The Cabin on the Prairie (C.H. Pearson, 1869)

Starts preachy and ends a Chick tract. Tom, the eldest son of a family of settlers on the frontier in Minnesota, wants to run away to some more civilized place with schools where he might get an education. That isn’t possible, though, because… because. Mother’s best argument seems to be that his clothes are crude homespun and everyone would laugh at him. A missionary arrives and begins tutoring Tom. Crops fails and they’re broke. Wildfire burns them out. Flood washes away their cabin. Indians attack, kill several, including Father. Destitute, Mother becomes a babysitter for the General’s children at the fort and Tom becomes a preacher.

Inscription: “Harold Libby, Xmas 1900” on the front flyleaf.

By Order of the King (Victor Hugo, 1869)

Gwynplaine is abandoned as a child on the coast of England, left to die in a raging snow storm. However, Gwynplaine not only preservers, he rescues another waif, Dea, a baby who he found still clinging to her mother’s dead and frozen breast. They’re taken in by Ursus, a traveling carnival worker. The children are not unsuited to the carnival side-show: Dea is blind and Gwynplaine has been facially mutilated to give him a perpetual rictus grin.

Fifteen years later, the police arrive at the door and lead Gwynplaine away. Ursus follows and watches as Gwynplaine disappears into the prison. He knows that for those of their class, the only exit from those doors is death. But Gwynplaine isn’t being lead to execution.

In former times, the royal courts of Europe were served by dwarfs, but as that novelty wore off, they called for ever more exotic human curiosities. This demand lead to the formation of the Comprachicos, a band who purchased and surgically transformed children into wonderful and terrible monstrosities. But the age of the court jester is now only a dim memory. Hardquanonne was the last surgeon alive who knew how to create the masca ridens — the Laughing Man.

The ship that abandoned Gwynplaine that winter night was not long afterward caught in a storm. Before sinking, its passengers  made a confession of their crimes and entrusted it to the sea in a bottle. After fifteen years, that bottle has washed ashore. Gwynplaine has been brought to prison to be identified by Hardquanonne, who has been tortured almost to death to extract his part of the conspiracy. After the end of the Civil War and the restoration of monarchy, some aristocrats continued to espouse Cromwellian views. Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie was among them. In exile, not long before his death, he had a son. By order of the king, James II, the child was sold to the last of the Comprachicos and the knowledge of his existence was suppressed. The doomed ship carried those Comprachicos and Gwynplaine is that child.

(By Order of the King, incidentally, is the book’s more usual title in English translation. The original French title L’Homme qui rit might be directly rendered “The Man Who Laughs” and some English editions do use that title, but my copy does not.)

Gwynplaine — or Lord Clancharlie, Baron of Clancharlie and Hunkerville, and Marquis of Corleone — is restored to the peerage. At the House of Lords, a vote is being held over whether to expand Prince George’s already enormous allowance by another ¬£100,000, which all are in favor of. All but Gwynplaine. He delivers an impromptu speech that jumps from topic to topic and with a point that is somewhat confused, owing to it being unprepared, but in short, he accuses his fellow lords of being blind: blind to the sufferings of the poor that this tax will only increase, and blind to the judgment that they will soon face. His harangue is met with laughter and jeers.

That night, Gwynplaine returns home, but Ursus and Dea are gone — exiled from England, believing him dead. Their ship was delayed, however, and they’re still in the harbor. Gwynplaine finds them on board. Ursus appears to have been driven insane from grief. Dea, who was left not only blinded by the snow storm but with a weak heart, hovers near death. At the so unexpected sight of Gwynplaine, her heart gives out. Gwynplaine steps off the side of the ship and disappears into the inky water.

Inscriptions: a plate pasted on the inside front cover reads “Private library of Louie A. Babbitt, Northville, Mich., No. L-3”. On the flyleaf is written “Lou and Flora, from Grandma, 1889”.

Ethelyn’s Mistake (Mary J. Holmes, 1869)

Ethelyn is in love with her cousin Frank and he with her. She’s of the Boston Bigelows and is quite refined and accustomed to leisure, although she personally has no money to speak of.¬† It’s for this reason that Frank’s mother objects to their marriage — Frank is a dandy with extravagant tastes; he must marry into wealth. Instead, she’s set up with Richard Markham — a judge, a member of congress, and good contender for governor of Iowa. Ethelyn doesn’t care for Richard at all — he’s entirely too boorish and uncouth for her — but marries him anyway out of spite and her dreams of wintering in Washington and the society she’ll mingle with there. Besides, Iowa is hardly the wild west anymore, surely Richard’s people are as genteel as her own.

No. No, they are not. Particularly not Richard’s mother, who’s of the pioneer generation and despite their present condition still lives fifty years ago in the hardscrabble past. She is as unwilling to meet Ethelyn’s point of view as Ethelyn is to hers. Richard, completely blind to his mother’s eccentricities, defers to her always. When Mother declares that it would be unseemly for Ethelyn to accompany him to Washington (largely because she was expecting to fire their maid and have Ethelyn do the housework), then there goes the single remaining reason for the marriage.

Ethelyn takes it badly and becomes quite ill, miscarrying their firstborn. Richard is at last persuaded that his mother is not a good influence on Ethelyn and agrees to establish a new and more modern household in the city. Ethelyn thrives there and actually begins to grow fond of Richard, but Mother disapproves of… well, of everything, and continues to tug at her son. Richard becomes jealous of his once-rival Frank and confronts Ethelyn, accusing her of having an affair. This goes beyond all of Richard’s slights. It’s an insult Ethelyn can’t overlook or forgive. Ethelyn leaves Richard. Richard goes east, hoping that Ethelyn had simply returned to her family, but she isn’t there. He does meet her aunt (Frank’s mother), who lays into him ruthlessly, pointing out all of his faults and telling him just why Ethelyn abandoned him, all of which Richard takes to heart.

Five years pass. Richard has reformed and would now be quite at home in the best of Boston society. He’s left his mother’s crude farmhouse and built a mansion befitting that of a governor, where stands a suite of lavishly outfitted rooms that have never been occupied. The rumor spreads that he’s planning to divorce his long absent wife and the suite is for another woman, and this rumor at last reaches Ethelyn. She’s kept herself quite busy and is now a wealthy woman (to the consternation of her aunt, as Frank’s wife’s fortunes have failed). Time has eroded her animus and she’s ready to take Richard back but now fears that he doesn’t want her. When he’s away, she visits the house, claiming to be some distant relation. On sight of what the maid calls the bridal room, she falls into a fit.

It’s touch and go for some days as Ethelyn lies insensible. When at last she recovers, Richard is there. The suite was waiting for her, he assures her. All are reconciled, even Ethelyn and Richard’s mother, who at last admits that perhaps she may be too set in her ways and didn’t exactly try to understand her daughter-in-law.

Inscription: “Annie Platt, from Mary, 9/’12”, on the front flyleaf.