A Forgotten Near-Classic: Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel

Jean Stafford

Jean Stafford (1915-1979) , an American writer who won the Pulitzer in 1970 for her Collected Stories, wrote elegant, convoluted fiction  reminiscent of that of Henry James. Born in California, raised and educated in Colorado, the daughter of a writer of Westerns, she met the poet Robert Lowell at a Writers’ Conference, married him, and mingled with New York writers and editors.  (Many of her short stories were published in The New Yorker.)  Her work is bold and resonant:  A refined spinster in Maine reads Virgil’s Georgics aloud, translating as she goes along; an obese philosophy student in Heidelberg eats whole cakes, uses a sucker as a bookmark, and ominously talks about a dead thin twin, who, of course, turns out to be herself; and a young woman undergoes facial reconstruction in a hospital (as did Stafford after Lowell crashed their car into a wall while driving drunk).

Why is Stafford, the female James, as I call her, neglected? NYRB reissued The Mountain Lion a few years ago, but my favorite of her novels is The Catherine Wheel, published in 1951.   Brace yourself: the heroine of The Catherine Wheel is a well-bred spinster, with more than a  dash of Dickens’ Miss Havisham.  And Katharine has a secret:  she is having an affair with her cousin Maeve’s husband, John Shipley, the man she has loved since her teens. And all these years she has been furious that he preferred the insipidity of  Maeve to her brilliance.

Set during a summer in Maine, this superb book is lyrical and compelling: Katharine spends the summer at the family house in Hawthorne with Maeve’s three children, while Maeve and John travel in Europe. John, a mediocre architect, has assured Katharine that he will leave Maeve at the end of the summer, but Katharine has doubts.  And we learn about the doubts in the form of two intertwined narratives:  one from the perspective of Katharine, frightened of change; the other from that of Andrew, a prep school misfit who had looked forward to the summer playing with his best friend Victor, a village boy who has dropped him to nurse his older brother, Charles, a sailor who has returned to Hawthorne with a mysterious illness.  (I kept thinking gonorrhea, but it is probably typhoid.)

Are you ready for a Staffordian Jamesian passage?

Katharine had endeared herself to the halt and stooping citizenry because not only did she continue to return loyally each year but also intrepidly to withstand the inroads of what Mr. Barker, in spite of his worship of fast automobiles, called “these ultra-modern times.” The customs in Congreve House remained the same that they had been in her father’s day.  She had conceded to electricity, to modern plumbing and the telephone but to no ungainly fads like radios or vacuum cleaners, canned soups or boisterous evenings of The Game…  The servant hall was smaller, the tennis courts had given way to an herb garden, new objects had been introduced into the rooms, but nothing else had changed upon this lordly hill since her father, whom she had idolized, had died.

Katharine and Andrew are engulfed by hatred, fear, and near-madness:  Katharine has wasted years being in love with John and now has her chance; at the same time she realizes that he is not the brilliant man she thought he was when young, that he is having a midlife crisis, and that the affair could destroy his family.  Andrew has no idea about Katharine’s affair with his father, but he is obsessed with fantasizes about killing Charles to get his friend, Victor, back.  And he is terrified of the fantasies.  No one is aware of what is going on with Katharine or Andrew.

I admire this novel very much.  Are there flaws? Yes.  Perhaps the spinster sensibility of Katharine goes too far, though I only noticed this on a second reading.   I happen to like literary spinsters, so it didn’t bother me–much.  And Stafford is  a brilliant writer.

I enjoyed this hugely, though I prefer her short stories.

Reading Too Many Reviews

André Kertész, Carnival, Paris (woman reading behind stage), 1926

“I wish they would stop publishing reviews for a year.”

“What?”  When I got the New York Times on Sunday, I didn’t read the news; I read only the Book Review.  But it seemed my friend had the internet, while I only had AOL.  I did not admit it, but I had thought AOL was the internet.

“There’s so much there.  There’s too much there.”

And then in 2005 we finally got an internet connection. There is too much.   There are American review publications, British review publications,  Goodreads reviews and discussions, blogs, the Barnes and Noble Review, the Amazon Review, online publications like Literary Hub and Book Riot, and, if we’re really bored, BookTube… It just goes on, on, and on.  And now, like my friend, I feel overwhelmed by access to so many reviews.

And do you have trouble deciding what to read next? Do I want to read Alexanderplatz Berlin (I saw copies of it everywhere in London), finish Victoria Glendinning’s brilliant biography of Elizabeth Bowen, reread Flannery O’Connor, or dip into Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, which I read part of last summer.  I am probably not missing anything if I skip The Weight of Ink.  It got good reviews but the  truth is that not all books are for me.

And  I was dismayed to realize a few months ago that we have run out of space for books. Books literally have fallen out of a bookcase onto my head!


Is Snoopy’s bookcase made of particle board?

Angus Wilson’s Late Call

Bits of the cover chipped off as I read!

On  a recent trip to London, I  was in and out of used bookstores.  I am always intrigued by the many English books  not available in the U.S.  I  bought mainly paperbacks, so as to be able to fit them into my luggage, which eventually expanded to include a Waitrose shopping bag. “Ma’am, you’re going to have to keep that under the seat,” the flight attendant said.

One of my best finds was an old Penguin copy of Angus Wilson’s 1964 novel,  Late Call.  As far as I can tell, Late Call was never published in the U.S.  There may be a reason for this:  it is set in one of the New Towns in England, and do we know what a New Town is?  As is often the case, I kind of got it as I read.  But for the sake of efficiency, I will  quote Wikipedia: “The new towns in the United Kingdom were planned under the powers of the New Towns Act 1946 and later acts to relocate populations in poor or bombed-out housing following the Second World War.”

This strange novel is partly serious, partly satiric.   I very much liked it on the realistic level, as the  story of an old woman adjusting to retirement.  The heroine, Sylvia Calvert, a manageress of a hotel, retires in her early sixties because of high blood pressure (not to mention complaints about her husband, Arthur, who loses money at cards and borrows from the residents). Sylvia longs to start a new life, living with her son Harold and his children in Carshall New Town, but it proves to be a difficult adjustment:  in a matter of days she goes from being a respected woman in charge of a business to an old woman not even trusted with the housework.  Her son Harold, the insufferable headmaster of a secondary modern, insists on making a roster of household tasks for the whole family. (That seems very ’60s and early ’70s to me:  feminists  in collectives and co-ops always had housework schedules.)  And so Sylvia  would really like to do all the housework and cooking, but has little responsibility.  The only person who doesn’t have chores is Arthur, out playing cards all day.

Living with the obnoxious Harold is a nightmare.  He is condescending to Sylvia, and preaches endlessly about the superiority of the way of life in Carshall. He likes the rigid plan of the town, and is proud of his own modern house. The ultra-modern ugly kitchen, which he and his late wife Beth designed for efficiency, has so many electric gadgets that he must lecture and quiz Sylvia on them.  She doesn’t have the faintest idea what he is talking about.

Harold looked at her.  “You’re like Rip Van Winkle, Mother…. Now, we must concentrate on the job in hand.  What do you do with the autotimer?  Think now, Sylvia.”  He’d never used her Christian name; and although it was meant to be some kind of joke, she felt most uncomfortable.  However she must try to play up to him.  Some vague, long forgotten memory of school came back to her:  it spelt ‘catch.’  She would not be caught.

Sylvia wants to stay home and read and watch TV, but he thinks she should keep busy, so gets his friends to give her work as a volunteer secretary for a save-the-meadow campaign. (And the meadow is ugly! but Harold is obsessed with the preservation).  Sylvia is exhausted by the job, and then her pleasure in historical novels is ruined because her pseudo-employer mocks her for reading them. (And so Sylvia turns to the genre true crime.)

While Sylvia is trying to read, Harold becomes increasingly obsessed with the meadow, and his children fall apart with problems he doesn’t notice.  His son, Ray, a charming gay man, is terrified of being outed in Carshall (Sylvia doesn’t know anything about homosexuality, but she is completely on her grandson’s side).  Long-haired Mark is a CND supporter whose radical causes annoy Harold:  why can’t Mark just save the meadow?  And Judy, a snobbish teenager, spends most of her time with horse-owing “county” people, though she really wants Harold’s attention.

Sylvia loves her grandchildren, but this modern family is not enough for her. And so she begins a series of long walks.  It very hard to get out of Carshall:  all the trails are carefully designed to lead back there.  And so freedom for Syliva is about escaping from the New Town.   She finds the one trail that leads to the country, and a friendship with outsiders, a farmer’s American wife and her daughter,  help her get her identity back.  But while Sylvia is enjoying herself, the whole family is falling apart.

Wilson’s satire of Harold is so effective that I was surprised and disappointed to be told at the end that he is having a breakdown.  Breakdown or no, he is odious, as are most of his friends in town. Wilson doesn’t make him more likable, but we are supposed to see him as a more realistic character, I suppose.   But I really felt that Harold was characteristic of the New Town, and now I have to like him?  Isn’t this a satire of the New Town?  I need an introduction in an American edtiion.

Wilson’s style is lively and satiric, and the book is very entertaining!  I raced through this. And yet I needed one or two notes…

Margaret Drabble wrote a biography of Wilson, and I would love to read it.   A few years ago I read and very much enjoyed Wilson’s novel, The Middle Age of Eliot.  I wrote here, “This fast-paced, intelligent novel, published in 1958 and winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is often elegantly-written, and misses being a classic by a hair.”  Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is also in print, published by NYRB.  Any recommendations of other books by Wilson?

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day

“You might like Elizabeth Bowen,” said a classics professor during a chat about, of all things, the pros and cons of the style of Virginia Woolf.  I had correctly identified a passage by Virginia Woolf, as well as the authors of several other long excerpts from famous books, on a mystifying diagnostic test which had little to do with our subject.  Woolf was then my favorite English writer; he preferred Bowen, who was influenced by Woolf.  Now he is dead, and I prefer Bowen.  The cycle of life…

I recently reread The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen’s spy novel.  The narrative is oblique and elaborate, and I love her lyrical style, and what the biographer Victoria Glendinning calls her “contortionist manner of sentence construction.”  Glendinning says that Bowen had a difficult time writing this book:  she wrote the first five chapters in 1944, and then rewrote them in 1945 because her reality had changed.  Glendinning writes, “It was thus the very subject of The Heat of the Day–the war–that held up the writing of it; and she did not get around to finishing it until the war was over.”

In this convoluted novel, set during World War II, the middle-aged heroine Stella lives alone in London in a furnished flat while her son Roderick is in the army.  She knows three languages and two or three countries and is “employed in an organization better known as Y.X.D., in secret, exacting, not unimportant work.”  She is approached by Harrison, an English spy who reminds me of Uriah Heep.  He has tried to become her boyfriend: she has rejected him.  She has a lover, Robert.   When Harrison insists on seeing her one last time, he attempts to blackmail her:  he says he has spied on Robert, and claims that Robert is a spy for the enemy.  Harrison says he will not turn him in immediately if she  drops Robert and becomes Harrison’s lover.    Could any situation be more morally repugnant?

Stella doesn’t know if any of it is true:  is Harrison a spy? Could Robert, who  works at the War Office,  be a spy?  She defends Robert, and sends Harrison away.  She says nothing to Robert, but she becomes nervous and vigilant. What is real?

The narrative is very much a hall of mirrors.  In the beginning of the novel, we see Harrison through the eyes of a young working-class woman who approaches him at an outdoor concert.  She has liked his unconsciousness of everything around him, but her impression changes when he looks at her:  “–one of his eyes either was or behaved as being just perceptively higher than the other.  This lag or inequality of his vision gave her the feeling of being looked at twice–being viewed then checked over again in the same moment.”

And in a scene when we see Stella waiting for Harrison, we also see the obliquity and eeriness of angles.

Propped on the chimney-piece above the built-in electric fire were two photographs, not framed yet–the younger of the two men was Roderick, Stella’s twenty-two-year-old son.  Over the photographs hung a mirror–into which, on hearing Harrison’s footsteps, she looked; not at herself but with the idea of studying, at just one more remove from reality, the door of this room opening behind her, as it must be.  But no, not yet:  he was still knocking into something, putting down his hat in the tiny hall.  This gave her a moment to reconsider–she swung around again, after all, to face him–stood stock still, arms folded, fingers spread over the sleeves of her dark dress.  There came to be something dynamic, as he entered, about her refusal to move at all.

Although it is occasionally melodramatic, I admire this tense, carefully-plotted novel about love and betrayal.  Is it her best?  It is not my favorite.  But she raises complex issues, and the twists and turns are surprising.  The  situation is heartbreaking.  And shouldn’t Hitchcock have made a film of it?

I thought I might have written about other of Bowen’s books at this blog, but I haven’t.  I shall try to do so.  She is a great writer–perhaps out of style these days?

“Daylight Savings Time” by Phyllis McGinley

Phyllis Mcginley

I love the underrated Phyllis McGinley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1960.  The prize was controversial, because she was dismissed as a suburban housewife who wrote “light verse.” Personally, I like light verse, the more bubbly and comic the better, but there’s more to her charming poems than meets the eye.  Here is one of her lightest,  “Daylight Savings Time.”

Daylight Savings Time

We turn the clock an hour ahead;
Which means, each April that arrives,
We lose an hour out of our lives.

Who cares? When autumn birds in flocks
Fly southward, back we turn the clocks,
And so regain a lovely thing
That missing hour we lost in spring.

“Irregardless” Is Not a Word

“Irregardless” is not a word.

One wonders if some experts say it to get attention.

I was irritated when the lexicographer Cory Stamp, author of the popular book Word by Word, asserted in the  New York Times  that “irregardless” is a word.  And I was bored when Penny Modra, a “grammar enthusiast”with dubious credentials,  said in a recent article in The Guardian that people will be disappointed if they want her to “solemnly rule that ‘irregardless’ is not a word.”

That’s all very cute. Really.  And doubtless it sells dictionaries, popular books, and newspapers.  But why pretend “irregardless” is acceptable?  The editors of  The New York Times and The Guardian use the correct form “regardless,” except in cute articles about grammar divas.

I am sure many of  you, like me, are traditionalists.  We want to speak and write as well as we can.  If we say “irregardless,” we have a problem:  we have a double negative.  The  prefix “in-” (“ir-” in front of the letter “r”) means “not.” The suffix “-less”also means “not.”   So “irregardless” means “having regard; heedful, mindful (of),” or “with concern to advice or warning.” It means the opposite of what you intended.  “Regardless” means “having no regard; heedless, unmindful (of)”; or an adverb meaning “without concern as to adcive or warning.”  (Ex.  They told the lie regardless.)  The word you want is “regardless.”

These days Cory Stamp and Penny Modra trawl Twitter and allow the illiterati to determine grammar and invent silly new words. I can understand reading newspapers to find new words.  But Twitter is not about words, is it?

The Roman poet Horace spoke about the introduction of new words to Latin poetry. In The Art of Poetry (Ars Poetica), Horace writes about the need for poets to choose an appropriate style for their subject matter.  And he also talks very specifically about the changes in language.  He says he is not opposed to  new words, “if they fall from a Greek source and are only slightly changed.”  Of course that  is quite a bit stricter than the liberal changes via Twitter.

Horace continues, “It always has been and always will be acceptable/ to produce a word stamped by the present mint-mark./  As leaves in forests change in the fleeting years,/ and the first leaves fall, so the old age of words dies,/and like young men new words bloom and flourish.”

Words change, but Horace wants poets to keep the Greek in mind.

Here’s Horace’s Latin:

…Licuit semperque licebit
signatum praesente nota producere nomen.
Ut silvae foliis pronos mutantur in annos,               60
prima cadunt, ita verborum vetus interit aetas,
et iuvenum ritu florent modo nata vigentque.

George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss: On Landscape, Women’s Education, & Floods

Why do I love George Eliot?  It’s strange, isn’t it?  A Midwestern woman reader of the 20th and 21st century avidly reading about Victorian English heroines.

Reading Eliot is satisfying, but rereading her is the ultimate pleasure.  I recently reread her second novel,  The Mill on the Floss:  it was like a psychedelic trip from one reality to another.   Eliot’s effervescent language is so evocative that I saw the landscape, the mill, the river Floss, and the woods.

The first time I read The Mill on the Floss,  the place riveted me.  I transposed our local landscape on Eliot’s, though I had no idea of scale:  I miniaturized our own river, sprawling fields, and wildflower-dotted meadows, because wasn’t England smaller?  Later, I pictured it all as a BBC film (I haven’t seen the Eliot adaptations, so I saw it as  Far from the Madding Crowd). I would love to travel to George Eliot country,  but perhaps it is unnecessary.   Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch, didn’t find her trip to Nuneaton particularly evocative:  Griff House, Eliot’s childhood home, is now a hotel.

But isn’t place especially vivid in Eliot’s books?  I’m afraid that says too much about me!  The first chapter of The Mill on the Floss is devoted to a spectacular description of the setting, St. Ogg’s and its environs.

Even in this leafless time of departing February it is pleasant to look at,–perhaps the chill, damp season adds a charm to the trimly kept, comfortable dwelling-house, as old as the elms and chestnuts that shelter it from the northern blast. The stream is brimful now, and lies high in this little withy plantation, and half drowns the grassy fringe of the croft in front of the house. As I look at the full stream, the vivid grass, the delicate bright-green powder softening the outline of the great trunks and branches that gleam from under the bare purple boughs, I am in love with moistness, and envy the white ducks that are dipping their heads far into the water here among the withes, unmindful of the awkward appearance they make in the drier world above.

So idyllic:  a landscape from the past, already past in a novel published in 1861.  And throughout the book Eliot emphasizes the wildness of the Floss, which ominously swells and frequently floods, which foreshadows the ending.

The landscape is one thing, the characters another, but I intertwined the one with the other, as Eliot intertwines them.  Why do I so identify with Maggie Tulliver, the heroine of The Mill on the Floss?  Is there a kind of imprinting of women’s lives from the past? I  never romped on the banks of a river, but I certainly rooted for Maggie when she pounded nails into her doll’s head in vexation and cut her thick hair after her mother and aunts denigrated it.   But it is the  question of Maggie’s education that especially interests me.

Boys and girls were educated differently.  I wonder if it was this book that persuaded me I wanted a 19th-century gentleman’s education, i.e., classics.  Maggie’s very average (bordering on slow) brother Tom learns Latin and Euclid by rote at a parson’s house, though even her father says Maggie would have benefited more from such studies.  When she visits Tom, she tells him she can help him with Latin.  The dialogue is hilarious.

“You help me, you silly little thing!” said Tom, in such high spirits at this announcement that he quite enjoyed the idea of confounding Maggie by showing her a page of Euclid. “I should like to see you doing one of my lessons! Why, I learn Latin too! Girls never learn such things. They’re too silly.”

“I know what Latin is very well,” said Maggie, confidently, “Latin’s a language. There are Latin words in the Dictionary. There’s bonus, a gift.”

“Now, you’re just wrong there, Miss Maggie!” said Tom, secretly astonished. “You think you’re very wise! But ‘bonus’ means ‘good,’ as it happens,–bonus, bona, bonum.”

“Well, that’s no reason why it shouldn’t mean ‘gift,'” said Maggie, stoutly. “It may mean several things; almost every word does. There’s ‘lawn,’–it means the grass-plot, as well as the stuff pocket-handkerchiefs are made of.”

Isn’t that amusing, innocent, and realistic?  We read a lot about Tom’s education, but almost nothing about Maggie’s. She goes to a girls’ boarding school with her cousin Lucy, but we hear about it only after she is called home by  her father who has lost all his money in a lawsuit and become very ill.  At home she finds solace in religion and in  her own studies of Latin and algebra, but none of it is  enough.

Maggie Tulliver drawn by Frederick S. Church

Education was not an issue for me, I used to think, but as I grew older I realized that it was.  I am a feminist, and conscious of discrimination against women, but never believed discrimination happened to me–and this was part of my strength.  In fact the schools in my hometown were very good, and the teachers, mostly women, encouraged me.  I was an excellent student until my parents’ divorce, and then I lost my mojo.  My college-educated mother wanted me to go to college; my uneducated father did not.  Eventually I  wangled jobs, grants, loans, and an assistantship, but it was catch as catch can and good luck.   I could easily have been a Maggie stuck with an unappreciative brother,  or an undereducated Gwendolen Harleth (Daniel Deronda), unable to make a living..  The 20th century was better for women in most ways than the 19th century.    But the 19th century had George Eliot, who could hold her own with the best-educated men of her time, and didn’t she contribute more than most?

Near the end of The Mill in the Floss, sex becomes the major question, and sex and the flooding of the Floss become one and the same.  There are elements of melodrama.  Maggie is courted by two men, Philip, the crippled son of her father’s enemy, and handsome Stephen, a banker’s son, who is engaged to Maggie’s lovely cousin Lucy.  Tom says he will not speak to Maggie if she continues her romance with Philip, whom she would like to marry.  But Stephen and Maggie are wildly attracted to each other, and when they go out in a boat,  Stephen more or less abducts her, taking her farther than they had planned, so they have to spend the night on a commercial boat.  Maggie loses her reputation, though not her virginity, and Tom kicks her out of their home.

Poor Maggie!  We are used to 19th-century novels in which the sexually active woman must die.  Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Awakening… But Maggie doesn’t actually have sex.   And she is horribly punished by death anyway, swept away with her brother Tom in a boat  (yes, another boat!).  Both drown  in the flood.

It all seems unreal and melodramatic–did Maggie and Tom hae to die in a flood?–and what does it have to do with sex?  Yet floods happen and are melodramatic: there have bee n many terrible floods in the Midwest this century, destroying homes, art museums, libraries, downtowns, you name it.

What does the flood in The Mill on the Floss mean symbolically?  In Tim Dolin’s George Eliot, he sums up different theories.  “It has been argued that the flood has the effect of neutralizing the novel’s own commentary, contradicting or negating everything that comes before it and bringing the novel ‘hard up against its own realism’ by indulgently releasing Maggie from the narrow, unjust, oppressive world that social realism has to depict.”

All right.  I’ll accept that–sort of.  Though this is not all he says.  Frankly I need a book of criticism. And so to one of the older libraries we shall have to go one of these days.