A Blast From the Past: Milwaukee Journal on “Lydia Bailey”

I continue to enjoy perusing Google’s news archives, and today I want to share with you a book review of Lydia Bailey by H. Russell Austin in the January 5, 1947 edition of the Milwaukee Journal.  Though Roberts is virtually unknown today, there were several decades in the early- to mid-20th century in which his works were eagerly read and anticipated.  Like any great author, not all of his works received the acclaim of reviewers, which is the case of Lydia Bailey in the Milwaukee Journal.

Austin opens up his review with a glowing compliment of Roberts’ status as a writer: “This perplexing book [Lydia Bailey] – the fruit of six years’ research and writing by one of our best historical novelists.”  Yet, despite this, Austin’s praise of Roberts, he says of Lydia Bailey: “It would be pleasant to add to this list of distinctions that ‘Lydia Bailey’ is one of Roberts’ best works and a great novel – but that would not be true.”

Austin supports his claim regarding Lydia Bailey by pointing out what he feels is the “central defect” – “in straining at the gnats of historical detail, [Roberts] has swallowed many camels, absurdities of plot and inconsistencies of character.”    He questions the believability of Albion Hamlin’s falling in love with Lydia Bailey just by seeing her portrait in someone’s home in Boston; what makes this scenario more unlikely is that Bailey is believed to be dead at the time Hamlin sees her portrait.  Austin points out other questionable aspects of Lydia Bailey: Hamlin’s bitterness toward his fiancee; Hamlin’s lobbying in Washington even though he’d previously been thrown in prison for contempt of court; and Bailey’s and Hamlin’s ability to command a brig on the Mediterranean despite their seemingly lack of experience.  He closes this section with “The list of lesser improbabilities is of wearying length.”

Despite Austin’s perceived weaknesses of Lydia Bailey, he points out the value of the novel – its detail on Toussaint L’Ouverture, the voodoo practices in Haiti and the farming techniques in Tripoli, and other historical nuggets.  Lastly, Austin closes with “You will also absorb some of Mr. Roberts’ excellent moral preaching on racial tolerance, national integrity, and the evil of consistency – a vice from which the author of this book seems marvelously free.”

[I find this last quote quite interesting considering Roberts’ quote in 1931  in the Post about Mexican immigrants. See my post on this issue.]

Unfortunately, I must agree with Austin’s assessment of Lydia Bailey; of his works, this is my least favorite of Roberts’ novels.  I feel that the romance aspect of the novel is rather far-fetched and strained, which unfortunately overshadows the otherwise excellent historical aspect of the novel.  Yet, no one ever bats .1000, even the great ones.

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