Thursday, May 26, 2005

Isabel Paterson, Part 3: Variations on the Human Melody

Isabel Paterson

They are dusty and musty, brittle and yellowed, distinctive in the way that old books printed in the old way are, each one a work of art and a testament to the never-ending record of human experience. They are Isabel Paterson's novels, first editions all, books printed in years ranging from 1916 to 1934. When I picked up the first one that I got from the Inter-Library Loan system and turned the delicate pages to the first chapter, I cried. And though I wish, in my heart of hearts, that these books were currently in circulation and available in editions that can be used and loved in my usual manner of perusal, I would not exchange my having had this opportunity to read the first editions, with all the care and circumspection that accompanies these fragile volumes, for anything. Just holding a book that the authoress herself might have looked upon is a treat both rare and breath-taking. It is humbling to be a belated part of this wonderful writer's reading audience.

Isabel Paterson seems to have had an inherent ability to understand the broad spectrum of humanity and find redeeming or sympathetic traits in characters who commit reprehensible acts. She paints in shades of gray, while still acknowleding the black and whites of moral absolutes. In her books, you will not find portraits of pure evil (a la Ellsworth Toohey), just portraits of the evil that comes from stupidity or imperception or lust for power. Usually, when evil comes, it comes from an institution and the representatives thereof and is against individuals. The protagonists in the novels that I have finished so far, would be fine if it weren't for the forces of society bearing down upon them. Isabel Paterson believed in the beauty and simplicity of being left alone.

For lovers of liberty, the spectrum of beloved fiction usually runs the short gamut from three Ayn Rand novels to a select group of sci-fi writers, with a smattering of children's literature and Rose Wilder Lane novels thrown in for good measure. If you're not fond of robots, outer-space, and hypothetical futuristic worlds and you've outgrown Ayn, you spend your fictional reading time searching for glimmers and smidgeons of libertarianism in the writings of others, usually only finding disappointment. If, however, you are fortunate enough to utilize your library's inter-library loan system, you will find a rich and fulfilling world in Isabel Paterson's novels. They are not overtly political or philosophical, and that is part of the reason that they are such great reads.

In The Magpie's Nest, which was the first of her novels that I read, the conflicts are internal - within the heroine, Hope. There are no villains, merely frustrations and fools that stand between the young woman becoming and the woman to be. Originally, I had a difficult time liking Hope, but as she grew up, she grew on me. It is a tribute to Paterson's skill that she could make a character change and develop in a way that is consistent with the character's age. This is a novel of youthful optimism with a few awkward plot devices, but, overall, it held my attention from start to finish.

The next novel I read is tied for my favorite with The Golden Vanity. The Fourth Queen is a rollicking and exciting historical romance, set in Elizabethan England. It starts with a sea-battle that is so enthralling you can practically taste the salt-water and blood mingling in a hearty stew of human desperation and valor as you read. The protagonists, Jack and Kate, are so likable and fresh; I fell in love with them in an instant. As the figure of absolute authority, Queen Elizabeth could have been made an easy target for villainy, but Paterson paints her with a sympathetic brush. I could not put this book down - loved it!!

The Road of the Gods is a very unusual historical romance, as its setting is neither courtly nor mannerly nor picturesque. It is set in the woods of ancient Germany, right before the Roman conquest of Europe. The pagan tribes with their customs and rites are given the barest background for the modern reader, as Paterson was less concerned with teaching about a culture lost in the mists of antiquity than in portraying the always relevant struggle of individuals to shape their destiny within the confines of society. This book was also fascinating, though the lovers were considerably less sympathetic than those in The Fourth Queen.

The Golden Vanity is a great novel. It is a time capsule, written to span a ten-year period - from five years before the stock market crash of 1929 to about five years into the Great Depression. What is so remarkable about this novel is that it was written contemporarily to the time it covers, yet the authoress has her eyes wide open. Perspective like this can usually only come some years removed from the time in which the events took place, but Isabel Paterson's keen intelligence and sound rationality bring a certain degree of completeness and remove to this look at "current events." The Golden Vanity is the intertwined stories of four women -three cousins, one dowager - who all live in New York City in the 1920's and 1930's. They are all very different in their personalities and approaches to the business of living, making a living and finding happiness. The theme of the novel seems to be the absence of men. Where did the men go? The two men we learn the most of are so very weak - one is a glib but unstable playwright, the kind of man you would invite to every cocktail party but never trust with your heart - one is an affable, gullible heir who squanders his affections on an undeserving woman and his money on undeserving causes. One peripheral man is the strong, silent type - excellent in matters of business, but unable to connect meaningfully with the woman he desires. Another peripheral man is strong and bold and action-oriented, and he is a gangster. I got the impression, while reading this novel, that the authoress was a woman who was disappointed by men - that she stood ready and willing to admire, revere, honor the glories of masculinity, but that in her time, in that era, they had disappeared; and women had to be ready to pick up the pieces and carry on, whether they wanted to or not. That is probably the reason why, in her historical novels, she could create men of strength and valor that she simply found unbelievable as characters in her modern works.

I started reading The Singing Season, which was the first one written in her trilogy of historical romances, but the ILL books were due back before I could complete it (no renewals on ILLs - what's with that?). It was promising to be a wonderful read as well, so I am now gnashing my teeth and plotting to get a copy back from the library. I also had to return The Shadow Riders and Never Ask the End before I could read them. Now I've learned my lesson to request ILL books just one at a time.

One of the things that really struck me in her novels was the way she portrayed children. Isabel Paterson was one of nine children, and, while she never had children of her own, her friends said that she had a soft spot for children; that soft spot really comes through in her stories. Children play a part in all her stories, and they are never shown to be nuisances or burdens. Usually the children are very sweet and sympathetic, and they are often used as a way to illustrate the more gentle side of a character. This is very welcome to me, as I love children so much, and I am always troubled by the way in which they are absent or devalued in libertarian circles or novels. Isabel Paterson "saw in a child what she looked for, 'a pure intellectual being,' occupied in almost Wordsworthian fashion in the 'contemplation' of the universe." (The Woman and the Dynamo, 350) Plus, it is a little refreshing to see characters actually getting pregnant after having sex - the only character to whom this happens in an Ayn Rand novel that I can think of is Marisha from We the Living...and she has an abortion. Wait! Gaea and Prometheus are pregnant at the end of Anthem, but, I believe, that is the only Randian baby in over 2,300 pages of fiction.

Well, I'm looking forward to getting my hands on those missed novels again. It is nice to read some good fiction that is optimistic and exciting and not at all brow-beating. I've always liked a good story, and Isabel Paterson certainly knew how to tell one. I hope these come back into print someday...I wonder, who owns the rights to the manuscripts? That will be something to find out. I think that Isabel Paterson, Part 4 will be coming soon.

Peace to all!


Flicka Spumoni said...

Wow, your site is a gem! I'm so glad you posted on my site or I might have never found yours.

Wonderful book review. Not only do I know about each book, but I feel I know a great deal about the author and her life's work.

Keep up the good work.

BTW, how did you find my site?

Justine said...

My Friend Flicka (sorry, you're probably sick of that...),

I did not see an e-mail for you on your blog, so I thought I'd leave a comment here and maybe you'd stop back and see it.

Thank you for your kind comments. Isabel Paterson's novels have been a real treat for me. She was quite the lady.

I found your wonderful blog via Amigo's blog and a comment you left there. Your writing is incredible - I loved your faerie encounter. It is not often that such whimsy is found in the world of blogs.

Looking forward to reading more on your blog...


Flicka Spumoni said...

Thanks. I've put you on my favorite's list. We can just be each other's biggest fan. Hahahahah.

By the by, Bruce Bethke as The Ranting Room is discussing book reviews on a current post. You might have some interesting insights to make. If you've never been to his site, it's a real treat.

Roderick T. Long said...

You may be interested to know that one of Paterson's novels, Never Ask the End, is back in print.

Justine said...

Wow! Thank you so much! I had no idea it was available - I've gone ahead and ordered it. I really appreciate the heads up.