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The 1920 Club: ‘Miss Lulu Bett’ by Zona Gale ***

I always have the best of intentions in joining in with Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and Simon at Stuck in a Book‘s yearly clubs, which encourage readers to choose a book or two from a particular year.  However, in the past, I have only taken part in one or two of these, as something else inevitably gets in the way.  I am determined to make more of an effort going forward, and was excited to learn about the year of choice for the current project – 1920.  It felt rather special to select a book published exactly a century ago, and I was eager to join in.

I have read a lot of books published in 1920 which I have very much enjoyed – The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chéri by Colette – but was keen to select something a little less popular.  I considered a D.H. Lawrence novel, and also some F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories, but eventually plumped to read a new-to-me author in the form of American novelist, short story writer, and playwright, Zona Gale.  In 1920, she published a novella entitled Miss Lulu Bett, which appealed to me.  I downloaded it, copyright-free, on my Kindle, and settled down on a dreary afternoon to read it.

34276Upon its publication, Miss Lulu Bett was highly acclaimed.  The Atlantic Monthly wrote ‘Miss Lulu Bett is without flaw’, and The New Republic deemed Gale’s novella ‘a signal accomplishment in American letters.’  It was later adapted into a play by Gale, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1921.

Lulu Bett lives with her sister, Ina, Ina’s dentist husband Dwight Deacon, their daughters Diana and Monona, and her mother, the bad-tempered Mrs Bett.  They reside in a house in the small town of Warbleton, in an unnamed part of the midwest.  Dwight ‘rules his house with self-righteous smugness’, and everyone around him is forced to conform.  He constantly makes himself the centre of attention, and makes out that he knows best, to the detriment of everyone else.  He sees himself, writes Gale, ‘as the light of his home, bringer of brightness, lightener of dull hours.  It was a pretty rôle.  He insisted upon it.’  Dwight is anything but a positive element in the family; indeed, he positively glories in the misfortune of others, whilst still trying to appear a selfless martyr.

A way out for Lulu – ‘an olive woman, once handsome, now with flat, bluish shadows under her wistful eyes’ – appears when Dwight’s mysterious brother, Ninian, comes to visit, after two decades of living in South America.  He proposes to her in something of an unusual manner, and the two embark on a journey out of Warbleton.  This, in true dramatic style, does not quite go to plan.

The novella spans the period between April and September, in which rather a lot happens to Lulu.  Regardless, there is not a great deal of plot written here; rather, the reactions and interactions between characters are given the most focus. Gale is concerned with familial relationships, and those continual, growing frictions which reside just beneath the surface.  Sadly, because of this, Lulu is not given as much focus as I would have expected, given that she is a titular character.  Whilst in the stifling crowd of her family, she is allowed barely any room to breathe; rather than shine through as the ‘headstrong’ protagonist which Gale was so keen to create here, Lulu pales somewhat in comparison.  A lot of what she does and says is not overly memorable, until she gains a sense of what freedom could feel like for her.  In this way, I suppose it could be said that Miss Lulu Bett is a coming-of-age story, although its protagonist is in her mid-thirties when the novella begins.

When we are first introduced to the heroine of the piece, Gale writes: ‘There emerged from the fringe of things, where she perpetually hovered, Mrs. Deacon’s older sister, Lulu Bett, who was “making her home with us”.  And that was precisely the case.  They were not making her a home, goodness knows.  Lulu was the family beast of burden.’  She is seen as something to be disliked within the family, and as too dependent upon them.  This notion is fostered by Dwight throughout, and remarked upon as often as he can manage it (which is certainly often…).

Gale sadly seems to be rather an overlooked author.  Whilst I would be interested in watching this story in its play form – mainly to see how loathsome Dwight is made by the director – the writing displayed in Miss Lulu Bett has not made me overly keen to reach for any of her other work.  This novella is structurally fine, but I do not feel as though it is really long enough for me to gauge whether I enjoy Gale as a writer.  The prose style is quite ordinary for the mostpart, and not much stood out to me as a first-time reader of her work.  Whilst I enjoyed the flashes of satire, there were not enough of them to make this story really stand out.  I would have appreciated a longer character study of Lulu, and I feel as though her character may have unfolded rather more realistically had Gale devoted an entire novel to her.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The fifth and final part of my foray into underrated books!  Which of these have you read?  Have you enjoyed this week’s post series?  Has it intrigued you to pick up anything a little different that you’ve not heard about before?

 

1. Miss Lulu Bett and Other Stories by Zona Gale
‘Lulu Bett lives in a small town with her sister Ina and Ina’s husband Dwight–a dentist who rules his household with self-righteous smugness. The unmarried Lulu has learned that she cannot question her role as chief cook, housekeeper, and gracious presence. But when Dwight’s sophisticated brother Ninian comes to visit, Lulu finds in herself a surprising wit–and the boldness to accept his playful proposal of marriage.
Through her appealing, determined heroine, Zona Gale satirically dispatches a sheaf of the social assumptions of her day, from male supremacy to the security of marriage. First published in 1920, Miss Lulu Bett was immediately acclaimed, and went on to become one of two bestselling novels of the year. Together with four of Gale’s short stories–including the O. Henry award-winning “Bridal Pond”–Miss Lulu Bett reflects Gale’s broad progressive interests and the fast-paced, affecting prose which made her one of the most popular writers of her time and a classic American storteller.’

 

97808028299622. Are Women Human? by Dorothy L. Sayers
‘One of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, Dorothy Sayers pursued her goals whether or not what she wanted to do was ordinarily understood to be “feminine.” Sayers did not devote a great deal of time to talking or writing about feminism, but she did explicitly address the issue of women’s role in society in the two classic essays collected here.  Central to Sayers’s reflections is the conviction that both men and women are first of all human beings and must be regarded as essentially much more alike than different. We are to be true not so much to our sex as to our humanity. The proper role of both men and women, in her view, is to find the work for which they are suited and to do it.  Though written several decades ago, these essays still offer in Sayers’s piquant style a sensible and conciliatory approach to ongoing gender issues.’

 

3. Quiver by Stephanie Spinner
‘It was Artemis, goddess of the hunt and mistress of the wild, who rescued the abandoned baby Atalanta, sending a she-bear to nurse her and a band of hunters to raise her in safety. Now sixteen, Atalanta, famous archer and swiftest mortal alive, has devoted her life to the goddess.  When strangers appear in Atalanta’s village one day, they bring shattering news. The father who forsook her is a king. And he has summoned his daughter with a simple, chilling command: marry and produce an heir. Fleet-footed Atalanta, determined not to betray Artemis, counters with a grim proposal. She will marry the first man to outrun her in a footrace, and those she defeats must die. It is Atalanta’s desperate hope that no man will be foolish enough to meet her challenge’

 

4. The Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzak 9780553385649
‘On a train filled with quietly sleeping passengers, a young man’s life is forever altered when he is miraculously seen by a blind man. In a quiet town an American teacher who has lost her Japanese lover to death begins to lose her own self. On a remote road amid fallow rice fields, four young friends carefully take their own lives—and in that moment they become almost as one. In a small village a disaffected American teenager stranded in a strange land discovers compassion after an encounter with an enigmatic red fox, and in Tokyo a girl named Love learns the deepest lessons about its true meaning from a coma patient lost in dreams of an affair gone wrong.’

 

5. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson
‘Gerald Middleton is a sixty-year-old self-proclaimed failure. Worse than that, he’s “a failure with a conscience.” As a young man, he was involved in an archaeological dig that turned up an obscene idol in the coffin of a seventh-century bishop and scandalized a generation. The discovery was in fact the most outrageous archaeological hoax of the century, and Gerald has long known who was responsible and why. But to reveal the truth is to risk destroying the world of cozy compromises that, personally as well as professionally, he has long made his own.  One of England’s first openly gay novelists, Angus Wilson was a dirty realist who relished the sleaze and scuffle of daily life. Slashingly satirical, virtuosically plotted, and displaying Dickensian humor and nerve, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes features a vivid cast of characters that includes scheming academics and fading actresses, big businessmen toggling between mistresses and wives, media celebrities, hustlers, transvestites, blackmailers, toadies, and even one holy fool. Everyone, it seems, is either in cahoots or in the dark, even as comically intrepid Gerald Middleton struggles to maintain some dignity while digging up a history of lies.’

 

97815679225306. The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers
‘Written in 1939, first published in 1942, a national bestseller and a 1943 BOMC Main Selection, The Seventh Cross presented a still doubtful, naive America a first-hand account of life in Hitler’s Germany and of the horrors of the concentration camps. Seven men attempt an escape from Westhofen; the camp commander erects seven crosses, one for each. Only one, the young communist, Heisler, survives, not by cunning or superior skill, but through the complicity of a web of common citizens unwilling to bow to the Gestapo and forced to make decisions that will determine the character of their future lives.’

 

7. Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays by Mary Oliver
‘Within these pages Mary Oliver collects twenty-six of her poems about the birds that have been such an important part of her life-hawks, hummingbirds, and herons; kingfishers, catbirds, and crows; swans, swallows and, of course, the snowy owl, among a dozen others-including ten poems that have never before been collected. She adds two beautifully crafted essays, “Owls,” selected for the Best American Essays series, and “Bird,” a new essay that will surely take its place among the classics of the genre.’

 

8. Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams 9780810984653
‘Kraken is the traditional name for gigantic sea monsters, and this book introduces one of the most charismatic, enigmatic, and curious inhabitants of the sea: the squid. The pages take the reader on a wild narrative ride through the world of squid science and adventure, along the way addressing some riddles about what intelligence is, and what monsters lie in the deep. In addition to squid, both giant and otherwise, Kraken examines other equally enthralling cephalopods, including the octopus and the cuttlefish, and explores their otherworldly abilities, such as camouflage and bioluminescence. Accessible and entertaining, Kraken is also the first substantial volume on the subject in more than a decade and a must for fans of popular science.’

 

9. The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian 9780099459064
‘From Mi Jian, the highly acclaimed Chinese dissident, comes a satirical novel about the absurdities of life in a post-Tiananmen China.  Two men meet for dinner each week. Over the course of one of these drunken evenings, the writer recounts the stories he would write, had he the courage: a young man buys an old kiln and opens a private crematorium, delighting in his ability to harass the corpses of police officers and Party secretaries, while swooning to banned Western music; a heartbroken actress performs a public suicide by stepping into the jaws of a wild tiger, watched nonchalantly by her ex-lover. Extraordinary characters inspire him, their lives pulled and pummeled by fate and politics, as if they are balls of dough in the hands of an all-powerful noodle maker.  Ma Jian’s satirical masterpiece allows us a humorous, yet profound, glimpse of those struggling to survive under a system that dictates their every move.’

 

10. My Grandfather: His Wives and Loves by Diana Holman-Hunt
‘A biography of William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, researched and written by his granddaughter from a broad selection of primary and secondary sources, including Hunt’s correspondence with F.G. Stephens, and many of her own friends possessing a personal interest in the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian period.’

 

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