(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

“I’m alive, alive, alive, and I’m Jenny Blair Archbald,” exclaims the precocious nine-year-old Jenny, on having thrown aside as tedious Louisa Alcott’s Little Women (1868). Jenny lives with three somewhat downtrodden females—her widowed mother and two aunts—in the household of her grandfather, General David Archbald. An aged, highly civilized man, the general seeks to maintain his aristocratic family amid declining fortunes in a once-elegant but rapidly failing Queenborough neighborhood. Jenny, like her mother, grandfather, and aunts, is an ardent admirer of the similarly circumstanced married couple who live nearby, Eva and George Birdsong, whose marriage is a subject of speculative discussion among the Archbald women.

Eva Birdsong, a queenly belle of the 1890’s and still an acknowledged beauty as she approaches her forties, abandoned her social position as well as a planned singing career when she fell in love with George Birdsong. George, a barely successful attorney, is handsome, invariably charming and likable, and a consummate philanderer who recognizes Eva’s worth but is unable to rise to it. Aware that her beauty and the social attentions that it commands are waning, Eva refuses to acknowledge even the most blatant evidences of George’s adulteries.

Increasingly amoral and hedonistic, Jenny, even as a child, idolized Eva Birdsong for her regal beauty and character, neither of which, she realizes, lies within her reach. Jenny is also powerfully drawn to George, who has cultivated her affections since her childhood. Jenny, moreover, shares a secret with him: Having injured herself falling off roller skates one day in a poorer neighborhood, she was cared for, as it happened, by George and his black mistress. Over the years, Jenny is a frequent and favored visitor in the Birdsong household. Eva, as her fortunes worsen, begins to confide in Jenny, explaining how plans...

(The entire section is 786 words.)