Roxana, Daniel Defoe (1724)

Roxana

 

If you have any Regard to your future Happiness; any View of living comfortably with a Husband; any Hope of preserving your Fortunes, or restoring them after any Disaster; Never, Ladies, marry a Fool; any Husband rather than a Fool…

 

So begins Roxana’s life of woe, written as a cautionary tale “to my Fellow-creatures, the Young Ladies of this country,” that any life is better than marriage with a Fool “nay be any thing, be even an Old Maid, the worst of Nature’s Curses, rather than take up with a Fool.”

Because, Fool she marries, has 5 children by him, suffers through her brother’s financial folly and thereby hers when he is given her portion of their father’s inheritance which he spends and then the folly of her husband’s financial losses. To add to this latest injury, her husband leaves her and their five children to find his fortune elsewhere, with no provision for food, bills or a roof over their head.

Though he has threatened to leave in the past, Roxana never believed he would do it and expects to hear from him or to at least receive something for her livelihood, but as the weeks and months drag on there is no word from him and she begins selling furniture, clothing and jewelry to feed the household. As the situation deteriorates, she knows she must give up her children and hopes the sister of her husband will oblige, so she sends her devoted maid Amy, who has been working without wages, to take the children to their aunt.

The landlord, who has given Roxana a year’s free rent to sort out her situation, begins to insinuate himself in her financial affairs with food and other necessities, which Roxana believes are without strings. However, it becomes clear that if Roxana is interested in staying in the house, he will want to share it with her, cohabit, as if they are a married couple. This is the predicament Roxana will find herself in throughout her life as no word from her husband either for a divorce or by a death certificate will allow her to legally marry. She will be forced to survive in cohabitation, as a mistress, a concubine, a whore.

After the landlord dies, she continues in this manner with successive men, in various situations, acknowledging she is at least lucky that her beauty can still attract rich men, even after so many children and the wear and tear of the guilt she suffers over the choices she has had to make since her husband left. She is given beautiful clothes, jewelry and homes to live in and money to keep up her lifestyle. One of her greatest fears as the years pass in this way, is over the control of this fortune, which she would have to give up if ever she could legally marry. Marriage would mean her husband would control her estate to do with it what he would and as past circumstances have shown her, she could once again find herself unprotected and defenseless. This terrifies her even after she hears her husband has died and she is free to marry legally.

Roxana is never morally accepting of the choices she has made and is often ashamed at her sinful life. The fate of her children haunt her and she wants to make restitution although the difficulty here is admitting to them how she has come by her wealth. With Amy as her “agent,” she makes some financial amends, but this ends up in disaster later on.

The subject matter of this 18th century novel made me wonder how it was received in its day. I discovered the book was popular, though throughout many early editions, the ending was changed by whoever published it as was common at the time. Most had Roxana on her deathbed confessing her sins and crying out her repentance giving her a measure of goodness and assurance of a Christian burial. In some of the endings when she reveals the truth to her children they forgive her and the book ends happily.

However, the real text as Defoe writes it ends with Roxana and Amy’s world collapsing once again into destitution, “the Blast of Heaven seem’d to follow the Injury…and I was brought so low again, that my Repentance seem’d to be only the Consequence of my Misery, as my Misery was of my Crime.


Note on the Text

My edition preserves the original format of the text keeping the unique spellings and word usage, the capitalization of words within sentences and the seemingly (to me, anyway) random italicization of words. But it was not difficult to read. Though at times dense, Defoe’s writing is descriptive and absorbing as if Roxana is telling her story live, in front of a spellbound audience.

A Personal Note

If not for a reading challenge that called for a book with an ‘x’ in the title, I am not sure I would have chosen this book. I scoured myriad lists to find a title and though I knew of Defoe, having read A Journal of the Plague Year  many years ago, I had never heard of this title, so I was happy to acquaint myself with another one of his works. Though I am not always successful in completing book challenges, I can honestly say they have enriched my life!

_______________________

My Edition
Title: Roxana, The Fortunate Mistress
or, a History of the
Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of
Mademoiselle de Beleau, afterwards called
the Countess de Wintselsheim
in Germany
Being the Person know by
the Name of the Lady Roxana
in the time of Charles II

Author: Daniel Defoe
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1724
Pages: 330
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, What’s in a Name?, Mount TBR

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The Moonstone Castle Mystery, Carolyn Keene (1963)

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Bess and George were always interested in observing Nancy’s sleuthing procedures. They often wondered whether it was her charm, her straightforward manner, or her businesslike approach that unfailingly gained her entrance to offices and officials. Now, with little explanation on her part, the girls were ushered into the president’s office.

 

I am house sitting for my sister while she and my brother in law are in Massachusetts welcoming a new grandchild, who is now overdue, refusing to vacate the premises voluntarily. So, I am in San Diego a lot longer than I thought I would be!

While going through my sister’s bookshelves I found she has many of our old Nancy Drew books and since one of the book challenges I signed up for this year calls for a building in the title, I decided to give The Moonstone Castle Mystery a try. Like many girls of a certain age (ahem), Nancy Drew “girl detective” was a popular series along with Cherry Ames “nurse detective” and the Little House books.

As I began to read, I wondered how dated this would feel and if it had any relevance to me, now, or for today’s young readers.

Nancy lives with her lawyer father and housekeeper, Hannah Gruen (her mother died when she was a baby) and often helps her father with his cases. This is book number 40, so Nancy is a young woman at this point, with many cases under her belt. She is a skilled, confident and bold investigator and easily puts together answers from the clues she and her trusty girlfriends, Bess and George, find.

In this particular case, her father has asked her to go to the town of Deep River to find the whereabouts of a missing child as he suspects the heiress of a fortune is actually a fraud and the missing child in Deep River the real heir. With Bess and George, Nancy drives her beloved convertible to Deep River.

As in many mystery stories that start out with a simple question, Nancy and friends are soon caught up in something much bigger than a missing child. Someone is on to her and does not want her to discover the truth.

drew2In the course of the trip she is followed by an unknown man, her car is stolen, while boating a crazed man rams her boat, she is briefly kidnapped, spied upon, chased and then is the chaser, figures out how to keep the drawbridge at the castle from rising, she interviews creepy people and decodes their answers and discusses the next move with Bess and George.drew1

In short, nothing daunts Nancy Drew. She is not shy or hesitant. She does not question herself and willingly goes into the unknown. With Bess and George, who have accompanied her on many cases, these young women have honed their investigative skills and are game for any challenge. When more than one lead has to be tracked down at once, the young women divide up the duties, meeting later to discuss what they found.

So it was a real shock when Nancy invited their boyfriends, who happened to be counselors at a camp nearby, up for the weekend to help with this case. From the moment Ned, Dave and Burt arrive, Nancy defers to Ned with questions she had already gone over with Bess and George, letting Ned take the lead when she is perfectly capable of figuring out things herself.

Thankfully, the young men are only there for the weekend, because they all get into more scrapes and dangerous situations while the men take charge! In fact, Ned is the reason Nancy is kidnapped while they are checking out the castle. His, “wait here while I go down to the cellar, because it is too dangerous,” left Nancy alone where she is drugged and pulled into a closet. Nancy would never have balked about going down to the cellar herself.

When I asked myself if the original Nancy Drew is still relevant, despite the obvious awkwardness above, I found the actual mystery held my attention. Though some of the language and concepts are dated and obsolete (think doing detective work without computers or cell phones, getting a busy signal at the hospital because ‘the wires are crossed’ and referring to someone as queer, but not in reference to their sexuality), it is a good story with complex and layered clues leading to even more complicated situations.

These books have gone through many reprints and some modern updating since they were first published in the 1930s, but their portrayal of young women who are smart, confident, think for themselves, work together and trust each other is timeless and universal and certainly relevant in the 21st century.

Have you read any of the Nancy Drew mysteries as an adult?

 

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My Edition:
Title: The Moonstone Castle Mystery
Author: Carolyn Keene
Publisher: Grosset and Dunlap
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1963
Pages: 178
Full plot summary

Challenges: What’s in a Name

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton (1905)

housemirth

 

You asked me just now for the truth—well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks. 

 

Though Lily Bart didn’t grow up rich, she was born into a comfortable and respectable home with relatives high on the social scale. Like most girls in this class her only purpose in life is to find a wealthy, respected husband. Lily doesn’t just have hopes this will happen, she is very good at making it happen.

But it all comes crashing down when her father makes a series of bad business deals leaving her at the mercy of relatives and friends. Her luck holds out longer than many in this situation, because her beauty and charm is sought after and admired in her ‘set’ who continue to include her in their social gatherings, weekend outings and trips abroad.

Because her future is dependent on whom she marries Lily, like all women of her class, must calculate and weigh every conversation, each action and event she makes. She becomes a keen observer of the most minute details of what is socially acceptable and there are so many! One wrong word or action, one misinterpreted conversation or negative comment against her or showing too much interest in a man or not enough, can have devastating consequences.

The Power of Gossip and Lies

When the gossip about Lily and the unfounded lies begin to run rampant, the same friends who welcomed her into their world at her father’s death, abandon her and are willing to watch her fall rather than come to her defense and risk damaging their own reputations. As Mr. Rosedale admits to her,

Mrs. Dorset…did you a beastly bad turn last spring. Everybody knows what Mrs. Dorset is, and her best friends wouldn’t believe her on oath where their own interests were concerned; but as long as they’re out of the row it’s much easier to follow her lead than to set themselves against it, and you’ve simply been sacrificed to their laziness and selfishness.

One misstep in judgment (going to the apartment of her close male friend alone) begins the downward spiral of gossip and innuendo Lily never recovers from. And her pride makes it impossible for her to fight back.

Not only has the gossip killed any prospect for marriage, the question of how can Lily then support herself must be considered. In this class system, women like Lily are born to be dependent. There is never a question about working or learning a trade. Though she tries her hand at various occupations, Wharton writes a remarkable passage of truth that Lily is conscious of:

She had learned by experience that she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake her life on new lines to become a worker among workers, and let the world of luxury and pleasure seep by her unregarded…Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the hummingbirds’ breast?

 Wharton’s Unsentimental Pen

I have railed against Wharton for writing such depressing novels as Ethan Frome  and Summer. It isn’t that I expect a fantasy of happy endings, but Ethan Frome, Charity Royall and Lily Bart cannot catch a break from the rigid social norms they struggle against.

However, about half way through The House of Mirth I had a stop-me-in-my-tracks moment: Wharton doesn’t write depressing novels, she just writes with an unsentimental pen. She chooses to write stories about people’s fate or more precisely that they can’t escape it once an action or word sets them on that trajectory; that social norms are so rigid and a person’s duty to their class is so morally strong there is no wiggle room for escape or independence from it. For whatever reason, Wharton writes about the injustices of a system that kills passion, desire and freedom.

And was this personal? I have read many times Ethan Frome is the most autobiographical novel she has ever written. So perhaps all this thwarted desire is her personal biographical commentary.

Women as Instigators

It is horribly sad that women in the novel are the instigators of the lies and stories that bring Lily down and that her own aunt with whom she is living believes the gossip about Lily accepting unwanted attention from married men. She not only believes it, but instead of asking Lily outright if what people are saying is true, she is incensed that Lily has allowed herself to be talked about in the first place,

It was horrible of a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made.

When your own family members turn against you, what recourse do you have? And when you know fighting back is useless, how do you cope?

Bullying in The House of Mirth

While The House of Mirth is rooted in its time period, something struck me as very contemporary. Lily’s death is suspicious in terms of it being an accident or self-inflicted. But the stage was set because of the devastating effects of the bullying and meanness she was subjected to. This is the same behavior and sometimes the result many teenagers of today are forced to endure.

Lily Bart shows us the tragic outcome when this behavior is allowed to grow and fester unchecked. I think this puts to rest those critics who wonder if  classic literature should still be taught in schools.

***************

My Edition:
Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Mass market paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 317
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR

 

Living in Mary Austin’s House, The Land of Little Rain (1903)

austin8
Mary Austin’s Home, Independence, CA       California Historical Landmark No. 229

Weather does not happen. It is the visible manifestation of the Spirit moving itself in the void.

Mary Austin (1868-1934) is a southwest writer who wrote about the desert and mountain areas of the Sierra Nevada and the Death Valley region of California. The Land of Little Rain is a collection of essays that first ran in the Atlantic Monthly in 1903 and was subsequently published in book form. For Americans in the east and middle parts of the country, California at this time still evoked mystery and an Eden-like quality, but the desert was an unknown entity.

Austin brought interest to these regions by her lyrical and descriptive writing style (and an independent use of words and phrases to furrow an editor’s brow), not only of the land and animal inhabitants, but as an ally to the plight of the Shoshone and Paiute Indians who had been shut out and shoved around by the “progress” of the encroaching White population. She trekked through mountain passages, Spring-flowered valleys and scrubby foothills observing and finding connections among the nonhuman and human animals who populated the nooks and crannies of a place where only the hardy could survive.

 

austin9
Bristlecone Pine, White Mountains, California. Known for their long lives.

 

She writes like John Muir personalizing the animals that she observes and brings to life what many people don’t see in the desert. And like Muir, who roamed the Sierras as well, she sees the nondenominational hand of Spirit that both animates and connects all the world. However, unlike Muir and the male dominated “nature” movement shouting to the wide world, her voice is for the local personal relationship with a particular piece of land.

Originally from Illinois, she moved west with her family after college. She married and had a daughter finding a base in the tiny town of Independence where she wandered throughout the desert foothills and mountain trails with Ruth strapped to her back in a device she learned from the Indians.

 

austin7
Outside the Austin house front door.

 

I lived in her house for the summer many years ago when I came back to California after 5 years in Chicago. A friend owned her house and asked me to stay while she spent long trips backpacking and peak climbing throughout the Sierras. I had never spent much time in the desert let alone such a small town where there was a last street before the wilderness.

 

austin6
Bighorn sheep let me take their picture!

 

As odd as it might seem, I didn’t read any of Mary Austin’s extensive work. Instead, I spent days wandering the foothills coming upon bleached cow bones, poking at the dirt for horned toads, discovering ancient Native petroglyphs etched in big stone rocks, sitting on granite boulders in the evening while the red-tailed hawks above me searched for dinner below, and watching the shadows change the color of the Sierras and the Inyo/Whites as the sun’s shadow passed over them from sun up to sun rise.

 

 

Petroglyphs on boulders saying something…?

 

After reading The Land of Little Rain over the weekend I was duly stunned by what this collection of essays brought up. It wasn’t just the memories of one of the best summers of my life, but why I love to be outside walking trails and keeping company with all of Nature’s creaturely inhabitants and how I am often opened to praise That which is bigger than myself.

 Austin eventually settled in Taos, New Mexico where she continued to write books, poems and plays.

Below are passages from The Land of Little Rain that particularly struck me. And incidentally, all the photos on this page are mine. Excuse the quality as they are digital photos taken from snapshots.

A communion of creatures—

Probably we never fully credit the interdependence of wild creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind. When the five coyotes that range the Tejon from Pasteria to Tunawai planned a relay race to bring down an antelope strayed from the band, beside myself to watch, an eagle swung down from Mt. Pinos, buzzards materialized out of invisible ether, and hawks came trooping like small boys to a street fight. Rabbits sat up in the chaparral and cocked their ears, feeling themselves quite safe for the once as the hunt swung near them. Nothing happens in the deep wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell. The hawk follows the badger, the coyote the carrion crow, and from their aerial stations the buzzards watch each other. What would be worth knowing is how much of their neighbor’s affairs the new generations learn for themselves, and how much they are taught of their elders.

The Desert
This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is room enough and time enough. Trees grow to consummate domes; every plant has its perfect work. Noxious weeds such as come up thickly in crowded fields do not flourish in the free spaces. Live long enough with an Indian, and he or the wild things will show you a use for everything that grows in these borders.

The Desert—
For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars…It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls.

When food is scarce, women are vulnerable—
On the slope the summer growth affords seeds; up the steep the one-leafed pines, an oily nut. That was really all they could depend upon, and that only at the mercy of the little gods of frost and rain. For the rest it was cunning against cunning, caution against skill, against quacking hordes of wild-fowl in the Tulare, against pronghorn and bignhorn and deer. You can guess, however that all this warring of rifles and bowstrings, this influx of of overlording whites, had made game wilder and hunters fearful of being hunted. You can surmise also, for it was a crude time and the land was raw, that the women became in turn the game of the conquerors.

Why do people live in the desert?—
…One does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it…For one thing there is the divinest, cleanest air to be breathed anywhere in God’s world. Some day the world will understand that, and the little oases on the windy tops of hills will harbor for healing its ailing, house-weary broods.

 

Independence also has the disturbing distinction as one of the centers of Japanese-American internment during World War II. Manzanar is situated at the edge of the town.

The entrance is on the left. On the right,a  cemetery marker where survivors and others sometimes leave personal mementos.

My Edition:
Title: The Land of Little Rain
Author: Mary Austin
Publisher: University of New Mexico Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1974, is the complete text of the first edition, 1903
Pages: 171
Full plot summary

_________________
Mount TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics

 

Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time, Fanny Fern (1855)

My Edition:ruthhall
Title: Ruth Hall
Author: Fanny Fern
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1855
Pages: 281
Plot summary

 

All the world knew it was quite unnecessary for a pretty woman to be smart

 

Fanny Fern (1811-1872 ) was one of the most well-known women writers in America. As a journalist she had the distinction of being the first woman to write a signed weekly column at a major publication and one of the most highly paid writers, male or female, in America. Although her family was literary and well-to-do her success came in spite of them.

fannyfern
Fanny Fern


Ruth Hall
is a loosely based autobiographical account of Fern’s struggles as a widow and single woman with children trying to find her way in a society that has no place for women on their own. Though she remarried, her husband was violent and she left him, scandalizing her family. Through the trials and hardships of Ruth, who is similarly widowed with two children and left helpless by in-laws and family alike we understand the helplessness of women who have no male relatives for protection, financial help and shelter.

Ruth’s husband Harry adored her and their marriage was happy, except for the dislike his parents had toward her. Strict and stern in their religious beliefs, they lived their lives by denying themselves any pleasure. To them Ruth was blasphemous in her openly loving behavior toward her husband and daughter. She was full of flights of fancy and far too emotional and definitely not good enough for their son, which they had no trouble saying to her face, to Harry and to any friend or neighbor. Even Ruth’s grief at the deaths of her daughter and Harry was disregarded as an exaggerated display in order to elicit sympathy.

What characterizes this novel is the unbelievable behavior of Ruth’s in-laws, her father and Hyacinth, her brother toward her situation as a widow. Though they are all able to help financially, they refuse. By the time Harry dies they have had two more children leaving Ruth with three options: remarry, give up her children or go away. Even her brother rebuffs financial help in her name when a friend of Harry’s approaches him at the funeral with a financial offer for Ruth put together by Harry’s friends. Knowing the code of ethics puts the responsibility for Ruth on him and his father he refuses; not because they are going to help her, but to preserve the family’s reputation.

Harry’s parents do not believe Ruth can care for the girls and are anxious to get their hands on them. Ruth lives in squalor in an attic room where there is not enough food for the three of them. As heartbreaking as it is she relents and allows Katy, the oldest, to stay with her grandparents until she can find the money to get her back. Poor Katy suffers abuse and continual denigrating of her mother.

An attempt to teach is a failure. The last option is writing, which Ruth had some success at as a school girl. She sends a few samples to Hyacinth, who has become an editor at a magazine, certain he will help her. After all she is not asking for money, but to work. His reaction is to once again stand in her way with a response that will haunt him later: “I have looked over the pieces you sent me, Ruth. It is very evident that writing never can be your forte; you have no talent that way…I would advise you to seek some unobtrusive employment.” Like so many with a dream that is demeaned and thwarted, the response emboldens her and sets her on fire!

If this sounds like a melodrama, it is. From one small magazine to another she goes with her youngest daughter in tow, only to be rejected again and again until finally she finds two editors who will pay paltry sums for 8 articles a week between them. Mind-numbing and backbreaking work yet this is for experience, because the amount is too small to get Katy back. She keeps writing; sometimes because there is no money for a candle, she writes by the light of the moon.

But finally, the public begins to recognize the words of “Floy,” her pseudonym and her reputation soars. She takes all of the articles she wrote for the two magazines and publishes them in book form to enormous success. She is noticed by the publisher of one of the most popular magazines in the country and offered an exclusive deal. This publisher, Mr. Walter, comes to the rescue like an angel at a train wreck who miraculously saves passengers from certain death, but in this case he is an angel with a contract to write not 8 articles a week, but only one, with a payment so large she can quit the other magazines, get back her daughter and move into the home of her dreams.

While it is easy to see this novel as overly exaggerated and melodramatic it does underscore the vulnerable position women, who through no fault of their own, are alone. Even women with means, like Ruth, have no guarantee they will be cared for/can care for themselves. Throughout the book her family is unfeeling to her pain and dire straits as if she is at fault her for her situation. Her in-laws, her father and her brother all want to protect their assets, instead of helping her. They expect, with complete lack of emotion, that she should give her children away, that it would be better for them and easier for her to find her way.

That she defied tradition and convention and made a success of herself without their help comes back to humiliate them. At the very end of the story Fern writes scathing scenes of confrontations they each have from friends and business acquaintances calling them out over turning their back on their daughter, their sister, their daughter-in-law. I only wish Ruth could have known this!


Back to the Classics, Mount TBR, Classics Club

#TheLiteraryOthers: Uncovered (2015)

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This is my first post of possibly three for The Literary Others, a month-long reading event in support of LGBT History Month: October 1-31. Hosted by Roof Beam Reader,  you can find posts and reviews of books on Twitter-#theliteraryothers-and at the master list.

My Edition:uncovered
Title: Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home
Author: Leah Lax
Publisher: She Writes Press
Device: Trade Paper
Year: 2015
Pages: 349
For a plot summary

 

My thoughts:

When someone in the LGBT community is struggling with their faith tradition’s acceptance of them, it is easy to ask, “Why do you stay if they can’t accept you and if you can’t accept things the way they are?” The answer is complicated as Leah Lax shows in this spiritual memoir of her life as a Hasidic Jew struggling to do God’s will amidst the inner conflicts that plague her life in this strict Jewish sect.

Lax chose to enter Hasidic Judaism after graduating high school, where unquestioning allegiance to the Law gave no outlet for doubts. The rules governed the minutiae of everyday life, which made it a refuge against her chaotic and disordered childhood. There were no gray areas if uncertainties trickled into her mind. Group think and fear of gossip purged any thoughts of rebellion. When Lax married at 19 she hoped her home and religious convictions would mitigate the loneliness that troubled her since childhood.

She dutifully fulfills the command from her Rebbe to “build an everlasting edifice of a Jewish home and family,” and in a succession of years has 7 children. Her husband, unable to show her affection or take any interest in her, works long hours and then comes home to study his holy books.

Profoundly disappointed that marriage was not the healer she had hoped, she is awakened many nights by panic attacks unable to breathe. To add to the discomfort of these nightly assaults into her subconscious is the confusion that they portray her as a man. Though a gnawing sense that her decision to enter this marriage is fraying around the edges, she continues to stay and raise up her children as models of the tradition.

It is only after she hears of the suicide of a young yeshiva boy, who she believes jumped off the roof because he couldn’t live with the knowledge that he was gay, does Lax allow the questions about her own sexuality and doubts about her faith to rise up. Still, she “holds on for the kids” and it is several years before she can truly break free and live an open life.

It is easy to assume someone in the LGBT community should just leave a religion that doesn’t want them and can’t accept their sexual orientation. Yet, Lax shows us how seriously any deeply committed person of faith takes their religion. Because if you truly believe this faith tradition is God’s will for your life, you fight with everything inside you to stay, no matter the questions, the doubts, the personal toll. As long as you can find answers to your questions of confusion, discomfort and disappointment, you will sublimate or ignore even the most deep innate feelings you know about yourself. But once those answers are not good enough and stop making sense, the chinks become cracks, become wide open routes that show you the way out.

I found this book so compelling in its openness and honesty that I read it straight through. I appreciated Lax’s attention to the details of her inner and outer life that reflected her conflicts as a lesbian living as a married Hasidic Jew, how she tried to reconcile those very different things, how she tried so very hard to make it work and then ultimately why she couldn’t.

The book ends with a description of her successful life on the outside as a writer, dog lover and with the new home she has created with her partner. Her children have accepted her new life and she says they were not surprised when she came out to them.

And I was finally able to breathe!

 

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

My Edition:herland.jpeg
Title: Herland
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Publisher: Dover Publications
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1915
Pages: 124
For a plot summary

There was no accepted standard of what was ‘manly and what was ‘womanly.’…When Jeff said to Celis, “Women should not carry anything…they are not built for heavy work. Celis looked out across the fields to where some women were working, building a new bit of wall out of large stones; looked back at the nearest town with its woman-built houses; down at the smooth, hard road they were walking on; and then at the little basket he had taken from her. “I don’t understand, are the women in your country so weak that they could not carry such a thing as that?[i]

 

I was so disappointed by Edward Bellamy’s depiction of women in his utopian novel, Looking Backward, that I found myself pining for a more positive view. I remembered I had Herland on my shelf and pulled it off only to find in the introduction the author was inspired by Bellamy! Charlotte Perkins Gilman was already known for her autobiographical, The Yellow Wallpaper, which exposed the chilling and harrowing methods of the ‘rest cure’ forced on some women when depression and the inability to cope made living impossible. Surely, she had a more affirmative and supportive concept about women in her utopia?

Happily for me, Herland presents a stable and progressive environment, a well-planned framework for a new way of life. The novel, in a parallel to Looking Backward, is based around conversations, in this case, between the three male explorers and their three female teachers.

The plot is simple enough. Three young men, Terry the rich boy, Van the sociologist and Jeff the doctor and friends since college have joined an expedition somewhere in Central or South America, the exact location is not made clear, where the native guides tell tales of a land of women high up in the mountains where there are no men or male children. One of the guides shows them a piece of cloth made with extraordinary skill that looks nothing like the work of local people. The three men vow to come back and find this land which they do a year later.

And the tales they heard are true. It IS a land of women, who have created a country of beauty, peace, culture and education without the aid of men. And poor Terry, who is certain the women have been waiting centuries for him spends the entire trip trying to prove it, but to no avail. Van and Jeff are eager to learn and understand the history and society of the country and it is through conversations with their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel that we learn how the land came to be.

Two thousand years ago, after a series of wars, though they built fortresses and had skilled warriors, the men were unable to stave off attacks from other tribes and all were killed. This left women, young girls and old slave women as the only inhabitants when the final blow, a volcanic outburst, sealed off the pass below and penned them up against the mountains. There was no escape. After the initial despair where some women suggested suicide, the majority made the decision to live. The slave women taught them invaluable skills and they learned to work the tools and equipment of various trades. They had records and archives with their history, which they learned and added to as the centuries went by.

But the question had to be asked: if there were no men for two thousand years, how did they populate? For about 10 years after they were sealed in by the volcano, the remaining women plucked up the courage to plan a future as best they could. They cleaned up the land by working together and grew strong and wise and more and more mutually attached, until a miracle occurred: one young woman bore a girl child… a direct gift from the gods, they believed. She bore four more—all girls. The miracle continued as each woman, upon reaching the age of 25, bore her first child, until she, too, had five. But as the centuries passed and overpopulation threatened the land, the process settled on one child a piece.

“Babies are raised communally after a year spent with their mother, though even then, the mother is never far from her child. School and education is an environment calculated to allow the riches, freest growth….”[ii]

The children grow up in a system of education that draws out their talents and abilities to things they love and are good at so when they enter the work force work is a delight and a joyous contribution to the nation. This notion that education is for discovering what we’re good at and love is like Bellamy’s system, except that his excludes women, whose highest contribution to society is to procreate, with ‘careers’ only auxiliary, not part of the needs of the nation.

I should mention here that in Herland, motherhood, too, is lauded as the supreme achievement with babies loved and adored by the whole community. However, it is acknowledged that not every woman will have or want to have a child, a decision that is honored and respected. In Bellamy’s new world as in his real 19th century world, a woman who does not want to have children is looked on with derision, even suspicion.

It may be that Gilman’s perspective on motherhood is also a reflection of her ideas about women and work and the insistence that women have choices over their life. This may have also been a reaction against the criticism Gilman received when she gave up her daughter to be raised by her first husband so she could concentrate on her work. He remarried her best friend and the three were close, but the act of voluntarily giving up her child for such a “selfish” reason was looked upon as extremely “umotherly.”

Gilman also explores femininity in Herland. The women here are not ‘feminine’ in the way Terry, Van and Jeff are accustomed. It is confusing enough for them that society functions just fine in every area without men and Gilman uses this as a platform to explore this new womanhood. The three are educated about Herland for months together and individually by their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel, whom they affectionately call “The Colonels.” The lack of sexual dynamics and their notions of femininity are confusing to the men. That the women of Herland created a land of peace and plenty, built streets and edifices, figured out food sources and methods of feeding 3 million people, developed laws and education without the guidance and organization skills of men, is an almost impossible concept for Terry, Van and Jeff.

Van: “Here you have human beings…but what we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics…but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine….The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection.”

Terry, with sarcasm, “It’s likely women—just a pack of women—would have hung together like that! We all know women can’t organize—that they scrap like anything—are frightfully jealous.”

Jeff: “But these New Ladies didn’t have anyone to be jealous of, remember?”[iii]

What a blow to Terry who is observing a land where he is not needed and that frankly works better without men!

And in fact, Terry, the prized catch of manhood in his former life has the most difficult time. I think Gilman uses him to illustrate every sexist and chauvinistic word men ever said about women! Even after the men are accepted into society, learn the language and are educated on the history of the county, Terry refuses to accept that a country can actually exist without men and that in truth, the women MUST have been waiting just for him. As imagined, he causes the most problems, cannot accept what he sees and longs to get home to ‘real women.’ In a remarkable observation Van says, “those feminine charms we are so fond of are not feminine at all but mere reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process.”[iv]

Gilman explores many aspects of society, including religion

…they had a clear established connection between everything they did—and God. Their cleanliness, their health, their exquisite order, the rich peaceful beauty of the whole land, the happiness of the children, and above all the constant progress they made—all this was their religion….They applied their mind to the thought of God, and worked out the theory that such an inner power demanded outward expression. They lived as if God was real and at work within them.[v]

And relationships, because of course, there is romance! But between whom and whether they stay in Herland would be a spoiler, so you’ll have to read the book to find out. Hint: Poor Terry….

That this beautiful, stable, evolving world exists because women are cooperative with each other, that they are smart, are able to take their talents and abilities both physical and mental to their highest potential, have created culture and art is what Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writer and feminist, was working for in 19th/20th century America. It is hard to remember women once had to fight for the right to be smart and capable, to freely take their talents and abilities as far as they could, to create whatever kind of life they wanted.

It makes me laugh, knowing all I do now, to think of us three boys—nothing else, three audacious impertinent boys—butting into an unknown country without any sort of a guard or defense. We seemed to think that if there were men we could fight them, and if there were only women—why, they would be no obstacles at all.[vi]

Was Herland a reaction to Looking Backward? Or Gilman’s singular attempt to design a world where women were not only safe from the violence of men, they were also physically competent and smart and educated enough to build and care for their own society? Looking forward, taking the best from both, they have the potential to create a good decent society where each person is valued for their individuality, yet part of the whole.

___________
[i] p. 79.
[ii] p. 87.
[iii] p. 49-50.
[iv] p. 50
[v] p. 8.
[vi] p. 18.

 

Looking Backward 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy (1888)

My Edition:lookingbackward
Title: Looking Backward
Author: Edward Bellamy
Publisher: A Signet Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1888
Pages: 222
For a plot summary

 

In your day, riches debauched one class with idleness of mind and body, while poverty sapped the vitality of the masses by overwork, bad food, and pestilent homes…Instead of these maleficent circumstances, all now enjoy the most favorable conditions of physical life; the young are carefully nurtured and studiously cared for; the labor which is required of all is limited to the period of greatest bodily vigor, and is never excessive; care for one’s self and one’s family, anxiety as to livelihood, the strain of a ceaseless battle for life—all these influences, which once did so much to wreck the minds and bodies of men and women, are known no more.[i]

Julian West is a young well-to-do Bostonian with a good life and marriage on the horizon. Living in luxury on the accumulated wealth of his great grandfather, his only pursuit as he tells it is on “the pleasures and refinements of life.” Typically, for a man of his social status, “he is supported by the labor of others and does no service in return,”[ii] which is the way his parents and grandparents before him lived.

There is only one chink in his otherwise comfortable and rich life: his insomnia is so bad he has to enlist the help of the mesmerist Dr. Pillsbury, who comes to his home some nights and hypnotizes him to fall asleep. While the procedure is complicated, the waking up process is not, so Dr. Pillsbury has taught West’s man-servant that procedure and is instructed to wake him up the next morning. On that fateful night of May 30, 1887, something goes awry and the servant does not or cannot wake him up. As West slowly comes to, he finds it is not the next morning, but 113 years later and is found fully intact and functioning in his bedroom by the present occupants of the house after a rainstorm flooded their basement crumbling away the walls of a previous building housing James West’s bedroom.

Looking Backward, is basically a long conversation between James West and Dr. and Mrs. Leete and their daughter Edith as they orient West into the America of the year 2000. Only a few generations away from West’s time, their education has given them knowledge enough to understand the Boston of the 19th century and compare the great changes in governance, education, employment and vision that West will find in 20th century Boston. The book is a primer, from Edward Bellamy’s point of view on how to create a just, economically equal, safe and well-mannered society. While there are a few excursions to eating establishments and to product distribution centers, most of the book takes place in the Leete home between the Dr. and Mr. West.

West learns of the bloodless economic revolution that occurred shortly after he went to sleep where the nation took over all means and manner of the production of goods and services, doing away with small businesses and large corporations, which only engendered competition, waste, and the great divide between rich and poor. Now, society is run by the people, with total financial equality as the hallmark of the new system. There IS no rich or poor, since each citizen is paid exactly the same amount, no matter their occupation. The class divide, the bane of all societies that causes the greatest imbalance of power has now been done away with. Therefore, there is no crime, since no one has less than his or her neighbor; no poverty, because regardless of occupation each is given a living wage; no feeling of alienation because all people and occupations are valued. Some features of this new society:

Education-teachers and parents observe a child’s talents from an early age so they can guide him or her into their chosen occupation.

Employment-everyone enters the work force at age 24 and retires at 45 and is on call for emergencies until 55, when their work life is over and leisure life begins.

Money-There is no physical money. Instead, everyone is issued a credit card that is filled each year. At every purchase the cost of the item is debited from the card.

Goods-clothing or furniture is stocked at distribution centers in each ward (neighborhood). There is enough stock for everyone, because no one over buys in this society where the desire for wealth or ostentation by material possessions no longer exists.

Dinner-each ward has a restaurant building, where every family has their own dining room. Minor meals are taken at home.

Domestic servants have been done away with, as has most household work. Clothes are washed at public laundries and mended at public shops, and electricity takes the place of lighting fires and lamps. Houses are no larger than needed and furnished with simplicity, which make them easy to keep up.

Technological advances-during rain storms a waterproof sheet is let down covering sidewalks so people can walk to dinner or shopping without an umbrella; music is piped into bedrooms and living rooms with the press of a screw.

Political parties during West’s time tried to right the unequal wrongs, but were not strong enough to change the whole of society, since their focus on class discrepancies was too narrow. Once a higher ethical basis for the rearrangement of industry and society was recognized the national party rose up. Taking that name to nationalize the functions of production and distribution, moved Americans into a union, a family with a common life; the most patriotic of parties, raising patriotism from instinct to devotion “by making the native land truly a father-land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.”[iii]

The book has much to offer as a construction of the ideal state for that time. I say, “for that time,” because it fails on the role of women. Granted, Bellamy was writing in the late 1880s and gender binary ruled the day. Still, this is a book about the future. He couldn’t use his imagination and take the present day women’s reformers and suffrage movement to their obvious next level? Instead, he kept women in their proverbial place using the same attitudes about their physical and emotional sphere as they did in the 1880s. Only men rise to a higher consciousness in his future while women are only thrown a bone: they are ‘permitted’ to work, but only amongst themselves and as an allied force not integral to the actual importance of society. Continues Dr. Leete:

Under no circumstances is a woman permitted to follow any employment not perfectly adapted, both as to kind and degree of labor, to her sex. Moreover, the hours of women’s work are considerably shorter than those of men, more frequent vacations are granted, and the most careful provision is made for rest when needed. The men of this day so well appreciate that they owe to the beauty and grace of women the chief zest of their lives and their main incentive to effort, that they permit them to work at all only because it is fully understood that a certain regular requirement of labor, of a sort adapted to their powers, is well for body and mind, during the period of maximum physical vigor. [iv]

And just when I thought Bellamy was advanced for his day by at least acknowledging the innate desire of women to contribute to society through work, my hopes were soon dashed when through Dr. Leete he says:

In your day there was no career for women except in an unnatural rivalry with men. We have given them a world of their own, with its emulations, ambitions and careers, and I assure you they are very happy. Women are a very happy race nowadays, as compared with what they ever were before in the world’s history, and their power of giving happiness to men has been of course increased in proportion.[v] * (See below)

Ah, the old ‘separate but equal’ was alive and well in the year 2000.

This is a short book, but is packed with political and social theory. The flimsy tale of James West’s arrival in the future is a device for Edward Bellamy’s dissertation on the perfect and just society. Due to this main objective, however, the book is short on a wider picture of his future world, for example there is no discussion on modes of transportation, what entertainment looks like, what is the style of dress for men and women, and so forth. I realize Bellamy is not a science fiction writer, but a little more creativity would have enhanced the story.

As it was, Looking Backward made a huge impact on many people and at its publication the book sold some 200,000 copies. By the end of the 19th century, it had sold more copies than any other book published in America besides Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The utopian society created by Edward Bellamy struck a chord and a movement was started to spread the ideas of his book. When Bellamy was asked for his blessing on these clubs and the ‘Bellamyites’ he wrote: “Go ahead by all means and do it if you can find anyone to associate with. No doubt eventually the formation of such Nationalist Clubs or associations among our sympathizers all over the country will be a proper measure and it is fitting that Boston should lead off in this movement.”

Although the movement all but vanished by 1900, at its height at least 165 Nationalist Clubs existed  all over the United States.

__________

*Similarly, Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blythedale Romance, published in 1852, decided his utopia would keep its gender boundaries in the area of work when Zenobia declares, “we women will take the domestic and indoor part of the business, as a matter of course. To bake, to boil, to roast, to fry, to stew,–to wash, and iron, and scrub, and sweep,–these, I suppose must be feminine occupations, for the present. By and by perhaps when our individual adaptations begin to develop themselves, it may be that some of us who wear the petticoat will go a-field, and leave the weaker brethren to take our places in the kitchen” (pp. 43-44). Written 45 years later, Edward Bellamy’s women sure didn’t move very far.

[i] P. 146.
[ii] P. 6.
iii] P. 166.
[iv] P. 167-168.
[v] P. 170.

 

This book qualifies for my Classics Club Reading List, Back to the Classics and Reading New England.

“Thanksgiving” from Ceremonials of Common Days, by Abbie Graham (1923)

My Edition:
Title: Ceremonials of Common DaysIMG_3410
Author: Abbie Graham
Publisher: The Womans Press
Year: 1923
Pages: 97

 

On Thanksgiving Day I celebrate the Ceremonial of Being Glad for People. I could be grateful on this day for bountiful harvests and national benefits; but I have other days for those ceremonials because one heart is not spacious enough to hold the full measure of all gratitude. A year is a lean year or a year of plenty in proportion to the poverty or richness of its fellowships.

I would give my thanks for the people whom I have but glimpsed in passing: children watching at windows; those who sell flowers, especially little boys who trust me to buy their violets or dogwood branches; porters on trains and in hotels; post office employees who make letters possible; people in trains; nurses in hospitals; makers of music; those who sit in church with me, whom I “silently rejoice to be with.”

There is gratitude for the people whom I pass each morning and evening: children on bicycles; those who go and come from work; and for the people whom it is not given to me to see,–for those whom I know only through the printed page, for those who have designed certain buildings and parks and monuments, who have constructed roads, for those who sit in offices and plan for the well-being of the world, for the people around the world who work that I may have the necessities of life.

And there are other people who bring to me joyous delight on this day. To them I write letters—to the old friends and the new. For Thanksgiving is an articulate season, a time for expressing the unspoken things of the heart.

The Ceremonial of Being Glad for People was the initial ceremonial. Because of it, the other ceremonials were made necessary.[i]

abbiegraphm3

 

Abbie Graham (1889-1972) was a writer of nonfiction on many topics including spirituality, race relations, travel and most notably on the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. This is a little book of beautifully simple celebrations of life. Arranged by seasons it gives tips that the reader can use to plan her own personal special days.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! May we remember and be grateful for those precious in our hearts and may we reach out to those we do not know.

____________________

[i] 91-93.