"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.