Mary Lee Settle Essay - Critical Essays


Whether her works are set in the present or in the past, in Europe or in West Virginia, Mary Lee Settle’s preoccupations are always the same: the quest for freedom and the pursuit of love in a threatening, changing social environment. Like a Greek dramatist, she employs a background of ordinary people who ignore the issues and the dangers of their time and place, who accept their intellectual and social prisons, blindly assuming that all is for the best, no matter what persons or what ideals they betray. In contrast to this chorus are a few exceptional people who are incapable of that blind and easy acceptance. Whatever the social cost, they insist on honesty. Whatever the political and economic cost, they seek freedom. Their ideals are ultimately democratic, for they will not judge others by narrow social standards or limit their associations by social formulas. Because they are uncompromising, they are destined to be misunderstood, ridiculed, deserted, even betrayed, but they may also be followed, admired, and loved.

Most of Settle’s novels fall into three categories: the southern novels, such as her first two published works, The Love Eaters and The Kiss of Kin, as well as The Clam Shell and Charley Bland; the Beulah Quintet, five historical novels published between 1956 and 1982, out of chronological order; and the European novels, the award-winning Blood Tie, set in contemporary Turkey, and Celebration, set in London but tracing the past lives of its characters to Kurdistan, Hong Kong, and Africa. Settle’s final work, I, Roger Williams, is a historical novel, though it was not linked to the Beulah Quintet except thematically. Like all of her previous novels, I, Roger Williams revisits the past in a search for social reform and personal redemption.

The Love Eaters

The Love Eaters is set in Canona, West Virginia, among the country-club people who will appear again in the final novel of the Beulah Quintet, The Killing Ground—Anne Randolph Potter, for example, the drawling Virginian, and her “real American” husband, George Potter. The men work, talk, and drink; the women decorate their homes, plan community projects, talk, and drink. With her fine ear for dialogue, Settle captures their sterile lives by carefully recording that talk, the beauty-shop gossip blaring under the hair dryers, the brief exchanges between husbands and wives, between mothers and daughters, between men in the country-club locker room. The marriages in Canona have become the routine relationships of people who live politely in the same houses, like the Potters and their friends the Dodds, Jim and Martha. Because she was tired of the meaningless talk, Martha married Jim, and when she feels alone in their silent home, she reminds herself that she got exactly what she wanted. What Jim himself wanted was a quiet routine; knowing this, Martha has not even permitted herself to bear him a child.

The bored women of the Canona Country Club have brightened their lives by organizing an acting company, and it is through this venture that one of the two disrupting forces in The Love Eaters comes to Canona. As the novel opens, the itinerant director Hamilton Sacks descends from the train, accompanied by his devoted mother. Sacks is a physical and emotional cripple who delights in “playing” the people he meets as if he were playing to an audience, as indeed he is, and who has no sense of moral responsibility for the effects his wicked hints may have on their lives. The second disrupting force comes, ironically, through the placid Jim Dodd. Through a letter, he has learned the whereabouts of his son by a previous marriage, about whom he had never told his childless present wife. With the arrival of charming, slender, handsome, and, above all, lovable Selby Dodd in Canona, the lives of Jim and Martha are changed forever.

In Settle’s modern version of Seneca the Younger’s play Phaedra (c. 40-55 c.e.; English translation, 1581), the passion of a menopausal woman, trapped in the aimless days and nights of a society that thinks in stereotypes and in a marriage whose value has been its placid silence, is no more surprising than the fact that George Potter keeps the local beautician as his mistress. Martha’s upcountry old mother is familiar with the yearnings of middle-aged women, familiar enough to warn that infatuations with young men, while not surprising, are generally unwise. Martha is not the only one who is taken with Selby Dodd, who, as Hamilton comments, lives on love and, without exerting himself, attracts women of all ages, as well as men such as Hamilton; Martha’s contemporary Anne Randolph Potter and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Sally Bee Potter, vie for Selby from the first time they meet him. There is, then, very little shock in speculations about Martha’s feelings. It is Martha who inflicts the punishment on herself, and her emphasis is not on the immorality of incestuous feelings or fear of a heroic husband—for neither moral rectitude nor heroism is common in Canona society—but on her own need for Selby’s physical and emotional love. As Hippolytus, Selby is neither morally outraged nor committed to a young princess. He trifles with Sally Bee Potter under the same rules that she observes in teasing him, but no love is involved, for Selby, like Hamilton, is too narcissistic to love anyone but himself and too opportunistic to be troubled by morality. Because his long-range plans include acquiring as much of Jim’s property as possible, however, Selby cannot afford to risk angering Jim, and his pose must remain that of loving son and considerate stepson.

The differences between the traditional tragic characters in this account of a stepmother’s passion for her stepson and Settle’s characters, who lack the tragic stature and the rigid moral sense of those in the earlier versions of the story, indicate the diminished standards of modern society, which imprisons its members within patterns that have no moral dimension but merely the force of mindless custom. At the end of the novel, Martha at least briefly takes responsibility for Selby’s death, but instead of dying, she loses her mind. Jim, too, escapes from reality; having made his dead son into a hero, he waits for Martha to become her old self.

The Kiss of Kin

In The Kiss of Kin, the imprisoning society is a southern family, brought together for a funeral. Into this society comes Abraham Passmore, summoned to claim his inheritance and determined also to discover the wrong that his father’s people once did to his mother. By the end of the novel, Abraham has forced the members of the family to admit the truth, but it is obvious that they will not therefore become honest. Only the cousin who leaves with him has been forced by the day’s events to reject the family, as well as her similarly dishonest Yankee lover, in order to find her own freedom.

While entertaining, The Kiss of Kin is too clearly an adaptation of the light comedy that Settle had first written. Like The Love Eaters, it is skillfully constructed, hilariously satirical, accurate in dialogue; avoiding authorial comment, it depends on dramatic scenes and on the meditations of the few sensitive characters to comment on the society that is its target. At this point, Settle made an important turn in her literary career. She produced the first of the Beulah Quintet novels, which plunged into the historical past to find the roots of that southern society realized in her first two novels.

O Beulah Land

Settle’s first two historical novels were written in chronological order. O Beulah Land is set in what was later to be West Virginia at the time of the French and Indian War; Know Nothing, in the 1840’s and 1850’s. It is significant that each of these novels takes place just before a momentous historic event—in the first case, the American Revolution; in the second, the Civil War. In both of them, exceptional people understand the issues of their time and respond heroically. Others either insist on living in a changeless world, clinging to a familiar pattern, or blindly refuse to admit that change is inevitable.

In O Beulah Land, a massacre results from the insistence of two Englishmen, at opposite ends of the social scale, that the New World pattern is no different from the pattern of the Old World. “Squire” Josiah Devotion Raglan steals, as he did in England; the arrogant British commander is rude, as he could afford to be in England. Unfortunately, the American Indians, whose tomahawk is stolen and whose pride is offended, are not governed by Old World rules, and the massacre is the outcome. Significantly, Hannah Bridewell, a transported prostitute and thief, survives captivity by the American Indians and reaches safety in the arms of a frontiersman, Jeremiah Catlett. Adapting to the New World, they create a marriage outside the church, which has not yet come to the wilderness, and later defend their home through the justifiable murder of the blackmailing Squire, who once again has miscalculated in the New World.

In the Lacey family, Settle again contrasts the selfish and the blind with those perceptive, freedom-loving individuals who refuse to enslave themselves to an old pattern. Sally Lacey, the spoiled, pretentious wife of Jonathan Lacey, refuses to adapt to frontier life. Failing in her lifelong crusade to make over her homely neighbors, Sally at last goes mad. In contrast, the printer Jarcey Pentacost has lost his shop rather than tailor his efforts to the values of a community already stagnating; for him, the frontier means freedom.

Know Nothing

In Know Nothing, although the historical background is very different, the descendants of the characters in O Beulah Land must choose between enslavement to old patterns that no longer suit the changing country and emerging new patterns. Another Sally Lacey and her husband, Brandon, must move west because the plantation economic system has failed them. Unable to adapt, Brandon kills himself, and Sally retreats permanently into the contemplation of her heredity. Other casualties of inherited patterns are Johnny Catlett, who cannot escape from his role as slave owner and finally as Confederate officer; Lewis Catlett, the prisoner of his religious obsession, whose abolitionism, the result of his mother’s influence, has in it no grain of compassion; Melinda Lacey and Sara Lacey, both trapped in miserable marriages from which, in a society that does not permit divorce, only death can release them. Already in Know Nothing, the same kind of social prisons from which American immigrants escaped have been established in the New World, and the quest for freedom has become more and more difficult.

Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday

In 1964, the Viking Press published Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, which was to have been the concluding work in the “Beulah Trilogy.” In that book, Hannah McKarkle, who is named for the heroic Hannah of O Beulah Land, comes to Canona, West Virginia, originally to see her brother and then to investigate his death. During her visit, she begins to explore the past of her family and of her region, thus, in a sense, becoming Mary Lee Settle herself. Unfortunately, the publishers so cut Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday that Settle found the relationships obscured. Eventually, she was to add two volumes to the Beulah works,...

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