16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today:
Tuesday, April 11, 1911: I am plagued with an attack of toothache, which seems to have no let up. Read almost half of a novel this afternoon. Carrie Stout was over this evening.
Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:
Wikepedia has the Publisher’s Weekly list of best selling novels in the US in 1911 and Goodreads has a list of books published in 1911 that are still popular. The lists are very different—many of the bestsellers were written by authors I’ve never heard of –and some of the books that have stood the test of time were sleepers a hundred years ago.
Recently I’ve read one book from each list:
1911 best seller: The Rosary by Florence Barclay
1911 book that has stood the test of time: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton explores the confines of social norms in Ethan Frome, while Florence Barclay in The Rosary examines the role of physical perfection/imperfection in the development of love.
Ethan Frome is set in rural New England in the middle of a dismal winter, while The Rosary is about the upper class in England and much of the story takes place during the summer. Both books are love stories—though The Rosary is about an improbable couple that successfully navigate lots of obstacles (some of which they bring upon themselves), while Ethan Frome is about star-crossed lovers and ends in tragedy.
Most of the story is told during a very long flashback. This book is about a man who was stuck in a loveless marriage to a woman who was a semi-invalid. His wife’s cousin, Mattie, comes to help—and Ethan really falls for her. From the dreariness of the setting to the hopes of the star-crossed lovers, it is obvious from the first page that there is not going to be a happy ending to this story. But I absolutely loved this book and couldn’t put it down. Edith Wharton knows how to tell a story that made me want to turn each page—and I read the entire book in one afternoon.
The Rosary is about Garth, a famous artist, who is the most eligible bachelor in his social circle. All of the woman are chasing him, but he falls in love with Jane, who is the plainest woman in the group (Is this where Plain Jane comes from?). Garth asks Jane to marry him, but she turns him down because she thinks that he feels sorry for her. Then Garth is blinded when he is shot while trying to protect a rabbit from hunters. (I’m amazed that in a pre-PETA era that there was this level of interest in protecting little animals from hunters.)
After the accident Jane wants to tell Garth that she’ll marry him, but knows that he won’t marry her because he’d think that she now feels sorry for him. So she pretends to be a nurse and gets a job caring for the blinded artist.
Garth falls in love with his nurse, but Jane realizes that she can’t tell who she really is since she lied to him and thinks it would anger him if he knew she’d lied.
After lots of twists and turns Garth finds out the truth, and still wants to marry Jane. They marry and live happily ever after.
If Grandma happened to read one of these books I’d guess that it would have been The Rosary. I can imagine a teen who worried about her looks reading and enjoying this book. The targeted reader age is probably somewhat older for Ethan Frome even though it is set in a rural area that Grandma may have been able to relate to.