From time to time, I go back to Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s A Woman of Independent Means (1978, still in print) for a spine stiffening, resolution-building experience.  This epistolary novel is a character study of Elizabeth Alcott Steed, born in 1889 and dying in 1973.  The letters are completely one-sided, with only the correspondence of its heroine recorded.  Yet there is plenty of food for thought on both sides of the envelope, as you sympathize with Mrs. Steed at one letter, and with the letter’s recipient in the next.  Overall, the book describes the absolute best that a woman could achieve during the era in which she lived–because Elizabeth Steed made the most of every opportunity.

This is a woman who was liberated by confidence and money to embark upon a life rich with experience: learning and travel, children and friends.  Her self-centeredness (muted occasionally with some near-servile social-climbing) is admirable as the source of her adventurous spirit.  It is also appalling in its sometimes insensitivity, and, since this vanity is not aimed at the reader, frequently funny.  Often conflating her own self-interest with the interest of others, she is often the agent of a better destiny and sometimes its barrier. 

Terborch, Woman Writing Letter, 1655After marrying her childhood sweetheart, she pitchforks him into business with a loan, and not a gift: it turns out that this prod to the love of her life was a success and the making of him, and she continues to prod everyone in her life to achieve equal success on the terms she has decided best for them.  At the end of World War II, for instance, she writes her son to tell him acidly that things have changed in his absence, and his dictatorial ways toward his wife’s use of the car will have to change–given that his wife has been driving Red Cross supply trucks for the duration.  Her daughter receives two telegrams while at Princeton: the first asks, “shall I send your blue chiffon for the spring dance”; the second informs her “that black velvet is inappropriate and the chiffon is coming”. 

As in real life, the comic and irritating come with the grave and profound.  Letters also detail the loss of her first husband to the 1919 world flu pandemic, the near-bankruptcy of his life insurance agency through lost leadership and increased number of influenza claims.  At this juncture, Mrs. Steed is a heroine, unable to let the company founder because it is her late husband’s legacy of work; because she empathizes with other widows in her same straits; and because she is willing to undertake absolute financial responsibility for the company.  This ability to take control shows in her ruthless management of her German housemaid’s life at the same time: a woman to admire, certainly, but perhaps not to live with comfortably.  The next year she loses her eldest son.  We are left in no doubt that these cause suffering for her, and yet she continues to live life as fully, and as literately, as possible. 

Through the entire novel, one is struck by what is admirable next to its converse quality: in Bess Stead’s life, and in the society in which she lived; in the opportunities that families give and withhold to one another, because each person cannot fail but to be themselves; and above all, a kind of blessing upon embracing one’s limitations and faults as well as one’s virtues in order to have a life well lived.  The last letter of the book we understand as Mrs. Steed’s last letter: in disjointed phrases, she indicates her happiness with her new great-granddaughter and writes:  “Not to be afraid [is] all you have to teach.” 

This book is based upon, but not limited to, the life of Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s own grandmother.  What a wonderful read it is!  It is a lighthearted way to understand American aristocracy, particularly that outside of New England; a cultural commentary on life in the United States in the twentieth century; a primer for understanding the motivations and experiences of the wealthy but not famous; and, for any income bracket, what it means to live life on one’s own terms.

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