“Photographs are not memories,” says the narrator in the opening line of The Furies, for as Helen studies old family photographs she cannot make them mesh with her own realities and remembrances. “For a long time my mother and I lived such a solitary life, city-trapped and economically precarious, so isolated from everything resembling family or stability,” Helen says, that the faded photographs of her ancestors seem “even now a kind of fairy tale.” Yet familial patterns influence and shape Helen not only in her formative childhood but also in her adult relationships. The Furies of Greek mythology are avenging spirits—older even than Zeus or any of the other Olympians—who hound their victims relentlessly from place to place; here it is Helen’s family background that pursues her and dominates her image of herself. In this autobiographical novel Janet Hobhouse, through her narrator Helen, richly portrays loves that cannot translate into practical help, loves that-however intense-prove unworkable, inadequate. Yet ultimately Helen believes that it is only the continuing spirit of love that matters or redeems.
In the poetic opening section of the novel, titled “Prologue,” Helen relates her family lineage. Ancestors emigrated from Germany to New York and became prosperous with a Japanese import business that continued for decades, providing exotic foreign travel, pleasant summers in Upstate New York, and secure jobs for family members and additions through marriage. The business collapsed, however, with the death of Mirabel, Helen’s great-grandmother, the respected matriarch who had managed it for many years after the death of her husband Samuel. Mirabel, called Angel, was “no beauty”; Helen says, “I, who did not know her long enough to fall in with the adulation, I am the one to tell you: she was downright ugly.” Mirabel and all the family seem to have believed that her looks predetermined her fate. Since she could not be a beauty like her mother, Elizabeth Woolf, she “agreed to be clever.” From Mirabel on, offspring are seen as “good” or “bad” depending on looks and personality, the qualities that determine their chances for marriage, success, happiness.
As a young woman Mirabel dropped her hopes for a career and agreed to marry as her parents dictated, though it cost her a nervous breakdown. At twenty-six she wed a Tennessee widower several years her senior, and they quickly had two daughters, Elizabeth and Emma. Tennessee, as the family called him, joined the family business but had little presence in the household.
Of the two daughters, Elizabeth (named for her grandmother Elizabeth Woolf but called “Shrimp”) is the “good” one—obedient, marrying properly, giving up career for family. This socially acceptable scenario is shattered, however, when her handsome husband runs off with “a peroxide starlet” and Shrimp, like her mother, suffers a nervous breakdown (though this time over the divorce rather than over marrying). Shrimp then returns home to live with her mother and later in an apartment “in stoical solitude.”
The slightly younger daughter, Emma, is judged by the family as hard, daring, and rebellious. At seventeen she runs off with an older art teacher. In the first few days with Vergil she realizes that he is not the right partner for her adventures, but her parents track her down and insist that she must now marry him. Emma gives up her dream to become an artist and marries Vergil, who joins the family firm. They quickly have two daughters, Bett and Constance. Vergil is a religious fanatic who fills the household with tension, fear, and abuse. By the time Emma is thirty-two she is divorced and living as a poor would-be artist in Greenwich Village. Bett and Constance bounce between her and their grandmother Mirabel, “simultaneously motherless and overmothered.”
Bett and Constance, one dark and one fair, repeat the dualities and oppositions seen in Shrimp and Emma. “Bad” Constance is a placid blonde, egotistical and self-absorbed. “Good” Bett (named for her Aunt Elizabeth) is exceptionally beautiful and graceful but chronically nervous and prone to panics. The sisters quarrel steadily. Bett marries a tall Englishman, Francis Lowell, but finds living with him in England terrifying; within two years she suffers a nervous breakdown and comes home to New York...
(The entire section is 1797 words.)