Monday, November 27, 2017

Prudence Sarn

"When you dwell in a house you mislike, you will look out of the window a deal more than those that are content with their dwelling. So I, finding my own person and my own life not to my mind, took my pleasure where I could.” Prue, the heroine of the book Precious Bane, published in 1924 by Mary Webb, as she becomes a young woman, finds that the harelip she was born with, is the bane of her existence. People think her unattractive, even a witch.

Prue, however, who tells her story herself, sees amazing things around her and can describe them in words. The visible world of her village, fields and lake are laid out for the reader to imagine, and animals, birds and dragonflies fill this world with sounds. This, as well as the fact that Prue tells the story with the insights she has into it, makes the book a delight. Prue wonders whether the blessedness she feels comes as a result of being cursed. Without the disfiguring harelip, she thinks, “I should never have known the glory that comes from the other side of silence.”

Prue lives with her brother Gideon and mother on an isolated farm in Shropshire. After their father died, Gideon took on the mastery of the farm as a consequence of being the ‘sin-eater’ at his father’s wake. He has ambitious plans to become a personage in town. He wants to have a big house, servants and silver plate. In the meantime, he drives his sister and his mother to work very hard. He puts most of the land into wheat, because it is fetching good prices.

Prue goes along with all of this. She works hard, takes care of her mother as best as she can, and tries to get Gideon to take pleasure in the girl whom he loves, the blonde and beautiful Jancis. Prue’s been told by everyone that no one will have her. Gideon wants her to learn to read and write and figure, however. Prue finds in their attic a haven where she can write things down and cultivate her spirit, among the colorful stored apples and pears.

When the weaver, Kester Woodseaves, comes to make into cloth the yarns the women have spun for Jancis’ coming wedding, Prue recognizes him as the man she would most like to have for her own. He is a diffident man, living alone. When he tries to stop a bull-baiting and takes on the dogs himself, Prue saves him from a particularly terrifying bulldog. But she hides from him. When her mother calls him to their own house, Prue finds her work in the far fields, though she imagines him working in her attic.

Gideon keeps putting off his wedding, making an enemy of Jancis father. When it finally comes near, after a bountiful harvest in which the whole community helps, Jancis comes riding in like a golden queen on the ricks piled high with wheat. Gideon and Jancis begin to act as if they already married, but two days later, her father sets fire to the ricks and the harvest is lost. Gideon denies Jancis, her father is taken to jail, and she and her mother are run out of the neighborhood.

Sad days follow. Prue and Gideon’s mother is doing poorly. He is worried she will always be a drain and never well. He makes her believe she would rather be dead than alive, and gives her some foxglove tea, which kills her. Jancis returns with the baby born to her and Gideon, but Gideon will have none of it. She walks into the lake and begins haunting Gideon, as does his mother. Thus haunted, he too drowns himself in the lake.

Left by herself, Prue decides to leave the farm. The weaver, Kester, has gone to London to learn more complicated weaving, and writes her a suggestive letter. But when she hears from him no more, she takes all of her animals to market to be auctioned off. Her enemies gang up on her, however, suggesting that the deaths on her farm are due to her. They put her in a ducking stool to be tried for a witch. Prue is terrified. But when she comes up for air, there is Kester Woodseaves looking down from his horse. He wrestles with the men and carries Prue away. She tells him he should have a beautiful woman, but he leans down and kisses her on the mouth.

The highlights of this story do not do justice to it. I suggest you go straight to your public library and get a copy.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Sarah Hemings

Imagined portrait of Sarah Hemings
As a 14-year-old girl, Sarah Hemings was sent with Thomas Jefferson’s younger daughter Maria to France. Sarah was the enslaved half-sister of Jefferson's wife Martha who had recently died. In Paris, Sarah learned to speak French and Jefferson bought her dresses so that she could accompany his daughters to parties. He also paid for her to be quarantined and inoculated against smallpox. Sarah enjoyed the lavish life she lived in the Jefferson household at the edge of the Champs Elysées and told her children stories about it.

In France, Sarah and her brother James (who was training to be a French chef de cusine) were technically free. They could have stayed and remained free. According to Madison Hemings, her son, Sarah used this knowledge to bargain with Jefferson when he was called back to the United States. In an interview conducted in 1873, Madison Hemings says, “To induce her to return with him, Jefferson promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.” She was pregnant by Jefferson at the time.

After returning to Monticello in 1790, Sarah Hemings no longer appears in the obsessive records Jefferson kept of his accounts. In a comprehensive history of the Hemings family, The Hemingses of Monticello [2008], Annette Gordon-Reed unearths much about this unusual family, all descendants of Elizabeth Hemings, a slave woman. Sarah is seen to be Jefferson’s concubine, though no one will talk about it, least of all Jefferson.

Sarah’s first child dies at birth and her second did not live long. She remained at Monticello, surrounded by other members of her family who were treated with particular benevolence by Jefferson. Her brothers took part in Jefferson’s political life, living with him in Philadelphia, New York and finally Washington. Jefferson returned to Monticello as often as he could. Sarah’s work was to mend, sew and take care of his personal belongings, as well as care for her children, born into slavery as their status in Virginia legally followed that of their mother.

Jefferson kept Sarah part of his private life, but their relationship was exposed to the public by James Callender in a Richmond newspaper in the middle of Jefferson’s first term as president. She was called “Dusky Sally,” and other names, but none of it changed Jefferson’s relationship to her and her family, and he was elected to a second term as president, despite the innuendo. Sarah’s last child was born in 1808, just as Jefferson was about to leave the presidency and retire to his mountain.

After his death in 1826, Jefferson’s debts were too much for his daughter Martha to bear. Monticello was sold, along with most of his slaves. Before his death Jefferson did free his four children by Sarah: the first two, Beverley and Harriet, slipped away to Ohio to live as white people (they were 7/8th white) and the last two, Madison and Eston, were noted in his will. Sarah Hemings was informally freed by Martha, Jefferson’s daughter, and she lived the rest of her life in Charlottesville with her son.

As Gordon-Reed says, “Hemings and Jefferson lived in a world obsessed with family connections. Kinship ties were enormously important to enslaved people who tried hard to defend them against the depredations of slavery. Blood and family were important to white Virginians as well, but they added the component of racism to the equation.” Gordon-Reed details the benevolent society Jefferson tried to build on his mountain, noting that no matter his kindness, and the Hemings family’s reciprocal care for him, it was still based on master and slave relations.

“The few reports of Sally Hemings give the impression of a sweet and reasonable person,” says Gordon-Reed. Her story, as told by her descendants, is of someone who worked within the confines of her situation while loving Thomas Jefferson. It was clear she lived in a monogamous relationship to him. All of her children resembled him. As an older person, she handed down a few of his possessions, a pair of spectacles, an ink bottle and a shoe buckle, as well as her stories of living in France as a young girl. To acknowledge the intimacy of these particular American forebears, which has only happened in the last ten years, is important. To acknowledge that many of our ancestors have lived in varying relationships to each other, is to widen and deepen our understanding of the human family.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Amy March Laurence

Samantha Mathis, Christian Bale, Little Women, 1994
The story of the four March sisters told in Little Women [1868-1869] by Louisa May Alcott is very well known in America, partly because several movies have been made of it. The book is particularly popular for its depiction of Jo, the second daughter whom Alcott modeled after herself. Upon rethinking and rereading this very lively book, I have come to appreciate Amy, the youngest, whose artfulness succeeds as well as Jo’s outspoken brashness.

The sisters are taught that, though they are poor, “we’ve got father and mother and each other,” as Beth says on the very first page. They were once well-off, but the family lost its money and the girls struggle with envy of their friends, sibling rivalry and overcoming their failings, just as any modern kid does. Alcott’s program is to show, as Jane Smiley writes, what education can do: “Getting ahead is not her purpose – attaining self-control and acting in accordance with the Christian virtues of modesty, self-reliance, charity and hopefulness are the goals she sets for all the girls.”

Jo is willful, ambitious and a tom-boy, writing stories and plays for the sisters to act out. Meg is swayed by her more affluent friends, even after she marries for love. Beth loves music, but after an illness, comes to accept the fact that she will not live long. Amy, the youngest, is also headstrong and ambitious, but she uses sweet and tasteful methods to gain what Jo tries to achieve through honesty and outspokenness.

Amy is vain, proud of her golden curls, but she is sad that her nose doesn’t come to an aristocratic point, and that she must wear her cousin’s ugly clothes to school. In fact, when she is punished by having her hand hit with a ruler, Marmee takes her out of school. The girls’ parents do not believe in corporal punishment and shaming. When the girls sit about one afternoon, building “castles in the air,” Amy’s is “to be an artist, and go to Rome, and do fine pictures, and be the best artist in the whole world.”

Growing older, Amy makes an effort to provide an outing for her drawing class of twelve as a thank you to the girls who have been nice to her. The family pitches in to help, but only one of the girls comes and Amy feels foolish. When she helps at a charity fair, she tries to be unselfish and is rewarded finally by Jo convincing Laurie, the March’s amiable and handsome neighbor, and his friends to come and patronize her table. Jo praises her, but Amy says, “You laugh at me when I say I want to be a lady, but I mean a true gentle-woman in mind and manners … I want to be above the little meannesses, and follies, and faults that spoil so many women.”

When Amy convinces Jo to come calling with her (Meg is now married and Beth in poor health), Jo embarrasses her by telling wild stories. Echoing her mother, Amy tells Jo, “Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones; for they have no other way of repaying the kindnesses they receive.” Amy is rewarded when Aunt Carrol asks her to come on a family European tour, though Jo had longed to go.

Jo cannot agree to marry Laurie, because she feels more like a sister to him. It makes Laurie very unhappy. He goes to Europe, meeting Amy there in Nice. He is moping and Amy gives him a dressing down, calling him “Lazy Laurence.” Laurie is surprised Amy is considering marrying Fred Vaughn. “One of us must marry well,” she says. “In time I shall become fond of him.” Laurie says he understands, but says, “Quite right and proper as the world goes, but it sounds odd from the lips of one of your mother’s girls.”

Amy misses Laurie very much when he leaves however, and refuses Fred. Laurie reminds her of home, and when Beth dies, he comes to Vevey to comfort her. They recognize their love for each other and agree to “always pull in the same boat.” They are married and return home. The story ends happily with an apple harvest a few years later, when Meg, Jo and Amy all have children and Jo has started a school for boys with her German professor.

The economics of our modern world certainly differ from those in 1868, since women have won for themselves places in every field, the right to vote and (nearly) equal pay. But the question of feminine power is just as alive now as it ever was. Do women achieve their aims more by Jo’s methods or Amy’s? It is still true that some women have more money, and some women are blessed with a great deal of talent, hardly ever in the proportions anyone expects.

Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women from incidents in her life and that of her sisters, as well as the progressive principles of her unique parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott. The girls learn from the mistakes which their parents freely allow them to make. The morality of the book reflects the classical belief that selfishness turns in on itself, whereas kindness to, love and respect for others is our only hope of happiness. This transcends whether a person is a man or a woman, of course. But the fact that Little Women shows us four different kinds of femininity makes it ever interesting.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Catherine Linton Heathcliff Earnshaw

The young Catherine Linton grows up at Thrushcross Grange on the Yorkshire moors, according to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, first published 1847. Though she lost her mother at birth, she has the loving protection of her father and Nelly Dean, who is something more than a housekeeper to the family. There is a portrait of her mother in the library, but Cathy knows nothing of the turbulent history between her father, her mother and the master of Wuthering Heights, four miles distant.

Emily Bronte
According to Nelly Dean, Cathy was “the most winning thing that ever brought sunshine into a desolate house: a real beauty in the face, with the Earnshaws’ handsome dark eyes, but the Lintons’ fair skin and small features, and yellow curling hair. Her spirit was high, though not rough, and qualified by a heart sensitive and lively to excess in its affections.” She is educated by her father and loves to spend the day riding about the moors on her pony. At 13, she discovers she has a cousin, Linton Heathcliff. Her father goes to claim him when his mother dies, but Linton’s father, Heathcliff arrives and takes him away. Cathy’s father is sorry, but advises Cathy that they cannot keep up an acquaintance with that family.

One day Cathy convinces Nelly to go looking for grouse eggs with her and they run into Heathcliff and Hareton, his nephew. They are invited to Wuthering Heights and meet Linton. Linton is languid and sickly, but Hareton shows Cathy the farm. He has a rude aspect and she is surprised to find Hareton, also her cousin, cannot read. She and Linton enjoy talking to each other and promise to see each other the next day. When Cathy’s father refuses to let her go, she begins a covert correspondence with Linton, by way of the milk boy. When Nelly finds Cathy toying with her letters, she burns them. When her guardians are ill, however, Cathy slips away and visits Linton, who begs for her company. He is peevish and has little thought for anyone but himself. Heathcliff humors him for his own reasons.

When Cathy is 17, her father becomes ill and begins to fade. The friendship between Cathy and Linton is encouraged by Heathcliff as part of his plan of revenge against Cathy’s father. Heathcliff terrorizes his son Linton into luring Cathy and Nelly to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff imprisons Nelly and forces Linton and Cathy to marry. He prevents Cathy’s father from changing his will, so Linton will own Thrushcross Grange and Cathy will be penniless. Mr. Linton dies within hours of Cathy and Nelly’s return home.

Heathcliff removes Cathy to Wuthering Heights, leaving Nelly Dean to manage the Grange for his lodger, Mr. Lockwood. Cathy nurses Linton without help from anyone else but Linton dies a month after they are married.

As readers, we first meet Cathy through Lockwood’s eyes when he visits Wuthering Heights. It is a blustery night, but the room with its large fireplace is warm and cheerful. “One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof.” The people Lockwood takes tea with, however, Cathy, Hareton and Heathcliff, are dour company. He cannot figure out their relation to each other. Cathy, in fact, has just lost her father and her very young husband.

Upon hearing Nelly Dean’s stories of them, Lockwood thinks, “people in these regions live more in earnest, more in themselves, and less in surface change and frivolous external things. I could fancy a love for life here almost possible.”

Shortly thereafter, Nelly Dean is called to live at Wuthering Heights and things become more cheerful for Cathy. She is not allowed past the garden gate, but slowly she befriends Hareton, teaching him to read. Hareton has a fine and noble heart beneath his rough exterior and Nelly is happy to see them becoming friends. Heathcliff has been spoiling for a last revenge on these two, whose eyes both remind him of Catherine, his love. But he becomes strange, as if he lives in another world, telling Nelly that “I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction.” Within a few months, he is dead. The young people, Cathy and Hareton, now in possession of both houses, marry.

It was Virginia Woolf who sent me back to look at Wuthering Heights. Woolf believed Emily Bronte “looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel – a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely ‘I love’ or ‘I hate,’ but ‘we, the whole human race’ and ‘you, the eternal powers’ … And so we reach these summits of emotion not by rant or rhapsody but by hearing a girl sing old songs to herself as she rocks in the branches of a tree; by watching the moor sheep crop the turf; by listening to the soft wind breathing through the grass.” [From Women and Writing, Virginia Woolf, collected 1979.]

This redemptive view of the young Cathy is, of course, my own. The popular story taken from Wuthering Heights is of the passion between Heathcliff and the original Catherine which, thwarted, drives them both to their deaths. But Catherine dies half way through the book and the young Cathy, full of her own love and spirit, is left to deal with those who remain. Emily Bronte felt no need for society beyond her own Yorkshire house. Nature is the redemptive force and she marries cousins to each other without fear. We cannot know what comes to Cathy after she grows beyond the age of 19. But we can hope that she is happy. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Maryam Yazdan

Behnaz Sarafpour, Iranian designer
In Anne Tyler’s book Digging to America [2006], Maryam Yazdan, an Iranian emigrant to America, shines out from a welter of characters. An elegant grandmother, her simple, orderly lifestyle attracts and confuses her neighbors and family.

Her story begins when she is arrested in Tehran for leafleting against the repression of the Shah of Iran. She is a student, just 19. Her family gets her out of prison within the hour, but they are afraid her activities will endanger the family. They find a young Iranian man to marry her, a doctor in Baltimore. Maryam and Kiyan get to know each other in Tehran and by the time he returns to America, Kiyan “fills every inch of Maryam’s head.” Within days of a proxy marriage, she follows him.

In America Maryam, to stave off homesickness, “used to set a tumbler of club soda on her nightstand. She used to go to sleep listening to the bubbles bounce against the glass with a faint, steady, peaceful whispering sound that had reminded her of the fountains in her family’s courtyard back home.” She becomes an American citizen and has a son, Sami, who refuses to speak Farsi from the time he is five. When Sami is 14, Kiyan dies and Maryam raises Sami by herself, working as an administrator at a pre-school.

We meet Maryam in present day in an airport where she and her son and his wife Ziba are waiting for the arrival of their adopted Korean baby. An American family, the Donaldsons, is also waiting, with balloons, signs, lots of fanfare. Bitsy, the American mother, in her expansive way, invites Maryam’s family to celebrate this occasion every year, hoping the two little girls will grow up together and become friends.

Maryam falls in love with the perfect little baby, Susan, whom she takes care of two days a week while Ziba goes to work. Maryam dresses with the utmost care, even to babysit. In America, she felt like a guest. “Still and forever a guest, on her very best behavior.” Sami and Ziba increasingly fall under the spell of the American Donaldsons, however, even buying a house a few doors down from them. Bitsy Donaldson has all kinds of ideas about child-raising, about which she is very vocal.

As Anne Tyler tells it, the story afford all kinds of opportunities to contrast the American and Iranian households. Maryam does not get along with Ziba’s family, particularly, because they left Iran when the Shah was deposed, having been in favor of him. She does not talk politics with them, but they share favorite foods and new year’s customs. The Americans have their preferred ways of doing things, all of which becomes complicated for Maryam when Bitsy’s mother dies of cancer and, over time, her widowed father becomes fascinated by Maryam.

Maryam does not return Dave’s interest. He is rumpled and shambling, though fascinated by Iranian culture. To Dave, however, “other women seemed lackluster when he compared them with Maryam. They didn’t have her calm dark gaze or her elegant, expressive hands. They didn’t convey her sense of stillness and self-containment, standing alone in a crowd.” Maryam and Dave begin spending time together, and both the Iranian and the American families begin wondering what this means.

Maryam tells Dave it isn’t easy being foreign. “You can start to believe that your life is defined by your foreignness. You think everything would be different if only you belonged.” But Dave tells her, “You belong. You belong just as much as I do, or, who, or Bitsy or … It’s just like Christmas. [The little girls had complained they wanted a ‘real Christmas.’] We all think the others belong more.”

When Dave asks Maryam to marry him at a big family party, Maryam is embarrassed into saying “yes.” But the next morning she tells everyone it was a mistake. She cannot marry Dave. “He is so American,” she tells her son. “He takes up so much space. He seems to be unable to let a room stay as it is; always he has to alter it, to turn on the fan or raise the thermostat or play a record or open the curtains. He has cluttered my life with cell phones and answering machines and a fancy-shmancy teapot that makes my tea taste like metal.” She goes back to her simple, orderly life with her cat and doesn’t see Dave any more. She does notice how small her life has become, however.

In the end, Maryam runs into Dave, they talk. Maryam is again invited to a Donaldson party. She plans to attend, she gets dressed, but it gets late, she isn’t sure. Then, she looks out of her house and all of the Donaldsons are on her doorstep! When she doesn’t answer they start to walk away. Maryam calls to them, “Wait!”

Anne Tyler was herself married to an Iranian immigrant, the child psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi. The character Maryam must surely be drawn from life. Tyler was also raised a Quaker in isolated circumstances and subsequently had a strong sense of being an outsider. William Faulkner once said, “No wonder people in the rest of the world don’t like us, since we seem to have neither taste nor courtesy, and know and believe in nothing but money.” The figure of the lovely, self-possessed Maryam is a fine portrayal of a woman for whom taste is a way of living.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher

MFK Fisher by Man Ray, 1943
Mary Frances Kennedy, born in 1908, grew up in Whittier, California, where her father owned and edited the Whittier News. Her family lived comfortably in a large house on a ranch and Mary Frances and her sister also spent summers near the ocean in Laguna Beach. Though she loved her close family, she was restless and escaped as soon as possible into a marriage that would take her to Dijon, France, where her husband, Al Fisher, studied for a doctorate. It was the beginning of a love affair, not with her husband, but with southern France, and the ways the French cooked and ate.

Realizing she was not cut out for an academic career, Mary France began cooking in a small, difficult kitchen in Dijon. She cooked for friends, simple meals which would “shake them from their routines, not only of meat-potatoes-gravy, but of thought, of behavior.” When she and Al moved back to the United States, they rented a place in Laguna Beach, next to Dillwyn Parrish and his wife. No work was immediately available for Al in 1932 and they had money troubles which were generally alleviated by Mary Frances’ family.

Among other jobs, Mary Frances began writing amusing intellectual pieces about odd bits she found in historic texts, encouraged by Dillwyn Parrish, who, she said “was a man destined to draw out anything creative in other people.” In complicated circumstances, she traveled with Parrish and her husband Al Fisher back to Switzerland, where Parrish owned a small farm he hoped to turn into an art colony. In short order, Al left Parrish and Mary Frances alone. They had an idyllic time together, but it was soon stopped by the war in Europe. At the same time, Parrish had a blood clotting problem which led to the amputation of his leg. They were married in California, but unremitting pain and lack of hope forced Parrish to commit suicide in 1941. Mary Frances was 33.

In the midst of this turmoil, Mary Frances’ first book, Serve It Forth, was published in 1937 under the name MFK Fisher. After that, she never quit writing. It became a comfort to her. She tried script writing in Hollywood, but never liked writing in committee. Among a widening circle of friends in publishing, she met Donald Friede and married him quite suddenly. Donald was spending money faster than they had it, however. Mary Frances had two daughters, Anna and Kennedy. When her father grew older, she took her daughters back home to take care of him and work for the Whittier News, divorcing Donald.

Upon her father’s death, the News was sold. Mary Frances moved with her daughters to St. Helena in the wine country in California. The next years were spent writing and taking her daughters back and forth to Europe to further their education, although it might be said that Mary Frances’ own restlessness provoked much of this travel. She also became a fixture in the Napa Valley, where the wine business was becoming serious, and gastronomes such as James Beard had settled. Mary Frances, as the oldest of her remaining siblings, entertained constantly and always tried to get her family together over the holidays.

In her later books, Mary Frances often wrote about places, Whittier, Aix-en-Provence, Marseilles. She writes about her experiences of food and drink, of the unique characters she meets and how they live, and always about family. She wrote a couple of novels, but she did not feel she was good at imagining things. She did what she called “reporting,” though this was not always comfortable for those she wrote about. Sometimes surprised at how her words hurt, she hid behind naiveté, defending herself and her work. Joan Reardon points out in her definitive biography, Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of MFK Fisher [2004], however, that often Mary Frances let herself be carried by a story quite far from the truth.

MFK Fisher by John Engstad, 1942
She wanted to write well. She gained many new readers when she was asked for write for the Time-Life series The Cooking of Provincial France, but she hated to have her work edited and suggestions made. “I don’t work that way,” she said, dismissing the work as a “throwaway.” “I suppose if some obscure reviewer had linked my name, referring to one of my books pre-doomed to complete nonentity, with someone like Colette or V. Woolf, I’d feel happy as a fat cricket.” In all, she wrote over twenty books, many of which kept being re-packaged in different formats. Most were in print when she died in her Last House in Sonoma in 1992.

Filtering culture through her unique bohemian insouciance, Mary Frances’ sensibility fit right into that of my generation: hedonist, indulgent, individual, always in quest of the new and interesting. Like her friend Julia Child, she moved on from European food. Describing what they had in common, Mary Frances wrote to Child, “We both understand the acceptance of now.” MFK Fisher was a philosopher with a female voice, who chose the sensuality of food and the domestic arts as her subject. There is no more enduring legacy than vivid writing which stays close to the realistic bone.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Saxon Roberts

Charmian London
When we meet Saxon, the heroine of Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon [1915], she is ironing fancy linen in a steaming laundry in Oakland with many other women. Paid by the piece, Saxon does better than some of the women who become hysterical and are miserable in the situation. She and a friend plan to go to a union picnic and dance on Sunday.

At the dance, Saxon meets Billy, a teamster and prize fighter. Billy immediately feels nice to Saxon, big, blonde and calm. Both of their ancestors crossed the plains into California as pioneers. Saxon idealizes her mother, a poet who died when she was young. Saxon was in an orphanage until her half-brother took her into his home. Billy asks Saxon to go buggy riding, admires her grit. Very soon they agree to marry. Saxon leaves the laundry and moves into a little house with Billy, with furniture not yet paid for.

As a wife, Saxon strives to retain Billy’s love, making pretty things for herself. She becomes pregnant, but there is much labor unrest. The men talk socialism. Billy’s friend Burt says they should not “bring children into the world with no guarantee you can feed them.” When striking men, scabs and policemen fight in the street in front of Saxon’s house, she has a miscarriage, losing the baby. Burt dies in the melee and Billy begins drinking. He enjoys the fighting, talking dynamite, sabotage, revolution. Life becomes senseless to Saxon.

Hard times comes to everyone in Saxon’s Oakland neighborhood. Billy goes back to prize fighting to earn money and is beaten. When he goes to jail for 30 days for assault, Saxon is left with no money. She is lonely and doesn’t have a strong sense of reality. She goes down to the beach and lives on mussels and oysters she finds there. “All the natural world was right, and sensible, and beneficent. It was the man-world that was wrong, and mad, and horrible,” she decides. Saxon decides she will fight, for Billy, love and happiness.

One day she meets a young man named Jack who reads and wants to go to sea. The two of them go out to Goat Island for rock cod. Jack says that “Oakland is just a place to start from.” This is a revelation to Saxon. She comes back to life, cleans her house, plays her ukulele and prepares for Billy’s return. When he comes back, she confronts him with her plan to find a farm for them somewhere in the country. Billy agrees and they prepare to go tramping, with bedrolls, cooking pans and Saxon’s ukulele on their backs.

At first they go south. In San Leandro, they find that the Portuguese immigrants have been buying up land, getting great yields from intensive farming of their small plots. Billy and Saxon ask everyone they meet about farming, wanting to learn how not to deplete the soil. Billy finds work plowing, because he is so good with horses. Everywhere they go, people are impressed with the two and offer them work, though Billy doesn’t want Saxon to work hard.

On Carmel beach, they camp, finding themselves in a company of artists who swim in the ocean and eat mussels and abalone, which they call "the food of the gods." They are offered a house for the winter and become members of this group. Saxon appreciates the childlike joy of the artists, but cannot understand their pessimism.

Saxon explains to one of the artists what she and Billy are looking for:  “There be hills and valleys, and rich land, and streams of clear water, good wagon roads and a railroad not too far away, plenty of sunshine and cold enough at night to need blankets, and not only pines but plenty of other kinds of trees, with open spaces to pasture Billy’s horses and cattle, and deer and rabbits for him to shoot, and lots and lots of redwood trees, and no fog!” He takes her out and points to the moon. “You are looking for paradise,” he tells her. “It’s like looking for a valley on the moon!”

Saxon and Billy move on, looking for their own land. Government land for the asking is no longer available in 1908, but they travel out to Sacramento and north as far as Oregon, looking for the perfect place. They buy a camping wagon and finally come back down to the Sonoma Valley, which Saxon recognizes as the place they are looking for. With luck and Billy’s horse trading, they acquire enough land to begin farming. Saxon sends for the baby clothes she has packed away at her brother’s house.

Saxon’s relationship to Billy is notable in that they talk to each other about everything, always returning to the first glimpses they had of each other when Billy thought, “that you was made for me,” and Saxon said to herself, “is he the man?” “I never talk this way to other girls,” says Billy. “It’s the same way with me,” Saxon says. It is a story of two people who, though they have little education, have large hearts and keen minds. Jack London spares us none of the details.

Behind Saxon Roberts, of course, there was a real woman, Charmian London, Jack London’s second wife. London called her his “mate-woman” and Charmian shared many adventures with him. London left most of his estate to her, because of "the love and comfort, & joy & happiness she has given me."

Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Over a 37-year period, Ursula Le Guin used her Earthsea series to state and refine her concepts of the nature of being and doing, living and dying, mostly through the embodied voice of her character Tenar. As a child, Tenar is stolen from the Kargad Lands, a bit more primitive than the evolving islands of Earthsea. Tenar is dedicated as high prietess on the Island of Atuan, where she is made complicit in the service of the “nameless ones,” ordering people to die by starvation.

When Ged, an archmage, comes looking for the other half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe, he wins Tenar by his kindness. Tenar spares him, bringing him food and water. They escape from the Tombs where she has hidden him and Tenar renounces her role as priestess. Ged takes her to the island of Gont, to live with Ogion, one of Ged’s teachers. Though she is a woman, Ogion offers to teach her magic, but Tenar refuses. She wants a man, children, an ordinary life. She marries Flint, who owns Oak Farm, and they have two children.

When Flint dies, Tenar is left with the farm. She takes in a child who has been abused and burned by her family. Ogion sends for her when he is near death and she brings the disfigured child with her to the edge of the sea, the Overfell where Ogion lives. Ogion sees something in the child, and sees a change that is coming, but he is not able to state things clearly.

Tenar stays on and one morning the dragon Kalessin brings Ged to her, half-dead. He has lost his powers in closing up the breach between the worlds of the living and the dead. Tenar nurses him back to life. When the soon-to-be king of Earthsea comes looking for him, Ged cannot face the fact that he is no longer a powerful archmage. Tenar sends him to Oak Farm where he becomes a goatherd, the job he did as a child. She tries to remember what it was like to have been powerful and then to lose that, throw it away, become only Tenar, only herself. “A woman got used to shame,” she thinks.

Tenar is caught between Aspen, an evil magician who is able to cast a spell upon her, and the family of the child who maimed her. They escape on the Dolphin, the ship of the king of Earthsea. He agrees not to demand Ged’s presence until Ged is ready, and takes Tenar and the child back to Oak Farm. But the child’s family finds them, Ged injures one of them and they are brought to justice. Tenar suspects that the change Ogion predicted is that magic will become less important once there is a king in Earthsea, who establishes the rule of law.

Tenar takes Ged as a partner, in her bed and in her farm. Together they teach the burned child and talk, especially in the winter when the harvest has been good and there is not much to do but stay warm. In the spring, Tenar’s son, the owner of the farm, returns. Tenar does not like how Spark treats her and she and Ged plan to leave, to go back to Ogion’s cottage. They are intercepted by Aspen, the evil magician, however, and the burned child must call the dragon Kalissen to rescue them, revealing her own dragon nature, and her real name, Tehanu.

Ursula Le Guin thought the series finished when she described how Tenar and Ged became ordinary people in Tehanu [1990], the fourth book of the series. In 2001, however, she published The Other Wind. Here Tenar is called upon to counsel the king of Earthsea, as there is a dispute between dragons and men, as well as some threat from the people of the Kargad lands. We see Tenar’s importance as an older woman to the young people who need courage to take up their roles in life: A Kargish princess is terrified when she is brought to become queen. Tehanu is shy and dependent, but it is she who is able to speak to the dragons. In the end, men and dragons meet to restore the balance of the world, Tehanu takes her true form and Tenar is able to return at last to live a quiet life with Ged on the island of Gont.

In spite of the fact that she consorts with dragons and kings, gardens, meals, goats, sewing, hearthfires and stories in winter, and occasionally a very good wine make up Tenar’s life. They restore and maintain Earthsea’s equilibrium as well. When she wants to go back to Ogion’s cottage Tenar thinks: “They would have to replant Ogion’s garden right away if they wanted any vegetables of their own this summer. She thought of the rows of beans and the scent of the bean flowers. She thought of the small window that looked west.”

It is this down-to-earth and intimate description which made me love Tenar. Le Guin recently said here: “I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you cannot let go.” Le Guin doesn’t hesitate to take up questions such as the value of death and rebirth as opposed to immortality, and trust as the basis for relations between men and women. Nevertheless, juxtaposing domesticity with magic and adventure; and finding common ordinary life more valuable is no mean feat!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wang O-lan

Woman of Taihu, William Armstrong
O-lan becomes the wife of Wang Lung in the opening chapter of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth [1931]. She has been a slave in a great house, but now is terribly proud to become the wife of a man who owns land. O-lan is not beautiful and does not have bound feet. She has “a brown, common, patient face.” Wang Lung likes her movements as he collects her at the great house. They go to a small temple and burn incense in front of the gods of Wang Lung’s fields. As they are going home, Wang Lung purchases six small green peaches for his new wife.

In the days to come, O-lan works hard, pleasing her new husband by all she does. When she does not have enough to do, she joins him in the field, which is a great happiness to him. She speaks very little, however. Very soon she becomes pregnant. She tells Wang Lung that she will have no one to help her from the great house. She wants to return only with her son in her arms, dressed in new clothes. The child is a son, but soon O-lan is back in the fields, working. The harvest is good this year and they are well-provided for against the winter.

When O-lan returns to visit the great house with her son, she and her husband are so proud that they are afraid of their good fortune. O-lan finds that the great house is poorer and needs to sell some of its land. Wang Lung decides to buy it with the extra silver he got from his harvest. To him, “land is one’s flesh and blood.”

Hard times come to the village with bad harvests. People are eating grass and bark from the trees. The children are starving, but Wang Lung’s father gets the first of any food they have. The Wangs’ third child, a girl, stops crying and lies still. O-lan makes sure her new baby dies, to prevent its suffering. When they are eating earth as gruel, Wang Lung is offered money for his land, but he refuses. The family sells its furniture and leaves for the south, where there is food and work, O-Lan carrying the little girl and Wang Lung his father on his back. When the “firewagon,” a train comes, they take it as they are too exhausted to walk.

In Kiangsu province there are public kitchens. Wang Lung cannot bear to beg, but he pulls a rickshaw. O-lan, however, practical and concerned for her children takes them with her, and her father-in-law, to beg on the streets. The Wangs feel like foreigners. There is food everywhere in the south, and the little boys take to thieving. Wang will not eat the food they take, but O-lan washes it off and puts it back in the pot. Wang Lung punishes his son and grows desperate to get back to his own land.

Soldiers begin to conscript men and Wang Lung must hide during the day. And then one night, the poor break into the houses of the rich. The Wangs are swept along with the crowd past the great gates and into the inner courts. Wang Lung comes across a fat man who gives him gold in exchange for his life and Wang Lung takes it. He buys an ox, seed, and the family goes back to their home, which is a ruin. O-lan mends the house and soon the pewter candlesticks gleam, the teapot and bowls are on the table, the beds are in their places and a new door hangs on its wooden hinges. O-lan once again becomes pregnant.

O-lan shows her husband the jewels she found behind a loosened brick in the rich man’s house in the south. She begs to keep two pearls, not to wear, but just to keep. Wang Lung buys more land with the jewels and has good harvests. He does not let O-lan work on the land, as he is now a rich man. O-lan works at home, making clothes and bedding. She gives birth to twins. The family is very happy, except that the first daughter cannot speak or do anything appropriate to her age. Wang Lung calls her his “little fool.” Wang Lung sends his first two sons to school, as they are anxious to learn and don’t want to work in the fields.

As Wang Lung becomes richer and more idle, he begins to wish for things. He takes a concubine who is beautiful, and even asks O-lan for the pearls to give to her. O-lan is miserable, but she keeps on with her housekeeping. For Wang Lung, the peace of his house disappears when the concubine comes. He has to build another part of the house for her to live in with her servant. And then he finds that his son is spending time with her. He thrashes the son and sends him away.

Returning to work on his land makes Wang Lung happier. He provides for his five children, the “little fool” remaining to sit silent in the sun each day beside her grandfather. But O-lan is ill. Her life is wearing out. Wang Lung is filled with remorse. He knows he owes his riches partly to her. As she lies dying, still a young woman, Wang Lung and his children realize “what she had been in the house, and how she made comfort for them all and they had not known it.” O-lan begs for the wedding of her eldest son and the woman chosen for him to happen. Lying on her bed, she is able to hear the feasting. Shortly afterwards, she dies muttering, “well, and if I am ugly, still I have borne sons.”

Though written by the daughter of missionaries to China, Pearl Buck learned Chinese and a wealth of Buddhist and Taoist tales from her nurse. She roamed the streets of Chinkiang and volunteered at a shelter for girls in Shanghai. She did not leave China until she was 43, and was heartbroken that she was never allowed to return. The epic story of Wang Lung and O-lan was welcomed in America at a time when Chinese immigrants had been banned for four decades. I loved O-lan for her stoic sense of herself and what she had accomplished, despite how she was treated and how women were regarded at the time. Her values, for her children, her home and the blessings the land itself confers, are enduring.