Long ago — in the late 1940s — I read a couple of novels by Josephine Lawrence, If I Have Four Apples and The Years Are So Long. The second of these became a play called Make Way for Tomorrow and then a movie starring Victor Moore. These books came back to my attention with the recent release, with favorable reviews, of Make Way for Tomorrow on DVD. The movie, seen now when I am in my 70s, put me back in the world of the 1930s and 1940s. When I read the books I was a teenager trying to figure out how the grownups lived. Lawrence depicted a world of middle-class pious certainties, overlaid with anxiety and not a particularly good place to be. Should I emulate or rebel? Like most people, I did some of both.
It was time to revisit the Josephine Lawrence I sort of remember. Whereas The Years Are So Long (1934) is a Depression story, My Heart Shall Not Fear (1949), is set in 1948, four years after the end of World War II, the year of my senior year in high school. What would I have learned if I had read the book then?
- A young woman who has given birth to her first child is still in bed in the hospital on the 10th day after the birth. She is, however, now allowed to have visitors.
- A middle-aged couple who should be saving for their retirement take in their three married sons because of the housing shortage. The wife apparently does all the cooking. Sometimes the daughters-in-law wash the dishes.
- Women are noble. A young wife whose husband is leaving her because “he must not be bound in any way” goes shopping to get him more socks. She also lets him take the car, which she paid for.
- Men can be noble too. A wife, dying of cancel conceals her knowledge from her husband but he, meantime, is concealing his knowledge from her.
- More male nobility. A grown son takes out a loan so that he can bail his father out of an embezzlement situation. It’s not the first time his father has done it. Previously the second wife did the bailing out but the son is afraid that, if she learns about this one, she will leave and then who will take care of the old man?
By now you don’t want me to give any more examples, although I could, I could. The novel has a host of interrelated characters and Lawrence tells the story of each major character in turn. They all perceive strong social constraints which they do their best to honor. Although the young husband who abandons his marriage is a disappointment to his family — who also dread the the shame of a divorce — they respect the wife’s doormat-like behavior. It’s a puzzlement. Everyone knows how people should behave,from supporting one’s wife to wearing gloves and hats, and everyone knows that standards are breaking down. It was the Depression, it was the War, it is the housing shortage. We are not comfortable, but we carry on.
Josephine Lawrence was a prolific (over 30 novels) and popular author. She solved the discomfort of her characters as writers of popular fiction did. The central character — Patience, the new mother — has a realization or understanding that eluded her before. Italicized, so that you won’t miss the point:
For life is a gift. There have been times when I doubted it, now I know and my son will one day know, too….
And suddenly she perceived that all her fumbling questions has been answered — she had only to open her heart to understand.
There is a way out — the brave will always find it.
This was the formula in the stories I used to read in Ladies’ Home Journal and Woman’s Home Companion. The formula wasn’t boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. It was woman meets problem, woman suffers, woman solves problem.
Fast forward to 1972, the publication date of All the Years of Her Life, to find a different formula. This is a “problem novel” (or novella, it’s short) and the problem is what to do with our old folks. Sons are indifferent and daughters feel guilty. Elderly fathers are detached putterers, elderly mothers are whining mutterers, and all are hanging themselves around the necks of the middle aged, daughters especially.
Clover eyed her assistant speculatively. “What did you want to know about boys?” she asked.
“Well, mostly it was about whether they owe their fathers and mothers a debt,” Polly explained. “I thought maybe it is only girls. Daddy doesn’t help Granny when he comes to see her, but you do. He doesn’t dry dishes. Granny says that girls can do things that boys can’t, but what I can’t see is why boys do all the exciting things and girls just work.”
Polly my dear, you are experiencing a biased sample, as each set of characters in your life expects that the daughter — not the sons — will take on responsibility for aging parents.
Since this is a formula book with cardboard characters who are used to play out a particular social drama, why bother to read it, when I could be enjoying Charles Dickens or Willa Cather? I found myself fascinated by the clarity with which Lawrence lays out the unrecognized assumptions most of us still carry.
For a moment the idea of burdening Dell, that bright, impatient spirit, with two helpless old people possessed Stacy’s mind. That it would be Dell to whom she and Lee turned, she was absolutely sure. The boys would have their wives and Dell, she hoped, would be married too. But it would be Dell, her daughter Dell, in whose heart compassion and love would blend with understanding–the special knowledge in a woman’s heart, her blessing and her betrayal.
The “special knowledge in a woman’s heart” is that men have skill and power, but women have love and understanding.
It’s a trade-off. When any group dominates with power, the subordinated group is free to develop love. When I was growing up in the middle-class culture of southwestern Ohio in the 1930s and 40s, the social goal was the well-adjusted child. If a girl complained about her assignment of love without power, she learned that she needed to improve her attitude. Whether she intended to or not, Josephine Lawrence has reminded me of how it was.
Note: The large picture at the top of the post is part of the end paper design of My Heart Shall Not Fear. It is somewhat peripheral to the plot, but conveys the mood of the late 1940s.