Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sister Sue

Eleanor Hodgman Porter (1868-1920) was a pop turn-of-the-century girls’ writer whose briskly-plotted novels explored the conflict between duty and self-expression in girls’ and women’s lives. Her novels are comparable to those of L. M. Montgomery and Gene Stratton Porter, and her plots race along, though her uneven style ranges from serviceable and lively to wooden and didactic. Yet there is a sparkle to Eleanor Porter’s stories, even when the characters lapse into the kind of pre-feminist wearying duty and drudgery that can ruin lives. Porter’s moralistic themes seem pertinent today: how many women in this depressed economy must, like the heroine of Sister Sue, postpone pursuing their dreams to make a bare living or care for more than one generation of their families? Though Porter is best-known for her children’s book Pollyanna, her novel Sister Sue seems to be an adult novel: the heroine, Sue Gilmore, is an aspiring concert pianist who has everything - talent, a devoted fiance, and affectionate, if dependent, younger siblings, whom she has looked after since their mother's death - until their rich father loses all his money and has a nervous breakdown.

Sue tells her fiance,

“We’re to give up everything, of course. That’s what folks always do when they fail, isn’t it?” She gave a weary little smile. “Mr. Loring has been out here every day. He knows everything about Father’s affairs, you know - more than Father does himself, I guess. Anyway, he knows enough. We’ll have to give up the house and cars and everything here, of course.”

Incredibly, Sue’s fiance, Martin Kent, a selfish writer who is very interested in Sue’s money, postpones their marriage - he can't bother Sue at such a time - and refuses to move with them to Gilmoreville, Vermont, because it is not "good copy" and Sue's father now depresses him. And her sister, May, and brother, Gordon, are incredibly selfish: they allow Sue to wait on them hand and foot, care for their father without help, and complain about the loss of private schools and high society, blaming her for everything.

Sue’s life improves: she finds she can make a bare-bones living as a music teacher and hire someone competent to do the hated housekeeping. But it is a step down for Sue, who did not intend to teach scales to children. She makes sacrifice after sacrifice to support her idle brother and sister.

But when she helps organize a “home week” for the town, she invites back celebrities: two musicians, a novelist, and a ball player who grew up in Gilmoreville. Her talent brings her into contact with a famous violinist whose accompanist must unexpectedly leave before the concert.

She lives through horrible betrayals. Her family, as is so often the case, is the group that least appreciates her. Porter does question conventional wisdom. She lets us know the "Sister Sues" of this world are not appreciated. The novel does not quite end the way you think it will, though Porter does satisfy her readers with a romance. She reminds me a bit of Mrs. Oliphant.

Born in New Hampshire, Porter studied music at the New England Conservatory of Music and was a choir and concert singer. She gave up music to become a full-time writer in 1901. Her husband was a businessman. She died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1920.

Miss Billy, which I really enjoyed, is more fun, though Sister Sue is the better, more realistic book.


Maia Haines said...

Great profile! I've been reading your reviews for a while and really, really enjoy your blog. Pls let me know if you are or ever will be at Goodreads--would love to follow you. Maia

Mad Housewife said...

Maia, thanks. I just went to Goodreads for the first time. It looks like fun. I'm probably more likely to browse than post, though. Are you there?

It's a good idea for a site.