Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bad Novels: The Complete Works of Ethel M Dell

On Tuesday we had a look at the second-worst book I have ever read—the seminal romance novel The Sheik. Today is devoted to the works of Ethel M Dell, a romance novelist from about the same time.

One of the side-effects of trying to find new and enjoyable authors is that you often find instead authors who are just awful. I'm not sure I would be harsh enough to classify Ethel M Dell as “just awful”--perhaps a notch above that—after all, she was never guilty of something like The Sheik, although I hold her and her ilk entirely responsible for turning the heads of a generation and providing the atmosphere in which The Sheik could take hold.

I still remember how I came across Ethel M Dell's name. I had been seized by the impulse to get on Wikipedia and look up the name of Rosie M Banks. Those of you who have read PG Wodehouse know who I am talking about, of course. She's the fictional romantic novelist who later becomes Mrs Bingo Little, famous for such works as All for Love; A Red, Red Summer Rose; Madcap Myrtle; Only a Factory Girl; The Courtship of Lord Strathmorlick; Mervyn Keene, Clubman; 'Twas Once in May; By Honour Bound; and A Kiss at Twilight.

Wodehouse often took a moment to make fun of popular romantic melodrama. In fact, you could reasonably argue that his entire genre was a parody of it—how else do account for the old “push the girl's rich uncle into the lake so that you can rescue him and receive his grateful blessing on your marriage” trick which he mentions at the rate of once per book? And so I thought that Wodehouse might have had access to a stack of nice Edwardian melodramas one or two of which might be worth reading, and so I went to Wikipedia, which immediately informed me--
Suggested real-life models for this character include prolific early twentieth-century female romance novelists such as Ethel M. Dell and Ruby M. Ayres.
Stabs at Ethel M Dell are not unusual in Wodehouse's books. In Meet Mr Mulliner, we hear the horrifying tale of James Mulliner, a writer of hard-boiled detective novels, who moves to a house called “Honeysuckle Cottage”. Honeysuckle Cottage is haunted—by a strange compulsion that makes writers turn to sap:
He shoved in a fresh sheet of paper, chewed his pipe thoughtfully for a moment, then wrote rapidly:
“For an instant Lester Gage thought that he must have been mistaken. Then the noise came again, faint but unmistakable.
His mouth set in a grim line. Silently, like a panther, he made one quick step to the desk, noiselessly opened a drawer, drew out his automatic. After that affair of the poisoned needle, he was taking no chances. Still in dead silence, he tiptoed to the door; then, flinging it suddenly open, he stood there, his weapon poised.
On the mat stood the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld. A veritable child of Faërie. She eyed him for a moment with a saucy smile; then with a pretty, roguish look of reproof shook a dainty forefinger at him. ‘I believe you've forgotten me, Mr. Gage!’ she fluted with a mock severity which her eyes belied.”
James stared at the paper dumbly.
The story is a brilliant satire on the vintage romance novel—I highly recommend it. Another of my favourite Wodehouse passages even refers to Dell by name (from the short story, “The Purification of Rodney Spelvin”):
The studio was one of thos dim, over-ornamented rooms which appeal to men like Rodney Spelvin. Heavy curtains hung in front of the windows. One corner was cut off by a high-backed Chesterfield. At the far end was an alcove, curtained like the windows. Once Jane had admired this studio, but now it made her shiver. It seemed to her one of those nests in which, as the sub-title of Tried in the Furnace had said, only eggs of evil are hatched. She paced the thick carpet restlessly, and suddenly there came to her the sound of footsteps on the stairs.
Jane stopped, every muscle tense. The moment had arrived. She faced the door, tight-lipped. It comforted her a little in this crisis to reflect that Rodney was not one of those massive Ethel M. Dell libertines who might make things unpleasant for an intruder. He was only a welter-weight egg of evil; and, if he tried to start anything, a girl of her physique would have little or no difficulty in knocking the stuffing out of him.
So to cut a short story long, that is how I found myself on Project Gutenberg goggling at such glutinous and sensational works as Rosa Mundi and Other Stories and The Way of an Eagle.

I often wonder, as I wander through the pages of, say, a Rafael Sabatini novel, whether it is really too melodramatic and escapist to be good for me. I limit my consumption of such books accordingly—they are the fairy floss of literature. But I draw the line at Ethel M Dell.

Her stories are always romantic and drippily sentimental. They revolve around a young woman who comes in two flavours, Perky and Painfully Shy. The hero also comes in two flavours: Happy-Go-Lucky and Brooding. Sometimes both flavours will be present at once, and either the Brooding Hero will save the heroine from the licentious intentions of a Happy-Go-Lucky villain, or will chivalrously surrender his claim to the heroine to the Happy-Go-Lucky hero because he loves her so much, and will then go off to the desert to shoot big game and try to forget.

I have a number of problems with Ethel M Dell, but there's one thing I should say first. Though a writer of romances, she never descended to the same depths as did EM Hull. Her books are technically speaking perfectly clean, and although she loved overbearing heroes none of them are as bad as the eponymous Sheik.

So her stories aren't immoral per se. What they are is very, very bad for the imagination. To begin with, she uses stock characters. While they are capably drawn, they never vary beyond the basic shape of her mould. After three or four stories, one begins to see the same characters playing out slightly different situations again and again. The characters exist for just one purpose: to create romantic thrills.

Second, her stories revolve around romance. It's there from the first sentence to the last and is obviously the only topic she's interested in, although she'll try others if the story is sappy enough. Her aim was probably to make her public cry over every single story and she followed this aim religiously. Everything she wrote was aimed solely at instant, shallow emotional gratification for the reader.

Third, Ethel M Dell's stories usually don't depict healthy romantic relationships: they are characterised by passion and fear and don't have any apparent foundation. What made these characters fall in love? What shared views, visions, or faith do they have? Who knows? Just accept that they are, and enjoy the ride.

As you probably learned in writing classes, the basic components of a good story are characters, plot, and theme. Each of these things has a theological weight behind them. We should be interested in characters because we are created in the image of a relational, triune God. To despise well-drawn, complex characters is to long to surround ourselves with imaginary people who only ever do what makes us feel good. Focusing on realistic characters and studying the characters of real people is a form of rejoicing in Creation; failing to do so is selfish and myopic. To despise good plot and story structure is also unwise. God is the Author of the Ultimate Story, His Story, and He has hard-coded into the human race a delight in His story structure. Tolkien called this mythopoeia and explained how most stories are an echo of the Fall-and-Redemption pattern of history. Finally, theme is important because it is the lesson your story teaches, the viewpoint it espouses. Stories should have some purpose, some reason to exist; if it has no lesson or viewpoint, or if it exists only to tickle idle fancies, then it is a very bad story.

Dell's stories—unlike many romantic novels, from Jane Eyre to These Happy Golden Years—fail on at least two of the three requirements of characters, plot, and theme. Reading too many of her stories will warp your imagination. They'll shorten your attention-span, get you hooked on cheap emotional thrills, give you a twisted idea of love, and fail to edify on almost every level.


Anonymous said...

What, no Barbara Pym?

Anonymous said...

Never heard of the woman so I don't know if you're being unfairly harsh. In the book I'm currently reading, John Simpson's 'Strange Places, Questionable People', he describes meeting Col. Gadaffi: ''You should eat,' he [Gadaffi] said, and everything became even more Ethel M. Dell than ever' (Simpson, 1998).
Now I know!

Eugenie said...

Perhaps this is why I am the way I am? One of her books was in an apple box of books which our grandfather bid on at an auction. I read them all, I was very young. Her book, I almost fear to name it, was my favourite of all. It may have affected the way my life has turned out. I am going to give this some serious thought this evening. More later.

Morgan said...

I found one of her books at a nursing home fete when I was 14. I loved it dearly and still do. The rocks of valpre. I'm sure I'd find it difficult to read now but in my teen it was a wonderful escape.

Dhilma said...

I too loved Ethel M. Dell's The way of an eagle when i was a school kid. Have remembered it since and have felt sad I couldnt find any more of her beautiful novels. Just goes to show that taste is so varied in people 😊


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