Our book today is that 1433-page beacon of hope to procrastinators and late bloomers everywhere, Helen Hooven Santmyer’s 1984 runaway bestselling novel … and Ladies of the Club, written over a lifetime and finally published when its author was 88 years old. The book stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for years (the rest of its author’s life, as it turned out) and baffled American book-critics, who found themselves groping for telling euphemisms to simultaneously describe and deride what happens when the quotidian is pursued with such unswerving concentration over such vast page-lengths that the end result alchemizes into gold. The common motif in these reviews was that of surrender; critics talked of ‘giving yourself over’ to Santmyer’s endless pages, of ‘yielding’ to the book’s jasmine and hyacinth charms. The New York Daily News reviewer promised that those who “abandoned themselves” to its spell would be amply rewarded; the canny book-stringer for UPI declared that it shared the same magic as the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (a point that was said to have delighted Santmyer, rightly so); even the bombastic critic for the old Boston Herald implied that damning this book would be the moral equivalent of damning your mother’s corned beef and cabbage (they use such standards in Southie, or they used to).
It will be discerned at once that none of this exactly constitutes fair praise, but Santmyer must surely be acquitted of the kind of arch playing on sentimental heart-strings for which she’d be convicted – and lauded (and Oprah’d) today. Our author led a long and varied life, an upright life (study, teaching, mentoring), an engaged and thinking life. She was born in 1895 and died in 1986, and she spent most of those years in the relatively small town of Xenia, Ohio, teaching its young girls to think and question and laugh. And it’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that Santmyer was also absorbing all the atmospheric details around her that whole time, observing everybody, steeping herself in the unspoken complexities of small-town living – as though Miss Marple came equipped with a manual typewriter and an Oxford degree. Very slowly, an enormous novel came into existence.
The book tells the story of the Waynesboro Woman’s Club, which is founded in 1868 as a kind of working literary society (members being expected not only to do the required reading but to present papers on literary subjects). In masterly, leisurely fashion, we very slowly have unfolded for us the lives of the various Waynesboro women who come together to create the club; each chapter begins with the year in big bold letters followed by the current roster of the Club – so we see new names gradually become familiar and then one year fail to appear, although more new names do. In the 21st Century, book clubs are continuing to experience something of a minor renaissance, but in general they’re feeble echoes of the great clubs of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which usually did more than simply offer a bit of genial book-discussion to accompany the wine and cheesy bits and off-topic gossip. Those earlier clubs had ambition – their members held carefully-monitored debates on great topics, commissioned detailed papers on authors and ideas from their members, and often poured large amounts of time and energy into amateur theatricals, as Santmyer’s ladies do:
Unfortunately, Mrs. Ballard proved incapable of memorizing, and the first act threatened to lose its force, since the king’s fiercest speeches had to be read through a lorgnette, from slips of paper clasped in hands so drawn and stiffened by rheumatism that the pages were fumbled, sometimes confused, and the place lost. But Mrs. Ballard was so amazingly humble in her desire not to ruin everything for “you young people” that they forgave her, with growing affection. Mrs. Deming, on the other hand, was coldly perfect in her part, but she was too plainly enjoying herself, and forebore to criticize, so that fun was not altogether subdued in her presence.
It’s true that this sort of thing lends itself both to the gentle satire of a Helen Hokinson and more savage appraisals from less forgiving quarters, but the key to the success of … and Ladies of the Club is that Santmyer takes these women very seriously even while she’s very clear-headed about the narrowness of their world. She herself considered this gigantic book to be almost entirely about politics – not Woman’s Club politics and not Waynesboro politics but national and even international politics. Time and again, our ladies chat at great, detailed length about the upheavals convulsing the larger world beyond their trellised porches, the world being experienced directly by their husbands, brothers, and eventually sons.
But like many authors of gigantic books, Santmyer could be mistaken about which notes readers will hear clearest (M. M. Kaye had the same problem in assessing her own gigantic book, The Far Pavilions). Despite all the news of the outside world that makes its way to Waynesboro over the course of these pages, the main concern of the book is always the Club – and the sometimes byzantine strategies of care with which its self-assured matriarchs administer it:
Mrs. Maxwell spent some time in deliberating on whether to include so light-minded an author as Froissart, but by midsummer it was fairly certain Mrs. Jessamine Stevens would be elected to Club membership in the fall; Froissart would be a suitable subject for her: a frivolous historian and a frivolous woman; besides, hadn’t southerners always been fascinated by the days of chivalry? But since Mrs. Stevens could hardly be asked to do a paper almost immediately after becoming a Club member, Froissart must be taken out of chronological order.
As that passage makes clear, in every chapter – almost on every page – there are glimpses and hints of the sharp, understated, teasing humor Santmyer’s friends treasured in her. By the time she was polishing the final manuscript of this book, our author was the most wonderful of all creatures, a sharp old bird, the kind of old lady who’s neither addled by piety nor blunted by timidity. She carves quick scenes with a knowing wink at the audience even when her Ladies of the Club are in complete earnest:
The Woman’s Club met as usual. Lavinia Stevens brought a guest to one fall meeting: young Mrs. Dr. Warren. She was an attractive girl, charmed the members, and, most importantly, Sally Rausch; and before the fall was over, she had been invited to become a member. “At least,” as Sally said, “no clerical taint.” Having had her way so far as one member was concerned, she did not oppose the election of the Methodist minister’s wife for the other vacancy – a Mrs. Harrington. “Methodist ministers aren’t allowed to say long, anyway,” she said to Anne.
In fact, Santmyer is such effervescent company throughout this book that the reader easily forgets how exceptionally old she was when she was revising these chapters. The only major hint (aside from the sheer amount of small-town wisdom packed into some very small spaces throughout) comes in the many offhand reminders that death at the turn of the 20th Century was a far more ubiquitous and powerful enemy to suburban American women than it’s ever been since. Our ladies are healthy one year and gone the next, and sickness – including serious illness – is a constant, if minor, refrain. You aren’t more than two or three hundred pages in before you slowly realize that a young person simply couldn’t have written this book.
Young people can certainly read it, however – anybody can, and with great pleasure. Most enormous novels require at least some element of that surrender all those original critics were carping about, after all – more so than shorter works, they not only elicit a world but demand that we inhabit it fully. If they’re good enormous novels, we won’t want to leave their world, no matter what the page-count is. This is certainly true with … and Ladies of the Club: you’ll want that intense and welcoming little world of Waynesboro to stay the same forever. And thanks to Helen Hooven Santmyer, it will.