The Roaring 20s

In some ways, it really is the roaring back of the Dickensian moment in literary history. If you want to make it as a self-published writer, writing one book will not do it. Even a great book won’t do it. The whole game is to gain some audience with a really good book, then continue to serve that audience.

Mark McGurl

The problem the levelers face is the people they want to stop will only find a way around their obstacles. They can delay the future but not stop it. Excellence always prevails.

Felix Torres

I did get some sleep. A little bit. You see, I made a mistake last night. A tiny error in judgement. Also, did you know that reading in bed on your cell phone feels a lot like reading under the covers with a flashlight?

I’ll go back a few days and start with the kernel that bloomed into my lapse. My First Reader and I were chatting on the phone, I don’t recall about what exactly – we spend about an hour a day talking on the phone, because we’re apart and going to be apart for at least another month and possibly much longer – and the topic of The Secret Garden came up. Which led to my discovering he’d not read any Frances Hodgson Burnett that he could recall, although he’s seen a couple of the rather saccharine movies based on her popular works. And to my declaring ‘I think I have read all of hers!’

Reader, I had not. Really, it shouldn’t be a surprise to me or to you. She was a prolific writer, working almost up to her death in 1924. I had read rather a lot of her work, in addition to the most well-known children’s books, but I had never seen some of her now public domain stuff. So I went on a binge of scooping up the free books. Since the First Reader and I share a library, I can only imagine the look on his face when he saw them appearing there! Which is, now that I am imagining it, a delightful mental image. Two lovers, separated in space, but not in the library… but I digress.

When I am ill, I binge read. Usually not new books, either. I come back to the old favorites, or writers who feel like old favorites, and I read and read and read. I was not ill last night. I’ve been a bit tired and dealing with allergies and just generally low in outlook… not sick. However, I have not been reading fiction. Period. Full stop. Just haven’t been for several months, instead working my way slowly through CS Lewis and Jordan Peterson’s second book (and the parallels between their thinking processes are fascinating) among other nonfiction works. Last night, then, when I opened The Head of the House of Coombe I was really not expecting what happened next.

It’s a soppy romance, dear readers. Simply sentimental in the entirety. But it is also the story of characters who will appeal to you strangely, and it is written in about the time it was set: the shadow of the Great War. Hodgson Burnett used the two-volume book (the other being Robin) not only to tell this tender love story, but also to give a glimpse into the turmoil of life in Britain at the time. She sets it in London, largely, and it is a London not long after Dickens, but entirely changed. I found it drew me in, made me cry, and got me thinking about history and those who love and live through the cataclysms. Is it realistic? Perhaps not. Sometimes that’s not what you want. You want to read about… well. Romance. Love conquering all. Families drawn together in mysterious ways to care for one another. At least, I do.

Something else, though. It’s set a hundred years ago, and written just prior to the author’s death (published in 1922 in a serial form, being two novels split from one). Reading it is as good as studying history in a way, but it’s also just a love story. Just!

The article I’ve quoted from and linked at the top of this post may seem unrelated to the post itself. In fact, when I started this post I’d intended to go in a very different direction with it. That was before I sat here at my desk, too tired to think, much less write, then gave up and went to bed with a book. This morning, I’m struck by the parallels to the book I read, and indeed, the entire oeuvre of Frances Hodgson Burnett and so many other writers like her, and the Indie Author movement of our time. A century between us, but as it was, so it has become. Just as the article muses, it seems clear that the intervening time of a publishing world drawn in ever more narrowly defined lines was the exception. Prior to that, it was a wide-open field. Serials in magazines and newspapers fed voracious readers and consumers of entertainment. Today? We can do without the magazines, but the readers use Amazon in their place, to find their amusements.

Is there a lot of dreck and sop sloshing around the marketplace? Heavens, yes! Why, if you read the two books I got through last night, you’ll come back with a hand pressed to your forehead in pain, demanding to know ‘what’s wrong with you, Cedar?’ They do serve nicely to illustrate my point, though. Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote because she needed the money. And she wrote some very good books, indeed. When she had done that, she didn’t quit. She kept writing to her audience, right up until near the end of her life. Now, that’s a writer I’d like to emulate. We’ve come back to the Roaring Twenties she passed in. The lead-up to that era is very much a part of the books I just read, and the similarities are uncanny in places.

A century later, and I’m reading her. A century hence?

16 comments

  1. I think, after Kipling, _The Secret Garden_ was the first book I read that had a lot of dialect in it. I’d heard the original _Uncle Remus_ stories, but had not read them yet. The language took a bit of getting used to, but it works so well!

    1. It does! I haven’t gone back to re-read it yet, although I should. I’m trying to figure out which of her books had the grey parrot in it, because I remember liking that one very much when I was about ten and read it.

  2. It can be interesting. I was trying to read a famous and influential Robin Hood retelling– of that era, actually. Could not finish.

  3. Hallmark Hall of Fame did an absolutely marvelous version of The Secret Garden. (Softer but more compelling than the theatrical version you can find on DVD, and possibly the best of all their happy-tearjerker productions.) I’d never heard of the author before that, but my youthful fiction reading was never about contemporary people.

  4. Where did you garner the windfall from, Cedar? Gutenberg?
    BTW, I stole and reposted the opening blurb. Just felt right for the times.

  5. bed on your cell phone feels a lot like reading under the covers with a flashlight?

    Yes. Yes, I do 😁

    .. instead working my way slowly through CS Lewis and Jordan Peterson’s second book (and the parallels between their thinking processes are fascinating)

    I hope you will share what you have observed. Because the latter is a materialist magician straight out of NICE, And the later is violently opposed to same. So that would be really interesting whatever you found out.

    Also… I did not know that about FHB either-! Thank you!!!

    1. I’m not so sure about that. Peterson seems to be more of a MacPhee type. If he were a NICE type he would have gone along to get along on the whole transgender thing.

      1. If were a MacPhee type he would not have cancelled Faith Goldy for doing what he himself did viz trans pronouns. No, JPs belief system is inverted Abolition of Man. About 1/2 his 12 rules are excellent though as long as one avoids reading his explanation.

            1. The capacity to recognize and refuse to associate with Nikabriks, madam, is one of the hallmarks of a Lewisian hero.

              Your apparent inability to do so is not my problem.

              1. Yes, alas, that’s what the SJWs say about *US* and why they want to cancel anyone who associates with us Nikabrikian Transphobics. And the mean it just as sincerely as you do here.

                If you REALLY cared about not wanting to enslave all of Narnia under the White Witch, you would preemptively cancel anyone who talks to anyone who wants ally her.

                It’s a very effective verbal attack & Mr. Peterson used it skillfully against Faith Goldie. So skillfully that the Campaigners to End Puppy-related sadness bought into it.

                Materialist. Magician. Once you see it you cannot unsee it. So similarities between Mr. Peterson & Lewis would be interseting.

                Note, I’m not suggesting that if YOU really loved Narnia you wouldn’t talk to anyone who talked to Jordan Peterson.

              2. Though you are correct that when you’re building a movement, public perception matters. Getting directly involved with people who are deeply fringe: Whether actual swastika panty crew, or flat-earthers, or furries, is tricky if you think you have a shot at reaching Joe Normie.

                To the bloody blazes with anyone who tells me who I cannot and must not have ta tea, you winging turnips. is *far* more of a McPhee-ism than caring bout the optics of your nascent politcal movement and/or grift (depending on what you think Mrs Goldie was up to)

  6. Thanks for the reminder. I am a lifelong repeat fan of A Little Princess (and I’m the furthest thing from a girlie girl), partly because I remember it as my first exposure to the India of the Raj references. I’ve just realized I have a not-yet-read Complete Burnett (35 works!) in my online possession, so I’m off to rectify my omissions.

    Be aware there’s more than one edition of A Little Princess (aka Sarah Crewe)… And some bad pseudo-prequels/sequels by other hands.

    One of the great features about Project Gutenberg scanned books is that they include the original ads at the back — always a plus.

    And IMHO, none of the film/TV versions have been satisfactory, though some are worse than others (particularly the one where Sarah Crewe’s father does not die!).

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