Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Miss Lulu Bett by Zona Gale

Surprisingly compelling Midwestern realism
Zona Gale was born in Portage, Wisconsin. After several years writing for newspapers in Milwaukee and New York, she returned to her hometown to embark on a literary career. Drawing from the life she lived, Gale penned realist novels and stories depicting small-town Midwestern life. Her bestselling novel, Miss Lulu Bett, was published in 1920. Later that same year Gale adapted the work into a play, for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1921. A silent film adaptation soon followed. I am reviewing the novel, not the play.

Miss Lulu Bett, aged 34 and unmarried, lives in the household of her sister Ina, who is married to Dwight Herbert Deacon, a dentist and justice of the peace in the town of Warbleton. The Deacons have two daughters, and Ina and Lulu’s mother, Mrs. Bett, also lives with the family. Since Lulu has no source of income, she lives rent-free under the good graces of Dwight, who never lets her forget it. Dwight and Ina essentially treat Lulu like an unpaid servant. She cooks and cleans for her room and board, receives no allowance, and rarely ever even leaves the house. When word arrives that Dwight’s brother Ninian will be visiting from Oregon, Dwight facetiously teases Lulu that Ninian might just might want to snatch Lulu up for his wife. While such insinuations at first make Lulu embarrassed and uncomfortable, she can’t help but entertain any fantasy that might release her from her compulsory dependence on Dwight.

This novel is essentially a study of a small-town spinster’s life and a critique of the social order that denies her independence and dignity. As a work of Midwestern realism, Gale’s novel might immediately draw comparisons to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, but the tone is far different. This is no lighthearted comedy or satire; some of the scenes get downright uncomfortable. Rather than making fun of small-town life and simple middle-class folk, Gale sympathizes with her characters and reveals the extraordinary drama in ordinary lives. Her writing is more akin to the realism of Theodore Dreiser in novels like Sister Carrie or Jenny Gerhardt. Unlike Dreiser, however, who writes about the social conditions of womanhood as a keen observer, Gale has lived the life of a small-town Midwestern woman. She knows firsthand the restrictive mores under which her feminine protagonist lives. Gale didn’t get married until she was 54, eight years after the publication of Miss Lulu Bett, so she has an intimate knowledge of the title character’s feelings and concerns. The frustration that Gale expresses in this novel over the lack of freedom and opportunity for women has an urgency and poignancy that goes beyond well-intentioned empathy. Though Lulu Bett may be meek and mild, one senses the rebel in Zona Gale.

As an enthusiast of American literary realism, this work was a very pleasant surprise for me. The settings, characters, and relationships all bear a feeling of frank authenticity, and its discussion of women’s issues stands as a relevant historical document of its time. The dialogue is thoughtful and clever, and the plot moves in unexpected directions for most of its length. The novel’s one flaw is its ending, which is just too easy. Instead of a depressing slice of reality or a stirring declaration of independence, the plot is capped off with a rather formulaic resolution. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, from what Wikipedia tells me, had a different ending that seems an improvement.) In Gale’s hands, however, even a contrived plot element is handled sensitively and feels emotionally genuine. Though Miss Lulu Bett achieved financial success in print, on stage, and on screen, it doesn’t pander to the crowd and was likely challenging for audiences of its day. Times have thankfully changed since then, but a century later this is still a compelling read.

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