Saturday, December 13, 2008

Miss Bishop

Miss Bishop was so popular when it was published in 1933 that it was made into a movie, Cheers for Miss Bishop. it was Bess Streeter Aldrich's homage to teaching, which was her own itinerant profession for 11 years (six in her hometown of Cedar Falls, one in Boone, IA, another in Salt Lake City, and three years in Marshalltown, Iowa, where she met her husband in a boarding house). The heroine, Ella, whom we first meet as an extroverted college freshman, cannot find a job teaching country school, but is then recruited to teach grammar at her college. A dedicated teacher, she cannot do "half-measures," and she manages to be vigorous and inspiring even about participles and subordinate clauses (her students love her) . She supports her frail mother, who worries that her schoolma'arm career may end in spinster-dom. But Ella says,, "Don’t you worry. I won’t be an old maid.... I have too many dreams for that, Mother. I think sometimes it is as though I am weaving at a loom with a spindle of hopes and dreams. And no matter, Mother, how lovely the pattern--no matter how many gorgeous colors I use,--always the center of it know..., just a little house in the country in a garden and red firelight and...the man I love...and children...and happiness. For me, Mother, that’s the end of all dreaming.”

Although this novel was a best-seller in 1933, it has not stood the test of time: Aldrich’s language is dated, the style too blunt, and the change of point-of-view sometimes disconcerting. Yet her portrait of Ella, the workaholic teacher, is entirely convincing. Have we not all known someone like this? The novel is lighter and less affecting than A Lantern in Her Hand, Miss Bishop, the novel, not the character, is almost cloying at times. The imaginative reader must transport herself to another place and time to appreciate this, imagining herself in her “own little house in the country in a garden.” Ella, of course, does not realize all her dreams. To state one’s dream is to jinx it. Ella wants to marry: she is jilted in a scene that reminds me very much of the jilting in The Curlew’s Cry.

Read A Lantern in Her Hand instead.

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