Talking about female independence: Lady of Quality by Georgette HeyerA Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer
Published by Sourcebooks on 1972
Genres: Romance
Pages: 307
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
three-half-stars
The spirited and independent Miss Annis Wychwood is twenty-nine and well past the age for falling in love. But when Annis embroils herself in the affairs of a pretty runaway heiress, Miss Lucilla Carleton, she is destined to see a great deal of her fugitive's uncivil and high-handed guardian, Mr. Oliver Carleton. Befriending the wayward girl brings unexpected consequences, among them the conflicting emotions aroused by her guardian, who is quite the rudest man Annis has ever met...

Georgette Heyer's historical novels have charmed and delighted millions of readers. Her smart, independent heroines and dashing heroes brilliantly illuminate one of the most exciting and fascinating eras of English history, when drawing rooms sparkled with well-dressed nobility, and romantic intrigues ruled the day.

"In this delectable Georgette Heyer novel, the lady of quality and her bit-of-a-rake swain are the ones on whom our eyes are fixed. They don't play us false. Miss Heyer is in top form...romantic, amusing, and full of tart-tongued comment on the mores of the time."—Publishers Weekly

This was Georgette Heyer’s last completed book, published in 1972. She died on July 4, 1974, at the age of 71, which means that she was writing Lady of Quality in her late sixties.

I am struck by a few things reading this book. First, the writing seems both tired and a bit manic at times, as though Ms. Heyer had perhaps become a bit exhausted with writing in the same style and theme for so many years. Lady of Quality was her 34th historical romance (georgian/regency) and, if wikipedia is to be believed, her 55th novel.

Now, onto Lady of Quality.

Annis Wychwood is the titular lady of quality, and the main character of the book. She is a lady of nine-and-twenty who considers herself to be quite on the shelf – a Heyerism for an unmarried woman who has outlived her place in the Marriage Market. She is also a woman of independent means. She has inherited a respectable fortune, and is able to support herself more than adequately.

A typical Heyer novel spends, if not equal time on the hero, much time developing the hero’s character. In this book, however, the hero remains little more than a cardboard cut-out plot device throughout the book. Heyer spends more time looking at the various types of woman who might have existed in regency society, and evaluating their independence.

There are really four women who are evaluated in this way: Annis, Miss Maria Farlow, Lucilla, and Lady Wychwood, the wife of Annis’ of brother. Of all four, Annis is the only female character who is not under the protection of someone else.

Miss Farlow is under the protection of Annis, and if she weren’t, she would need to find a different protector. She is a woman of no means at all – we are never told how old she is, although the implication is that she is elderly. Elderly in this case probably means about my age. As an unmarried spinster of no fortune nor employment whatsoever, she is the very definition of superfluous humanity. She exists in the nearly invisible world of genteel poverty, unable to work (too well-bred) unable to marry (too unbeautiful) and unable to live on her own (too poor). She is nothing more than a burden. She is reminiscent in some ways of Miss Bates, from Emma, but even Miss Bates has a home of her own, albeit a poor one.

The treatment of Miss Farlow is cringe-inducing. No one ever acknowledges her as a person with value, her humanity is barely acknowledged. People are impatient with her foibles, constantly rude to her, and she is shoved in and out of rooms with no thought at all to her feelings. Even Emma, as thoughtless as she often is, is made to feel shame for her rudeness to Miss Bates. Someone desperately needed to shame Annis, Mr. Carleton and Lord Wychwood for their utter disregard for her feelings. She had no choice but to take it from them, and imagining how she must have felt about having to accept such monstrous treatment is physically painful.

Lucilla, as well, as a young girl of seventeen, is also essentially unable to take herself out of the sphere of protection of a male relative or a well-meaning female. Annis takes Lucilla in hand when she flees from an unwanted marriage to her childhood friend, Ninian. The book leaves Lucilla’s fate unresolved – Oliver Carleton, the hero, is also her guardian, and he finds a place to stash her, like a piece of luggage, once he convinces Annis to give up her independence in order to marry him. She is charming, pretty, ingenuous and a bit vapid. No doubt she will marry well.

Lady Wychwood is married, and as a married woman, has some freedom that is forbidden even to Annis. She is a lightweight woman, but there are hints in the book that there is more to her than meets the eye.

Annis is an interesting character. She has never met a man who engaged her interest, which may say more about the men she encountered than it does about her. Heyer has created a character who has carved out some independence for herself in a society that does not generally allow for independence. The decision to marry, in fact, is a difficult one for her – not because she is unattracted to Oliver Carleton, but because she is disinterested in submitting to a “domestic tyrant,” and she is concerned that a husband will be just that. She declines his initial proposal, saying:

‘You have paid me so many extravagant compliments, that I need not scruple to tell you that yours is not the first offer I have received.’

‘I imagine you must have received many.’

‘Not many, but several. I refused them all, because I preferred my – my independence to marriage. I think I still do. Indeed, I am almost sure of it.’

‘But not quite sure?’

‘No, not quite sure,’ she said, in a troubled tone. ‘And when I ask myself what you could give me in exchange for my liberty, which is very dear to me, I – oh, I don’t know, I don’t know!’

It takes some convincing, and a bout of influenza, to convince her that marriage need not mean an abandoning of self, and that, indeed, Oliver Carleton is not looking for self-abnegation in a wife. But ultimately, as in all Heyer novels, the heroine agrees to marry the hero, after perhaps one or two kisses.

I think I might have liked the book better if she had said no.

We never do find out what happens to poor Miss Farlow, and must trust to the goodness of characters who treated her so poorly that they did not simply set her next to the curb to be hauled away on trash day.

I didn’t dislike this book, and Heyer’s writing, as always, is nearly perfect. But it is not her best, lacking much of the charm and all of the sparkle of the best of her earlier works.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
on 1934
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 315
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
two-half-stars
The French Rivera in the 1920s is 'discovered' by Dick and Nicole Diver, who turn it into the playground of the rich and glamorous. Among their cycle is Rosemary Hoyt, the beautiful starlet, who falls in love with Dick and is enraptured by Nicole, unaware of the corruption and dark secrets that haunt their marriage. When Dick becomes entangled with Rosemary, he fractures the delicate structure of his relationship with Nicole, and the lustre of their life together begins to tarnish. Tender is the Night is an exquisite novel that reflects not only Fitzgerald's own personal tragedy, but also the shattered idealism of the society in which he lived.

Tender is the Night was published January through April, 1934. As an exercise in understanding, I am going to list a few things that were happening in 1933 through 1935 in the United States (per wikipedia):

The U.S. was in the midst of a deep depression. 25% of the workforce was unemployed. FDR implemented the first New Deal beginning with his inauguration in March, 1933.

Bonnie and Clyde began the rampage that would ultimately end their lives by murdering two young highway patrolmen. They were shot dead on May 23, 1934, after their behavior transfixed the nation for two years.

The Dust Bowl began on November 11, 1933, in South Dakota. In May, 1934, a two day dust storm removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst such storms of the Dust Bowl. The dust clouds blew all the way to Chicago, where they deposited 12 million pounds of dust.

This is what it looked like in America:

Dust-storm-Texas-1935

This is what he was writing about,

the murphys

in his epically self-indulgent book about rich, pretty people with rich, pretty people problems, like what to do when you drink too much booze, have sex with beautiful actresses half your age, and generally behave like a hollowed out husk of a human being.

Is it any wonder that it flopped?

In the final analysis, sure, it had redeeming literary value. But the characters were soulless and charmless (as Fitzgerald’s characters often are) and the world that they lived in was shallow and superficial. It left me utterly empty. Sort of like Dick and Nicole Diver.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette HeyerThe Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
Published by Sourcebooks on 1950
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 372
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
New York Times Bestseller! "Sophy sets everything right for her desperate family in one of Georgette Heyer's most popular Regency romances."

When Lady Ombersley agrees to take in her young niece, no one expects Sophy, who sweeps in and immediately takes the ton by storm. Sophy discovers that her aunt's family is in desperate need of her talent for setting everything right: Ceclia is in love with a poet, Charles has tyrannical tendencies that are being aggravated by his grim fiancee, her uncle is of no use at all, and the younger children are in desperate need of some fun and freedom. By the time she's done, Sophy has commandeered Charles's horses, his household, and finally, his heart.

The Grand Sophy was published in 1950, between Arabella and The Quiet Gentleman. It is set in 1816, in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

In spite of one glaringly problematic aspect, which will be further discussed below, The Grand Sophy is my absolute favorite Heyer of all that I have read because I adore Sophy. She is a simply wonderful heroine – outspoken, self-confident, and well-liked in spite of her occasionally unconventional behavior. She is basically the Annie Oakley of regency England right down to the pistol.

Her verbal sparring with the ultimate hero, Charles Rivenhall, is laugh out loud funny:

‘I’ll take care of that!’ he retorted. ‘Let me tell you, my dear cousin, that I should be better pleased if you would refrain from meddling in the affairs of my family!’

‘Now, that,’ said Sophy, ‘I am very glad to know, because if ever I should desire to please you I shall know just how to set about it. I daresay I shan’t, but one likes to be prepared for any event, however unlikely.’

Charles is obviously confounded by Sophy, when she shows up at his house with a dog, a monkey and an attitude. He likes her, at times a great deal, but is befuddled by her lack of fainting spells, her out-spokenness, and her meddling nature as she starts to set things right with his family. Charles is engaged to the antithesis of Sophy, Eugenia Wraxton, who is well-bred, humorless, and smug. One of the funniest aspects of this book is watching Charles struggle with the priggish Miss Wraxton because he is completely loyal to his family, and while he is perfectly comfortable criticizing them, woe betide the person who has the audacity to be critical of them in his presence. Eugenia makes this unfortunate mistake on more than one occasion.

There are two events in the book that really establish the worth of both Sophy and Charles Rivenhall, though. The innocent young man stumbling into debt through gambling is often a feature of Heyer’s stories, and this one is no exception – Charles’ younger brother, Hubert, has found himself deep in debt from gambling and tries to recover his fortunes by taking out a loan from a usurer and betting on a horse race. This – of course – goes badly, and Hubert is deeply ashamed as well as completely demoralized. Sophy is able to extract the truth from him with some skilful and sympathetic questioning, and offers to loan him the money to repay the lender, which he refuses. When Hubert is too ashamed to come clean with Charles, Sophy, naturally, takes matters into her own hands and visits the moneylender.

This could be a successful and funny device to show Sophy’s intrepid nature because she handles the whole thing with aplomb and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, Heyer endows the blackmailer with many of the most pernicious stereotyped character traits of a Jewish moneylender, which makes the entire interaction uncomfortable for the modern day reader. Whether or not Heyer was actually anti-Semitic I will let scholars who have studied her critically address. All I can say about this part of the book is that it detracts from the story in the same way that the unfortunate caricaturing of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s detracted from that fine movie. It didn’t ruin the experience for me, although I can see how it could for other readers. It is doubly unfortunate because there was simply no need for it, so the only conclusion I can draw is that Heyer did it on purpose for effect. Her narrative goals could have been served by any character that was greasy, unpleasant, and criminal. There are – were – plenty of character types from which she could have drawn without bigotry.

Leaving aside that blight on the book, Charles, as well, shows to advantage as a result of this episode. Far from reproaching his younger brother, he takes Hubert into his confidence and explains that the gaming of their father has left the family essentially destitute, and accepts responsibility for the rift that made it impossible for Hubert to confide in him.

‘Well, I had better make a clean breast of the whole! I went to a rascally moneylender, and I borrowed five hundred from him, for six months. I thought I should have won every penny back, and more beside, at Newmarket. But the damnable screw was unplaced!’ He saw his brother’s expression, and said: ‘You need not look like that! I swear I shall never do so again as long as I live! Of course I ought to have come rather to you, but –’

‘You should have come to me, and that you did not must have been far more my fault than yours!’

The second event relates to the youngest sibling, Amabel, who becomes extremely ill during the course of the book. Charles returns home to find the house in disarray, his mother taken to her bed, and his sister, Cecilia, and Sophy, in charge of nursing the ill child.

‘Oh, yes, tell about the time you were lost in the Pyrenees!’ begged Amabel drowsily. Sophy did so, her voice sinking as the little girl’s eyelids began to droop. Mr Rivenhall sat still and silent on the other side of the bed, watching his sister. Presently Amabel’s deeper breathing betrayed that she slept. Sophy’s voice ceased; she looked up, and met Mr Rivenhall’s eyes. He was staring at her, as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Her gaze remained steady, a little questioning. He rose abruptly, half-stretched out his hand, but let it fall again, and, turning, went quickly out of the room.

Am I crazy, or does this remind of this:

odb-The-Look

Swoon. No, seriously. I just died.

For the ending, Heyer brings together all of the disparate and mostly unwitting participants in Sophy’s plans, and shuffles the partners until everyone ends up with their proper match. It is a consummate game of romantic chance, deftly managed, with an eye toward perfect propriety, and only the clever Sophy could have pulled it off. There are a few important side stories that are worth mentioning, most particularly Cecilia’s romance with Fawnhope and Charling, and the indolent Sancia, Sophy’s putative and unwilling step-mama. This is, to my mind, Heyer’s most enjoyable novel to date – witty, sparkling, and genuinely funny.

Doctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris PasternakDoctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris Pasternak
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook

It has taken a few weeks to come back to finish the Doctor Zhivago discussion. I’d like to begin this post with a quote from the beginning of Book 2:

The train that had brought the Zhivago family to this place still stood on the back tracks of the station, screened by other trains, but there was a feeling that the connection with Moscow, which had stretched over the whole journey, had broken, had ended that morning.

So, we’ve left Moscow and travelled across Russia with the Zhivago family to begin again. Having read this book immediately prior to beginning my Great War read, I am struck by the narrow focus of Doctor Zhivago. It plays out across this grand stage of the Russian revolution, but at its heart, it is the story of one insignificant man. There is scarcely a mention of Lenin in the entire book. The great figures and battles of the revolution are absent – they are engaged in their great acts somewhere else, in the heart of Russia. This is a story of a revolution, and of a war, but it is the story of the minute impact of the war on one man. The reader is completely unaware that World War I is happening elsewhere on the great stage of history during this story. This makes the story feel almost claustrophobic, like we are Zhivago, living with bits and snatches of information but very little real understanding of what is going on out there. How is the war progressing? Who is winning? Who is losing? When will it end?

This is a really unique perspective, and one that I found thought-provoking. In wartime, communications aren’t always reliable, and the people in the middle of war often aren’t able to access legitimate, accurate information about what is actually going on – but this is difficult to convey in fiction. Doctor Zhivago effectively immersed me in the Russian revolution because it wasn’t written with a hindsight is 20/20 approach. Zhivago is conscripted into service (abducted, really) and spends month without a clue about his family, about how the war is going, about what has happened to Lara.

And I want to talk about Lara. The relationship between Yuri and Lara was problematic for me, and not just because they were both married. I am not a fan of cheaters, even if they are involved in an star-crossed, epic love story. It undermines their moral authority.

But I also struggled with Pasternak’s treatment of Lara, and the way that she was constantly tossed from male character to male character as though she was some sort of a toy that the manliest Russian man got to take home. I hated Komarovsky (and we’re supposed to hate him. He’s a rapist, notwithstanding his claim that he isn’t). Pasha was weak and pathetic until he turned into a monster because his wife made him feel inadequate. And Yuri chose a wife and chose a family and benefited from those choices, and it was really pretty crappy of him to abandon Tonya and his son because hot sex with the Russian earth mother.

Not to absolve Lara. She was allegedly friends with Tonya. I feel like the “romance” cheapened both of the characters. It’s self-indulgent to absolve oneself of the burden of infidelity by claiming that you have an all-consuming, irresistible passion for someone other than your spouse. Even in wartime. And Lara could have been a fantastic character – a bright and ambitious woman who pulled herself out of the most pernicious servitude by sheer force of will, she went to school, became first a teacher and then a nurse. That’s some pretty amazing stuff, but it gets lost in the narrative of Lara is so hot and sexy and men fall all over themselves to possess her.

One of the things that I unequivocally loved about the book, though, was Pasternak’s language. He is a poet, and some of the passages are achingly beautiful. A few examples:

Big stars like blue mica lamps hang in the forest among the branches. The whole sky is strewn with little stars like a summer meadow with chamomile.

Winter had long since come. It was freezing cold. Torn-up sounds and forms appeared with no evident connection from the frosty mist, stood, moved, vanished. Not the sun we are accustomed to on earth, but the crimson ball of some other substitute sun hung in the forest. From it, strainedly and slowly, as in a dream or a fairy tale, rays of amber yellow light, thick as honey, spread and on their way congealed in the air and froze to the trees.

The ashen softness of the expanses quickly sank into the lilac twilight, which was turning more and more purple. Their gray mist merged with the fine, lacy handwriting of the birches along the road, tenderly traced against the pale pink of the sky, suddenly grown shallow.

Ultimately, I enjoyed a lot of things about this book. It was frequently a tough read, though, and I feel that I would have enjoyed it more, and understood it better, if I had had more context for the Russian revolution while I was reading it. It is not an easy read, but is worth the trouble.

Somewhere in France by Jennifer RobsonSomewhere In France by Jennifer Robson
Published by William Morrow on December 13, 2013
Genres: Historical
Pages: 400
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford wants to travel the world, pursue a career, and marry for love. But in 1914, the stifling restrictions of aristocratic British society and her mother’s rigid expectations forbid Lily from following her heart. When war breaks out, the spirited young woman seizes her chance for independence. Defying her parents, she moves to London and eventually becomes an ambulance driver in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps—an exciting and treacherous job that takes her close to the Western Front.

Assigned to a field hospital in France, Lily is reunited with Robert Fraser, her dear brother Edward’s best friend. The handsome Scottish surgeon has always encouraged Lily’s dreams. She doesn’t care that Robbie grew up in poverty—she yearns for their friendly affection to become something more. Lily is the most beautiful—and forbidden—woman Robbie has ever known. Fearful for her life, he’s determined to keep her safe, even if it means breaking her heart.

In a world divided by class, filled with uncertainty and death, can their hope for love survive. . . or will it become another casualty of this tragic war?

Recommended for fans of historical fiction, Rosamund Pilcher, Jennifer Donnelly’s “Rose” series, and Judith Kinghorn.

This book reminds me strongly of Ms. Kinghorn’s The Last Summer, which I read (and reviewed) last year and very much enjoyed. It is neither groundbreaking nor terribly original, but is an entertaining and well-written historical novel with strong romantic themes.

The heroine, Lilly, was extremely likeable – brave and assertive. The World War I setting worked well, and I enjoyed the secondary characters, especially Lilly’s fellow WAAC friend, Constance. There were a couple of scenes that made me smile, and more than a few scenes that caused me to sniffle a bit.

This book doesn’t possess the depth of, say, Cather’s One of Ours. But it is highly entertaining, seems to be historically solid, and I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours devouring it. I would recommend it to anyone who likes their historical fiction with a happily ever after.

The Passing Bells by Phillip RockThe Passing Bells by Phillip Rock
Series: Passing Bells #1
Published by William Morrow on 1978
Genres: Historical
Pages: 516
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
"The guns of August are rumbling throughout Europe in the summer of 1914, but war has not yet touched Abingdon Pryory. Here, at the grand home of the Greville family, the parties, dances, and romances play on. Alexandra Greville embarks on her debutante season while brother Charles remains hopelessly in love with the beautiful, untitled Lydia Foxe, knowing that his father, the Earl of Stanmore, will never approve of the match. Downstairs the new servant, Ivy, struggles to adjust to the routines of the well-oiled household staff, as the arrival of American cousin Martin Rilke, a Chicago newspaperman, causes a stir.

But, ultimately, the Great War will not be denied, as what begins for the high-bred Grevilles as a glorious adventure soon takes its toll—shattering the household's tranquillity, crumbling class barriers, and bringing its myriad horrors home."

Recommended for fans of family sagas, books set during the Edwardian period, and multi-generational epics, The Passing Bells is one of those long sagas that was extremely popular during the 1970′s and 1980′s. Given the number of those that I read in high school, I am honestly surprised that I missed this one. Like many books in that style, it is a mile wide and an inch deep. Honestly, though, it is a satisfying inch.

Phillip Rock was a screenwriter and a novelist, and wrote novelizations of Dirty Harry and The Cheyenne Social Club. The Passing Bells was the first in a trilogy of novels about the Greville family. It begins during that last golden summer before the crisis in July, followed by the August madness and the declaration of war.

“All I know for sure is that everything is going to bloody well change.” “That might be a blessing,” Charles said quietly.

The beginning of the book focuses on the events at the Pryory, introducing us to the three children of the manor and their friends and romantic interests, certain members of the servant class, and an American cousin who also a journalist. From there, the book follows each of them, from England to the fronts, to the devastation that is the trench warfare.

My favorite two characters were Martin Rilke, the American journalist who comes to visit and Ivy, a downstairs maid who takes advantage of the new opportunities for women offered by the war, and becomes a nurse. Every character in the book is changed by World War I, and, in a fictionalized fashion, the sweeping changes to British society, to the youth, to a way of life that cannot survive the war, are explored. Things cannot stand.

The last of the young maids had departed after Christmas, answering their country’s call for women to take over the jobs that men were leaving. Men and more men. Kitchener had asked for one hundred thousand volunteers to form the nucleus of his New Army. Over a million responded.

Rock does not shy away from a gut punch or two, leaving the greatest of them for the end of the book. I can’t help but reminded of the lyrics from Children’s Crusade, from Sting’s Dream of Blue Turtles album:

“Children’s Crusade”

Young men, soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade

Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

The children of England would never be slaves
They’re trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation

Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History’s lessons drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children’s Crusade

The children of England would never be slaves
They’re trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation

Midnight in Soho, Nineteen Eighty-four
Fixing in doorways, opium slaves
Poppies for young men, such bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children’s Crusade

A “passing bell” is defined as a bell tolled to announce a death or funeral service —called also death bell. An apt title.

One of Ours by Willa Cather (The Nebraska sections)One of Ours (the Nebraska section) by Willa Cather
on 1923
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 371
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
Willa Cather's 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative of the making of a young American soldier

Claude Wheeler, the sensitive, aspiring protagonist of this beautifully modulated novel, resembles the youngest son of a peculiarly American fairy tale. His fortune is ready-made for him, but he refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his crass father and pious mother, all but rejected by a wife who reserves her ardor for missionary work, and dissatisfied with farming, Claude is an idealist without an ideal to cling to. It is only when his country enters the First World War that Claude finds what he has been searching for all his life.

In One of Ours Willa Cather explores the destiny of a grandchild of the pioneers, a young Nebraskan whose yearnings impel him toward a frontier bloodier and more distant than the one that vanished before his birth. In doing so, she creates a canny and extraordinarily vital portrait of an American psyche at once skeptical and romantic, restless and heroic.

I love Willa Cather – I was born in Nebraska, and her books really resonate with me.

I don’t think that One of Ours will end up a Cather favorite, but I am really enjoying it. I’ve read a fair amount of reviews that say that the section set in Nebraska that describes the experience of an American farmer viewing the war from a distance is the best part of the book, and so far, I would certainly agree that it is outstanding. She describes the early 20th century farm experience masterfully, and, as reader, I really admired the way that she brought the news of the war into the story as something that emotionally impacted the characters without affecting them in any substantive way.

Claude Wheeler, the main character, is based on her cousin, G.P. Cather, who died in 1918 in Cantigny France. This is a 1916 photograph of a group of young Nebraskan men who fought. Cather is the young man behind the sign that says 1916.

nebraska 1916

One afternoon in the first week of September Mrs. Wheeler was in the kitchen making cucumber pickles, when she heard Claude’s car coming back from Frankfort. In a moment he entered, letting the screen door slam behind him, and threw a bundle of mail on the table. “What do you, think, Mother? The French have moved the seat of government to Bordeaux!

I really love the juxtaposition here of Mrs. Wheeler making cucumber pickles with the news about the war. It is so remote, and homely, and illustrates how life goes on, even in wartime, in the places that are distant from the war. All during WWI, women must have made pickles, which seems sort of crazy from where I sit, looking backwards, like the entire world should have stopped for that four years, and just watched, holding their breath, what was happening in France and the other war fronts.

Claude joins the military in order to escape from Nebraska, and from a terribly failed marriage. He is a young man who spends most of the beginning sections of the book in the midst of a great existential crisis. He doesn’t fit in with the people around him. He has doubts about Christianity, he is an intellectual who doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to participate in intellectual life or debate. Briefly, while he is in college in Lincoln, he begins to blossom into someone with greater self-confidence and becomes more comfortable with who he is and the doubts that he has.

Now he dismissed all Christian theology as something too full of evasions and sophistries to be reasoned about. The men who made it, he felt sure, were like the men who taught it. The noblest could be damned, according to their theory, while almost any mean-spirited parasite could be saved by faith.

Perhaps I identified with this aspect of Claude’s personality because THIS is the very struggle that I experience when I think about Christianity.

Returning home to the farm, Claude falls in love with Enid, a childhood friend and girl from a neighboring farm, and persuades her to marry him although she is deeply religious and wants to go to China as a missionary. In another time, Enid probably would not have married. In this time, she appears to have married him not because she loves him and wants to build a life with him but because he is her mission – she is to bring him back to God. It’s the worst sort of self-abnegation on her part because she is going to fail, and they are both going to be miserable.

In the depths of this lassitude the thought of Enid would start up like a sweet, burning pain, and he would drift out into the darkness upon sensations he could neither prevent nor control. So long as he could plough, pitch hay, or break his back in the wheatfield, he had been master; but now he was overtaken by himself. Enid was meant for him and she had come for him; he would never let her go. She should never know how much he longed for her. She would be slow to feel even a little of what he was feeling; he knew that. It would take a long while. But he would be infinitely patient, infinitely tender of her. It should be he who suffered, not she. Even in his dreams he never wakened her, but loved her while she was still and unconscious like a statue. He would shed love upon her until she warmed and changed without knowing why.

This section is beautiful and heart-breaking because we know that Claude is going to be disappointed, and that Enid isn’t going to be much of a participant in the marriage. Even her father knows that this decision is going to be bad, that the marriage will be a failure. “What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.”

Cather is at her best when she is writing about her characters, picking out tiny moments and events and thoughts and using the most emphermeal minutia to illuminate them, bathe them in light, as an artist adds light to a painting to highlight something she wants the viewer to see, to notice. Cather is respectful of her characters, even when they are foolish or self-centered or misguided.

When Claude joins the military, Cather writes:

He believed that he was going abroad with an expeditionary force that would make war without rage, with uncompromising generosity and chivalry.

According to wikipedia, Cather learned of G.P.’s death reading a newspaper in a hair salon. She said this about it:

From that on, he was in my mind. The too-personal-ness, the embarrassment of kinship, was gone. But he was in my mind so much that I couldn’t get through him to other things … some of me was buried with him in France, and some of him was left alive in me.

I haven’t gotten to the sections about WWI – those are coming, and it feels a bit like impending doom.