Mary Lee Settle

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Mary Lee Settle was a distinguished American writer who has had to be periodically rediscovered; both her life and her career exhibit a series of ups and downs. Her father and mother, Joseph Edward and Rachel Tompkins Settle, were from the small circle of enterprising West Virginia families who helped establish industry and coal mining. When Settle was about two years old the family moved deeper into the Appalachian hinterlands, to Pineville, Kentucky, near where her father owned a coal mine on Straight Creek in Harlan County. When Settle was about seven years old, the coal business failed and the family moved to Orlando, Florida. There her father, a civil engineer, worked in the land boom, designing, among other things, the layout of Venice, Florida. When the Florida boom fizzled in 1928, the family returned to live with Settle’s maternal grandmother in Cedar Grove, West Virginia. Eventually they settled in Charleston, where the family struggled through the Depression. Despite hard times, there was money for Settle’s elocution lessons and, later, college.{$S[A]Palmer, Mrs. Charles;Settle, Mary Lee}

After two years at Sweet Briar College from 1936 to 1938 Settle rebelled and left school. On the basis of her acting credentials—a summer at Virginia’s Barter Theater and an audition for the film role of Scarlett O’Hara—she went to New York. There, after working as a model, she married an Englishman, Rodney Weathersbee, in 1939. They moved to Canada, where Weathersbee enlisted in the Canadian army and their son Christopher was born. Settle herself joined the World War II struggle in 1941: Leaving her son with her parents in West Virginia, she traveled to Great Britain and enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) branch of the Royal Air Force (RAF). Her service with the WAAF, recounted in All the Brave Promises, was a watershed period in her life during which she was forced to confront the British class system. She was on control tower duty for thirteen months until she began to be overcome by “signals shock” from constantly listening for radioed pilots’ voices through enemy jamming. Settle then transferred to the Office of War Information in London; there she became friends with a group of excellent writers and editors, which motivated her to begin writing herself.

After World War II Settle faced a major decision. She had obtained a good editing job with Harper’s Bazaar magazine in New York, but after a brief time there she decided to devote herself to her own writing. In 1946, divorced from Weathersbee, Settle returned to England with her son and married the British poet Douglas Newton. They embarked on the precarious existence of struggling writers in England and in Paris. Settle took on freelance journalistic assignments, writing, for example, an etiquette column for Woman’s Day under the pseudonym Mrs. Charles Palmer and serving as English correspondent for Flair magazine. At the same time she wrote six plays and four film scripts, though without finding either a producer or a publisher. Finally, in 1954, she published her first novel, The Love Eaters, about an amateur play production in a West Virginia town. Her second novel, The Kiss of Kin, a reworking of one of her earlier plays and also set in West Virginia, soon followed and was received with enthusiasm; critics praised Settle as a sophisticated novelist of small-town manners.

Her marriage soon showed the strain of her newfound success, and in 1955 she left her husband (they were divorced in 1956) and returned to Charleston with her son. Here her situation gradually deteriorated, though she published O Beulah Land and Know...

(This entire section contains 1037 words.)

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Nothing, two volumes in the Beulah Quintet, considered by some to be her major work. A third volume, Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, suffered so much editorial cutting that she later rewrote it as The Killing Ground. In 1961 she worked in New York as an editor for American Heritage; between 1965 and 1969 she taught one semester a year at Bard College until, in 1969, she moved abroad to protest Richard Nixon’s election as president. Two of her novels—The Clam Shell, an autobiographical work based on her Sweet Briar years, and Prisons, another volume in the Beulah Quintet—appeared without benefit of New York reviews. She had trouble finding a publisher for her next novel, Blood Tie, which drew on her three-year stay in Turkey, but when that work was eventually published, it was awarded the 1978 National Book Award in Fiction, which marked a dramatic upswing in her career. Her subsequent novels, including The Scapegoat (considered the best volume in the Beulah Quintet), The Killing Ground, and Celebration, were published to major reviews. Settle returned to the United States in 1974 to live in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in 1978 she married the journalist and historian William Littleton Tazewell. They both taught writing at the University of Virginia until retiring to their home in Norfolk, Virginia, to concentrate on their own work. Tazewell died in 1998 and Settle continued to live in Virginia until her death from lung cancer in 2005.

The mixed response to Settle’s fiction in part reflects her association with the South, particularly southern Appalachia. She has been sometimes scornfully dismissed, sometimes proudly claimed as a regional writer. No writer, however, more easily exposes the limited meaning of such labels; for her, “regional” in effect means “international.” She lived abroad for long periods, and the two novels usually considered her best, Blood Tie and Celebration, have international settings. Even her monumental Beulah Quintet, with its great theme of the search for freedom, begins in seventeenth century Great Britain with the symbolically entitled Prisons (O Beulah Land, Know Nothing, The Scapegoat, and The Killing Ground follow in chronological order). Her novel I, Roger Williams, also returns to the seventeenth century roots of independence, creating a fictional autobiography of the founder of Rhode Island. Critical reception of Settle’s work has also been shaped by prevailing attitudes toward historical fiction, which has at times been dismissed as a genre tainted by association with popular sagas. Critical fashions change, however, and Settle is one of a number of writers—including figures as diverse as Larry McMurtry and Thomas Flanagan—who have contributed to a modest renaissance of the historical novel.


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