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On Going Back In Time and the Invention of “Christian Romance”
Here it is, the end of 2020. Finally.
While it has been a tough year for so many of us although perhaps in different ways, most of us also know that we have also been blessed in certain ways. Goodness knows I have come to appreciate many things that I used to take for granted.
As you know, if you’re reading this article, my thing is reading, and so I started looking around for books to help us get through the darkest, likely coldest days of the year.
These days I crave classic, enduring things, and I started thinking about what I liked to read in childhood, and I remembered a friend of my mom’s loaning me some Grace Livingston Hill books…even though my mom actually did keep me well supplied with reading materials, I seemed to give off the impression that I needed more. I remembered enjoying the two or three I read, so I decided to see what I could find online and give them a go.
If you’ve never heard of Grace Livingston Hill, she was well known for writing romance novels, or early “chick lit” and is credited for being the first to write “Christian women’s fiction.” In fact, it seems that early on, her publisher actually deleted the more overtly Christian passages, but as she became popular, her publisher allowed them to stay.
Now I am not the overt Christian type, and I am not going to have much patience with reading anything overtly Christian or too heavy handed about any point of view. Just so you know.
I decided to look around and see what is available for free, and from the titles I found on Project Gutenberg, I almost randomly chose Hill’s book Marcia Schuyler. Not many of Hill’s book are entitled with the character’s name, and I also noticed that this is one of her earlier books…so that’s really all I had to go on.
I have to say, I am really pleasantly surprised. The story got my attention right away. Since I really didn’t know anything going into it, my jaw dropped when the problem of a jilted bridegroom at the beginning of the book is solved by marrying him off to the runaway bride’s sister!
Yes, Marcia Schuyler is the sister, and the rest of the plot centers on figuring out how to make a life with a man who is in love with your sister.
Ok, when I write it out like this, it seems like this might be an awful book, but most of the characters are such profoundly decent people that it doesn’t seem as cheesy and awful as it seems…one reason Marcia’s family enters into this plan is to safe the bridegroom from humiliation because they think so much of him, and it’s made clear that Marcia has a crush on him anyway. Marcia’s father also gives her the option of saying “no”; it’s clear she enters the marriage willingly. Finally, Hill makes it clear that they do not consummate the marriage.
As though all that weren’t enough, Hill rolls the timeline of the book back from 1900, when the book was published, to 1831, to coincide with the first railroad in New York State, which makes the story even more believable…not to mention an engaging subplot.
And come on, I don’t actually think it’s that uncommon for siblings to have dated (or more) the same person before finding the “right fit”. It kind of makes sense. My family didn’t go to the extreme of passing off a bridegroom, but I know of at least one case where one person dated two siblings before marrying one.
And in the Bible, of course, which Hill references, Jacob was clandestinely married off to one sister when he asked for another, which brought repercussions that last generations…and two sisters married to the same person.
The best thing about this book, however, is that most of the characters are very decent people who live by a strong moral code. Naturally, the moral code that most white Americans in the early 1800’s would have would have Christian roots, but the Christianity itself didn’t jump out at me as much as the desire to do to right by others, especially family and friends, while remaining true to oneself. Even Marcia…I kid you not!
While the faith of the main characters helps them pull through in times of crisis, I would argue that it could be one of several different faiths or believe systems that makes the difference. I’m a Christian myself, but to be honest my most abiding belief is that it’s important to have faith, belief, tenacity, and a strong ethical code. I stopped worrying about whether Christianity or something else is the answer a while ago.
And while the bad characters are pretty despicable, Hill also shows how they can be appealing, so they serve as realistic warning, as far as I am concerned, of what to watch out for.
In Hill’s world, reputation counts, background counts, but in the end, doing right…and having the guts to keep doing right…is what really matters.
So if you need a distraction during these long winter nights, download some classic encouragement.
There’s More to Grace Livingston Hill Than Romance
When you start reading an author who published her first book in 1900, you get that by definition the books you are going to read have a setting that is historical to us but were originally written with contemporary settings.
In Marcia Schuyler, Hill doesn’t go into much detail about anything that would alert me to the fact that this book wasn’t set about 1905, when it was written, until she gets around to mentioning something about “new railroads”…whaaat?…and then that the president of the United States is Andrew Jackson. I didn’t know exactly, but I was pretty sure that Andrew Jackson came well before the U.S. Civil War.
As the story goes on, the first railroad in New York State, and one of the first railroads in the entire U.S., becomes a part of the plot.
I didn’t find anything to corroborate this idea, but I wonder if Hill were making a cheeky comment about those who were ringing their hands about the first automobiles, which would have been hitting the road at about that time?
At any rate, I looked it up, and the first railroad in New York State ran the “Mohawk and Hudson” railroad from Albany to Schenectady starting in 1831.
Marica and her husband go to see the initial run in the novel, and this picture shows what they saw.
Can you believe that? I expected a very basic engine, but look at the “coaches”, which are literally horse-drawn carriages “reassigned”.
At any rate, in addition to this novel’s going beyond my expectations with regard to its writing and characterization, it also surprised me with its subplot and historical accuracies.
Ways to Read Grace Livingston Hill
Some of Grace Livingston Hill’s books are in the public domain, and many more are available at low cost.
Don’t let the genre “Christian” romance fool you; when I read over some of the plot summaries on Amazon, I started to wonder if Grace Metalious had been reading Hill before she wrote Peyton Place in the early 1960’s.
The twist with Hill is that you know the main characters are going to have to get themselves out of whatever messes they are in without undermining their Christian principles…or at least, without doing so to an irredeemable degree.
As of this writing, 17 of her books, including Marcia Schuyler, are available here at Project Gutenberg. Two more, Brentwood and Kerry, are available at Canada’s Faded Page (Canada’s public domain laws are slightly different than those in the U.S.).
Many more of Grace Livingston Hill’s books are available online in both digital and print formats. The best deal available digitally is this collection of 26, below.