Before beginning, I should point out that although A Free Soul was a best-seller in 1928, it is now dashed hard to obtain a copy of it. I requested a copy from the library and after several weeks, it finally arrived, from a university library in Utah no less. When I got it I thought "funny, why would the Mormons own a copy of this". After all, the movie is one of the most Pre Code of all Pre Code movies. Norma Shearer has a wild affair with Clark Gable, a violent gambler and Leslie Howard then kills Clark Gable in order to protect Norma Shearer and then he gets away with it. And then I started reading it and I realized that with the exception of Lionel Barrymore's character, the book is wholly different from the movie.
A Free Soul follows the life of Jan Ashe, raised by her father to be a free spirit and to always be honest and independent. Stephen Ashe is a famous criminal lawyer who always takes his daughter with him, whether it be to court or the seedy parts of San Francisco. Stephen is also an alcoholic and racked with guilt because of his reputation of always winning his case, even if he knew that his client was guilty of murder. As a result of caring for her father and hiding his illness, Jan grows up to be a teetotaler. She is also highly intelligent and doesn't care what people think of her frankness or her tomboy wardrobe. She has also known the gambler Ace all of her life and marries him. Ace is not so much of a gambler, rather a very honest man who looks after his family and friends and runs an illegal casino and insists that all of his employees are honest and never act like criminals. Ace is also not violent, preferring to treat those who wrong him with a cold shoulder and cutting off communication, and he is also a teetotaler who refuses to have anything to do with bootlegging. And that is a very brief plot summary since the novel taked place over a number of decades leading up to a sensational trial.
In telling the story of Stephen and Jan, the book could have easily turned into an unreadable melodrama. However, Mrs. St Johns' skills as a writer and keen observer of the human condition make the book not only readable, but also exciting, thrilling and a real page-turner!
She also provides an honest outlook into how people's attitudes changed during the first few decades of the Twentieth Century and how they are divided by class. Mrs. St Johns also uses descriptions of clothing in order define her characters and how they are judged based on their wardrobe. Left out of the film is Jan's preference of wearing shiny brogues. Her shoes are mentioned numerous times, especially during significant events and her brogues symbolize Jan's need for independence and not caring what people think about her. Mrs. St Johns also goes into great detail about Stephen Ashe's growing reliance on alcohol and how it ruined his career and she also shows how much damage his alcoholism does to Jan, who worships her father. If you can find a copy of it, then do read A Free Soul as it provides a greater understanding of urban life during Prohibition from the perspective of a young woman.