New York: Viking Penguin, 1995, c1978.
This is an epistolary novel that I'd first heard of thanks to Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot, a few years ago now. But I found a copy at a library sale this week so finally got a chance to read it.
It tells the life story of Bess Steed through her letters, from 1899 when she's in 4th grade, until her death in her 70s. The letters are written to various people, so they reveal different aspects of Bess -- her voice and her subject matter changes with each correspondent. She comes across as restless, bossy, self-interested, a large character who is trying to stretch the boundaries of the social expectations which constrain her, but is also not willing to totally throw them over -- society means too much to her.
Bess has three children with her first husband, her childhood sweetheart. She is intensely involved in their lives, leading to estrangement when they are grown, which fortunately isn't total; they do return to relationship. But Bess is a very strong personality, and her opinions aren't always comfortable ones. She likes to travel and explore, but at the same time she is bound by her decision to marry again, a decision she feels is forced upon her by her children's longing for a father and the persistence of her suitor, Sam Garner, an unimaginative engineer who lacks her travel gene, at least for anywhere outside the USA.
At the beginning of the book, Bess feels as if her life is charmed; in one early letter she describes how her night train rushed through a forest fire, without being harmed, and she is like that, travelling untouched through tragedy. But this doesn't last long -- she loses her first husband to the Spanish Flu after WWI, she loses others and has various tragedies following on. It began to feel a wee bit contrived, especially as Bess doesn't seem to change very much through all of this.
I did find that this book captured my interest -- the years that Bess lives through are years of enormous change, socially, politically, technologically. She is avid to know what is happening and changing, and stays informed and interested in life until the end. But she is also complex and despite being so vital, she has blind spots of selfishness and privilege that are unchecked. I don't think she'd be a very comfortable person to be around for long!
The epistolary format worked well for this story, as the focus is entirely on Bess. She reveals the changing nature of her inner thoughts through her writing, saying to her daughter at one point that "only in a letter do I dare express my feelings openly." She is someone who is compelled to write things down, which explains the wealth of letters. Of course, people did write many more letters in the past, and the number of letters gathered into this story would not be unusual to find in many lives of an earlier era. The changing tone of the letters and telegrams, depending on whom they were written to, also adds depth to Bess' character.
However, the intent of the book, in the foreword to my edition, was stated as describing how a woman could be independent within a domestic setting. The author decided in the 1970s that she wanted to write a novel called "Letters from a Runaway Wife"; ironically, her husband told her that runaway wives were a passing fad and that she should write about "a woman who didn't have to leave home to be independent", like her grandmother. The author thought about this and decided he was right (quelle surprise) thus wrote this book.
I don't think that this intent is carried out very effectively. It is as if Hailey is at war between her original impulse and the one she feels obliged to carry out on her husband's instruction. Bess is indeed a woman who doesn't leave home, if by that it is meant that she remains a wife. But her second marriage is one that she takes on partly out of duty and compromise; it's not a satisfying partnership. She doesn't stop travelling alone to Europe, or stop having passionate interest in other men. There are at least two, perhaps three, affairs in the story, revealed obliquely. Bess likes men, she doesn't like being tied down or restricted in her independent choice of actions. As she says:
It seems unreasonable to expect—or indeed even to want—to share every experience in life with the same person.... Why does society restrict a man and a woman to only one such pledge per lifetime? I hope I will never break any promise once made, but if I were free and clear at this moment, I would never again promise my exclusive devotion to anyone.That doesn't sound to me like someone happily independent in a domestic setting. So while I found this book very readable, I felt that Bess' character was restrained both by her social setting and era, and by the author herself. I'd love to see this redone with the author free to write whatever she truly wanted to in the first place.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading about Bess and the numerous pithy things she comes out with in her letters. If you are are interested in a glimpse of the 20th century through the eyes of a strong willed woman ahead of her time, do give this a try. As an epistolary novel it succeeds in its structure, and there is much to enjoy in it despite the feeling I had that it didn't go quite far enough.
I'll close with a couple of favourite excerpts:
How wise we would be to multiply all our pleasures in life through the simple act of reflection, allowing memory to serve as the mirror in which the original moment can be recreated at will. I feel with Wordsworth that an event “recollected in tranquillity” has an intensity it often lacks in the present. My stay in Europe is at an end but I expect to make the trip many times in memory, unencumbered by children and baggage.
We all have the power -- at least for a moment -- to shape our environment, and how wrong of us to ignore this privilege just because it is fleeting. We must accept the fact that nothing we create belongs to us forever and let the act of creation be its own reward.
But do not count on others to convince you your life matters. All of us are finally alone with only a single opinion to sustain us -- our own.