The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe – Elaine Showalter

Shiny New Books no 10 went live a few days ago & I’m very pleased to have a review in it. I enjoyed Elaine Showalter’s new biography of Julia Ward Howe very much. Here’s the beginning of my review,

Julia Ward was born in 1819, to a wealthy New York family. Her father’s fortune was in banking and, despite his strict religious beliefs, he felt no guilt about his wealth and spent it accordingly. After Julia’s mother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her seventh child at the age of only twenty-seven, Samuel Ward’s grief took the form of stricter religious observance. Julia and her sisters were brought up as accomplished young ladies, while her brothers were sent to school. The Ward girls were taught French, dancing and music at which Julia excelled. Their social circle was restricted to family and Sundays were dominated by church services and improving literature. Julia later wrote,

The early years of my youth were passed in seclusion not only of home life, but of a home life most carefully and jealously guarded from all that might be represented in the orthodox trinity of evil, the world, the flesh, and the devil.

You can read the rest here.

There are lots of other enticing reviews in this new issue. New biographies of Thomas De Quincey & Anne Brontë (both of which I definitely want to read), more British Library Crime Classics, the new OUP edition of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (which I’ve just finished & will be reviewing soon), reprints of books by Eric Ambler, Angela Thirkell & Eudora Welty & much more.

The Deepening Stream – Dorothy Canfield Fisher

We’ve come up with several acronyms in my online reading group, including HIU – have it unread (for books that someone mentions that other members own & immediately rush to the shelves & plan to read next). I came up with a new one just recently, RIAL – read it at last. The Deepening Stream was first mentioned in our group at least three years ago. I was enthusiastic, ordered a copy but then, by the time it arrived, I’d moved on & it sat on the tbr shelves. I picked it up several times but didn’t actually begin reading it. Then, I saw a review of it on the blog TBR 313 & I just knew I had to read it at once. I didn’t even finish reading the review for fear of learning too much about the book.

I loved this book & can’t imagine why it took me so long to get around to reading it. It’s the coming of age story of Matey Gilbert. We first meet Matey (her name is Penelope & the nickname is never explained) as a small child, living in France with her parents & siblings Priscilla & Francis. Her parents are an unhappy couple, forever trying to get the better of each other. Her father is a literature professor in the States who needs frequent sabbaticals in Europe but only French-speaking countries. Her mother takes up new enthusiasms & new friends, only to have her husband sneer at them. All three children are scarred by the experience of tiptoeing around their parents. Priscilla grows up to be afraid of relationships. When she does marry, it’s to an older widower who is looking for a mother for his children rather than a wife. Francis projects confidence but covers up his hurt with a brash exterior. Matey is more vulnerable but learns to cope by avoiding confrontation & through the love of her dog, Sumner. Only when her father is dying does Matey see the real depth of love between her parents.

As a young woman, Matey goes back to her mother’s home town of Rustdorf in Dutchess County, New York when she receives an unexpected inheritance. There she meets her extended family, many of them Quakers, including a cousin, Adrian Fort, who works in his family’s bank. Matey & Adrian fall in love & their marriage is the beginning of Matey’s blossoming. She realises that there can be a true partnership in marriage, without the game playing her parents indulged in. When the Great War breaks out, Matey & Adrian decide to go to France. Matey had stayed in touch with Madame Vinet & her family, with whom she had stayed as a child & Adrian had spent some time studying art in Paris before he decided he didn’t have the talent to be an artist. They speak excellent French & when they hear from the Vinets of the hardships that the French are suffering, Adrian decides to become an ambulance driver & Matey to help the Vinets in any way she can. By this time they have two small children &, although they have some qualms about taking their children to Europe in the circumstances, they are determined to do something. The next four years are spent helping refugees & providing a place for soldiers on leave to rest & get news of their families through Madame Vinet’s network of friends. When the war ends, Matey & her family return to Rustdorf, to recover from the trauma of their experiences & to try to make their lives valuable & worthwhile in the post-war world.

This is such an absorbing book. I admired the accuracy of Canfield Fisher’s psychological insights into the mind of a sensitive child like Matey even though I’ve never really been interested in books written from a child’s eye view. I usually skim the opening chapters of biographies too, especially when they go back several generations. However, here it was compelling. Once Matey grows up & visits Rustdorf, I couldn’t put the book down. This is where Matey begins to develop as a person, the deepening stream of her personality begins to emerge from her troubled childhood. We also begin to see her through the eyes of others, Adrian & his father, & she becomes part of their family which is also her own. On the journey to France, with the threat of torpedoes ever-present, Matey realises that no fear will ever really affect her like the fears of her childhood,

It was true. This was not her first encounter with fear. She had met it years ago, and what she felt now could not be compared to that black helpless waiting for catastrophe of the child she had been, tragically unfortified, like all children, by experience. Nothing had then come into her life strong enough to stand between her and her fear – over the oatmeal, bitter as poison on bad mornings – that there was nothing real in life but the wish to hurt. That had been true despair. But this present danger – all that was not physical in her stood apart from it, unthreatened, secure.

The war section of the book is based on Canfield Fisher’s own life as she & her husband did just what Matey & Adrian do. I know a little of Canfield Fisher’s life through reading Willa Cather’s Letters among other things but I would love to read her own letters & more of her fiction. I read The Home-Maker years ago when it was reprinted as one of the first Persephones & I’ve read some of her short stories. These wartime scenes are wonderful. I loved all the domestic detail of how Matey & Madame Vinet scrimped & saved to put food on the table, how they contrived to get news of soldiers to their families as well as the more personal troubles of the Vinets – Henri & Paul in the Army & Ziza, Matey’s closest friend from childhood, keeping her husband’s business going in the countryside but with secrets of her own that estrange her from her mother. Matey identifies so much with the Vinets & the French people that she struggles to understand her brother, Francis, when he arrives in Paris with a delegation when America enters the war. His priority is to use America’s wealth to win the war & if he makes a profit out of it, all the better. Another instance of how their childhood experiences have shaped their lives. Francis sees his money as a shield against trouble while Matey uses an inheritance from her great-great-aunt Constance to finance the trip to France & their war work. I felt as exhausted as Matey & Adrian when they finally return home & have to pick up the threads of their old lives. There’s a real sense of peace at the end of the book which is very satisfying,

Her years with Adrian answered that question, stood before her, beckoning her on. She walked forward again. Had Adrian ever needed words to share with her all she had learned from him? The medium for the communication of the spirit is not words, but life.

The Rise of Silas Lapham – William Dean Howells

Silas Lapham is a self-made man. He grew up on a poor New England farm, went off to fight in the Civil War & came back to marry the local schoolteacher & make a successful business out of the mineral paint-mine his father had discovered on his land. Now, in middle-age, Colonel Lapham is a rich man, successful enough to be included in a series of newspaper interviews of the Great Men of Boston. He & his wife, Persis, have two daughters, Penelope & Irene; he employs a lot of people at his paint works & his Boston office & he has plans to build a grand new house on the Back Bay, the most select neighbourhood in Boston.

On their summer holiday, Persis & her daughters make the acquaintance of Anna Corey & her daughters. The Coreys are old Boston, a family that has an established position in society. Anna’s husband, Bromfield, is a dilettante. His father made money & Bromfield has been content to spend it. His son, Tom, is more like his grandfather. He hasn’t decided what to do with his life yet. Tom met the Lapham ladies on a visit to his mother & sisters & is smitten with one of the girls. He’s interested in the Laphams & asks the Colonel to take him into the business. Anna returns from her holiday to find Tom working for the Colonel & on visiting terms with the Laphams. She’s dismayed by Tom’s obvious interest in a family that may have money but isn’t quite out of the top drawer. The Laphams realise that their daughters haven’t had the right education, haven’t made the right connections to take their place in Boston society. This becomes more obvious as they ponder Tom’s interest in the girls compared to the standoffish behaviour of the rest of the Coreys.

Tom enjoys his work with the Colonel & has plans to help expand the business. He likes the Colonel, enjoys his obvious pride in his achievements & admires his success. He can’t help contrasting his own father’s lazy assumption of superiority with the Colonel’s energy. Tom is part of a new generation that takes people as they find them & has little time for the worries of his mother about his friendship with the Laphams & her fears that he wants to marry one of the daughters.

The Colonel & his wife have a comfortable relationship. Persis was a teacher before they married & she had a slightly higher social position in their hometown. She has always supported the Colonel but also acts as his conscience in his business dealings, whether he wants her to or not. Early in his career, the Colonel took a partner, Rogers, into the business. He soon found he didn’t like having a partner & bought Rogers out, just before the business took off. Nothing Rogers has done since has been successful & Persis has always been troubled by this, feeling that the Colonel did the wrong thing by maneuvering Rogers out of the business. Rogers turns up like a bad penny & plays on the Colonel’s uneasy feelings over their past dealings which leads to the beginnings of trouble for the Colonel & his fortunes.

The Rise of Silas Lapham is an absorbing study of character & of a society that is forced to change with the times. I loved the Colonel & Persis. Their marriage is strong although Persis has less involvement in the business than she did in the early days when they were building it up together & the Colonel has started to keep secrets from her which will cause misunderstandings. She worries over the girls & how to launch them in society (although the girls don’t seem very concerned). The Colonel thinks that money can solve any problem. He loves spending it on fast horses & his plans for a house become more grandiose & less tasteful every time he comes up with a new idea. Even his choice of a building site shows that he’s not part of the best society. He chooses to build on the “lesser” side of Back Bay. Persis spends a lot of time trying to rein the Colonel in & uncomfortably reminds him of his obligations to men like Rogers.

Penelope & Irene are embarrassed by their father’s boasting as he shows Tom around the new house but excited by the new friendship with Tom & impressed by his obvious interest in the family. The Coreys are forced into a social relationship with the Laphams through Tom’s involvement which leads to a disastrous dinner party & looks as though it will be a permanent relationship if he goes ahead with  a marriage proposal. I was reminded of the novels of Edith Wharton in the way that Howells explores the subtle gradations of social acceptability but Howells is also very good on the reality of family life & its comedy & tragedy. The Rise of Silas Lapham is a great read & I’m definitely looking forward to reading more William Dean Howells.

Brook Evans – Susan Glaspell

Naomi Kellogg lives with her parents & younger siblings in a farming community in the United States. She’s in love with Joe Copeland, a neighbour who lives & farms with his mother. Neither family approves of Naomi & Joe’s relationship so they meet secretly by a brook near Naomi’s home. When Joe is killed in a farming accident, Naomi realises that she’s pregnant. Her parents are shocked & ashamed, worried about what the community & especially the Church will think. Joe’s mother also rejects Naomi, who had imagined that both families would welcome her child as a memory of Joe & as the result of their love. With no other choice, Naomi is married to Caleb Evans, an older man who is willing to take on another man’s child as he loves Naomi in spite of her indifference to him. Caleb has taken up land in Colorado & after the wedding, they leave for a new life.

Eighteen years later, Naomi’s daughter, Brook, named after the place where she was conceived & where her mother was happiest, is a lovely young woman about to finish school. She has been strictly brought up by Caleb although Naomi is determined that her daughter won’t suffer as she did for love. Naomi has never loved Caleb & her life is bitter & full of regrets. When Brook meets Tony Ross, Naomi does everything she can to encourage the relationship, against Caleb’s wishes. Naomi encourages Brook to go to a dance with Tony while Caleb is away, even though he had forbidden her to go.

Brook stood there, doubtful; indeed, disapproving. She herself might defy her father, deceive him, girls did that at times – then were sorry for it, of course; but for her mother to do it for her, in this matter-of-course way, this was a state of things in which she did not know how to move … Why was Brook not more grateful to her mother? She herself wondered why. Oh, she would go, all right, and yet she was on Father’s side. It wasn’t right to deceive him like that. Well, she would never do it again.

Tony’s family is Catholic, he has Italian & Native American blood & Caleb disapproves of him & his family.  Naomi tells Brook about her own past & about her love for Joe but, instead of bringing mother & daughter closer together, Brook is upset & embarrassed. She loves Caleb & considers him to be her father & she begins to shut Naomi out of her life. Naomi conspires with Tony in his pursuit of Brook, even though Brook feels compelled to obey her father & refuses to see him.

Here was the hour when she was on the one side or the other. The danger she had braved for herself – was she brave enough to encounter it for her child? Did she believe enough? “Anything that life can do to you is better than not having lived.” She spoke it as her creed. But she could no longer look into the large darkness. She went into the house to wait for her little girl to come home.

When Brook discovers her mother’s plan, she rejects Naomi completely, turning her back on her mother’s belief in the overriding importance of the emotional life.

Years later, Brook is living in France, a widow with a son she has named Evans. She was never reconciled with Naomi but now, in her late thirties, she finally begins to understand her mother & to regret her rejection. Brook is about to discover what her mother meant when she encouraged her to give in to love.

Why had there not been ease between her and her mother? From the very first, as far back as she could remember, she had known that here was a love that would do anything in the world for her – die for her, suffer, do wrong for her. She had soon come to know that her mother did not exist for herself, but existed for Brook. Why should this, of all things, exasperate one? Why was it so hard for her to show love in response to the completeness of this love? In any kind of emotional moment why would she be constrained, awkward, and finally resentful?

Brook Evans is a wonderful story about passionate love, for a lover & for a child. Naomi’s passion for Joe defines her whole life, poisoning any relationship she might have had with Caleb & ultimately making her life one of regrets & thwarted plans. Naomi never had a chance to have a real life with Joe & so she treasures her memories, a tattered photograph her only tangible memento – apart from Brook. Caleb is a good man who probably thought that once Naomi was away from her family & her memories she would forget Joe & learn to love him. Naomi never gives him a chance, she’s always repulsed by him, by his high, squeaky voice & his rigid religious beliefs. Brook has always been aware of something odd in her parents relationship but it isn’t until she discovers that Caleb isn’t really her father that she thinks she understands. Her love for Caleb is intensified & she goes out of her way to show him that she is his daughter in every way that matters, rejecting her mother’s creed, “Anything that life can do to you is better than not having lived.”.

I first read Brook Evans over 10 years ago when it was reprinted by Persephone Books. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I want to reread some of those early Persephones from my pre-blogging days & I so much enjoyed reading Brook Evans again. Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity was one of the very first Persephones I read & I thought it was an exceptional novel. I’ve read it several times since then but I’d never revisited Brook Evans. I’m so glad I did.

The Bat – Mary Roberts Rinehart

A master criminal is on the loose in New York. He’s called the Bat & he has police baffled. He murders & steals & often leaves behind his calling card – a bat nailed to a door or a black paper bat in an empty safe. There are many theories as to the Bat’s identity. The police are looking at the criminal underworld but a prominent newspaper editor thinks it could be a professional man – a doctor or lawyer. Ambitious police detective Anderson convinces his reluctant chief to let him take on the case as a reward for his last big success.

Wealthy Cornelia Van Gorder decides to spend her summer holiday in the country & rents a house that formerly belonged to banker Courtleigh Fleming. Fleming has recently died & his bank has just been defrauded of a large sum of money. Cashier Jack Bailey is suspected of the crime & he’s disappeared which only increases suspicion. Bailey is engaged to Miss Van Gorder’s niece, Dale Ogden, although the lovers have kept their relationship secret so far. Cornelia’s holiday has been interrupted by anonymous letters warning her to leave the house & her hysterical maid, Lizzie, is jumping at every noise & claims to have seen strange men trying to enter the house. Cornelia is a member of one of old New York’s grandest society families. She’s finding old age very boring & decides that if the Bat has decided to target her in this remote house, she’ll be ready for him.

Dale convinces Jack Bailey to hide out at the country house masquerading as a gardener. She has a theory that Courtleigh Fleming himself stole his bank’s money & hid it somewhere in the house before he died. There’s a rumour that Fleming’s house has a hidden room & if Dale can find the original blueprints, she is sure that the money will be found & Jack exonerated. If the money is in the house, that’s surely what the Bat is after – if the strange noises & intruders are signs of the Bat at all & not just figments of Lizzie’s imagination. Cornelia calls the police for help & Anderson is sent out to investigate. Events come to a head on a stormy night when the lights go out & no one – not Anderson, Courtleigh’s nephew, Richard, who rented the house to Cornelia, Doctor Wells who is behaving very suspiciously & the Unknown – a man who turns up at the door in the middle of the night battered & bruised & seemingly with no memory of what’s happened to him – can be trusted.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was one of the most successful mystery writers of the early 20th century. She was often called the American Agatha Christie (even though her first book was published some years before Christie began writing) but I don’t think she can match the great Agatha in her plotting. She was also famous as the leading light of the Had I But Known school of mystery fiction where the heroine, instead of calling for help when she sees something suspicious, dives in & follows the suspected murderer or thief & gets into some very sticky situations. The only distasteful aspect of the story is the relentlessly racist stereotyping of the Japanese butler, Billy, who is never trusted & is never called Billy when he can be called The Jap. However, The Bat was written in 1920 & those of us who read books of this era are used to the casual racism of the times. The character of the Bat was apparently one of the inspirations for the later creation of comic book hero Batman, although, of course, Batman is a hero rather than a villain. There is a scene where the shadow of a bat in a circle of light is thrown onto the curtains of a room & this did remind me of the bat symbol that would light up the skies of Gotham City in the 1960s TV series.

The Bat is a fast-paced mystery with suspects galore & Rinehart uses the atmosphere of paranoia & suspicion very well.

I read The Bat courtesy of NetGalley.

Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854-1909) : a portrait with husbands – Sally E Svenson

Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle or even watched Downton Abbey, is familiar with the concept of the dollar princesses. Rich young American women were much sought-after as brides by impoverished English aristocrats. The most famous of these young women were Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill & was the mother of Winston Churchill, & Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the ninth Duke of Marlborough. Another woman who also married into the Churchill family is much less well-known. Lily Price Hamersley married George Charles Spencer-Churchill, eighth Duke of Marlborough. The Duke, known as Blandford, was Lily’s second husband & Lily’s life is the subject of this new biography by Sally E Svenson.

Lily Price grew up in Troy, New York & Washington, the daughter of a distinguished naval officer. Her family was connected with the social elite of both cities & Lily lived the life of a well-brought up young lady of the time. She attended balls & other social functions & accompanied her great-aunt Phebe on a European tour. Her first husband, Louis Carré Hamersley, was part of this same world. Louis was a member of a very wealthy New York family. He was 14 years older than Lily, who was 25 when they married in 1879. Louis was a quiet man, devoted to his father, who was deaf & suffered from vertigo. The newly married couple shared the family home in New York so that Gordon Hamersley could be cared for & he seems to have been fond of his new daughter-in-law.

After only four years of marriage, Louis died of what was suspected to be typhoid fever. His father had predeceased him &, in his will, Louis left everything to Lily & any children they might have (they were childless). Louis’s will incensed other members of the Hamersley family who had expected that the family money would stay with the Hamersleys rather than be inherited by a young woman who could quite possibly marry again. The resulting legal case is fascinating as it shows the lengths that Louis’s family were prepared to go to in the effort to overturn his will. They cast doubt on his mental state, implied that Lily had dominated her husband & forced him to make the will & picked up on small technicalities that they said invalidated it altogether. The judge decided in Lily’s favour but the resulting appeals meant that the case wasn’t finally settled for some years. Lily was forced to request income from the estate from the Court for some years until the case was settled.

Lily was now a young, rich widow. Her life over the next few years was quiet but eventually she decided to emerge from her mourning & the unwanted notoriety of the court case & she began to appear in society again. This was the time when the eighth Duke of Marlborough entered her life. Blandford arrived in the United States with a reputation for scandal. He had divorced his first wife, been caught up in various other marital scandals & upset the Prince of Wales so badly that he was a virtual social outcast in England. He had succeeded to the dukedom but found he didn’t have the money to run his family home, Blenheim Palace. His decision to sell off 300 paintings to help him defray the costs of Blenheim’s upkeep was met with scandalised tut-tuttings in the Press as Blenheim was considered almost a national treasure rather than a private estate. It had been built for John Churchill, the first Duke, by a grateful nation after his military victories in Europe. Blandford, however, felt he had no choice. He also realized that he couldn’t go on selling off his inheritance, he needed to find a permanent solution. This was his situation when he arrived in New York & met Lily.

Lily’s income apparently proved sufficient to mark her out as an appropriate marital partner as far as Marlborough was concerned. The duke’s quarry also had good looks, dignity, a graceful manner, and an easy way in conversation. Her family background was impeccable… Her reputation was without taint and she lived quietly. Marriage to Lily would strengthen Marlborough’s ambivalent social position if he wished to redeem his reputation in the eyes of the British public.

Lily would gain a magnificent social position & this was important to her. She had been disappointed with the lack of success she’d had in re-entering New York society after her period of mourning. She knew that her money would be required to prop up Blenheim but she was prepared for this. Marlborough’s position in London society may have been dubious but she would be the chatelaine of a grand country house &, in fact, this is where she made her mark. The marriage which began as a merger of money & social status was remarkably successful. Blandford was an intelligent man who had wonderful ideas for the improvement of the estate & Lily’s money made them happen. Lily was a gracious hostess, interested in all her husband’s pursuits. She became great friends with her sister-in-law, Jennie, & the rest of the Churchill family & made an effort to smooth the prickly relationship between her husband & his son & heir, known as Sunny.

Sadly, Lily’s time at Blenheim was brief. Her husband died suddenly of heart failure in 1892. They had no children & the new Duke was Sunny, who was only 20. He moved into Blenheim with his mother & sisters & Lily had to find a new home. The impact Lily had made on the estate in the short time she lived there is evident in the words of a resident of the nearby town of Woodstock, “We were all so sorry when Lily Duchess went away, because we loved her.” Lily made her home in Brighton & had little to do with society although she remained on good terms with Sunny & was instrumental in introducing him to the Vanderbilts. Lily favoured Gertrude Vanderbilt as the next Duchess but it was Gertrude’s cousin, Consuelo, who Sunny would eventually marry.

Lily married again just over three years after the Duke’s death. Her new husband, Lord William Beresford, was a bachelor who had spent his career mostly in India as military secretary to successive Viceroys, although he had seen active service & was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry during the Zulu Wars. He was athletic, charming, sociable & handsome. His return to England after almost 20 years in India led to his meeting Lily & they were married in 1895. The wedding, at St George’s, Hanover Square, was the social triumph Lily had always wanted & the marriage was a very happy one. Lily took a great interest in Bill’s activities & he was a great favourite with Lily’s nephew-by-marriage, Winston Churchill, with whom she had an affectionate relationship. Young Winston looked up to his Uncle Bill,

He was a man of the world acquainted with every aspect of clubland and society… There was nothing in sport or in gambling about sport which he had not tasted…His opinions about public affairs, though tinged with an official hue, were deeply practical, and on matters of conduct and etiquette they were held by many to be decisive.

Lily & Bill devoted themselves to their home at Deepdene & their son, William, who was born in 1897. Again, Lily was bankrolling their lifestyle but she seems to have enjoyed it, especially her husband’s interest in racing. After Bill’s death in 1901, Lily spent the remaining years of her life living in Hove, caring for her son, whose health was delicate, & managing her considerable income. She died in 1909.

Sally E Svenson has done an excellent job of restoring Lily to her place in the history of the Churchill family. For all her wealth & desire for social success, Lily seems to have been quite a shy woman. She made a success of her marriages & sincerely mourned her husbands. I wish there had been more of Lily’s own voice in the book but there seems to be few letters & we mostly see her through the eyes of her family or newspaper reporters. This may be one reason why she has been forgotten when those other dollar princesses have not. Anyone who has read the novels of Edith Wharton would be interested in in this retelling of Lily’s story.

Jennie Gerhardt – Theodore Dreiser

Jennie Gerhardt is the daughter of poor German immigrants, living in Columbus, Ohio in the 1880s. She & her mother find work as cleaners at a big hotel in the city. Jennie catches the eye of Senator George Brander who takes an interest in her. Brander helps her family by employing Mrs Gerhardt to wash his laundry & giving the family other gifts. Brander is a lonely man, about to lose his seat in the Senate & he genuinely cares for Jennie & even plans to marry her – after she’s been suitably educated, of course. Mr Gerhardt is a sternly religious man who works hard for his family but doesn’t have much sympathy for his children. Mrs Gerhardt is a much more loving, sympathetic character & the close bond she shares with Jennie is one of the most important relationships in the book. When a neighbour tells Gerhardt about Brander’s visits to the house & that Jennie has been seen out driving with him, he is furious. He confronts Brander & forbids Jennie to see him. Soon after, Jennie’s brother, Bass, is arrested for stealing coal from the rail yards & when Jennie goes to Brander for help, he seduces her. He leaves next day for Washington, promising to return & marry Jennie but he dies of typhoid & Jennie discovers that she’s pregnant. Her father turns her out of the house but Bass & her mother contrive to look after her. When Gerhardt has to seek work in another town, Jennie goes home & her baby daughter, Vesta, is born there.

Jennie’s family go through some hard times & she moves to Cleveland with Bass to look for work, leaving Vesta behind with her mother. Surprisingly, her father becomes besotted with his granddaughter, insisting on having her baptized & looking after her devotedly. Jennie begins working as a maid for a rich family & she is pursued by a friend of the family, Lester Kane. Lester is in his 30s, working in his father’s carriage making business but a little bored & at a loose end. He’s not interested in marrying any of the suitable young ladies of whom his family approve. Lester’s relationship with his brother, Robert, is also difficult. They have completely different temperaments & Robert’s ideas for running the business don’t always meet with Lester’s approval. Lester & Jennie are immediately attracted to each other & she eventually agrees to go to New York with him & become his mistress. Jennie tells her mother the truth but lets her father think she’s going to be married. She doesn’t tell Lester about Vesta & the longer she waits, the harder the confession becomes. Jennie finds it easier to convince herself that she can keep Vesta a secret & that her father doesn’t need to know about her unmarried state. She knows that she is not being honest but she’s frightened of the consequences. Both Lester & Jennie are indecisive & this drifting is one of the main problems in their relationship. Lester isn’t just a rake, he loves Jennie but not enough to defy convention & marry her. He enjoys Jennie’s company & is proud to be seen with such a beautiful woman although he’s careful to keep Jennie in the background of society, setting her up in houses in different towns where he can visit her on business trips. He admires her virtues even while he takes advantage of her, & refuses to give her the status of his wife.

She’s a woman of a curious temperament. She possesses a world of feeling and emotion. She’s not educated in the sense in which we understand that word, but she has natural refinement and tact. She’s a good housekeeper. She’s an ideal mother. She’s the most affectionate creature under the sun. Her devotion to her mother and father was beyond words. … She hasn’t any of the graces of the smart society woman. She isn’t quick at repartee. She can’t join in any rapid-fire conversation. She thinks rather slowly, I imagine. Some of her big thoughts never come to the surface at all, but you can feel that she is thinking and that she is feeling.

After her mother’s death, Jennie brings Vesta to live near her & when the child falls ill, Jennie is forced to tell Lester the truth. Surprisingly he accepts Vesta & the three of them live happily together for some time. Lester is careful to keep their relationship secret but rumours get about & when his family discover their relationship, they disapprove. His parents are especially upset & try to convince Lester to leave Jennie & marry someone “suitable”.  He refuses but feels increasingly uneasy about his inability to make a decision about his future. His father dies & the will virtually disinherits Lester unless he leaves Jennie or leaves him with enough to live on if he marries her. It’s the difference between $10 000 a year & millions.

A lot of the story is about Lester’s dilemma, he just doesn’t have the moral courage to carry out the logical end of his actions. Jennie is a good woman & it’s easy to see how she gets involved with Lester who loves her & looks after her family, even having Mr Gerhardt to live with them after the family breaks up after Mrs Gerhardt’s death. Jennie is portrayed as quite spiritual & morally pure. Everything she does is the result of love. She gets involved with Brander because he looks after her family. She falls in love with Lester but she knows that she has no other way to get out of poverty than to live with him so she allows her emotions to lead her into a relationship that her family morally disapproves of. Jennie loves Lester & can see his dilemma. She offers to leave him so that he can please his family but perversely he refuses to let her go. Lester just ties himself up in knots thinking about what he should do. The crisis comes after his father’s death when he is shut out of the family business & begins to speculate with his money. Then, he meets an old flame, now a wealthy widow, & still in love with him. The decision he makes will affect the rest of his life.

This is such a beautifully-written book. Dreiser doesn’t judge any of the characters. He allows us to understand Mr Gerhardt’s religious intolerance, Lester’s indecisiveness & all Jennie’s decisions as a part of the period in which they live. Jennie’s life is constrained by the fact that she was a poor woman in the 1880s & 1890s.Her poverty & lack of education meant that she had few choices. In Dreiser’s eyes she remains pure & good, even after she has been seduced by Brander & then Lester. Brander & Lester are also constrained by society’s expectations, they are not just moustache-twirling villains. Jennie Gerhardt is an involving story, I read most of it in a couple of days, I couldn’t put it down. I’m very glad that my 19th century book group chose to read it & I’d like to read more of Dreiser’s novels..