Four books by Inez Haynes GillmoreFebruary 25, 2012
Say hi to Inez Haynes Gillmore. I know some of you are familiar with her, but I suspect most of you are not. She could easily be your new favorite author. She’s pretty good. But mostly what she is is versatile.
I read a book of hers the other day called Gertrude Haviland’s Divorce. It made me re-examine three of Gillmore’s other books, just because it seemed so unlikely that they all could have come from the same person. So, there’s Gertrude Haviland, a divorce novel — and please don’t try to tell me that’s not a genre, because I won’t listen — and then there’s an adorable children’s book, a fluffy romance/adventure/ghost story/paean to old furniture, and a disturbing, bloody, and terrifyingly upbeat allegorical feminist fantasy. All of them are, in their separate ways, perfect.
We’ll start with Maida’s Little Shop. It’s the most innocuous. There were fifteen Maida books, two of which are in the public domain, but although the series ran until the 1950s, it was obviously never intended to be a series at all — there wasn’t so much as a sequel for eleven years. I’ve only read Maida’s Little Shop and Maida’s Little House, but that’s enough to be glad there was a sequel, and to take the rest of the books on faith, because they’re lovely. Maida is the daughter of the kind of fictional millionaire of whom, despite the fact that he’s clearly a great guy, everyone is terrified. She’s also a bit of an invalid, only capable of walking because of a recent operation by one of those specialists who are always curing crippled fictional characters. All she needs to complete her recovery is to take a real interest in something, so when she expresses a desire to run a store, her father buys it for her. I might have liked to hear a bit more about the actual running of the shop — logistics, and the kind of financial detail you only get from Horatio Alger, and things like that — but the friendships she forms with the children in her new neighborhood are completely satisfactory. Based on Maida’s Little House, I expect the rest of the series revolves around Maida and her friends being happy and industrious in a variety of settings while her father spends vast amounts of money on them. And what more could you want?
Then there’s Angel Island. I don’t know how it was received when it was first serialized in The American Magazine, but right now it’s probably the most famous thing she wrote, because of all the feminism. I kind of wish it was even more feminist, though. Or maybe a bit less pessimistic about human nature. This is the story of five young men who are shipwrecked with a lot of dead bodies and even more supplies. After they’ve been hanging around on their new island home for a while, they discover that they’re sharing it with some winged women — conveniently, five of them. In spite of the language barrier, they begin to pair off, “Peachy” showing off for Ralph, “Chiquita” hanging out with Frank as he writes, etc. And then Ralph is like, “So, obviously the next step is to capture them and force them to marry us.” The other men are initially horrified by this, but eventually they all come round to the same point of view, at which point they trap the women in a cabin the’ve built and cut off their wings. That was a but of a surprise for me. There’s all this talk about capturing the women, and then once they’ve done it Gillmore is like, “and then they pulled out their freshly sharpened shears.”
Then the men proceed to “tame” the women. Which, you know, if it’s going to happen at all, I don’t care how it happens. Mostly I wanted the women to murder their husbands in their sleep, but instead they fall in love with them. Eventually they have kids, one of whom, a girl, has wings, and the women have to decide what they’re willing to do to protect her. Angel Island has what I guess qualifies as a happy ending, under the circumstances, but I wouldn’t say it ends well. It works better as an allegory than a story. My favorite bit — the one that made my brother say “this is really subtle, isn’t it?” in his most sarcastic tone of voice — was the bit where one of the men, shortly after the wing removal, says to another something along the lines of, “I don’t know why they’re so scared of us. Once they can understand English we’ll tell them about our gentlemen’s code of honor and they’ll realized we would never hurt them.” Still, though, I love that this book exists. Sometimes the story needs to be heavy-handed and didactic and mildly disturbing for everyone to get it.
Out of the Air is a lot more normal, as Gillmore’s books go. Not in the way Gillmore likes to use the word “normal,” though. She likes to pretend it means not having any mental health issues. This seems unnecessarily ableist, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time. Anyway, there are no winged women or benevolent millionaires in Out of the Air, just a pilot back from World War I who wants to write a biography of his favorite author and a newly graduated stenographer looking for honest work in New York City. The favorite author, Lutetia Murray, just happens to be her aunt. The pilot, David Lindsay, moves into Lutetia’s old house in a small town in Maine and starts restoring it to its former glory and getting acquainted with Lutetia’s ghost, while in alternating chapters we see that the getting work part isn’t so difficult for Susannah Ayers, but the honest part is causing some trouble. It’s sometimes meditative (David) and sometimes exciting (Susannah), but it’s always suspenseful and lovely. The inevitable romantic ending feels like an afterthought, but not even that can take away from this book.
And then there’s Gertrude Haviland’s Divorce, probably the most grounded in reality of the four. Also probably the best divorce novel I’ve read.
The thing about divorce novels — the thing that distinguishes them from regular old novels with divorces in them — is that they don’t just feature divorce; they make a case for or against. The divorces at the center of divorce novels are usually test cases, “perfect” divorces constructed by the author so that they can put forward their opinion on what will happen in the best case scenario. Gertrude Haviland’s scenario doesn’t seem like a best case at first, though — she’s at home with the kids as usual when she gets a letter from her husband, Will, telling her a) he’s been having an affair with a woman from their neighborhood, b) he wants a divorce, and c) he doesn’t plan on ever seeing her again. He gives her the old colonial house they bought shortly after they were married and never used, and she moves there with the three kids almost immediately, trying to avoid any contact with people she knows, or, actually, people of any description.
A few months after the move, Gertrude shakes off her depression and starts to get involved with things — her kids’ lives, the house, her neighbors and neighborhood. Things don’t move too fast, but she moves slowly and surely towards being an important member of the community, and becomes a much more exciting person while she’s at it. Gillmore is pretty cynical about Will’s side of things, and how quick people are to accept his treatment of Gertrude, but in the end Gertrude gets the much better end of the deal, and she knows it. Gertrude Haviland’s Divorce is a wish-fulfillment book, the kind that gets you to invest yourself in the protagonist’s success, and silently cheer her on and snicker when bad things happen to her enemies. And maybe this is the most lowbrow thing about my extremely lowbrow reading tastes, but I love books like that. It’s why I get along so well with Mary Jane Holmes.
Gertrude Haviland’s Divorce was published in 1925, so you may have more luck tracking it down in your local library than on the internet, but that’s not really the point. These are four of Gillmore’s books, and there are probably half a dozen others floating around online, not counting a bit of non-fiction. My point is that whichever of them you choose, you’re going to get a few pleasant surprises.