The Visioning was Susan Glaspell’s second novel, first published in 1911 it appears that it is now mainly available as an ebook, although I believe there are print on demand services that carry it too. It is a novel about the images we create of others and the dreams we allow to carry us along. It is also about identity and the class divisions in early twentieth century American society.
Katherine Wayneworth Jones (known to everyone as Katie Jones) is ‘an army girl.’ Having lost both her parents she lives alternately with her uncle in Washington, and her older brother Captain Wayneworth Jones an army officer on a US army post in the mid-west. Katie leads a fairly charmed life, a darling of the other officers she is at the centre of the society in which she moves, a society with its own values and standards. Katie is twenty five, and seriously considering marrying one of her brother’s fellow officer colleagues Captain Prescott, a man she is fond of, who exists in the same world she does, but who she isn’t really in love with.
“She looked about her with satisfaction. It frequently happened that the place where one was inspired keen sense of the attractions of some other place. But this time there was no place she would rather be than just where she found herself. For she was a little tired, after a long round of visits at gay places, and this quiet, beautiful island out in the Mississippi—large, apart, serene—seemed a great lap into which to sink. She liked the quarters: big old-fashioned houses in front of which the long stretch of green sloped down to the river. There was something peculiarly restful in the spaciousness and stability, a place which the disagreeable or distressing things of life could not invade. Most of the women were away, which was the real godsend, for the dreariness and desolation of pleasure would be eliminated. A quiet post was charming until it tried to be gay—so mused Miss Katherine Wayneworth Jones.”
One day as Katie plays golf idly in the sun, she becomes aware of a figure appearing out of nowhere, the figure of a girl in a pink dress and a large hat, running pointedly toward the river. Katie knows, without a shadow of a doubt that the strange girl is about to kill herself. To distract the distressed girl, Katie throws herself down a bunker and pretends to be hurt. Accompanying Katie back to her house, the girl says her name is Verna Woods (an assumed name we later discover) – and Katie immediately plots on keeping Verna – who Katie has now decided to call Ann – safe with her. To explain their visitor’s presence to Katie’s brother Wayne and the friends who gather that evening for dinner, Katie invents an entire history about the girls who is sleeping upstairs, a girl she claims as her friend Ann Forest, who has travelled in Europe. Katie spins around her new friend an entire world, but it’s a world that Katie is comfortable with, a world that fits in with the society of the US army post, but it isn’t anything like the truth.
“The girl was like a flower; a flower, it seemed to Kate, which had not been planted in the right place. The gardener had been unwise in his selection of a place for this flower; perhaps he had not used the right kind of soil, perhaps he had put it in the full heat of the sun when it was a flower to have more shade; perhaps too much wind or too much rain—Katie wondered just what the mistake had been. For the flower would have been so lovely had the gardener not made those mistakes.”
Captain Jones is a divorcee, his young son, Katie’s adored six year old nephew, is spending the summer with his father and aunt, young Worth is a joyously drawn child character, a lover of dogs who later brings ‘the man who mends boats’ into his Aunty Katie’s life.
Katie has her own image of Ann, she enjoys being needed by her, and as Ann begins to recover her strength and well-being, her beauty and the stories that Katie has told of her, begin to make her a popular figure. Gradually Katie begins to uncover Ann’s real story, and as Ann is accepted more and more into the society of the army post, Katie is made more aware of the societal gulf between them. In the company of her nephew Katie makes friends with the man who mends boats; Alan Mann, a man of intelligence with a social conscious, with whom Katie discusses Ann, society and her own place in it.
There is a lot for Katie to come to terms with as she finds more out about Ann’s past, a past that threatens to embarrass Katie’s present. Katie’s reaction to Ann’s full story surprises even her, and shatters Ann’s new happiness. As Katie draws closer to Alan Mann in her wish to help her friend, Alan reveals his aversion to the world that Katie loves so much, his view of that world so vastly different to her own, causing a further readjustment. Katie has been awoken to the realities of the world, how people’s lives can be so easily sent off in the wrong direction, through no fault of their own, how for some people there are no sunny paths.
“It seemed that one of the worst things about “classes” was that they inevitably meant misunderstanding. They bred antagonism, and that prejudice. People didn’t know each other”
For a modern reader, the realities of these societal differences, and the mistakes that Ann has made along the way in her search for her something somewhere, don’t seem so very bad or the gulf so very wide, but of course this was a very different time and place. The Visioning is a very good novel, but I am already a big fan of Susan Glaspell’s writing. This novel doesn’t quite have the power and poignancy of Brook Evans which I do think utterly superb, but it is an interesting early novel from Glaspell, very readable and like Ambrose Holt and Family that I read earlier this year, confirms Glaspell as a really excellent writer. Her writing about women and their place within society, ethics and those who strain against the conventions of the day, make her a pioneering feminist writer who deserves to be read more widely than she seems to be currently.