I Fasten a BraceletJune 11, 2010
Brace yourselves: this is a long one.
Here is a blurb I found at the end of PG’s text of From the Car Behind:
Why should a young well-bred girl be under a vow of obedience to a man after she had broken her engagement to him? This is the mysterious situation that is presented in this big breezy out-of-doors romance. When Craig Schuyler, after several years’ absence, returns home, and without any apparent reason fastens on Nell Sutphen an iron bracelet. A sequence of thrilling events is started which grip the imagination powerfully, and seems to “get under the skin.” There is a vein of humor throughout, which relieves the story of grimness.
Of course an author has a right to draw a cad or a blackguard, but we demand that he shall recognize such creatures for what they are. When he blends the two and presents the composite as a hero, there must be mutiny on the part of even the most long-suffering of readers. This is just what David Potter does in “I Fasten a Bracelet” (J.B. Lipincott Company, $1.25.) The autobiographical protagonist is introduced, returned to the United States from Sumatra. He takes possession as a master of a certain luxurious home. Its widowed owner and her daughter, especially the daughter, he treats with the utmost contumely and insolent tyranny. He commands the daughter’s slavish obedience, her movements are all to be subject to his orders; dinner parties are to be given at his bequest; the fair and high-bred Ellen is to give an account of her goings out and her comings in; she is to conform to his whims; she is, in short, a scorned and insulted bondswoman, to punish whom he presently locks upon her arm a two-inch band of iron, “more nearly a handcuff than a bracelet,” once the badge of servitude of an African slave. And all this because he was the rejected lover of the lady who afterward, as he mistakenly supposed, forged his name upon a check for a large amount!
Fancy a gentleman, a man, taking such a method of revenge. Yet this is Mr. Potter’s hero, and one whom the much-tortured heroine declares in the end to be “a very noble person.” Where is it that a wife doubts her husband’s love unless he gives her an occasional beating? Of that country must Ellen Sutphen have been a native. The book is fairl readable, but both characters and situations lack reality, and it contains nothing which atones for its blunder in a hero.
And, just for good measure, here’s another from The National Magazine:
On the strength of certain incriminating evidence against Craig Schuyler, his engagement with Ellen Sutphen is broken. He seeks comfort in travel, while his social set take his disappearance as tantamount to a confession of guilt. “I Fasten a Bracelet” opens with his return to his old haunts. During his absence a check payable to Ellen and bearing his signature has been cashed by his bank. Schuyler knows of the Sutphen reverses and in his mind brands Ellen a forger. It happens that her brother has confessed to her his guilt, and that she has the money to make restitution upon Schuyler’s appearance. The fact that he could believe her guilty arouses her pride and indignation, and she remains silent. Schuyler proceeds to dominate her movements, and as a mark of her slavery places on her arm an iron bracelet, the badge of African serfdom. How Schuyler’s innocence of former charges is proven, followed by Ellen’s exoneration, Mr. Potter tells in his up-to-date, vigorous style.
There are other reviews available, but I like these two best, the New York Times one for its indignant tone, and the National Magazine one for the way it casually gives away most of the plot.
I don’t really know what else to say about this book. It’s kind of spectacularly weird. The reviews tell you a lot more than you get in the first few chapters of the book, and I think there are sort of two separate weirdnesses: the weirdness of the plot, and the weirdness of actually reading the book.
The weirdness of the plot is as follows:
Craig Schuyler is engaged to Ellen Sutphen. She breaks it off after she hears that Craig had an affair with and then abandoned a local girl. He goes off exploring in Sumatra, among other places, and returns after four years when he recieves word that a check bearing his (forged) signature has been cashed by Ellen. The check was actually forged by Ellen’s brother Ned, and she knows it, but she’s so upset by Craig’s assumption of her guilt that she…just goes along with it. In spite of the fact that I just wrote that sentence, it makes very little sense to me. Anyway: Craig has decided, because he is Mr. Vindictive, that the best way to get his revenge is to live in the Sutphen house with Nell and her mother and boss them around.
Nell is no longer allowed to eave the house without his permission, but she does, the first morning he’s there, and so he locks an African slave’s bracelet/handcuff onto her wrist, providing us with a title. There’s a bit with a half English, half Cuban cad — yes, that is the word most frequently used to describe him — who is responsible for the rumour that caused Nell to send Craig away. Also he sets a bloodhound on Ellen and Craig. And then Craig’s chauffeur randomly turns out to be a French aristocrat. And of course Nell and Craig get a happy ending, which was always going to happen, even though it was never going to make any sense.
The weirdness of actually reading the book is, well, weirder. More weird. Whatever. The book opens on the morning after Craig’s arrival at Red Cedars, the Sutphen home, and is narrated by Craig himself. All we know, to start, is that he has moved in without warning, and that he expects absolute obedience from everyone in the household, especially Nell.
She’s miserable and defiant at first, but after he puts the bracelet on her (also referred to as “the cuff” and the “badge of servitude”) she sort of seems okay with the situation. And then — there’s a bit in the blurb from the end of From the Car Behind that talks about a vein of humor leavening the potential grimness of the book, but I think what that means is that Craig’s narration is sort of disturbingly upbeat, and he keeps cheerfully telling Nell how much he’s enjoying making her suffer. Not that she seems to be suffering much, but I guess that’s explained by her knowledge of her innocence, or something. Apparently being under an obligation to him is intolerable, but being under his thumb is fine.
When he inevitably asks her to marry him, Craig offers his brutality as proof of his devotion, which is creepy, but what’s creepier still is that, after she’s refused him (telling him she’s not in love with him — remember that, please) and he’s unlocked her bracelet, he’s like, “you know, I’m just going to go back to torturing you; it would be much easier if you married me.” And then they almost drive over a cliff, and Craig tells Nell he doesn’t really believe she forged the check, and Nell tells Craig that she thinks he’s very noble, and locks the bracelet onto her wrist again and throws the key in the ocean. The author makes no attempt to reconcile her telling him she wasn’t in love with him a few minutes before with the fact that even Craig doesn’t think Nell is capable of lying.
The weird thing — another weird thing, in a post in which I’ve already overused the word “weird” — is that Craig is kind of an engaging narrator. I like the way the book is written. It just makes no sense.