I have Rachel at Book Snob to thank for today's Lost in the Stacks find. So many of the books in my library's stacks are old and unassuming, so it's hard to tell which might be a hidden gem sitting so quietly on the shelf, and which I can safely pass by. I know there are some very good, forgotten stories so it's nice to occasionally be sent in the right direction. Helen Hull was born in 1888 in Michigan and died in 1971. She was a professor of English at Columbia University in New York from 1916 to 1956 and spent her summers writing. She was a respected author during her lifetime and published 17 novels, more than 65 short stories and and number of books about writing. My library has several of her later novels as well as a couple of books about writing/literature, so it was hard to choose which to bring home. In the end I liked the beginning of Through the House Door (1940), so settled on it.
From what I've been able to gather about Hull's life and work it seems as though she has suffered the same fate as many other women writers from this era. By her death in the early 70s most of her books had gone out of print and she had all but disappeared as a name from the literary world. She had been classified as a writer of 'women's fiction', which is almost certainly the kiss of death when it comes to being accepted as a serious writer of literary fiction, despite the rave reviews I read in the New York Times.
Through the House Door is about a woman who must become the wage earner at a time when women were still expected to stay at home and take care of their families and homes. Beatrice Downing goes to work when her husband Julian loses his eyesight and must give up his successful career as a researcher. It's a story of what happens when the wife becomes a success in her own right and how she deals with her family and her work when she discovers one is just as fulfilling and maybe even more so than the other. Although I've not yet read it (it's on my pile) it sounds similar in theme to Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Home Maker. (Another reading pair perhaps?). The NYT had very good things to say about Hull's novel.
"Again Helen Hunt has written a book that is absorbing both in the reading and the hours that follow its final closing. She is not a problem novelist in the sense that she concerns herself with the large patterns of social change and reform; she assumes no superior position on pulpit or platform urging you to follow the truths she has discovered. Here is the narrower but deeper concern with behavior of humans under special provocation and her method is that of the laboratory expert who realizes that the truth is elusive and demands service of more than eye or ear. Further, she knows that one person's truth or strength is another's sham or frailty, and masterfully does she clarify that knowledge in language distinguished for its purity and beauty."
Hull was a feminist. She was more outspoken about it in the 1920s but apparently toned it down a bit during the more conservative 1930s. It sounds as though her fiction reflects the struggle women had and was disheartened to see some of their gains muted later. Even when she provided more conventionally happy endings she always kept a feminist tone.
This is what caught my eye in reading the opening paragraph:
"As the cab shot across Fifty-ninth Street, escaping the erratic movement of day-end traffic, and settled into the rhythmic flow of the curving road through the Park, Beatrice relaxed, the February air with its faint tang of snow cool against her eyelids. The motion of the cab was a little like that of the skating she and Sheppard had watched as they drank cocktails in the bar at the edge of the rink; a swoop past a green light, a slackening of motion toward the next light, a long swoop again as it winked to green. Beatrice lifted her hands, feeling in her muscles the lovely beat of a skater's flight. That girl in white. 'I wish I could skate like that!' she could feel herself poised, flying."
Rachel provided a partial list of Hull's titles. I found her in one of the library's reference books (Contemporary Authors--Permanent Series), and thought I'd share to help fill out the list of her works.
Quest, Macmillan, 1922
Labyrinth, Macmillan, 1923
The Surry Family, Macmillan, 1925
Islanders, Macmillan, 1927
(author of introduction) Copy, 1927, (collection), Appleton, 1927
(with Mabel L. Robinson and Robert S. Loomis) The Art of Writing Prose, R. Smith, 1930
The Asking Price, Coward, 1930
(author of introduction) New Copy, 1931 (collection), Columbia University Press, 1931
(with Robinson) Creative Writing: The Story Form, American Book Co., 1932
Heat Lightning, Coward, 1932
Hardy Perennial, Coward, 1933
Morning Shows the Day, Coward, 1934
Uncommon People (short stories), Coward, 1936
Candle Indoors, Coward 1936
Frost Flower, Coward, 1939
Through the House Door, Coward, 1940
Experiment: Four Short Novels, Coward, 1940
A Circle in the Water, Coward, 1943 (published in England as Darkening Hill, Jarrolds, 1943)
Mayling Soong Chiang, Coward, 1943
Hawk's Flight, Coward, 1946
Octave: A Book of Stories, Coward, 1947
(editor) The Writer's Book, Harper, 1950
Landfall, Coward, 1953
Wind Rose, Coward, 1958
(editor with Michael Drury) Writer's Roundtable, Harper, 1959
A Tapping on the Wall, Dodd, 1960
Close Her Pale Blue Eyes, Dodd, 1963
One of her works was also performed as a television play on "U.S. Steel Hour" on October 22, 1958. Two of her books are still in print and published by The Feminist Press (linked above).