Thursday, April 10, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Sylvia Cary, by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Sylvia Cary (The Old Gray Homestead) by Frances Parkinson Keyes

by Rich Horton

Back to a novel of a certain age (first published in 1919), that if not a bestseller was certainly a good seller for a long time, by a writer who had bestsellers, and which is pretty much forgotten by now, as, increasingly, is its once popular author.

It seems to me that you can find novels by Frances Parkinson Keyes at just about any larger used book sale. I've noticed them for a long time, never really been much tempted by them. It seems her favorite subject was New Orleans. I had thought she wrote mainly romantic historical novels, but in fact she wrote a wider variety: contemporary novels, at least one murder mystery, novels of political dealing in Washington, D.C., and yes, romantic historical novels. I looked her up on Wikipedia, and she turns out to have a rather interesting biography.

She was born in 1885 in Virginia, and got married at the age of 18 to a 40 year old man, Henry W. Keyes (pronounced to rhyme with "skies"). Keyes was a farmer, banker and state legislator in New Hampshire -- I'm not sure how they met. Keyes later became Governor of New Hampshire and then a three-term U. S. Senator.

Before her marriage Frances Parkinson Wheeler had wanted to go to college and to write, but apparently her husband was not willing to countenance either ambition. (Apparently she did extract a promise that any daughters they had would be given the opportunity to attend college -- in the event, they had three sons but no daughters.) According to the introduction to my edition of Sylvia Cary, she stole time to write privately, but did nothing with her stories until their finances became a little pinched -- apparently at the same time Henry Keyes was Governor (which I suppose implies something good about him!). She decided to submit a novel to a publisher -- in person! -- and he rejected it, but liked it enough to ask for the next thing she wrote. That book was The Old Gray Homestead (which Keyes retitled Sylvia Cary much later), and it was accepted and published in 1919. Some 50 further books followed, mostly novels but some nonfiction including a couple of memoirs, a collection of columns she wrote for Good Housekeeping when her husband was first a Senator, called Letters from a Senator's Wife, and a book about writing called The Cost of a Best Seller.

I have to say I find the bald facts of that marriage interesting -- the age difference is unusual, the geographical separation seems odd, and phrases (from the introduction again) like: "the suggestion that I would like to go to college and major in English was sternly opposed, both by my mother and the man to whom I was already engaged; the further suggestion that I wanted to be a professional writer met with not only rebuke but derision" do not really seem to support the notion of a love match. Though who knows?

Not surprisingly, her husband predeceased her by many years, after which she moved to New Orleans, where she eventually lived in a house in the French Quarter formerly occupied by the great chess player Paul Morphy and also the Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard. That house is now a museum, called the Beauregard-Keyes House. At some time she became a Catholic, and some of her novels are on Catholic themes. (She grew up Congregationalist, and joked that it was the long Congregationalist sermons that started her on the road to Catholicism.)

So what about the book? As noted, Sylvia Cary was Keyes' first novel, originally called The Old Gray Homestead, and published in 1919. My edition is a Paperback Library mass market reprint from 1965 (the first Paperback Library edition was in 1962, which is presumably when it became Sylvia Cary and when Keyes wrote the introduction).

It is set in Vermont, on the New Hampshire border, presumably close to where Keyes and her husband had lived before moving to Washington, D. C. (also in 1919). (Henry Keyes was buried in North Haverhill, on the Connecticut River which forms the border with Vermont -- I suspect it (or actually Haverhill) is the original of Wallacetown, the "big city" for the characters in Sylvia Cary.) The Grays are a large family living on a once prosperous, now struggling, farm. There are nine children in the family, seven still at home, all high school age and up. We meet Sally and Austin, two of the eldest, and we learn that Sally, a schoolteacher engaged to a local man, is nice, but her brother is disaffected and terribly cynical, for example suggesting that Sally should have instead married her fiance's unpleasant and alcoholic cousin, on the grounds that he has more money.  They are on their way home when they encounter a somewhat desperate young woman who is looking for a place to stay in the country.

This woman, of course, is Sylvia Cary, a very young widow (about 22). Her husband has recently died, and she has miscarried, and her mental state has been fragile, so she wants to get away from New York. The Grays take her in, and before you know it she is helping them out -- she is both very rich, so pays a rather generous rent, but she also has ideas on improving the farm -- mainly she more or less shames Austin and his father into putting the work into it that is needed, and shortly later she is helping in more direct ways: paying for the younger children to go to school, sending Austin overseas for a sort of "finishing" trip, where he also gets some good ideas for farming improvements, and so on.

Indeed she seems quite the paragon, even if her emotional state is still a bit ragged. So, naturally, cynical Austin takes against her. It is quite clear to the reader, of course, that Austin is actually in love with her from the start, but unable to declare himself for shame at his family's poverty and concern over her widowed position, and the reasons she was widowed. But this all develops quickly -- we learn the story of Sylvia's rather unpleasant marriage (it is clear that she was raped by her husband, and also beaten, though of course the former crime would not have drawn notice at that time). Soon the two are secretly close -- though no hanky panky takes place! -- even as Thomas, a younger brother, is also infatuated.

And so it goes ... with no real surprise as to the conclusion of the central story. A lot more goes on, though, including a controversial episode involving the youngest daughter and premarital sex, and some interludes with the somewhat unpleasant but quite funny gossipy neighbor, and a general rapid upward trend in the Gray fortunes.

The story reads nicely enough -- Keyes was an effective writer. The two main characters are, it must be said, implausible paragons (Austin's early disaffection and cynicism is rapidly discarded). The attitudes about men and women are more or less what you expect in a popular novel from 1919. Wikipedia says that Keyes' portrayals of African-Americans in her other books is, er, "of its time", but there are no Black characters in this book, and the one major foreign character is sympathetically enough portrayed.

I was a bit puzzled by the time frame of the book. It was published in 1919, no doubt written a few years before that (Keyes says in her introduction that she had "unearthed" and retyped it when the publisher asked her for something else after rejecting her first submission). There is absolutely no hint of World War I, even when the characters travel to Europe. So I suppose it should be thought of as set perhaps around 1910-1912. And perhaps that's right, but I was struck that motor cars seem semi-common, though certainly not ubiquitous. Was that true in rural Vermont by then? I guess perhaps it was. Anyway, given all that, the shadow of the War seems necessarily to hang over the end of the novel, at least in the reader's mind -- and surely that would have applied in spades in 1919.

I have to say that while this was an enjoyable enough read, it didn't really make me want to go get any further Keyes novels. Her books seem mostly out of print now, though some are available from what seems a very small press in a series called "Louisiana Heritage".


  1. Liked her books a lot as a kid and enjoyed going through her house in NOLA a few years ago.

  2. For some reason, maybe obvious, I always thought of her books as "books my mom would read".