Here's another of those one-word geographical titles. If Margaret Mitchell were writing today, her publisher would probably have insisted on calling the book "Atlanta." To this reviewer at least, geographical titles indicate a certain paucity of imagination. They define the setting of the book spatially, but the information, surely, is of small concern to potential readers.
"Savannah" is set in Savannah. The War of 1812 is going on somewhere in the hinterlands, but the only effect it has on Savannah males is to give them a chance to dress up in elegant uniforms and march around town to the admiration of all female beholders.
Prominent among the young warriors is Mark Browning, the hero of the book. He is a newcomer to the city; born in Philadelphia, sole heir to a wealthy shipping firm. The death of his mother when Mark was an infant broke his father's heart and sent the elder Browning careening around the world in an effort to forget. Raised by an aunt, Mark seldom saw his peripatetic father but adored him just the same; so when Dad dies, followed shortly thereafter by the aunt, Mark decides there is nothing to keep him in Philadelphia. He heads south to Savannah, his mother's birthplace, to which he is drawn by an inexplicable attraction. He is 20 years old.
On shipboard Mark meets Robert Mackay, owner of the vessel and a prominent Savannah merchant, who takes an immediate fancy to the young man. Mackay insists that Mark move in with him and his family. Mackay's wife Eliza and their children also succumb to Mark's charms. "So appealing, so attractive, so fine-featured," Eliza gushes. "His straight poet's nose, those deep-set, expression-filled gray eyes . . . White, white teeth--a smile that literally made my knees buckle," says another Savannah lady.
As these quotations suggest, Mark has certain characteristics in common with Gothic heroes. He is "sensitive," "appealingly charming," "surprising and impressive"; and he is also inhumanly virtuous; one of his first acts is to hand over three-fourths of his inheritance to the man who ran the firm for Browning Sr., while the latter was on his prolonged hegira. This gesture moves Mackay to further encomiums: "He's almost too guileless--too good for his own welfare."
Like many a guileless hero Mark is haunted by a mystery. He knows nothing about his mother except her maiden name--Cotting--and that she was born in Savannah. Yet none of his newfound friends recognizes the name. Another mystery concerns Jonathan Cameron, an elderly planter who is one of Mackay's customers. Cameron is being blackmailed by an unsavory character named Osmund Kott. His friends can't understand what hold Kott has over the honorable old man. The reader, less naive, one hopes, will probably not be surprised to learn that in his youth Cameron fathered two children by one of his indentured servants, a young woman named Mary Cotting. Said reader will also have noted the similarity between Kott and Cotting. Sure enough, Kott is Cameron's illegitimate son. His illegitimate daughter was Mark's mother.
Mark discovers these distressing facts midway through the book. He spends the remaining 300 pages attempting to assist his confused relatives and settle his own romantic problems. Cameron's beautiful granddaughter Caroline (Mark's half-first cousin, in case these genealogical ramifications have been unclear) is madly in love with Mark. He is not indifferent to her; in fact, he dallies with her for six or seven years. But he is helplessly, irresistibly drawn to Eliza Mackay, the wife of his best friend and benefactor. Being the most honorable of men, Mark fights his love until Mackay dies of a heart attack. But when he proposes to Eliza she rejects him. She loves him like a friend and a brother, but her heart is in the grave with Robert. After a while Mark decides that Eliza's assessment of their relationship was correct, and he marries Caroline.
Most plots sound thin and unconvincing when summarized. The problem with "Savannah" is not its plot but the inordinate length to which it is drawn out. Part of the blame may lie with another current publishing fad--historical novels must run 500 or 600 pages--but some of the responsibility must rest with the author, whose affection for her characters allows them to ramble on for page after page about how wonderful and kind and appealing they and all the other characters are.
The historical details are well researched, but limited to a narrow canvas--Savannah itself, the construction of its historic homes and the activities of its local dignitaries. At half its present length the book would offer an inoffensive "read" for those who are weary of historical novels in which the hero rushes from steamy sexual encounters to battlefields strewn with decapitated bodies. There isn't a word in it that would have offended Queen Victoria, except for one brief scene of violent death, shocking primarily by contrast to the bland amiability of the surrounding pages.
Most of the characters are thoroughly inoffensive. Nicest and least convincing of all is the hero. Everybody in Savannah adores him and most of them say so, at considerable length. Robert Mackay sums it up, shortly after meeting Mark for the first time: "For any age, you're a sensitive man. For 20, you're hard to believe."
I'm afraid that's Mark's problem in a nutshell.