Costain, Thomas B.: The Black Rose
(researched by Brian Tetreault)

Assignment 1: Bibliographical Description
1 First edition publication information (publisher, place, date, etc.)
Thomas B. Costain. The Black Rose. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1945.
2 First edition published in cloth, paper, or both? If both, simultaneous or staggered?
Published in cloth alone. Thomas B. Costain, the author, holds the copyright alone. There are no parallel first editions.
3 JPEG image of cover art from first edition, if available
4 Pagination
208 leaves, pp. [i-vi]vii[viii]ix-x[2][1]2-403[1]. There are no plates or illustrations.
5 Edited or Introduced? If so, by whom?
There is an introduction by the author, which comments on the nature of the book:Though 3 underrepresented historical figures (Edward I, "Bayan of 100 eyes" and Robert Bacon) appear only briefly in the novel, its inspiration and general action were influenced by them. The book is based on an English legend, and he gives a historical basis for the story and key events, but notes it is purely fictional. He also notes the books he used for research and plot ideas. The book is dedicated on [iv], "To DORA"
6 Illustrated? If so, by whom?
There are no illustrations.
7 JPEG image of sample illustration, if available
8 General physical appearance of book (Is the physical presentation of the text attractive? Is the typography readable? Is the book well printed?)
Page dimensions: 210mmx137mm Text dimensions: 169mmx110mm Type: 86R Overall readability is quite good. Good-size letters, sufficient space between lines, and adequate margins. Pages have faded slightly but still in good condition and letters have not faded. Appearance very plain, with no illustration and chapter titles written in simple italics. Type is Roman Serif.
9 JPEG image of sample chapter page, if available
10 Paper (Assess the original quality of the paper used for the book. Is the paper in the copy or copies you examined holding up physically over time?)
Paper is wove and white; the top and bottom have straight edge but the sides are deckled.The tops of the pages appear to be gilt in red. It is of average width and apparently sturdy, and in overall pretty good condition; the pages have yellowed but not excessively. [viii] and ix appear to have some kind of food stain on them. There are no rips or tears at all in the pages.
11 Description of binding(s)
Material: Appears to be calico-texture cloth. Color: Medium reddish-orange Stamping: A coat-of-arms is stamped slightly above center; it consists of a shield with 3 crowns arranged in an upside- down triangle inside it. A horn and sword cross in an x behind amidst a number of leaves and flowers. Spine:A black field with gold lettering reading: COSTAIN|THE| BLACK|ROSE|DOUBLEDAY (72x29mm). Glossy paper is pasted on to the front and back covers and includes an attached leaf. Identical black and white maps are drawn on both these, entitled "The Road to Cathay."
12 Transcription of title page
Recto: THOMAS B. COSTAIN|[gothic]The Black|[gothic]Rose|[drawn coat-of-arms, see description in 11]|DOUBLEDAY, DORAN & CO., INC.|[gothic]Garden City, New York|1945 Verso: COPYRIGHT, 1945|BY THOMAS B. COSTAIN|ALL RIGHTS RESERVED PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES|AT|THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK FIRST EDITION
13 JPEG image of title page, if available
14 Manuscript Holdings
Butte County Library
15 Other (typograpical information from title page, etc.)
-Dust Jacket: The front is dappled red with the following text: THOMAS B. COSTAIN|Author of RIDE WITH ME|The|Black| Rose|[coat of arms, see 11 for description]|A ROMANTIC NOVEL -Spine has exact same text but smaller and minus "author of Ride With Me" and an added "DOUBLEDAY DORAN" at the bottom. The back is white with a picture of the author in the top left (90x75mm) with the caption "about thomas B. Costain & The Black Rose," and a brief blurb commenting on his editorship and previous books follows. The inside flaps of the dust jacket have a summary of the novel, beginning on the front flap and continued on the back. The front has "T.B.R. Price, $3.00 on top right. Back flap has "This novel has not been serialized in any form prior to book publication" on bottom. Jacket is torn and bent in several places along top and bottom but is stil thoroughly intact and in decent condition. -A piece of white paper, 63x81mm, with silhouettes of man and woman sitting and signatures of Lillian Gary Taylor and Robert Taylor pasted onto inside of front binding. -A piece of paper with "Black Rose|1,000,000 sold|Dec. 30th, '45 written in black ink is folded around what appears to be a clipping out of some kind of book (origin unknown) of a photograph with the caption, "Thomas B. Costain, receiving the one-millionth copy of his novel, "The Black Rose"(Doubleday), from Dorothy Larrimor at a Stork Club party in New York on December 14 (see also page 2767).
Assignment 2: Publication and Performance History
1 Did the original publisher issue the book in more than one edition? If so, briefly describe distinguishing features of each (illustrations, cover art, typography, etc.); if not, enter N/A
The black rose. Garden City, New York: Doublday & Company, Inc., Garden City publishing co., inc., 1946. 199p, 270x210mm. On cover: Special edition. The Black Rose, large page edition. Doubleday: Garden City, NY, 1946. 216p, 213x273mm. Sold for $1; only 350,000 copies printed. (source: publisher's weekly,vol 149 pt. 2) The Black Rose Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953. 403 p, 240mm. Illustrated by Herbert Ryman, first illustrated edition. Source: National union catalogue, vol. 124.
2 JPEG image of cover art from one subsequent edition, if available
3 JPEG image of sample illustration from one subsequent edition, if available
4 How many printings or impressions of the first edition?
1st printing: 650,000 copies 2nd printing: 25,000 for a total of 675,000.
5 Editions from other publishers? If so, list their dates and publishers; if not, enter N/A
-New York: Buccaneer Books, 1998. 403p, 230mm. -Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993. 453p, 210mm. -Amereon, Limited, 1976. -London: Tandem, 1971. 400p, 190mm. -Garden City, NY: Sun Dial Press, 1947. 403p, 220mm.
6 Last date in print?
The book seems to be still in print as of October 2002; the latest edition was by Buccaneer Books in 1998. At least six other books by Costain are still in print.
7 Total copies sold? (source and date of information?)
Very little information was available beyond the immediate time after the book was published. The last figure I found was that by May of 1946 over 1,500,000 copies had been sold, including book club books. By June of 1946 it was no longer on the bestseller list. (Source: Publisher's weekly, vol 149 pt. 2 and 151 pt. 1)
8 Sales figures by year? (source and date of information?)
Again, very little information. The following is a chronicle of the first year and half or so of book sales. -1st printing (August 23,1945): 650,000 copies (NY Times book review, July-Dec. 1945, August 26). -September 29, 1945: 25,000 more (total 675,000, including book club copies) -October 27, 1945: 880,000 -Dec. 1, 1945: 974,000 -Dec. 14, 1945: 1,000,000 -Dec.29, 1945: 1,128,750 -April 13,1946: over 1,400,000 -May of 1946: over 1,500,000 sold. -By Jan. 4, 1947, the book had brought in over $1,200,000 (from an advertisement for Costain's next book, "The Moneyman," Publisher's weekly, vol 151 pt. 1 pg. 8).
9 Advertising copy (transcribe significant excerpts, briefly identify where ads were placed)
The Black Rose was aggressively advertised in the months following its publication, as Costain had just had a recent hit with "Ride With Me." The first advertisement occured over a month before publication, July 7th 1945 in publisher's weekly: 3 pages long; the first featured white words on a black background: ON AUGUST 23rd|The|Black|Rose|A BIG NOVEL WITH A BIG FUTURE--> Second page: white field, red text: By the author of|RIDE WITH ME|Thomas B.|Costain This is followed by two short blurbs, the first a brief synopsis and the second talking about the intensive advertising campaign, labeled "The Story" and "The Promotion," respectively. At the bottom is found: The Literary Guild Selection For September. Publication: August 23. Price: $3.00 At the very bottom is a ribbon with, "Doubleday, Doran/ Garden City, NY" Page 3 features a photograph of the book. (Source: Publisher's Weekly, vol. 148 pt. 1, pgs. 1-3) Another ad ran in the New York Times Book Review: [cursive] Just Published...[standard Roman] An exciting, romantic novel of|feudal England and exotic Cathay... by|THOMAS B. COSTAIN|author of RIDE WITH ME. There is a picture of the book in the center with pictures of 3 characters surrounding it, also a synopsis of the book. (Source: New York Times Book Review for July-Dec. 1945, Aug. 26, 1945). Another found in Publisher's Weekly: Doubleday will also continue its advertising of "The Black Rose" by Thomas Costain. The millionth copy of the book has just come off the press and was presented to the author at a party on Dec. 14 at the stork club. The Jan. advertising for this book will have a mass market appeal, a preview of which appeared in the New York Sunday News and Mirro on Dec. 16. (Source: pub. weekly, vol 148 pt 2, 2767).
10 JPEG image of sample advertisement, if available
11 Other promotion
-Listed in an advertisement by Franklin Spier, Inc., "The Book Advertisement Specialists since 1923." Caption: "Greetings to American Booksellers' Association! Some of the books that have been making money for you..." surrounded by pictures of books, "The Black Rose" among them. (source: Publisher's weekly, vol 149 pt. 2, 2524). A photo of Costain being handed a copy of the book was featured in the December 1945 edition of Publisher's weekly, with the following caption: "Thomas B. Costain, receiving the one-millionth copy of his novel, "The Black Rose"(Doubleday), from Dorothy Larrimor at a Stork Club party in New York on December 14 (see also page 2767)." "The Black Rose" is an extraordinarily common phrase, used for everything from poetry clubs to pubs to more risque institutions which i regret to have come across. None that I encountered seemed to have any connection to Costain's novel, however.
12 Performances in other media? If so, list media, date, title, production information; if not, enter N/A
Books on Tape: Books on Tape, Incorporated, 1993. Read by David Case; 13 cassettes, 19 hours and 30 minutes. Unabridged Collector's edition. Film: "The Black Rose;" 20th century-fox film corp., 1950. Screenplay by Talbot Jennings, directed by Henry Hathaway. Produced by Louis D. Lighton. 120 minutes, color by Technicolor. Microfilm: The Black Rose. London: Transworld Publishers, 1954. 499p, 1 reel, 259fr., 35mm.
13 Translations? If translated, give standard bibliographic information for each translation. If none, enter N/A
French: La rose noire/Roman trad. de l'anglais par Claude Orlanes. Paris: Geneve, 1946. 456p, 180x130mm. La rose noire/Roman trad. de l'anglais par Claude Orlanes. Paris: Lausanne, 1959 Ed. Rencontre, 454p. German: Die schwarze Rose: Roman/Ins Deutsche ¸bers. von N.O. Scarpi Heidelburg: Keyser, 1950. 511p. Die schwarze Rose: Roman/Ins Deutsche ¸bers. von N.O. Scarpi Z¸rich: Morgarten-Verlag Conzett & Huber, 1946. 510p, 220x150mm. Die schwarze Rose: Roman/Ins Deutsche ¸bers. von N.O. Scarpi Z¸rich: Schweizer Druck- und Verlagshaus, ca. 1950 Edition Lizenzausg; 509p, 220mm. Italian: La rosa nera: Unica traduzione autorizzata dall/inglese di Franca Spada Milan: A. Martello, 194_ (exact year unknown). 552p. Swedish: Den svarta rosen. Oversattning av Ingalisa Munck. Stockholm, Wahlstrom & Widstrand, 1947. 427p, 230mm. Danish: Den sorte rose. Paa dansk ved Erik Freiesleben. Copenhagen: Westermann, 1947. 489p, 220mm.
14 Serialization? If serialized, give standard bibliographic information for serial publication. If none, enter N/A
No evidence of serialization was found.
15 Sequels/Prequels? Give standard bibliographic information for each. If none, enter N/A
No sequels or prequels were found.
Assignment 3: Biographical Sketch of the Author
1 Paste your biographical sketch here (maximum 500 words)
Thomas Bertram Costain was born on May 8, 1885, to John Herbert and Mary Costain in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. He was educated in the Brantford public school system through high school, and did not attend college, although later in life he received an honorary degree from the University of Western Ontario. Exhibiting an early talent for the written word, he was a reporter for his high school newspaper and wrote 3 stories which were never published. He took his journalistic experience to his first occupation, editor of the Guelph (Ontario) Daily Mercury, which he took on in 1908. Two years later he moved to Maclean's Magazine in Toronto and in the same year married Ida Randolphe Spragge, with whom he remained until his death in 1965. They had two daughters, Molly and Dora. (Current Biography, 124-125). Costain made an important decision when he took a position with the Saturday Evening Post and moved to the United States, living in Bethayres, Pennsylvania. He became "well-known as a literary scout"(Authors Speak...) and was eventually recruited by Twentieth-Century Fox as an editor for film scripts in 1937. The next milestone in his career came when he joined up with Doubleday & Co. publishers as an advisory editor. This gave him more time to write (Current Biography 124), something he had always enjoyed but never made into a profession. In fact, he "wondered why I stayed chained to the editorial desk for so long" because writing seemed to him "the ideal profession"(Authors Speak...). He was 57 years of age when his first book, For My Great Folly, was published in 1942. It was a "historical romance based on extensive research, colorful detail, intrigue, swift pace, rousing action?"(Current Biography 125), setting the tone for most of his subsequent novels and doing reasonably well in sales. Following this came Ride With Me in 1944, his first true bestseller, which brought him into the national literary consciousness. But it was the publication of The Black Rose in 1945, perhaps "the most ambitious and colorful of costain's novels"(Current Biography 125), that gave Costain his masterpiece and set him as one of the nation's top bestselling authors. His other works of fiction include The Moneyman (1947), High Towers (1949), Son of a Hundred Kings (1950), and The Silver Chalice (1952). He also published several nonfiction works including Joshua: Leader of a United People in 1943 and his "Pageant of England" series composed of two books: The Conquerers (1949) and The Magnificent Century (1951). All his books were published by Doubleday. Through his extensive research and novels, "?Costain has taught history to more people outside the classroom than any professional historian has ever taught inside"(LexisNexis). Some time after becoming a full-fledged writer, Costain and his wife moved to "a white clapboard house in a grove of magnificent elm trees on the top of a hill"(Authors Speak...) just outside of Lakeville, Connecticut, where they remained until his death. He spent around five hours a day writing and averaged 3,000 words, though his method involved writing the story longhand and transcribing it onto his typewriter, a process he performed several times a day. In his leisure time, he enjoyed sketching with his wife, collecting antique furniture, playing bridge, and reading primarily histories and biographies, "both for research and for pleasure." (Authors Speak...). At the age of eighty, Costain died on October 8, 1965, of a stroke in New York. (Facts on File).
Assignment 4: Reception History
1 Paste contemporary reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
Reviews of "The Black Rose" were decidedly mixed when it first came out. Those who praised the book focused on its romanticism, fast pace and vibrant color, while detractors point out flat characters, implausible plot elements and a mix of 19th century notions and idiom within a reasonably believable 13th-century frame. One of the points of contention, in fact, gravitates around the historical content and its accuracy; some reviewers feel this is the novel's strong point: "?a story that?derives its major interest from the remarkable tapestry of history against which it is enacted," while others find the facts glaringly erroneous: "Unfortunately author has no comprehension of the Middle Ages, and only a superficial knowledge of history"(Book Review Digest). It is known that Costain did enormous amounts of research on the period before writing, "Thomas B. Costain deserves another [accolade] for the research which went into its writing"(Marvin). Overall, reviews have a mildly positive tilt. Many reviewers cite poor characterization and possible historical inaccuracy, but most admit that the book is superficially enjoyable and good summer reading, even if it serves no didactic purpose, "Mr. Costain has painted a picture book all his own. As such you are free to enjoy it, and by no means unlikely to have a whale of a time. But highbrows better keep out"(Pick). The vast majority of reviews found came out within a week of publication of the book, so it is difficult to determine whether one was more influential. Reviews seem to get more negative with time; those published soon after the book contain mostly praise but in the following months reviews peculiarly turn more negative. Initially, the worst review says bluntly, "Descriptions of life and customs fascinating, plot juvenile. Good summer reading"(Book Review Digest). Two weeks later, we get, "The Black Rose is no more than the inevitable result of an industrious competition in which the winning author is the one who pumps the most hot air into his work"(BRD), and a month after this, "?but against [the settings] the characters move rather pallidly. Mr. Costain's aforementioned relish preveneted him from giving us much more than a hazy picture of Walter, Trisram, Engaine and Maryam?"(Marvin) and two months later we get the scathing, "?the author has no comprehension of the Middle Ages?He is most unjust in his portrait of the eminent Franciscan Scholar, Roger Bacon"(BRD). Perhaps this progressive backlash is the result of critics upset at the tremendous initial success and unreservedly favorable first reviews of the book. Typical reviews go through more plot summarization than seems common for reviews today (Nov. 2002); an excerpt from a typical one is as follows: The book brims over with fascinating sidelights of an England groping toward nationhood after the Norman conquest, of sturdy commoners beginning to chafe under the dead hand of chivalry, of Roger Bacon predicting the airplane and gunpowder, of student protocol at the Universities, or royal protocol at the court of "the first English king."?Mr. Costain, who already has two successful historical novels to his credit?knows precisely how to blend his prodigal lagniappe with his plot, without slowing its hard-driving pace. "The Black Rose" is full-measure picaresque drama, and well worth the price of admission. (Du Bois). On the whole, critical reception was positive, although a healthy number of qualifying statements and caveats show that many were wary of the real literary value of the novel and consider it flawed at best. Works Cited: Dictionary of Literary Biography vol. 9 part 1. ed. James J. Martine. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981. Du Bois, William, reviewer. "Round Trip from London to Kinsai." The New York Times Book Review. July-Dec. 1945, Aug. 26, 1945, p. 7. Marvin, K. Shattuck, reviewer. Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 30. ed. Jean C. Stine and Daniel G. Marowski. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984. Pick, Robert, reviewer. "The Black Rose by Thomas B. Costain." The Saturday Review. Vol. 28, July 6-Dec. 29, 1945, p26. The Book Review Digest, vol. 41, p. 154. ed. Mertice M. James and Dorothy Brown. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1946. (the above includes the following reviews consulted): Cath World 162:283 Dec. 1945 Christian Science Monitor p14 Aug. 25, `945 Library Journal 70:685 Aug. 1945 NY Times p 7 Aug 26 1945 New Yorker 21:73 Sept. 1 1945 Springfield Republicad p4d Sept. 2 1945 Weekly Book Review p4 Aug 26 1945
2 Paste subsequent reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
Reviews of "The Black Rose" were decidedly mixed when it first came out. Those who praised the book focused on its romanticism, fast pace and vibrant color, while detractors point out flat characters, implausible plot elements and a mix of 19th century notions and idiom within a reasonably believable 13th-century frame. One of the points of contention, in fact, gravitates around the historical content and its accuracy; some reviewers feel this is the novel's strong point: "?a story that?derives its major interest from the remarkable tapestry of history against which it is enacted," while others find the facts glaringly erroneous: "Unfortunately author has no comprehension of the Middle Ages, and only a superficial knowledge of history"(Book Review Digest). It is known that Costain did enormous amounts of research on the period before writing, "Thomas B. Costain deserves another [accolade] for the research which went into its writing"(Marvin). Overall, reviews have a mildly positive tilt. Many reviewers cite poor characterization and possible historical inaccuracy, but most admit that the book is superficially enjoyable and good summer reading, even if it serves no didactic purpose, "Mr. Costain has painted a picture book all his own. As such you are free to enjoy it, and by no means unlikely to have a whale of a time. But highbrows better keep out"(Pick). The vast majority of reviews found came out within a week of publication of the book, so it is difficult to determine whether one was more influential. Reviews seem to get more negative with time; those published soon after the book contain mostly praise but in the following months reviews peculiarly turn more negative. Initially, the worst review says bluntly, "Descriptions of life and customs fascinating, plot juvenile. Good summer reading"(Book Review Digest). Two weeks later, we get, "The Black Rose is no more than the inevitable result of an industrious competition in which the winning author is the one who pumps the most hot air into his work"(BRD), and a month after this, "?but against [the settings] the characters move rather pallidly. Mr. Costain's aforementioned relish preveneted him from giving us much more than a hazy picture of Walter, Trisram, Engaine and Maryam?"(Marvin) and two months later we get the scathing, "?the author has no comprehension of the Middle Ages?He is most unjust in his portrait of the eminent Franciscan Scholar, Roger Bacon"(BRD). Perhaps this progressive backlash is the result of critics upset at the tremendous initial success and unreservedly favorable first reviews of the book. Typical reviews go through more plot summarization than seems common for reviews today (Nov. 2002); an excerpt from a typical one is as follows: The book brims over with fascinating sidelights of an England groping toward nationhood after the Norman conquest, of sturdy commoners beginning to chafe under the dead hand of chivalry, of Roger Bacon predicting the airplane and gunpowder, of student protocol at the Universities, or royal protocol at the court of "the first English king."?Mr. Costain, who already has two successful historical novels to his credit?knows precisely how to blend his prodigal lagniappe with his plot, without slowing its hard-driving pace. "The Black Rose" is full-measure picaresque drama, and well worth the price of admission. (Du Bois). On the whole, critical reception was positive, although a healthy number of qualifying statements and caveats show that many were wary of the real literary value of the novel and consider it flawed at best. Works Cited: Dictionary of Literary Biography vol. 9 part 1. ed. James J. Martine. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981. Du Bois, William, reviewer. "Round Trip from London to Kinsai." The New York Times Book Review. July-Dec. 1945, Aug. 26, 1945, p. 7. Marvin, K. Shattuck, reviewer. Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 30. ed. Jean C. Stine and Daniel G. Marowski. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984. Pick, Robert, reviewer. "The Black Rose by Thomas B. Costain." The Saturday Review. Vol. 28, July 6-Dec. 29, 1945, p26. The Book Review Digest, vol. 41, p. 154. ed. Mertice M. James and Dorothy Brown. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1946. (the above includes the following reviews consulted): Cath World 162:283 Dec. 1945 Christian Science Monitor p14 Aug. 25, `945 Library Journal 70:685 Aug. 1945 NY Times p 7 Aug 26 1945 New Yorker 21:73 Sept. 1 1945 Springfield Republicad p4d Sept. 2 1945 Weekly Book Review p4 Aug 26 1945
Assignment 5: Critical Analysis
1 Paste your critical analysis in here (maximum 2500 words)
"The Black Rose," like many bestsellers, fits snugly into a category of popular novels that share similar topic, scope, or other traits. It is not confined to this classification, however, and exhibits qualities from other types of popular fiction and miscellaneous material that provides insight into its bestseller status. At once a romance, historical fiction, and underdog triumph novel, it also to a mild extent addresses social issues of the time and certainly captures the compelling aspect of bestsellers. This essay will discuss the factors that made the novel a bestseller, considering contemporary relevance, notable aesthetic features, and sales trajectory. A brief plot summary will serve to give the reader background for citations and a better understanding of the points made in this essay. "The Black Rose" is the story of Walter of Gurnie, the bastard son of the Earl of Lessford and a very minor noblewoman in 12th-century England. As the book opens he is a student at Oxford, disliked by his peers and in love with a woman above him in station, Engaine Tressling. A chance meeting with a peasant chamber-deacon named Tristram sets him on a course that leads him to Cathay in the far east, where no Englishman has gone and returned alive. His goal is to amass wealth in the lucrative East and return to England and secure land and a title, with the ultimate purpose of marrying Engaine. But he finds the Asian landscape torn by war, and ends up on a mission from a powerful but detestable merchant, Anthemus of Antioch. On his travels with Tristram he falls in love with the sister of Anthemus, a half-Greek half-English slave named Maryam, and befriends the general of the dominating Mongolian conquest, Bayan of the Hundred Eyes. After a slew of twists and adventures, Walter returns home very wealthy and with a new perspective on the European feudal system, and is made a knight by the innovative and far-seeing new king, Edward I. However, he was separated from Maryam, whom he married at Kinsai, during their escape from the city, and she makes a dangerous and wearisome journey to London, armed with none of the languages of the lands she must traverse. She eventually reaches England after three arduous years, and Walter's insistence on waiting pays off as the two are reunited at last. The novel is obviously something of a romance, but is usually categorized as "historical fiction." This also becomes obvious upon reading; it's clear Costain did extensive research into the period in terms of important figures and events, with some attention to custom and prevailing opinions on society. The time period under which the book was published was rich with this type of story, one contemporaneous example is "The Robe" by Lloyd C. Douglas. Costain was of course aware of this, but luckily this public appetite was in tandem with his own interest in history. Here, the main plot is wholly fictional, but it is structured around three historical figures whom Costain had great reverence for but whom he felt history ignored: Edward I, king of England from 1272-1307 AD, Francis Bacon, the scholar credited with inventing the scientific method, and Bayan of the Hundred Eyes, a brilliant but largely overlooked Mongol general. Thus the reader is provided with a whimsical tale that allows for incredible coincidence, luck and adventure while still having a factual framework within which to understand the novel better and learn something about the time period. This was the appeal of such stories, and their popularity at this time period was a big part of the novel's success. This also helps to explain the novel's sales pattern. It sold a large amount in a short period?one million copies within three months, two million within a year?but then it dropped conspicuously off the charts and enjoyed only moderate success for a period before leaving public consciousness entirely. While an exemplary case of the historical fiction novel, the public's desire for newness coupled with the extensive production of other such novels made it extremely easy for each of them to be discarded when the next set entered the market. And when the readers' inclination towards historical fiction waned, Costain's novels followed suit, to the point where they are seldom read today. While Walter is born a noble, the tale is very much an underdog story, one that has been popular throughout history and especially resonates with American audiences. He is first seen being standing in the rain at Oxford (there is no better symbol for being downtrodden), waiting fawningly for Engaine to arrive, and when she does both she and her father spurn him, and we soon see that his classmates treat him with little more respect. But through his actions and perseverance he makes his fortune, and at the end of the book acquires much more land, wealth, a knighthood and a personal friendship with the King. In 1945 America, the end of World War II found large manufacturer surplus and a collapse of many of the New Deal programs that had helped bring the country out of the Depression, the sting of which was still on the minds of many citizens. The apparent failure of the stock market and widespread unemployment in a nation that boasted free choice of jobs and lifestyle was disheartening. To such an audience, a story that reaffirmed the idea of rewards for hard work and the ability of any person to succeed against the odds was undoubtedly refreshing and appealing. Moreover, the book is intently concerned with class; Walter's travels and friendship with the peasant-class Tristram remold his belief in the hierarchies of the feudal system and impress upon him the pitiful plight of the non-landowners of England. He advocates to the new King ideas of widespread land ownership, feeling that the whole of society would benefit from the motivations such sanctions would engender in the English population. He even begins to reject ideas of hereditary nobility and rank altogether, though he doesn't get much beyond this by the end of the novel. It is highly questionable whether these notions occurred to anyone or spurred revolution as early as the 12th century, but they carry a suggestion of capitalist thought, and thus further elevate Walter in the eyes of a culture so rooted in notions of freedom and the ability for the lower class to gain power. Themes of class and hereditary versus "true" nobility dominate the story, and offshoots of these themes are pertinent to the time period and the book's status as a bestseller. When dealing with Anthemus the evil and monopolistic merchant, Tristram raises the moral question of whether their intended plan, complementing the malicious schemes of Anthemus, was indirectly supporting him and the Mongol army and therefore made them culpable. Walter dismisses this idea, "Whether or not we go with this Bayan of the Hundred Eyes, he will scatter the Chinese armies like chaff before the wind. Should we let this merchant fellow have all the profits? We could take our share with completely clear consciences"(Costain 112). This situation is reminiscent of one in a later (and more substantial) novel, Steinbeck's "East of Eden" in which Adam scolds Cal for making money as a result of the war (in this case WWI). Costain, writing during the last year of World War II, very well may have been commenting on the profiteering that unscrupulous entrepreneurs engaged in throughout the war. Contemporary moral issues are of concern to the public, and this may also have been an important aspect of the novel. This is the most concrete example, but issues of bravery and acting righteously surface much in the novel, and would have possessed especial import at the time. Aside from these cultural considerations, the book fuses a number of stock characters and themes or devices that contribute to its appeal. Tristram is the noble hero, selfless and determined; Bayan is the clever leader whose tactics are questionable but who recognizes strength and aptitude in the protagonist and aids him; Joseph of the Merrytotter is the poor but kindly and generous old sage who offers protection and advice. The story even initially appears to be a derivative of a common love story: a man loves a woman beyond his class and strives to gain the means to actively pursue her?there's even a feud between the families to stir comparisons to Romeo and Juliet. And the journey motif embodied in Walter's trip to Cathay is a widely employed one. These familiar devices attract readers because they are understandable and are known (by both the writers and readers) to excite certain basic human emotions that readers desire when reading a book. Costain has great command of the adventure formula as well. The plot follows a long chain of conflict-climax-resolutions, often with the resolution of one conflict being the cause of the new predicament. One feature that is starkly apparent of the heroes in the story is their extremes of luck?while it all ends up balancing out, what makes a good adventure tale is a character having both the best of luck and the worst of luck, with a good dose of implausible coincidence that can go either way. It is a severe stroke of bad luck that Ortuh, a Mongol soldier ill-disposed towards the English travelers, attempts to force his way into their tent the moment Maryam is undoing her disguise as a servant-boy and thus jeopardizing their safety in the caravan. But a few pages later, when Walter engages his escape plan, "luck was with him"(Costain 205), a phrase which is inordinately repeated throughout the book. And Ortuh's animosity, so much a hardship for Walter, ends up being a boon when the warrior's impatience causes him to strike Walter during the trial of the Rope Walk, which effectually annuls the whole ordeal and saves Walter's life. The fortuitous coincidences of the meetings, partings and the heavy dependence on chance are staunchly formulaic, but this is what most readers of such a book are looking for. It should be noted that not a single reviewer was found to have criticized the implausibility of the story in terms of plot or style of writing; in fact, the only negative comments tended to deal with the historical inaccuracy of the subject matter. Since most readers would not be concerned with this, in fact would be getting their history from the novel, and since the novel was relatively well-written, fast-paced and satisfyingly formulaic, the fantastic success it enjoyed is not surprising. Another standard technique that audiences have seemed to enjoy a sort of retrospective prescience relative to the characters and their setting?the type of artifice employed in "Clan of the Cave Bear," which arguably has at least a tenuous place in historical fiction. The main character Ayla implements discoveries and innovations she has made that are incomprehensible to the characters but easily understood by the reader, such as the use of a sling or making a fire by striking flint. In "The Black Rose," Costain has Roger Bacon propound farseeing theories of flying machines, tools to alter perception of distance and size, and suggesting a scientific method. This is appealing to readers because it evokes a sense of pride and superiority in knowing what the characters don't; it provides the excitement of new discovery and combines it with the satisfaction of applied knowledge. Having Walter introduce paper to England is a similar technique, in the same vein as the film "Forrest Gump," where historical events or cultural change are attributed to the main character, providing a queer sense of nostalgia, even if the reader is far removed from the circumstances of the event. One discovery the author rightly ascribes to Bacon that is particularly worth noting is the Western discovery of gunpowder. Bacon is excited by this, but also prophesies its use in warfare and the destruction it potentially holds. This of course has strong contemporary parallel?the extraordinary but unfortunate development of the atomic bomb. While Costain's intention here is unclear, the comparison would certainly occur to most readers, and may also have influence opinion and popularity of the book. All of the above factors are certainly important to the outstanding achievement, but the most important issue is the fact that Costain was already a somewhat established author, and his most recent work, 1944's "Ride With Me" had boasted enormous success. "The Black Rose" very much belongs to the class of follow-up bestsellers; further evidence is exhibited in Doubleday's "aggressive advertising regimen"(Publisher's Weekly) and the astronomical number of first printing copies, 650,000 (NY Times Book Review). Doubleday knew the book would be a success because of his previous book and because they made it a success through advertising. Sure enough, the 650,000 original copies sold out in just over a month (Publisher's Weekly). Follow-up status is perhaps the most significant and powerful aspect of a bestseller, because it has little or nothing to do with merit?a large number of copies even of a horrible book are all but guaranteed to be sold on name alone before the masses realize the drop in quality. "The Black Rose" no doubt had this benefit, but it lived up to its expectations, and in most readers' eyes surpassed them?it is widely considered to be Costain's best novel (Contemporary Literary Criticism 97). Thus, that "The Black Rose" was a bestseller was not surprising, but neither was its relatively short hold on the public's attention. The film, while slightly boosting sales of the book, did little to revive interest in it. The appeal was mostly due to its status as a follow-up novel, and also had a good deal to do with the specific time in which it was published. It is certainly decently written and engaging, but easily replaceable by newer novels and due to fade out with the interest in its genre. The formulaic approach and fast pace allow it to appeal to all eras of readers?most informal reviews today (amazon.com, etc.) are very favorable and laud the book, but it is highly unlikely that it will ever find its way back to the mainstream or enjoy another large amount of success.
You are not logged in. (Sign in)