Have you ever hugged a book? I don't know that I have, but about halfway through this one I closed the covers and just held it for a minute. I don't know if that was in lieu of hugging the author, or her character Matey Gilbert. Maybe it was the joyful feeling that in Dorothy Canfield I have found an author whose books really speak to me, the kind that brings out the book evangelist in me.
We meet the central character of this story, Matey Gilbert, looking back over her earliest memory, from when she was four. (I read the first chapters wondering if "Matey" was pronounced "Matty," only to learn later that it is "Mate-y," a family nickname never explained.) We follow Matey through the next 30 years or so of her life. We see her first as a child, learning to walk carefully around her parents' unhappy marriage. The youngest of three children, she sees her sister Priscilla and brother Francis cope in their own ways with the constant strain of their home life. Matey finds a better way, led in part by a fox terrier who adopts her. The second part of her life begins when she returns to the small New York village, Rustdorf, where her mother's extended family still lives. There she meets a distant cousin Adrian and marries him, learning to build a partnership and a home, unlearning the lessons that she had carried from her parents' unhappiness. The third part of her life opens with the Great War, when Matey and Adrian decide that they cannot sit passively at home while France and Belgium suffer. They take their two young children to France, where Adrian joins an ambulance brigade and Matey works with refugees. At the end of the book, they return home to Rustdorf, struggling with the traumas of their war-time experiences, to take up their lives, working in the family's mutual savings bank. (At one point, I was starting to see visions of It's a Wonderful Life, with its building & loan society in a small New York town.)
The title of the book refers to Matey's "growth of personality," as DCF put it. This is a familiar theme in her books that I have read so far: how a person grows and develops into herself, what shapes her, how she finds her own way. DCF shows both positive and negative influences, the mistakes a person can make, the wrong paths she can take. Her characters may have to struggle alone for a time - sometimes years. Often, at least in the books that I have read, they find help as they find love, in friends but even more as they find their partner. This is true for Matey, but marriage to Adrian doesn't solve all her problems. She has to grow into her marriage, their partnership, and she is still finding her way on the last page of the book. DCF referred to her as "my poor Matey" in her letters, but I found her an interesting and inspiring character, and her story a hopeful one.
A reader once asked DCF why she wrote so often about marriage. DCF answered that "there has been a strangely marked 'literary fashion' to decry marriage, to decry and disbelieve in any form or growth towards strength and wholeness." Her books were written to "correct an exaggeration..." but she did not mean to suggest that "happy marriage is the only solvent" (Letter, 2/7/1938).
Another reader, a professor of literature who championed American authors, wrote to her about the autobiographical elements he saw in this book. She responded that "in the long run, most novels are a sort of autobiography I suppose." She went on to write, "In a deep way you are right, of course, since it treats of the growth of personality in a normal woman under such and such circumstances, there must be, beneath the surface, perhaps more than I realize of autobiography" (Letter 11/24/1930). I think it's having read her collected letters that made the autobiographical elements stand out for me. Her own parents' marriage was strained by "a complete lack of harmony . . . [which seemed] a burden greater than I could bear during all the time when I was growing up" (Letter 6/22/1943). It is clearest in the last section of Matey's story, which is the longest. Dorothy Canfield and her husband John Fisher took their two children to France in 1916. John drove an ambulance, while Dorothy worked with refugees (though she took on many more and diverse work than Matey). I found this section really interesting, as an account of life in Paris during the Great War. I had read something of this in her book of short pieces, Home Fires in France, but I thought the story here was more compelling, in large part because we experience it with Matey.