Tuesday, March 13, 2018

1900; How a teen grabbed a line from a poem and made it a runaway bestseller

Bertha Runkle, The Helmet of Navarre (New York: The Century Co., 1st ed, 1901). Hardcover, 470 pp. No dust jacket. Blue cloth boards w/gold and silver debossed titling and cover decoration featuring a plumed helmet and her signature. An embossed crest appears on the back cover.

 8” x 5.5”. Near very good condition, save only some wear to the back hinge. HBB price: $25.

Linda Gorton Aragoni reviewed the novel at Great Penformances:

Bertha Runkle’s Helmet of Navarre is a thriller set in 16th century France with a new intrigue at every turn of the page and a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.

France is in turmoil after the murder of Henry III. Huguenots under Henry of Navarre battle the Catholic League led by the Duc Mayenne. After three years’ deliberation, the Duc of St. Quentin has decided to throw his weight behind Navarre, although his son Etienne is in love with the Lorance, ward of the head of the Catholic party.

When St. Quentin openly goes to Paris, which is controlled by the Catholic League, his page, Felix Broux, follows him to the city. His first night, Felix sees three men in a supposedly unoccupied haunted house. He gets in through an unlocked window and drops into a plot to have Etienne kill St. Quentin.

Runkle pulls out every cliché to keep the story going: mistaken identity, secret tunnels, stolen ciphers, and the obligatory disguised hero visiting his girlfriend in the enemy camp.

Runkle’s story was serialized in The Century Magazine in 1900 when she was twenty years old. Daughter of the lawyer for The New York Tribune and Lucia Gilbert Runkle, a Tribune editorial writer who became an editor at Harper Bros, and co-produced the series Library of the World’s Best Literature with Charles Dudley Warner.

Her father died when Bertha was nine; the girl showed sufficient talent in verse that she had some work published as a teen. After a couple of years at a New York girl’s school, she was educated at home in the family library, and became an adept at golf and tennis.

"Press where ye see my white plume shine amidst the ranks of war,
"And be your oriflamme today, the helmet of Navarre."

The idea for a story of political intrigue took root when Bertha was eighteen. She studied on it for two years, then wrote the story in fourth months.

Serialized, the story was a swashbuckling success, and The Century’s editors pressed her for a novelization, with more adventures and the swish of petticoats.  The first press run was 100,000 copies, and by the end of 1901, Bertha Runke was the third-best-selling author in America. The New York Times marveled at a girl of no particular education, who had never traveled much, much less seen France, pulling off such a feat.

Striking while there was money to be made, Runkle recast the story as a play. Charles Frohman, the Broadway impresario, produced The Helmet of Navarre at the Criterion Theater in December 1901; it ran for 24 performances and was revived in 1904.

Runkle married Army Capt. Louis Hermann Bash in 1904 and adopted the routines of Army life, with his postings to San Francisco, the Philippines, and Washington, D.C. The couple retired to the Bay Area. Runkle published five more novels between 1906 and 1921 and died in Palo Alto, California in 1958.

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