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.
Upon 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.