Esther Forbes

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Anne Parrish

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626

["O Genteel Lady!"] is the strange story of Lanice Bardeen, beautiful bluestocking of the Boston of Holmes, Emerson and the Alcotts. No one else in the book matters much, although there are many characters. But Lanice lives, and her life is shown us with honesty and rather bitter laughter.

Esther Forbes is able to keep her characters in costume without letting the costumes smother the characters. The book is brilliant with color. You really see picture after picture—the ladies of fashion in their autumn-tinted dresses, "burnt orange, dull crimson, russet, and a bright, light green, the shade of the winter rye," and their Paisley shawls, sweeping up the fallen leaves with their full skirts….

The book remains true to its period in its costumes and settings. These are perfect. But although Lanice is a contemporary of Louisa Alcott, she is, in the flaming passion of her untrammeled love for Anthony Jones, her independent career as illustrator and author, and her lonely wanderings in Italy and England, more modern than the moderns…. The speech of the characters, on the other hand, is far too old-fashioned. It needs brocade and powdered hair, and even then is unconvincing. The characters, with the exception of the burlesqued Augustus, really live until they begin to talk, then the same voice speaks through each mouth in rounded literary periods. We see and feel them, and believe. We hear them, and say "This is not true."…

Anthony Jones is convincing only through his effect on Lanice. Roger Cuncliffe, the dying young lover of her dead mother, gives the feeling of the sorrow of spring, the death in birth that one finds in Botticelli's paintings, and then opens his mouth and talks like an elegant guidebook to Italy. Literary celebrities, English and American, are scattered as thickly through the pages as currants through a cake, and remain as important as currants, except the Tennysons, amusingly sketched.

The book is original and uninfluenced, although some, on reading of crinolines and "Mamma," may murmur, "May Sinclair." But in spite of the general impression Laurence Stallings did not invent the war, A. A. Milne did not invent children and May Sinclair did not invent mammas and crinoline.

Anne Parrish, "Always Genteel?" in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation, reprinted by permission), May 9, 1926, p. 7.

Timed though it is by crinoline and attitude towards ankle, "O Genteel Lady!" is timeless in its presentation of a romantic woman's demands upon life. Lanice Bardeen is an alluring young creature who quits the college town from which her mother has eloped with a student, and goes to Boston to find freedom, love, and a career. The career develops in a publishing house, love comes with the assistance of a colorful English adventurer who finds the lecture platforms of the New World excellent financial backing for explorations in the Old. Freedom is more elusive and comes late and in disguise.

Although the novel derives much of its charm from its period and setting—the classical era of American life, when Emerson and Dr. Holmes were familiar figures on Boston streets, it is wholly modern in its interpretation of the moods and desires of its young heroine….

"O Genteel Lady!" has as much literary distinction as any of this year's crop of novels. It might easily, in less skillful hands, have become a pretty, sentimental story relying on its picturesque background and the author's grace of style for a perfectly legitimate interest and popularity. Instead of this it has a robustness of theme and of characterization which would give it importance quite apart from Miss Forbes's ingratiating presentation.

"A Romantic Woman," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1926, by The Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 29, 1926, p. 823.

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