Friday, July 02, 2010

Cowardice Court!

Our book today is George Barr McCutcheon’s breezy little 1906 romance Cowardice Court, written at top speed by a seasoned professional (McCutcheon, the author of Brewster’s Millions, churned out an average of one novel a year in the first decade of the 20th century, plus lots of plays, poems, and even pseudonymous reviews, the bounder) to please a burgeoning market. Grosset & Dunlap put the thing out and did so very handsomely, with four full-color illustrations by Harrison Fisher and every page prettily decorated along its borders.

Cowardice Court is set in the Adirondacks and opens with the transplanted family of diminutive blowhard Lord Brazelhurst experiencing a little turbulence. It doesn’t come from matrimonial tension, as it might in the hands of a writer striking out for deeper waters (Lady Brazelhurst is an American, the daughter of an uncultured New York millionaire; Lord Brazelhurst is not only a good deal older than she is, he’s also entirely dependent on her, since her money saved his debt-encumbered estates back in England) – no, the tension is due to a man: stalwart, handsome young Randolph Scott – er, I mean Shaw, Randolph Shaw. He owns the adjoining large mountain estate to Brazelhurst Villa, and the border between the two properties is a much-contested trout-stream. As it the novel begins, Lord Brazelhurst is furious that this “demmed American” (the British characters in the book all talk exactly like you’d expect an untraveled Hoosier would make them sound, and let’s not even get started on how many times his Lordship’s monocle pops off and falls into his drink) has been seen fishing on the Brazelhurst end of the river, and he instructs his groundskeeper to throw the interloper into the stream if he sees it happen again.

As Lord Brazelhurst storms into his own home fuming about the matter, he’s greeted by his imperious green-eyed wife, who coolly eggs him on in his outrage. Lady Brazelhurst is the villain of this book, although she’s only tentatively revealed as such. She’s altogether a more interesting character than the book’s nominal heroine, Penelope Brazelhurst (who’s very pretty, very spirited, and, inexplicably, very much younger than her brother the Lord) – maybe McCutcheon throttled back on developing her for fear she’d steal the novel. Or maybe he was writing so fast that he had no time to perceive the potential of the character he’d created. Or maybe he was just inept. He’s not around to ask (a useful collection of his private and public papers - plus some manuscripts - is in the keeping of the University of Texas at Austin, should anybody want to write the short, light biography this crabby, hustling writer deserves).

In short order, Lord Brazelhurst’s groundskeeper and his ruffian assistant stagger back to the Villa, roughed up and soaking wet. It seems they saw Randolph Scott trespassing again, offered their ordered threat, and got beaten up and dunked in the river for their trouble (and then saved from it, since neither one of them could swim). Young Penelope begins to like the spirit of this American she’s never even seen, but the Lord and Lady are furious:
“No one but a coward would permit this disagreeable Shaw creature to run affairs in such a high-handed way,” said her ladyship. “Of course Cecil [Lord Brazelhurst, to you] is not a coward.”

“Thank you, my dear. Never fear, ladies and gentlemen; I shall attend to this person. He won’t soon forget what I have to say to him,” promised Lord Brazelhurst, mentally estimating the number of brandies and soda it would require in preparation.

“This afternoon?” asked his wife, with cruel insistence.

“Yes, Evelyn – if I can find him.”

Lord Brazelhurst rides off alone to confront this ruffian, and he does indeed find him – and ingloriously attempts to flee from the man and his faithful dog Bonaparte. Randolph Shaw is happy but scornful of the ineffectual old coot, and he’s no sooner turned back from their encounter than who should he find trespassing on his land than Penelope! He takes hold of her horse’s bridle and tells her – with a good deal of light-hearted banter, that he shall have to escort her off his property. She goes willingly (“I am quite in your power”), but it’s clear the two young people have taken a liking to each other. Over the next few days, Penelope will contrive to escape the deadly boredom of Brazelhurst Villa and deliberately trespass on Shaw’s land, merely for the pleasure of having him show up every time and slowly escort her off again.

McCutcheon’s few scattered acidic comments about the company at Brazelhurst Villa constitute the closest that Cowardice Court comes to social satire. The place is full of the American version of the country house smart set, and it’s clear our author shares Penelope’s disgust with it all:
Nightfall brought half a dozen guests to Brazelhurst Villa. They were fashionable to the point where ennui is the chief characteristic, and they came only for bridge and sleep. There was a duke among them and also a French count, besides the bored New Yorkers; they wanted brandy and soda as soon as they got into the house, and they went to bed early because it was so much easier to sleep lying down than sitting up.

But even while love is blossoming between our game young things, trouble is brewing at the Villa: Lord Brazelhurst, infuriated at failing to intimidate his American neighbor, threatens to instruct his men to shoot him if he trespasses again. He knows he can’t very well give them such instructions – it’s six years into the 20th century, after all! – and he’s unaware of the fact that Lady Macbeth takes those groundsmen aside and tells them they must indeed shoot on sight.

As luck would have it, Penelope hears the shots the next day and comes across Randolph crying over the dead body of his dog - “it’s as if he were a – a brother, Miss Drake. I loved him and he loved me” – and swearing bloody revenge against the cowards responsible.

Tensions are therefore high at dinner that evening, when Penelope becomes furious at the blasĂ© comments of everyone present when they learn it was ‘only’ the man’s dog that was shot. Heated words are exchanged between Penelope and her haughty sister-in-law, and Penelope impulsively packs a bag and flees into the night and an oncoming storm, rather than remain one more moment in the house she’s scathingly named Cowardice Court.

Without really thinking about it, she makes her way to Shaw’s house through the gathering wind and rain, only barely making it in time – only to flee again when she realizes how her impulse action will make him look to everybody else. He hurries after her, and the two of them take refuge from the breaking storm under the porch of an old abandoned house nearby (like Aeneas and Dido, they finally yield to their passion while sheltering from the wind and rain). Long before the storm ends, they are pledged to each other, and to give McCutcheon his due, these scenes retain even now a hint of the fragile sweetness that once made this author a reliable seller in the bookstores of Boston, far away from his homeland of Indiana. Cowardice Court never sold out, never went into a second edition, but it didn’t pass its season on Earth unknown, etiher.

Time has moved on, of course – except as a period piece dripping in unintended irony, it’s impossible to conceive a book like Cowardice Court coming back into print in the 21st century (where Penelope would be a lesbian and Shaw would waste no time cuckolding poor old Lord Brazelhurst and breaking the spirit of his redoubtable wife, probably on the pantry floor). But in its own day, it was a harmless, bubbly way to spend an afternoon, as innocent of ulterior motives as a bright summer cloud.  Seems to me the 21st century could use some novels like that, once in a while.

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