Posts Tagged ‘Eudora Welty’

Still working my way through the books I read in November. The Optimist’s Daughter at around 180 pages was one of the slight novels I chose for #novnov. Eudora Welty was a prolific short story writer publishing twelve collections of short stories between 1936 and 1988 and as well as some essays she also published six novels. My experience of Eudora Welty has been somewhat mixed – I began reading her penultimate novel Losing Battles some years ago – but got totally bogged down in it – I couldn’t finish it. I have kept the book among my green viragos though, so do intend to try again one day. Three years ago I read Delta Wedding, Welty’s second novel – and absolutely loved it. The Optimist’s Daughter was Welty’s final novel first published in 1972 it won the Pulitzer prize in 1973.

The story revolves around Judge McKelva, his middle aged daughter Laurel and his second wife Fay. For many years Judge McKelva has been a familiar and respected figure in the community of Mount Salus, Mississippi. The people looked toward the judge, his gracious wife Becky and their daughter Laurel as nice, well bred people living their lives in a reliable manner.

“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much, Laurel thought.”

However, when ten years after the death of his first wife, old Judge McKelva marries again – everyone is taken rather aback. Fay is just a little younger than Laurel, a silly, self-absorbed woman from Texas.

As this novel opens Laurel has travelled from her home in Chicago to New Orleans where her father is in hospital – being treated by an old friend who had moved away from Mount Salus. The Judge had contacted Laurel to say he had been having ‘trouble with his seeing’ – and Laurel had felt concerned enough to jump on a plane. Right from the start the reader feels an unspoken tension between Laurel, Fay and Dr Courtland who is treating Judge McKelva. The Judge talks about getting pricked in the eye by the climbing rose that everyone in Mount Salus appears to think of as Becky’s climber. Fay dismisses the whole thing as something and nothing – seeming not to want to share her husband with these others who have such a long history with him. Laurel and Fay must stay in a local hotel while the Judge undergoes a routine operation – and period of recovery.

When the Judge dies suddenly, and unexpectedly the two women are forced to return together to the McKelva house in Mount Salus. Here they are surrounded by a host of friends and neighbours, people with long memories and deep affection for the Judge and his first wife. Laurel a woman who was widowed young, is surrounded by the women she still thinks of as her bridesmaids – the girls she grew up with. Everywhere in this house are memories of the past – things that recall moments of Laurel’s childhood, and the relationship her parents had.

“When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake, for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams.”

Laurel is numb by the suddenness of death, while Fay is prostrated by the thought that such a thing could happen to her! The house gets filled up with people – those who can’t believe the Judge is gone – for them it is the end of an era, there’s an absence they hadn’t reckoned on. They speak of Becky, Laurel’s mother as if she has only recently gone – and treat Fay with a kind of baffled politeness.

Arrangements for the funeral get underway, with Laurel ably assisted by Missouri – the servant who Judge McKelva had once brought home after Missouri had acted as a witness at court. With Fay having taken to her bed, everything falls to Laurel. On the day of the funeral, Fay’s family, that she had previously denied – turn up, voluble, and slightly boorish – but essentially harmless – they are nicer by far than the sullen, deceitful Fay. After the funeral Fay decides suddenly to return to Texas with her family for a few days, leaving Laurel alone in her former family home.

Everywhere there are little signs to remind Laurel of Fay’s arrival in her father’s life, nail polish on her father’s desk, a bread board she remembered her mother using for years, absolutely ruined. These days alone, give Laurel the chance to come to terms with her past and how she left her father alone. She comes to a better understanding of herself and her parents, and so when Fay returns to claim the house for herself, Laurel is ready to leave with her own memories intact.

This is a beautifully balance, nuanced little novel which I can imagine gets even better with subsequent readings.

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delta wedding

Delta Wedding was my first book read during May. I chose it to tick off 1945 of my ACOB – and I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. I know lots of people really like Eudora Welty’s writing, but my only previous experience of her writing was not very successful. In 2012 I began reading her later novel Losing Battles, (1970) a book of something like 400 pages, I read about half of it before giving up in frustration. I had really wanted to like it but just couldn’t get to grips with it. I felt I needed to give Eudora Welty another try and this much earlier Welty novel was a charity shop find last year. Good news, I enjoyed Delta Wedding very much indeed, so much in fact that I might revisit Losing Battles one of these days.

Right from the start I was drawn into the story by the exceptional writing and evocative sense of place. It is a novel which deserves slow, considered reading, and while there isn’t a huge amount of plot – the story of a large, Mississippi family, in the weeks around the wedding of their daughter to the plantation overseer, is quite wonderful.

“People are mostly layers of violence and tenderness wrapped like bulbs, and it is difficult to say what makes them onions or hyacinths.”

In September 1923 nine-year-old Laura McRaven travels on the Yellow Dog train from Jackson Mississippi to the family plantation of Shellmound on the Mississippi delta. Laura’s mother has died, and at Shellmound she is enveloped by the enormous Fairchild family – her mother’s family. The cast of characters is huge, and it took me a while to get to grips with who was who. I found some names confusing, a child with the same name as his father and several older aunts called by their husbands’ names; ie Aunt Jim Allen – and Aunt Robbie married to Uncle George – it doesn’t take much to confuse me.

As Laura arrives the family are beginning to gather for the wedding of Dabney the prettiest of the Fairchild children. She is still only seventeen and about to marry an older man, Troy Flavin, a man from the mountains, the family overseer and there is the feeling that deep down the Fairchilds don’t fully approve. Though everyone treats Dabney with all the deference due to a beautiful young bride to be, giving her advice, and gently teasing.

“‘Don’t ever let this husband of yours, whoever he is, know you can cook, Dabney Fairchild, or you’ll spend the rest of your life in the kitchen. That’s the first thing I want to tell you.’”

The day to day events in the lives of this large, proud Southern family are portrayed with humour and affection. Children race around the house and grounds, drawing, poor motherless Laura into their games and their world, while the adults concern themselves with wedding preparations and family gossip. Aunt Ellen is the mother of the bride, mother to eight and expecting again, married to Uncle Battle she is a warm loving presence. Uncle George, the firm family favourite is due to arrive soon from Memphis with his wife Robbie – though when he finally turns up, he is alone, Robbie having apparently left him. This is just about as shocking a thing as any of the Fairchilds have ever heard, that she should leave George! George of course can do no wrong, though we see him as a little less than perfect.

As with all families, stories are told and retold, some quickly taking on an almost legendary status. Like the recent story; told to Laura and then repeated later by the adults – of George walking the railway trestle with young Maureen, as his wife watched nearby. Maureen’s foot got caught in the rail just as the train was coming, George stayed to free the child’s foot as the train raced toward them. Tragedy was averted, but the story of such a close call is hard to resist.

Dabney, the child bride is in love – after her marriage she will move into another family house on the plantation, Marmion. She has her head in the clouds, appearing at table just whenever she feels like it – Laura notices. She is girlish and romantic but despite her youth she knows what she wants and the life she wants is just within reach. The old maiden aunts gift her a small, treasured night light, the object seems to be symbolic for Laura and the aunts and perhaps even for Dabney too.

“Life was not ever inviolate. Dabney, poor sister and bride, shed tears this morning (though belatedly) because she had broken the Fairchild night light the aunts had given her; it seemed so unavoidable to Dabney, that was why she cried, as if she had felt it was part of her being married that this cherished little bit of other peoples’ lives should be shattered now.”


Capturing a time and place perfectly Delta Wedding is the story of long, slow Southern days, a complicated loving family, and ultimately a celebration of a way of life. So very pleased I gave Eudora Welty another chance.

eudora welty

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