Thursday, October 27, 2022

Cloth of Gold by Elswyth Thane for the #1929Club

Title: Riders of the Wind (1926) and Cloth of Gold (1929)
Author: Elswyth Thane
Genre: Fiction
Setting: 20th century
Description: Alexandra, the heroine of Riders of the Wind, married an older, distant cousin, Clement Marley, an authority on Asian art, when she was mourning the loss of her father and too young to know better. Her father was a world-famous explorer who died tragically in Africa when she was a teenager, and she has inherited his restless spirit and feels confined in London with her condescending husband who insists his meals be on time and disapproves of her walks in the fog. Alexandra hero-worships Blaise Dorin, a man like her father, who has traveled extensively in the Far East. When Starke, a millionaire from New Orleans, hires Dorin to go to the wildest hill regions of Central Asia to acquire a legendary jeweled fabric of “woven gold encrusted with unbelievable yellow topazes” that allegedly belonged to the goddess Shir Shan with “sun-colored hair and eyes like the heavens at midnight,” she listens eagerly to the planning. As her life at home becomes unbearable, she joins Dorin on his arduous expedition. Amazingly, the cloth of gold does exist and is owned by a monastery in Uzbekistan but Alexandra – now nicknamed Sandy – and Dorin are held captive there by the locals until he persuades a priest to let them escape with the treasure. Dorin is shot by bandits or religious zealots as they flee and, close to death, he realizes their blithe comradeship has turned to love. Although they lose the golden robe during the chase, they survive due to Alexandra’s indomitable determination to keep Dorin alive.

It turns out that Cloth of Gold does not make much sense without the first book, Riders of the Wind, which ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger, so I had to read both. In Cloth of Gold, Alexandra, now conveniently divorced by her husband, and Dorin have returned to Britain, but his injuries are so extensive he will never ride a horse again and cannot walk without a cane. Starke, annoyed the expedition was unsuccessful, is in Calcutta, dangerously offering rewards to anyone who can find the golden robe. Dorin’s dual sense of failure from having lost the robe and come back in what he considers a permanently impaired condition makes him determined to return with Alexandra to the hills north of the Indian frontier to complete the assignment. Their friend Bob Taunton thinks there is a curse on the robe, and he has a point. Belatedly, they remember the tale of the King’s Ankus from Kipling, a jeweled weapon that destroyed the men who claimed it and took it away from where it belonged. Starke has changed from an avid collector to a “terrible man with an obsession,” who incidentally also loves Alexandra. 

Somewhat reluctantly, Alexandra agrees to lead a small expedition retracing her steps to where she lost the golden robe just months before, although Dorin, disabled, will have to wait behind at Peshawur. Amazingly, she finds the robe without much difficulty, but the ensuing pursuit by two separate groups of bandits proves fatal to several of her companions. When Alexandra and her group do not return from the hills on schedule, Dorin is kept busy in India by Starke’s dangerous plotting and the appearance of the high priest who helped them escape in the first book. The golden robe is returned to the priest, rather than to Starke, and Alexandra just barely survives. Having proven, at least to themselves, that they did not leave a job undone, Alexandra and Dorin are married and settle in a small cottage in Cornwall.  It is hard to imagine this will satisfy either.
My Impression: Elswyth Thane has been one of my favorite authors since my mother introduced me to her when I was about 13. She is best known for her bestselling Williamsburg novels, seven books that follow the Day and Sprague families from the Revolutionary War to World War II. Notably, Thane reinvented herself when she left Iowa as a young woman for New York, choosing a more glamorous name than Helen Ricker, then marrying 50-year-old naturalist and explorer William Beebe, nearly twice her age (unfortunately, he sounds like a charming jerk but that is a story for another day). Riders of the Wind was her first book, dedicated to Beebe, the Jacques Cousteau of his day. As in From This Day Forward, Thane shows she understands what makes these obsessive explorer types tick:
The robe was bought and paid for. For it, he had risked Sandy’s life and his own. Not because it was gold, crusted with unbelievable yellow topazes. Not because a madman had offered him a foolish sum to fetch the thing across the Border into India. Not even because it was beautiful, and old. But simply because it was hard to get. (Cloth, 20).
These are two of Thane’s first books and sometimes read like Ethel M. Dell.  However, while the plot is improbable, the characters are memorable: the self-deprecating but obsessive explorer, too focused to realize he has fallen in love until it is nearly too late; his trusted friend Bob who tries not to be jealous of Alexandra; the wistful young woman and her domineering mother-in-law. Thane captures Alexandra’s unhappy marriage and restlessness, her desperate yearning for the same adventures that led her father to her death. Her husband is baffled but she is supremely happy after she runs away to join Dorin’s expedition. Even as she and Dorin believe they are facing death together, they rejoice at their adventure. But as Dorin starts to slip away and urges her to save herself, Alexandra refuses to give up:
The Hills shan’t have you! I’ve kept you alive, I’ve dragged you inch by inch to all the comfort I could make for you. I’ve killed for you, and thanked God I knew how to get home with a knife! I won’t give in, I am not beaten. I dare all the demons of India! I’m damned if they can have you now. [Riders, 263].
The story does include some racist language and attitudes of the time, primarily condescension about the indigenous people. Starke assumes he have the right to acquire precious items (of sacred and monetary value) although Dorin comes to believe these items should not be removed from their country of origin (it isn’t clear to me if this is because he is superstitious or understands it is morally wrong). Dorin at least loves the Far East and its people – at least, those not trying to kill him or Alexandra – but Starke is merely greedy. Dorin saves his life although he does not deserve it, after causing extensive suffering and death.
I am a completist so I wanted to own all of Thane’s books and while these two are not her best, there are many turns of phrase and stylistic elements that are pleasingly recognizable to one who knows her work as well as I do.  However, to those curious about her work, I would instead recommend Dawn’s Early Light, the first Williamsburg novel.  By the time it was published in 1943, she had become a bestselling and very self-assured writer, still remembered for her unforgettable characters and impeccable research.

I read this for the 1929 Club hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Source: Personal copies


  1. That's an unusual one that I don't think anyone else will have read - well done!

  2. What an interesting find for 1929 - an author and book I've never heard of, so thank you for this!

  3. I haven't read anything by Elswyth Thane, but she's been recommended to me a few times. If I decide to try one of her books, I'll take your advice and start with Dawn's Early Light!

  4. I know Thane was published in the UK and was clearly an Anglophile but she was better known at home. When I was collecting the series, I had to be wary of book club editions that might have been abridged although I have never had the time to do the analysis. Helen, I might have to send you a Thane for a rainy day.