Love, marriage, children, regrets: A Valentine’s Day look at three vintage bestsellers

Sign on tree: Eat, Drink, and Be Married

Happy Valentine’s Day.

I was tempted to label this post “for mature audiences.”

I don’t mean that it will be salacious or even titillating, far from it: This is a post about three married women in bestselling vintage novels whose grand passions are just memories.

Each woman’s story is told from her perspective. The novelists leave readers to determine how much to trust the woman’s judgment.

Since their glorious passion, occasionally recalled while hanging diapers to dry or when the in-laws’ all-too-familiar monologues beg the mind to wander, each of the women wonders if she might not be better off without her husband.

The reasons for their not walking out on their husbands are too complicated for immature readers to comprehend.

Again, happy Valentine’s Day.  I hope you find a novel you’re passionate about.

The Brimming Cup

teaser for The Brimming Cup on closeup of piano keys

The Brimming Cup is a 1921 novel by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher].  Its leading lady is a talented pianist, Marise Crittenden, who, as the novel opens, has just seen her youngest child off to his first year of boarding school.

Marise and her husband, Neale,  had pledged their love on the on the Rocca di Papa in 1909.  By most standards, they’ve had a good marriage.

But as she muses about life with Neale without the children in a tiny New England town far from Italy, Marise thinks, “This is the beginning of the end.”

Marise fears she and Neale will have nothing in common once their children are grown.

Just how far Marise and Neale are already mentally separated is revealed when she overhears a comment that suggests Neale has done something underhanded and she believes it: Marise would never have believed Neale capable of dishonesty back in their time in Italy.

When a retired office manager moves in next door, accompanied by the young son of his late employer, Neale is away on business. To be neighborly, Marise introduces the two men around the community.

The sexy, sophisticated younger man attempts to seduce Marise. She is, naturally, flattered by his attentions, as would any woman whose baby is about to become a teenager.

The novel is intricately crafted and the story rendered with watercolor nuances.

Canfield allows readers to look over Marise’s shoulder and into her mind as she works out whether to leave Neale and a childless house for Vincent and a career.

Years of Grace

teaser for The Years of Grace beside 1912 sculpure

Nine years after The Brimming Cup was published, Margaret Ayers Barnes published her Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller Years of Grace.

Barnes’s leading lady was born Jane Ward in 1877. She was as plain and respectable and solidly middle class as her name sounds. “The unexpected was never allowed to happen to her.”

As a teenager, Jane thought if the unexpected ever did happen, she’d embrace it with joy. But although the unexpected happens to her several times, Jane never embraces it with joy.

Jane’s respectable parents disapprove of her friendship with André Duroy, a French boy whose parents live in an apartment. When André proposes,  Jane’s parents refuse permission for her to marry  or for the couple to even exchange letters until Jane is 21.

Andre goes to Paris to study sculpture for those four years.

As a consolation prize, Jane’s parents do let her go East to college at Bryn Mawr, where she spends two happy years, studying what interests her and ignoring what doesn’t, and feeling “very trivial and purposeless.”

She didn’t really worry a bit as to whether or no she ever voted and she didn’t want to work for her living and, really, she only cared about pleasing André and growing up into the kind of a girl he’d like to be with and talk to and marry.

When Jane’s older sister marries, her parents summon Jane home. Jane’s mother insists she make her debut and enter the husband competition. Although she’s not after a husband—she’s betrothed to André—Jane enjoys being a debutante.

Andre doesn’t come for her twenty-first birthday. He writes that he’s been awarded the Prix de Rome, which means three years’ study in Italy.

Smarting over Andre’s rejection, Jane agrees to marry Stephen Carver, a safe, respectable banker, whom she likes but does not love.

Fifteen years and three children later, Jane at 36 wonders if she and Stephen had ever had romance.

Wasn’t it Stephen’s most endearing quality — or was it his most irritating? —that for ten years or more Stephen had never really thought about how she looked at all? To Stephen, Jane looked like Jane. That was enough for him.

Jane at 50 realizes with a slight pang of regret that she’s always gone in for “durable satisfactions.”

Life might have been very different had Jane been different.

A Lion Is in the Streets

Lion on prowl. How does his mate cope at home?

Adria Locke Langley’s 1945 novel A Lion Is in the Streets starts at the end of Verity and Hank Martin’s marriage.

Hank has been assassinated, and, as always, Verity has been left to cope on her own.

Verity was a Yankee schoolteacher when she fell for a sexy Southern peddler with dreams of becoming governor.

Verity stays home in a sharecropper cottage, making do and ignoring the rumors of Hank’s philandering that drift back from his frequent trips across the state building a political machine to take him to the statehouse.

Verity has known for almost as long as she’s known Hank that his sex drive threatened their marriage.

She gradually comes to realize his political ambition is an even greater threat.

The 1953 film version captures the events of the novel, but misses the real story, which is revealed by innuendo.

The novel takes its title from Proverbs 26:13 where the sluggard uses “a lion is in the streets” as an excuse for not going to work. The allusion is typically interpreted in political terms:  The lion is the political machine; the sluggard is the lazy public that lets it do what it wants.

The Martins remind me of Hillary and Bill Clinton: a cerebral woman with great potential whose friends regard her sexy husband as totally beneath her.

Perhaps that’s why I think a case can be made for a different interpretation of the allusion: that Langley intended readers to see Hank as a political lion and Verity as a moral sluggard who, by failing to exert the power she has, enables him.

Where to find the novels

The Brimming Cup can be found as a digital download at Project Gutenberg. If you’d rather have a 1921 hardback copy or a reprint in paperback, check Alibris.com, where independent booksellers display their wares.

Years of Grace is not yet in the public domain, so it’s not available digitally at Project Gutenberg. Copies of a 1976 reprint of the novel and a lovely 2007 reprint, which I own, can be found at Alibris.com

A Lion Is in the Streets also is not yet in the public domain. This past weekend Alibris.com had 69 copies of the novel for sale.

Final thoughts

It would be fascinating to read companion novels told from the husband’s perspective.

Anyone want to take on the challenge of writing one for NaNoWriMo 2017?

 

Mothers in Novels: Five Memorable Ones

Reading novels reminds us that there are all kinds of mothers, some of whom would never inspire a Hallmark card.

In honor of Mother’s Day, here are capsule summaries of five novels whose main character is a mother. Some of the novels will make you wish its leading lady had been your mother. Others will make you immensely grateful for the mother you had.

Three Loves, A. J. Cronin’s 1932 bestseller, is a novel about a woman who views herself as selflessly devoted to her family. The family views her as selfishly controlling. What happens when the devoted wife and mother realizes her devotion is rejected makes for riveting reading.

The Iron Woman by Margaret Deland  is novel for puzzle lovers. The novel follows four children as they attempt to carry out, against the wishes of their two mothers, marital plans made one summer afternoon under an apple tree. One of the mothers is the formidable owner of Maitlin Iron Works. The other is an equally formidable genteel widow. As to which is the better mother, there’s no contest. Readers must decide which of the two is the stronger.

The Family by Nina Fedorova (1940) is the story of a Russian emigrant family living in China in 1937. When the Japanese invade China, the mother has to decides to send the children off to what she can only hope will be a better life. Then she picks up the pieces of her life, and builds a new family in Tientsin.

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers Barnes was not only a bestseller two years in a row, but garnered the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Its leading lady, Jane Ward, leads an unremarkable life. Always comfortably well-off, she makes a happy marriage and has three children. In the 1920s when her children are grown and have children of their own, Jane reflects on her life and wonders if she made the right choices.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden takes a ‘sixties look at a mother whose life is not all that different from Jane Ward’s, but who makes different choices.