I think it will be a story which women will be interested in, (I hope which they will feel deeply) but I don't believe it can interest any man. They have for too many generations had the possibility and the habit, of putting on their hats and melting away out of the house, when family relations got too uncomfortably tense. I rather imagine they will put on their hats and melt from the book at about the third chapter. But I hope that women who have had, for generations, to stick it out with no escape, may have a certain horrified interest in the story. (Dorothy Canfield Fisher to Paul Reynolds, 3/28/1925)Reading this book made me realize that I was starting to think of Dorothy Canfield as a "cozy" writer. Not that she didn't write about difficult themes, such as unhappy marriages and the damage that parents can inflict on their children. But the last three books of hers that I read have been about young people finding their way, growing into themselves, through the challenges of their families and backgrounds. They haven't been fairy stories, but the characters have struggled through to happy endings (which are themselves new beginnings). I knew before I started this book that it was about a family in conflict, as the title certainly suggests. I just wasn't prepared for the way that the story twists and turns - and my sympathies with it. I certainly read the last third or so with the "horrified interest" that the author hoped to invoke.
In the first chapter, we meet Mary Bascomb, holding court after school in her fifth-grade classroom. The mothers of her students wait their turns, to appeal, even to beg. She grants their requests - or doesn't - with a full appreciation of her power, and something of disdain for her subjects. We learn that she was widowed young, left with a son to support through teaching. Her son Ralph is about to graduate from college, and Mrs. Bascomb is ready to support him through law school. But she is tired, already looking forward to the day he will be established in his law office, independent. He has been in a nearby town, looking for summer work, and probably (his mother thinks) wasting time watching baseball games. Instead, a letter arrives, telling her that he has gotten married. "Just went before a justice of the peace with no fuss about it at all." In a scrawled postscript, Ralph adds, "Mother, Lottie's not your kind, but she's all right."
After a sleepless night, Mrs. Bascomb steels herself to walk out of the house and send a telegram: "Mother's home always yours. Bring Charlotte home and we will talk things over and make plans for the future..." Then she steels herself to go to work, where people will have seen the announcement of the marriage in the paper. Ralph and Lottie arrive that afternoon, and from the first moment Mrs. Bascomb knows that her new daughter is most definitely "not your kind." But Ralph is completely under his wife's spell, physically in thrall to her. When Mrs. Bascomb can bring him down to earth enough to talk of practicalities, they agree that Ralph will return to college, finish his degree, and then look for work. Meanwhile, Lottie will live with Mrs. Bascomb.
Mrs. Bascomb now has two to support, and it soon becomes clear that another member will be added to the family. Lottie does no work, even to keep her own things in order. She and her mother-in-law are the proverbial oil and water, both quick to anger and to hard words. They try to wage their campaigns through Ralph, who when he cannot melt away out of the house tends to take his wife's side, to his mother's disgust. But everything changes for Mrs. Bascomb the night her granddaughter is born.
The baby girl was lying on her back, her face as calm as that of a Buddha, her eyes wide open, gazing up fixedly. As their gaze met, John Bascomb's widow woke from her long nightmare. The eyes were the eyes of John Bascomb, set under John Bascomb's brow.From that moment, her grandmother's life begins to revolve around the baby, named (to her despair) Gladys and nicknamed Dids. Mrs. Bascomb wants desperately "to protect her darling, to work for her as she is doing now, to fight for her." She wants Dids to have opportunities and choices, more than her mother or even her grandmother did. Lottie resents her mother-in-law's "interference" with her child, asserting her place as Dids' mother as much as Ralph's wife.
Their struggle plays out over the years, as Dids grows up, and it is not a happy story. In the later years, Mrs. Bascomb figures out a strategy that made my jaw drop, and I read on in horrified fascination, to an unsettling ending. As I was reading, I was thinking that in different hands, Mary Bascomb would have been insufferable. In the beginning, she is a petty tyrant with a martyr complex, who would have fit right in with Margaret Oliphant's self-sacrificing mothers - though Mrs. Bascomb does not suffer in silence. We learn more about her in the course of the story, and we also see how her love for her granddaughter transforms her life, not in an instant, happily-ever-after fairy tale way. There is still conflict and anger and pain. But there is also satisfaction particularly in her work. Mrs. Bascomb is a good teacher, and inside her classroom she is the Teacher, free from the tension and anxiety of her life as Mother and Grandmother. And while I didn't like Lottie much more than Mrs. Bascomb does, she is not just a caricature or a monster either. Eventually we learn something of her life before Ralph, of what shaped her, and in the end I found her a genuinely sympathetic character, particularly in the turn her life takes. I would love to meet these characters again, say four or five years after the book's ending.
As different as this book felt, I did note some familiar Dorothy Canfield touches. For several years Mary Bascomb attends a summer teaching institute at Columbia University, which both Canfield and her husband John Fisher attended, as do many of her characters. The Great War plays no part in this book, though key events take place in 1914. But at one point Mrs. Bascomb is likened to "the driver of a war-ambulance over a shell-swept road." I think John Fisher's experiences as an ambulance driver in France must have gone into the description of "peering blindly ahead into a darkness which was lighted only by terrifying explosions; and from one alarming moment to the next [she] could only try to hold out yet a little longer..." Like many of Dorothy Canfield's characters, at least in the books I have read, Mary Bascomb realizes "How long it took her to understand anything." It seems to me that her central characters always have more to learn. Their lives and their characters are not static. However, none of those I have met so far has faced the bleak sentence of one in this book: "leisure and self-respect she was never to know again..."