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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Mary Roberts Rinehart, part 4

Today’s post has one more novel of the pre-World War I era and then the books written during the War. Despite her husband’s protests, Mary Roberts Rinehart went to France during the winter of 1915 to see for herself what the conditions were.

Where There’s a Will. Anytime I read something I’m disappointed in, all I have to do is turn to Mary Roberts Rinehart to be sure of reading something good. And Where There’s a Will is yet another of her pre-World War I novels that provides adventure, romance, social drama, and comedy in pretty much equal measures, with just a hint of mystery.

The title puns the word will, using both volition and the legal disposing of property meanings with comedic effect. The main character and narrator is a woman past youth into early middle age and very engaging. The setting is an old-time sanitorium (health spa) in the Eastern U.S., probably Pennsylvania, in the midst of a very snowy winter. There’s a European prince, some wealthy U.S. families, runaway newlyweds, some actors, and a mildly villainous developer who wants to wrest the spa away for a luxury hotel. It’s all great fun, highly recommended.

Kings, Queens, and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front.  For students of World War I, this book is a must. Mary Roberts Rinehart actually got to the front and gathered information about the situation in Belgium and northern France from January to March 1915, seeking to illuminate the war for her fellow Americans who wanted to know what was really happening, instead of relying on propagandists and reports coming from carefully filtered government sources—at that time news reporters were not welcome in any war zone. Sexism is highly visible in this chronicle, for it must explain why she was able to get through to the places male writers could not. The military could not have taken her too seriously, and in a sense, they were justified. She writes nothing but what ultimately would best serve the Belgian, French, and British allies in enlisting American aid. However, she was able to debunk some of the propaganda that all was chaos. But conditions were bad: the scenes and personalities and situations the author encountered were amazing and immediate, giving the reader a feeling for what it truly felt like to be there. It evoked a stronger sense of pity for that war than anything else I have read and made the dry history I have read come alive. It is not for the faint of heart.

Bab: A Sub-Deb. There I was, reading through Mary Roberts Rinehart’s books in order and expecting another mystery or something slightly serious in tone after the months the author had spent in touring and gathering information at the front in Belgium and France, seeing the horrors of the first year of the Great War up close, and instead she comes out with this completely comical piece narrated by a teenage girl whose penchant for getting into farcical situations rivals Bertie Wooster. Bab, or Barbara, is as funny as can be without being outrageous, silly without being annoying, charming, and ultimately, wise. It was hard to put this book down for any reason, she draws you so. She tells her story, which is a series of five vignettes in the forms of school themes, diary entries, and one final literary effort, the end of which is really touching. I recommend this book highly.

The Amazing Interlude. I first read this book about 45 years ago, and it has always been one of my favorites. I liked it when I was young for the romance, and then later for the history both of the First World War and of the social norms of the time, and lately I appreciate the subtle way the author taught women of that rather repressive era that they must not sit back and allow men to determine their futures for them—especially not men whose ideas of what women should do is extremely limited. This novel was written when the author returned from visiting the front lines of the war in Belgium and France, and her knowledge is translated into an immediacy that is truly gripping. The setting is very early in the war—within the first year anyway and before poison gas had started to be used. The hero and heroine are idealized, but there are characters with flaws aplenty. The seamier side of society gets a mention, but since the heroine has been sheltered enough not to recognize it, we don’t see it clearly either. Enjoy this visit to a world long gone, for this book is a sort of time machine, transporting you to a vivid place and time.

Dangerous Days. This story is set in the period just before and during the U.S. becoming involved in the First World War (1916-1918), and the place is probably Pittsburgh. The danger in the title can refer to the war, to the changing social norms, and to actions different characters take that endanger either their physical lives or their way of life and relationships. There’s significant suspense but little mystery—this is more of a social drama. I found it hard to keep reading when it seemed that everybody was in such a dreary situation with little hope of any change except for the worse. However, some twists and turns of plot near the end result in an upbeat ending for at least some.

The one thing I’m liking about Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novels of this period is seeing the self-determination of the female characters. This novel shows clearly how this can be either a positive or a negative thing or both, underscoring that true equality means cooperation, not competition nor repression. In at least one character, this novel also shows that a woman breaking away from male oppression can be both dangerous and endangered—and that’s a good thing for this story.

I plan to post at least one more Mary Roberts Rinehart group and then go to other things. I have not had any time to write anything original this week, but I may  have more time as the week progresses to try something new.

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