Firstly, apologies for the slight delay to this month’s read, ‘Fidelity’ by Susan Glaspell, in the Persephone Project. Part of the problem was that I had an absolutely bonkers week, both reading wise for work and then with another project and so my reading time was really limited, the other issue was that I have to say I had real trouble getting into the book. Had it not been for the challenge and gritting my teeth I think myself and Glaspell would have parted ways by about page fifty, however if I hadn’t persevered I would have missed out, as when ‘Fidelity’ finds its way it is a book with a lot to say.
The town of Freeport is full of the gossip of Ruth Holland’s return due to the fact her father is very ill and will surely die soon. As ‘Fidelity’ opens you are wondering just what on earth Ruth could have done that could have caused her to leave the town so suddenly and why on earth everyone is so shocked at the fact she dares to appear. This is the position which Amy, recently married to Dr Deane Franklin, finds herself on one of her first meetings with many of the townsfolk fresh from her honeymoon to her new home.
Ruth, we learn, did the unthinkable by falling in love with a local married man, Stuart Williams. Worse still, she then left Freeport with him and has been living in sin with him as a pair of outcasts in the mountains of Colorado ever since. She didn’t return for her mother’s death, adding to the rumour that she wasn’t the warm girl everyone knew but a manipulative woman who shouldn’t be allowed in decent society, yet now here she is.
‘Fidelity’ is a very interesting book once you get past the first eighty pages or so. One of Glaspell’s strengths is also one of her weaknesses in the fact that she initially puts us in the perspective of Amy, sort of, in that we hear all these things about Ruth Holland yet we have no idea why everyone is talking about her. This causes a mixture of tantalising mystery yet also finds us, like Amy, confused and a little thrown of guard unable to get our bearings. Soon we discover what Ruth has done and also the mystery as to why on earth Deane Franklin helped her. This creates a lot of back story, which is great, but sometimes I found Glaspell didn’t know whose perspective to tell it from, Deane or Ruth and then via what Amy hears, so sometimes, while I loved hearing all the angles and aspects of the characters, there is an occasional repetition to it all.
Once we are done with flashbacks and find ourselves in the present however the book completely flies and gets better and better. One of the things that I greatly admired about ‘Fidelity’ was the fact that Susan Glaspell doesn’t really make anyone in the ménage of Amy, Deane, Ruth and Stuart become the villain of the piece, though several of the bystanders do. She looks at them through the eyes of how love has affected them; Amy marrying below what society wanted, Deane helping Ruth against all the scandal that he would implicate himself in because of his love for her, Ruth simply in breaking the social moral standards by falling in love with the wrong person. Indeed it is society and its outlook, and how we pick and choose which society we think we are in or behave differently around, that is the overall theme of the book. It brought Ruth and Stuart together unwittingly…
“The social life of the town brought her and Stuart Williams together from time to time. They always had several dances together at the parties.”
And yet it was ‘society’ that cast them out, especially Ruth…
“’Ruth Holland,’ she began very quietly ‘is a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it. She was a thief, really,–stealing from the thing that was protecting her, taking all the privileges of a thing she was a traitor to. She was not only what we call a bad woman, she was a hypocrite. More than that she was outrageously unfaithful to her dearest friend – to Edith here who loved and trusted her…I don’t know, Deane, how a woman could do a worse thing than that…If you can’t see that society must close in against a woman like that then all I can say, my dear Deane, is that you don’t see very straight. You jeer about society, but society is nothing more than life as we have arranged it. It is an institution. One living within it must keep the rules of that institution. One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it. So much we are forced to do in self-defence.”
As well as looking at society ‘Fidelity’ looks at how a scandal of its time would affect a family and in particular Ruth’s but also the start of a new family with Deane and Amy. When Ruth leaves she knows that her family may suffer in some ways, yet not how much they are disgraced by what one member of the family has done and how it overshadows judgements of the nature of her parents’ personality and thoughts on the other children. When Ruth returns she unwittingly also shows secrets in a new marriage and the cracks that grow from that.
Despite my initial slow and steady struggle with ‘Fidelity’ perseverance paid off and I found a novel that I admired rather a lot. Glaspell is a great writer, if occasionally one who over writes or pushes a theme in your face a little too much, who really looks at things with a deeply honest and unbiased approach to characters that she really runs through the mill. I would say this is well worth the read as even though it’s not been my favourite Persephone book it is another one that has taken me into it fully and given me a lot of food for thought.
Who else has read ‘Fidelity’ and what did you think? Have any of you read any of Glaspell’s other novels?