Janice Meredith

December 11, 2009

Usually I do a little bit of research on a book before I write about it — not much beyond googling the title and author to make sure I haven’t missed anything important. So I took a look at Wikipedia this morning, and while I didn’t learn anything about Janice Meredith that I didn’t already know (bestseller in 1900, made into a silent movie), when I looked up Paul Leicester Ford, I discovered to following: he was murdered in 1902 by his brother Malcolm, a famous athlete, who then shot himself. Nothing to do with the book, I guess, but any chance that I was going to forget who Paul Leicester Ford was is now gone.

Not that I really thought I would forget, because Janice Meredith is pretty good. It’s sort of like Under Two Flags, only set during the American Revolution, and about one fifth as ridiculous.

The title character is, when the story opens, fifteen, and the daughter of a Tory landowner. It’s — oh, about 1774, I think, and Mr. Meredith is one of the only people in their part of New Jersey who is loyal to the king. Janice is very pretty and a bit flighty, and her two biggest problems are that her mother won’t let her read novels and that her gawky neighbor, Philemon Hennion, is in love with her.

Basically, everyone falls in love with Janice. She is sweet and innocent — not in the usual, irritatingly perfect way, but in a more realistic irritating teenager kind of way — and doesn’t realize how beautiful she is. Next on her list of suitors is her father’s new indentured servant, Charles Fownes. He is dirty and bad-mannered, but it’s clear that he isn’t the poor laborer he claims he is, especially after he paints a miniature portrait of Janice. He runs away after Mr. Meredith discovers he’s been drilling the militia.

Third is Mr. Evatt, a British spy who attempts to get Janice to elope with him. She’s almost willing to do it, just to avoid marrying Phil Hennion, but they’re discovered, and Evatt leaves.

Time passes, and then the war starts. The three suitors resurface, Phil as an officer in the British army, Evatt as Lord Clowes, the British Commissary who everyone hates, and Charles as Jack Brereton, an aide to General Washington. The Merediths move around a lot, getting caught up in as many important historical events as Ford thinks he can make sound reasonable. But since they have a friend among the British, a friend among the Americans, and a guy who is willing to lend them lots of money in his attempts to convince Mr. Meredith to let him marry Janice, they do okay.

The characters are surprisingly well done. Janice is sort of flighty and annoying at the beginning, but, while she doesn’t lose her love of fun or her mischievousness, she does lose some of her immaturity, learning to shoulder responsibilities and make compromises. Philemon, the country bumpkin, gets some polish in the army and becomes something of a gentleman, both in his manners and his principles. Janice, who hates him at first, grows to like and respect him, even though she never falls in love with him.

Charles/Jack doesn’t develop much as a character, but we do get to see him to better advantage when he becomes Washington’s aide. He’s loyal to the general, but is sometimes frustrated with him, and we also get to see him joking with the soldiers and capably performing his duties, which is always cool. Later, when we start to see him encountering the English officers, things get kind of mysterious — everyone is like, “Oh my god, Charlie! What are you doing here?” And he’s like, “Um, my name is John Brereton. I have no idea what you’re talking about. But hey, it’s really nice to see you Fred,” (or whoever it is) and they’re all like, “whatever, Charlie,” only with a lot more ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s.

Janice and Charles/Jack/Charles eventually clear up all their misunderstandings — she stops thinking he’s in love with a hussy, he stops thinking she’s insulted his mother, etc. Some people die, and it’s a little bit sad, but George Washington is still around, so that’s okay. Washington is a lot of fun in this, and all of the military stuff is pretty well done, which may be because Paul Leicester Ford, as well as having been murdered by his brother, was a Revolutionary War historian. Also there’s a fair bit of implied gore.

In a way, I wish it had been either a little more serious or a lot more ridiculous, but mostly I approve.

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