I chose Green Dolphin Street as my novel for research and review because I had read The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge's best-known children's book when I was younger. In that sense I am not unlike the few that read this largely forgotten and currently (as of April 2000) out of print novel today, most of them found dusty copies by chance on their grandparents shelves. But, in 1944, Green Dolphin Street topped bestseller charts for enough time to be a yearly bestseller, and it tells us something about bestsellers. Green Dolphin Street is a best seller defined by its time, it is an example of the successful based-on-a-true-story formula, it fits into a popular genre, the historical romance, although not without some exceptions, and it straddles the line between "high" and "low" literature, commonly seen in bestsellers.
Green Dolphin Street is an example of a bestseller that is defined by its time period. It was written and published during World War II. Its publication was possible, despite wartime paper shortages, because of a Metro Goldwyn Mayor Film prize. The author writes in her biography, The Joy of Snow, that Green Dolphin Street had grown very long because she had written it in pieces. And that "finishing it nearly killed [her] and when [her] literary agent warned [her] that under wartime conditions with paper so short it was more than likely it could not be published [she] tried to forget about [her] poor old Dolphin. [She] thought he might have to sink without a trace"(275). But because of the prize Green Dolphin Street was published and it became a bestseller the same year, 1944, as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Both books were published in Armed Forces Editions, special pocket sized editions of popular novels for military personnel serving abroad.
Like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, which portrayed "back home" to those serving abroad, Green Dolphin Street caught the hearts of American servicemen because it called up in them a feeling of national pride. The prize that it won was an American one, and the author recalls in her biography an American sailor stopping by to "express his pleasure that an English woman had won an American prize" (278). The book would also have been familiar to Americans reading it because, although it featured characters journeying to New Zealand, it still called up the American experience of colonizing distant lands. Books that induced feelings of national pride would have been popular during wartime because they served a need for high morale.
Green Dolphin Street's religious and spiritual undertones echo the successful melding of religion and fiction found in another bestseller in 1944, The Robe. The spiritual undertones in both novels would have been appealing to a country engaged in war overseas. Green Dolphin Street, written as the countryside surrounding the author's home was bombed by German airplanes, describes a world a century removed from the conflict in Europe contemporaneous with the novel's publication. In one scene:
The whole universe was stilled as though listening for a voice. For the space of one heartbeat there was peace on earth. For one fraction of a moment there was no dead of violence wrought on the earth, no hatred, no fire, no whirlwind, no pain, no fear. Existence rested against the heart of God, then sighed and journeyed again . . .In each of them there was an infinitesimal change. A moment that comes perhaps once in a thousand years had touched them in passing, and though the experience of perfection is feather light, it brands like fire. Only Marguerite spoke of it because only Marguerite knew what had happened. "It all stopped making a noise," she said. "And God said something in a small voice." (68)
Such a passage must have been comforting to readers hearing daily of battles, and those actually out on the fronts in Germany, France, and in the Pacific, because it reminded them of what they were actually fighting for.
In addition, the story, removed from conditions contemporary to World War II America by both time and setting, provided an escape from reality for readers. Fantasy novels, like Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, Robert Jordan's Lord of Chaos, and JK Rowlings' current best-selling Harry Potter series are popular because they provide a vehicle for removing a reader from their ordinary life. Green Dolphin Street is similar to those novels in its faraway setting and the brief mentions of ESP and supernatural communications between people great distances from one another. Although the novel is fantastical in nature, it features in its plot elements that would be familiar to most readers, two lovers separated by vast distances, a beautiful young woman, who, when her lover marries another, becomes a nun.
Green Dolphin Street demonstrates then, that bestsellers are products of their times, they fulfill a demand made, perhaps subconsciously by readers. It shows us that novels which comfort, reassure, and take our minds off our difficulties in familiar ways become popular, and that bestsellers are not necessarily books which shock, make statements, or scandalize.
Green Dolphin Street is also in a category of bestsellers characterized by their insistence that their plot, while fictionalized, is based on a true story. This category goes as far back as the eighteenth century, and early forms of literature like Daniel DeFoe's Roxanna. It tells us of our deep seeded interest in real occurrences, and our belief that if something really did happen it is worth reading about, or watching on television, as is the case with today's television docu-dramas.
The note at the beginning of Green Dolphin Street is reminiscent of the forward to Roxanna, where the author, or in the case of Roxanna the narrator, establishes the fact that the book is based in reality as early in the book as possible. Goudge states in the first sentence of the note in the beginning of the novel, "though this book is fiction, and the characters are not portraits, it is based on fact."
Goudge's writes that she wrote Green Dolphin Street because "it was a story [she] had always wanted to tell because it was so extraordinary, and the writing of it took [her] mind off the war" (274). The reliance of a book on a true story to make it more riveting and closer to the reader is not uncommon among bestsellers. William Blatty's The Exorcist is based on a well-known newspaper story about demonic possession, and in Grace Metalious' Peyton Place one of the characters, Selena Cross, faces a murder trial similar to one that had actually taken place. The true story can be paralleled to the human-interest news story. Novels based upon true stories take a kernel of truth and create a vivid and detailed story, the same way that human-interest news stories take an angle on a piece of news that turns it into a human story with characters who are sympathetic and draw emotional attachment from a reader. The emotional attachment and sympathetic connection garnered from a human-interest story or a novel based on fact is arguably stronger than that gained from an entirely fictional work. Assuming factors like quality and skill of writing are equal, the true story is much more compelling than the entirely fictional work, because although readers identify with characters in both works the identification goes deeper if a reader knows the character is not really a character at all, but a real person. The prevalence of true stories goes fairly far to prove this, because any sort of entertainment is really about emotional and sympathetic connections to an audience, it would make sense to produce the entertainment types that the audience finds more compelling. Hence, the nightly prime time regimen of made-for-TV-docu-dramas actually proves the compelling nature of the true story, regardless of the medium. So, despite Goudge being "reprimanded by several reviewers for cooking up such a fantastic story" (275) the true basis for her novel probably had something to do with its success, because of the way the true story effects readers.
Green Dolphin Street belongs to the category of the historical romance, as well as the true story. The setting is in the first half of the nineteenth century, and it captures many of the elements of a historical romance, high adventure on the sea, love against all odds, and a sort of an emotional rags to riches story. However, it contains some elements that are not usual for the popular light historical romance, Green Dolphin Street's characters are very flawed and human. William Ozanne, the novel's "Prince Charming" is a weak man despite his kindliness; his inability to correctly remember names causes him to write a proposal to the wrong girl, and his guileless nature makes him easy prey for thieves in China. Consequently he ends up in New Zealand, fearing a court martial, married to the wrong sister, and unable to prevent his true love from winding up in a convent. Marianne Le Patourel, the novel's protagonist, is a scheming, grasping, unbeautiful, almost unlovable woman, who connives to marry William despite his obvious love for her sister. This combined with the unhappiness prevalent in the three main characters for virtually all but the last ten pages in a five hundred page novel creates somewhat of a contradiction to the escapist, pleasure giving role of a bestseller.
The final element of a bestseller that Green Dolphin Street illustrates is its firm position in the category of not quite literature. Critics of the novel all place it strictly out of the bounds of great literature, because of its strong focus on plot and descriptions of setting and its obvious entertainment driven purpose. Its purpose was obviously entertainment driven because it was widely publicized for winning the Metro Goldwyn Mayor prize, and was understood by all to be practically a script for a new MGM movie. But this does not make it uncommon among bestsellers, most best-selling novels are acknowledged to be less than literature, the few "greats" that even make a bestseller list can fit into other, more common categories of bestsellers. Earnest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea was a bestseller because of the acclaim it received upon winning a large prize, similar to Green Dolphin Street's success because of a prize. James Joyce's Ulysses made a large splash because it was highly controversial and difficult to get into the country, and Joseph Conrad's only appearance on the bestseller list is with a book that has been argued by critics to have a lessor literary merit than previous novels by him.
However, Green Dolphin Street is not "low" literature, it employs complex sentences, creates vivid portraits of characters, and has several themes running throughout its story line. It straddles the line that many Oprah books seem to sit on, "high" enough literature for Oprah and several select readers to discuss heatedly over dinner at one of her book club shows, and "low" enough so that critics can snub and dismiss them as overly-sentimental and under-polished. Straddling this line seems to be key for most bestsellers, "high" literature, such as is read widely in schools and college courses can be a tedious chore to read, and is often thought of as work. Such works are read to improve the mind, and not for the entertainment value they provide. Conversely, "low" literature, like the harlequin romance genre, abounds in such quantities, and each book is so interchangeable, that there is not enough distinction for any of the "lower" tier books to ever be singled out by a great enough segment of the book buying public to make the best seller list. What is left is books with a universal appeal, escapist novels that have some unique quality, or are advertised in a successful way, or the occasional sensationalist novel that does something so different that it creates an audience of people eager to buy it because they want to find out exactly what everyone else is talking about. Green Dolphin Street is the former type of book, along with many of the Oprah books. In Green Dolphin Street's case it employed a massive advertising campaign under the direction of MGM, and in the Oprah books' case the marketing phenomenon that is Oprah merely recommended.
In conclusion, Green Dolphin Street, now largely forgotten, has a lot to say about bestsellers as a genre of book. It is a reflection of the time period in which it was written and published, it reflects the successful trick of basing a novel on a true story in order to garner more emotional appeal, it is an example of a genre of bestseller, the historical romance, although not without exceptions, and it helps explain the not quite literature nature of the bestseller.
Goudge, Elizabeth. Green Dolphin Street. Coward-McCann, Inc. New York: 1944.
Goudge, Elizabeth. The Joy of Snow. Coward-McCann & Geoghegan, Inc. New York: 1974.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. Harper Paperbacks. New York: 1994.
Metalious, Grace. Peyton Place. Northeastern University Press. Boston: 1999.
Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. HarperPerennial. New York 1998.
Entries in the Bestseller Database and notes in class on all of the above novels (excluding The Joy of Snow), as well as for The Robe, Ulysses, and The Old Man and The Sea.
Notes in class and Daisy Maryles' article on 01/0401999, "Bestsellers '98: They're the Tops" on PublishersWeekly.com, for the Oprah effect in publishing.
DeFoe, Daniel. Roxanna. Notes from ENEC 381 in Fall of 1999.