It was a curious mild Christmas day, with a sun that only sometimes shone through cloud upon the dry snow of the hills, bringing them to shine of a moment like fresh washed faces, when I first began to read The Virginian.
Immediately I realized the telling of its story would be in a past-fashioned manner, making much use of a lengthy sentence, drawn out through sometimes poetic description, possibly occasioned in part by past practise of payment for serial stories, as this story once was, by a per-word rate. Very well, I said to myself. In this out-of-style way, can this story still entice me into its telling? So far, it seems so, I said, after completing it’s first chapter, and making a few notes to return to later, I continued.
“I have never seen among animals any arrangement so civilized and so perverted.” – Owen Wister, The Virginian
After reading about a third of this novel, I am starting to find the style is weighing me down a bit (or perhaps that is the Christmas turkey.)
While it does at times reveal the episodic/serial nature of its origins, there is also a slowly building story here with a budding romance between “The Virginian” and the new schoolmarm of a settlement in Wyoming of days of old, along with an unresolved conflict between the Virginian and a disgruntled competitor at cards. The story is narrated by a stranger from, one assumes “back east” – a “tenderfoot,” who is able to express to the reader the strangeness of the “wild west” setting and characters he finds, which he unashamedly romanticizes, although he does not whitewash the settlements quite as much as I expected he would. (there is mention of flies and rubbish piles.) One of the things that is not entirely clear to me is the when in which this novel takes place – I believe it is set in the past at the time of its purported narration, but no years have been explicitly mentioned.
It is interesting, as someone who has watched many classic Hollywood westerns but who has not read many classic western genre stories, to encounter so many elements which are familiar to me – which may well be the genre elements that this novel helped to establish. “The Virginian” is a dark haired “cow-boy” who moves with sometimes threatening grace and projects gravitas, taciturn with strangers and not quite at ease with women, and also, a southerner. There has been singing, a card game which didn’t quite lead to shooting, a couple of cases of runaway horses, and a neighbourhood dance, so far.
The ultimately tragic episode concerning “Em’ly” the hen, who eventually fosters puppy dogs, was entirely unexpected and modestly amusing to me.
There has been one occurrence of a racial epithet which is no longer used at all in “polite” company, alongside a demur refusal to write out a what is possibly intended to be what is now considered a rather mild obscenity. This, it seems, is the novel which gave rise to the phrase “when you call me that, smile” – a phrase I have heard quoted by members of an older generation, and which never did quite make sense to me, until finding it’s source.
While the style is a bit difficult, the general reading level required for this novel is not too advanced, and most people today should be able to follow along quite easily.
Have you read this novel? Are you in the process of reading it? What are your thoughts?
Part Two –
“The plainsman’s eye was not yet mine; and I smiled a little as I rode. When was I going to know, as by instinct, the different look of horses and cattle across some two or three miles of plain?”
I have now read through the majority of this novel, although I have yet to reach the end – I expect to reach the end tomorrow or the next day. (I am, indeed, ahead of time as this review was not expected to be complete for another few weeks.)
At last I did encounter something of a date to locate the story within – it appears it is set in the 1880s. I was rather surprised to encounter a reference to Tiffany’s – the luxury jewellery shop in New York City. (I had not realized until looking it up after encountering it’s mention in this novel that the famous company was established in the 1830s. I enjoy collecting these little nuggets of information and try to magpie them away.)
While at roughly 400 pages this story is not particularly long, it does feel a bit padded. There has been more time spent on the romance between The Virginian and Molly Wood (the schoolmarm) than I expected there to be.
There is also rather more discussion of literature – Shakespeare and Austen – than I would have predicted – I wouldn’t have predicted any – but, one does well to remember that people have always wished to learn and increase their cultural knowledge.
There was a divergence into a tall tale about a “frawg ranch” which, while mildly amusing, does not seem to serve much of a purpose to the overarching plot of the book at all (but I presume it did serve as a large part of a serialized episode once upon a time.) The same might be said of an episode concerning a missionary and his barely tolerated, brief presence, before he is chased away through another of The Virginian’s tricks. Although, this chapter does permit the author to further expand on the sense of morality he has drawn up for his western heroes. (Welcoming to strangers, but not apt to tolerate being patronized…)
There is the establishment of a code of conduct – a good man does not, for example, beat his horses – there is an episode devoted largely to this point, which may surprise some in a story written before the first world war – but nor does a good man interfere in another man’s business, unless driven to extreme indignation by that man’s behaviour towards another. (or another’s horse.) (This calls out to one of what I think is the most important qualities of a “western” hero – or any hero, for that matter – that the ‘strong’ must ultimately stand up to protect the ‘weak.’)
Of course, not all the morality displayed by the heroes of this book will be considered quite just today, that is part of the fun of reading older books, seeing how much has changed (and how much has stayed the same, as well.)
The novel-long use of dialect in dialogue has occasionally confused me, but is proving mostly manageable. There have been a few more occasions of no-longer-polite epithets and jokes concerning various ethnicities, including one particularly cringe-worthy “amusing” song. These things were indeed considered by most readers amusing once, and not as long ago as 1902, either. I was pleased to discover that the version of the book I am reading has not censored these less-pleasant realities away.
Not wanting to give away too much of the plot, there have been many other events which often come up in westerns – more runaway horses, an encounter with hostile Indians, rustlers and the dispensing of vigilante justice. (Don’t steal other people’s horses. Don’t steal other people’s cattle. It almost never ends well if you are in a western.) I was pleasantly surprised that Molly Woods was given a moment to show a certain degree of agency and heroism herself,
I continue to enjoy this novel, and although it does drag a bit, it has proven, thus far, a far easier, and more compelling read that I initially feared it might be, although it is not exactly a sit-down-and-read-it-all-it-once gripper.
Part Three of Review –
“I expect in many growed-up men you’d call sensible there’s a little boy sleepin’ – the little kid they onced was – that still keeps his fear of the dark. You mentioned the dark yourself yesterday. Well, this experience has woke up that kid in me, and blamed if I can coax the little cuss to go to sleep again! I keep a-telling him daylight will sure come, but he keeps a-crying and holding on to me.”
Following the dispensation of vigilante justice mentioned a few days ago, our hero grapples with his conscious a bit, but ultimately resolves that he has done what right could be done under the circumstances. (Do I agree? Weeelll….)
“And up and down and in and out of this hollow square of mountains, where waters plentifully flowed, and game and natural pasture abounded, there skulked a nomadic and distrustful population. This in due time built cabins, took wives, begot children, and came to speak of itself as ‘The honest settlers of Jackson’s Hole.’”
A welcome digression for this reader was the realization that ‘The Virginian’ is in effect occupying the same space and nearly the same time (perhaps preceding by a few years) the equally fictional events in *Shane* (a book I hope to read later on this year, having seen the film adaptation of that title more than once already.)
Interestingly, the finale includes interaction between The Virginian and his fiancée which rather resembles happenings in the classic western film High Noon – in fact I have just read since finishing the novel that some believe High Noon is essentially a re-telling of this portion of The Virginian.)
I have long been a fan of “when it’s over, it’s over” – and this novel does violate that principle, with it’s last chapter a (for me) un-necessary epilogue to a finale which fulfils expectations nicely.
Over all, I enjoyed this novel rather more that I expected to be able to, given it’s age. While the style and language sometimes caused it to drag, it also added quite a lot of lyricism to the telling. My greatest objection to the story is that it’s pace sometimes wandered, I can not condemn it for it’s plot’s considerable predictability, as I understand this was one of the first novels to really establish the “standard” western plot and characters. One must give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that at the time of it’s publication, it was fresher. What did you think? Do you know of any older ‘western genre’ novels that I might read?