Day 1122: Lolly Willowes

Cover for Lolly WillowesThe two novels I’ve read by Sylvia Townsend Warner are as different as they can be. The True Heart is a historical novel about a woman who lives through great troubles to be with the man she loves. Lolly Willowes is a feminist novel about a spinster who tires of her life dedicated to her family.

The Willowes family doesn’t go in much for change. They have lived in the same house for years, and even after they move, they bring all their possessions, which are never moved from their set positions. Lolly Willowes grows up loving the countryside around her home, and she is so comfortable with her family that she never considers marriage. When her mother dies, she takes over running the house, and neither she nor her father want her to go.

But when her father dies, her wishes are not consulted. Her older brother Henry is more willing to have her in London than her younger brother at the family home. So, she moves to London to be of service to her family.

Twenty years later, she’s had enough. Without seeing it first, she decides to move to a rural village named Great Mop. Her family is very much against this plan, and it is only then that she finds out her brother has mishandled her money and there is very little left. She can’t have the house and donkey she planned on, but she plans to move, and move she will.

It is after Lolly moves that the novel takes a decidedly eccentric turn. Some readers will appreciate it more than others, and I’m not sure how much I do. I’m also not going to tell you what happens. But the message of the novel, though playfully told, is that women are not just adjuncts to their families, to have their lives plotted out for them just because they’re single. There were plenty of women in Lolly’s position in the 1920’s, when this novel was written, and that is probably the reason that the novel became an unexpected best seller in its time.

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Day 1112: Brook Evans

Cover for Brook EvansSusan Glaspell’s novel Brook Evans shares some themes with her more famous Fidelity, but she makes an interesting inversion in the plot. Still, the ultimate message is the same as in her earlier novel.

Brook Evans’s story begins with that of her mother, Naomi Kellogg, in 1888. Naomi has been secretly seeing Joe Copeland since his mother objected to their keeping company. They plan to be married in the fall, after the harvest.

But Joe is killed in a farming accident. Seeing no alternative but disgrace, as she is pregnant, Naomi reluctantly marries her other suitor, Caleb Evans, and leaves her beloved Illinois home for Colorado.

Nineteen years later, Brook Evans wants to go to a dance with Tony Ross. Not only does her father, Caleb, not believe in dancing, being religiously strict, but Tony is a Catholic and part Native American. Naomi sees Brook’s relationship with Tony as an echo of hers with Joe, and she is determined not to sacrifice her daughter’s life to worries about what others may think. Unfortunately, the disagreement with Caleb brings out the truth of Brook’s parentage, with unforeseen results.

In Fidelity, the heroine’s decision to grasp life by running away with her married lover blights her life. In Brook Evans it is the instinct to conform with societal norms that is blighting. Still, the ultimate message of both books is to follow your heart. Although I wasn’t so fond of Brook’s ultimate choice (or the perceived alternative) I found this novel thoughtful and so touching that at times I was in tears. Glaspell’s characters show several sides throughout the novel, so that at times you change your mind about them. This novel is another thought-provoking read from Glaspell.

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Day 1089: Literary Wives! The Awakening

Cover for The AwakeningWe have two new members of Literary Wives joining us today, I hope. They are Eva of Paperback Princess and TJ of My Book Strings. Welcome, Eva and TJ!

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

Literary critic Elaine Showalter, in her introduction to The Awakening, says it is “recognized today as the first aesthetically successful novel to have been written by an American woman.” I’m not at all sure what she means by “aesthetically successful,” but there is no doubt that the novel was revolutionary, and controversial.

The novel begins with a summer on Grand Isle, south of New Orleans. The Pontelliers are vacationing there, or at least Edna and the children are. Léonce spends the week in the city.

Edna has an almost constant companion, the young man Robert Lebrun. As he adopts a young married woman every summer to worship, no one takes him seriously. But sometime during the summer, Edna realizes she is in love with him.

Edna begins a slow self-realization during which she tries to cast off the parts of her life that are not really hers. Shockingly for her audience in 1899, these include her duties to her husband and children.

Even from the beginning of the novel, her husband criticizes her child-rearing and housekeeping skills, and her mothering is contrasted to that of the other mothers very simply. We’re told that when her children fall down, they pick themselves back up and go on instead of crying and being fussed over by their mothers. This sounds like good mothering to me but apparently was not the norm in Edna’s set of Creole neighbors. Creole in the New Orleans sense means of French descent, and tellingly, Edna is the only one among them who is not Creole.

The descriptions of this summer are heavy with atmosphere and lush, almost sensual. Although barely perceptible on the island, Edna’s awakening affects her behavior after Robert leaves for Mexico and she returns to the city. She is no longer able to lead a conventional life.

Although the novel is considered a feminist classic and was radical for its time, from a modern feminist viewpoint, Edna’s behavior is still defined by her relationship to men. She is awakened by her feelings for Robert, but even in her emancipation her fate is determined by her relationships to men.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Even before her awakening, Edna seems bored and disenchanted with marriage, although she perhaps doesn’t know it. She is married to an older man who is both critical and generous, at times controlling, at times neglectful. She loves her children but does not dote on them or even seem to think of them very often. In truth, she seems a lot like my mother, dreamy and abstracted and not very prone to domesticity.

As her foils in the story, she has two opposites. Madame Ratignolle is the personification of motherhood, with a loving relationship with her husband. Mademoiselle Reisz, the musician, lives a meager and bitter existence alone. These two opposites seem to pose extremities of alternative lives for her.

For Edna, marriage is stifling. She attempts to move out of the bounds of marriage and take up a creative life. To do so, she feels she must shed everything pertaining to her previous life.

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Day 1039: The Home-Maker

Cover for The Home-MakerBest Book of the Week!
The Home-Maker, which was published in 1924, was certainly a radical novel for its time. It has themes that resonate even today, although in some ways it is dated.

Evangeline Knapp is one of those super housekeepers whose home is always immaculate. When we first meet her, she has spent hours scrubbing a grease stain on the floor. But she does not love her work, and her unhappiness creates an atmosphere of tension in the house. She continually picks at her children for not meeting her standards, and everyone is afraid to upset her.

Lester Knapp works as an accounting clerk at a department store and hates every minute of it. He is not earning points with the new management for his dreamy demeanor or love of poetry. Although he is a good husband and father, he is perceived by his community as ineffective and a poor provider. Early on, we learn that he did not get a promotion he was hoping for, and his family will continue to be poor.

A terrible incident forces the two Knapps to swap responsibilities after Lester is injured. Lester takes over the household and child-rearing while Evangeline gets a job in the department store. Her new employers are struck by her energy and dedication to her work, while Lester’s patience with the children makes everyone’s temper and health improve. Everyone learns to adjust to a certain level of messiness.

The idea of swapping roles was much more controversial at this time, so much so that the novel is forced into a shocking conclusion. That was the only thing I didn’t like about this novel, which is touching and compassionate in its view of its characters. However, there probably wasn’t a better way to resolve the situation at the time.

This is a fascinating novel for its time, exploring the ideas of roles for the sexes and how well they actually apply, what happens when a person has no challenging life’s work, and so on. The novel’s themes are applicable to today, even if the times would not require such a resolution.

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Day 1037: The Bloody Chamber

Cover for The Bloody ChamberBecause a few months ago there was some mini hooplah about The Bloody Chamber, I thought it was a recent book, but it turns out Angela Carter died in 1992. I was totally unaware of her unique work.

The Bloody Chamber is a series of fairy tales and legends, retold. In them, heroines strip away their passivity. Some of the tales are gruesome, and all of them feature blood.

“The Bloody Chamber” is the story of Bluebeard retold. The young bride sells herself for riches and is taken to a castle floating in the sea. Her husband tempts her to look in the forbidden room by his very act of forbidding it, and she finds a slaughterhouse. When he returns unexpectedly, her intrepid mother saves her life.

I won’t tell the ending of the others, but Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Beauty and the Beast are all featured. The prose is gorgeous, with startling images and strong feminist themes, and Carter has a fascination with wolves.

This book will probably not be for you if you are at all squeamish. I am not, and some of it was a bit much for me. Still, it is a quick read, sometimes funny, always fascinating.

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Day 1035: Literary Wives: The Wife

Cover for The WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

I’ve only read one other book by Meg Wolitzer, and I found it mildly interesting. The Wife, however, I found much more impressive.

Joan Castleman is traveling to Finland at the beginning of the novel. Her husband Joe is a famous novelist, and he is on his way to accept the Helsinki Prize for literature. On the flight, Joan decides their marriage is over. For too long, Joan has put up with Joe’s selfishness, including his infidelities. But their marriage is founded on a more fundamental lie.

The novel flashes back to incidents in the couple’s life, beginning with Joe’s seduction of her when she was a Smith co-ed in the 50’s and he was her literature instructor. Their relationship caused the end of his marriage and his fatherhood of a new baby.

Aside from a deft and insightful portrait of the end of a marriage, this novel deals with such feminist themes as the bias against women in the publishing industry and the sexual politics of marriage. Although I sometimes dislike Wolitzer’s apparent fascination with bodily functions, I found this carefully observed novel both dryly amusing and terribly sad. It had a twist that I saw coming, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Although this novel comments on the experience of wives from the Greatest Generation, these experiences continue, in their own way, in many current-day marriages. In her marriage, Joan continually caters to the needs of her selfish and unfaithful husband on the grounds that he is a great writer. But she does even more for him than raise the kids, keep his house, meet his every need, and be a loyal wife. In fact, their relationship is entirely one-sided, with him becoming ever fatter and more self-satisfied.

In fact, the sacrifices Joan makes for her husband are shocking. But I am determined not to tell too much. Although Joan thinks the bargains they’ve made are exciting at first, she goes into her marriage with extreme naivety. In fact, over time, it is difficult to understand what Joan gets from the marriage at all, while it is clear what Joe gets from it.

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Day 829: The Kreutzer Sonata Variations

The Kreutzer Sonata Variations“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a controversial novella by Leo (Lev Nikolaevich) Tolstoy. It was banned in several countries because of its provocative message and because of what was considered at the time prurient content. If your nature contains an ounce of feminism, it will enrage you. Yet its origins are in eccentric ideas that Tolstoy almost certainly considered to be for the benefit of women.

The Kreutzer Sonata Variations brings together this work with others by the family on the same subject. Tolstoy’s wife Sofiya Andreevna (I’m using the spelling from the book) disliked the novella intensely and wrote two stories in answer to it, “Whose Fault?” and “Song Without Words.” These stories were suppressed by the family. Tolstoy’s son, Lev Lvovich, also wrote a story, “Chopin’s Prelude.” These stories are followed by a section including review comments by several contemporaries, excerpts from diaries, and other writings of all three Tolstoys.

So, what was “The Kreutzer Sonata” about and why did it evoke all this controversy? It is a virtually plotless story about a man who meets another man on a train journey and tells him the story of why he murdered his own wife. Throughout the story, the main character, Pozdnyshev, expresses abhorrent opinions about women, sex, and marriage, and shows no understanding of women at all. Although this character is not completely describing Tolstoy’s own marriage, he is giving voice to Tolstoy’s ideas about marriage. This story is harsh, disturbing, and reflects ideas that show no understanding of human nature, or for that matter, many other things. Tolstoy posits that marriage is simply legal prostitution, that sex is disgusting, and that people should just strive to be celibate (something he notoriously had a problem with). Because Tolstoy saw his role in later years as one to instruct and had too high an opinion of his own ideas, this information is presented didactically, in a polemic.

Sofiya Andreevna disliked the novella intensely and was embarrassed by it, because she believed that others thought it reflected her own marriage. She insisted it did not but mostly, I think, because she didn’t want people to think she became attached to another man while married to Tolstoy (and who would blame her?). She also felt that the story showed no understanding of the wife, and so she wrote her own story. In both, the story is basically the same, a madly jealous husband comes to believe his wife is unfaithful when she is not and kills her in a fit of anger. It was Sofiya herself who convinced Tolstoy that his story would be more effective if the wife was innocent.

It is in the context of the responding stories and other writings that “The Kreutzer Sonata” is most involving. The story itself is ridiculous to modern sensibilities. Two pages of quotations by contemporaries provide some interest, particularly the two (not surprisingly) that I most agree with.

No wonder the Countess was often near the end of her patience.—George Bernard Shaw

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a nightmare, born of a diseased imagination. Since reading it I have not the slightest doubt that its author is cracked.—Émile Zola

For an enlightening look at the Tolstoy’s marriage, I recommend the novel The Last Station by Jay Parini.

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