Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Road Trip Challenge
I hadn’t heard of Edward Eggleston before. I’m unsure how well known he and his brother George are in the US, but they were certainly celebrated in life and their home in Indiana is now an historical monument. I needed to find a book for the Indiana stage of the Road Trip Across America challenge I’m doing, so I Googled authors from the state and sought out something I liked the sound of. My local library wasn’t much help, so I ended up downloading Edward Eggleston’s second novel from Project Gutenberg.
The End of the World sounded like the kind of easy going 19th century literature I typically enjoy. It’s very much as you would expect a novel written in 1872 to be. The characters are extremes of human nature, almost clichés. There is the hen pecked husband who is easily manipulated by his shrewish wife, and a pair of young lovers who are kept apart by her parents because he, a farmhand and a foreigner, isn’t good enough. Lots and lots of prejudice, and lots and lots of over dramatisation. On the first page, Mrs Anderson is introduced as a manipulative harridan, and I almost stopped reading right there. However, as other characters were introduced, I realised that the descriptions were intended as comedic, and the novel was tongue in cheek. It made me think of the musicals I loved watching when I was young. Calamity Jane, Oklahoma!, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Lots of rambunctious action and foolhardy decisions before everything comes right in the end.
As well as musicals, the style of the book also reminded me of the Canadian humourist, Stephen Leacock. I loved his Literary Lapses and The Hohenzollerns in America, which recounts the attempts of the former ruling family of the German empire to start over after losing World War One. There’s something similarly dotty and joyously over the top about The End of the World. When I was reading up on Edward Eggleston, I discovered that he wrote many books for young people, and the jolly tone of this novel felt suitable for a young audience.
Julia is the daughter of Mrs Anderson, whose first name is kept secret for a while, and Samuel Anderson. Julia is in love with August, the German ploughman whom her parents call The Dutchman. We quickly learn that Mrs Anderson threw over Andrew Anderson, the man she first loved, in preference for his brother Samuel, a decision that allegedly sent Andrew a little crazy and condemned Mrs Anderson and Samuel to a life of sniping disappointment.
Mrs Anderson doesn’t like Julia being in love with August. She pressures Samuel into dismissing August, which brings about a declaration in a barn by the two young lovers that they will never forget each other.
August is good friends with Andrew Anderson, who is an eccentric recluse who lives in an eccentric castle, and who allows anyone to wander into his ground floor, but only permits a select few admission to his upper floor library, insisting that they enter via a rope ladder dropped down from a window. Andrew is a bookish man who speaks in florid language, but he is a man whose opinion August trusts. After receiving short shrift from his angry father following his dismissal from Samuel’s farm, August goes straight to Andrew for some comforting wisdom.
Unfortunately, he receives a bitter warning against putting his faith in Julia, because of how her mother treated Andrew. The sorry tale is one of a young woman pretending to be somebody different in order to catch the mysterious young man all the girls think they want, and of that young man seeing what he wanted to love in her.
She read books that she thought I liked. She planned in various ways to seem like what I liked, and yet she had sense enough to differ a little from me, and so make herself the more interesting.
… I loved her as she seemed to my imagination to be. I think most lovers love an ideal that hovers in the air a little above the real recipient of their love.
Things took a bad turn for the pair when Andrew discovered, close to the date of their wedding, that she was engaged to his brother. He broke with her, left the area for a while, but returned because he didn’t want her to think she had driven him away. On his return, he scorned her, which made her want him again. Of course! He held firm and her revenge was to marry Samuel and persuade her new father in law to disinherit Andrew. What a little madam!
The title of the book comes from the prophecy of William Miller, who studied the passage in Daniel 8 about the cleaning of the sanctuary and concluded that this referred to the second coming of Jesus Christ, which would happen on 22 October 1844. Eggleston treats the subject irreverently. An elder in the local church takes Miller’s prophecy seriously, and attempts to prove it with a complicated maths. Samuel is pleased to learn that the end of the world will come in six months, because he’ll be able to escape his wife. Mrs Anderson is terrified because she knows her sins are so many. August decides that the end of the world has already happened because he has lost the love of Julia.
A travelling singing master arrives in town, and quickly establishes himself in the Anderson household, where he appeals to Mrs Anderson’s snobbery, and sets about wooing Julia by offering piano lessons. The cunning fox. Of course, he starts to manipulate things in order to drive a wedge between the two young lovers.
What follows is a tongue in cheek adventure through the trials and tribulations of young love, wicked conmen, controlling parents and near death experiences.
Something that intrigued me about the story was the apparent absence of people of colour. I read up a little on Indiana’s history of slavery and discovered that by the 1820s pretty much all slaves living in the state had been freed. It made me wonder why Eggleston didn’t include any black characters, especially when Samuel Anderson expresses a hope that Julia would marry someone white and not a Dutchman, and when a drunken mob effectively tries to lynch August’s German immigrant father, Gottlieb. The novel was written in 1872, a decade after the Civil War. I was puzzled by Eggleston’s treatment of the question of racial discrimination. Perhaps in his world there wasn’t a question to address and it’s only strange to me because I’m at the further end of history to Eggleston.
I really enjoyed this book. I would never have encountered it if I wasn’t reading books set in or by authors from the different states of America. If you like 19th century comedic literature, head on over to Project Gutenberg and download it.