Sunday, September 09, 2007

Houses and Bess Streeter Aldrich -- Part I

Many of you know Bess Streeter Aldrich (b. 1881 - d. 1954) from her famous novel, "A Lantern in Her Hand." Lantern is a loving, but unflinching look, at the life of sensitive, musically talented, pioneer woman, Abbie Deal, who gave up many of her childhood dreams for the sake of her husband, her family, and their land.

I read an abridged version of the book when I was a little girl, and I don't remember much about it -- except that it left me feeling much sadder than reading the Little House Books. However, that was from the point of a sheltered young girl who was probably reading a book that was over her head. Now that I have a more mature understanding of the problems and challenges a woman and a family can face, I might see other treasures in the book if I were to read it today. The upshot is that I just don't remember enough about the book to give a recommendation. Maybe, some of you who are familiar "A Lantern in Her Hand" can leave comments about what you did or didn't like about the book.

Did you know that Mrs. Aldrich wrote a lot of short fiction, as well? I have been reading "The Collected Short Works 1907-1919) of Mrs. Aldrich, and I've enjoyed these stories a lot. It's been an interesting insight into the life of small-town women around the turn of the 20th century. These women are happier, better educated, more talented, and more strong of mind and character than you might think if you knew only today's popular idea of what life was like in that era.

Mrs. Aldrich repeats a number of themes in her stories. The most obvious one is her love of small-town Midwestern and western characters, who possessed shared characteristics with her real life Midwestern and western relatives and neighbors. An equally strong theme strong theme is a woman's love of marriage, family, and home. In her fiction, this often involves the necessity of either choosing for the first time or of re-finding the path to a happy home life.

Now, keep in mind, the magazines who accepted Mrs. Aldrich's work were either family
magazines or women's magazines. Readers of these magazines expected family life to be portrayed in a positive way. They enjoyed wholesome, if also funny and poignant, stories about down-to-earth people. Many people of that time had also moved from farms and small towns to big cities, and they welcomed stories that appealed to their nostalgia for their country roots.

That suited Mrs. Aldrich's style just fine. A native of Iowa and a long-time resident of Nebraska, she had a great affection for the people of America's heartland. She also had great respect for her own pioneer heritage. When she wrote of a wholesome home life and of small town life in general, she knew whereof she spoke: She had a happy partnership with her banker/farmer husband, raised four children, participated in church and community activities, has a recipe published in an Armour Cookbook, and helped start the first public library in Elmwood, Nebraska.

Her husband recognized her talent and encouraged her to take more time for writing. But, Mrs. Aldrich would not let her family suffer for her art. She said that she wrote while "the meals cooked, when babies tumbled over my feet, and while I was ironing, in the old days. the hand that rocked the cradle was often the left one, while the right was jotting down a sentence or two. I have had the first draft of many a story sprinkled liberally with good old sudsy, dishwater."

Here's a description of Mrs. Aldrich's work by Carol Miles Peterson:

Not surprisingly, Adrich's principles for her fiction were those by which she lived. Her writing must be acceptable to everyone, she determined. Her stories are about decent people saying and doing decent things. There is no swearing in Aldrich stories, no sex, no divorce, none of the seamy side of life; indeed, decent and seamy are Aldrich's terms. She (Mrs. Aldrich) wrote, "Why quarrel with a writer over realism and idealism? After all, an author is a glass through which a picture of life is projected. the picture falls upon the pages of the writer's manuscript according to the mental and emotional contours of that writer. It is useless to try to change those patterns. If one writer does not see life in terms of dirt and grime and debaucheries, it is no sign that those sordid things do not exist. If another does not see life in terms of faith and love, courage and good deeds, it does not follow that these characteristics do not exist....I claim that one may portray some of the decent things about him and reserve the privilege to call that real life, too."
Since family is such an important element in Mrs. Aldrich's writing, it's no surprise that she described some delightful houses and cottages. The houses are just the literary framework for the happy family within; they are merely symbols of happiness and shelter. But, her vivid descriptions of them do help me visualize what it means to keep a comfy, welcoming dwelling. Of course, Mrs. Aldrich had in mind the styles of her day, particularly the old Victorians or the newer Craftsman style that was coming into vogue. But, you could take some of the same principles and use them to create a lovely home in any style from Victorian to ultra-modern.

Here's one description of home in a story by Mrs. Aldrich. In this scene, a fiance is showing his young lady around a humble little house. He hopes she will think it a worthy place to set up housekeeping. He is sure enough of her character to know that she will be happy with it. But, he has a financial dilemma to solve, and he hasn't told his bride about it yet.

The bride-to-be was orphaned as a young girl and has lived at school or with relatives ever since. She has become a school teacher. She misses her parents and the sense of home she had before they died. She doesn't care about having a luxurious dwelling; she only wants a little place that she and her husband can call "home". As the couple passes through the house, the fiance watches his bride for her reaction.
"The house was nothing unusual, a story and a half, bungalow style. It has its duplicate in almost every city of the Union with only the loving touches of the people who call it home to differentiate it from the others. Up the steps they passed and to the wide porch. Jim inserted the key, was turning it, as Eleanor touched his arm. 'Oh wait Jim." she said breathlessly. 'Wait just a minute. It's such a -- big thing in my life -- I want to take it slowly.'... They entered a reception hall, bare of furnishings, but, even so, it seemed to hold out warm, welcoming hands... 'Oh, how pretty it will be,' she said, happily, 'a soft green and gray rug, green and russet pillows on the built-in seat, and -- oh, Jim, could we have a clock on the stairway?"...They turned to the left, where pillars separated the hall from the living room. 'A fireplace!" the girl exclaimed. 'And built in bookcases on either side! Oh, it will be so dear in here -- warm, soft tans and browns in wall paper and rug, creamy curtains, and old-rose pillows on the davenport, our books in the low cases, and hyacinths in a silver dish on the library table....To the dining-room was but a few steps. The slanting rays of the sun were flickering unsteadily over the floor. 'Blue", she announced decisively, "Delft and cornflower blue, and brass candlesticks on the buffet. My mother's dishes that she left me have delicate little sprays of cornflowers on them,a nd the curtians shall have borders to match...Pushing open the swing-door, the kitchen seemed fairly to shout at them, 'Now what do you think of me?' It was small, but as snowy-white and charming as enamel, aluminium, and glass could make it.'
The house had three upstairs bedrooms, all of which the girl figures that she can furnish and decorate with items she inherited from her family. These things are old-fashioned and a bit worn, but she does not mind. She has no notion that she must have all new stuff in order to furnish her home. She also states that even if they could afford a maid, she wouldn't want one, for she wants to take care of the lovely house herself. Her fiance takes special note that though he has not brought up the subject of a budget, she, by character, displays thrift and creativity in her plans.

While the girl is dreaming about a cozy home, the fiance turns his financial dilemma over in his mind. His wealthy stepfather has offered him a great deal of money. If he accepts this offer, the young man will be able to treat his beautiful, intelligent, and talented wife to a grand house and a life of refinement. But, the young man fears that he will lose his self-respect if he follows this road, for the fortune his stepfather offers has a questionable condition attached to it.

His other choice is to reject the stepfather's offer, which means that he would lose all hope of any financial help from his stepfather forever. This means that the couple would start out in this humble cottage, for it is all the young man and woman can afford on their own. He would work hard at his career, with no guarantee that he could ever provide his wife with a fortune equal to that his stepfather offers. He would receive no inheritance from his wealthy parents. But, he can take this route and maintain his self-respect and peace of mind.

The bride's delight in the bungalow and her ability to envision how they can furnish it with economy and taste emboldens the fiance to tell her of his financial dilemma. Of course, the bride-to-be sets the young man's mind at ease. She chooses the humble cottage and the uncertain future, for she values her husband's character and self-respect far more than she does an easy fortune.



Elizabeth Joy said...

I just found your blog and had to make a comment. First of all, I blog with the name Elizabeth also, Elizabeth Joy. Second, I just wrote about how one views their own home, and the pleasant and comfortable things that are already there, if your eyes are open. I thought you might like to see.

Elizabeth Joy

Jenny said...

I've never heard of this authoress. Thank you for taking the time to write about her and works.