Monday, September 18, 2006

Howells' women

Initially I was more enthusiastic about Howells’ women then I am now. He does a better job with women than Dickens. Still, in a Dickensian way, they remain a bit more like types than characters. The advantage is that he has a rich imagination for types, so, in Hazard there are many types of women.

Howells wrote the novel shortly after his daughter’s mysterious death in early adulthood from something that biographers, as I understand it, now think was anorexia or some kind of autoimmune disease. Knowing that, it makes it all the more poignant that Howells is particularly good and generous at imagining all kinds of possibilities for young women of his daughter’s generation. At the same time, he cannot really see feminist world and he finds it impossible to imagine strong women as wives. But, in 1890, are we so surprised that he could not?

There is an artist who turns down her feckless young teacher (the man of the Chianti) for a life dedicated to art without any certain prospect of marriage; there is the young Virginian belle, all wiles and charm, the wild Western heiress who attacks a suitor with her nails when he fails to propose, and the Manhattan socialite who gives up a life of recitals and days at home to join a sisterhood and devote herself to charity.

Most interesting of all, however, is Basil March’s wife, Isabel. She is such a great wife. At the beginning, when the move from Boston to New York is an open question, she is full of opinions and ideas, all of them expressed with comic emphasis. (I could never live in an apartment! Well, if Tom must give up Harvard for Columbia, I suppose sacrifices must be made!) As the novel progresses and life in New York becomes a settled fact, she settles into the background.

By the book’s end, she functions as a kind of flattering conscience for her husband, soothing his ego and bringing him back to their shared principles or reminding him of the moment when it might be pragmatic to bend one principle in favor of another. In this, she seems most wifely to me, and least like a separate person from Basil. And is it any wonder? After all, Isabel is an anagram of Basil with the addition of that lovely feminine e.

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