Prison bars are not the only barriers to man’s freedom, there is a bondage that is far more intolerable—the bondage of one’s own evil passions and self-will.
The Dime Novel
Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible is considered an American ‘dime novel’ for working and middle class women. Dime novels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were usually serialized weekly in inexpensive pamphlets or printed in magazines.
In fact, I came to find out the author, Mrs. George Sheldon Downs (Sarah Elizabeth Forbush), was an extremely popular writer of serial romances for Theodore Dreiser and his Smith’s Magazine. She serialized 47 romances between 1880-1889 and Dreiser considered her one of the most popular writers in the world.
The Fall of Gertrude Elliot. And Everyone Else
Gertrude Elliot has just been informed by Daniel Dexter, an old friend of her late father who is handling her estate, that all her money is gone. He used it to pay off his son’s debts and lost the rest in bad investments trying to recoup the money he stole. Her mother’s terminal illness strained the finances to the extent that Gertrude is now destitute and must sell her house to make a good show of faith to the creditors.
Gertrude was told by her father that she would inherit a large sum of money and the family home and is mortified over what Mr. Dexter has revealed. He is humiliated at what he has done to her and tells her he is prepared to be arrested for fraud and robbery. But the shock of humiliating him further by sending to jail her father’s longtime friend is too much and she refuses to call the police. Dexter is humbled at this show of generosity and is resolved to pay her back. When his son, Robert, arrives the next day and hears what happened, he is so remorseful and realizes how much he is to blame for Miss Elliot’s destitution he, too, makes a vow to repay his father for the money used for his debts. A few days later, Robert informs his father that a friend has asked him to assist him in his fruit business and he is leaving for California right away.
With nowhere to go, Gertrude visits an old friend on Long Island, who has been asking her for a visit. Phronie is her family’s former housekeeper. While Gertrude doesn’t tell Phronie the details, she reveals her dire financial situation and asks her for help. She reminds Phronie how she used to follow her around helping in the kitchen and with simple jobs throughout the house. “Surely, I could go out to work for a family as a head house keeper?”
Most of the action, then, takes place at the home of her new employer, Mrs. Young and her two teenage daughters. Mrs. Young has reservations with Gertrude’s age and lack of experience, because she isn’t much older than her daughters. But Mrs. Young has recently let go of an incompetent head housekeeper who left a dirty house, a chaotic schedule and a slovenly staff in her wake. She is desperate to fill the position and is swayed by Gertrude’s competence, kindness and willingness to work hard as is the skeptical cook and maids. Only the head butler has reservations and his bad attitude continues until he is let go.
Gertrude never lets her bad luck affect her moral compass. She stays positive and accepts that this is her fate. She doesn’t let petty squabbles or negative thoughts steer her down an evil path like so many of the people she is surrounded by. In fact, it is just the opposite; her compassion and genuine love for all she meets makes people see their calculating and self-centered acts, embarrassed to even to think bad thoughts!
It is as if she is put in these situations to make people better. Robert Dexter, will change his wild ways, learn the fruit trade and come back to New York on a promotion to supervise the fruit business from that end. And when he is surprised by a large inheritance from an aunt, he gives it all to Gertrude. When the butler, who has hated Gertrude from the beginning and wants her out, schemes against her to make it look like she is stealing Mrs. Young’s jewels and furs, he gets caught. Gertrude asks that he not be punished as his unsuspecting mother is coming to live in a little house he bought for the two of them. She tells him, “I cannot bear to have her come and find you in prison,” at which point he breaks down in sobs.
And finally, the oldest of the Young children, Hugh Spencer (from a previous marriage), was a college classmate of Robert Dexter and has held a revengeful rage against him all these years, which grows when he finds out Dexter and Gertrude are old family friends and maybe more. He has found the means to ruin both Robert Dexter and his father and has been waiting to witness their fall. But Gertrude, upon hearing such fury and anger in the plan presses upon him the importance of love and justice, which challenge his devious revenge.
…every time one yields to temptation to do wrong one is weakened, morally and spiritually; and, Mr. Spencer, until you learn to substitute love for hate, honor for dishonor, justice for injustice, you will never attain the standard of true manhood. When you do this you will find that you have no enemy upon whom you desire to be revenged…It is not my theory; it is no human axiom; but it is the command of One who said—‘Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.’
Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible is very much a morality tale. The high principles of love, justice and honor that Gertrude unwaveringly lives her life allows all she comes into contact with to be affected by these highest of ideals and in turn shine them on to others. Though people do bad things to each other, they lie, they steal, they hold incredibly long resentments bent on revenge that eat them up for decades, no one is unredeemable.
This was a complex novel full of intricate story lines and complicated relationships. I am inspired to read more of these novels and to research their affect on those who read them.
And in case you want to know, everyone who falls is raised up and everyone finds love in the end, including Gertrude.
I can honestly say, if I lived during this serialization I WOULD be waiting each week for the next installment!
Title: Gertrude Elliot’s Crucible
Author: Mrs. George Sheldon Downs
Publisher: G.W. Dillingham Co.
Challenges: Classics Club