The Lost Best-Seller

In preparation for a 1950’s-themed party I am attending this weekend, I was doing some research on popular figures of that era. Some of them happen to be more obvious than others. For example, Marilyn Monroe is an obvious choice of a 50’s icon, but many younger people forget that Queen Elizabeth II, who is still going strong, was crowned to enormous fanfare and celebration in 1953. The event was celebrated in all of the popular magazines and broadcast to international audiences via the still-new medium of television.

Among the lists of best-selling books of the era, I found several references to Frances Parkinson Keyes. According to Publisher’s Weekly, the primary trade journal for the publishing industry in the U.S., between 1950 and 1959, she had four novels make the top ten list of best-selling fiction books in a given year. The most popular of the four, “Joy Street”, reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list in 1951.

Despite this documentary evidence of considerable popularity, I suspect that you, my dear readers, have never heard of this writer nor read any of her work – though probably your grandmothers were very familiar with her. This is indeed a great shame, and so I wanted to do my tiny part to hopefully revive interest in this very talented and interesting woman. In particular, some of my regular readers with a Romish persuasion may be interested to learn that she was a convert to the Catholic Church, and that Catholic themes run through very many of her books.

Frances Parkinson was born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1903, to transplanted New Englander parents. Her father was the head of the Greek Department at the University of Virginia, back when the study of Greek was de rigueur for a young gentleman’s education. After her father’s early death her mother remarried, and the family moved back to New England, spending part of the year in Boston and part at the family’s ancestral Federal-era farm in Vermont.

Frances later married a Harvard man named Henry W. Keyes, and together they had three sons. Her husband, a powerful member of the Republican Party, served in both houses of the New Hampshire legislature, was elected Governor of New Hampshire in 1916, was subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate in 1919, and served there until his retirement in 1937. Mrs. Parkinson Keyes, as she became known, was popular in Washington society, and wrote regular pieces for ladies’ magazines and newspapers about her experiences and travels as a prominent Senator’s wife.

Mrs. Parkinson Keyes’ first novel, “The Old Gray Homestead”, was published in 1919, and it marked the beginning of what by any measure would be considered a profoundly prolific writing career, spanning six decades. In all, not including magazine articles and shorter pieces, she published around 60 books, including novels, memoirs, biographies, and travelogues. She became particularly popular for her novels about life in Louisiana, after she purchased a home in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1950’s, which is now a museum dedicated to her.

During her extensive travels Mrs. Parkinson Keyes happened to find herself in Rome attending the Beatification of St. Therese de Lisieux in 1923, and became fascinated by her autobiography. She later spent a summer with the Benedictines at Lisieux researching what eventually became a biography of the Little Flower. Mrs. Parkinson Keyes was received into the Church in 1939, and continued to write biographies of saints, travel journals about pilgrimages, and other Catholic material for the rest of her life.

I first came across Mrs. Parkinson Keyes’ work when I was about ten or eleven years old. At a charity book sale I spied a book entitled “I, The King”, a novel about the life of Philip IV of Spain, the great patron of Velázquez. This was one of Mrs. Parkinson Keyes’ last works, published in 1966. Being interested in the subject matter, and at the cost of 25 cents, I decided to give it a try.

I ended up inhaling the book, re-reading it several times over, as it brought the court of this interesting but flawed monarch to life in a way which gave further depth to those magnificent, dark paintings collected in The Prado. For those who are not yet familiar with her style, Mrs. Parkinson Keyes is decidedly a detail-oriented writer. The amount of historical research that she performed for just one of her novels, long before the age of the internet and while suffering from increasingly ill health, is simply outstanding. Everything from architecture to food, costume to manners and forms of address, are painstakingly researched and documented for accuracy.

From there, I went on a Frances Parkinson Keyes “kick” for awhile, picking up any novels and non-fiction of hers that I could come across in second-hand bookshops and garage sales. I would estimate that I read probably a dozen of her novels and at least several travelogue/non-fiction pieces. Like any such interest however, I eventually reached a point of saturation, and moved on to other things, but the better for the experience. Seeing her name appear on those 50’s best-seller lists brought back fond memories of spending long evenings of summer vacation wrapped up in tales of old steamboat gothic plantations in the Deep South and French chateaux in Normandy.

Mrs. Parkinson Keyes is not what one would consider to be a “high-brow” writer of the first part of the 20th century. She is definitely writing from the perspective of a respectable, well-off lady of a certain background and experience. Being therefore too ladylike for such company, she does not sit well on the bookshelf next to tortured scribblers like Céline or Hesse. Her enormous cast of characters and detailed observations of life speak more to the 19th than the 20th century, and in that respect she is more analogous to Trollope than to Dickens: a good storyteller, writing primarily to a bourgeois audience, but not particularly challenging to the reader. One of her novels is a perfect accompaniment to a rainy afternoon or evening in front of the fireplace, but it is not a challenge to one’s world view.

That being said, her skills and charm as a writer are very much needed in a society which has forgotten grace and civility, almost to the point of no return. Tastes have changed, affecting her popularity, but she has also suffered a decline in public awareness of her work as a result of a long copyright dispute between her estate and her publishers subsequent to her death in 1970. As a result, her books fell out of print, and a search on Amazon will reveal only second-hand copies of a handful of her works for sale. And what a loss for the film industry, when so many interesting novels of hers are simply in need of a good director to be made into engaging historical films.

Should one of my readers find themselves at a charity book shop in the near future, I highly recommend seeking out Mrs. Parkinson Keyes’ novels. They are becoming increasingly difficult to find, as old paper disintegrates and new editions fail to print. However, for the enjoyment of a good story with interesting historical detail and a solid, Catholic moral foundation, and for the rescue of lost esteem for a deserving author’s work, they are well-worth the investment.

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