The Midwestern landscape can be eerie. Thousands of empty miles of flat or gently rolling fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and prairie grass. There are more hogs than people in the Midwest. I mean that literally.
Not much Midwestern literature is published. Though Willa Cather’s sagas of loneliness and resilience on the Nebraskan prairie are widely known, few Midwestern writers have made it into the canon.
So you may be surprised when I categorize the English writer D. J. Taylor’s novel, Ask Alice, as an honorary Midwestern novel. Though most of this novel is set in England, it begins in the Midwest in the early twentieth century, and we first meet the heroine, Alice, traveling on a train through Kansas with her Aunt Em. And, yes, if you’re thinking of Oz, so you should. This is the beginning of Alice’s journey from sweet Midwestern girl to successful English actress to London society hostess in the Jazz Age.
After Aunt Em and Alice part, a charming salesman, Mr. Drouett, picks up Alice. Thrilled by his tales of travel, she half dreams of escape from the emptiness of Kansas. He persuades her to go to dinner with him at a hotel, then seduces her. They live together near De Smet in South Dakota, until Drouett deserts Alice during a terrifying blizzard. After a few years of marriage to a strict young Scandinavian minister, she steals a church relief fund and absconds to England with her child, Asa. Eventually she ends up on the stage. She has to farm out Asa to caretakers.
Taylor pays homage to several writers in this complex, beautifully written novel, among them Dreiser, Laura Ingalls Wilder, H. G. Wells, and J. B. Priestley. He deftly depicts Alice’s naiveté and theatrical dreams: her friendliness and unselfconscious beauty ensure her success first on the stage and then as a society hostess. There are multiple story lines in this intricate novel: much of the book is narrated by the gently witty Ralph, an English orphan who does not know who his parents were, and who vividly describes his life with his eccentric “uncle,” a brilliant inventor of a new red dye, called hogpen. And it is not spoiling anything to say that Ralph is actually Alice’s son Asa–you will realize this immediately–though this is not officially revealed till the end.
Taylor fashions Alice’s sexual and theatrical adventures along the lines of those in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, a naturalistic novel in which Carrie, a country girl, meets a traveling salesman on a train to Chicago, where she will eventually become an actress. Taylor’s Alice is likable and kind, except when it comes to men, and then she is cold and calculating: can they be of use? When her husband, Guy Keach, won’t allow her to perform in a charity theatrical, she is annoyed but has an epiphany.
He coughed his cough and it occurred to her again that there would come a time when he would not be there to read her letters and refuse her invitations, that she might look forward to a future in which she could do what she liked, write as many letters as she chose and have whoever she pleased to live with her. Shortly after this he went away, the sound of the axes rose up again from the distant wood and the letter Alice had thrown towards the fireplace burned itself to extinction against the glowing coals in the grate.
Ralph, on the other hand, is very much enjoying his life with his uncle, who, now that he can hobnob with the rich, is even happier than he was as a mad inventor. Ralph is now a gentleman, with friends who are Jazz Age socialites. His observations are astute and witty but also very kind.
My uncle was very great in those days. I have said that the mark of his genius was a willingness to adapt himself to whatever environment in which he happened to fetch up. He was as at home on the prow of Atry’s yacht as it tacked desultory across the Solent as he was slaughtering grouse on Lord Parementer’s Aberdeenshire estate, as happy dispensing seedcake to the Dowager Duchess of Southerland in Pont Street as parading in the Ascot Enclosure. I have a memory of him from this time at some reception on the House of Commons terrace, with a charged glass in his hand and Mrs. Stanley Baldwin on his arm. It was the look of an athlete who, having breasted the tape of some long and arduous race, glances over his shoulder at the flotsam of the finishing line straight behind him. He was, or so it seemed, always seeking out new territory even as it colonised the ripped-up earth beneath his tread.
All goes well with Alice and Ralph in their separate spheres until Drouett, the salesman, shows up in England in search of Alice. Then the lives of all three dramatically change.
The journal of the novelist, reporter, and ghostwriter Beverley Nichols lightens up the last chapters of this novel, though I won’t reveal the context.
This is a dazzling novel, with a huge cast of fascinating characters, most in search of some quality that eludes them, even when they acquire money (though money helps). Taylor is a brilliant writer, and this book fascinates me so much that I want to reread it in tandem with some of the books Taylor mentions or alludes to.
In the past few months, I have read three other stunning novels by Taylor, The Windsor Faction, Derby Day, and Kept. They’re all remarkable, but this is my favorite.