Goodness gracious, what did I just read? If anyone is looking for a revenge fantasy mixed with a romance novel and written in 1927, then I think I’ve found it!
Sybil: Trapper of Men was written by Mildred Barbour for newspaper syndication in 1927, with Grosset and Dunlap publishing a hardcover edition with identical text that same year. HathiTrust digitized Sybil: Trapper of Men but it remains search only until January 1, 2023 due to current copyright restrictions. My copy of Sybil: Trapper of Men comes from Yesterday’s Gallery and Babylon Revisited Rare Books.
The few Mildred Barbour novels that Grosset and Dunlap published in hardcover are only the tip of the iceberg for her titles. From searching the NewspaperArchive database, other syndicated stories published under the name Mildred Barbour include Borrowed Husbands (1921), The Mortgaged Wife (1922), The Man Tamers (1923), The Marriage Scales (1924), The Darling of Destiny (1925), The Indispensable Husband (1926), The Unwilling Adventuress (1927), White Butterflies (1928), The Love Myth (1929), and more. One of Barbour’s stories, Borrowed Husbands, was adapted into a 1924 silent film, now lost. The newspapers that included her stories ran ads promising “A Barbour serial forms the Barbour habit.” Reader beware, I do have reason to believe that “Mildred Barbour” authorship may have evolved into a house name with more than one contributing author.
It’s worth talking about the life of Sybil’s author, who I believe could be the original Mildred Barbour, even if the details are a little hazy. Using the Newspaper Archive database and Ancestry Library Edition, I pieced together as much as I could. Mildred Barbour was born in Washington, D.C. as Mildred Marshall Koonce. Her year of birth varies depending on what source is consulted, but a 1920 passport application says she was on born May 29, 1894. A rough IMDB biography states that she attended the University of Michigan, and sure enough, I was able to find a Mildred Marshall Koonce of Washington, D.C., listed in a “Calendar” of the University of Michigan 1913-1914. Miss Mildred Koonce of D.C. is mentioned in several newspaper articles as being active in suffrage efforts around 1914, including a photo obnoxiously captioned, “Beauty at Suffrage Headquarters.” A photo of Mildred Koonce of Washington, D.C. is included in the National Women’s Party Records online at the Library of Congress. She wrote for The Washington Herald as a society editor and married Irwin Barbour on March 29, 1917. There is a divorce granted record from Alexandria, VA, in 1921, stating that Irwin Barbour was by then living in California and the divorce was granted based on desertion and abandonment. Irwin Barbour, living in California and listed as still working for a newspaper syndicate, remarried before the end of 1921.
That brings us to Sybil Ross. Sybil hates men. Sybil: Trapper of Men begins with Sybil and a young man on a train to New York, but quickly jumps back to the origin story of Sybil’s hatred. Starting with her father and two brothers, Sybil observes that men are a bunch of rotters who lead women to misery and ruin. When Sybil is ten, Sybil’s father leaves Sybil’s mother for a teenaged neighbor. The Ross family is plunged into scandal. Ten-year-old Sybil is socially ostracized, but her brothers aren’t. As she grows up, one of Sybil’s brothers squanders the fortune of a rich woman in town and then flees before the law can catch up with him, and the other marries a homely rich woman for her money.
Sybil learns that she, her mother, her neighbors are who pays the price for her father’s scandal, “but the man and his sons were exempt from punishment” (37). She observes first-hand what her brothers think of women, first hearing one of her brothers be “suave, handsome, gallant, chatting with graceful deference” when talking to a woman but within half an hour, “joking brutally, vulgarly” when he’s talking to his brother about her. As Sybil approaches adulthood, her father returns to town a hero, and Sybil’s mother takes him back. Sybil takes a job to help her mother support her unemployed father, and once she’s out in the world, her long simmering plan begins to take shape.
The trope of the revenge-to-redemption story follows a predictable plot arc: motive, the revenge plot gaining steam, the plot’s acceleration, the protagonist overstepping and becoming ethically compromised herself, and then redemption. What makes Sybil: Trapper of Men an amusing read is when Sybil’s plans begin gaining momentum. At one point, it feels like she’s juggling her victims at a ridiculous speed. The other highlight of Sybil: Trapper of Men is Cousin Agatha, Sybil’s rich, eccentric cousin who also hates men and bankrolls Sybil. My favorite Cousin Agatha moment was when as an aside it’s mentioned that she “had just engineered a successful political campaign in the west which had defeated a well-known male legislator and put a woman in his place” (203). Way to go, Cousin Agatha!
Sybil’s first four victims are fairly straightforward:
- Dan Brady: the “best-known and most-feared lawyer” (58) in Sybil’s small town. He’s a sexist, ageist bully, known to treat his wife terribly. Sybil begins working for him, and he asks her out repeatedly, finally proposing Sybil stay in a hotel in Chicago for a week with him. In her fury, Sybil picks up an inkwell and chucks it straight at Dan Brady, ink splattering all over his immaculate clothes. Humiliated, Dan Brady scuttles out of the office and stays home “ill” for several days.
- Arthur Winslow: the son of the president of the biggest bank in town. Sybil’s next job is at the town’s bank, where Arthur Winslow quickly takes an interest in her. He asks her out, but is careful not to be seen with her in polite or fashionable society because of her family history. He doesn’t want to marry Sybil and proposes they run away to New York together. Sybil seemingly accepts. As soon as they’re in New York, Sybil thanks Arthur for paying for her trip and ditches him for a room at the Y.W.C.A. Arthur, alone in New York, is far from home and quickly disinherited by his wealthy father.
- Serge Patton: an aspiring violinist and phony. Pretending to be Hungarian, Serge’s real name is actually Sam, and he left behind his family’s pickle business to pursue his musical career. His mistreated wife stands dutifully by him while he neglects her in pursuit of beautiful women he claims “inspire” him. Sybil sponsors a concert for Serge, knowing he’ll be a flop, but he remains undaunted by the terrible reviews. Sybil then gives him a devastating verbal lashing. Serge leaves, defeated, his “art” crushed.
- Oliver Dearborn: a man about town and business associate of Arthur Winslow’s. He treads carefully with Sybil but would never dare have an honorable intention. He proposes that he and Sybil live together in an expansive summer home, Seaview. Sybil asks for a blank check to make renovations to the home. Oliver Dearborn arrives at Seaview for his tranquil summer with Sybil only to find she’s nowhere in sight and has transformed the house into a summer retreat for the local orphanage, promising Dearborn’s mentorship to the youth.
Sybil made quick work of those men, but doesn’t quite know what to do with Dick Shelton, a military man, who has none of the pride and conceit of her previous victims. He’s honorable, charming, gallant, nice, and a little boring. He proposes marriage and means it. Finally, Sybil learns of a girl Dick Shelton left back home to pursue his career in the military and considers that motive enough for her plans. She tells Dick she’s in danger when he can’t get leave, compelling him to desert the base and face severe consequences. He… ends up shooting himself.
Dr. Maxwell arrives on the scene and saves Dick Shelton’s life, and later his career. At this point, the emotionally distant doctor has appeared a few times throughout the book, each time ignoring Sybil or seeing her in what appears to be a questionable spot. He’s dismissive of her, not fawning over her looks, and is curt as well as businesslike. After obtaining Sybil’s confession that she manipulated Dick Shelton to his tragic downfall, Dr. Maxwell takes an interest in her.
It’s a lot. On one hand, Sybil knows she went too far in destroying Dick Shelton. On the other hand, her previous efforts had worked like a boomerang. Dan Brady learns to appreciate his wife, and treats her better. Arthur Winslow makes his own way in New York City, earning his own success and eventually reconciling with his father. “Serge” Patton returns to the family pickle business and also finds success. Oliver Dearborn becomes known as a well-regarded philanthropist and breaks into a new social circle that had been previously inaccessible to him.
What did Sybil’s efforts accomplish, besides amusing Cousin Agatha? Even though her efforts didn’t destroy her victims she as intended, the men Sybil “traps” learned either to treat the women in their life better, or picked up another admirable quality such as charity or a work ethic. The men in Sybil’s family remain unchanged. Sybil’s father continues to freeload off of her mother, one of her brothers has completely drained the bank account of his formerly wealthy wife, and the other brother is still on the run from the law. The story doesn’t really adequately address Sybil’s observations about women who accept perpetual mistreatment and abuse in exchange for the occasional crumb of affection, besides to say that it’s just a thing that women in love will endure. Also, the actions of one woman don’t bring about systemic change. While some of Sybil’s grievances are clearly exaggerated for the purposes of an over-the-top story and dare I say parody, some holds true a century later.
The story ends, of course, with Sybil falling in love with Dr. Maxwell. She attempts to jeopardize his career with a desperate plot involving illicitly obtained morphine, but it backfires when Sybil overdoses and nearly dies. Hurt by her own plot, Sybil is overcome with shame and remorse. She returns to her home town, and Dr. Maxwell follows her. He declares that he’s loved her from the start but needed Sybil to burn through her vindictive energy before they could be together. Now that she’s given up on her revenge plot, they can live happily ever after.
The closing line is Dr. Maxwell’s. “I’m caught in the trap. But, ah, Sybil, you are caught with me” (313)!
Announcement: On Tuesday, May 11th at 5 p.m., I will be participating in a virtual event, Owning It: A Roundtable for Young Collectors, hosted by Swann Galleries in conversation with the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize founders and previous winners. Please do join us! Learn more about the event and register here.
Copies of Mildred Barbour’s works are available for purchase here.