I have come to the conclusion that as much as love reading collections of short stories, I rather hate reviewing them. I’m not sure I know how to write concisely about an entire collection, I think I tend to write too much about each story – I can end up boring myself! With that in mind I will try to rein it in a bit with my review of this collection of Susan Glaspell stories. From now on I shall endeavour to just give a flavour to each short story collection I read. This blogging malarkey continues to be a learning curve.
I have become a big fan of Susan Glaspell’s writing over the last year. I first read her novel Fidelity so long ago that I really can’t remember much about it. However last year I read three more of her novels, Brook Evans, Ambrose Holt and Family and The Visioning, all of which I loved. I was aware that as well as a prize winning playwright Susan Glaspell had been well known for her short stories. One of her most famous stories is A Jury of her Peers, no wonder then, that this collection put together by Iowa University Press in 2010 includes it in the title.
As with her novels Glaspell’s themes in her shorter fiction are those of a variety of social issues which remain as relevant today as they ever were; free speech, ethics, civic justice and gender issues. These twelve stories were all written and published in a variety of American journals between 1914 and 1927.
A Jury of her Peers a story now considered a feminist classic, was apparently re-discovered in the 1970’s, written in 1917 it is based on a murder trial that Glaspell covered as a journalist. It is a story which highlights the oppression of women, and the inequalities with how women are perceived. Martha Hale, her husband, a potential witness, the local sheriff and his wife, convene at the home of a woman under arrest for the murder of her husband, to go over the events of the previous day, and collect what items the accused woman might need whilst in jail. There is an enormous amount of intelligent subtlety in this story – which is undoubtedly one of the best of the collection.
“The sheriff’s wife had looked from the stove to the sink – to the pail of water which had been carried in from outside. The two women stood there silent, above them the footsteps of the men who were looking for evidence against the woman who had worked in that kitchen. That look of seeing things, of seeing through a thing to something else, was in the eyes of the sheriff’s wife now.”
(From A Jury of Her Peers 1917)
Many of the protagonists of these stories are outsiders in one way or another, many of the men are struggling to keep up the appearances that society has of them. Others present themselves as intellectuals, like Horace Caldwell in The Nervous Pig. In this story studious Horace is often distracted by neighbour Vivian Truce. Vivian is delighted and charmed by a fellow neighbour’s pig producing eight babies a delight she is keen to share with Horace. However when the so called nervous pig goes on to eat one of its own litter, it serves to propel Horace and Vivian into facing up to what they want from life and each other. I am aware how odd that sounds, but really it is a very nice story.
Glaspell’s women are often quietly and surprisingly strong; they subvert other’s expectations of them, or quietly manage situations for themselves. Another of my most favourite stories was The Manager of Crystal Sulphur Springs. Set in Glaspell’s native Iowa – as are other stories, it is a poignant story of ageing, and the ethics of euthanasia. Bert Groves once the owner of the failed Crystal Sulphur Springs, returns as a confused elderly man to his former home, now run as a poor farm by Mrs Peters and her husband. In his confusion Bert thinks he is back in his younger, former days, when he was trying to make his wonder springs a success, Mrs Peter’s encourages Bert in his delusion. However with her term of employment coming to an end, and a new manager about to take over, Mrs Peter’s worries about how Bert will cope.
There is so much lovely imagery in these stories, people and places that will long in the reader’s memory.
“They had one visitor – a horse. On days not too stormy he would come stiffly across the sands from the new lifesaving station to this his old one which had long been his home. She could see him a long way off – an old horse retired from service. He would walk round his old barn and beach would stop: “You don’t live here any more, Prince,” and would get the old horse to follow him along the beach to the new station. One day she heard one of these lifesavers talking about Prince to a man who was putting on outside windows. “He ought to be done away with, but the ‘ol man don’t like to do it. He had him more than twenty years, and he was the best horse he ever had. And do you know, to this day when he hears the signal for the boats, out he comes and hobbles alongside of the horses that’s doing the work.”
(From A Rose in the Sand)
A Rose in the Sand – the final story in this collection of twelve – is one I can imagine being transferred to film, it could make a beautifully tender, short film, a lonely, windswept seaside location, two, bitter, hurting women, an abandoned life-boat station, an unwanted horse that comes to visit – it is the story of a woman’s fragile healing after having been abandoned by her husband.
Susan Glaspell’s writing certainly deserves to be wider read and appreciated; I suspect she is probably more widely read in the US than over here.