Study Guide

Almost Innocent

by Sheila Bosworth

Almost Innocent Analysis

Almost Innocent (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

This first novel seems to be presented as an act of penance by its central character, Clayton-Leland Calvert, a young woman who tells her story because she has, since childhood, kept secret the fact that she once ignored her pregnant mother’s cries for help, as a result of which both the mother and the child she was carrying died. The theme of penance is introduced in the novel’s epigraph, taken from Seneca: “He who is penitent is almost innocent.”

At first glance, Almost Innocent may appear to be merely another conventional Southern gothic romance. Indeed, with characters named Rand Calvert, Clay-Lee, Felicity Léger, and Uncle Baby Brother, much of Bosworth’s story depends on the Southern aesthetic romance tradition of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers.

This, however, is a first novel that deserves a second look. Although it will often irritate the reader, first with its oversimplifications and then with its pretensions, at the same time one senses talent here.

Although the central character and point of view of the story is Clay-Lee, as she is called—her Southern “baby” name—the central figure is her mother, Constance Blaise Alexander Calvert, a beautiful woman from an upper-class family drawn to Rand Calvert at the age of seventeen because of the slightly dangerous allure of his artistic bohemianism. Her baby name is “Lamb,” and the basic trope that Bosworth seems to be trying to develop is that Constance is the representative of pampered young Southern aristocratic womanhood—always taken care of by men, from her doting father to her weak and anything-but-dangerous husband. She is thus the sacrificial lamb, offered up as both a product and a victim of the slightly decadent, slightly silly, Southern gentry.

The book itself is a kind of offering to the memory of Constance by her daughter. The story of Clay-Lee’s life with her parents, from her first memory to her final climactic “crime” against her mother when she was eleven, is framed by a short prologue and an epilogue depicting Clay-Lee as a grown woman helplessly standing by while her father drinks himself to death and protecting him from the truth about Constance and Uncle Baby Brother.

Since Constance is the center of the novel, and since one must have some background about her before her marriage to Rand and the beginnings of Clay-Lee’s memories, Bosworth prefaces the central section of the book with four chapters in which Clay-Lee interviews Felicity, her mother’s dying cousin, for information about her mother’s girlhood. This section seems gratuitous, except to supply exposition about Constance being spoiled as a child by her father; it presages the central theme of Constance as a beautiful child born to be cared for. When Felicity dies, she leaves Clay-Lee a letter inside a book of Ovid telling her to “go on without me” in her examination of the past so that she can finally see “cause and effect,” warning her that “it is part of grief to remember.”

Remembering is what the center of the novel is all about, and thus it appropriately begins with the words, “I remember Camp Street”—the lower-class area of New Orleans where Rand takes the elegant young Constance to live. What the adult Clay-Lee comes to understand is that both her parents were children—the father because he was never able to take responsibility for a family and give Constance the life she seemed to deserve by social right, and the mother because she was simply too beautiful and sweet to be anything but admired and cared for. A minor metaphoric detail that seems to reflect the novel itself is a box of butter mints that Clay-Lee remembers, with a cobweb inside; in fact, it is this sense of sweet decay and antique gentility, perhaps inevitable in novels about New Orleans gentry, that seems to permeate Almost Innocent.

Also inevitably, since she is after all a delicate Southern beauty, Constance is often ill—a problem with the lungs—and one is reminded of the nineteenth century metaphor of consumption as an aesthetic disease that seems to spiritualize further those for whom the world is too physical and real to be tolerated. Furthermore, Constance is too narcissistically preoccupied with her own...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)

Almost Innocent Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Kirkus Reviews. LII, September 15, 1984, p. 865.

Los Angeles Times. November 29, 1984, V, p. 30.

New Leader. LXVII, December 10, 1984, p. 5.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, December 30, 1984, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, October 19, 1984, p. 29.