Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Brimming Cup

A lovely Virago cover
The Brimming Cup / Dorothy Canfield
409 p.

I didn't know what to expect from this book; I downloaded it from Open Library, because of the Century of Books project and because of the author -- I've heard about her from other bloggers, and her books sounded interesting.

When I first started reading, I really wasn't sure if I'd like it. It is, of course, a bit dated, having been written in 1921. But there were some nice observations, and after the first chapter (really a prologue of sorts) set in Rome, the action switches to small town Vermont. The story seemed much more grounded after that.

Marise, our heroine, has just sent her youngest child off to school for the first time; now instead of three kids at home, she has none. This produces some kind of crisis for her, exacerbated by her very sophisticated new neighbour, Vincent, who has taken a particular interest in her. Has she wasted her life? Is her dedication to her children just a selfish demand for slavish adoration on their part? Do children even care about their parents at all, or would they be better off raised by others who are only interested in their education?

All these questions torment her, and cause her to question her life choices. Without really noticing, she has slid into a role as homemaker, focused on children and home, with a marriage that is happy but notably lacking passion. Vincent, next door, insists that her responsibility is to serve her musical gifts and to re-experience passion, preferably in the city with him, rather than waste away in this backwater town looking after children. And Marise is truly tempted, despite the fact that she loves her children, and she loves her honourable husband, Neale.

I was fascinated by how this storyline highlighted the psychological theories circulating at the time, regarding education, sexuality, child-rearing, marriage, etc. There was lots of mention of repression, Freud, the need for personal fulfillment, and so forth; against this was placed the idea that sexual passion was not something to throw over life for, that a life with an affectionate marriage and meaningful activities was equal to acting on passion and personal desire. It really explores how much a person needs to be true to their essential self within a marriage, and Neale shows his committment to this ideal of freedom that they'd agreed upon (way back in the rather purpley prologue in Rome) when he states that the important thing is not that Marise stays with him because he desires it, but that the light that is in her stays lit, whatever she decides that will require.

In addition to these questions of the heart, there are more general questions of right and wrong to be raised: Mr. Welles, her kindly new neighbour, loves his new home and the peace he finds there, but he feels compelled to leave his idyll to assist a cousin who is living in Virginia and fighting for the dignity of the black people there; he feels the injustice of their being freed from slavery but not from prejudice. I was amazed at how powerful Canfield's opinions were on many of these topics, but when I read more about her I began to understand how involved she was in social justice, and it all made sense.

This book felt quite modern in its internal explorations of love and marriage and passion. And in its in-depth character studies of Marise and Neale's family, even the children. It was dated in some of its melodramatic plot points, but even then, there was sympathy for the minor characters who are buffeted by tragedies. I enjoyed this depiction of a tiny Vermont town of the 20's, and found the characters fascinating.


  1. I'm slowly working my way through Dorothy Canfield Fisher's books, and I need to add this one to my list. And I also need to read the ones I already have sitting there!

    1. I need to read more of her work, too! Very interesting writer.

  2. I loved The Home-Maker, so I shall certainly be reading this one - she certainly seems able to capture the dilemmas faced by women of her time.

    1. The Home-Maker is the first I'd heard of her, but haven't been able to get my hands on it yet. I'll definitely be on the lookout now.

  3. This sounds like a fascinating book about love and marriage and the roles of women. Although it's an older book, the themes seem relevant and contemporary. Perhaps that's what makes this a classic. Wonderful review!

    1. It has been so strange to read a few books in a row from the 1910s-20s, which ALL deal with women's roles in society, and particularly in marriage. And to have them all still saying relevant things...


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