Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Book Review: Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall

(Reclaimed from Blogspot. Tags: British historyBulwer-Lytton Award for Bad Writingcomically bad fictionElizabeth IMary Stuartromance novels with blind heroines.)

Book Review: Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall
Author: Charles Major
Date: 1902
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: none (but click on the picture to buy it from Amazon)
Length: 369 pages
Illustrations: drawings by Howard Chandler Christy, some tinted
Quote: “I knew by the girl’s hair that she was my cousin, Dorothy Vernon, whom I reluctantly had come to wed.”
Best known as the author of When Knighthood Was in Flower, Charles Major spun this verbose romance out of a family legend in which an heiress eloped with the son of her father’s worst enemy. This was early in the reign of Elizabeth I, when English young people were supposed to marry for love but, if they had any money, were expected to have made a dutiful effort to love the people their elders had chosen. Some families were notoriously apt to try to keep wealth within the clan by urging cousins to marry each other.
Malcolm, the narrator, has finally resigned himself to marrying Dorothy on this visit to her family’s stately home...but almost immediately he meets her friend Madge, and she meets his friend John, and without positively defying their elders both cousins immediately conspire to look for ways to marry these more interesting people instead.
Writing about real people who had lived and died long ago gave Major considerable freedom to invent adventures for them. In an afternote, pretending to criticize Malcolm as an historian, Major observes, “No other writer speaks of Mary Stuart having been at Haddon, and many chroniclers disagree with Malcolm as to the exact date of her im­prisonment in Lochleven.” Mary, Elizabeth, and the Earl of Leicester get substantial supporting roles in the story.
Although Dorothy’s elopement is a foregone conclusion, I was able to feel some suspense about the prospects for Madge, who is the kind of character some Victorian novelists would have killed off halfway through a novel. It’s pleasant to report that Major was nicer than some novelists. As Victorian heroines go, Madge is likable, and deserves the sort of ending she gets.
Major was not, of course, a good writer by the standard of any period but his own. He was capable of writing, “Ah, wondrous and glorious womanhood! If you had naught but the mother instinct to lift you above your masters by the hand of man-made laws, those masters were still unworthy,” and “What a very woman you will think I was! I, who could laugh while I ran my sword through a man’s heart, could hardly restrain my tears for pity of this beautiful blind girl.” Both of these pearls of (unfortunately authentic Tudor Period) sexist bigotry are supposed to be uttered by the same character on the same page (page 44). Even for Major this is something of a record, but he achieves a sentence worthy of a Bulwer-Lytton Memorial Award every two or three pages. His political incorrectness also reaches levels that are positively inspiring; on page 46 Malcolm exclaims, “Ah, to think that the blind can laugh,” and on pages 38 and 39 Dorothy expresses her infatuation with John’s habit of smoking cigars.
Then there are Christy’s pictures, in which Elizabethan fashions somehow transmogrify into Late Victorian fashions. For Christy, it’s clear, Madge and Dorothy were Gibson Girls at heart.
Equally anachronistic is Major’s unaccountable effort to make an Elizabethan like Malcolm write not only Victorian prose, but Victorian morality. Malcolm spends a lot of time making excuses for Dorothy. When a fictional heroine lies like a rug, has her lover put in jail on a jealous whim, and systematically insults all the social and political connections her father would have consented to her marrying, it strains credibility for anyone to make excuses for her. Dorothy is not a Nice Girl; she’s a Tudor Period girl. Rich people did that sort of thing in those days. Nobody apologized for Mary, Elizabeth, or Leicester, who treated people worse than Dorothy does in this novel, regularly. Nobody apologizes for the characters of Shakespeare.
Altogether, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall may be best appreciated as Wonderfully Bad Fiction. I laughed. Out loud. Often.
 Although I suspect the copy I physically owned, and sold, was one of the rarer editions that are selling for more than the $10 I got out of it, more recent editions of Major's books aren't especially rare or expensive. I can sell copies like the one shown in the picture above for $5 per book + $5 per package (meaning that, if you want When Knighthood Was in Flower too, you can order both in one package and send a total of $15 to either address shown at the lower left-hand side of the screen). (If you use Paypal, add $1 per online payment, thus sending $11 for one book to me; if you use a U.S. postal money order, the post office will collect their own surcharge, thus you'd send $10 to me.) You can probably find better prices online, and, since Major no longer has any use for money, you might as well. (Keep reading, though. Don't you want to buy something from a site that will tell you when you might as well buy a book somewhere else?)