Saturday, March 02, 2013

"...And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer (1982)

"Astonishing how attached one can become to a group of essentially incompatible women." (p. 625)

My Aunt Charlotte lent me her copy of "...And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer (1982) last fall and I started reading it a little after Christmas. At 1176 pages, Santmyer gives George R. R. Martin a run for his money in the longest-books-I've-read-lately category, and it took me (a fast reader) a couple months to move through this one. While it was slow going early on, like many epics, this one caught me up in the lives of its characters and now that I've finished reading it, I miss reading about what's going on in Waynesboro, Ohio.

Santmyer's epic novel follows the lives of the citizens of Waynesboro from just after the Civil War in 1868 up into the heart of the Depression in 1932. While the cast of characters is extensive (sometimes, to be honest, a little too extensive to keep track of), the main focus of the book is on Anne Alexander Gordon (the daughter of the old town doctor who marries the new town doctor, John Gordon, recently back from the war), and Sally Cochran Rauch (the daughter of the town banker who marries a German entrepreneur, Ludwig Rauch, who has recently purchased a rope factory in Waynesboro). At the start of the book, both Anne and Sally have just graduated from the Waynesboro Female College, the local high school for girls. By the time the book ends, both women have born children, watched their grandchildren grow up, lost their husbands, and ultimately, died themselves.

Providing a structure to the book and to the lives of the intellectual women of Waynesboro is the Waynesboro ladies literary society, colloquially known as "The Club." Started by the headmistress of the Female College, the club consists of local teachers, seminary professor's wives, minister's wives from the various congregations in town, and well-bred women with the time and means to pursue literary culture. The Club meets every two weeks, at which time a paper is given by one of the members on a topic chosen by the program committee. The number of members is limited by the bylaws, and when a member dies or moves away, the selection of a new member is a hot topic. The one unbreakable rule is that the women can not let politics, gossip, or personal grudges enter into the confines of the Club meeting. Everyone must get along.

For me the book was occasionally slow going, particularly as I plowed through Santmyer's loving but extensive descriptions of the town layout, architectural style of the houses, and the decoration of everyone's drawing rooms, but her talent for developing strong characters and the occasional shake to the plot (affairs! Illness! Unwed mothers! Protestants marrying Catholics!) quickly pick up the pace. As a lover of history, the opportunity to read these close observations of American life from the 1860s through the 1930s was wonderful, and I feel like I have a stronger grasp on the changes in the lives of ordinary women as the decades pass by.

Politics is also a big part of this book, both on the national and local level. Her characters and sympathies are distinctly Republican, initially because of the rift of the Civil War, and later because of their tendency to be pro-capitalists, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. A nod is given to Socialism and the importance of treating the workers well, but in this book all factory owners are benevolent Republicans and unions just aren't necessary. Also, while Santmyer's detailed knowledge of local Ohio Republican politics was impressive, it occasionally slowed the narrative down, for this reader at least.

Santmyer herself grew up in a town much like the fictional Waynesboro. She was born in 1895, published a couple of books in the 1920s, and then spent 50 years working on this epic novel. It was published in 1982 when she was 87 and didn't sell that well until it was selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club book in 1984 and quickly went on to be a bestseller, making Santmyer the oldest best selling author at the time.

While this book is quite an investment of time, its strength is in its length and if you have a little patience, it really pays off.

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