What would your ideal early 20th century novel be like?

April 7, 2014

I’m in a mood where I want to read something like The Blue Castle or Gertrude Haviland’s Divorce or A Woman Named Smith, but with less nature imagery and more domesticity and no mummies. Something with a spinster defying her horrible family somehow, and making friends with a cranky guy with a secret insane wife. I would like them to get along really well as friends before they fall in love, and for there to be a happy ending without the secret insane wife having to die. Actually, I’d like for the heroine to make friends with the secret insane wife.

Or, wait. This would be super cool: The heroine is the secret insane wife, but she’s not all that insane, and she runs off and takes a job somewhere and slowly learns to be awesome at it. That is the book I would like to read. If there could also be a lot of detail about exactly how much money she’s making, and what she does with it, as well as a lot of descriptions of really excellent clothing, that would be great. Wherever the heroine lands there would be a lot of museum-quality furniture and a library for me to be jealous of, and sympathetic people for her to make friends with, and eventually her awful family and/or husband would have their noses rubbed in her excellent new life. There doesn’t even have to be romance, although it would be a plus.

If you could concoct an late 19th or early 20th century novel to suit your tastes, what would it be about? And does anyone have a spinster-remaking-herself story to recommend?


  1. Excellent start of a plot—it’s up to you to write it. WRITE
    what you would love to read . . .start tonight. Good luck!

    • No, I’m not an aspiring novelist by any means :) I hope to write a book some day, but it will be non-fiction.

  2. Maybe it’s time YOU wrote a book, with all these elements! I think you’d do a great job.

    Meanwhile, I just finished reading E. Nesbit’s The Lark, her last novel (1922). It’s about two young women thrown upon their own resources to make a living. It is available through Amazon in a book titled “Delphi Complete Novels of E. Nesbit” and it’s only $2.51 for the ebook version. I would love to read your review of it.

    • I’m really not a fiction writer. I try, occasionally, but I’m much happier with non-fiction. The Lark sounds cool, and if I hadn’t apparently left my kindle at home today, I’d download it now. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Now that’s a book I want to read! But as it doesn’t exist – I don’t think – I’d like to recommend Up the Hill and Over by Isabel Ecclestone Mackay. The elements don’t quite match, but something in your description makes me think you’ll like it. Published in 1917, you’ll find it gratis at the Internet Archive.

    • Looks like it’s on Gutenberg, too. I’ll check it out. Thanks!

  4. If you want to read it, you should write it. :)

    I think my ideal early 20th century novel involves a spy, a mystery, a grumpy old lady, cocktails, romance, and a woman who wants to be a journalist.

    • I feel like your ideal early 20th century novel definitely ought to have been written by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

      People keep saying I should just write it, but I really don’t do that kind of writing. If I ever write fiction, it’s fanfic of no more than 4000 or so words.

  5. Grace Livingston Hill’s “Emancipation of Aunt Crete” and “Cloudy Jewel” are pretty close-ish. Actually, a lot of her books (and her aunt’s, Isabella Alden, focus on characters remaking themselves– but they also tend to end up with marriage, and are centered around finding Jesus.

    • I’ve actually only read one of her books, and it wasn’t a super religious one, but I have a copy of Cloudy Jewel somewhere and I’ve been meaning to read it for a while.

      • I’m currently re-reading Alden’s A Daily Rate, where the heroine & her aunt re-make a gross boarding house. Very strong focus in her books on living situations. Not surprising, given the time period.

        • That sounds right up my alley, but I don’t see it online. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

          • A Daily Rate is by Grace Livingston Hill and you can find it for 99 cents at Amazon. It’s one of my favorites!

            • Cool, I will download it.

          • Something to note about both women’s books– some of them feel reallllly rushed (Alden actually calls herself out sometimes) towards the end. “Wise and Otherwise” glosses over one of the best sub-plots ever, where our primary heroine (and there are a few) goes “undercover” as a cook in a small household. (It and the prequel, “The King’s Daughter” are both online. “King’s Daughter” focuses on a young woman who voluntarily leaves her wealthy aunt & uncle’s home to move back in with her dad… who runs a saloon. Dell, our heroine, is kind of awesome.)

            Why? Because she wants to find out why the hell going to work as a secretary / factory girl / shopgirl is considered okay for someone of her social standing, but going into service is considered to be beneath her. (If she’d read Lethbridge’s “Servants”, she’d’ve loved it, I think.)

            And she finds out why, too, but we only get one or two scenes, when it really would have made a book by itself and I’ll stop rambling now.

            • Thanks for the info, Nell. This is like having a whole new set of GLH books!

              • Hope you enjoy them! (I’m biased, but I do feel like Alden is the better writer– when she puts effort into it.)

            • Those sound really interesting, and I absolutely hear you on the wanting to stretch out the heroine-gets-a-job bits. Have you read anything by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey? Are their books rushed like hers are?

              • I reallly need to read dHV– she’s on my list. And some of Hill & Alden’s books start out pretty slow, then sort of squash things together in the last 3-5 chapters. Interestingly, the they-got-married parts often get the least space!

                • If you’re looking for a Mrs. GdHV book to start with, Lady of the Basement Flat is probably a good one.

                  I’ve now got one and a half of Hill’s books under my belt, so it’s probably too early to judge, but do you think the problem might be that she doesn’t know how to make things happen gradually?

  6. I think what I need to do, is do a little actual reading on the writers! Sometimes, their books feel like serials– as if their editors finally said, “Okay, you need to wrap this up in the next month” or something.

    • Is this Isabella Alden the same one who wrote as Pansy?

      • Yeah, Pansy was her pen name (again, not sure why). Reading up on this stuff really should be my next major priority.

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