My review of the first book in the series, Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne can be read here
Read from 01/22/2022 - 02/04 /2022
Beverly of Graustark is a 1926 silent film directed by Sidney Franklin starring Marion Davies as the titular Beverly Calhoun. Oscar is the rightful heir to the throne of Graustark, a tiny, fictional European country. Oscar must be coronated as soon as possible since Graustark is currently fraught with instability. Unfortunately, Oscar is injured in a skiing accident. When all hope seems lost, his cousin, Beverly Calhoun, decides to buy time for her cousin by masquerading as him and going to Graustark in his steed. What follows is a swashbuckling romantic comedy where Beverly finds herself falling for Dantan, her (or rather, her cousin's) guard.
The final scene takes place in an opulent palace as Oscar is finally crowned Prince of Graustark. In the same scene, Dantan reveals himself as the prince of the neighboring country of Dawsbergen and declares his love for Beverly. This final sequence is elevated by breaking the film from the boundaries of monochrome, as it's shot in ethereal technicolor. There's no other way to describe it other than magical. It blew my mind when I saw it on the big screen at the 2019 Pordenone Silent Film Festival and I'm looking forward to purchasing the Beverly of Graustark's first home release in spring.
This review is not about that movie.
This review is about Beverly of Graustark, the second book in George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark series, which I of course decided to pick up because I enjoyed the movie so much.
The movie is a far more enjoyable story, improving every aspect of the book. But that's a bit unfair, isn't it? It's not the book's fault that a movie would come out 22 years later that would blow it out of the water. Or, more accurately, it's not the book's fault that, 91 years after the author croaked, some dude would watch the movie in Italy before he read the book. Yet Beverly of Graustark is unimpressive even in the context of the books. It's a notable step down from Love Behind a Throne, and that book wasn't even anything to write home about. Even judging Beverly of Graustark by its own merits doesn’t save it. It fails to be entertaining or thoughtful. It's almost comical how inept it is, in how inane and annoying the characters are, in how telegraphed some of its reveals are, in how unintentionally offensive it is, but the one thing holding me back from recommending this as a form of bile fascination is the fact that it's boring as sin.
Beverly Calhoun, the daughter of a southern (and this is important, as the narration likes to remind us that she's from the South) war hero and congressman, is a socialite living in Washington D.C. She's best friends with her neighbor, Yetive, Princess of Graustark for Reasons™. Yetive and her husband Grenfall Lorry must return to Graustark to tend to the escape of a dangerous, politically prolific prisoner — Gabriel the prince of the neighboring Dawsbergen. Despite Graustark being in the midst of a full-blown international crisis (at least in theory), Beverly, being a sheltered, young American woman with no sense of gravity or stakes, decides it'll be a grand old time to take a trip to Graustark. Once she arrives, she is attacked by vagabonds and is saved by a group of bandits, led by a man going by Baldos. Beverly decides to impersonate the princess for Reasons™. When she and the group arrive at the capital city of Edelweiss, Yetive and the other members of the court go along with Beverly's ruse for Reasons™. They allow Beverly to appoint Baldos, a total stranger to the important position of guardsmen for Reasons™. Beverly and Baldos find themselves falling for one another for Reasons™. Baldos is suspiciously mysterious for Reasons™, but don't worry, Yetive, Lorry, and most other people in positions of power unconditionally trust him for Reasons™.
I'm sure most readers will know how the relationship shakes out as soon as they start reading, especially if they read the first book. But hey, it's no secret that many stories operate under the philosophy that the journey is more important than the destination.
Unfortunately, both are pretty bad in Beverly of Graustark's case.
I was thrown for a loop when I started reading the book. As you can see, the premise is markedly different between both versions. It's not just that the movie's premise is better, but the book's premise doesn't work that well.
Beverly has very little connection to Graustark in either version. The movie alleviates this by having her go for altruistic reasons, making us care about her place in the setting. In the book, she essentially goes because she feels like it. In the movie, the reason she impersonated the prince (which is more interesting than impersonating the princess) is so she could ascend the throne in his stead. Beverly impersonates the princess here because...I don't know, honestly. Maybe it's because she thought it would keep her safe, but she has no reason to keep up the charade once she reunites with Yetive
I found myself not caring about the events of the story and this was mostly thanks to its uninspired characters.
As the main character, Beverly is perhaps the biggest offender here. Perhaps the only positive thing I can say about her is that, unlike Grenfall Lorry, she's not threatening to shoot someone every chapter.
Even if Beverly and Lorry differ in actions, they both feel like obnoxious, boisterous tourists. Lorry is the type of tourist that thumps his chest while threatening to kill everyone over every slight. Beverly, meanwhile, is the type of tourist to constantly stomp her foot, pout, and demand to speak to the manager. She's the type of tourist who keeps talking about how her friends back home will totally fuck up whoever's unfortunate enough to earn her ire. But why tell when I can show?
"He can't scare a Calhoun, no sir-ee. I'll telegraph for my brother Dan to come over here and punch his head to pieces."
"I would sooner die. Would to heaven my father were here, he would shoot you as he would a dog!"
"They wouldn't dare! Uncle Sam would annihilate them! In a week."
Quotes like these make Beverly about as charming as a seasick crocodile. When I describe Lorry and Beverly as reading like boisterous Americans in a foreign country, I'm tempted to write it off as satire, but the rest of the story doesn't match this. And even if it is satirical, it doesn't make it any less grating to read. Both Lorry and Beverly have a chip on their shoulders, but as obnoxious as it is, at least Lorry is enough of a character to attempt to act out on his feelings. Beverly requests for people to do things in her stead, making her a very passive character. She's very uninteresting, as she seldom struggles. The entire royal court essentially goes along with her charade because she's an American and she happens to be friends with Yetive, despite the story doing little to make me believe in their friendship.
The other major character of the book is Baldos. Well, "character," as he comes across more like a prop. His entire shtick is to be mysterious and handsome while Beverly swoons over him for standing there. Throughout the story, Baldos is obtuse for very little reason other than the story says he should be. And I don't buy the excuse that it’s to hide his identity — his absolute refusal to play ball when anyone asks him basic questions goes beyond pragmatism. The story tries to set up a mystery about his identity, but paradoxically, he's so mysterious that you know where the story is going with it a mile away. It doesn't help that the story very plainly lays out the fact there are two royals unaccounted for. “Gee, I wonder who this cagey Baldos feller is!” When things are wrapping up, McCutcheon tries to fake us out with the more interesting scenario that he isn't royalty. But this backfires because when it is revealed that he is a prince, it's all the more unsatisfying.
Count Marlanx, the commander of the Graustarkian military, serves as the story's primary antagonist, and not for a good reason. Marlanx oversees the guards and casts heavy suspicion on Baldos throughout the story. McCutcheon does his damndest to characterize Marlanx as an utter asshole, but I wasn't picking up what he was putting down. The only reason Baldos, a complete stranger, and apparent foreigner, is put in such a prestigious position is because of nepotism and Beverly's crush on him. Baldos, as stated before, is cagey to a ridiculous extent. The story takes place during a state of emergency. In short, Baldos is a huge security risk, yet the story largely characterizes Marlanx as being unreasonable for no reason other than McCutcheon needed him to be the villain. Oh, but don't worry, McCutcheon doesn't want you to think because that would be hard. It's revealed towards the end that the only reason Marlanx dislikes Baldos is because he has the hots for Beverly. It would have been stupid, but the story could have revealed that Marlanx himself was the spy and his suspicion of Baldos was an attempt to throw others off the trail. But no, he's the villain because he was horny on main. All the goddamn possibilities in the world and McCutcheon went with the absolute most pedestrian option imaginable.
And that's probably the biggest problem with Beverly of Graustark — it's a bore.
The plot of the first book wasn't strong by any means, but it was solid. Throughout the story, I had a good idea of what Lorry was doing and why he was doing it. This isn't the case with Beverly of Graustark.
While there was a fair bit of energy during some of the early chapters, all sense forward thrust screeches to a halt once they arrive in Edelweiss. There, we're treated to a lot of meandering. The backdrop of the escaped prisoner doesn't really inform the tone. There's nothing wrong with a slice-of-life story, but those stories hinge on having the strong characterization that Beverly of Graustark lacks.
There's a lot of repetition — Beverly fawns over Baldos being a handsome coat rack, she asks him a question, he's obtuse, she cries, convinced he doesn't love her. Rinse and repeat. Ad. Fucking. Nauseam.
Oh, and the story reveals that Baldos knew Beverly wasn't the princess early on, making this feel like a waste of time.
But I'll take boring, because when Beverly of Graustark isn't boring, it's uncomfortably dated.
Pick your flavor — do you prefer a taste that's insidious, somewhat sour, with you only realizing you shouldn't have eaten when you're running for the porcelain throne? Beverly of Graustark has that.
There's the sense of American exceptionalism that's carried over from the first book. This is perhaps the reason why books about a fantastical European country are framed through the lens of two Americans who have no connection to said country. It's not a way to provide an "in" to Graustark. Once you get into it, the story really isn't much about Graustark at all — it's about America. It's always about how much the Graustarkians love Americans, about how Lorry is so dashing, how Beverly is so beautiful. The characters don't have much problem navigating this new world because of course they don't — they’re Americans, the greatest class of people in the world. "What do you mean you can't marry a commoner as a princess? In America, every (rich, White, Protestant, straight, cis person) is nobility!" "What's that? Does this law say I can't do that? Well, how about you rip that up and let me do what the fuck I want because it's the American way."
The majority of these stories take place in the royal palace, not exploring the land of this fictional setting. Probably because it's more important to focus on what these Americans are doing instead of getting to know a world beyond them.
And I get it — this was written by a white guy born in the 19th century. These stories really came out before American pride was shaken up. It makes sense why McCutcheon is so "rah, rah, go Team America." That said, I can't help but find it disappointing. I picked up these books to go to a new world but they're largely predisposed with propping up America at the expense of Graustark's potential.
Beyond the way the story is framed, you also see the age in the narration. What, with the casual romanticization of Manifest Destiny and glossing over the atrocities committed against Native Americans to achieve it. I also hate to sound regionalist, but there's a...questionable romanticization of the South and you can really feel that McCutcheon is a man born a scant year after the Civil War and has a notable fascination with it.
And I'm certain one could find the entire thing an interesting time capsule, but unfortunately, I came expecting a fairy tale and it starts to fall flat when you realize that the main ingredient of a fairy tale is romanticizing an aspect of life you love or yearn for. Naturally, if you don't share the same ideals as the author, your fairy tale might be less Disney, more Brothers Grimm.
But that, dear reader, is just one flavor of datedness.
You might prefer a taste that's more immediately arresting. You might wish for the taste of battery acid, with you immediately realizing your folly as your stomach does flips and you see stars? Beverly of Graustark has that, too.
Ladies, gentlemen, everyone in between, and everyone beyond, I present to you the PoC's dilemma when delving into fiction of the past. Society as a whole still isn't accepting, but it was far, far worse in the past. Reading old works is a gamble. If you're lucky, your identity will be ignored. If you're unlucky, your identity will be rendered a caricature.
I'd like to introduce Aunt Fanny, Beverly's black maid.
That description alone should ring alarm bells — the black maid is already a well-documented stereotype (and that's not even getting into the fact that Fanny is described as old, so she doubtlessly would have been a family slave), doubly so with "Aunt" as a title. But it gets worse.
The lady opens her mouth.
"Yas, ma'am, Miss-yo' highness, hit's monstrous fine fo' yo', but whar is Ah goin' to sleep? Out yondah, wif all dose scalawags?"
"Fo' de Lawd's sake, missy, co'se, Ah did, but yo' all kindeh susprise me. Dey's p'etty bad skun up, missy; de hide's peeled up consid'ble. But hit ain' dang'ous,-no, ma'am. Jes' skun, 'at's all."
"Good Lawd, Miss Bev'ly, dey'll chop us all to pieces an' take ouah jewl'ry an' money an' clo'es and ev'ything else we done got about us. Good Lawd, le's tu'n back, Miss Bev'ly. We ain' got no mo' show out heah in dese mountings dan a-"
Did ya catch that? If you didn't don't worry — I didn't bother because to preserve my sanity, I skipped all of Aunt Fanny's lines. There was a character who spoke similarly in the last book, but at least his identity was subtle and he was a very minor character. We don't get that luxury here. Fanny is on full display and the message is clear — “look at those stupid black people, aren't they so hilarious!?”
Then there's this exchange.
"And who is Aunt Fanny?" he asked, covering his patch carefully with his slouching hat.
"My servant. She's colored."
"Colored?" he asked in amazement. "What do you mean?"
"Why, she's a negress. Don't you know what a colored person is?"
"You mean she is a slave-a black slave?"
We don't own slaves any mo'-more." He looked more puzzled than ever-then at last, to satisfy himself, walked over and peered into the coach
Aunt Fanny is just offensive on every level. She made me feel that I, as a Black person, have no damn business reading this book. If the fucker was alive, McCutcheon would doubtless be surprised that I'm literate.
At the end of the day, Beverly of Graustark fails everything it attempts. It's pedestrian when it wants to be exciting, the characters are so wooden that it fails to be romantic, and it fails to be a compelling fairy tale. At this point, I don't see these books significantly improving.
Anyway, see you guys again whenever I decide to read the next book in the series.