Monday, April 04, 2016

An Original Belle and A Young Girl's Wooing

Reading between the lines of romance novels can be rewarding in the brainiest of ways, and the novels of Edward Payson Roe are no exception. He was a Presbyterian pastor who wrote these books by way of educating the public, with a hefty dose of morality and (in my view) little realism in terms of his characters or their psychologies. But I like reading them as entertainment, and they can reveal a great deal about America at his time — at least from the vantage-point of the respectable educated person — that is rare to read elsewhere.

[Disclaimer: In part since I read many of the books a longer time ago, the information below may not be entirely accurate.]


An Original Belle (1885) is, I think, a 'text' on the American Civil War by a member of the generation who waged it; Edward Payson Roe was a chaplain for the Army of his home state New York. For instance, it demonstrates that modern conservatives who argue that the American Civil War was 'not about slavery at all at the time' are flatly mistaken. 'States' rights,' while he admires the patriotism of the South, are handled as a pretext. At the same time, he presents less idealized perspectives on the Yankee North and its unified moral purpose, by handling in detail an episode I had never heard of, namely the Draft Riots and the terrible violence against African Americans in New York City, 1863; as well as the less than magnanimous response to it by police and other authorities, which Roe however endorses.

(Given reactions after Hurricane Katrina and the London riots in 2011 or the Paris riots in 2005, for example, it becomes painfully clear that — in aspects like this, — his novels can still be relevant.)

An Original Belle is, I think, more justified than his other novels in the 'ripped from the headlines' sensationalism of its plot. Roe's first famous novel was set during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871,  and admittedly he writes that "I spent some days among the smoldering ruins," The Earth Trembled is set in Charleston, South Carolina, around the time of an earthquake in 1886. His novel about the effects of opium addiction on a family, Without a Home, is drawn from secondhand reports and in-person research. In his Civil War books he takes greater pains, perhaps, to honour the lived experiences of veterans and others who experienced the times, though his habit of interviewing high-ranking officers for 'definitive' versions of specific battles seems a little suspect to me. To be fair, as a complete novice I imagine after reading War and Peace and the scenes with Nikolai Rostov that the account of the 'ordinary' soldier in the ranks might be too empty of context, too diffuse and confusing, to explain much to the reader about the overall events of a battle. However it does drive me up the wall that he glosses over a great deal of the abuses that took place in the war in order to drive home the moral that there were 'good people on both sides' — undoubtedly true, but not very edifying if one had to live with the results of their teeny lapses in practice. ('The road to hell is paved with good intentions.') The irony is, however, that without reading these books, aspects of life in the 19th century U.S. that affected many people very badly, would be completely unknown to me. It probably doesn't help them any more, but perhaps there is merit to paying tribute to their facing of challenges like life in the tenements, the effects of an earthquake on 19th-century infrastructure, racism and warfare, that survives even the fictional treatment.

To encapsulate the rest of his fiction that I've read, in a nutshell, most others are set in peacetime. Nature's Serial Story is an example of the Thoreau-like cult of nature with, amongst other things, a rational acceptance of the Theory of Evolution that surprised me. In 2014, a Gallup poll determined that 42% of Americans profess the belief "that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago."(1) The novel — again, by a pastor — was published in 1884. His Sombre Rivals is a bleak portrait of the lasting damage of the War; it also treats the right to self-determination of mentally ill persons rather awfully, plot-wise.* Miss Lou also explores the American Civil War.


SOME OF ROE'S books are more theological than others. I find A Young Girl's Wooing surprisingly irreligious,  perhaps because it sets 'self-actualization' in a modern sense and not sheer religious perfection as its aim; and surprisingly feminist and at the same time not feminist. I like reading the website Smart B***s, Trashy Books, about modern romance novels, and as the writers there agree, one perennial enjoyment in the genre is its incredibly bizarre plots. A Young Girl's Wooing is a prime example.

The protagonist, Madge Alden, is a chronically ill girl who lives with her rich brother-in-law and her sister in New York City at the beginning of the book. One evening she realizes that she is in love with a younger brother-in-law. Realizing, too, that she isn't that sick after all, but suffering from an unhealthy lifestyle, she rushes off from New York City to California. There she enacts Pygmalion to her own Galatea, so that Galatea can attract said brother-in-law, Graydon Muir. There, too, she is chaperoned and hosted by an older couple, who teach her to swim, ride horses, and play all kinds of sports to grow into a healthy lady. Her secondary aim (a bit creepy, I think, since 'having common interests' is not the same thing as 'mini me') is to share Graydon's athletic hobbies. Besides she grows better educated, socially ept, and an excellent singer.

After the years pass, she travels back to the East Coast. Her sister and family-in-law are holidaying in rural New York State. Graydon Muir returns from Europe. When they meet again she abruptly tells her brother-in-law that she feels not like a sibling but like a friend, which befuddles the young man greatly, but makes sense in the historical context: relatives kissed each other on the mouth and were touchy-feelier in general, an awkward thing in her lot. Then she is a perfect person all around; attends church and sings in its choir; and is contrasted favorably with the young woman whom her brother-in-law has been pining after. This antagonist is Stella Wildmere, a fashionable businessman's daughter. She likes Graydon Muir, and is willing enough — as long as he is pretty rich —to marry him, which of course meant in 'good' 19th century circles that they would be stuck with each other for life.

I find the plot progressive and modern insofar as Madge Alden reflects on what her ideal is and turns herself into that person — without needing the advice of any man, or married woman like her sister. What I do not like so much is the way in which her sickness is despised; it foreshadows the Edwardian- and later-era obsession with societies full of individuals in perfect health, 'survival of the fittest,' etc. The sister is also not a greatly feminist figure either, since she is presented as a rather intellectually limited woman who is a good wife and mother but not somebody to trust with any kind of information or question.

Other iffy points, of course: the premise that a life hinges upon marrying or not managing to marry a man horrifies me. Secondly, that Graydon Muir 'must' love Madge Alden because she is there, endowed with virtue, and desperate. Even if that works, it's rather a steep proposition. Thirdly, that Extreme Goodness must be rewarded; and that Extreme Goodness is judged not entirely by progress toward an absolute ideal in the abstract, but is judged by comparing the heroine to someone who is Less Extremely Good; and that one person 'deserves' more than another. What I do think is pointful in a marriage — based on real-life observation — is never to treat one's spouse rudely in front of others, or ever purposely make them feel badly about themselves. Maybe one doesn't 'deserve' a marriage, but certainly 'deserves' to be happy and keep the other person happy, too.

Anyway, I feel for the hero in a romance novel who might likely be bored by his future wife's self-congratulation that she wasn't as mercenary as That Other Woman. Aside from the inconvenience to the hero, the idea that a fellow human being is a reward by Providence for merit, like a Victorian sugar plum, is also unlikely to be desirable in reality.


An Original Belle, to a lesser degree, shares the ideal of the self-made woman. Marian Vosburgh, the heroine, is a New Yorker society girl who likes flirting with her male peers. If they make a marriage proposal, she briefly sends them on their way. I have no doubt that there are Circes in real life, but what I can never understand is why their Odysseuses never appear to understand what their motivations are, when we need and use perception and reflection so often to figure out the actions of other people. Each suitor, at any rate, is apparently crushed to the soul to figure out that she likes them, but not in that way. Then the heroine discovers that she is being really mean, and (in a touch of classism) that she is not quite comporting herself like a lady. After that she tries to discover other interests, and to be an inspiring friend instead of a flirt.
Among the myriad phases of power, perhaps that of a gifted and beautiful woman is the most subtile and hard to define. It is not the result of mere beauty, although that may be an important element; and if wit, intelligence, learning, accomplishments, and goodness are added, all combined cannot wholly explain the power that some women possess. Deeper, perhaps more potent, than all else, is an individuality which distinguishes one woman from all others, and imparts her own peculiar fascination. Of course, such words do not apply to those who are content to be commonplace themselves, and who are satisfied with the ordinary homage of ordinary minds, or the conventional attention of men who are incited to nothing better. (2)
IN REAL LIFE, I can hardly imagine a more dire premise than that of Exerting a Beneficial Influence upon the people whom one meets; it would probably turn into a farce almost as bad as Shakespeare's play with the sets of twins whose title I can't remember. In this book, the heroine tries to encourage her friends to be patriotic and brave as the American Civil War worsens and New York, distant at first from the battlegrounds, is gradually threatened. This means that many of them Become a Man and, after their training, head off to the South to meet the horde of General Robert E. Lee.

One young man in her circle apparently refuses to Become A Man — the rich son of a now-dead Yankee and his rather awful southern-born widow. He — Willard Merwyn — sits in his Madison Avenue home like the raven over Poe's door, in company with two elderly domestic servants who were left behind like jetsam on the tide of war. He donates money to wartime causes and verbally supports the Yankee cause, but resists any exhortation to raise a rifle to his shoulder and take pot-shots at a few Rebs. 'War is a terrible thing,' the heroine tearily repeats, 'and I'd never tell anyone to fight.' (""No, papa, no," cried Marian, with suddenly moistening eyes. "I regret the war beyond all power of expression. I could not ask, much less urge, any one to go, and my heart trembles and shrinks when I think of danger threatening those I love. But I honor—I almost worship—courage, loyalty, patriotism.") Yet she can't accept Merwyn as her potential husband until at last he gazes down the barrel of a Richmond rifle in person and 'proves' that he is brave.

His mother asked him not to fight as a Yankee for the charming reason that she wants the South to beat the Yankees. I'd say that sense and the greater good would dictate that, except if I were a conscientious objector, I'd go off and face death like anyone else I knew.  But apparently Not Breaking the Promise is the greater morality here. Fortunately(?) the Draft Riots break out and he proves that, faced with a roaring mob who wants to beat him to death or worse, he can 'establish his authority' and kill people as easily as the next man. In the 18th-century periodical the Adventurer, a story appeared with the motto, 'No life pleasing to God that is not useful to man,' and for some reason it comes to mind.

This cheery plot again demonstrates how loose the term 'romance' is. Even Dame Barbara Cartland might have struggled to filter Roe's narrative through a rosy lens.

But** it also illustrates, as I think, that it is a tricky business to be another man's conscience, when there are hidden motives and processes that even the most triumphantly moralizing person might not understand; and illustrates the insufficiency of human understanding to evince the kind of omniscience that we like to arrogate from whichever gods or belief systems we observe.


(1) "In U.S., 42% Believe Creationist View of Human Origins" [Gallup], by Frank Newport (June 2, 2014)
(2) Preface, An Original Belle [Project Gutenberg], by Edward Payson Roe. First published in 1885.

* Spoiler (pass the cursor over the empty space to read it): The hero marries a heroine who is mentally incapacitated after the loss of her husband, to be in a position to give her better medical care. He is in love with her, but she married and loved his friend instead. When she has recovered again, she decides to make the best of things.

** (Please excuse the toplofty pretentiousness that follows.)

Information from "Edward Payson Roe," "New York City draft riots," "Great Chicago Fire," "1886 Charleston Earthquake" (Wikipedia); and from Barriers Burned Away, Without a Home and A Young Girl's Wooing (Project Gutenberg).

[Last edited April 4, 2016.]

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