Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Early Autumn

I’m starting to wonder if one of the requirements to win the Pulitzer is that the story be unbearably depressing. I finished the ninth winning novel, Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn, over a week ago and I needed to let it sit for a little while before writing about it. It’s about a bunch of unhappy people. It had an unhappy ending. Mostly, it was a huge bummer. At its center is Olivia Pentland, a beautiful, intelligent, sensitive woman who is married to an insufferable bore of a man. Early Autumn is mostly her story, although it’s also the story of the family she married into.

Unless you have a degree in English Literature or possibly Women’s Studies then I’m going to assume that you’ve never heard of the 1979 landmark work in feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, written by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The title is a reference to Charlote Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which Mr. Rochester’s wife, Bertha Antoinetta Mason, remains secretly locked away in the attic of Thornfield for most of the novel due to uncontrollable fits of violence brought on by her insanity. In the text, Gilbert and Gubar examine the works of the most prominent female writers and poets of the nineteenth century (including Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, and Mary Shelley) and the ways in which they both reinforced and challenged the male-dominated literary tradition that tended to cast female characters either as angelic, pure women or rebellious, crazy lunatics.

(I know discussions of feminist literary criticism are not the most exciting thing ever, but I swear it’s relevant – just bear with me for a few more moments here and I promise we’ll get back to Bromfield’s-bummer-of-a-book, Early Autumn, in just a moment.)

In Victorian literature these traditional portrayals of female characters are challenged in many ways. The writers of the era wanted to show that women could be many things, and that the best women had elements of both the angelic and the crazed. Jane Eyre is notable because Brontë provides a range of extreme female characters with which to compare Miss Eyre, with Mrs. Crazy As All Get Out Rochester being the most extreme of all. Personally, my favorite examples are Jane Austen’s. The Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice run the gamut on the angel-to-crazy scale. The main character (and perhaps one of the most beloved characters in all of English literature), Elizabeth Bennet, falls somewhere in the middle. Like Jane Eyre, she is intelligent, honest, and honorable, but she is not naïve. Her sister Lydia who scandalously elopes with a no account loser is a clear contrast. A similar set for comparison can be found in Austen’s Mansfield Park, where Fanny Price’s character is contrasted with Maria Bertram. Maria marries a ridiculous man mostly because he is rich and then commits adultery with a scorned suitor of Fanny’s, whose integrity Fanny always doubted. Fanny demonstrates her intelligence and adheres to a strong moral compass while also showing that she can be passionate. After all, she loves to ride horses, and as one of my favorite lit professors in college always said, “You know in Victorian lit if a woman likes to ride horses it means she likes sex.” But most importantly, both Elizabeth and Fanny make mistakes. They are fallible. But their mistakes are not made in vain as they both learn valuable lessons through their errors.

I believe that Louis Bromfield must have been a great admirer of the Victorian era writers, for his novel would fit right in with the lot of them; however, where the Brontës or Austen would have perhaps focused on the romantic exploits of Olivia’s daughter, Sybil, Bromfield chose to write a story about a woman who finds love for the first time after she’s been married for twenty years and born two children, as she approaches her 40th birthday, as the summer of her life fades to autumn.

This novel is full of female characters that fall on all parts of the angel-to-crazy spectrum, and Olivia is always solidly in the center. There’s old Aunt Cassie, a nosy old lady who is always inserting herself into the business of others. At one point several characters speculate that Aunt Cassie is a virgin, having feigned invalidity during her husband’s lifetime in order to avoid sex and somehow miraculously recovering upon his death. She is decidedly on the angel (read: virgin) end of the virtue scale, but she’s obnoxious. A clear example of what a woman ought NOT to be.

Opposite Aunt Cassie is Sabine Callendar, a cousin and friend of Olivia’s who is in her mid-forties, divorced by choice (oh the scandal!), sexy, shrewd, and a total bitch. Bromfield repeatedly uses words like “metallic” and “glittering” to describe Sabine, and I admit that up until the final chapter of the book I was expecting her to double-cross someone who trusted her. She doesn’t, but given her general bitchiness and utter lack of warmth and compassion, she is another clear example of what a woman ought not to be.

Then there’s Olivia’s mother-in-law, batty old Mrs. Pentland, who is kept locked away in a restricted wing of the giant estate (ahem, a madwoman in the attic) and cared for by a nurse. Late in the story Olivia’s father-in-law reveals to her that his wife basically went crazy after they had sex on their wedding night and she became pregnant, and she felt like her husband had violated her and done something unforgivably obscene and indecent. After she had their son (who Olivia has the misfortune to be married to), she pretty much went nuts. At no point does the reader even consider the possibility that old John Pentland raped his wife on their wedding night, because it is clear through the development of his character that this would never have been the case.

Olivia is always to one side or the other of these extremes. She is clearly observant, modest, intelligent and kind. She exercises sound judgment. She is steady and reliable. She is a loving mother and daughter-in-law. But like Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price she can make mistakes. She’s married with children, so obviously she’s had sex, but not since her son Jack was born sixteen years ago. Her husband is a giant dud who would rather spend time researching the family’s genealogy ad nauseam ad infinitum rather than break his wife off a little bit of lovin’. We know that if he would show her any tenderness, any affection, that Olivia would no doubt be a passionately devoted wife. But alas, that is not the case.

Olivia falls in love with an Irish man named O’Hara, who means to make a name for himself in politics. Theirs is a long, slow courtship. He declares his feelings and then keeps his distance, allowing his words to linger for the greatest effect. Although Olivia falls in love with a man who is not her husband (she is fallible, after all), we never even once question her virtue. How could she be blamed? Her marriage is utterly miserable. And she only spends time with O’Hara, they never make love. Toward the end of the story they exchange one passionate kiss and hatch a plan to run away together, but at the final hour everything falls through. Olivia cannot abandon her family in a time of need, and she sends O’Hara away, relegating herself to live out the rest of her life in her unhappy marriage.

See, I told you it was a bummer.

This novel reminded me a lot of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Olivia and Newland are kindred spirits. I’ll throw Claude Wheeler from One of Ours in there too. An uhappy-in-love trio if ever there was one.

Passionate and very well written, if perhaps a bit lacking in originality, I can see why this novel won the Pulitzer Prize. It is too bad it’s not better known. I highly recommend it.

It's not at all related to the novel, but I thought of this song constantly while reading this book. Enjoy.

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