A woman of independent m.., p.1
Table of Contents
DOMESTIC FEMINISM IN A Woman of Independent Means
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE ABOUT Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
A Woman of Independent Means
Inspired by her grandmother’s life, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey wrote A Woman of Independent Means for her daughters, Brooke and Kendall. Since its publication, Hailey has had the pleasure of seeing Brooke make her TV acting debut in the miniseries, portraying the eldest grandchild, as well as the publication of Kendall’s first book. The author of Life Sentences, Joanna’s Husband and David’s Wife, and Home Free, Hailey lives in Studio City, California.
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
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First published in the United States of America by
The Viking Press 1978
Published in Penguin Books 1998
Copyright © Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, 1978
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
eISBN : 978-1-101-49842-2
CIP data available
for my grandmother
whose life inspired these letters
and for my husband
who inspired me
Hollins College, Virginia
I was born in 1938, and every twenty-year interval seems to culminate in some kind of watershed experience that propels me into the next chapter of my life.
I spent 1958 in Paris on a year-abroad program offered by my alma mater, Hollins College in Virginia. It was the first time I had ever been abroad, and the experience of living in a different culture—among people who not only spoke a different language but spoke it with much greater precision and pleasure than I did my native English—forever changed my idea of the kind of life I wanted to live. I resolved that no matter where my future took me or with whom I shared it, I would live in a larger world than the conventional one in which I had been raised. And somehow I sensed that writing would be my passport.
The next year, working on my hometown paper, The Dallas Morning News, I met an aspiring playwright, Oliver Hailey. We married and moved to New York and then to California, where our two daughters, Kendall and Brooke, were born. Like a lot of wives of my generation, I was struggling with what Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name.” I was married to a man whose needs and ambitions often seemed so much larger than my own that at times I lost sight of who I had been before I met him and who I still hoped to become. I needed to find work of my own—preferably something I could do from the kitchen table or an unoccupied bedroom and still be available to help the children with their homework and fix dinner at night.
The idea of writing a novel seemed highly audacious but extremely convenient. My husband worked at home and liked having me around as a sounding board for his plays and as an occasional partner on television projects. However, I had very little confidence in my abilities as a writer of fiction, having almost flunked the only creative writing course I had ever taken (the professor said he only gave me a “C” because he was new to the college and hated to flunk anybody his first semester).
To overcome my fear of fiction, I came up with the idea of a novel in letter form. I planned to call it “Letters from a Runaway Wife.” My husband was not amused. He assured me runaway wives were a passing fad and would be history before I had time to write a first draft. “Why don’t you write about a woman who doesn’t have to leave home to be liberated?” he suggested. “A woman like your grandmother.”
I thought about it overnight and decided he was right. Though not a heroine by any historical measure, my grandmother had challenged the conventions of her time, and her saga was a portrait in miniature of the broad changes in American life over the twentieth century.
She had also lived through more tragedies than I would have dared invent for a fictional heroine. By comparison I felt relatively untested by life. I hoped that by putting myself through her ordeals, at least in my imagination, I could discover the sources of her strength and of her joie de vivre, which continued unabated into old age.
But I was still intrigued by the idea of a novel in letter form. Letters are a very dramatic device, spanning time, eliminating the need for narrative description, and, most important, enlisting the imagination of the reader to supply the offstage action. I also wanted to write a novel my playwright husband would read. Like most dramatists who are challenged by the strict economy of the stage, he was impatient with prose.
So, using the large events of my grandmother’s life as a framework, I tried to imagine the letters she might have written from childhood to old age and in the process show how full of drama even a seemingly ordinary life can be. And how very quickly it passes. In writing the book, I realized the only villain of the piece was time.
In 1978—just as I was facing my fortieth birthday—A Woman of Independent Means was published, and I was launched on a new career as a novelist. My best review came from one of my grandmother’s friends: “How like Bess,” she said, “to have made carbon copies of all her letters!”
The traditional advice to writers is “write what you know.” I always amend that to “write what you can imagine knowing.” The experience of loving a husband or a child is knowledge enough to be able to ache with the imagined loss.
When I was writing A Woman of Independent Means, I thought I was writing fiction. I know now that in recreating my grandmother’s life, I was in fact charting a map for my own future.
Four years after the book was published, just as I was setting out on a tour for my second novel, Life Sentences, my husband, who had encouraged and supported me through every turn, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative illness attacking the nervous system for which there is still no cure. He had struggled with it for ten years when he was told he had inoperable cancer. He died a week later, at home, surrounded by family and friends. I had never seen anyone die, but I had been with Bess when she lay down beside her dying husband and told him good-bye. I knew then it was what I would do. I just had no idea how soon I would have to do it.
That same year my mother suffered a sudden, massive stroke that doctors did not expect her to survive. She amazed all of us by returning to consciousness and full power of speech. We knew she was on her way back when she corrected a young therapist in the rehab center who asked if she was tired and wanted to “lay down.” From the depths of her soul came a roar: “Lie down! You lay an object!”
I realized then that the saga that began with my grandmother is still unfolding, and so I am finally at work on the sequel I never knew how to write. It is the story of my mother’s generation—
And so now, twenty years after the publication of A Woman of Independent Means, I find myself approaching another watershed birthday—my sixtieth.
I am back at Hollins College for the spring semester—this time as Wyndham Robertson Writer in Residence (despite that “C” in creative writing the first time around). My daughters are grown now and living their own lives. My husband, with whom I shared so many adventures, has embarked on his last without me, and I am once again preparing to leave this sequestered quadrangle in search of my life as a woman alone. I write in my journal every morning, but I know in my heart I am making notes for the third novel in the generational saga that began with my grandmother, the one that will tell my story.
To be continued ...
Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
December 10, 1899
Honey Grove, Texas
I just asked Miss Appleton to put us on the same team for the spelling bee. Since we’re the only two people in the fourth grade who can spell “perspicacious,” our team is sure to win.
Can you come over after school? The gardener is clearing the hollyhock bed so there will be more room to play tag. It was my idea.
January 2, 1900
Happy New Century! I wish I could live to see a new millennium (if you don’t know what that means, I’ll tell you after school).
Can you come over today? I’ll show you everything I got for Christmas. I got everything I asked for, but I always do.
May 30, 1902
Good news! Papa rented his downtown lot to a merry-go-round for the summer. I talked him into taking half the rent in tickets. I’ll split my share with you, and we’ll ride round and round till time to go back to school.
February 8, 1906
This has been the longest winter of my life. I wish my parents would let you come up to my room when you bring my school-work, but everyone knows tuberculosis is contagious.
I am sad to think you will be a grade ahead of me in September. To think I am just fifteen and I have already lost a year of my life! Somehow I will make up for it and then I will never lose another day.
May 1, 1909
Mary Baldwin College
I have seen enough of the world—or at least the world without you. College is fine but just the beginning of all I want to know. I can continue on my own. Next month I am coming home to stay.
I will be in the front row for your graduation. Please don’t accept any job offers until I get there.
May 5, 1909
I will be home in a month, and Rob and I will be married this summer. Please don’t say anything to him as I want to be the first to tell him.
I would like to be married in our front parlor. It is more splendid than any church in Honey Grove and I have been happier there. I imagine it will be many years before Rob and I can afford a house as fine, but I want him to know what is expected of him.
Your loving daughter,
May 20, 1909 Staunton
Rest assured my education means even more to me than it does to you. I fully intend to continue it but since I never expect to complete it, why should I spend any more time at college?
I love Rob and I want to live my life at his side. I know his family has no money and he cannot afford to be married now, but my family does and I can. In the next few years he will be making decisions that will shape the rest of his life. If I plan to share that life—and I do—then I must share those decisions.
Your obedient daughter,
November 10, 1909
Dearest Mama and Papa,
I miss you very much but even Rob now admits I was right in urging him to move here and go into real estate instead of following in his father’s footsteps and teaching in Honey Grove.
Last week Rob sold a big block of property downtown and bought me a horse and surrey to celebrate. Sunday we are joining St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral. Please do not consider this decision any reflection on you. I enjoyed being a Methodist in Honey Grove but Dallas offers a wider choice in everything—even churches.
Your devoted daughter,
April 2, 1910
Please forgive this scribble but my hand is still shaking from a dream that seems more real than the daylight which has displaced it.
I was dead and had been for three days, but Rob continued to sit across from me at dinner, sleep beside me through the night, and kiss me good-bye in the morning—without even noticing I had ceased to breathe.
His indifference in the dream so paralyzed me that I pretended to be asleep when he left for the office this morning. He has begun encouraging me to sleep late—I suspect because he prefers breakfast alone with his newspaper. And the dream suggests that in my heart I suspect even more.
Dearest Mama, you asked me the night before my wedding if I had any questions. I didn’t then. But now I am filled with them. I won’t embarrass you with questions of a physical nature. In that area Rob has provided answers to questions I didn’t even know enough to ask. Indeed nothing I had read or imagined prepared me for the physical passion marriage vows can unloose in previously chaste childhood sweethearts. 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, 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.
Please do not attempt to answer me on paper. I have decided to come for a visit next week so that we can talk at length—and in private. I cannot risk having Rob find out that, far from awakening Sleeping Beauty with his kiss, Prince Charming has put her back to sleep.
I love you and need you,
April 8, 1910
I am sleeping in my old room where every night I dream you are with me and every morning I wake up alone, aching for you. But even though we are apart, there is a new heartbeat just below my own that joins me to you forever.
I pray my mother will live to see her first grandchild, but she seems to get weaker every day. She has not regained consciousness since I arrived. I must go to her now. If only I could make her understand how much I still need her.
November 15, 1910
I just received your letter explaining the terms of Mama’s will. I never realized she was a woman of independent means. I always attributed her sense of dignity and self-esteem to a more spiritual source.
Please do not give further thought to how I will handle such a large sum of money. My interest in the subject will compensate for my limited experience.
Please know that I share your loneliness and grief every hour of the day, even though
Your loving daughter,
January 10, 1911
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
On this date a loan of $20,000 (twenty thousand dollars) was made to Robert Randolph Steed by his wife, Elizabeth Alcott Steed. To be repaid at the rate of $1,000 (one thousand dollars) a year for twenty years.
Elizabeth Alcott Steed
WITNESSED BY: Annie Hoffmeyer, housekeeper
Hans Hoffmeyer, gardener
The firm of Florence and Field,
Real Estate Investors,
takes great pleasure
in announcing the partnership of
Robert Randolph Steed
A reception in his honor
will be held at the Dallas Country Club
on Sunday, the second of April
from three until five in the afternoon
May 1, 1911
Board of Directors
Dallas Country Club
Thank you for your prompt attention to our application for membership. Enclosed please find a check covering our initiation fee and the first month’s dues.
June 10, 1911
Received of Robert Randolph Steed the sum of $1,000 (one thousand dollars). Balance due: $19,000 (nineteen thousand dollars).
Elizabeth Alcott Steed
WITNESSED BY: Annie Hoffmeyer
August 8, 1911