Sunday, April 18, 2010

As For Me and my House: Sinclair Ross Reread


As For Me and My House / Sinclair Ross
Toronto: New Canadian Library, 1991, c1941.
216 p.

I first read this in high school, and Hated. It. So I thought it was time to reread it, as a mature adult with a vaster pool of literary experience for comparison's sake. Well, I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it either.

This novel is set in Saskatchewan in the Dirty Thirties. I come from Saskatchewan so I had all of Ross' work shoved at me in high school (especially since he came from a small town very near to where I grew up). This really does him a disservice, I think. This book in particular is eminently unsuited to appreciation by teenagers. No wonder I hated it at age 16 -- it would have been meaningless in its emotional landscape of bitterness and obsession and misery.

And it is full of misery. Hoo, boy, it is practically overflowing with misunderstandings, bitterness, selfishness, codependence, poverty, need, as well as unfulfilled longing for emotional and sexual connection, for a child, for a solvent life, for culture.

It is narrated by Mrs. Bentley (we never learn her name), and is told in journal format. I liked this aspect of it; reading her journal gave us insights into her unreasonable and obsessive love for her mealy-mouthed, selfish, childish husband. I really, really did not like Philip. But reading the story as presented in Mrs. Bentley's journal also makes her into a complex and unreliable narrator. How much of what she is telling us is the objective truth? Can we believe her take on the way their lives have turned out?

The story takes place during one year, from the time the Bentleys move to a new parish (Philip is a minister) to the time they leave once more. The town of Horizon is the same as all the others Philip has worked in; small, inbred, gossipy, and demanding, especially for the tortured and stifled artist that Mrs. Bentley presents Philip as being. Apparently they always leave the towns once the surroundings become too much for them, but looking at Philip's behaviour during their year in Horizon I think it much more likely that their previous churches have strongly encouraged the Bentleys to move on. There are the usual characters of a small town, the doctor and his more worldly wife, the bossy matron who makes trouble, the single school teacher, the farm families surrounding the town who are worried about the drought. Philip drops into this setting and proceeds to mope around the house, incapable of doing any physical labour to smooth his wife's life, glaring at her and giving the silent treatment to end all silent treatments. And yet she continually makes excuses for his behaviour and tries to smooth it over with their new parishioners.

This is the reason I still dislike this book. Mrs. Bentley is clearly in a codependent relationship with her emotionally abusive husband, a useless, mean and selfish creation. He is rude to her, he shuts her out continually, he carefully waits until she is asleep to come to bed, he insults her appearance although it is his lack of income which limits her possibilities, he prefers the company of their briefly adopted 'son' to hers, and he repeatedly and unfoundedly accuses her of an inappropriate relationship with the schoolteacher while he himself has had an affair with a church member and impregnated her. Mrs. Bentley is unable to speak to him about his rages, in fact she records how they silently move around each other in the house, constantly on eggshells, and when she finally breaks out into accusations once or twice she fall down crying and begging for forgiveness.

Ross seems to harp on the way he thinks men and women should behave and how they are just irredeemably 'different'. He has Mrs. Bentley constantly saying, well, that is just the way men are, and a woman will thus do this or that to be a good wife. Ross seems to me to be trying to restrain Mrs. Bentley every time her journal comes close to breaking out of his mold.

There are some very skilled descriptions of the surrounding landscapes and the effects that drought, sudden rain and blizzards have on the community. The situations of farmers, ranchers and townspeople are all explored. This book does reveal the stifling sameness required of individuals in a small town, and especially the excessive expectations held for a minister's family.
But there are flaws in the tale, besides my visceral reaction to Philip and Mrs. Bentley's slavish adoration of him. One example is the convenient death of Mrs. Bentley's rival at the end of the story, freeing them up to leave Horizon and move to the city, leaving the church altogether. It is also very, very unlikely that such a person as Philip is going to make a living in the city opening a second hand bookshop. I can tell you right now that a venture such as that, with Mrs. Bentley herself saying that she is the better businessperson but will let Philip take charge as she doesn't want to be a domineering female, won't have a chance. She herself expresses uneasiness at the viability of her idea, near the end of the book.

But Mrs. Bentley seems happy to have to care for her failure-prone husband as if he is a spoiled child. At the end of the book, when they finally have the son they've been longing for, she decides to name him Philip. Here is the response:
"Another Philip?" the first one says, "With so many names to pick and choose from, you don't need that again. Two of us in the same house you'll get mixed up. Sometimes you won't know which of us is which."

That's right, Philip. I want it so.


Alright, maybe I did hate it almost as much as the first time I read it. This time, at least, I can appreciate the format of the book -- I do like fiction in journal form, and it is used well here, to create an unreliable narrator. Structurally it is a fascinating creation. I can also appreciate the setting and realize what he is trying to get across, even if I found it rather heavy handed.

But the relationship between the Bentleys just results in such an emotional reaction from me that I can not enjoy this book. I feel stressed and stifled and angry; perhaps Ross was aiming for such a reaction, who knows. But I am frustrated by Mrs. Bentley and don't enjoy reading misery memoirs, fictional or otherwise. So, still not a favourite of mine. Perhaps I will try one of his other books and see whether it is just Philip that ruins this book for me, or if it is a larger theme running through his writing. I have also read some of his short stories (again, in high school) and perhaps will take another look at those as well.

But, judge for yourselves. Read an excerpt from the publisher, or some of these other recent reviews.

Alexis at Roughing It in the Books has read it three times!

Susan Bartlett thinks Mrs. Bentley is living "a quietly tragic existence"

Melanie believes it is "Good in that dark, musty, depressing way that only good Canadian Literature can be"





6 comments:

  1. I felt that way about The Lost Salt Gift of Blood by Alastair MacLeod. I've never forgiven him after having to read it in grade 10.

    I had never heard of Sinclair Ross until now. I'm a bad Canadian.

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  2. Chris - It must be a regional thing - I'd never heard of Alastair MacLeod until I got to university ;) Probably won't be getting to that one any time soon either...

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  3. I missed this one in school but somehow picked up the idea that it would be stuffy and boring anyhow, so I actually ended up really liking it when I finally read it about 5 years ago. Isn't it funny how expectations either way can so dramatically influence your experience of a novel?!

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  4. I read this a few years back and, while I enjoyed the writing, did find it very depressing.

    I had a similar experience to you, having revisited the Old Man and the Sea after hating it in high school. I ended up hating it just as much but for different reasons.

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  5. I just re-read this book and I still love it. I understand your challenges with the gender roles portrayed, but I think Ross was actually very sympathetic to the plight of Mrs. Bently. Even today (let alone the 1930s) there are many women and men who are not self-actualized enough to understand the tyranny of gender roles and the many other traps of their socio-economic environment.

    I also find that there are aspects of denial, delusion, and fear in the Bentlys' relationship that crop up in every longterm relationship regardless of gender or sexuality. As I found myself identifying with some of the experiences and emotions of both Bentlys I was profoundly grateful that my partner and I have the ability work through these base emotions in our heads before acting on them. And if we do fall into one of the emotional traps the Bentlys do we have a decidely late 20th century/21st century ability to communicate our way through the difficulties in a way that was impossible for the Bentlys.

    I think the brilliance of this book is that Ross portrays the complexity of human emotion and interaction where what's rational or fair or kind doesn't always win out.

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  6. Thomas - I am impressed by your deep analysis of this book. Yes, I suppose we do have to give them the fact that they didn't have the modern ability to facilitate communication. However, my personal dislike of both the characters and of the tired tropes of "small prairie town" fiction make it hard for me to honestly appraise this one!

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