Women’s Books We’d Like to See in Print

There are wonderful women’s presses out there:  Virago, Persephone, British Library Women Writers,  The Feminist Press, and Furrowed Middlebrow. But some books are perennially forgotten, and here are some of my favorites that are worthy of revival.

1. Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy. These complex, witty novels, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide,  delineate the the changing relationship between the narrator, art historian Claud Pickering, and his histrionic stepmother, Helena, a former chorus girl, amidst the disintegrating class boundaries of postwar society. His beloved half-sister, who must deal not only with Helena but a deadbeat husband, is perhaps his favorite person. These books are as good as Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time!

2. Library of America has rediscovered Nancy Hale in recent years, publishing her novel The Prodigal Women and a collection of her brilliant short stories. I strongly recommend Nancy Hale’s two charming out-of-print memoirs, A New England Girlhood, which delineates her unique childhood as the daughter of two artists, and Life in the Studio, a memoir of her parents inspired by the relics she found while clearing out their studios after their deaths. 

Life in the Studio is my favorite: Hale and her mother comically disagree about many subjects, including fashion. In 1928 Lilian wore a new black cape to Nancy’s wedding to protect her wedding outfit, and Nancy despised it.  Nancy felt that “if one was not wearing Chanel, pearls, a felt helmet and a knee-length coat clutched together at the hip, one might as well be dead.”  But Lilian saved garments forever, sometimes arranging them for her paintings, or making patchwork quilts – but she mostly wore them.   Nancy despaired: she had learned from an editor at Vogue “that no woman should have more than three outfits in a wardrobe at a time–one on her back, one in the closet, and one at the cleaners.”

Hale was the first woman reporter for The New York Times and a frequent contributor of short stories and autobiographical pieces to The New Yorker.  She was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale; the granddaughter of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man Without a Country; the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Lucretia Peabody Hale (The Peterkin Papers); and a descendant of Nathan Hale.

3. Another book I’d  dearly love to see back in print is Gladys Taber’s autobiographical novel,  Mrs. DaffodilThe kind, witty heroine, Mrs. Daffodil,  is almost Taber’s twin:  she lives in the country with her widowed friend, Kay,  and they  raise children, dogs, cats, a pheasant, and a baby blue jay.  Mrs. Daffodil, a writer, happily churns out a syndicated column called “Butternut Wisdom” and romantic short stories about young love, because readers are not interested in what she knows about, i.e.,  middle-aged widows. Mrs. Daffodil has a weight problem because she loves to try out magazine recipes that call for a pint of sour cream.  When we first meet her she is having trouble zipping up a dress, and about to go on a diet. Fans of Taber’s Stillmeadow books will love this novel.

Mrs Daffodil by Gladys Taber | Goodreads

4. I am a great fan of Emily Kimbrough’s Forty Plus and Fancy-FreeKimbrough is best known for Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a hilarious travel memoir co-written with actress Cornelia Otis Skinner.  But Kimbrough also had a solo writing career.  In Forty Plus and Fancy-Free,  Kimbrough, a fashion editor for The Ladies’ Home Journal , is trying to decide whether to travel to Italy with her friend, Sophy. Her employer agrees  to give her a vacation if she covers the Coronation in England.  I laughed hysterically over their Italian lessons at the Berlitz school, because who hasn’t had linguistic goof-ups?  When a young man follows Sophy through the streets in Italy, she cows him by telling him she is a grandmother. And there are breathtaking descriptions of views and art, though usually with humorous comments.

5. How on earth can Alice Thomas Ellis’s classic humor books, Home Life, More Home Life, & Home Life Three, & Home Life Four be out-of-print? Ellis, a novelist, mother, editor,and a conservative Catholic, wrote these brilliant domestic columns originally for the SpectatorHome Life is vaguely like E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady, only urban, circa the 1980s. A white Persian cat is in the sink, so Ellis has difficulty brushing her teeth; a man mistakes her for a prostitute when she is in a bar with Beryl Bainbridge; she gets snowed in in the country; and the pipes burst and inundate a set of Thackeray.

What are your favorite out-of-print books?  Informed minds want to know!

Tangential Nugae: The Women’s Prize Longlist, Rediscovering C. B. H. Kitchin, & Nancy Hale’s “The Prodigal Women”

Spring marks the opening of  Book Awards season. The literati’s glam melees began this week with the announcement of the Women’s Prize longlist. 

I have long been a fan of the Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize).  In 1996 I read the first Orange Prize winner, Helen Dunmore’s haunting novel, A Spell of Winter. She became one of my favorite writers, and I followed her eclectic career till her death in 2017. My favorite of Dunmore’s books is Counting the Stars,  a novel about the relationship between the Roman poet Catullus and his lover, Clodia – based on his poems.

 Many literary prize fans read only the prize winners, but I generally prefer the less-celebrated books on the the longlist.  And this  year I am excited by what seems to be an encouraging  inclusion and a new trend: Natalie Haynes’s Stone Blind, a retelling of the Medusa myth, has made the longlist. 

Aside from Haynes’s background in classics and all-round intelligence,  why is Stone Blind significant?   Well, the retold myth has become an increasingly important women’s fiction genre. Walk into a bookstore and you are likely to find a table devoted to retold myths with titles like Clytemnestra, Cassandra, and Circe.  These feminist reinterpretations mine the lives of goddesses and heroines of Greek myths – and myths from other countries – and spin ancient culture from a woman’s point-of-view.

I am reading and enjoying Stone Blind.

And you will find the Women’s Prize longlist at the end of this post.

HAVE YOU READ C. H.B. KITCHIN?  For years I had tattered paperback copies of The Death of My Aunt and The Death of an Uncle on my bedside table.  And then I discovered that  Kitchin, a neglected novelist who is remembered mainly for his mysteries, also wrote literary fiction.  
I was lucky to find a copy of his beautifully-written novel, A Short Walk in Williams Park. Kitchin is not much read anymore; he was not very popular in the 20th century, either.  In the preface to this slight, graceful novel,  L. P. Hartley writes, “Fiction writing was his great love and his disappointment.  Somehow he lacked ‘the common touch,’ and the reviewers’ constant encomiums did not console him for it.”

A Short Walk in Williams Park is a decidedly odd little book:  think Barbara Pym, diabolically mingled with Henry Green and Anita Brookner. The protagonist, Francis Norton, an  elderly bachelor who has retired from business, enjoys long walks in London parks. He is a keen observer of people, but one day, without meaning to eavesdrop,  he overhears a  desperate conversation between  two lovers, Mirrie and Edward.  Edward is married and cheating on his wife; he and Mirrie have little time together, but often meet in Williams Park.  Through an odd series of circumstances, including finding three pages of Mirrie’s diary in the park, Francis becomes an advisor to the two lovers.

Much of this novel is cleverly narrated in letters and other documents.  There is also a mystery. Edward’s wife has a rich cousin who dies of an overdose of “Traversinal, a dangerous drug of the barbiturate family.” Where did she get it? Was she murdered, or was it an accidental overdose?  

Fascinating and a bit weird:  I am now a Kitchin fan.

A NEW EDITION OF NANCY HALE’S THE PRODIGAL WOMEN.  Did I inspire the revival of Nancy Hale?  It is just possible.  In 2010, I wrote at a defunct blog:  “The  book I am really keen on at the moment is Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women, and you’ll be hearing much more about it.  Think of the first time you read The Group, Valley of the Dolls, Daughters of the New World, or The Women’s Room, only 10 times better.  This is a perfect Spring Break book.”

The Library of America is publishing a new edition of The Prodigal Women in May. My 1980s Plume paperback version is tattered and held together with scotch-tape, so I do deserve a new copy. Thank you, Library of America, for reviving Nancy Hale!  LOA has also published a selection of Hale’s short stories.

AND HERE IS The Women’s Prize Longlist 2023

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Demon Copperfield by Barbara Kingsolver

The Dog of the North by Elizabeth McKenzie

Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova

Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh

Pod by Laline Paul

The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff

Homesick by Jennifer Croft

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks

Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

Glory by NoViolet Bulawalyo

Nancy Hale’s “The Prodigal Women” and “Where the Light Falls”

When I discovered Nancy Hale about ten years ago, I believed I had found a hidden portal to a Nancy Hale Elysium. Nobody had heard of Hale, none of her books were in print, even the university library had discarded all her books but one (A New England Girlhood). By chance I read one of her stories in a 1930’s anthology of New Yorker Stories, so I ordered a used copy of Hale’s 1942 best-selling novel The Prodigal Women – which was the easiest of her books to find online, and at that time was very cheap.

The Prodigal Women is a ripping good read, a fun “literary pop” novel, saved from melodrama by Hale’s extraordinary plotting and life-like characters. The style is sometimes awkward, as if Hale’s thoughts were rushing ahead of her pen, but the women’s relationships and, most important, their actions, keep this scintillating novel alive. The heroine, Leda March, morphs from sympathetic outsider to a cold horrific bitch. (Don’t be fooled by the allusion to the Marches in Little Women.) As a lonely New England schoolgirl, she meets the Jekylls, an unconventional southern family who moved to Massachusetts so flamboyant Mrs. Jekyll could conquer Boston society (which of course doesn’t happen). Leda and Betsy Jekyll become inseparable, and the two girls worship Maizie, Betsy’s beautiful, popular older sister. But as an adult, Leda ruthlessly falls in love -without conscience! – with Maizie’s husband, Lambert, who is in turn a talented artist and a vicious philanderer, who psychologically tortured Maizie until she submitted to an illegal abortion on their honeymoon in South America, the results of which permanently ruin her health. (Lambert says she is malingering.) Betsy goes to New York and is breezily happy until she falls in love with an abusive writer. Are you saying, WOW!? All this in a single book! Well, it is a very long book, and it influenced Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Jacqueline Susanns Valley of the Dolls.

Nancy Hale is a smart, unflinching literary writer, but she doesn’t mind descending into pulp fiction, and that’s one thing I like about her. In recent years literary writers – or rather, the very few that read Hale – seem to prefer her short stories. And perhaps the stories are more consistent, though somehow I do not read her for style. She seems to me to be a talented sidewalk painter of vivid, offbeat portraits of New Englanders and Southerners, with a genius for conveying a sense of place – and at the same time there is an endearing sloppiness. Mind you, I am the only reader who does not entirely admire her style, but that doesn’t mean I love her any less.That said, I am very enthusiastic about Where the Light Falls, Selected Stories of Nancy Hale, edited by Lauren Groff, and published by the Library of America in 2019. Most of these stories are well-crafted, some of them brilliant, and I found myself flying through them. Though some of the stories are slightly dated , we are entranced, because they capture historical events and attitudes in real time. The stories span the years 1934-1966 – and you will always recognize the specificity of the period.

Her 1942 story, “Those Are As Brothers,” is very much a World War II story. It is a Connecticut idyll, but the Nazis and concentrations camps cast long shadows. It begins with a glorious running sentence, which contains a subtle statement about American “freedom” – in Connecticut!

The long, clear American summer passed slowly, dreaming over the Connecticut valley and the sound square houses under the elms and the broad living fields and over the people there that came and went and lay and sat still, with purpose and and without but free, moving in and out of their houses of their own free will, free to perceive the passage of the days through the different summer months and the smells and the sun and the rain and the high days and the brooding days, as was their right to do, without fear and without apprehension.

Nancy Hale

Wouldn’t we all love summer in Connecticut? But not everyone in Connecticut has this experience of freedom – certainly not the German immigrants and Jewish refugees. Every night the German governess, known as Fräulein, who takes care of Mrs. Mason’s two little boys, chats with Mr. Loeb, the neighbor’s German Jewish gardener. Mrs. Mason, too, befriends the quiet Mr. Loeb, who becomes a member of her extended family of evening visitors. But one day his miserly employer threatens to report Mr. Loeb to the refugee committee because he talked back when she accused him of painting the fence too slowly (painting fences! an American allusion to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). Mr. Loeb is terrified, haunted by the concentration camps, and believes he will never get another job. But Mrs. Mason says she would never let anything happen to him. And will she be able to protect hie, or is it the naivete of Connecticut? I prefer the former.

One of the saddest stories is “Who Lived and Died Believing.” Elizabeth, a compassionate young psychiatric nurse, stops in at Massey’s Drug Store for a soda before work; her boyfriend, Dave, a medical student, works at Massey’s during the summer. Elizabeth tells him that her patient, Mrs. Myles, is scheduled for shock treatment in the morning, which upsets Elizabeth, because it does not seem to benefit the patients. Elizabeth thinks it would calm Mrs. Myles if Dave stopped in after work, so Mrs. Myles could see an ordinary couple in love in ordinary life. And then Hale portrays the garbled thoughts of poor Mrs. Myles, sitting by the window in the “vicious heat.” “And a little part of the rotted grapes that rolled about her brain watched the faces…” But Mrs.Myles is impressed by the love between Elizabeth and Dave, long after they have ceased to be a couple.

My favorite story by far is “How Would You Like to Be Born…” about New England duty. One thinks of Henry James. Miss Florrie Davenant, whose sister Laura has just died, finds herself alone in the family house. At first, as the new Miss Davenant, she imagines breaking all the family customs. Why on earth, when she is poor and can’t pay the bills, should she send money to defend “the Negro adolescents in Georgia who were going to be tried for the murder of a white farmer”? But the impoverished Davenants are descended from abolitionists, and they always give money to such causes. She tries to break other rules – she wants to befriend the common people in her neighborhood – but nobody smiles at her, and people imitate her aristocratic accent. Are the rules there for a reason? Miss Florrie Davenant is frightened, and we are frankly frightened too for this naive woman alone in the world.

Remarkable stories and extremely enjoyable, even if you are not a short story person. I jumped breathlessly from story to story, experiencing each situation as if I were there.

Nancy Hale Redux: Where the Light Falls & The Pattern of Perfection

After reading a short story by Nancy Hale in a 1930s volume of Best Stories from The New Yorker, I went on a Hale bender.  It was 2010, and  her work was out-of-print.  I loved The Prodigal Women, a complex novel about friendships gone awry which I once described as “my favorite pop wallow.”  

Although I prefer Hale’s novels to her short stories, I am thrilled that Library of America recently published Where the Light Falls, a selection of Hale’s short stories edited by Lauren Groff.

And it reminded me that in 2016 I reviewed Hale’s 1960 collection of short stories, The Pattern of Perfection, at Mirabile Dictu.  And so I’m re-posting it here.

Nancy Hale’s work is out-of-print, but she is a great American writer.

Some of her books are masterpieces.   A descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe, she was a journalist, novelist, and memoirist. Eighty of her stories were published in The New Yorker.  I am a fan of her comical novel, Dear Beast, the story of a Southern woman who writes an anonymous novel about her small town, and her stunning memoirs, A New England Girlhood and A Life in the Studio.  

I recently read The Pattern of Perfection, a collection of 13 stories.  I have 10 sticky notes marking the pages of my copy, not for criticism but because the passages are delightful.

In my favorite story, “The King of Fancy’s Daughter,” the heroine, Isabel Congdon, takes out the trash and catches her husband in the driveway embracing the “bosomy, perfumed Mrs. Clarity, the baby sitter.”  She puts the two children in the car and drives hundreds of miles to her parents’ house.  On the way, she keeps going over and over her conversation with her husband.   When she said, “I suppose you’ve been having affairs with everyone in the neighborhood while I’ve been totally unaware of anything,” he denid it.  But he asks coldly if they always have to talk baby talk.  She is shattered, because she had felt their little family was united against the world.

Her well-bred parents behave as though there’s nothing unusual about Isabel’s visit.  They talk about their collections of antiques and books.  Mr. Hooper has begun collecting science fiction.

“Space travel,” Mr. Hooper repeated, laying down his knife with a gratified air.  “Those chaps are doing extraordinary things.  Bradbury.  Asimov. Leinster.  I’ve made rather a study of science fiction in recent months.  I fancy I own everything in the field worth reading–a very sound investment in firsts,” he added modestly.

Isabel discovers that her parents’ marriage is imperfect, too: they have separate bedrooms.  But she cannot get rid of the image of her husband and Mrs. Clarity.  Nothing is decided.

In the brilliant story, “In a Penthouse,” Bernadine has a vague undiagnosed illness that prevents her leaving their New York penthouse to follow her husband to Michigan.  The dialogue in this story is priceless.  “’Oh, hon,’ she cried.  ‘Don’t I just wish I could?  But I just don’t dare go that far.  Doctor Lewis says I should continue to play it cautious and conservative.’”  Doctor Lewis does not believe her husband loves her, but Bernadine is rightfully secure.  By the time Doctor Lewis asks her out, Bernadine has figured out she wants to fly away.

In “A Summer’s Long Dream,” Penelope and her mother and aunt spend a month in the late Miss Carrie Lennox’s summer cottage, The Ledges.  Penelope spends most of her time cooking and administering medication to the old people. At a garden party, the old people bloom, but poor Penelope becomes involved in an impossibly complicated explanation of how they come to be staying in the house when Miss Carrie Lennox is dead.

These stories are great fun, and the best are great.

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