|[ Previous ] [ Next ]|
[published by New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1930]
I've owned some of Robert Chambers' books for years, but only his classic works of pulp horror such as The King in Yellow. It turns out that he was also a prolific author of historical adventure novels. Few, if any, of them are still in print, which is a shame if The Painted Minx is a typical example. Full of the charm and naivete which characterizes pulp fiction of the early 20th century, it is utter fluff -- but on that level, it's thoroughly enjoyable. I don't know if it was originally marketed as young-adult fiction, but to a reader from our far more cynical age, that's the impression it leaves.
The Painted Minx is the story of Marie Guest, a young actress with Howe's Thespians1. Marie is a happy, flighty 18 year old, nominally a Loyalist but with no real interest in politics. The story is narrated in first-person, and follows her life from her first appearance on stage to the evacuation of New York at the end of the war. Sometime in 1777, she encounters a young rebel prisoner named Barry who has escaped after being brought into New York, and rather than turn him over to Provost Cunningham's less-than-tender mercy, she helps him make his way out of the city.
From that point onward, they carry on a furtive relationship across the lines of the war, but it is surprisingly peripheral. Having committed himself to telling a love story, I think Chambers then panicked and worked to keep it off screen as much as he could. Our lovebirds share brief, random encounters here and there in a disjointed fashion, whenever fate sweeps them together. Fate displays a habit of sweeping them together in some pretty far-fetched and unlikely ways, and Barry's relatives drop out of the rafters like a flock of hovering dei ex machina. (Even that can be pretty entertaining, but for the wrong reasons.) But the core of the book is Marie's life on the stage and as part of the artificially brilliant society of New York under siege.
Virtually all of Chambers' cast are drawn from history, and he exhibits extensive, but dated, knowledge of wartime New York and the John St. Theater. Marie's close friend, John André, gets far more air time than Barry, and it's a delightful if excessively romanticized portrayal of him. But then, this is such a light-hearted book that pretty much everyone who appears in it, on either side of the fence, is shown in rosy colors. Even Tarleton gets off far better than usual. Chambers likes him, and in his introduction goes so far as to call him "that great but suppressed British genius of the Revolution." (Okay, even I think that's over the top...) While Ban does have one moment of villainy, most of his air time is as a lively, wild, intense young man who is entirely fun, albeit extremely silly. In my introduction to these reviews, I wondered how every author could miss that side of his character -- at last I've found one who didn't.
The strong points are the old-fashioned charm of the writing style (which some readers will consider its greatest weakness) and the offhanded way Chambers contrasts Marie's bright, shallow happiness with the war beyond the city. Marie is almost completely isolated from it, except when one of the delightful young men in her circle goes away and never comes back, or comes back in pieces. A couple of times she goes out into the hinterlands with various companions, and the partisan war rolls over them in nasty ways, but even that never truly leaves a mark on her. She remains a butterfly to the end, while the reader is given the opportunity to absorb far more of the situation than she does. I doubt this was a conscious intention on Chambers' part -- more likely it was simply a byproduct of a 1920s male author trying to view the world through the eyes of a teenaged female -- but I found it oddly effective.
This is a book to avoid if you can't tolerate period pulp fiction on its own terms, but I recommend it highly to anyone who likes that sort of thing.
|[ Index ]||[ Previous ] [ Next ]|
1 Whenever the British were garrisoned in a city over the winter, they tended to organize an amateur theatrical troupe. The first wartime incarnation, in Boston, picked up the nicknames of "Howe's Thespians" or "Howe's Strolling Players" in honor of Sir William Howe, and it stuck. The male members of the troupe were typically officers in the army or navy. The female roles occasionally went to cross-dressed teenaged subalterns, but more commonly were played by professional actresses, officers' mistresses or the wives of common soldiers. John André, Banastre Tarleton and Lord Rawdon were each involved at various times. Theoretically, the profits from the venture went to a Widows and Orphans Fund, but this was largely a way to get around the stick-in-the-mud attitude of the colonial authorities towards the theater. The real purpose of the venture was to combat the boredom of a long winter garrison. The Continental Army organized similar troupes over at least two winters, and used a similar dodge to escape the disapproving glower of Congress. (Abraham Buford was involved with one of their projects.) Jared Brown, The Theatre in America during the Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995) is a good overview. [ back ]
|Return to the Main Page||Last updated by the Webmaster on January 2, 2011|