A Neglected Novel & a Melodramatic Bildungsroman: Jean Stafford’s “The Catherine Wheel” and “Boston Adventure”


Jean Stafford is my favorite American writer, or, rather, she has written two of my favorite books.  She won the Pulitzer in 1970 for her stunning Collected Stories. I also return again and again to The Catherine Wheel, her restrained, elegant, little-known Jamesian novel, set during a summer in Maine. 

The Catherine Wheel is a sophisticated, if chilly little book, told from the perspectives of two troubled characters.  

The seemingly tranquil  Katharine Congreve, a middle-aged spinster who believes in “the pleasure principle” but also dislikes change of any kind,  now faces a sexual crisis.  As a young woman, she was in love with John Shipley, an architect who inexplicably fell for her blander cousin,  Maeve.  Weirdly, John and Maeve invited Katharine to accompany them on their honeymoon, claiming that she had made the match.  And now she is having an affair with John, who wants to divorce Maeve, and insists Katharine must marry him to “save him.”  This salvation is not what Katharine had meant by the affair.

The Shipley children spend summers with Katharine in Maine while Maeve and John go to Europe, and this summer is no different.  The teenage twins, Honor and Harriet, are excited about having new dresses made and meeting new boys at tea; but 12-year-od Andrew, bullied at prep school and friendless in the city, is crestfallen because his local friend, Victor, has dropped him.  

Victor’s neglect of Andrew seems pathological. Victor is nursing his older brother, Charles, a sailor, who has come home with malaria.  Victor does not even speak to Andrew when he passes the house.  He refuses to allow Andrew into the house to visit him and Charles.

And so  Andrew lies in a hammock all day, violently fantasizing about killing Charles. 

In this small town in Maine, everyone meddles in everyone’s business.  People  gossip when Katharine’s lights are on all night, and speculate that she is ill, or that she was up reading Gone with the Wind.  Katharine feigns calm and pretends she has been making a list for a grand outdoor party, which will end with her favorite firework, the Catherine Wheel,  named after the martyr St. Catherine of Alexandria.

Needless to say, Katharine is no saint, and it is a difficult summer, despite her aristocratic manners and dependence on tradition.  Stafford, who was raised in Colorado and graduated from the University of Colorado, learned the manners not from childhood from her husband, Robert Lowell, who grew up in a wealthy Boston family. 

Ready for melodrama?   Finally I am reading Stafford’s debut novel, Boston Adventure (1946).  It is a little dated, and though it is well-written (okay, anyway), I find it heavy-going.   

Stafford’s debut dud

This 500-page bildungsroman is a dud. There!  I’ve said it! I had my doubts from the beginning, with the narrator Sonia’s simple statement that she “used to sleep on a pallet of old coats and comforters in the same room with my mother and father.”  

Sonia’s family life is violent and poverty-stricken.  Her father, Hermann, a German immigrant shoemaker, has physical fights with his wife, a Russian immigrant, and both of them drink too much.  He deserts them after reading too many Westerns translated into German – to the West, they presume. Sonia’s mother, who possibly killed Sonia’s epileptic younger brother,  is too lazy to work, and depends on Sonia’s after-school earnings as a maid.  Finally Sonia’s mother  is committed to a lunatic asylum.  Sonia is both relieved and guilty.

In the second part of the book, Sonia fulfills her dream of moving to Boston, where she is taken in by Miss Pride, a Boston spinster who spent her summers at the hotel in Sonia’s hometown, Chichester. Now Miss Pride is writing her memoirs, and sends Sonia to secretarial school.  Oh, and there is a Proustian tea party…

I have not finished this yet, but  I am not overly pleased.  It is now my midnight-falling-asleep reading. It reminds me of nothing so much as Nancy Hale’s best-selling blockbuster, The Prodigal Women, the sob story of three women who were friends as girls, and grow apart dramatically as adults.  (Both Stafford’s work and Nancy Hale’s short stories have been published by Library of America). 

Other best-sellers of the time included books I prefer to Boston Adventure: Vera Caspary’s Laura, Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now Voyager, and Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd books.

Stafford is a great American writer, but do start with her later books.

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