The best thing about The Trumpeter Swan is probably its dust jacket.
The Trumpeter Swan is a 1920 romance by Temple Bailey. Please don’t make the same mistake as several reviewers on Goodreads by confusing it with The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White!
The Trumpeter Swan is the second Temple Bailey romance to be reviewed on this blog, the previous one being Wallflowers. Since the Wallflowers post, LitHub released a list of one hundred years of bestsellers, with one of their biggest takeaways being that the bestselling books aren’t necessarily the ones remembered. Temple Bailey is on that list three times: in 1919, 1923, and 1926. She is also included in a short entry in the 1928 edition of Grant Overton’s The Women Who Make Our Novels, and naturally is in Geoffrey Smith’s American Fiction, 1901-1925 (The Trumpeter Swan is Smith B-83), but is snubbed from sources such as Twentieth-Century Romance and Gothic Writers, edited by James Vinson.
Perhaps one of the perks of being a bestselling novelist is getting paired with an amazing dust jacket artist. The stunning dust jacket of The Trumpeter Swan is by Coles Phillips. Yes, that Coles Phillips, of “Fadeaway Girl” fame. The Trumpeter Swan also includes glossy plate illustrations by Alice Barber Stephens.
First editions, like my copy, of The Trumpeter Swan were published by The Penn Publishing Company in 1920. Grosset & Dunlap later reprinted The Trumpeter Swan with the same dust jacket art. Buyer beware, some of these G&D reprints are listed as “first editions.” A Penn edition is easily distinguished from these later reprints by the Penn logo on the book and dust jacket spine, as well as by the rear panel of the dust jacket. One thing to note about this early Penn book is that it was published before the introduction of the perforated publisher’s bookmarks that grace Penn editions published after 1921. My copy of The Trumpeter Swan was picked out during a 2019 visit to Yesterday’s Gallery and Babylon Revisited Rare Books.
With a publishing date of 1920, it’s also worth noting that The Trumpeter Swan is in public domain and freely available to read. However, readers might want to pass on this one. As a sentimental romance of bygone times, this story is adequate; however, the racist language used in this novel is upsetting and unacceptable. Other books reviewed on this blog have included racist language or characterizations, but none as pervasively as The Trumpeter Swan. The Trumpeter Swan uses the n-word, several times, in many chapters, with different characters saying it. There are other issues as well, such as the love interest’s more aggressive personality traits being attributed to distant Native American ancestry. The other Temple Bailey book I read, Wallflowers, I read years ago and skimmed again in 2020 for an exhibit, but don’t remember any explicit language or major content issues in that book. Maybe read Wallflowers instead of The Trumpeter Swan. Or try a different Temple Bailey novel.
The basic premise of The Trumpeter Swan is Randy Paine’s return home after World War I, and his journey to win the affection of Becky Bannister. A wealthy playboy, George Dalton, visits Becky and Randy’s Virginia hometown, and quickly takes an interest in Becky. Dalton is often referred to as having an “Apollo head,” which I envisioned to be like a humongous Greek statue. Becky falls for George Dalton, and is quickly left heartbroken. However, Dalton receives plenty of comeuppance, such as when his seemingly smooth exit from Virginia is bungled and he’s left awkwardly lurking about, or when he gets chucked into a fountain at a party.
Randy and Becky’s happily ever after comes after Randy becomes a renowned writer, and he pursues her at her grandfather’s home in Nantucket. Becky and Randy are the main pairing but by no means the only couple in The Trumpeter Swan. Major Prime, Randy’s friend who was injured during the war, marries Madge MacVeigh, who had originally arrived in Virginia with George Dalton’s group. Also, there’s a subplot about Becky’s cousin, Truxton Beaufort, secretly marrying Mary Flippin, whose family has only been known to the area for a couple of generations and is therefore initially considered an unacceptable match. Likewise, John’s family, who work for the Bannisters, initially disapprove of him marrying Daisy, who works for the Flippins.
Where does the trumpeter swan factor into the story? They were nearly extinct by 1920. Becky’s grandfather in Virginia owns a stuffed trumpeter swan. He explains, “The last one was seen in the Chesapeake in sixty-nine. Mine was killed and stuffed in the forties. He is in a perfect state of preservation, and in the original glass case” (59). Characters in the story imagine the bird to be alive at times, and it’s a fixture in the Bannister household. Randy, a lifetime friend of the Bannister Family, begins comparing the veterans of the first world war to the swans, “Our idealism was the song which we sounded high up. And the world listened – and caught the sound – And now, as a body we are extinct, but if men will listen, they may still hear our trumpets – sounding” (122). Unsurprisingly, Randy’s semi-autobiographical work shares the title, The Trumpeter Swan, and the theme of “the big white bird in the glass case,” “on the shelf… his trumpet silent” (344) is woven throughout.
Although the trumpeter swan was nearing extinction when Temple Bailey wrote this story, they have since rebounded due to conservation efforts. They no longer live in the wild around the greater Virginia/D.C. area, but there are a pair of trumpeter swans at the Baltimore Zoo. What’s more, in May 2021, they hatched two baby cygnets. When I read The Trumpeter Swan in May 2021, my now-husband told me about the baby cygnets and we decided it was essential field research to give all four trumpeter swans a visit. We lingered at the pond and heard the “trumpet” of the swans, impressed at their size and at how tiny the babies were in comparison. More on the trumpeter swan family of the Baltimore Zoo can be found here, including pictures and a video.
Copies of Temple Bailey’s works are available for purchase here.