Published in 1937
by The MacMillan Company
New York, NY
Although Maud Hart Lovelace is best known for her books for children and young-adults (e.g the Betsy-Tacy series) she also penned a few novels for adults, two of which she collaborated on with her husband, Delos. Gentlemen from England is the second of these two, the other being One Stayed At Welcome, which I read and reviewed for last year's MHLRC.
To Crockett County, Minnesota, in the decade following the Civil War, comes a colony of English gentry to establish great bean farms, at the instigation of a clever promoter who has persuaded them that they can obtain for a pittance vast estates, more beautiful and more profitable than any in England.
The plot centers around Richard Chalmers, third son in an English family, who loves farming and comes to America full of ambition. In Rainbow, he is thrown without preparation into the maelstrom of a new and strange life. How he becomes involved with one woman and falls in love with another; how scandal makes him virtually an outcast in the town; how the land to which he has turned for refuge fails him; how he rescues an enemy from lynching, and how he organizes the Rainbow Riders and comes back into the town's favor make exciting reading." (Summary courtesy of the 1937 edition)
Gentlemen From England is a darker story than most that Maud Hart Lovelace fans have come to love and expect. Still, and in spite of this, Gentlemen From England ranks as a favorite read of mine for the year. Sure, some may call it a "pot boiler" for it has a LOT of drama, but I honestly don't agree with that label. Yes, there is plenty of drama, but it is a well researched and well written novel and it makes for an exciting and compelling read; a book that I just didn't want to put down.
The darker aspect of this novel comes in the form of some pretty tough topics, especially for 1937 when the novel was published. Issues like spousal abuse, extra-marital affairs, alcoholism, gambling, animal abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and social ostracization are the most serious. But the story also deals with the loss and failure typical for frontiersmen and women of that era. It thankfully also includes a good share of achievement, redemption, second chances, and of course love. And what makes this such a enjoyable read is that the good and the bad are handled with a fair amount of delicacy. The reader knows what is going on without having to know every graphic detail. It is enough to know that one character kicks a dog without having to read the details of the time he kills a horse. Or that another character falls in love resulting in an unplanned pregnancy without the love scenes so vividly portrayed in modern novels.
The only other "dark" aspects of this book include the use of mild profanity by certain characters and the influence of astrology by one character. The profanity startled me at first, but I was able to overlook it as it felt in character with those who used it. In other words, typical for the time, place and person. As for the astrology, I admit it was a bit of a hang-up for me since its something I don't believe in. I found it distracted me from appreciating the character, but in the end her personality won me over and I was able to ignore the part I didn't agree with.
Within Gentlemen From England the Lovelaces tell a few love stories, some end tragically, others with hope of a future and still others with definite happiness, but what is interesting is that below the surface of these human relationships there is another love story, one more subtly woven, that of an Englishman and the land.
Overall I took the good with the bad and found in the end that I really really really enjoyed this story. It has everything that a general reader could enjoy -- adventure, drama, tragedy, romance, comedy, history. No, it's not a "pot boiler". I think it's an excellent book and worthy of being read by Maud Hart Lovelace fans.
The good news it isn't really out of print. I mean it is, but it isn't. In 1993 the Minnesota Historical Society reprinted Gentlemen From England and copies are still available through their website. This edition includes an introduction by Sarah P. Rubinstein that details the extent of research the Lovelaces conducted in order to write the novel. Although I've yet to read the introduction (my copy of the book is still on its way to me), I think it will only add to the enjoyment of this book.
The copy I read was a first edition borrowed through ILL. I checked online and copies like the one I borrowed are valued over $100 a piece. (Yikes!) Oh how I'd love to own one of these, but just cannot afford one at that price.
For those interested, but not quite committed you can read sections of the book on Google, but be warned this is not the novel in its entirety. Several pages and chapters are missing, including the whole last quarter. But if you ask me just go and get a copy to read. If your library doesn't own a copy, check Inter Library Loan. Even if you have to pay to borrow (as some ILL programs require) it is usually only a couple of dollars. If you are a committed MHL fan like I am you might consider springing and paying the $9-13 plus shipping for your own copy. If you choose the latter I think you'll be pleased.