Fiction – print. Persephone Books, 1999. Originally published 1913. 358 pgs. Purchased.
In 1900, Ruth Holland made the decision to leave her hometown of Freeport to be with the man she was in love with. Her lover, Stuart Williams, was married, and the scandal of Ruth’s actions — because women always carry the blame — divided the small Iowa town and the Holland family.
“That part of her life had been cut away from her. With most lives the past grew into the future; it was a growth that spread, the present but the extent of the growth at the moment. With her there have been the sharp cut; not a cut, but a tear, a tear that left bleeding ends. Back there lay the past, a separate thing.”
In the nearly fourteen years since, Stuart’s wife has steadfastly refused to consent to a divorce; Ruth and Stuart have made their home in Colorado; and Freeport society has yet to find a new scandal to gossip over. As a result, the novel begins with the wife of Ruth’s childhood friend, Amy, being introduced to the scandal at the same time she’s introduced to Freeport society.
Amy is horrified to learn her husband, Deane, still holds feelings of friendship – true friendship and fidelity – for Ruth. And she is horrified further when she learns Ruth is returning to Freeport to sit beside her dying father’s beside at Deane’s urging. To her and the society she is trying to ingratiate herself with, Ruth should return if and only if she is willing to apologize for her transgressions.
The synopsis of this novel suggests it could be a melodramatic romance novel and, therefore, easily dismissed as quality literature by the standards of today or of 1915. Yet Glaspell’s novel takes the salacious and crafts out a biting criticism of how people scramble for “crumbs off the table of respectability”, how society can be a policing force that people buy into against all logic.
Eliza, Ruth’s best friend for their entire childhood, turned away from Ruth simply because her told her that society wouldn’t allow it. When time has passed, when Deane reminds her that she – an individual living in Freeport – makes up the society she belongs to, she places all agency and responsibility on Ruth. If Ruth leaves Stuart and returns to society, then Eliza can renew their friendship. But if Ruth continues with her life as it is, then Eliza is helpless to change their situation.
“Young, all inexperienced in the ways of adjusting well to life, of saving it for life, the love in her tried to shoot through the self-love that closed her in, holding her tight. She wanted to follow that impulse, go over and put her arms around her husband, let her kisses drive away that look of sadness. She knew that she could do it, that she ought to do it, that she would be sorry for not done it, but — she couldn’t. Love did not know how to fight its way through pride.”
Glaspell points out the ridiculous of this situation through Deane’s words and the actions of other characters. Yet, she manages foster sympathy for all the characters involved in this tale, including Stuart’s wife and the way society and pride has entrapped her too. And, in doing so, she crafts complex characters and an intimate portrayal of the way rigid viewpoints can constrict people.
For me, though, the true beauty of this novel came in the final moments Ruth exercises the agency and responsibility others have placed on her. I loathe to give away the ending so all I will say is, if a book published today were to take this turn, we would likely label it as a feminist novel.
“Character is something more than putting up a slick front. It’s something more than doing what’s expected of you. It’s kind of — a kind of being faithful to yourself. Being yourself.”
It was difficult to limit myself to only three quotes because Glaspell’s writing is quite lovely. (The whole book is, really.) It is a shame that Glaspell isn’t as well know as Edith Wharton, Willa Catha, or other authors from this time but, as the introduction to this novel and the story suggest, some people are forced to carry their transgressions against society as scarlet letters for the rest of time.
The endpaper (above) shows a Log Cabin quilt sewn in the late 19th century near Iowa; “the red pieces are an echo of the Sangré de Cristo mountains in Colorado, where Ruth is exiled”.