Monday, February 6, 2017

Stories by English Authors: Germany, and Northern Europe by Beatrice Harraden, et al.

One of the better volumes in this series
Robert Louis Stevenson
This is the fifth book I’ve read in the Stories by English Authors series, which was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. Each of the ten volumes in the series presents a collection of five or six works of short fiction by British (not necessarily English) authors. Each book highlights stories set in a particular location. In this volume, subtitled Germany, and Northern Europe, the narratives take place in Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and of course, Germany. Up to now I haven’t been too impressed with the Stories by English Authors books, but this installment in the series is clearly a cut above the others that I’ve come across so far.

The book opens with Beatrice Harraden’s “The Bird on Its Journey.” A young woman shows up alone at a Swiss resort. Her profession is apparently piano tuner, and she is looked down upon by the high class English tourists. It all leads up to a surprise ending that is no surprise. The story benefits from its likeable female lead, but of course in 19th-century literature she must have a suitor, and the one provided is annoyingly inane. Next up is “Koosje: A Study of Dutch Life,” by John Strange Winter. A Dutch girl in Utrecht finds a starving woman in the street and invites her into her father’s home, a decision that leads to unforeseen consequences. The writing is a bit awkward at times, but the story has warmth, and it’s not entirely predictable. The book closes with “Queen Tita’s Wager,” by William Black, a comic romance about British tourists vacationing in the Black Forest of Germany. A young Brit tries to win the heart of the innkeeper’s daughter. There’s some good humor in this one, but it would have been a lot better if the Romeo you’re supposed to be rooting for weren’t such a snobbish jerk.

While those three stories are all fair to good in quality, it’s the remaining two selections that really make this collection worthwhile. The novella “A Dog of Flanders” by Ouida (pseudonym of Marie Louise de la Ramée) is a touching tale of love between a boy and his dog. Nello, a young orphan, lives in a village outside of Antwerp with his grandfather. The two are as poor as beggars, but when they find an injured dog left for dead by his master, he becomes a loyal member of the family and brings happiness to their lives. While melodramatic at times, it’s very well done as far as melodramas go.

Even better, however, is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Markheim.” (There’s nothing to indicate that this one takes place in Northern Europe, other than the German flavor of the titular surname.) On Christmas evening, a lone customer enters an antique dealer’s shop. After a brief exchange of words, the customer kills the shopkeeper and proceeds to rob the place. Like Edgar Allen Poe might have done, Stevenson focuses less on the actual crime than he does on the psychological state of the murderer after the deed is done. The story then takes a very unexpected turn and morphs into a riveting philosophical thriller.

The ten volumes in the Stories by English Authors series are not numbered, so you don’t have to read them in any particular order. I would suggest starting with this one, since it’s clearly one of the better books in the bunch. If you’re interested in 19th-century literature, you might also want to check out two other Scribner’s series: Stories by American Authors, from 1884, and Stories by Foreign Authors, from 1898. The former ten-volume collection is rather disappointing, but the latter is particularly good.

Stories in this collection
The Bird on Its Journey by Beatrice Harraden 
Koosje: A Study of Dutch Life by John Strange Winter 
A Dog of Flanders by Ouida 
Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson 
Queen Tita’s Wager by William Black

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