That quote is an excerpt from a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid—to be specific, it is a passage uttered by Carthage’s queen, Dido, just before she commits suicide by setting fire to herself, a method chosen (in part) so that the departing Aeneas (the cad!) will see the smoke rise from Carthage and know that, in choosing to leave her, he has chosen her death. It’s a quotation that has been printed, verbatim, I think four times by now, half-way through Years of Grace…gee, you think maybe our author wants us to see it as significant?
If so, it just suits my increasingly high levels of dismay with the book. The novel’s very readable—the plot (such as it is) bobs along very gaily and Barnes is good with setting. As noted before, one of the advantages Barnes has is that her setting for much of the story is Chicago, a city whose features I’m growing to love, so I can stay interested in those portions of the novel. But it’s odd to read a story where I’m less interested in what the heroine is doing than I am in what intersection she’s passing as she does it. The figure of Dido is constantly invoked, I think, because Barnes (and/or her main character, Jane Ward Carver) sees her as inspirational—Dido, rather than finding a way to live without the man she has fallen in love with, sees her suicide as a really noble and elevated action that prove she’s a lot deeper and more important than the average bear. Jane Carver already has one example to point to, and it’s pretty clear she considers that character’s suicide to be pretty cool/interesting/romantic. I guess we can anticipate where the novel might be headed.
There’s more to the book, of course, than a steady countdown to suicide. Every section of the book bears a different man’s name, as different men enter Jane’s life and convince her that, yes, maybe this rush of feeling is what love really is. We’ve hit the “devoted high school boyfriend”, the “impetuous young fiance”, and the “dutiful and loyal husband” notes. Now we’re engaged in discovering the charms of the rakish scoundrels who marry our best friends. I’m sure there’s a feminist way to read the book and rehabilitate it—to say that these choices and this limited sphere explains the kind of circumscribed middle class lives that women of Jane’s era and station were forced to live. But I think, to be honest, that that’s a load of dingo’s kidneys. The book itself is full of more interesting and daring women than Jane shows any interest in being—the woman who serves as president of Bryn Mawr College (and an inspiration to Jane, briefly), Jane’s friend Agnes whose skill as a journalist and writer could have led her to stardom (and maybe still will, if she can solve the problem of her philandering spouse), Jane’s athletic sister-in-law who has never married and intends to take a house with another single woman friend of hers (leaving me to wonder if a novelist could get away with writing a clearly closeted lesbian character in 1931…and, if so, whether the sister-in-law is intended to be taken that way), and I could go on. Jane, of all her friends, seems one of the most conventional—not because she likes convention, but because she’s frightened of taking the chance to be somebody. Because trying to be somebody carries with it the real chance that you will fail and have to feel those consequences, at least for a while. And yes, it is tragic—truly tragic—that her society makes those consequences more arduous and more lasting for women than it does for men. But it doesn’t stop her friends and associates from being brave, and I wish it didn’t stop Jane either. As it is, we have a “heroine” who is not heroic, despite the novel’s attempts to see her in that way. I prefer enduring this ill-founded confidence to watching Tarkington condescend to a similar character in Alice Adams, but not by much. I’m reading it in big gulps out of a desire to clear it out of the way and find what’s next—high hopes of having a review by Friday, but we’ll see if the work week allows that! In the meantime, go out and read a book that isn’t Years of Grace, and enjoy the last of your long weekend.