Our book today is The Master’s Violin, a heartfelt and sure-footed novel published in 1904 by Mrytle Reed – and the book is chosen in part because so many of you responded to the entry on Cowardice Court with a kind of jet-lagged incredulity that active, enthusiastically read and reviewed book-publishing was actually happening 100 years ago.
It’s the strangest thing: we’re naturally willing to think about publishing in Johnson’s day, or even to debate the state of the business in Shakespeare’s day. But when we think about the dawn of the last century, our thoughts jump in a preconditioned way to Henry James, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce … we tend to forget that bookstore shelves were as full then as they are now, that midlist authors then, as now, had to publish in order to eat and send their kids to school, and that then, as now, the best-selling books were almost never written by the immortals.
Booksellers at the time would have had at their mental fingertips dozens and dozens of writer-names that are now entirely unknown to the reading public. Just as today a good bookseller will only need a portion of an author’s name, a part of a book title, or a snatch of the plot to divine what the customer is looking for (since then, as now, the customers themselves can’t be expected to remember what it is they want), so too then – only with an almost entirely different cast of likely suspects.
One of the most likely suspects, at the beginning of the 20th century, was Myrtle Reed. She wrote fast and published frequently – two books a year wasn’t uncommon – and although the mandarin voices of the day decried her as just so much hyperventilating claptrap (one anonymous reviewer for the Boston Transcript called her gazillion-selling novel Flower of the Dusk “a brambly patch of deadly nightshade in the garden of Arcadia”! Yes indeed, they pulled no punches back in the Edwardian era!), the books sold like crazy.
It’s easy to see why. The key to their success was the key to the whole era: not just naked sentimentality, but buckets and buckets of naked sentimentality – blankets of it, piled higher and higher on the reader until no movement or thought was possible except to sigh and remember when (this trick hasn’t exactly gone out of style – both the financial empire of Thomas Kinkade and the current ‘Tea Party’ political movement are wholly based on manipulating the public’s natural, sentimental semi-belief that a warm, fuzzy golden age has only just ended, must be endlessly savored, might even be reclaimed, if we work fast to disenfranchise women and bus all the uppity niggers out of town).
All of Myrtle Reed’s bestselling books make liberal use of this tactic. They open on a setting of relative tranquility, they introduce a small cast of characters who are all nursing some hidden sadness, and then they lay on the sentimentality with a trowel. And before the modern age rejoins such an enterprise with its customary irony, two things should be remembered: a) millions of readers found deep, genuine satisfaction while absorbed in these books, and more importantly, b) the books work. They don’t aim for the heights of Olympus, but what they try to do, they do very nearly to perfection.
Any one of them would serve as a good enough example (Reed scarcely ever broke formula), but The Master’s Violin is my favorite. The plot is easily summarized: the lovely, two-hundred-year-old East Lancaster home of grand old lady Peace Field and her lovely young adopted daughter Iris Temple is suddenly disordered by the arrival of her estranged relations, the widow Margaret Irving and her boyishly handsome son Lynn, who’s come to East Lancaster in the hopes of studying with the village’s world-renowned violinist, Herr Franz Kaufmann (there wouldn’t have been quite so much disorder, but the letter Mrs. Irving sent seeking permission to come has been sitting in the East Lancaster Post Office for days, with nobody from the house going to retrieve it – and no telephones or Internet to take its place).
There, in two or three quick strokes, you have all the dramatic scaffolding you’ll ever need in a Myrtle Reed novel: the cast is riddled with dark family dissatisfactions and hidden passions. Not only does young Lynn fall for Miss Temple in about ten seconds, but we gradually, heartbreakingly learn that Margaret herself carries a secret sorrow: she once loved young Franz Kaufmann but was forced by her blueblood family to marry a man she ‘only respected’ (when she first hears the instrument of the book’s title – an ancient and gorgeous Cremona – after twenty-five years away, she’s struck speechless).
The visitors quickly insinuate themselves into the routines of Aunt Peace’s household, including the weekly visits by Doctor Brinkerhoff (the next town over, West Lancaster, is positively teeming with German immigrants to the area, lest all these Teutonic surnames give you the vapors), who’s entertained with great hospitality despite the oft-repeated fact that he ‘has no social position.’ There is longing here too, deftly implied by the author and quickly perceived by the reader: it’s possible that Aunt Peace’s frequent reminders to anybody who’ll listen that Brinkerhoff is a wonderful and a good friend but simply not ‘our kind of people’ start to look like the codified justifications of a love long denied. The patiently repeated rituals of his weekly visit – from which there is no deviation – looks like the kind of quite mania only love could inspire.
It’s a mystery to me why Myrtle Reed didn’t call this book “Aunt Peace” (but then, authors’ choice of titles for their works have almost always bewildered me) – the serene old lady utterly dominates the first half of the book and casts a long shadow over the second half, whereas Lynn’s apprenticeship with the Master is a sub-plot only infrequently emphasized (and Lynn doesn’t even get to look at the Master’s prized Cremona) at the book’s beginning. Aunt Peace, on the other hand, is a marvelous creation – a kind, tranquil old lady who’s not much given to controlling people, even though she holds all of her opinions with the unchallenged certainty of being life-long mistress of her little world. She values the elegant, simple chores of upkeeping her ancient house (chores she’s taught to Iris with a patient crushing of her original wild spirits – for her own good, of course), and she has no use for the modern innovations of society outside her untroubled valley. This was the dawn of the women’s rights movement, but when the subject of “the shrieking sisterhood” comes up, Aunt Peace expresses a rare note of intolerance:
“I have no patience with such foolishness,” Aunt Peace observed. “Since Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden, women have been home-makers and men have been home-builders. All the work in the world is directly and immediately undertaken for the maintenance and betterment of the home. A woman who has no love for it is unsexed. God probably knew how He wanted it – at least we may be pardoned for supposing that He did. It is absolutely – but I would better stop, my dear. I fear I shall soon be saying something unladylike.”
Needless to say, she’s brought up Iris to think entirely differently about a woman’s place in the world – and yet, Iris is young and can’t help dreaming! This is especially true when she starts receiving passionate, anonymous love letters at the Post Office (it will take the reader about a nanosecond to discern that they’re written by Lynn, although Iris herself virtually needs to read it on a highway billboard before she figures it out), but it’s a wayward bend of imagination that Aunt Peace has inadvertently encouraged by giving Iris full access to the old house’s wonderful library. As our narrator rightly tells us, “Ten years of browsing in a well equipped library will do much for anyone,” and the subject sparks one of the book’s many apostrophes:
Of the things that make for happiness, the love of books comes first. No matter how the world may have used us, sure solace lies there. The weary, toilsome day drags to its disheartening close, and both love and friendship have proved powerless to appreciate or understand, but in the quiet corner consolation can always be found. A single shelf, perhaps, suffices for one’s few treasures, but who shall say it is not enough?
A book, unlike any other friend, will wait, not only upon the hour, but upon the mood. It asks nothing and gives much, when one comes in the right way. The volumes stand in serried ranks at attention, listening eagerly, one may fancy, for the command.
Is your world a small one, made unendurable by a thousand petty cares? Are the heart and soul of you cast down by bitter disappointment? Would you leave it all, if only for an hour, and come back with a new point of view? Then open the covers of a book.
Readers may snicker, but extended asides like this one – which serve no dramatic purpose and tend to jolt – were once the standard stock-in-trade of novelists high and low. Fielding would be stripped bare without it, Trollope and Dickens indulge in it shamelessly, and the Brontes would be lost without it. It only looks tinny or artificial in this case because Reed’s works are forgotten, and forgotten novels always appear vaguely ridiculous (because we assume, hugely erroneously, that there must be a good reason why they’re forgotten – when in Reed’s case, as in so many cases, there are reasons, but none of them are good).
Say what you want about her more lachrymose tendencies, but Myrtle Reed knew what she was doing. Her books were meant to be a refuge from the grit and bustle of the world, and the peaceful summer evenings she crafts are surpassingly gentle and welcoming:
Midsummer moonlight made enchantment in the garden. Merlin himself could have done no more. The house, half hidden in the shadow, stood waiting, as it had done for two centuries, while those who belonged under its roof made holiday outside. .. . The tall pine threw its gloom far beyond them, and the moonlight touched Aunt Peace caressingly. Her silvered hair gleamed with unearthly beauty and he serene eyes gave sweet significance to her name. All she cared for were about her – daughter and friends.
“Nights like this,” said the Doctor, dreamily, “make one think of old fairy tales. Elves and witches are not impossible, when the moon shines like this.”
The reading public was utterly shocked to learn that Myrtle Reed had killed herself (her suicide note – phrased beautifully, of course – was published as news in all the nation’s papers, and editions that carried it sold out repeatedly), but going back and re-reading her novels, it’s perhaps not such a surprise. She had her own passions and her own mangled reasons for her suicide, but quite apart from that, there breathes in her books a sureness, a hope, that the 20th century would soon crush beyond any chance of reclamation. Aunt Peace couldn’t live in such a new century, and Myrtle Reed couldn’t write in it either. Even in The Master’s Violin, that tone of hope is vaguely embattled; it’s on just such a beautiful summer evening that Aunt Peace asks Doctor Brinkerhoff the quintessential question of the 19th century. He gives the quintessential 19th century answer, but the 20th century is lurking in Margaret’s well-meaning rejoinder:
“Do you think, Doctor, that the world grows better, or worse?”
“Better, madam, steadily better. I can see it every day.”
“It is well for one to think so,” observed Margaret, “whatever the facts may be.”
On the whole, I think that crusty old Boston Transcript reviewer was wrong about Myrtle Reed; I bet if he were around today, he’d admit it.