Monday, April 13, 2020

The Top of the World by Ethel M. Dell - #1920Club

Title: The Top of the World
Author:  Ethel M. Dell
Publication: Putnam, hardcover, 1920
Genre: Fiction/Romance
Author:  This seemed like a good choice for the #1920 Club, especially at a time when my library is closed (sorrow). Dell (1881 – 1939) was a bestselling British romance writer, who wrote more than 30 novels and several short stories from 1911 to 1939, thus was an important contributor to this genre.  I first came across her in the Harvard library when I was ostensibly studying 16th-century History and Literature but easily distracted by the unexpected fiction I found in the stacks.  I read at least one book by Dell and all the Elinor Glyn I found, as I had once enjoyed a book by her granddaughter called Don’t Knock the Corners Off

Plot: Lovely Sylvia Ingleton fell for Guy Ranger when she was just 18.   Her father disapproved of her romantic entanglement with the son of his bailiff although Guy had been to a public school and was a personable young man of 25.   Instead, he is packed off to South Africa to make his fortune and the Squire finds his unfortunate father “another billet.” No job security at the Manor if your son doesn’t know his place!  Sylvia stubbornly considers herself engaged and writes faithfully to Guy for years.   When she is 23, her father remarries unexpectedly and Sylvia’s unpleasant new stepmother makes her life a living hell.  When Sylvia learns the woman has been suppressing her letters from Guy, she decides she must go to South Africa herself to start a new life with him, regardless of possible hardships.  She isn’t a complete idiot – she sends a telegram first and gets a response before she sets out.   There is no one to meet her at Cape Town but when she reaches Ritzen, it is Guy’s cousin, Burke, who is waiting for her and warns her that Guy is not a man worth crossing the world for and she is forced to adjust her plans:
"Have you never heard of me before?" she asked. "Did—Guy—never
speak of me?"
"I knew there was someone." Burke spoke rather unwillingly. "I don't think he ever actually spoke of you to me. We're not exactly—kindred spirits, he and I."
"You don't like him," said Sylvia.
"Nor he me," said Burke Ranger.
She looked at him with her candid eyes. "I don't think you are very tolerant of weakness, are you?" she said gently.
"I don't know," he said non-committally. 
The Good: An entertaining story despite its predictability and lack of dimensional characters. Sylvia is not only beautiful but fearless and resolutely positive.  On the other hand, if only she had spent the five years apart from Guy acquiring some marketable skills!  She could have learned to type like the housemaid in Downton Abbey.   What’s a Squire’s daughter to do when an evil stepmother makes your life a misery and you can’t get a job and move out?  Heading to Africa seems a little extreme and the Manor’s old gardener (seemingly the only person who has her interests at heart) warns her:
"Do you ever ask yourself what sort of man he may be after five years? I'll warrant he's lived every minute of it. He's the sort that would." 
Sylvia shrugs off his words but he was right - Guy has gone to the bad (as Dell would be the first to tell you) although he could have been an equal partner with Burke on his farm, had he lived up to his potential.  But it turns out Guy has no work ethic, drinks too much, uses drugs, and consorts with native women.  Sylvia does not learn all of this at once because Burke tries to shelter her from some of the truth.   Guy cabled her to come in a weak moment but then flees rather than face her, and Burke proposes to her, partly out of responsibility and partly because he admires her pluck and has fallen in love.  Sylvia has no options (it is unclear how she even got the funds to make this trip: maybe she borrowed against the modest inheritance she is due to get in two years) and marries the stranger she instinctively knows she can trust, gallantly asking him to be a comrade rather than a lover.   This is not what Burke wants, but he waits more or less patiently, despite being pulled into an inevitable love triangle in which he worships Sylvia's purity, tries to trust her and give her time to recognize her feelings for him.

Ironically, when Sylvia recognizes she is stranded and that “only her own efforts could avail her now,” the solution is to become Burke’s dependent/wife.  At least she never complains about her bleak new life, isolated 20 miles from the closest town (the only thing she ever asks for is yarn to knit Burke socks!) with a man who does not have Guy’s polished upbringing.  She is a skilled horsewoman and adapts surprisingly well to her new surroundings although remains delicate and faints a lot like a dutiful Edwardian heroine. There are no books at Blue Hill Farm!  Maybe she could have ordered some from Cape Town! Books would have been better than yarn and by 1920 Burke could surely have bought machine made socks, although perhaps Sylvia had honed her knitting skills during WWI like these energetic Canadians and wants to demonstrate she possesses some domestic abilities.  There is ultimately a resolution which provides enough angst for Dell’s readership and a happy ending.

The Bad and the Ugly: Dell was likely a woman of her time with regard to her views of Britain’s colonies and their indigenous people, which results in aspects of the book that make it very unpleasant. Guy uses the N word about the black Africans and warns Sylvia they are lazy and ugly.  They are described as Kaffirs, which defines as Disparaging and Offensive. (in South Africa) a contemptuous term used to refer to a black person: originally used of the Xhosa people only. He whips them without compunction and acts as if Sylvia is soft when she seems appalled.
She laughingly commented upon this one day to Burke, and he amazed her by pointing to the riding-whip she chanced to be holding at the time. "You'll find that's the only medicine for that kind of thing," hesaid. "Give 'em a taste of that and they'll respect you!" She decided he must be joking, but only a few days later he quite undeceived her on that point by dragging Joe, the house boy, into the yard and chastising him with a sjambok for some neglected duty. 
Later pure, kind Sylvia loses her temper and hits the female servant on her naked shoulders with her riding-switch.   She is instantly ashamed of her action but is angry at the woman for causing it, not so much herself for taking advantage of someone less powerless.  She certainly doesn’t apologize, which perhaps an Elinor Glyn heroine would do as they have more of a noblesse oblige mindset.  A modern reader has to skip over these parts because they are so revolting.
This Dell cover for this book is in better shape, plus a dog!
Source: Project Gutenberg


kaggsysbookishramblings said...

Yikes! An interesting one to take on - at least it was Dell and not Hull! It sounds entertaining, although those aspects you highlight are deplorable, and that kind of thing does make books of the time hard to read. Thanks for bringing it to the table for 1920! :D

Simon T (StuckinaBook) said...

As I said on Twitter, so pleased that someone is covering Dell because SO many people read her in the period. Glad it was covered, but won't be racing to this one... might try one that isn't set abroad, perhaps.