Born and educated in Mississippi, Elizabeth Spencer later lived in Italy, married an Englishman, and settled permanently in Montreal. Her work reflects the breadth of her experience. Although her first three novels were set in her native state, the Jamesian short novel for which she is best known, The Light in the Piazza (1960), and the work that succeeded it, Knights and Dragons (1965), were both stories of American women in Italy, while The Snare (1972) took place in New Orleans. Even though Spencer returned to Mississippi for the setting of The Salt Line (1984), it was the coastal region, and thus a very different environment from that of those earlier novels set in the inland part of the state.
The short stories for which Spencer is so highly praised are as varied in setting as her novels. Those collected in The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (1981), which represent three decades of work, range from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee to New York, Rome, and Montreal. As Eudora Welty points out in her foreword to that volume, however, it is almost inevitable for Southern writers to be fascinated with relationships and with the problems of individual identity which inevitably arise from those relationships. It might be added that Southern writers are also very much aware of the past as a factor that affects relationships and influences the sense of personal identity. Although she no longer lives in the South, and although many of her stories are set outside of it, Spencer’s themes are those so familiar in Southern literature, the themes of William Faulkner, of Flannery O’Connor, of Welty, and of the writers who are still emerging in the ongoing Southern Renaissance.
Like her earlier works, the five stories in Jack of Diamonds: And Other Stories, though varied in setting, deal with the dominant themes of Southern literature. The two longest stories are also the most complex. Both “The Cousins” and “The Business Venture” are set in small towns in the Deep South, where certain families have lived for generations. Their complexity arises from the size of the society: Because a larger number of characters are intimately involved with one another, their pattern of relationships is particularly complicated. The other stories, “Jean-Pierre” and “The Skater,” set in Montreal, and “Jack of Diamonds,” which takes place in New York City and in a Lake George weekend home, are more limited in cast, reflecting the fact that, for better or for worse, in an urban area, the central family unit is usually more isolated.
In the title story of the book, for example, when Rosalind Jennings lost her mother, there was no community of kinfolk and lifelong friends to give her a sense of security. She had only her father, Nat Jennings, and the memory of her dead mother. At the beginning of the story, Rosalind returns to the family’s weekend place for the first time since her mother’s death. At first, it seems that Rosalind is about to break out of her isolation. The permanent residents are happy to see her again and sympathetic about her loss; some weekenders her own age, whom she knew slightly in her childhood, welcome Rosalind into their activities; and a brilliant local boy pays special attention to her. She can look forward to the arrival of her father and her new stepmother, Eva Jennings, who she must admit is kind and considerate. Above all, as long as she can return to Lake George, Rosalind can feel close to her mother, whose presence permeates every room, whose taste is reflected in every one of the furnishings she chose for the place that she so loved.
Unfortunately, there is to be no real community for Rosalind. The adolescent brother and sister plan only to use her, and the permanent residents, including the family of the boy she likes so much, will always shut her out from real intimacy. During her stay at Lake George, Rosalind also realizes that her father himself is as two-faced as a playing...
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