Friday, January 15, 2010
Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010
Sometimes a book can be like an old friend, someone you used to know when you were young, someone you rarely think about but when you do, the happy memories come rushing back. Janice Meredith is, for me, such a book. Having read and enjoyed this romantic novel of the Revolutionary War as a teenager, I renewed my acquaintance this past summer through a chance encounter.
While touring colleges in North Carolina, my family stopped in Asheville to see the Biltmore Estate, built by the grandson of railroad magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877). George Washington Vanderbilt, II (1862-1914), unlike his grandfather had nothing but leisure time and thanks to his father and grandfather had a vast fortune at his disposal. Biltmore, a French-style chateau of roughly 175,000 square feet, situated on 8,000 acres of carefully landscaped North Carolina mountain wilderness, was a monument to the gilded age in America, an era when buildings reflected the stature of their owners and were meant to celebrate mankind’s highest achievements, and therefore required hundreds of skilled craftsmen and builders to construct and maintain them. Aesthetics were of paramount importance and George Vanderbilt was a connoisseur of everything which served a life of beauty, culture, tranquility, and style. He was quite well educated and traveled in literary circles, often inviting artists and writers to stay at Biltmore.
One of George Vanderbilt’s close friends was Paul Leicester Ford, a biographer and historian who also happened to be writing a novel. Mr. Ford spent a period of several weeks in residence at Biltmore while he worked on Janice Meredith, and later wrote to his good friend: “…as I have read the proofs of this book I have found more than once that the pages have faded out of sight and in their stead I have seen Mount Pisgah and the French Broad River, or the ramp and terrace of Biltmore House, just as I saw them when writing the words which served to recall them to me…” Strolling through the gardens, over meadows, across bridges spanning sparkling brooks, a visitor can easily imagine Mr. Ford finding Biltmore the perfect place to work on his most famous book.
As I walked through the rooms of the beautiful Biltmore mansion, listening to the recorded tour guide, I paused in a room with a view of a rolling valley and mountains in the distance. The guide explained that it was in this room that Paul Leicester Ford had written Janice Meredith, causing me to exclaim out loud, “Janice Meredith!” to the great embarrassment of my teenaged daughter. (I hadn’t thought about Janice in at least 20 years, and remembered how my mother, sister, and I had enjoyed reading old books found in antique and junk stores near the summer cottage we owned close to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Of all those books, Janice Meredith was our favorite and we each re-read it several times.) Later, when our Biltmore tour was over, my family left the estate to browse some shops in Asheville. Immediately upon entering a funky junk shop, somewhat off the beaten path, I saw – on top of a stack of old books – a copy of Janice Meredith just as I had remembered her. It was a true new age moment.
As a novel, Janice Meredith has it all: plot, characters, romance, rivalry, intrigue, heroes, villains, battlefields, and family drama. The story takes place shortly after the Continental Congress has declared independence from Great Britain. Janice, the teenaged daughter of one of the King’s landed gentry, is beautiful, headstrong, impulsive, and a bit of a snob. Her suitor, Philemon, is the son of another squire who chafes under the king’s rules, but remains loyal just the same. Philemon and his father, Squire Hennion, are descendents of early New Jersey settlers and are thus pure country folks. They are unpolished and inarticulate, being so far removed from British society, but prominent nonetheless due to their land holdings. Even though the marriage would benefit her family by consolidating the two estates, Janice will not consider it and her father doesn’t force her.
A mysterious indentured servant enters the Meredith household as tensions between Loyalists and Revolutionaries begin playing out in living rooms and marketplaces throughout New England. Even though ragged and unkempt, Charles the servant has a certain magnetism about him which Janice finds irresistible. The feeling is mutual and sparks fly in spite of Janice’s attempts to ignore them out of class awareness. Meanwhile, George Washington, the dashing young general of the Continental Army passes through town. When Janice meets him, she is so carried away that she teeters between loyalty to her family and wanting the handsome and courageous general to win the war.
What is most interesting about this book is Mr. Ford’s understanding of what it was like to be in the middle of a bitter and bloody revolution: there were true believers on either side, but in the middle were people who hedged their bets depending on which army was winning. The Meredith and Hennion families serve to illustrate how complicated relationships became within communities and even families as the winds of war whipped the continent. Supporters of the king tended to have faith that the Royal Army and Navy could easily vanquish the rebels. For the most part, Loyalists had no great love for the motherland but as long as the status quo kept them in power and ensured their economic wellbeing, the so-called Tories fought the agents of change. Even though we know how the war ended, Mr. Ford kept the suspense high throughout the novel with his clear analyses of critical battles and conditions on the ground. Janice Meredith provides a gripping description of how hard won our nation’s independence truly was.
Unlike War and Peace, perhaps the world’s greatest work of historical fiction, Janice Meredith does not go into detail about military strategy and descriptions of battlefields. Rather, this book is fast-paced, even thrilling, in its depictions of some of the early battles of the Revolutionary War. The Continental Army was ill-equipped, under-dressed, and frequently un-fed during the eight years from 1775 until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, and yet they fought on. After securing New England, George Washington led the army south where the war swept through the remaining colonies. In 1778, the French offered naval support of the war effort against the British when it became clear that the colonies’ rebellion had a chance of succeeding. As events transpired and battles were won and lost, Janice and her family stayed informed through correspondence, word of mouth, and messengers. Mr. Ford skillfully wove the sequence of historical events into the story of how a rebellion, fully supported by less than half the population, overcame the British Army and Navy. His novel touched upon the many underlying issues which the new nation would have to grapple with, such as slavery. While Janice Meredith has a happy ending and most of the main characters “let bygones by bygones”, in reality not every American was happy with the outcome of the war. For one thing, the new nation had an overwhelming debt to France. For another, many previously wealthy loyalists, were now personae non gratae at home and abroad. Additionally, there was no guarantee that the now independent American States could form and hold together as a nation. Each former colony was an entity unto itself and was loathe to cede power hard won from the British to a new and untested governing body. The Revolutionary War’s aftermath, however, was beyond the scope of Paul Leicester Ford’s Janice Meredith. His goal was to inform and entertain readers who had time on their hands, not unlike Janice Meredith, herself.
The struggles between Janice and her family are meant to be a parable of the larger theatre of war. In the end, after Janice has matured and gained a degree of wisdom, the victorious (and fictionalized) General Washington tells her father that Janice’s rebellious choice of a husband is analogous to the relationship the United States will have with Great Britain. “You need not fear that the new tie will efface the old one. We have ended the mother country’s rule of us, but ‘tis probable her children will never cease to feel affection for the one who gave them being; and so you will find it with Miss Janice.”
Even though Janice Meredith was written long ago for very different readers than exist today, it has a timeless quality about it. For one thing, it made me think about patriotism and what it means to be a patriot. During the Revolutionary War, a Patriot was a rebel committing acts of treason against the remote, ruling monarchy. The Patriots, guided by the Continental Congress’s formal Declaration of Independence knew precisely what they were fighting for: freedom from a kingdom which demanded much and gave little, until its interests were threatened. The true Patriots never wavered and willingly died in the name of freedom. “Freedom”, a word which today has a lot of subtext associated with it, was simple and tangible during the Revolution. It was about self-determination, not having to pay punitive taxes to a useless king, and being able to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor to the fullest.
Today freedom means many things to many people. The Revolutionaries who gifted us with our Constitution and triad government couldn’t have foreseen the industrial revolution, two world wars, the population topping 300 million, the internet, and ubiquitous sex and drugs. They were, however, far-sighted enough to create a flexible form of government, capable of changing with the times. Our Constitution has endured through all the profound changes in our society and the world at large and still protects our freedom. We can say what we think, we can protest against the government, and we can decide our own spiritual and family values. Moreover, we remain free from military and police abuses, thanks to the rule of law that the separation of powers ensures.
In our present world, freedom, to some, means that men can marry men and women can marry women. To others, freedom means that anyone and everyone can own a gun, no questions asked. Military jets screaming across the sky are called “the sound of freedom”. Freedom means that sometimes criminals get away with murder because the laws which prevent innocent people from being jailed without cause or being imprisoned without a fair trial put the burden of proof on prosecutors. There is no perfect freedom and there never will be because we, the people, are not perfect. Just the same, the United States of America is the best example of a free country the world has yet produced. Life is a lot more complicated now than it was during Janice Meredith’s day, but thanks to the Patriots who sacrificed so much blood and treasure to create a more perfect union, freedom still rings loud and clear.
(This book is long out of print but is available in digital form. Visit www.gutenberg.org for a free download.)