details, I’ve written quite a bit more about them than about the mysteries and comedies. These are in the public domain, available to download for free.

K.  I first read this book about 40 years ago and enjoyed rereading it. It’s sort of a romantic melodrama of about 1912. It concerns a young woman who decides for economic reasons to go to a hospital training school to become a nurse. Her mother and aunt have taken in a boarder at the heroine’s instigation, and he, with a mystery about his past, becomes the hero of the piece.

Lucille tea gowns for women, 1912
The hero at first did not seem to have any flaws, except myopia in the romance department. However, by the end you realize he has that myopia about people in general, a tendency to see too much good in the very self-centered. In this shortcoming, he is joined by the heroine, who can’t see what’s wrong until the problems are under her nose.

Ultimately, this is a redemption story that allows every character, flawed or not, to learn from the past and step up a level or two. The heroine, in addition to gaining redemption from amazing ignorance, becomes a woman with compassion and real understanding for people’s foibles.

The writing is good. Mary Roberts Rinehart truly understood people and described them timelessly. By contrast the setting is a trip back in time to when streets were cobblestones just being torn up to be paved for the first time; when a sprinkler wagon wetting the street on a hot August day was cause for almost childish happiness; when houses had no fans (let alone air conditioning), but all the doors had a transom at the top; when men’s shirts had no collars and collars came from the commercial laundry highly starched; when young women wore white dresses and were all presumed innocent; when automobiles were still a little bit unusual; when a doctor did not have to go to an expensive school to practice general medicine and didn’t always believe in new-fangled sterilization procedures; and when a dress designer thought of a Paris Poiret gown [ca. 1895-1913] as all the rage.
Poiret Lampshade Dress, 1912
Victoria & Albert Museum

Though the social mores and physical details have dated this novel, the characters are so fresh as to be worth revisiting and the romance is satisfying.

The Street of Seven Stars. This is one of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s pre-World War I romance novels. It is set in Vienna, Austria, a winter or two before the War broke out. It was published in September 1914, just as the war started, so dating it to the winter before is pretty reasonable. There are background indications throughout the novel that war is coming—troops everywhere, sentries, mentions of different European governments engaging in arming for conflict, a Bulgarian spy with carrier pigeons—and these flavor the setting.

By this time Vienna had been THE destination for serious medical students and had hosted art and music students for over 100 years. Two such students are Americans Harmony Wells, studying violin, and Peter Byrne, a doctor wanting to do advanced surgical training. Their story forms the central plot of the novel, but there are numerous interesting subplots, and the complications are about as daunting as the Alps Peter goes to visit.

The social mores at the heart of the conflict are clearly outlined. At that time, the double standard of sexual behavior was in full force, in that men were relatively free to behave as they wanted, but women could and did lose their reputation for virtue for as little an action as being seen in the wrong place, however innocent in reality.

This novel uses foils to show the changing attitudes of people toward sexual freedom or constraint. On one end of the scale are the very proper Boyers who ironically rent the apartment of the couple on the opposite end of the scale: an American man, Wallace Stewart, living with a young Austrian woman, Marie, who is described in pejorative terms. In the middle are Peter Byrnes and Harmony Wells.

Stewart incurs no consequences for his living arrangements until he meets an American woman, Anita, with whom he would like to have a serious relationship. Then he knows he must hide his relationship with Marie, revealing that he knows an American woman would not like it. He and Peter discuss the situation—what Stewart has done with his life is his own business before he has met Anita, but after he has met her, it becomes her business too if he wants to be involved with her. Stewart thinks he can wipe his slate clean and start fresh with Anita without saying anything about his past, but Peter convinces him to tell Anita and thereby test her, to see if she’s “big enough” to forgive him his “past.” She rejects Stewart.

Marie, on the other hand, pays for her relationship with Stewart all along by the treatment she receives. She lives on Stewart’s money in exchange explicitly for cooking and cleaning and implicitly for sexual relations. When she and Stewart meet Peter and Harmony, it is understood that Peter won’t introduce her to Harmony—a “bad” woman cannot expect to be treated as an equal to a “good” woman. When she and Stewart go to the resort in the Alps, at first it seems their plan is to appear as a couple, but then Stewart meets Anita and tells Marie straight out that she has to stay indoors and away from him in public so that nobody finds out about her. His treatment of her is completely horrible, and it’s even more horrible that this is considered by most of the characters in the novel as normal under the circumstances. Stewart even has the gall to complain about Marie falling in love with him—she wasn’t “supposed to.” Marie really has to suffer for her choices. Peter does what he can for Marie, taking her back to Vienna and taking her into his home until she can go to America with a plan to start over again and become somebody respectable in society.

The relationship of Peter and Harmony falls somewhere between the Boyers and the Stewart-Marie relationship, but it starts out and returns to the conservative side. When Harmony loses her first home and lands in the Pension Schwartz with the two doctors Peter Byrnes and Anna Gates, everything is said to be proper. When Anna proposes that they set up housekeeping as a trio, she says, “It may not be conventional, but it will be respectable enough to satisfy anybody.” Respectability hinges on Anna being, at 45, considered old enough to serve as chaperone to 30-year-old Peter and 20-year-old Harmony. Unfortunately for them, Mrs. Boyer assumes that Peter and Harmony are living in sin when she visits and Anna isn’t home, and she spreads the word among the other American ex-patriots that Harmony is not to be treated as a respectable woman. Thus is Harmony’s reputation ruined. Harmony is innocent enough not to understand at first what has happened. However, when Anna has to leave for good, and Mrs. Boyer visits again the very day this happens, Harmony is well aware that she is now outside the conventions for her society, and she understands that to preserve her good reputation, she has to leave and find somewhere else to live. All of this, of course, rests on the fact that there is nothing sexual going on at all—but the appearance matters.

Peter’s position is more ambiguous. The day Anna leaves, he argues with Harmony that he will be able to find a replacement for Anna and sets about doing so; he feels that the day or two between Anna’s departure and the arrival of the replacement are not a problem for Harmony—so long as nobody who “matters” finds out. Thus it is clear that they both know it is Harmony who will pay the consequences of their joint choices. However, it is Peter who pays part of those consequences when Mrs. Boyer carries her indignant impressions to the club and spreads the word to the replacement tenant as well as to a young man who fancies himself in love with Harmony. Peter is the object of the young man’s wrath, and the other woman doctor will not move in after hearing that there may have been some impropriety.

Just at this point, it is very interesting to see the foils come together when Marie arrives from the resort on the day that Harmony is secretly moving herself to a new home. A later thought of Harmony’s on the situation reveals the double standard: “But to go back meant, at the best, adding to Peter’s burden of Jimmy and Marie, meant the old situation again, too, for Marie most certainly did not add to the respectability of the establishment.” Marie could take Anna’s physical place, but she cannot act in the chaperone role. She is not “respectable,” and she is only 19 years old and probably very pretty.

It is interesting that Peter can have Marie living there and still be received by Mrs. Boyer when he calls on the Boyers, and yet after Harmony has moved and passes Mrs. Boyer in the street, Mrs. Boyer refuses to acknowledge her. Peter can also be company for McLean, the young man who is in love with Harmony, even though McLean had accused Peter of ruining Harmony. Obviously, men cannot be tainted by the same things that taint women.

Finally all the obstacles are overcome, all the conventions satisfied, the gossips who helped convince Mrs. Boyer that Peter and Harmony were living outside the conventions have been forced to clarify and confess that there was nothing wrong after all, and all the subplots are tied up neatly. The ending image is military—a soldier uncovers his head as other soldiers take their prisoner to his execution, an interesting choice for a romance novel, but it is perhaps a subtle symbol of the central theme.

There will be two more posts on MRR books. Thanks for sticking with it to the very bottom of this long-winded post!

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