Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787
Fifty-eight-year-old Lyman Ward is a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where his research won for him a Bancroft Prize. Following his retirement, Lyman, partially disabled since he lost a leg to a bone disease, moves to Grass Valley, California. He lives in Zodiac Cottage, which was built and inhabited for many years by his paternal grandparents, Oliver and Susan Burling Ward. There he finds the letters from which he reconstructs the story of his grandparents’ lives.
Oliver, a self-taught engineer and a cousin of Henry Ward Beecher, drops out of Yale after two years because of failing eyesight. He meets Susan at a reception in Brooklyn; shortly thereafter, he leaves for California, seeking his fortune. Susan, a twenty-one-year-old art student who mixes freely in New York’s artistic and literary society, corresponds with Oliver but is not romantically attached to him.
Her lifelong friend is Augusta Drake, with whom Lyman suggests his grandmother may have had a lesbian relationship during the first five years of their friendship. Susan, not actively seeking a husband, develops a strong platonic attachment to Thomas Hudson, the brilliant editor of Scribner’s and later The Century. Thomas, Susan, and Augusta become an inseparable trio. Then Thomas and Augusta marry. Their marriage leaves Susan feeling excluded.
Coincidentally, Oliver returns after half a decade in the West and spends a week with Susan and her family in Milton, New York. During that week, Susan falls in love with and decides to marry Oliver, agreeing to join him in the West for a short sojourn before they return to the East to live permanently.
Two weeks after they marry in Milton, Oliver returns to California, where he works as a mining engineer in New Almaden. He prepares a house for Susan, spending so much money on renovation that he has nothing left to send her for the railroad tickets she needs to get herself and her servant, Lizzie, across the continent. Susan pays for the tickets, setting out for what becomes a lifelong adventure.
Oliver’s work is extremely demanding. He has a knack for invention but lacks the business acumen to profit from such inventions as hydraulic cement or flood control valves, which he develops, fails to patent, and loses to opportunists. Early in their marriage, Oliver sometimes lives apart from Susan because the places where he works lack suitable accommodations for her.
Susan continues to draw and to write, regularly selling her work to significant publishers in the East, always nurturing the dream of returning to Eastern society. Susan remains ever the Eastern snob; Oliver remains the kindly, gentle, unassuming engineer and inventor. When Susan is thirty-seven years old and Oliver thirty-five, their marriage crumbles. Infatuated with Oliver’s assistant, Frank Sargent, Susan conspires to go into the Idaho countryside with him, saying that she is taking five-year-old Agnes for a walk. She does not pay sufficient attention to Agnes, whose lifeless body is found floating in a canal. The day after Agnes’s funeral, Frank Sargent commits suicide.
(The entire section contains 787 words.)
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