As you'll see later in the week I'm in the grip of a Dorothy Canfield Fisher revival with a re-read of The Homemaker et al and also this book The Bedquilt & Other Stories which I thought I'd already done cover to cover until I came across "Through Pity and Terror...". It seems completely appropriate to mention this story here as part of my Remembrance Read 2008 . Another remarkable story in The Bedquilt, Memorial Day May 30, 1913 leaves me with a sense that Remembrance shouldn't be confined to just a single week of the year, but more of that another day.
Thank you too for all the comments and e mails about it all, you have all given me plenty of reading ideas to follow up.
"Through Pity and Terror..." sees Madeleine and her husband, pharmacist Jules Brismantier, living a charmed and blissful married life in France thanks in part to Madeleine's serious attention to domesticity; the perfectly positioned furniture with well-matched fixtures and fittings in their home, the piano which Madeleine plays with exquisite grace, the immaculate and well-equipped kitchen, the elaborate meals never late to the table, even the pristine children dressed in white who only play with 'nice' children and wait for it, as a measure of her domestic wealth Madeleine has a currency of two hundred and twenty sheets in her linen store,
'in her heart, inherited from long generations of passionately housekeeping women, she took immense satisfaction in all the ample furnishings of her pretty little home. What woman would not?... a model wife and mother on the pattern of all the other innumerable model wives and mothers in the history of her family'
Well this is Dorothy Canfield Fisher so before we all descend into a bout of the inadequacies we know we'll discover that this could all be flawed, and when you then watch as Madeleine settles into another pregnancy (and you can only imagine that Madeleine could actually 'nest' for Europe) but you realise this is France in the summer of 1914, the alarm bells start to toll,
'Drenched in sunshine and peace, their little barque was carried rapidly along by the Niagara river of history over the last stretch of smooth, shining water which separated them from the abyss.'
Jules heads off to war and Madeleine, the birth now
imminent, is left to cope alone as the Germans advance on the now deserted village. Children Raoul and Sylvie
quickly have to shake off their cotton wool upbringing and embrace those Montessori skills of independence and self-reliance so beloved by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, rapidly having to pull above their weight and assume adult
responsibilities as the base and truly vile terrors of war invade their beautiful home.
By diverse and Aristotlean means of both pity and terror does Dorothy convey that covert message in the title; that domesticity and an immaculate home may not be the most trusted or essential of assets and that in times of war it is an indomitable human spirit that will survive,
'The walled and sheltered refuge in which she had lived all her life was cast down and in ruins...her mind came back with a mortal sickness to the knowledge that she now had nothing, nothing to depend upon except her own strength and labour - just like a poor woman. She was a poor woman.'
Like several other US women writers, and not content to sit back home in America and just conserve food for Europe, Dorothy Canfield Fisher headed to France to help with relief operations during the Great War and also to be near her husband John who had volunteered for ambulance duties.
' Like nearly all of my generation I'm terribly tragically bewildered by the complexity of the situation'
Dorothy to a friend, but they were a family who couldn't bear to be
apart and Dorothy saw no reason to let a European conflagration of
great magnitude stand in the way of their togetherness.
Browsing Dorothy Canfield Fisher's book of letters, Keeping Fires Night and Day, (and much more on these to follow too) I came across this letter written in 1917 in response to hints of longevity for her writing from US literary critic Dorothea Mann,
'I don't think I'm such a great writer! I do my honest best but doubt that anybody will read me fifty years from now as Miss Mann prophecies - it'll take more than her say so to make me do anything but laugh at such an idea.'
and how fortunate we all are that Dorothy was for once proved entirely wrong.