“No one, not even her husband, had ever heard her utter a disagreeable word, and seldom a true one.”

Edith wharton face

Edith, you have GOT to come and save me from this book. I will pay you a large sum of money (for your time period) if you’ll rewrite this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The quote that serves as this post’s title leads me right into what my ongoing problem is with In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow—as I suggested in my first post on the novel, she simply doesn’t trust us to understand what she’s doing.  As a consequence, she labors over events that should come naturally, over-explains situations, and generally weighs down the novel with too much exposition.  Take this quotation, then—it’s clever, isn’t it?  I think it’s a good indication of the kind of writing that Glasgow can do when she’s on her game.  In one sentence, we get a nice sketch of a character we don’t know much about—this is Maggie, the wife of Asa Timberlake’s son Andrew, whose geniality is captured in a turn of phrase I think is pretty well constructed.  There’s an edge to it that’s slightly Whartonian: the woman whose desire to please is so excessive that she’s totally unreliable.  So, you say, why do I raise it as a complaint?  Because it is immediately followed by this sentence: “But, as with most persons who see only the best, her vision was usually short-sighted and often inaccurate.”

ARGH.  She just (pardon my metaphor) craps all over the nice little sentence she’d crafted.  Instead of letting the quick cut go by nicely—“and seldom a true one” gives the image of the kind daughter-in-law a cheeky little twist, after all—she stops and explains what “and seldom a true one” means in excessive detail.  I learn nothing I didn’t already basically know, but now I feel like I’m being treated like a five year old.  This happens in every single paragraph.  Characters have long conversations, spurred by nothing other than the narrator’s (author’s) desire to make sure we can’t possibly miss the point.  The first three chapters, for instance, refer again and again to the awkwardness Asa feels over the fact that he and his family have been forced to rely on the charity of his wife’s Uncle William.  I must have heard on at least six occasions about how hesitant Asa is to ask for help, but how they really couldn’t manage without him, and how strained the emotions are around the house as a result.  And then, after all of that, Asa comes home and has a lengthy chat with his daughter, Roy (again, his daughters’ names are Roy and Stanley), in which Roy explicitly complains about Uncle William, remarks on how his character dominates family gatherings, regrets that the family is forced to live in a house William owns, REITERATES (for crying out loud) that William really does own the house (doesn’t he Daddy?), notes that she should feel grateful to him, adds that instead she resents him, and then observes that in fact probably she resents the fact that she has to feel grateful.  All of this takes place in a three-minute conversation on a random weekday evening, apropos of nothing (certainly William hasn’t done anything of note that day, or that week, as far as I am aware), and all of it explicitly and rapid-fire.

This kind of exposition is so unbelievably tedious, it makes me wonder why Glasgow had such a great reputation as a novelist.  I can see that she has a flair for writing under the right circumstances, but conveying plot details or the inner life of characters seems to be incredibly difficult for her: as an essayist, a woman of letters perhaps, even a poet, I can envision how her talents would be put to good use.  But the Glasgow writing this book is a novelist at the end of a long and successful career.  How could she think that people talk this way, suddenly relating years of backstory and the fermenting unspoken feelings of their hearts to someone they’ve spoken to every day of their lives, as though they just realized the camera was running?  And why does she think we need to be given all of this in carefully typed dialogue, anyway?  Can’t I already make plenty of inferences about the family’s attitude based on the information I have?  Aren’t there, in fact, a lot of ways for helping me understand the complicated balance of feelings between gratitude to a generous wealthy family member and resentment over the need for that gratitude that do not involve me having to hear one character explain it to another?  Much of the time, we’re even unaware of that kind of thing ourselves—great novels draw this sort of thing out over time, and if a character does ultimately make this kind of revelation, it comes at a cost, and it’s spoken at the right moment because on some level it needs to be said then, and to the right person.  This chat, by comparison, is just Glasgow trying to get us from Asa warming up leftovers to him checking in on his invalid wife.  There’s no setup or payoff, and barely any emotion to it.  It’s like saying to your cashier at the supermarket “has it been a busy day?” while you’re pulling out your debit card, and having her say “well, not really, but my mind’s been occupied with the question of whether or not I can finally forgive my father for driving my mother into the alcoholism that killed her”.  Sure, the revelation is a sad one objectively, but in the moment you’re not really sure why you’re hearing it, or what prompted it, or whether any of this is real.  No matter what happens afterwards, you’re not going to respond to that news the way you would if you had first become invested in this woman’s life on any level.

The frustration is compounded, then, by the fact that, although 98% of this novel is obvious information that gets pounded away at us so that we and all the characters know exactly who is holding what cards at each point in the game, the other 2% is mind-blowingly stupid and implausible in its attempts to hide from at least the main character (if not the reader) a totally obvious fact.  Again, remember that these characters say every important emotional thing on their mind to each other at all times, and that the narrator fills in any gaps with flat assertions about who believes what and how they feel about it.  The following events occur — Asa is walking home when a car speeds by.  He notices that the car is driven by Peter (Roy’s husband of two years), but for some reason the passenger is Asa’s other daughter, Stanley, who is engaged and will marry a man named Craig later that week.  Asa notes briefly that it’s odd that Peter should be driving Stanley around, especially as A) Stanley owns her own car and can drive it, and B) Roy has been feeling a little down lately and would probably appreciate a nice drive out.  He gets home to find Roy down in the dumps.  She keeps talking about how stressed she is, and emphasizes that she wants Stanley married as soon as possible.  He asks why she’s unhappy, and she literally says “I can be happy as long as I know I have Peter.”  He replies, “Well, obviously you do have Peter since you’ve married him, so that’s that.”  (Seriously.  “So that’s that.”)  She gives him an odd look, and continues the conversation.  Later on she says, again apropos of nothing, “Peter has his freedom.  I told him that from the beginning.  If he doesn’t want to be with me, he doesn’t have to be.”  And Asa says, well, that’s fine I guess, you and he are clearly both honest with each other.  He asks where Stanley is.  Roy says she’s “visiting Aunt Charlotte”.  He asks where Peter is.  She says he’s “working late”.  Asa does not comment at all on the car that passed him.  Roy then goes off depressed to deal with Stanley’s wedding gifts.  Asa goes upstairs where his wife tells him, among other things, that Stanley is flighty, that she doesn’t seem to be all that in love with Craig anymore, and that she’d be kind of surprised if Stanley wasn’t getting ready to dump her fiance before the wedding that Saturday.  Now, I know I’ve narrated a ton of events here, but I wanted you to see what’s going on.  When did you first suspect that Peter and Stanley were cheating with each other?  Okay, and then when did you decide you pretty much knew that they were?  Well, old Asa has no idea.  He keeps asking himself (and others, occasionally) what’s wrong with Roy, and can’t figure it out for the life of him.  I’d submit to you that this entire subplot is totally implausible—not the cheating, obviously, but the fact that I’m supposed to believe that this guy cannot connect these dots.  Furthermore, I’m supposed to believe that Roy, who shares all her emotions in clinical detail with her father, can bring herself to say (effectively) “I think Roy will leave me, I’ve told him that he can make that choice, and it’s making me sad” but without actually saying “Roy and I are likely to get divorced”.  I just can’t figure this book out.  Who are these people?  On what planet do events like this occur or characters like this live?

There’s a whole racial thing going on too that I can’t even get into yet.  So far I can’t work out how much of the terrible racism is the characters’ racism (which would be accurate for the time and place) and how much is the narrator asserting “true” things about black people (which I really don’t stand for).  At this point, the novel is turning out to be a lot like The Store except really bad at all the things that T. S. Stribling managed to do well.  I fear I’m going to continue dismantling it in public the rest of the way, but I hear that my “takedowns” of novels are more fun to read anyhow, so perhaps you all don’t mind as much.  I certainly mind having to read it.  We’ll see if Glasgow can figure out a way to make the thing tolerable, at least, in the chapters ahead.

“Some sin is black, an’ some ain’ so black, but dis sin you had is pure scarlet.”

I saw many old friends today at a memorial service for a man I worked with for five years—it was good to see them, in spite of the somber circumstances, and it was especially nice to hear from a friend and retired colleague that he’s been reading my blog (thanks, Brian!).  So I thought I ought to thank you all for reading what I write here (when I write it): I still don’t quite know what this is or what it means to me, but to share a journey with friends is a very good thing, and your occasional comments of appreciation and encouragement are really lovely to receive.  Now, on with Scarlet Sister Mary.

As can be guessed, I think, the quotation at the head of today’s post explains part of our title.  The central character of this story appears to be a girl named Mary, working as a sharecropper fieldhand on an old plantation in the post-bellum South.  She’s a member of the church (“sister Mary”, then) and an orphan, who’s been raised by a kind old woman named Maum Hannah—it’s Maum Hannah’s voice speaking in that quotation.  What’s sister Mary’s scarlet sin?  Do you even have to ask?

Sister Mary’s fifteen now, almost sixteen, and has fallen in love with a young man named July.  July is a brash, high-spirited, extroverted young man, whose twin, June, is a quiet, focused, loyal young man who is also in love with Mary, of course.  The story rushes quite rapidly through Mary disappointing poor June and being courted by lively July, so that we reach her wedding day.  And as she’s getting ready for her wedding, Maum Hannah notices that sister Mary’s belly is swollen…that she and July have been “a-havin sin”, as she puts it.  I haven’t hit the social consequences of this yet—I’m really hoping I’m not reading some retread of the story of Hester Prynne, but it sort of looks that way, doesn’t it?

I don’t know that Mary’s the most interesting character yet.  I think probably I’m most intrigued by Maum Hannah and her son, the crippled Budda Ben, who’s served as a father/uncle/brother figure to Mary during her years of growing up.  Ben was injured as an infant when his mother fell on top of him while sneaking away from her husband to visit her lover (Ben’s biological father)…so Maum Hannah knows a thing or two about “scarlet sins”, it seems.  The resulting relationship between these two characters seems really deep and promising—here’s just one moment that makes me think so:

“Crippled Budda Ben was bound to die ahead of his mother who prayed to God every day of her life to let her outlive him, so that when he died she could see that his box was made right.  Budda’s poor legs must not be cramped when they were laid in the ground for their last long rest.  She knew how to pray and she would outlive Budda Ben as sure as the world.”

Now, there’s a mother-son relationship I think is really worth exploring!  Next to that, “scarlet” sister Mary’s struggle with the puritanical values of her church as opposed to the hedonistic values of her soon-to-be-husband strikes me as a little too paint-by-numbers.  We’ll see if Julia Peterkin’s idea of an interesting story intersects with mine—I hope so, at least.

I continue to be bothered by this book’s racial attitudes, but I’m worried I’m not being fair: walk through this with me and tell me what you think.  The dialect these people speak is really the most appalling Amos’n’Andy stuff.  To illustrate, here’s the scene in which June learns that Mary’s in love with July:

“You is gwine to marry July? . . . July ever was a lucky boy.  E ever was.  I never had a luck in my life.”

“Ain’ you glad I’m gwine to be you sister, June?” she asked him.

“Not so glad, Si May-e.”

I haven’t even gotten to Maum Hannah’s standard outbursts (“Lawd, gal, I’m dat sorry, I could pure cry like a baby.  I could, fo’true.”)  So, I look at this and feel like I’m being asked to think of these character as “jes’ folks”, people without real depth or dignity, people who can barely string thoughts together.  I think this is heightened because of the narrator’s voice—for an example of that, here’s a snippet from the description of the old plantation where this book takes place.

“Earthquakes tumble down chimneys, storms break trees and houses, floods wash the earth so bare that its very bones are exposed, droughts burn up crops and weeds with impartial cruelty, but the old plantation is swift to hide every scar made by all this wickedness. . . . Life fills and enfolds everything here, never overlooking in the press of work to be done the smallest or most insignificant creature, and silently, with weariless patience and diligence, strange miracles are wrought as youth rises out of decay and death becomes only another beginning.”

I’m not saying that’s William F. Buckley talking, but I think it’s awfully well articulated, in general.  The contrast between the highly educated voice of the narrator (which remains always very distant from the characters, rarely narrating their thoughts/perceptions) and the voices of the people we encounter is stark.  So, am I wrong to react negatively to this?  Maybe my distaste at the dialect is a kind of condescension as a reader, a way of imposing my racial or class prejudices on a legitimate discourse?  Or is it the writer who’s condescending, setting up the tensions in this piece to be an impassioned and emotional minstrel show?  I can’t decide…and I’d very much like to hear your opinions, based on the evidence provided.