Today on Project Gutenberg #32

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

The Love That Prevailed by Frank Frankfort Moore

Frank Frankfort. It’s like his parents wanted to name him Frank twice but they knew that would be weird, so they stuck “-fort” at the end of the second Frank to get away with it. And yes, that really was the guy’s name. His Wikipedia page says so.

What other info could I find about him? Not much. He was an Irish novelist and playwright who lived from 1855 to 1931 and apparently started writing in the late 1880s. He was a fairly prolific writer as well, with over fifteen novels and three plays. He even wrote some historical nonfiction, a biography of poet Oliver Goldsmith and even some political commentary. Today’s book, The Love That Prevailed, comes to us from the middle of his career in 1907. The title alone was gag-inducing, but I was willing to give it a chance. Little did I know what deep-rooted weirdness waited for me in the pages of this book.

Our story begins in a Cornish village — “Cornish” meaning the English county of Cornwall, not the vegetable — sometime in the early 18th century. You’ve got your blacksmith and your miller and other assorted characters, and they all tend to do your standard 18th-century English village things: gossip about who’s going to marry who, who’s been up to Bath and what they saw there, etc. I would say it’s Austenesque, but we’re about 70-80 years too early and a few social classes too low. Among the inhabitants of this village is Nelly Polwhele, a fisherman’s daughter. She knows a thing or two about the wickedness of the world, having just finished a stint as servant to some high-society ladies. She even went to the theater (gasp!) and didn’t see what was so sinful about it (GASP!). Naturally, this has Nelly’s family and friends all fearing for her immortal soul. But as luck would have it, who should appear at that moment but real-life theologian and Methodist founder John Wesley? Mr. Wesley has come to do some preaching in Cornwall, and he takes the time to put Nelly back on the path to righteousness. But he soon finds himself in danger of losing his own religion when he starts falling for Nelly.

Okay. So. Let’s try to unpack this. What we’ve got is a cheesy, overwrought romance novel about earthly love vs. religious love, only the romantic hero in this instance is a real historical figure. There isn’t really a reason for it to be John Wesley. Moore could have just made up a traveling preacher character and called it a day. But no, we are repeatedly reminded that this is the John Wesley, founder of Methodism. And so we get stretches of dialogue like this:

“Mayhap you found no answer ready,” Bennet cried. “Then I’ll let you into the secret, John Wesley. You are being rightly punished because you have been thinking more of the love of woman than of the Love of God.”

Wesley’s head remained bent no longer.

“What mean you by that gibe, man?” he cried.

“Ask your own heart what I mean,” said the man fiercely. “Your own heart knows full well that you sought to win the love of the woman who walked with you on this road little more than a month ago, and who ministered to you on the day of your great preaching—you took her love from those to whom she owed it, and you have cherished, albeit you know that she can never be a wife to you.”

“The Lord rebuke thee,” said Wesley, when the man made a pause.

“Nay, ’tis on you that the rebuke has fallen, and you know it, John Wesley,” cried Bennet, more fiercely than ever. “Nelly Polwhele would have come to love me in time had not you come between us—that I know—I know it, I tell you, I know it—my love for her is so overwhelming that she would not have been able to hold out against it. But you came, and—answer me, man: when it was written to you that you were to return hither in hot haste to combat the folly of Pritchard, did not your heart exult with the thought singing through it, ‘I shall see her again—I shall be beside her once more’?”

Along with moments like this:

“Impossible—impossible!” he cried. “It is impossible that I should be so affected—a village girl!… And I did not talk with her half a dozen times in all!… Kind, thoughtful, with tact—a gracious presence, a receptive mind…. Ah, it was she undoubtedly who set me thinking—who made me feel dissatisfied with my isolation, but still.. . oh, impossible—impossible!”

And, although a just man, the thoughts that he now believed himself to have in regard to Nelly Polwhele were bitter rather than sweet. He began to think that it was too bold of her—almost immodest—to make the attempt to change the whole course of the life of such a man as he was. He had once courted the lonely life, believing it to be the only life for such as he—the only life that enabled him to give all his thoughts—all his strength—oh, all his life—all his life—to the work which had been appointed for him to do in the world of sinners; but lo! that child had come to him, and had made him feel that he was not so different from other men.

For all of you with that one burning question I know you’ve got: no, they don’t actually end up together. He pontificates for a bit on the nature of duty and self-sacrifice and then tells her to marry someone else. So it’s not as weird as it could have been.

I feel like there might have been a way for this book to work. The real John Wesley did have a pretty interesting life, after all. Why not write a story about his time in the colony of Georgia, where apparently he really did fall in love with a local girl and become conflicted about it, kicking off a chain of events that led to his having to flee back to England? That could have been cool. Instead we get this generic and wholly fictional story that just isn’t very compelling.

The best I can say about this book is that it has individual moments worth looking at, most of them not having any connection to the main plot. Chapter 7, for example, is fairly interesting with its lengthy description of Wesley giving a passionate outdoor sermon. But everything else that’s done and said is fairly boring. Overall, I’d say you can go ahead and skip this one. The novelty of the set-up may offer a few minutes of amusement, but once that wears off, there isn’t much to keep a reader invested.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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