The Top of the World by Ethel M. Dell (1920)

Review by George Simmers (see his Great War Fiction blog here)

This is an astonishingly  melodramatic novel, with a plot that moves with such gusto from one strong emotional situation to another that you only occasionally pause to consider how very exaggerated and improbable it is.

The heroine, Sylvia,  lives with her father, the Squire, in a stereotyped Manor house with several servants. She loves Guy Ranger, the Squire’s bailiff, but her father forbids the match.  Guy  goes to South Africa in an attempt to make his fortune. Father re-marries, to a remarkably vile and scheming  scheming villainess (who hides the letters Guy sends from Africa, and schemes to get the girl married off to a local bigwig). After much drama, Sylvia decides that her only recourse is to be a plucky and independent woman and follow Guy to Africa.

At a small railway station deep in the veldt, she is met not by Guy but by Burke Ranger, his rugged  cousin, who tells her that Guy has gone to the bad. Alone in a strange and savage country, she agrees  to stay with Burke. For the sake of respectability she consents to marry Burke – but it is a marriage in name only, as ‘comrades’.

When Guy (a wretched wreck of a man) is found, and brought back to health, the three live together for a while, in a strange ménage à trois, with no physical sex but plenty of seething frustration, jealousy and misery.

Burke and Sylvia try desperately to free Guy from the influence of Kieff, the evil Jewish doctor (described with plenty of snake imagery)  who supplies him with morphine. Sylvia finds herself torn between strong masterful Burke and weak, needy Guy. The story’s climax (when the narrative moves at a speed that is even more dizzying than the rest of the book) involves a bush fire, a violent horse-whipping, a tropical storm, and, finally, the partnering of Sylvia to the right man.

It struck me that the book has all the ingredients of a traditional fairytale – the virtuous and independent  heroine, the amazingly wicked stepmother, the journey through wild nature (the South African veldt standing in for the fairytale forest), and the need for the heroine to show her courage by trusting her instincts and by making choices that will lead to happiness and marriage. Even the evil Jewish doctor fits neatly into the role of evil enchanter.  In the 1925 film, I gather that Guy and Burke were played by the same actor – which seems appropriate, since in the novel Sylvia frequently mistakes one for the other; they are two alternative versions of what a man might become under the testing glare of the fierce South African sun.

As an Imperial novel, it is full of stereotypes. The Jew is obviously evil from the start. The Irishman is comical but good-hearted. The Boer is untrustworthy. The ‘kaffirs’ are lazy and smelly, and need to be given a regular taste of the sjambok (hippopotamus-hide whip).  Joe the house-servant has ‘a dramatic habit of rolling his eyes when expectant of rebuke, which was by no means seldom’ and is described as looking ‘exactly like a golliwog’. (161) I don’t know whether Dell had visited South Africa – I gather that many of her books are set in other outposts of Empire – but the harsh and unfriendly landscape is a key character in the book.

The language is often literally ‘hot’ – emotions are represented in terms of extreme temperatures:

‘She uttered a startled gasp. There was no time for more ere his lips met hers in a kiss so burning, so compelling, that it reft from her all power of resistance. One glimpse she had of his eyes, and it was as though she looked into the deep deep heart of the fire unquenchable.’


The most interesting character is Burke Ranger, the epitome of Imperial manliness. Slightly taller than his cousin, stubbly where Guy is smooth, ‘He had the look of one accustomed to command.’ (35)  When he gives his word he keeps it, whatever the cost. He stands for justice and righteousness, wielding his sjambok ruthlessly but calmly, whether on the idle ‘kaffirs’ or on the wicked in need of chastisement.  He has the passionate fire within him, but he can keep his cool. He is therefore contrasted both with the always-cold snakelike doctor and with Guy, who can’t control his feelings.

The book’s audience was, I assume, mainly female. Is it just tosh? What its readers would have got from it, apart from excitement at the steamy passion, was surely what has always been given by fairy stories. The young woman leaves her comfortable home to seek happiness, but it does not come easily. She needs to pass tests of endurance and to learn lessons. One of the lessons she learns is about what makes a real man – Guy was attractive and loving, but he fails the test  posed by the tough South African life. With the logic of a fairytale, he is superseded by the man who can pass the tests, and who Sylvia’s secret instincts tell her is the right man for her.

Later in her life my mother (born 1908) would talk about books she had read when young. She would mention Ethel M. Dell – calling the books rubbish but showing  a definite familiarity with them. My pleasure in this book was definitely enhanced by the thought of my mother, maybe while a teenager at her restrictive boarding school, goggle-eyed at these depictions of violent emotions and burning kisses.

2 thoughts on “The Top of the World by Ethel M. Dell (1920)

  1. Pingback: ‘Bartimeus’ « Great War Fiction

  2. Thank you so much for the link to the Great War blog. I’ve just read the posts on Angela Brazil and Dornford Yates (both authors I know well) with great interest. Blog now bookmarked.

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