Persephone number 4 is a strange book. I enjoyed it immensely and yet, at the same time, I found it rather boring. How can this be? Well, to start with, it follows a well worn plot path: woman is shunned by society after social misdemeanour. This is not enough to bore me, however. Indeed, far from it. I love books that fought for the position of women to be better understood in times when the female voice was little more than a whisper.
Is the book well-written? Certainly. It has the emotional intensity, in places, of Emily Dickinson. It explores what love is, what it feels like, what it does to you, what you will do for it. And Susan Glaspell seems to revel in that knowledge. Her descriptions of falling in love, for example, capture the details of those early stages in a way that only someone who has loved intently could do: "At first, it was just the faintest little breath; but it stirred something, it grew, it became a great wind that there was no force anywhere to combat."
Is it thought-provoking? Yes, absolutely. It takes the idea that love is all, that love will conquer, that happiness can only come from love, that to follow one's heart will lead to fulfilment... and it turns it on its head. It proposes that actually, without society, without friends and routine and expectations and gossip, we are nothing, and that two people in love - however deep and true that love - living alone in the wilderness, will never truly find peace or contentment, that they need a social circle to feel a part of. One of the characters says that "just taking one's happiness is thorough selfishness. Society as a whole is greater than the that individual, isn't it?" I would add, simply: discuss.
Are the characters likeable and well drawn? Again, yes. At least, those with whom we are supposed to sympathise are likeable - the least likeable is Amy, the spoiled young woman who moves to Freeport with her new husband, a young doctor who many years before had been best friends with the woman, Ruth Holland, who has so outraged society by running away with a married man. (Note that it is not the married man, a pillar of said community, who has outraged Freeport, but the woman who fell in love with him.) Amy. who will not even meet Ruth, returning to see her dying father, is the epitome of the stuck up, insular, rich young woman for whom 'society' works so well. She is judgemental and cruel, and her life seems empty and, quite frankly, miserable. One cares little for her.
And Ruth herself? I think this may be where my problem with Fidelity lies. I like her, don't get me wrong. She is incredibly modern in her attitude, and I'm sure I'd enjoy an evening in the pub with her, but she has two faults I find it hard to get over: firstly, she changes her mind too much. She veers wildly from one minute defending her actions and not giving two darns what Freeport thinks of her, to repenting and lamenting what her choices have done to others, and to herself. This is perhaps realistic, and shows the on-running battles and discussions she has with herself, but it happens too often. Let the pendulum swing once or twice, and let that be enough.
Secondly, she really does lament. At length. There are pages of it. Glaspell has an unusual style - it is flighty and high-minded (old-fashioned words like "sorrowing" are frequently used), slightly more formal than we might expect, even from the early years of the twentieth century. And sometimes, I'm afraid that too often, my mind wandered and I prayed for the lament to end, and for the story to advance.
Fidelity does not conclude the way I expected. It forced me to question the title: Fidelity to what, to whom, is most important? To society? To family? To one's lover? Or to oneself? This is an interesting novel, and one I'm glad - as with so many others - Persephone are refusing to let be buried, but it's not my favourite from this publisher by quite a long chalk.