Ambrose Holt and Family is one of the seven Susan Glaspell novels that are currently out of print. Some titles seem to be available through print on demand services but I was able to snap up this 1930’s hardback for just 99p on ebay. In terms of its scope and power, I admit ‘Ambrose Holt and Family’ doesn’t quite match up to the absolute brilliance of Brook Evans which I read in June. However I loved it so much I have to consider it a five star read.
Blossom is a beautiful young woman, her pink complexion and curly blonde hair having earned her the name Blossom. Her real name is Harriette, Blossom hates being Blossom, inside she sometimes feels like the Harriette she wants to be, and others fail to see.
“But Blossom felt her name was Harriette, and that there must be something wrong with her or she would be able to maintain it.
She had about given up, for when she objected to Blossom her husband called her Dolly, or Kitten; if there was one name worse than Blossom it was Kitten, and even worse than looking like a blossom was the idea of looking like a doll.
But she was not a flower, or a kitten, or a doll; she was a woman who thought and felt. She had never succeeded in making anyone else know this; it must be her fault.”
The daughter of the richest man in town, Blossom is married to Lincoln Holt, a man obliged to work for Blossom’s father at the cement works in order to keep his wife in a manner to which her father believes her to be accustomed. The couple have two young boys, and share their home with Lincoln’s mother. Each day when Lincoln returns from the cement works, he retreats to his little office to write poetry. Lincoln seems to feel a need to apologise for his poetry, determined to be a good provider and husband first, a poet second. His poetry remains important to him, and Blossom and his publisher believe in his possible future importance to the nation. However Lincoln won’t hear of social engagements being disrupted so that he can write, and whenever poor Blossom tries to arrange things so that Lincoln has a few more precious hours to write she incurs his displeasure. Lincoln’s mind is particularly disturbed at having to destroy the nearby woods for the clay that lie under them. The woods he loved so much as a boy, the place that for him was a kind of haven from his misery he means to write his best poems about before they are gone. Blossom is keenly aware of her husband’s conflict – and tries to protect him from further disturbance.
Lincoln and his mother were famously abandoned by his father Ambrose Holt when Lincoln was a young a boy, a terrible scandal at the time, that Lincoln and his mother have managed to overcome. For twenty seven years no one has heard from Ambrose Holt who has travelled widely in search of something he felt lacking. Suddenly an older, sick Ambrose shows up in town, ‘seen down by the lumber pile’ as Blossom’s mother disgustedly declares. Blossom’s immediate concern is to protect her husband from the shock of his father’s sudden reappearance. When Blossom comes across Ambrose Holt herself, she fails to ask him to leave town as she had originally planned, fascinated by the man in spite of herself. In Ambrose Holt, Blossom finds an unlikely friend and ally. Ambrose is pleased in his daughter-in-law – calls her Harriette, and encourages and counsels her to let the men in her life see the woman she is, and not the pretty little fool they take her to be. With both Blossom and her mother in law meeting and speaking with Ambrose Holt behind Lincoln’s back, the scene is set for some family disharmony. When Lincoln does find out he is furious. Taking himself off to Pittsburgh and New York, apparently on business, Blossom fears he may not be back.
“They laughed, and suddenly she could talk of Lincoln – freely, and finding she knew more than she had known she knew.
When they were back in her car, and in town: “You are ill,” she said, ‘and alone. I wish I could take you home with me.’
They were near the lumber pile, where she should turn to take him to the Hotchkiss boarding-house. She stopped the car. ‘Will you come home with me?’
Smiling he shook his head. ‘No, Harriette. No. But thank you, my dear; thank you more than I can say.’
The perfunctory words were as if they had never been said before, as if they had come into being for this moment’s feeling.’
Admittedly Susan Glaspell tidies away the troublesome Ambrose Holt in a rather too convenient way perhaps, but it’s one which allows her characters to see themselves and each other as they really are. Glaspell’s canvas in Ambrose Holt and family is smaller than that of Brook Evans – it’s so long since I read Fidelity I fear my memory of it is rather poor – but as a domestic set family drama it is engaging and sympathetic. The scenes between Ambrose Holt and Blossom are superbly done, the wonderful understanding that immediately springs up between these two relative strangers adding a quiet poignancy to the novel.