Month: March 2010

"Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily"

Is this thing still on? Apologies to anyone still checking this channel and only finding a desultory string of Globe review links. As might be obvious, the book has now completely colonized my time and headspace (my physical space, too—from where I’m sitting, I can see nine research books. And this is in the kitchen.)

The latest chapter was, in part, a hefty digression from Beethoven’s Fifth into general anti-German sentiment during World War I, when everybody in America seems to have lost their minds on the subject of the abominable Hun. The book’s focus is Karl Muck, the Boston Symphony composer who was arrested and deported under circumstances that would be hilarious if they hadn’t actually happened. Another performer who got swept up in the hysteria was the violinist Fritz Kreisler. To be fair, Kreisler did time in the Austrian army, and made no secret of his financial support of Austrian war relief; but when an assortment of wealthy wives in Pittsburgh forced the cancellation of a scheduled Kreisler recital in Pittsburgh, there began to be the sense that things were getting a little out of hand. From the November 15, 1917 issue of Life magazine:

By all means let him fiddle…. It does no harm, but quite the contrary. If it is true, as was reported, that he lost a lot of money going short on Bethlehem Steel at the wrong time two years ago, and is now trying to pay it back, it cannot be true as the Pittsburg ladies supposed, that he is shipping vast sums of concert money home to Austria.

Keep in mind that Life had pushed as hard as anyone for an American entry into the war. And I like the implication that Fritz Kreisler was a pioneering victim of globalization.

The other aspect of this chapter that’s been chewing up a lot of time is that Oscar Wilde was right: seemingly every single novel written during the Victorian era was, in fact, three volumes long. I must have plowed through a couple dozen of these, at least. Some are surprisingly good—I’m now something of a fan of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, for example. But it’s remarkable how many of these novels were enormously popular in their day and are now completely—and I mean completely—forgotten. I would guess that not many people outside of English departments have made it through Augusta Evans’s 1866 St. Elmo, for instance, in the past century—but it was an enormous hit. Towns were named after it, for gosh sakes. St. Elmo is not my favorite nineteenth-century three-volume novel, but it did earn some sympathy from me on the strength of a catty review in The New York Times, September 23, 1899. “We can hardly understand a generation that took these books seriously,” the reviewer wonders:

Miss Evans’s novels combine impossible characters with the most naïvely preposterous pedantries. One thinks of her as a literary Van Amburgh, who

Goes into the lion’s cage
And tells you all she knows.

Hey, wait a minute, that’s pretty much my entire m.o.!