Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Brimming Cup

Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s beloved novel, The Homemaker, has been championed by Elaine Showalter and reissued by Academy Chicago Publishers and Persephone Books. In this feminist novel, an unconventional homemaker switches roles with her husband after he becomes ill. Although I was somewhat disappointed, I am glad I read it, because it has led to The Brimming Cup (1919), one of the most charming books I’ve read lately.

I downloaded The Brimming Cup onto my Sony Reader and became lost in it as one does in good books, despite the fact that there is no hard copy. The prologue is simply awful - about cosmopolitan young love in Italy - so skim it and move on, because it turns into the most amazing book. Fisher's vigorous narrative centers on the life and philosophy of Marise Crittendon as a Vermont housewife, her family, and her neighbors - and much of this is conveyed wittily in dialogue between Marise, Mr. Welles, her elderly new neighbor from New York, and his obnoxious guest, the aggressive Vincent Marsh (a Henry James-ish character). Marise and her husband, Neale, returned to her hometown of Ashley, Vermont, 11 years ago from Europe, because Neale inherited a mill from his uncle - and also because of their unique philosophy that one can live more happily and peacefully in small towns than sophisticated cities in Europe.

The novel begins with Marise's sadness over her three children’s going to school: the first day for her youngest. She is depressed at the realization that her children will not always need her. Mr. Welles makes a call on her, and she perkily recites the history of Ashley, explaining humorously that in small towns everyone knows everything about everyone, and the whole town already knows that he has moved here after a lifetime of successful business in NY.

Marise explains over a period of months to Mr. Welles and Vincent that she thinks life in small towns is more honest and honorable than urban life. The materialistic Vincent cannot believe that Marise is happy in Ashley. She belongs to New York, he says, where there is good music. She explains that the arts are more heartfelt in Vermont, that music is a part of life in Ashley, that the chorus she leads is more joyful and expresses the spirit of good music more sincerely than the professional concerts she hears in town. They have fewer distractions in Ashley, so it means more to them.

Fisher conveys the beauty of the changing seasons in Vermont, dating each chapter by month and day, and writes from the point-of-view of different characters: Marise, her daughter Elly, Mr. Welles. In one of my favorites, Chapter VII, “The Night-Blooming Cereus: April 20, ” she delineates The Crittendons’ journey with their neighbors to see the night-blooming Cereus at a farmer’s house, which blooms once a year. It is a big event for Marise and her three children and other townspeople, but Vincent almost spoils it for Marise by saying they admire the beauty only because there is nothing else to do.

"Marise felt suddenly wrought upon by the mildness of the spring air, the high, tuneful shrillness of the frogs’ voices, the darkness, sweet and thick. She would not amuse them; no, she would really tell them, move them. She chose the deeper intonations of her voice, she selected her words with care, she played upon her own feeling, quickening it into genuine emotions as she spoke. She would make them feel it, too.”

She explains:

“...Sometimes when they cannot decide just the time it will open, they sit up all through a long night, hour after hour of darkness and silence, to make sure that it does not bloom unseen. When they see that it is about to open, they fling open their doors, wishing above everything else to share that beauty with their fellows....And all up and down this end of the valley, in those ugly little wooden houses that look so mean and dreary to you, everywhere people rise up and go their pilgrimage through the night...for what? To see something rare and beautiful.”

I absolutely love her philosophy, and hope Vincent, who insists that small town life is narrow, won’t convince her her life is false and not worth living!


Ellen said...

There's a good deal of truth in the idea that what is got together outside the super-sophisticated place (supposedly) where expensively paid people do whatever it is is less satisfying than what is found in smaller less envied places. I've found repeatedly that plays in DC are better than what we see in NY: they are less pretentious, less worried about making some big splash; the prices are lower so no one need overproduce to the point the production becomes ludicrous.

There's more joining in too. Not that I act, but when you go to the places, the actors and everyone involved can talk to the members of the audience in the lobby. It's a more human atmosphere.

Not to mention it doesn't take hours and hours to get anywhere.

I love the bowl of sky above my house. It's not so bad out here :).

On WWTTA we were to read The Homemaker and never did.


Frisbee said...

I think it is true that making one's own art and entertainment is more satisfying than watching slick professionals. In small towns they have taffy pulls (make taffy at a party), share friendship bread (sharing fermented starter for bread and then passing on new starter to neighbors), go to community center dances, whist drives, etc.

Now here in the cities, we do go to regional theater and enjoy it. You're right: you feel a part of something that is not just commercial. Of course we all love seeing world-class actors but at what price!

Dorothy Canfield Fisher uses her characters to voice her ideas about education, art, entertainment, workers' rights, etc. Marise and the members of her family are good characters - and that's what makes it work. In one chapter Marise worries that her daughter is wasting her time in school learning the tributaries and grammar (of course I'm saying, "Go, grammar!). Fisher was apparently a proponent of Montessori education.
work. And Marise's husband, Neale, runs a woodworking mill along ecological lines: he won't accept timber from places where the tress are undersized and the land not being "reforested."

Perhaps I wasn't in the mood when I read The Homemaker. Its form is certainly more manageable than this - but this is the more interesting book (once one's skimmed the prologue).

Vintage Reading said...

I'm planning a trip to Persephone books in October so I'm going to get this based on your review. Sounds like my kind of book.

Mad Housewife said...

I hope you find the book. I love Peresephone Books! what fun to visit their store!