Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Flora Thompson's Lark Rise and Nancy Hale's The Prodigal Women

Before I vowed never to buy a book again, or not for 10 months, or not with a credit card, or whatever subsequent versions I drafted, I searched bookstores for Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford, a trilogy about English country life.  At a used bookstore I found a cheap copy of the sequel to the trilogy, So Glides the Stream.   I muttered about its "not being what I was looking for, but it would do," and the owner looked askance.  The next day, at another bookstore, I found a new copy of Lark Rise to Candleford. Of course.  I promptly lost So Glides the Stream.

I have been reading Thompson slowly off and on for a few weeks, and finally finished Lark Rise, the first volume of the trilogy.  It's not that it is not charming, but it is more a social history than a novel--indeed I read it for a history class long ago--and it is easy to pick up and put down, because each chapter can be read as an essay. At least this is true of the first book; there may be more drama in the other two.   Lark Rise, a fictional memoir of Thompson's childhood in a village in the 1880s, illuminates the traditions Thomas Hardy described:   May Day (think of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, though Thompson's village rites were less elaborate), visiting town markets in order to be hired as farm laborers and maidservants (think of Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd after he lost his farm), and Laura/Flora's determination to read as many books as possible  (how about Jude the Obscure?). Thompson makes you feel the hunger of the poor, the impossibility of saving on a farm laborer's wages (most men were farm laborers), the grueling housework of the women,  the trials of education at the one-room schoolhouse, the vagaries of preachers, the impossibility of hiding from callers, gypsy vendors, and traveling salesmen, and the wonderful festival of Harvest Home.   

Not a great book, but entertaining and charming.

The book I am really keen on at the moment is Nancy Hale's The Prodigal Women, and you'll be hearing much more about it.  Think of the first time you read The Group, Valley of the Dolls, Daughters of the New World, or The Women's Room, only 10 times better.  This is a perfect Spring Break book. 

Hale, a novelist and the first woman reporter on The New York Times, wrote this novel in 1940.  It is the fascinating story of three women, Leda March, Betsy Jekyll, and her beautiful older sister Maizie, and the tragedies that face them in adulthood in the 1920s and '30s.  

Mary Lee Settle, who wrote the introduction to my Plume American Women Writers edition, writes, 

"The 'feminist' novel, if that is what is meant by novels where men are interpreted in less than heroic manner, goes back to the great classics by women.  The list is formidable:  George Eliot's Middlemarch, where Dorothea's choice between Casaubon and  Will Ladislaw is hardly a choice, and which is enought to frighten any sensitive woman out of marrying; Ellen Glasgow's Jason Greylock in Barren Ground, the author's terrible revenge on Southern men for losing the Civil War and drinking too much; Edith Wharton's Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence; Willa Cather's Jim in My Antonia.  Here they are--strong women, frail men--a genre, a tradition, and a revenge for all the natural insults that female flesh considers itself heir to.  Like these great women novelists, Nancy Hale's women are more alive, stronger, both more sympathetic and more destructive than her men."

I agree with Settle's exhortation to our generation(s) to revive this novel.  It may not quite be a classic, but it is an outstanding pop novel that does not feel dated.  You can't put it down.  Just curl up in your pajamas and read it.

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