So begins Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn, the 1927 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. A bit uninspired, no? It is, at least, not a very engaging or intriguing way to begin. And what follows is, well, not entirely original.
It seems this world will revolve around the women associated with a fading New England family, whose high opinion of themselves may once have been warranted but is slowly becoming a groundless affectation. We have them in pairs, at present—old Aunt Cassie and her simpleton of a companion, Miss Peavey; Sabine Callendar, a worldly middle-aged woman and the former ward of Aunt Cassie, and Sabine’s cousin (?), the graceful and ladylike Olivia Pentland; and lastly, the girl for whom the ball is given, Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, home from schooling in Paris, and her cousin (?) Therese Callendar, who is also being introduced to “Durham society” as she spends the summer at Pentlands. At the present it feels a bit like a poor man’s Edith Wharton—lots of society conversation and perceived mis-steps, a handsome convention-flouting woman who’s been away for twenty years and is now returned to scandalize folk just a little, the sense that, having escaped society (as Sybil and both Callendars have) it is impossible to return to it on its own terms. It’s not that this is bad fodder for a novel, but given that I’ve read an excellent example of one already, I’m wondering what Bromfield will do to mix things up.
And I’m a bit concerned. On page 4, he refers to a local clergyman, Bishop Smallwood, and notes parenthetically that Sabine calls him “Apostle to the Genteel”. Three or four pages later, in listing guests leaving the party, he mentions Bishop Smallwood…and again notes parenthetically that Sabine calls him “Apostle to the Genteel”. So we have two options: one, he had no idea he repeated the exact same information within several pages, which suggests to me that our author and/or his editor were asleep at the switch, or else two, he actually thought that joke was funny enough to repeat twice in the first ten pages of his novel. I don’t think either prospect is comforting. And so far Louis has shown a tendency to caricature more than character. Aunt Cassie and Miss Peavey are fat, old, disapproving types, who are childless and don’t seem to care much for the new generation. Cassie as the New England dowager really feels quite cliche, thus far. When I compare them in my head to Mrs. Manson Mingott, who was much more than she seemed…but I probably should spend less time dredging up memories of Wharton, if I’m going to enjoy this book. I’m not sure it won’t be a pleasant read, and I’ll hold out hope for that. And then may 1928 rescue me from Midwestern farm life and big city society life, since between the two, I don’t know how much more I can take.