Reading is one of the best ways to expose oneself to new perspectives. Good literature summons pathos for characters, even when their situations differ from our own—perhaps especially when. I’m not just talking about science fiction and fantasy, spaceships and magic wands; all literature is ultimately about experiencing the Other through an author’s prose. This is the transformative act that is reading.
I’m getting all literary critic here because As for Me and My House is one of those transformative works. It is quintessentially a “Great Depression novel”, a work that pulls you from your present time and thrusts upon you the perspective of one who is attempting to keep it all together in the face of economic and social vicissitudes. The book is deceptively slim: owing to its epistolary form, it is mostly description with little dialogue. The result is something that works quite well as a glimpse at the Depression—but it still leaves me with some reservations.
I shall start and end with Mrs. Bentley.
Really, everything about As for Me and My House comes back to our narrator. Stories told in the first person are always more of a relationship between narrator and reader. The narrator asks of the reader a modicum of trust: the reader must trust that the tale is, if not strictly true, then at least worth telling. First-person narratives are inherently narcissistic, because the narrator tends only to focus on the events and emotions important to him or to her. Indeed, when an author does it right, first-person narrators should be, to some extent, unreliable. If not, then what is the point of using a first-person narrator at all?
So in Mrs. Bentley, Sinclair Ross delivers an extremely interesting narrator. Not being a woman myself, I can’t comment on whether Ross successfully captures a woman’s perspective. (I found it satisfying in that regard, but that could be male-pattern blindness.) I know Mrs. Bentley’s missing first name is a source of controversy: some reviewers praise it as a symbol of her desire to remain anonymous, even in her own diary; others see it as another symbol of her oppression by and sublimation to Philip, and perhaps some insensitivity and sexism on Ross’ part. So this book has plenty of room for different interpretations, different schools of criticism. There’s a lot of subtext here, if one has the time and patience to tease it out. (My edition has an afterword by Robert Kroetsch, who is apparently a noted authority of postmodernism. I would like to see an afterword from a feminist author.)
That limiting factor, patience, depends entirely on how one feels about Mrs. Bentley’s voice. She is the novel, and Ross puts her on an interesting trajectory. At the beginning, she is a sympathetic character: capable and handy, but limited by her gender and station. Both she and her husband have other aspirations, but they are forced to get by as wife and pastor. Through Mrs. Bentley’s diary entries, we see the joys and difficulties of living in a small prairie town. They experience the effect of drought on the town’s livelihood, the largesse and the pettiness of neighbours, and the conflicts of religion and class. Toward the end of the novel, however, Mrs. Bentley gradually becomes less sympathetic. She starts obsessing over the nature of the relationship between Philip and country girl Judith West, and she plots to adopt the child that Judith bears out of wedlock.
I confess I’m a sucker for righteous indignation at close-mindedness. The snobbery of the Finleys pushed all my buttons! At every turn it seemed like the Bentleys were at a disadvantage because they were trying to do the right thing, to be good people, when the Finleys were too focused on being proper people (because for them, of course, what is proper must also be good). This is also part of a larger critique of Christian congregations in prairie towns: Philip is a minister who does not particularly believe in the Church, and his congregation has plenty of people who do not necessarily reflect all the Christian values, like charity and tolerance and love. So Mrs. Bentley and I were usually in agreement about these episodes, and it was interesting to see when she chose to rock the boat and when she chose to keep the peace….
As fun as it is to criticize the secondary characters, their flaws are far less fascinating than those of the main characters. As for Me and My House, as its title implies, is about a family. Mrs. Bentley and Philip are the permanent members of this family, with Steve a temporary adjunct and a baby by the end. Close friends of the Bentleys, like Paul and Judith, orbit this arrangement.
Mrs. Bentley’s entries, in both style and subject matter, usually concentrate on the details: her descriptions are meticulous and precise; her concerns are often quotidian, related to budgets and numbers and the pragmatism necessary in an economic depression. We get a good sense of the struggle between living and saving, as well as the thin line between being seen as generous and being seen as extravagant (which would never do for a minister and his wife!). Lately I’ve been applying me “English teacher” eye to everything I read, because we are being trained to think about how we would teach things like novels, and I can see how I would teach this one: it would really speak to detail-oriented, practical students. How did people live during the Depression? What sort of tensions did poverty cause in a town and within a family? (As long as poverty exists, that question will be as relevant in the present day as it is for the era this novel depicts.)
Most of Mrs. Bentley’s entries focus on her relationship with Philip. She gave up a career as a pianist for Philip, but then Philip abandoned his dreams of artistry for the more steady job of clergyman. Twelve years later, their marriage has gone stale. Do they still love each other? Difficult to say (and I won’t spoil it for you). But their lives are not easy, and so neither is their marriage. Even accounting for bias, Philip does things that understandably frustrate his wife—and she is sometimes no better toward him.
Despite her unique position as narrator, Mrs. Bentley is often harsher on herself than she is on Philip. She criticizes and regrets some of her own choices, particularly when it comes to how she handles Philip and Steve’s relationship. She acknowledges when she has probably overreacted, and she tells us when she lies to Philip (to her credit, she usually tells him too).
And then there’s Judith and Paul. Paul and Judith. The other two points in the love constellation—or if not love, then … companionship. Paul and Judith offer Mrs. Bentley and Philip, respectively, the possibility of infidelity in a way that, as far as Mrs. Bentley tells us, has never manifested before. In a somewhat postmodern twist, Ross keeps the extent of these relationships ambiguous: we ultimately don’t learn whether Philip is the father of Judith’s baby or what exactly happens between Mrs. Bentley and Paul.
I think it’s safe to say that Mrs. Bentley is fairly convinced of Philip’s infidelity, for this is the primary attraction of adopting Judith’s child. And this is where As for Me and My House founders: Judith dies; the Bentleys get the babe … and Mrs. Bentley writes this:
For me it’s easier this way. It’s secretly what I’ve been hoping for all along. I’m glad she’s gone—glad—for her sake as much as ours. What was there ahead of her now anyway? If I lost Philip what would there be ahead of me?
Again, there’s that unusual, almost perverse honesty from our narrator: she confesses to feeling relief that Judith has died. Judith—and some might disagree here—never seemed to me like she was intentionally attempting to draw Philip into her grasp. Even if she did, however, it’s a horrible sentiment for Mrs. Bentley to have, and this confession cannot help but colour the sympathy one has hopefully heretofore experienced for her.
I don’t think it makes her a monster though. Her mistakes and her weaknesses are all too human. As for Me and My House catalogues a couple who are constantly struggling not to slip from the principles they have set out before them. They do not always succeed. The result is a thing we call life. Sometimes life is hard because the universe is not fair, society is not perfect, and other people suck. Sometimes life is hard because we make it hard, through our choices as much as through our successes and failures.
It’s interesting to note its publication history, with McClelland & Stewart essentially marketing it into the Canadian classics after they reissued it in 1957. I guess the zeitgeist changed sufficiently in the interim to make this book more appealing—perhaps the additional distance from the Depression helped too. This checkered past dovetails with my own final evaluation: I enjoyed As for Me and My House, but I think it suffers from the Postmodernist Uncertainty Principle. Without generalizing too much, I shall explain: sometimes the ambiguity that often appears in postmodern works constrains the impact of a book even if it frees the reader to imagine the ending. There are times when the confirmation of an event is the bedrock on which its significance and potency rests. It’s that conflict between what a book is and what we want it to be—and if a book can be anything we want, then what meaning does it have?
So this book, such as it is, certainly generated a lot of thought on my part…. I would not go so far as it to call it a classic of Canadian literature, but it is an interesting perspective of life during the Great Depression. The characterization is simultaneously intensely intricate and extremely vague; the relationships are complicated and ambiguous yet delicious all the same. As for Me and My House is a story about a woman who must be introspective; she sets her doubts down on paper to render them powerless over her life.