Jun 2, 2010

A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey

A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey

A Woman of Independent Means is an epistolary novel that tells the life story of Bess Steed, beginning in 1899 when she’s still in school and ending with her death in 1968. Through the letters Bess writes to her family, her school sweetheart and eventual husband, her children, her acquaintances, and her friends, we learn about the ups and downs of her life, as well as about how she experiences them. We also learn about the changes the world goes through in her lifetime, which of course include two world wars as well as a very noticeable revolution in habits, traditions and mores.

One of my favourite things about A Woman of Independent Means was the fact that it shows the amount of unconventionality that can fit into an apparently very conventional life. At first glance, Bess is a very traditional upper class American woman – she’s a model wife and mother, a society lady, and a successful business woman. But the bare facts of her life don’t tell us how much she questioned the constraints of the roles she was expected to play. Fortunately, her letters do – Bess was very given to asking questions, and she most certainly did notice the social double-standards that limited her freedom. I found the following letter, which she writes to her mother shortly after her wedding, particularly moving:
Alone in the dark Rob and I are one—complete and perfect and inseparable—two equal halves of a whole. It is daylight which disrupts the balance. My bad dreams begin at dawn when he arises for work, leaving me to sleep through the day if I choose. He asks nothing more of me than that I be waiting for his return each night. And I sometimes suspect he would not object if he found me still in bed. He is my whole life day and night, and yet by day I become but a fraction of his.
Am I the only wife to feel so wasted, so unused, so alone? I would not put this question to anyone but you, dearest Mama. And indeed I would feel I were betraying Rob by even thinking it if my dreams had not already betrayed my doubts.
Bess was aware that these feelings were forbidden, in the sense that they’d be perceived as disloyal by most. But even though she keeps up appearances, she can’t help but feel these things. She can’t keep herself from wondering about the fairness of the social structure that allows her partner a life of his own while demanding her to live solely for him. Naturally, these things have an impact on their relationship itself – which is an aspect of gender inequality that I find particularly fascinating.

The good news is that as she grows older, Bess gets better at raising her voice about things that seem to her unfair. For example, the summer before the beginning of WW1, when she’s pregnant with her third child, she travels through Europe on her own, all because in Dallas it was not considered polite for a pregnant society lady to appear in public – and she refuses to spend a very hot summer confined indoors.

The interesting thing is that although there are times when Bess’ actions do reflect her feelings, there are also many occasions in which she conforms against her will. We have no way of knowing this for sure, but I imagine that such was often the case with Victorian and early twentieth-century women. They might not have led what we’d call rebellious lives, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t ask questions or that they failed to notice how unjustly confined their lives were.

On a somewhat related note, one of this novel’s greatest strengths is the fact that it includes Bess’ letters to several different people; people she addresses in very different voices and to whom she shows very different facets of her personality. Again, we see the contrast between her private and her public self – a contrast that can be quite startling. It’s only in the gaps between these different narratives that the real story, if we may call it that, begins to emerge. And so does the real Bess – like every complex and well-rounded character, she’s multifaceted and behaves very differently in different contexts. Sometimes I was taken aback by how interfering or even callous she could be with some people, but a character doesn’t need to be flawless to be likeable, and such is certainly the case with Bess Steed.

The letters in A Woman of Independent Means have a novelistic feel to them, but at the same time they don’t sound artificial, especially because Bess herself wonders at her habit of chronicling her life in letters (see the very last quote I share for an example). Much as I love them, this can certainly be a pitfall of epistolary novels. But Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey resists the temptation of having Bess’ letters tell us everything. Instead, she makes good use of gaps and silences, and the novel relies as much on what fails to be said as it does on what is said. The result is both a fascinating story and a very gripping chronicle of a woman’s life in the early twentieth century.

Favourite passages:
I hope all goes well with you and the baby. The next few months will be the most difficult to endure. Like me, you went directly from your parents to a husband, and it is only now, as an adult woman with a child, that you have had to make decisions entirely on your own. You may not believe me yet, but your own experience will soon confirm my assurance that you are as qualified to make decisions as those who have been previously been allowed to make them for you. Indeed, I predict that you will soon enjoy the process as much as I do.

How wise we would be to multiply all our pleasures in life through the simple act of reflection, allowing memory to serve as the mirror in which the original moment can be recreated at will. I feel with Wordsworth that an event “recollected in tranquillity” has an intensity it often lacks in the present. My stay in Europe is at an end but I expect to make the trip many times in memory, unencumbered by children and baggage.

It seems unreasonable to expect—or indeed even to want—to share every experience in life with the same person. We are more complicated than that and capable of pledging lifelong devotion to any number of different people of different sex and age. Why does society restrict a man and a woman to only one such pledge per lifetime? I hope I will never break any promise once made, but if I were free and clear at this moment, I would never again promise my exclusive devotion to anyone.

Sometimes I think it is that same frustration with life as it is lived day by day that compels me to write such long letters to people who seldom reply in kind, if indeed they reply at all. Somehow by compressing and editing the events of my life, I infuse them with a dramatic intensity totally lacking at the time, but oddly enough I find that years later what I remember is not the event as I lived it but as I described it in a letter.
They read it too:
Adventures in Reading
Lost in Books

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Excellent review as ever Nymeth. I've been meaning to read this for some time, mainly as it is a Virago Modern Classic, but also because the title is so very compelling. And it sounds like the book itself is too.

  2. This sounds like a great book, and it was certainly a great review, as yours always are! The quotes you included were really great, and I love the idea of seeing behind the mask of 'conventional woman' through reading the letters to see what she really thought.

  3. You have just got to love this woman. I'm immediately overwhelmed by everything this woman saw in her life, and the changes she experienced. And she was one woman that would have been prepared to handle it. This would be another one to add to my "read everything Ana does" list.

  4. Oh wow! This sounds like a wonderful book and like something that sheds a lot of light and relevance on this particular time period. I found the quotes you provided really interesting, especially the first. I like the fact that the letters take on a confidential yet knowing tone, and I could see myself liking this book a whole lot. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  5. Yay!! I'm at the beach this week & this is one of the books I brought with me. So, it may be next up after I finish Wally Lamb's "Things Come Undone."

  6. Oooh an epistolary novel that has never before been seen by me. I am very excited and will definitely add this one to my list. Lovely review, Ana.

  7. I, and many others take for granted the privalges that women before us never got to enjoy. I've always been curious about how those women endured the stifling constrants back then. Can you imagine being cooped up inside in the middle of the summer with no AC? I would have gone to Europe too!

  8. This sounds like another book I should really read. I wonder if you ever review books that I don't feel that way about?

  9. Well, first of all, I have to agree with everyone else--what a lovely, lovely review! And I loved each one of the passages you shared. The idea in that last one has left me quite intrigued. Wonder if it would make my life seem a tad more exciting if I started writing things out in letters? ;) Oooh, but watch out--you'd likely be the recipient of some of them. :)

  10. Great review nymeth, I like the idea that her letters revealed her true self.

  11. Ok, I can't believe I've always "heard" of this book but never really new what it was about! Thank you for your wonderful review, Nymeth. This sounds like a must read!

  12. Well, that is quite uncanny. I was thinking only last night that I wanted a new epistolary novel to read (I was rereading Sorcery and Cecelia, that's why), and I couldn't think of any on my TBR list. Thank you for this review! It comes at a perfect time. :)

  13. Is it wrong that I personally thought her depiction of her marriage was quite attractive??? But perhaps that is just because of the phase of life I'm in ... having no responsiblities and being able to lounge in bad all day sounds fantastic!

    This was a wonderful review ... I've heard about this book for years but never had an interest in reading it ... until now. thanks!

  14. I've meant to read this book for years!! Wonderful review, Nymeth. You're making me want to rush out to look for a copy, right now.

  15. Ok...so I need to read this now. This sounds like such an amazing book. *Runs off to bookmooch and paperback swap*

  16. I loved the passages you posted Nymeth, they just draw me in, I felt like I had to immediately read more and learn about her life…
    A woman in her time questioning so much, it’s just fascinating… Great review as always!:)

  17. Verity, I look forward to hearing what you think of it! It being a VMC and epistolary were the reasons why I picked it up.

    Amy: Thank you so much! I wish we had access to the real thoughts of more people from "back then". I bet many would surprise us.

    Sandy: She did see and lived through a whole lot! And as much as she suffered at times, she never lost her enthusiasm for life.

    Zibilee: I hope you do like it! I loved the letters' combination of intimacy, informality and wisdom.

    Elisabeth: I can't wait to hear what you think :) I hope you're having a lovely week at the beach - she says, slightly enviously ;)

    Vivienne: Thank you! I hope you love it :)

    Jen: I know I often do too. And yikes, I can't even imagine spending a hot summer confined!

    Iris: Well, there were all those books I didn't like a while back :P Thankfully I'm going through a good reading phase again, though.

  18. Debi: Surely all those e-mails we have exchanged over the years have given us practice? :P

    Naida: The interesting thing is that it was more the space between her several letters, I thought.

    Iliana: You're most welcome! I hope you enjoy it.

    Jenny: I still need to read Sorcery and Cecilia! I hope you enjoy this one :)

    Jenners: lol! I don't think it's wrong - there are times when the idea of doing nothing is quite appealing. But I guess knowing she has no other options is what makes it so claustrophobic to her.

    Nancy: Aw, thank you! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Chris: yay! You should be able to find it - I remember there being several copies back when I mooched it.

    Lua: Isn't the writing great? Conversational and yet with a touch that makes it stand out.

  19. I absolutely fell in love with this book in my early 20s -- I liked Joanna's Husband and David's Wife by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, too.

  20. I really like the sound of this book. Great review, Nymeth.

  21. I really enjoy your very detailed reviews. You have a way of expanding my want-to-read-some-day list!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  22. I read Kendall Hailey's book "The Day I Became An Autodidact" several times when I was in high school (twenty years ago *cough,cough*)and the descriptions of her mother and of this book in particular still stand out. Thanks for reminding me I wanted to read this one!

  23. Thanks for the recommendation - I'll pick this up at the library this weekend and let you know what I think!

  24. Great review, Ana! I loved this book. I agree with you that one of the strengths is how she is revealed differently depending on who she is writing to. Great point!

    I read this in December. Here is my review:


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