Monday, August 18, 2008

Old Rose and Silver

When I was in my second year at university, I wanted to look up books that had been referenced in the forewords and footnotes and text of Jane Austen's novels, for example Fanny Burney's Cecilia and Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, and in Louisa May Alcott's novels, for example The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte Yonge and The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner. Not all of these books were to my taste, but the quest for them introduced me to the books at Project Gutenberg. For two years, then, I whiled away the leisure hours after my courses or at home by exploring the lists. Now (though to a lesser degree than two years ago) I peregrinate through the alphabet, largely reading romances from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but plunging into non-fiction and criticism whenever a dutiful mood strikes.

My most recent reading was Old Rose and Silver, a novel published in 1909 by Myrtle Reed. It is a satisfactory specimen of romance as friendly and sincere kitsch. (Of the author's other books, Lavender and Old Lace* is nice, more restrained, but less interesting.) Like all good romances, it is equally pleasant as serious sentiment and as unintentional satire. The characters around whom the tale revolves are Aunt Francesca, an idealized little old lady of refinement and wit and fine calibre; her niece Rose, a forty-year-old woman who is a warm and vibrant personality; Isabel, a twenty-year-old girl who has a gaping deficiency where her understanding (in the 18th-century sense of a good intellectual grasp) and sympathy should be; Colonel Kent, a friend of Aunt Francesca's deceased husband; and Colonel Kent's son, Allison, a thirty-year-old violinist. Then there are their neighbours, the Crosby twins, who are good-hearted and full of childish adventurousness and impracticality, and who are evidently intended to furnish comic relief.

Rose lives with Aunt Francesca, as her parents have died, and Isabel joins them because her mother (in an unsubtle authorial dig against suffragism) has renounced the joys and sacred duties of womanliness and instead passes a loveless and useless existence lecturing on women's rights and neglecting her daughter. Then Colonel Kent and his son return from Europe. Rose and Allison bond in soul as they play the violin and piano together, and the authoress indulges in picturesque passages on the emotional transcendence of the musical art, but Allison is oblivious and is infatuated with Isabel (who is cold as a fish) instead. Allison and Isabel are engaged, but then a car accident occurs and Allison's hand is crushed. As he may no longer be able to use the hand, and therefore have no violinist's career, and therefore have no money, Isabel drops him. And then the plot curve descends in a leisurely manner from this climax to the happy dénouement.

The novelesqueness is truly funny. The tale, in a chapter pensively entitled "A Falling Star," begins with these purple paragraphs:
The last hushed chord died into silence, but the woman lingered, dreaming over the keys. Firelight from the end of the room brought red-gold gleams into the dusky softness of her hair and shadowed her profile upon the opposite wall. No answering flash of jewels met the questioning light--there was only a mellow glow from the necklace of tourmalines, quaintly set, that lay upon the white lace of her gown.

She turned her face toward the fire as a flower seeks the sun, but her deep eyes looked beyond it, into the fires of Life itself. A haunting sense of unfulfilment stirred her to vague resentment, and she sighed as she rose and moved restlessly about the room. She lighted the tall candles that stood upon the mantel-shelf, straightened a rug, moved a chair, and gathered up a handful of fallen rose-petals on her way to the window. She was about to draw down the shade, but, instead, her hand dropped slowly to her side, her fingers unclasped, and the crushed crimson petals fluttered to the floor.
The authoress employs this leitmotif of roses with a Wagnerian dedication, and it is cloying. But the descriptions of her female characters' habiliments do remind me of the pretend-games my sister and I played when we were smaller, inventing maidens with long chestnut or golden hair on whom we duly bestowed gowns and flowers and gems in well-chosen palettes (green dresses with gold borders, emerald jewellery, gold slippers, and lilies of the valley, etc.). Miss Reed writes "her sole ornaments were," and then she launches into a flood of amethysts, heliotrope, golden roses, etc.

One less innocent novelesque convention that she employs is blackening the character of another woman to make the heroine (Rose) look better in comparison. This practice is despicable, I think. In this case poor Isabel is the victim. Also, I doubt, cinematic and literary romances to the contrary, that men often are presented with a choice of two women who so precisely illustrate the opposite moral poles. As for Allison Kent, he is nice, generous, and unobserving — not entirely a blank screen on which the author lets the reader project her own fantasies — and I suppose there are people like him in real life, but it is pathetic how everyone around him controls the action while he is naïf and passive.

Lastly, I enjoy the profound remarks that the authoress has carefully attributed to her characters, which invariably bear an implicit label: Deep Thought Here. She also philosophizes in her capacity as narrator. In a temple-and-shrine analogy, she theorizes that women can only truly love one person, and that if their love is unrequited or destroyed, there is no renewal; whereas men can truly love many persons, and rebound quickly if one of their loves doesn't work out. Though I can't speak from personal experience, I'm sure this is wrong. There is a discussion on the subject at the end of Jane Austen's Persuasion. I agree with her assessment that the forcibly homebound lives of women in the 18th and 19th centuries meant that they did not have as many distractions (or opportunities to develop their characters further) as men did, to save them from useless brooding and to help them move on with their lives. Nor do I think that men hop from one relationship to another quite so briskly.

* * *
His first notes came with a clearness and authority for which she was wholly unprepared. She followed the accompaniment almost perfectly, but mechanically, lost as she was in the wonder and delight of his playing. The exquisite harmony seemed to be the inmost soul of the violin, speaking at last, through forgotten ages, of things made with the world--Love and Death and Parting. Above it and through it hovered a spirit of longing, infinite and untranslatable, yet clear as some high call.

Subtly, Rose answered to it. In some mysterious way, she seemed set free from bondage. Unsuspected fetters loosened; she had a sense of largeness, of freedom which she had never known before. She was quivering in an ecstasy of emotion when the last chord came.

For an instant there was silence, then Isabel spoke. "How well you play!" she said politely.
P.S.: According to a recent article at, the black-and-white film Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre, was named in parody of Lavender and Old Lace.

Myrtle Reed - Biography and Works

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