A novel about an editor who sets out to prove that a poem that’s been submitted to his paper has not come from a man, but has in fact come from a woman. 1916.
My copy of this extremely unheard of book (no Goodreads entry!) has so much to recommend it. For one thing, its boards are covered in this dainty little floral cloth pattern. Granted, the cloth carries a century of stains, and I had to be careful to lay it flat while reading, otherwise the bottom edge of the spine would leave little crumbles behind. But the book still possesses so much charm, it’s undeniable.
Open it up, and my copy is inscribed, in that delicate old-timey script, on the front free end paper: “Ruth Patterson. Valentine Gift. 1916.” Flip a few pages, and here’s a tasteful, very Edwardian color illustration, of the “Lady Valentine” title character. Next, that piece of tissue separating the illustration from the title page. Then the copyright (so briefly stated in old books!), and the author’s dedication: “To My Husband.” Sigh!
All of these clues, coupled with the slimness of the volume, indicate that this book might not be the most intimidating of literature, but it sure is going to be pleasant. (And then there’s the text itself, printed in an unusual, burnt reddish-orange color…I feel like this must be an indication of something.)
And My Lady Valentine is charming. It is pleasant. It can easily be grouped with other light, Edwardian-era fiction, such as Come Out of the Kitchen! (also 1916), The Incomplete Amorist (1906), as well as the earlier A Fair Barbarian (1880). If you’re a fan of this genre and time period, I’d recommend My Lady Valentine as a worthy addition.
It begins with Caleb Whitman, an editor for some sort of New York periodical, who’s preparing the paper’s tenth anniversary edition, a Valentine Special all about Love. Caleb is disgusted by the task, as he has to read one mushy-gushy submission after another. Then he comes across something interesting: a rather good (albeit mushy) love poem, submitted by a man named Henry B. Luffkin, from a small town upstate.
Except Caleb is convinced that this mushy poem—let alone the accompanying letter—cannot possibly have been written by a man. Caleb’s close friend Radding stops by the office as Caleb is pondering this, and Radding reads the poem and letter for himself. The two men have a bit of a funny debate over the question of the poet’s gender. Caleb expresses his general disgust at this over-the-top Valentine stuff. He claims that when he gets around to choosing a wife—someday, eventually—his own attitude will be different:
“All I want to feel is a calm regard. I don’t want to have my heart thump every time she comes around the corner. I don’t want to be a prey to jealousy every time another man looks at her. Above all, I don’t want to sink into second childhood and call her silly names.”
“What names, for instance?” Radding asked.
“‘Darling.’ ‘Birdie.’ ‘Honey-Love.'” quoted Whitman scornfully from the ardent page before him.
“Oh, that kind of names!” said Radding, with a nod of understanding. “What shall you call her?”
“‘Mary,’ if that’s her name; ‘Susan’ if that’s what she was christened; and I shall expect her to call me Caleb.”
Obviously, this placid attitude just begs a little stirring up. But for now Caleb focuses on the poem and the letter, which he sees as a great joke. Caleb accepts the poem and sends the poet a check and a friendly letter. He and Radding make a bet on whether the poet will eventually prove to be a man or a woman.
Caleb is due for a holiday soon, and while on holiday he intends to write a novel depicting “sane” romance. En route to his holiday destination, however, he catches the wrong train and finds himself heading upstate, right towards the town containing his mystery poet.
So, admitting his continued interest in that poem and letter, Caleb decides to take his holiday in the town. He stays with the real Henry B. Luffkin, a crusty fisherman who is clearly not the mystery poet. Could it be the fisherman’s intimidating, matronly sister, who’s exceptionally fond of saying “For pity sakes”? Probably not…
Caleb makes a survey of the small town, always on the lookout for the true poet, firmly convinced that the true poet is actually a poetess. In the meantime, his “romance” novel is not going well…He writes to Radding:
“You ask about the novel. It goes haltingly. My hero is made of sawdust, and my girl—I don’t know what ails her. Perhaps she is too sane. I don’t like her, and neither does the hero.”
And the next day…
“I can’t make my sane hero very convincing. Sanity in love is all very well in real life—I wish there were more of it—but on paper it’s dull.”
Luckily for Caleb—and for the sake of his novel-writing—he’s about to discover the identity of his own Lady Valentine.
The story is fairly predictable, and what mystery there is, it’s pretty quickly resolved. But this isn’t really the kind of book you demand deep mystery and sustained complications from. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing. In my experience, when it comes to mystery and complication, life already has plenty on hand.