I've had a run in of sorts before with Helen Hull. She was one of my Lost in the Stacks authors back in 2011. Here is a little of what I had to say about her then:
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.
Although I didn't manage to read all of Through the House Door, I did buy a copy of her novel Quest (still in print) which is published by The Feminist Press, so look forward to reading more of her later. Now I have finally gotten a proper taste of her writing in the 1941 short story, "It All Begins Again". Last week's story was somewhat painful to read, having to view the prejudicial mistreatment of a woman. This week's story set in an American town (partially set in Michigan) during the Second World War had a melancholy tone as well, though she is an eloquent and thoughtful writer, once who calls for equally thoughtful reading and perhaps even multiple reads. She's a writer from whose stories you could easily tease out a number of meanings.
In "It All Begins Again" Mary Bristol, now in her 70s muses on her life and her family as war rages in Europe. Although on the surface the war is not the focus of the story, it comes through subtly in the comments and conversation and in her memories. After a serious illness lays Mary low, her daughter convinces her to come stay. Mary would prefer not to. As a matter of fact Mary almost regrets having recovered from it at all.
". . . she felt rather silly about it, having been sure that she was through with life. Much like the state of mind of one who has stripped her house and packed her trunks for a long journey, only to find herself sitting on top of a locked trunk in an empty house with no place to go and no reason for going."
Both sons are now dead, as is her husband. Her daughter Vera, a matron of high society, gently bullies Mary and her family as well. As Mary prepares to travel to Vera's home to recuperate she thinks back on her son, who was wounded at Verdun and never quite recovered and even farther back to other wars. She remembers her mother weeping for the husband away fighting and then his time spent in a Southern prison.
"When he came back, he was a gaunt, bearded stranger Mary had never seen."
And now there is this new war. Mary's son-in-law thinks only of his business and its failings when it should be doing well with all the demands of the fighting abroad. And Vera thinks of her children and home and how to manage them all. How to keep up with the neighbors despite the down-at-heel appearance of their house, and how her own daughter Hilda is dating someone unsuitable, and son Bill is failing in his college studies. Vera remarks on what it is to raise these modern children as if never in the history of the world has anyone had to contend with such problems, though Mary notes she said just the same thing about her own children.
". . . it all begins again, the old struggle."
And as the family struggles with its own problems, so, too the world struggles, as just then Paris falls to the Germans. Her father, her sons, and now these grandchildren must face all the same old problems once again. So Hull neatly parallels the two struggles, the changes and difficulties and how so much of life and its demands is cyclical. What really changes in life? The reasons may be new, the spin we put on the struggles, but underneath it all the motivations are not so very different. All very deftly and subtly explored by Hull in yet another excellent story.
I do hope these short story posts aren't too boring to read--I sometimes think they are more for me than for those of you reading these posts. Knowing I am going to try and write something about them makes me think of them in a different way and read just a little bit closer, go back over passages and try and piece together just what I think an author is trying to convey. Maybe to try and break up the monotony for you, I'll try and include some non-Persephone stories in my future short story Sunday readings. I have no shortage of good collections to choose from, that's for sure.
Next week a story by Kay Boyle. The next four stories were all written during the war years, so I am curious to see how much of a role it actually plays in the narratives. I'll be in the Forties for a while, with the last story in the collection from the mid-1980s.