How could I not want this book? The Petter has always had a place on my “buy, read, blog” list. Fortunately, I happened to find my copy during an antiquing outing with my mom this summer!
Beatrice Burton, also known as Beatrice Burton Morgan, is one of the better known 1920s romance fiction writers. Most of her works were published by Grosset and Dunlap in the later 1920s, her best-known book being The Flapper Wife. Currently I’ll admit to owning about half a dozen of Burton’s books, which is why it was about time that I read one of them. The Petter was published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1927, right in the heyday of Burton’s writing career.
I have mixed opinions about The Petter. It started out strongly with eye-rolling clichés and incredible slang. The protagonist’s mother is referred to as “Moms” and her advice is awful yet stunningly quotable. “A girl who lets men kiss her and maul her is like a peach that loses its bloom from too much handling.” This disturbing advice is awfully reminiscent of Puritanical clichés still floating around today, but I chose to laugh when a couple of pages later, one of Merry’s beaus shows up in his family’s car which reads, “Peaches, here’s your can.” One of my favorite Moms’ rants is, “I never put much stock in that sort of a man…the kind that knows all about a woman’s clothes!… A decent man never knows what a woman has on!”
But at 353 pages, this book is too long. I’m not against longer books at all, but after reading all 353 pages I still can’t quite recall what filled all that space. For 353 pages, there were some pacing issues, the least forgivable being when Burton killed off one of the protagonist’s sisters in a couple of passing paragraphs. Also, the dust jacket’s front flap summary is misleading. It talks about how Merry earns the title of “the petter” in her teens, yet this book starts on Merry’s twentieth birthday. It says she doesn’t recognize something special in the Real Thing, but she does; she just loses him anyway. And then it says he leaves her for twenty years, when it’s actually eight. Finally, we are told that Merry becomes a business woman in the interim. Actually, she works in the local beauty parlor and only considers entering business towards the end of the book, when she decides to re-take the course she failed at the book’s exposition.
Merry has more suitors than the typical 1920s romance heroine. They are as follows:
- Tony Gaines – the “Real Thing.” Merry makes Tony’s acquaintance when a lion escapes at the circus. Tony suddenly moves to Montana, leaving Merry behind. There is a plot involving a misplaced letter that would have prevented this.
- Derrick Jones – the guy next door. He later marries Merry’s younger sister.
- Bill aka “Tubby” Erskine – the wealthy middle-aged suitor. He sends expensive gifts and creepily calls Merry “Little Sister.”
- Les Purcell – high school sweetheart turned sleazy. This winner just about drags Merry’s name into the dirt with his messy divorce scandal.
- Cabby Marsh – the playboy millionaire. The part of the book when Merry gets rid of Cabby was pretty much my favorite part of this entire novel.
- George Leet – the bore. He’s the type of guy who my sister would have referred to as a “weenie.”
Merry pays dearly for her so-called transgressions and is only rewarded with her delayed happy ending after many penitent years. She compares herself to a “small, crushed, soiled flower” and then wonders where she went astray. What really amazed me about this book was the frank moments when the narrator discusses society’s double standard on women. Merry frets about how men want women with “pep” who are “good sports,” but then mark the same women as cheap. The narrow line between “good sport” and “cheap” is too thin, impossible to navigate.
When someone tells me a book is important, I sometimes become suspicious of that particular pitch. “Important” is a rather loaded word. Shakespeare is important, but not relevant to my collection. Also, as a collector who cherishes obscurity, importance is relative. So when I say I consider The Petter to be an important book, I mean that certain passages are directly relevant to any collection concerning the 1920s, women in society, women’s sexuality, and even slang of the time. The Petter could easily inspire an academic paper of much greater length than I have room for on this blog. I might not have always favored the novel’s plot, and Tony Gaines may not have been my favorite romantic hero so far, but I would still definitely recommend this book.
And as timing would have it, the library hold I placed weeks ago on Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth just became available.
Copies of Beatrice Burton’s works are available for purchase here.