The Obstacle Race

March 4, 2011

After I finished reading Ethel M. Dell’s The Obstacle Race, I spent a while trying to figure out why I liked The Way of an Eagle so much. Some of it was obviously that I’d come up with an alternative reading that made things I normally find problematic a little less so. But I think amost of it was that it’s actually kind of a well put together book. I mean, Ethel M. Dell wasn’t a great writer or anything, but The Way of an Eagle really works. The subplots shed light on the central conflict between the hero and heroine. Separations between different sets of characters move their storylines forward. Everything moves toward the one climactic scene, and after that we get a brief epilogue to show that things are still going well, and then we’re done. Nothing is superfluous — I mean, except for all the flowery language. Once I realized that, I knew why I couldn’t quite like The Obstacle Race. It’s not the overuse of the word ‘mastery’, or the way that the heroine falls in love with the hero at least partially because he gets kind of scary when he’s mad, or the way Dell kills off the disabled kid brother, although those things were really not good, and sort of disturbing. It’s the way the plot is all over the place, and the characters are inconsistent, and the book drags on and seems like it doesn’t know what it’s driving at — although it’s hard to blame the book for that; I certainly didn’t know, and I suspect Dell didn’t either.

Presumably this is what happens when you’ve written a string of successful book and everyone talks about how passionate and romantic they are. You think up a bunch of random characters, each with a few conflict-creating skeletons in their closets, and let them be all passionate at each other until you run out of skeletons. And I’m sure that worked for Dell, financially. It’s just that there’s something to be said for, you know, figuring out in advance what’s going to happen.

In this case, Dell  has plopped us down in an English seaside village. The local big shot is Mr. Fielding. He was in love with a woman of lower social standing, but now she’s dead and he’s married to Vera. No one likes Vera very much, but that’s okay, because she doesn’t like them either. Dick Green, the local schoolmaster, is the  son of Fielding and his dead lover, but only he and Fielding know that. He has two younger half-brothers, twins. Jack is an asshole. Robin is developmentally disabled and/or brain-damaged, and it’s probably, but nonspecifically, Jack’s fault. Also, Dick is has been anonymously publishing satirical novels, which — well, I can see how that adds some symmetry to the plot, but a) more symmetry really isn’t what’s needed here, and b) at no point does this make sense.

Juliet Moore has come to board with the local blacksmith’s family in order to get away from the frivolity of London, where she acts as a companion to Lady Joanna Farringmore, except that obviously that’s nonsense and Juliet is Joanna Farringmore, as you will soon realize if you have, at any point in your life, read a book. The rest is pretty easy to figure out, too: Juliet and Dick fall in love, although not until Juliet has seen Dick look at Jack as if he’d like to murder him, the power balance between them shifts uncomfortably into Dick’s favor, and Dell tries to convince us that there are many obstacles to their union.

Chief among the obstacles is Robin. Or maybe not. It kind of depends on who you ask. Juliet says that’s she’s very fond of Robin, and that he wouldn’t be a consideration if she was trying to decide whether or not to marry Dick. Everyone else says that there’s no chance Juliet will marry Dick unless Robin is dead or institutionalized. And when I say everyone, I’m including Dell, because she apparently feels that it would be to the couple’s benefit if he were gone, so she has Jack bring him up to speed on local opinion, leading the guilt-stricken Robin to throw himself off a cliff. It was at this point that I decided that I didn’t like Ethel M. Dell very much as a person, especially since Dick and Juliet do get married immediately after his funeral.

After that, it’s like the plot got bored and wandered off. I mean, stuff happens, it’s just that none of it is interesting, with the possible exception of the advent of Juliet’s friend Lord Saltash, who is monkeyish and appealing in the same slightly worrying way as Nick Ratcliffe is in The Way of an Eagle. This bodes well, since I assume he’s the hero of Charles Rex (another of Dell’s books, and Juliet’s nickname for Saltash), which Anshika recommends. Aside from that, it’s just anticlimax after anticlimax until Dell runs out of secrets to reveal.

I’m still willing to like Dell’s books, but I’m growing suspicious of Dell herself–she was obviously deeply lazy, and I’m still a bit upset over The Robin Incident. Next to Lord Saltash, he was the most likable character in the book.



  1. I still don’t get why he was so hung up about Juliet not knowing he was the author of those novels (whose names are, by the way, a little too forcedly-depressing-Modernist)….and getting married after your brother dies, that’s just INDECENT.

    • The book titles were kind of hilarious, weren’t they? But it actually never made sense to me that he would have written them at all, or that he wouldn’t tell her, or that it would be such a big deal for her, or that Juliet would never have noticed his correspondence with his publishers before, or that, having written two previous books, he wouldn’t realize that a stack of books were going to arrive at his house soon.

      And yeah, the Robin thing just seemed mean. Having them get married so quickly afterward was like Dell saying, “Well, Juliet has to like Robin, because she’s supposed to be nice. But that doesn’t mean I actually want her to have to put up with him.” She’s having her cake and eating it too.

  2. I think Dick was just really fascinated with the whole idea of pseud-stark-cynicism-aristocratic-decay etc. And was too embarrassed to admit that he liked it, and so went and wrote tortured depressing novels.

    • That works. I like it. :)

  3. If you ever need a break from melodrama, try this happy funny thing if you haven’t already

    • That looks REALLY fun. I will definitely check it out.

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