Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Read in 2014 - 8: This Freedom

What would you expect a book by the title "This Freedom" to be about?
Of course, "Twelve Years", the true story of an Afroamerican man kidnapped and sold into slavery and turned into a multiple-award winning movie, is quite present in many a mind. But "This Freedom" is not about slavery in its commonly understood sense. It is a book that, when it was first published in 1922, was heavily criticized by defenders of women's rights. It tells the story of a woman who wants, above anything, freedom - freedom to live her life the way she sees fit, which is not quite the way women were supposed to be living around the turn of the century and the time of WWI.

Rosalie grows up as the youngest in a country reverend's family, a family that is rich only in children. From her earliest conscious memories she knows one thing for sure: The world belongs to men, and women have but one task, to be there for their men. Men and boys can go where and when they want, with whoever they please, while women and girls are expected to be always at home, ready and willing to do the men's bidding.
Like her sisters, Rosalie is largely educated at home by her mother, but a combination of unexpected occurrances (some very sad and tragic, others positive for at least two members of the family) leads to her being installed in London at a girls' boarding school. Weekends are spent with a rich aunt, who, in a generously good-hearted, boasting way never fails to make Rosalie feel the poor relation she is.

Rosalie loves to learn, and the older she gets, the more obvious her exceptionally bright, logical mind becomes. She also loves about the school that it is an almost men-free world - here, it is the women who determine what is done when, and how. When she comes across a book about economics and banking, this book ("Lombard Street") becomes her "bible"; it shows her what she wants to do in life. Marriage and raising her own family never enters her mind.

Love does not ask whether it fits into someone's plans or not, and so it happens that Rosalie falls in love with the most unlikely candidate. (I must admit it was not much of a surprise to me, as it won't be to many a reader; too often have we already seen this trick of the authors' trade: boy meets girl, girl detests boy, girl falls madly in love with boy.)
By that time, Rosalie has already carved out a niche for herself in the business world. She is successful, she earns her own money, she loves her work, and is highly esteemed by her employer and his clients. Marriage will not change that, she is sure, and neither will having children. With her husband, she has what looks like the ideal marriage: both partners have equal rights, both thrive in their work, both love each other and their children very much, and the household is well organized, running smoothly from morning to night.

Things begin to change, gradually at first, but then in leaps and bounds. Decisions have to be taken. Decisions are taken, but they do not yield the expected results. Helplessly, Rosalie and her husband watch their family, which they had always perceived to be an extraordinarily happy one, disintegrate. Blow after blow they receive, until it seems they can't take any more. The book ends on a hopeful note, but many sad and dramatic events line the last of its four parts ("House of Men", "House of Women", "House of Children" and "House of Cards").

I was happy for Rosalie when she made her dream of a self-determined life come true. Her enthusiasm is described so well, it is infectuous. The sadness that follows is infectuous, too, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for her and her family. 

The criticism the book received originally is justified, if the story is taken at face value. But there is more to it than that, I think. To me, the author does not suggest Rosalie did wrong in putting her work first. He rather shows how difficult it is to balance family and work, and that is true for both women and men. It can work out, and probably does in many families (made easier nowadays in some ways, more difficult in others). But it can also go horribly wrong. 
On the other hand, the family life at Rosalie's childhood home can hardly be described as happy, although her mother was always at home; Rosalie's home life with her husband and the children, while they were young, sounds happy. The things that her children do and that happen to them as they grow up could have happened just the same if Rosalie had always been a stay-at-home mum.

A book I can recommend; I'll probably go and look for more by the same author on the kindle shop.


Speaking of the author, Arthur Stuart-Menteth Hutchinson (often just given as A.S.M. Hutchinson) was yet another one of those immensely successful authors in their day whom I had never heard about before. Hutchinson lived from 1879 to 1971 and, while Wikipedia lists less than 20 novels and a few short stories as his works, some of his books were bestsellers. According to the New York Times, one of his novels ("If Winter Comes") was the best-selling book in the US in 1922. What I find quite touching is that he was so thrilled after the birth of his son that he wrote a book about it. Were he alive today, he probably would have blogged about it :-)

14 comments:

  1. How neat the author wrote a book about the birth of his son because he was so thrilled by it. Thanks for pointing out this author and the book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. There seems to be a certain theme in a number of the books of that era (including the last one you reviewed) with girls who want to be educated and end up being taken in by relatives where their dreams may or may not be satisfied. This one does seem to have rather more to it from your review and I actually began to get quite intrigued.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. True; women's lives often seem to be the topic of books from that time. Unusually, though, this one was written by a man, but - in my opinion - he depicted the female characters in a very credible manner, while some of the male characters remain a bit two-dimensional. Both male and female ones are shown with strengths and weaknesses, just like real people.

      Delete
  3. I've never heard of this author either, but the price is right and you've made it sound interesting, so it's on my kindle now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I downloaded it for free from the kindle shop, so, yes - the price was right :-)
      That doesn't mean I found the book worthless, quite the contrary, but it made me download it without knowing anything about the author or the story.

      Delete
  4. That balance is difficult, and the book sounds good but sad. That's rather true to life, often.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is certainly is, good but sad.

      Delete
  5. How interesting that this was written by a man - wonderful that there was someone grappling with these issues and brave enough to turn it into fiction. Thanks for drawing our attention to this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello JO, if I am not very much mistaken, this is the first time I see you here. Welcome to my blog! Thank you for your kind comment.

      Delete
  6. It sounds like an interesting and thought provoking book. Probably just as well the author did write a bok about it, as his blog posts probably would not have survived this long, or be so buried that they were impossible to find! :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. I just came across your blog, and I love what I see! I too enjoy those old, forgotten public domain books, but sometimes it can be hard to find reviews of them, especially ones as well-written as yours. I look forward to exploring your site further and adding some books to my to-be-read list!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Bree, thank you for stopping by! Nice to meet someone who likes such forgotten books, too. I will go and have a look at your blog, too.

      Delete