Reading Helen

Book cover of Helen's Victory by Georgie SheldonLITERARY LIFE


My grandmother’s bookshelves, often stacked at least two-deep, showcased the likes of Mazo de la Roche, Elswyth Thane, Barbara Michaels, Dorothy Macardle, D. E. Stevenson, Miss Read, Gladys Taber, Dorothy L. Sayers, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Daphne du Maurier. Surprisingly, I cannot recall a single male author in her collection. Admittedly, it has been a very long time since I saw them in the form she assembled–over thirty years to be exact–but I still safekeep a strong impression of the physical form of her books, with their colorful old-fashioned illustrations on dustjackets and covers. Poked in amongst them were various knickknacks; she populated her library with Staffordshire-style figurines who gave the illusion of searching for errant sheep or hunting hare dinners amidst mysteries and memoirs.

I have been re-reading some of her books lately as I prepare to write a collection of essays in which she features. If not all–or even any–of the authors I have listed above sound familiar, it is because their work, in many cases, is long out of print. Authors and their styles of writing, like all things it seems, are susceptible to the whims of the market. Many go out of fashion, sadly, never to return. I was heartened, however, to discover that some of these formidable fictionalists are, in fact, enjoying a revival of sorts as their works are once again on offer via Amazon–Dorothy Macardle, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and D. E. Stevenson among them. Had my grandmother not introduced me to the majority of these writers, however, I might never have encountered most of them – even after earning a doctorate in literature.

These last couple weeks as I re-read The Red Lamp (Rinehart 1925), Ammie Come Home (Michaels 1968), Tryst (Thane 1939), and The Uninvited (Macardle 1942), I was reminded of many of my relatives’ remarks when the collection was being broken up and dispersed: her tastes were insipid and the books were mostly not worth keeping. As a result most were sold or donated. The titles I have just listed, however, enjoy a kind of cult status among the women in my family as among the best ghost stories they’ve read. In fact, my aunt and cousin often re-read these volumes every year or so just for the pleasure of it. I had enjoyed them as a teenager and kept Gram’s copies for sentimental reasons, but this recent revisit illuminates so much more about her tastes and aspirations.

It bears saying that my grandmother’s life was not an easy one. Once her shell-shocked husband returned from France post-WWII, he moved her onto a tenant farm with no indoor plumbing, a sidewalk made of gravestones, and no neighbors. She was lonely, frightened, and not equal, at least in the beginning, to the demands of being a farm wife. My grandfather suffered severe outbursts of rage and violence and paid little attention to her needs or interests. She spent much of her life being belittled by her relatives as dim and worthless. Nevertheless, she figured out how to manage half of the farm’s demands and undertook everything from chicken slaughter to peach preservation. To cope, she read like a fiend.

On the surface, each book I’ve been studying features a ghost. On its own, that’s something since her life was haunted by loss and tragedy. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that each features a female protagonist finding her own sense of agency and confronting complex, and often painful, problems in a world that regards her as second-rate. They all present a gothic house of sorts–not unlike her own–and feelings of desolation, isolation, and, at times, despair.

Whereas everyone characterized her love for reading as decadent escapism and a symptom of the chronic laziness they frequently–and wrongly–accused her of suffering, I find something far more compelling in her reading habits. It cannot have been by mistake that she solely read the work of women or that she actively sought stories depicting women winning despite great resistance. I imagine she was looking for herself in those novels, as well as searching for ways to survive–and even thrive–in a world actively fighting her at every turn, no matter how hard she tried. She needed role models, and literature obliged. Perhaps I’m projecting or even in engaging in revisionist history, but I can’t help smiling at finding someone and something radical in a collection of works so casually dismissed as insignificant and lacking value – but then that’s not necessarily unique when it comes to the estimation of writing by women, is it?

Author Joshua AdairJoshua Adair is an associate professor of English at Murray State University, where he also serves as director of the Racer Writing Center and coordinator of Gender & Diversity Studies. His work primarily focuses upon narratives of queerness and has appeared in Gender and Sexuality in Museums (Routledge, 2010), Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, Notches, and others. His collection, co-edited with Amy K. Levin, Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in America’s Changing Communities, Second Edition, is due out later this year from Rowman & Littlefield.

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