Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer is a collection of short stories by one of the most-admired writers in that genre. As a native Mississippian, Elizabeth Spencer is well aware of the restrictions that a traditional society places on all of its members and especially on its women. Many of the characters in her stories are torn between their desire for freedom from family and community pressures and their equally intense need for the sense of stability and permanence that they derive from their heritage.

The collection is introduced by two brief but significant essays. In her preface, the author asserts that even though many of her stories were written while she was living in Italy or in Montreal, she can see that at least in memory the South was always with her. While she was always conscious of place, however, it was not until she had been writing for three decades that a unifying theme appeared in her fiction: the affirmation that girls and women can find ways to make what is for them a very difficult world “possible, livable.”

The foreword by Eudora Welty points to one source of support for such women. As Welty describes their friendship of long standing, which began when Spencer was still in college, it is evident that this relationship, based on respect for each other as individuals and as writers, meant much to both women. Spencer’s fellow Mississippian sees qualities in her friend’s fiction that reflect the tradition of...

(The entire section is 570 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As Spencer has indicated in various essays and interviews, in her fiction she explores complex situations and relationships, then looks for some way in which her protagonists’ lives can be bettered, if not perfected. As she wrote in the preface to this volume, she seems increasingly to be applying this pattern to what she calls “seeking girls and women.”

From the beginning of her career, Spencer has tended to choose a female point of view for her narratives. In her works of the 1980’s and 1990’s, however, one can see a new emphasis on women’s issues. This is as evident in her novels as in her short stories. In The Night Travellers (1991), although the young draft protester is a sympathetic character and his eventual fate a tragic one, Spencer focuses on the predicament of his young wife—abandoned in a foreign country, left with a child to support but without funds, friends, or family to help her. So often, Spencer sees, it is women who are expected to pick up the pieces.

As a tough-minded realist, however, Spencer does not spend her time bemoaning the problems that women face but instead, especially in the final stories in this collection, tries to see what her characters can do with the hands that they are dealt. Sometimes fortune favors her women. The young girl in “A Christian Education” has a self-sufficient grandfather to imitate; his gift to her is indeed the gift of freedom. Similarly, when her own family...

(The entire section is 413 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Cole, Hunter McKelva. “Windsor in Spencer and Welty: A Real and an Imaginary Landscape.” Notes on Mississippi Writers 7 (Spring, 1974): 2-11. Compares the use made by Eudora Welty and Elizabeth Spencer of the same picturesque ruin. Though the protagonist of Spencer’s story “A Southern Landscape,” Marilee Summerall, knows that both Windsor and the aristocratic Foster Hamilton are doomed, she sees them as symbols of something unchanging.

Evoy, Karen. “Marilee: ‘A Permanent Landscape of the Heart.’” Mississippi Quarterly 36 (Fall, 1983): 569-578. A review of Marilee (1981), which consisted of the three stories told in the voice of Marilee Summerall. Like Spencer herself, Marilee sees how stultifying a traditional society can be, while at the same time finding that only in her recognition of family ties and of the presence of the past can she attain the sense of stability that she desperately needs.

Neely, Jessica. “Personal Allegiances.” Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 7 (Winter, 1991-1992): 11-12. Argues that the theme of “personal allegiances—to community, family, friends” dominates Spencer’s later collection, Jack of Diamonds and Other Stories (1988). Stories set in places as different from each other as Canada and the Deep South show how relationships between...

(The entire section is 500 words.)