A Woman hits her Stride
Olive Prouty reflects on her favorite poetry and on confecting her tastiest work yet
Olive Higgins was born in Worcester, Mass in 1882 to illustrious parents1. She majored in English Literature at Smith College, graduating in 1904. In 1907 she married Lewis Prouty, the older brother of a college friend. She then enrolled in a creative writing class at Radcliffe College, and the couple settled in Brookline, Mass. in 1908. Soon she started writing short stories, and by the 1910s was getting them published in several magazines. Prouty melded her stories from American Magazine into her first novel, Bobbie, General, Manager. Reviewers compared it to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women because it emphasized the importance of everyday details and personal feelings. In 1919, New York publisher Frederick Stokes published Good Sports, a collection of short stories that had appeared in magazines.
Her love for the writer's craft comes through again and again. With strong approval she quotes Edward Sheldon's line: "I'm going to write even at the risk of complete failure and humiliation." In her memoirs she wrote, "It is not the finished article that gives me the most pleasure but the process of its making. I delight in the absorption of working with words."
Prouty's work illustrates Virginia Woolf's comment: "When women come to write novels, they probably find themselves wanting to alter established values, to make important what is insignificant to men and to make trivial what men think essential." Sex and other intensely emotional topics are discussed with precision and insight in Prouty's work.
Stella Dallas (1923) makes a far better novel than it appeared to be when transferred to the radio or into a movie. Prouty could draw fully developed human characters. The New York Times critic wrote: "The great beauty of Stella Dallas lies in the characterization, the firm etching of personalities and the inevitable development of Stella, Laurel, and one or two others. Hers is a book that is written with sophistication and with a subtle comprehension of moods and sudden impulses. The action never flags, but moves along swiftly with the characterization. A word should also be spoken in commendation of Mrs. Prouty's style, which is clear and simple and yet of a trenchant order. There are no attempts at fine writing, and yet more than once the reader has the impression that all the effects of fine writing have been attained."
Conflict (1927) treats a common Prouty theme—a married woman's love for a man who is not her husband. Conventional wisdom proved neither intellectually nor psychologically fulfilling for her leading character. Marriage and motherhood did not bring fulfillment and infidelity is seriously considered.
But Mrs. Prouty found her full and true voice in the pages of the five Vale novels. Her portrayal of the Vale family holds sufficient detail and mastery to allow fully developed characters. The novels evoke the city of Boston of the 1920s and 1930s. The first novel, White Fawn, opens with a full view of the pageantry and excitement of a debutante's ball, circa 1929.
Could we ask you some questions about the whole series of Vale novels? To start with, did you have someone in mind, real or imagined, that you were speaking to when you wrote these novels? If an imaginary person, how do you describe that person? Did that audience change for the different novels?
Most of the time I don't consider the reader. When my writing is really flowing, I inhabit the character, I inhabit the scene. In the same way I don't think an actor in a play focuses on the audience so much as he focuses on the character he is playing. Maybe it works differently for nonfiction writers, I don't know. But when I am transitioning into this flow mindset, sometimes I do imagine I am speaking to someone. There was a man I met in Chicago in the 1920's. Call him Henry for now. The character of Barry Firth was inspired by Henry. I thought of him, and in a way was speaking to him in the writing of these novels. Writing is not only an exercise in self-expression, it is also a gift we as writers are trying to give to readers. I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Henry. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing.
Fair enough—you mean I'm not to ask you his real name. Let me go on to my next one. To me, it looks like your writing maintained its fine quality throughout the five Vale novels, and that the writing in these novels came out as far more vibrant and expansive than your earlier works. Did this happen because you started to use places outside your home to do your writing, resulting in an improvement in your frame of mind and comfort level? Or was the improvement due more to your maturing and becoming more comfortable as a writer? Were there any particular writing techniques you improved upon beginning with White Fawn?
I was using the technique I have employed from the start—I let my characters take on a life of their own. I don't impose an outline planned in advance. I would say that my imagination was liberated when I started working in venues outside the home. Any improvement in my stories can be attributed to that. That plus the encouragement and sage advice from Dr. Riggs to treat my writing as a profession, not a hobby. I felt less rushed, and devoted more time to these novels than to my earlier works, which may account for their more expansive and vibrant nature.
You say you don't impose an outline planned in advance. Could you go into that a little more?
My first paragraph leads to the next, suggests it in fact, and so on throughout the book, much in the same unpredictable way as in a conversation. The plot unrolls as I write a story. One event leads to the next, provokes it usually. Therefore the future remains continually shrouded in uncertainty, exactly as in life. I can surmise, but I cannot predict. When I write my first paragraph I know who the chief characters are to be, their setting and characteristics; also what difficult circumstances, or problems in human relationships are lying in wait for them, but I have only a vague idea of how these problems will be solved, or as a matter of fact if they will be solved. The characters themselves determine that.
Maybe that's why in the publishing business, fiction writers submit a completed first draft of their novel as a proposal, whereas nonfiction writers submit an outline or synopsis. Many or most good fiction writers just don't work from an outline. The story is driven instead by the characters and their interactions. So you know the chief characters as you begin. How do you know their characteristics?
At the start of a new book when I am still in the exploring stage, I am lured by countless side paths of human interest connected with my characters, leading me back into their childhood, early memories, and to scenes and events, which, though irrelevant to my story, have moulded their personalities. It's like wandering through the back streets and side lanes of a foreign city I do not know. Fascinating, but if one's time is limited an efficient traveller confines himself to the chief points of interest. He probably has a list of them which he consults, as an efficient writer his outline.
My meanderings, however, are not an utter waste of time and energy. Although during the first quarter of a new book the discarded typed pages are as many as those retained, they are not labor lost. For in writing them I have provided myself with a fund of information and a wealth of detail from which I constantly draw as the story progresses, not word for word, for usually I destroy the discarded pages, but by a brief reference or a quick flashback. I have unearthed many buried facts which help me understand my character and know what his reactions will be under various circumstances. I have developed an intimacy with him or her which is a great asset to writing with authenticity. My chief difficulty lies in deciding what to discard and what to retain. Consideration for the gentle reader, and the fear of resembling a voluble mother who loves to talk about her children and go into tiresome details, prods me to cut things out.
So once you have set up the characters in that way, I guess the trick is to bring them to life in your story?
The trick to bringing them to life is that of putting yourself in the other fellow's shoes. With a little practice this can become an ability to put yourself in the other fellow's skin and finally into the other fellow's consciousness, first divesting yourself of your own ego as far as possible. I call this "consciousness transferrence". If it is accompanied by a faculty for visualization, so that in your mind's eye you can see the fellow into whom you have transferred, then he will come alive each time you perform the feat.
I suppose to write a story well, you have to know how a human mind ticks.
Yes. I have learned as much as I can about psychology. For a writer the only specimen of human nature he can study in depth is his own. So we can all start with understanding our own psychology.
You mentioned the term "consciousness transferrence". Could you give an example of what you mean by that?
I had the good fortune to observe an excellent exhibition of this ability of consciousness transferrence some years ago. It was when I attended the rehearsals of Stella Dallas with Mrs. Leslie Carter in the title role. It was not Mrs. Carter who gave the exhibition but the stage director—a middle-aged, harried-looking man. He belonged to the old school of stage-directors who didn't leave it to the members of the cast to interpret their parts. He was something like a symphony director. Though he didn't write the piece he was directing, the presentation was his creation. Each character was his conception of the part. That man could transfer his consciousness from himself to that of a child of ten, to a woman of forty, in a twinkling; from an aristocratic man of taste and education, to a rough, rollicking roué a little the worse for liquor. During rehearsals he was leaping from part to part constantly, playing first one then another, and then going down in front to observe the results from the point of view of the audience. When in the process of writing a scene, an author's job is similar to that of a stage director's. He also plays the various parts, leaping from the consciousness of one character to that of another, always visualizing the set in his mind's eye, and then going down in front, as it were, and re-reading his script to observe the results from the point of view of the reader.
“Pathetic, ridiculed, and embittered Aunt Charlotte kept nagging at my curiosity ”
So once the characters come alive, they begin to take over?
Yes. It has often been my experience that during the writing of a scene a minor character will edge up toward the center of the stage. Each time he moves or speaks he will attract my attention and arouse my interest. When this occurs I am often lured down another of those time-consuming alleys. The progress of my book may come to a halt for days while I look up the interloper. It has frequently been a minor character in one novel which becomes the chief character in the next one. When writing White Fawn it was the heroine's mother, Lisa, who threatened to steal the show. So I wrote Lisa Vale. In Lisa Vale it was pathetic, ridiculed, and embittered Aunt Charlotte who kept nagging at my curiosity. Therefore I wrote Now, Voyager. In Now, Voyager there were several minor characters whom I had difficulty keeping back stage.
Let's look some more at the Lisa Vale novel. Now days people ignore that book in favor of Now, Voyager. Rupert Vale seemed at first a wholly unsympathetic character. His refusal to believe in his son Windy made it doubly hard for Lisa to pull their son out of the jam he was in. But at the end Rupert developed more human qualities. He had a sort of death-bed conversion. I felt relieved when I read that. A character as important as Rupert should not come out all good or all bad. How did you arrive at that development?
At first I had trouble getting inside Rupert's head. I made the mistake of letting my personnal dislikes towards his traits get in the way. A critic whose opinion I respected read the manuscript of White Fawn just before it went to press. Afterwards he remarked, "How you do despise Rupert!" Though the critic is by no means a religious man he added, "I think an author should be like God, and despise none of the creatures he creates." The critic was right. I did despise Rupert. I had been describing this Rupert objectively, from the point of view of his wife, chiefly, and his children whom he antagonized. Not once had I transferred my consciousness to his, entered into his inner feelings as he walked alone, or sat wrapt in solitary discontent behind closed doors. I couldn't do much about Rupert in that particular novel. The critic's comment had come too late. But I had a second opportunity. In the next novel I wrote Rupert again appeared, and this time I did transfer myself to his consciousness. I found myself feeling sorry for him, more and more in sympathy, and when he died I had discovered he possessed many likeable, even admirable qualities. My advice is, therefore, to keep strictly to the objective point of view if you want to paint a villain and paint him black. Don't even approach the portals of his consciousness. If you are ever persuaded to go inside, either from curiousity or in the wish to be just, you run a grave risk of losing your antipathy, and seeing your villain dissolve before your very eyes into someone to be pitied, defended, or, as in the case of Rupert, even to be admired.
Naturally your views on society come through in the novels. When you joined the Daughters of the American Revolution, was that an indication of your views? I'm sure you know of the Marion Anderson affair, when the DAR denied her permission to perform before an integrated audience in Constitution Hall for Easter, 1939. Eleanor Roosevelt responded by resigning from the DAR and arranging for Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial instead.
I joined the DAR simply as an avenue of connecting with some of the upper-class people in Boston. My views on equality speak for themselves, and can easily be seen in the Vale novels. I don't need to defend myself on that score. My views on racial equality, I don't separate them from my views overall on human equality.
I agree—your views speak loud and clear in these novels, which take place in the upper-class milieu and carry a clear anti-snobbery message. Particularly in the case of Esther White in White Fawn, and of Murray’s friend Ike whom Murray brings home to dine with the family in Lisa Vale, we see the actions of the family bear the stamp of Lisa’s attitudes against snobbery. Can you tell us any cases of snobbery you have witnessed, that led you to hold this as a central value?
We all have been on the receiving end of some teasing and snubs—mainly from the inner clique of the most popular girl. You could say that the story of Esther White was my way of evening the score, resolving some of my own feelings and memories. I gave free rein to my fantasy. A passion for justice heightened by my own negative experience found expression in these stories.
What did you think of Bette Davis’s portrayal of Charlotte in the Now, Voyager movie? Who would you have preferred in the role? Was it a boost to your confidence, seeing your novel done so beautifully as an “A” movie?
Bette Davis performed brilliantly in this movie. If I had any reservations about Bette in this role, chalk them up to how I felt when the image I saw on the screen washed over the image of Charlotte I had in mind. I saw the woman as a little taller for one thing.
I feel my work validated by the treatment Warner Brothers gave to Now, Voyager. Seeing it come to life like this marks a high point in my life. It appears that Hal Wallis, the producer, loved the book and told scriptwriter Casey Robinson to stick closely to the novel, in spirit and in detail. The material was cut skillfully to fit into the two-hour movie, kept its soul, and came alive. The movie brings my book to a new audience.
Now, Voyager and the following novel, Home Port, derive their titles from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. If you are a fan of Whitman’s work, can you give us the names of one or two of your favorite poems in Leaves of Grass?
I don't have a favorite, but I find a human spirit when I browse a few pages at random. Since I live close to Boston, I noticed a poem in there called "A Boston Ballad" — maybe his most macabre and funniest poem.
Whitman contributed to the American conversation. He afforded negroes the same dignity as whites, which is one reason I like him a great deal, and gets back to your earlier question about race. For instance this poem "A Boston Ballad" describes King George's bones being paraded through the streets of Boston. In June 1854, a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns was seized in Boston. The courts ordered his return to his Virginia owner. This cruelty occasioned Whitman to pen the satire about King George III being shipped to Boston.
Thanks, I'll look for it. Here's another poetry question. In the front matter of Fabia you have placed a very interesting poem by Alice Meynell.
I AM THE WAY
Thou art the Way.
Hadst Thou been nothing but the goal,
I cannot say
If Thou hadst ever met my soul.
I cannot see—
I, child of process—if there lies
An end for me,
Full of repose, full of replies.
I’ll not reproach
The road that winds, my feet that err,
Art Thou, Time, Way, and Wayfarer.
You left out the first stanza, which I suppose was too religious for the readers of Fabia. Alice Meynell sets religious themes throughout her work. What strikes you about this poem? How does it relate to the novel?
This poetically treats the topic of death, with the third stanza telling us of the winding road that leads up to that end. Since Fabia was the final Vale novel, those characters that we all had so much fun with have come to an end. I’m glad you liked it as much as I did.
1. Olive's mother, Katherine Chapin Higgins, went on to become one of the founders of the Parent Teachers Association and one of its early presidents (1920-1923). Late in her life Katherine made visits to many state legislatures and to many towns giving addresses promoting the establishment of local PTAs.
Olive's father, Milton Higgins, played an important role in the early years of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. An engineer, he designed, built, and supervised the machine shops used for training the students at WPI.