Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell (1928)

I was very taken with Susan Glaspell’s novel ‘Fidelity’ when I read it, a year or so ago, and because I knew that only that novel and one other were in print,  I thought that I should save that other for a little while, and enjoy the prospect of reading another work by a very fine author.

When the Persephone Readathon came around I decided that it was time to pick up my book, but until now life hasn’t allowed me time to write about books.

‘Brook Evans’ was published thirteen years after ‘Fidelity’, and it was interesting to see that some things had changed but some things had remained the same. The style felt familiar but the author’s voice had matured. She still had many of the same concerns, and she addressed them in a story that covers a much broader period of time; telling the story of Naomi Kellogg and her daughter Brook Evans from 1880s to the 1920s.

The first act of the story, set in farming country in northern Illinois, tells of the love affair of two young people: Naomi and Joe. They are deeply in love, they plan to marry, they believe that they will always be together, and so it seems quite natural to them to begin a sexual relationship.

The future that they both hoped for is not to be, and Naomi is devastated when Joe is killed in an accident She only finds comfort in the realisation that she is pregnant, that she will always be connected with Joe through their child, and that she will have a purpose in life raising that child.

She forgets that she is flying in the face of convention until Joe’s mother, instead of expressing joy at the prospect of a grandchild that she thought had been lost with her only child, calls Naomi a whore and angrily accuses her of trying to sully the memory of her son.

Naomi’s parents are overwhelmed by the coming disgrace and insist that Naomi accept the open proposal of Caleb Evans, an farmer and lay preacher who has courted her for a long time. He had plans to move to Colorado, he wanted to take her as his bride, he was even prepared to raise her child, and all those miles away nobody would know how long had passed between marriage and the birth of a first child ….

Naomi didn’t care for Caleb, she didn’t care for that plan at all, but she had nowhere else to go ….

I was captivated as this story played out. It was so very well written, each and every character lived and breathed, and I understood every emotion and every action. I saw that there could be no happy ending, not in those days and not in the days when Susan Glaspell wrote this book; and I saw that there were no heroes and villains, just real, fallible people.

The second act is set in Colorado some years later. Caleb was a good man, he worked hard to provide for his wife and her child, but he was a religious fundamentalist and his family’s life revolved around his church and its strictures. Naomi did her best to a proper wife to Caleb, but she could never feels any love for him, and all of her hopes for the future were vested in the daughter she had named Brook, for the little stream where she and Joe made love.

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Brook Evans’

Naomi wants Brook to experience the love and passion that she knew that she herself knew for such a short time, and to have the kind of life that she had only been able to live in her dreams. Sadly, her desperation to give Brook that future blinds her to the reality of her daughter’s feelings and situations, and she pushes too hard. Brook is torn between her first love and her fundamentalist belief and she is devastated when Naomi, believing she will make her daughter understand the importance of following her heart, shows her an old photograph of Joe, explains that he is her ‘real father’ and tells her the true circumstances of her birth.

Brook doesn’t see the romance of it all, but it gives her a new appreciation of the man who loved and raised her. In the heat of the moment she rejects her mother and the young man she supported, and she leaves home with the intention of going to the church and becoming a missionary ….

This really was a tragedy, and the story spoke profoundly about the conflict between love and duty. I wished that Naomi would act a little more prudently but I understood why she spoke and acted as she did and I felt such compassion for her. I felt for Brook too, I wished that she could understand both of her parents, but of course she couldn’t, she was far too young to have such maturity and wisdom.

Tragedy was inevitable.

The third act opens in Europe, many years later. Brook is a wealthy widow who hasn’t seen either of her parents since she left home, who has a son who is coming of age, and who has two suitors. The solid and very wealthy aristocrat friend of her late husband would be the sensible choice but she is more drawn to an ardent adventurer who wants to join him on his travels through the Himalayas.

Brook begins to think of her mother, who had died some years early; and she comes to understand what Naomi had been trying to give her, and to realise that she had judged her so very harshly. Then she receives news that Caleb was gravely ill and near the end of his life. She knew that she ought to go to see him for one last time, but that left her under pressure to make a difficult decision.

She knew that she had the choice that had been taken away from Naomi ….

The exploration of family relationships is beautifully done, and I loved the way that themes echoed through the story and across generations, but I found that I was not as engaged with the latter part of the story as I had been with what went before. Because I couldn’t reconcile the woman Brook was with the girl she had been; too many years had passed and too little was shown or explained.

That was a flaw, but not a fatal flaw.

The story continued to speak to my head and to my heart; and it felt so real that I can believe that it played out, all those years ago.

Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915)

I knew little of Susan Glaspell when I put this book on my Classics Club list; just that two of her books had been republished by Persephone and that she was both a novelist and a dramatist.

That was reason enough.

The opening of this book told me that she was mistress of each art.

In Freeport, a small town in Iowa, an old man was gravely ill. He was asking for his daughter and his numbers wondered if she would dare to come home. She had left town in the wake of a terrible scandal. She hadn’t come home when her mother died, and that hardened the widely held opinion that she wasn’t the nice girl had thought she was; that she was a selfish, manipulative woman who shouldn’t be allowed in decent society. But if she was ever to come back surely this was the time.

Amy Frankin, the doctor’s wife, was a newcomer to the town and she had no idea what her new friends were talking about, or what disgraceful thing Ruth Holland had done. She would learn that Ruth had fallen in love with a married man, and that, when his health had broken down and his doctor suggest a change of climate, they had left town and set up home together in Colorado.

Ruth Holland was coming home, and she was well aware that it wouldn’t be easy.

“It was over the pain and the sweetness of life that this woman—Ruth Holland—brooded during the two days that carried her back to the home of her girlhood. She seemed to be going back over a long bridge. That part of her life had been cut away from her. With most lives the past grew into the future; it was as a growth that spread, the present but the extent of the growth at the moment. With her there had been the sharp cut; not a cut, but a tear, a tear that left bleeding ends. Back there lay the past, a separated thing. During the eleven years since her life had been torn from that past she had seen it not only as a separate thing but a thing that had no reach into the future. The very number of miles between, the fact that she made no journeys back home, contributed to that sense of the cleavage, the remoteness, the finality. Those she had left back there remained real and warm in her memory, but her part with them was a thing finished. It was as if only shoots of pain could for the minute unite them.”

She wasn’t aware – but she would learn – was that her behaviour had caused terrible problems for her family. That so many things she had said and done would be re-evaluated and misunderstood after her departure. And that friends and neighbours would still say that what she had done was beyond the pale and turn their backs on her.

Deane Franklin, the town doctor, supported her. They had been close friends and he had helped her to when she needed to keep her relationship secret, he had listened when she needed someone to talk to. Amy couldn’t understand why her husband was still drawn to another woman, why his view of what had happened was so different to her friends’ views, or why he  would make himself complicit in such a scandalous situation

“I do know a few things. I know that society cannot countenance a woman who did what that woman did. I know that if a woman is going to selfishly take her own happiness with no thought of others she must expect to find herself outside the lives of decent people. Society must protect itself against such persons as she. I know that much—fortunately.”

Susan Glaspell tells her story beautifully. The pace is stately; the perspectives shift; and she moves between a traditional third-person narrative and more modern visits to her characters’ thoughts. There was complexity, there there was detail, and yet there was always such clarity of thought and purpose.

I found it easy to be drawn into the world she created, and to believe that these people lived and breathed, that the events and incidents I read about really happened.

I could see where the suthor’s sympathies lay, but I appreciated that she had understanding and concern for all of her characters and their different views.

I loved the telling of the story, and I loved its emotional depth.

(The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Fidelity’)

The title of this book was very well chosen. It is underpinned by the question of who or what we owe fidelity. Our spouses?  The standards of society? Our families? To our dearest love? Or our selves?

There are no easy answers, but the asking of the question allowed Susan Glaspell to make a wonderful exploration of the possibilities and the problems that it presents.

A conversation with an old school-mate – a girl who had came from a much poorer background that Ruth and her friends and had not had an easy life – gives Ruth food for thought and helps her to face the future.

“It’s what we think that counts, Ruth. It’s what we feel. It’s what we are. Oh, I’d like richer living—more beauty—more joy. Well, I haven’t those things. For various reasons, I won’t have them. That makes it the more important to have all I can take!”—it leaped out from the gentler thinking like a sent arrow. “Nobody holds my thoughts. They travel as far as they themselves have power to travel. They bring me whatever they can bring me—and I shut nothing out. I’m not afraid!”

This is a story set in a particular time and place, the world has changed a great deal in more than a hundred years since it was written, and yet it still has the power to touch hearts and minds.

The questions it asks would need to be asked differently today, but they are as important now as they were then.