V.V.’s EyesOctober 25, 2010
V.V.’s Eyes, despite the silly title, is a Serious Novel, with lots to say about the position of women in society, factory conditions, and charitable giving. But it’s also got a dazzlingly beautiful heroine, illustrations by R.M. Crosby (who usually, and more fittingly, illustrated romance novels), and an inappropriately melodramatic ending. I was never entirely convinced that Henry Sydnor Harrison knew what he wanted the book to be. On the other hand, I was frequently impressed by what it was.
Contemporary reviewers seem to have thought that the central figure of the book is V.V. — Dr. V. Vivian, a lame slum doctor — and I suspect that that was Harrison’s intention. But I was never quite convinced by V.V., who was sometimes a Christ-figure, sometimes a child, and every once in a while a (reluctantly) angry idealist. But I was completely won over by Miss Carlisle Heth, who it seems pretty unfair not to call the central character. She gets the vast majority of the available page space, and we spend most of the book pretty deeply ensconced in her head. And it’s time well spent.
Older money than the Heth’s considers them ‘improbable,’ and all of their relations are poor, but Carlisle and her mother manage to be leaders of society in their Southern city (possibly Richmond). They’re both smart and ambitious and set on making a good match for Cally, so cousin Willie Kerr’s acquaintance with Hugo Canning, heir to the unspecifically prestigious Canning family, seems like the best thing that could ever happen to them. They use all of their combined intelligence to attract him, and achieve a fair measure of success, but meanwhile a series of encounters with Dr. Vivian is slowly changing Carlisle’s outlook on life until she’s not sure she wants Hugo anymore.
It’s not a romance novel, although Hugo sometimes to think he’s in one. It’s about a girl learning for the first time in her life that things she thought of as matters of course aren’t, and that she’s responsible for the choices she does and doesn’t make. There were a lot of parts of the book I didn’t like, but there are bits that are wonderful, too.
In my favorite scene, Cally explains to Hugo that she hasn’t really been in love with him since he deserted her at the moment when she most needed someone to stand by her, and that it didn’t help when he came back to her only after she wasn’t in trouble any more. And he seems to listen, but he won’t admit that any of the choices Cally has made can be ascribed to anything but womanly waywardness. And the strong, masterful man thing works in so many romance novels, but it doesn’t work here, because you’ve seen every step in Cally’s struggle for autonomy, and you’ve seen how Hugo’s logic depends on her inability to be autonomous. And it works that much better because you’ve also seen how perfectly suited to each other they used to be. And all these changes happen without either of them becoming any less of a person. So, yeah, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the book as a whole, but obviously there are bits of it that I’m completely in love with.
V.V.’s Eyes was Harrison’s second novel, a follow-up to his surprise bestseller Queed. I’m going to have to read that at some point, but I suspect that it’s not going to be as good, partially just because it’s about a man. So many male authors condescend to women when they write about them, but Harrison barely does. So, again, I don’t know if I like V.V.’s Eyes, but I’m definitely impressed.
Also: there’s an article here that I can’t access. It’s called “Henry Sydnor Harrison, Southern Feminist.” Obviously this is of interest. Can anyone who has access to the Southern Literary Journal (through JSTOR or otherwise) read it and get back to me?
ETA: Thanks to Eleanor, I have now read the article.I’s a short appreciation of Sydnor Harrison with an emphasis on his depiction of the women’s rights movement. Apparently in his early novels women assert their right to work alongside men, and in his later ones they win against them. Which is pretty cool, considering he died in 1930.