Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, August 26, 2011

Man and Maid: A Taste of 1920s Romance and Literature

Normally, on Friday’s I review something a bit more modern than Man and Maid by Elinor Glyn, but I just finished the book and it’s worthy of comment.

I came across the book while combing Amazon and the internet for books set in the 1920s or written by authors of that time. I’m researching to write a historical romance set in the period and have been collecting resources to understand its zeitgeist and lingo. I settled on Man and Maid first, largely because it was free.

When I opened it on my Kindle, I was expecting a heavy dose of F. Scott Fitzgerald in female form. Perhaps I should be ashamed to say it as I have my degree in English, but I found reading The Great Gatsby agonizing. And while I found James Joyce’s play with language interesting, I had to force myself to read him with my only motivation being a desire to make a good grade. In short, I hadn’t read anything from the period that I would touch again without the prospect of a compelling outside reward.

Thus, I began Man and Maid. My apprehension further increased when I realized that it was told in first person and, worse, with a heavy dose of stream of consciousness. I’m sorry to all my former English professors, but I find stream of consciousness tedious and mind numbing.

But Man and Maid was supposed to be a romance and I needed to start somewhere.

As I progressed through the book, I realized that there was something about the main character, Sir Nicholas, that drew me. Certainly, he had a few disagreeable habits: a mistress, the tendency to dine with some rather frivolous women he called “fluffies,” and a penchant for the melancholy. Yet, despite his war wounds, he did not sink into uselessness or too much self-pity.

I found myself, as always, trying to figure out who the love interest was. Since the story is actually Nicholas’s journal, I didn’t have the benefit of the heroine’s POV, which I’m used to in modern romances. But there was something fun about experiencing Nicholas’s journey with him alone and feeling all the keener his nerves, his loneliness, his agony, and his struggle with his secretary and later reluctant wife, Ms. Alathea Sharp. While her POV could have been interesting, it would have destroyed the tensions Glyn set up.

Yet as much as I liked Nicholas, sympathized with him greatly, and rejoiced when he finally got Alathea to confess her love, the book had a few flaws. Hilarious as it was reading a novel, by a woman, partially about how a man manipulates a lady into marrying and then confessing love for him, Nicholas was a bit to deft at it for complete believability. Granted, Nicholas was an intelligent, observant, thoughtful man, but at a few points Glyn seemed to also push him to the point of genius regarding the female psyche.

Additionally, the ending came a bit too swiftly and was a bit too easily resolved for all the effort Glyn put into making the journey emotional and difficult. But to be honest, this is a flaw in a number of romance novels even in our time.

In general, Elinor Glyn masterfully told the first book of the period that I’ve read that I can honestly say I enjoyed. She was creative in her style using Nicholas’s journals to tell the story, and not once did she break POV. While she incorporated a substantial amount of thought and reflection upon Nicholas’s part, she paired it beautifully with compelling dialogue and significant description, all relayed believably as if from Nicholas’s own mind.

If you ever want to try a book from the period that’s has a bit more morality than Fitzgerald and a bit more understandability than Joyce, Elinor Glyn is a good start.

What books do you enjoy from this period? (Please, don’t let me distaste for Fitzgerald and Joyce dissuade you from mentioning them. From a literary standpoint they have their own intriguing potentials, and everyone has different preferences.) What do you think of romances told from first person?

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