“…And Ladies of the Club”

A tattered treasure...
A tattered treasure…

“…And Ladies of the Club”
–Helen Hooven Santmyer
GP Putnam’s Sons, New York
1982

Joyfully snagged at a Half-Price Books store for 5.99; I hear this book is out of print and so, a treasure!

********

I am reading Santmyer’s book because I am, in a turn of fate that sometimes startles me, a ‘lady of the club.’

I have been, in our travels through time and place, a member of book clubs and civic groups, of parent organizations and academically-related organizations and once, of a wonderful group of supportive women writers. But I never thought of being in the kind of a club of women that Helen Hooven Santmyer writes about.
My image of that sort of group was formed, I guess, as a very young child, when my mother quit her ‘card club.’ It was, I overheard her tell my dad, a pain in the neck–she felt the club members enjoyed inspecting the home of the hostess, who was expected to have an immaculately clean house and tiered platters of sandwiches made from bread dyed at the bakery, crusts cut off, mayonnaise-y fillings oozing.

I  internalized a vaguely negative feeling about ‘ladies’ clubs’–that they were a little frivolous, a little ostentatious, maybe. (Now it occurs to me that with an off-beat household–five rambunctious kids, one foster kid, a husband whose job demanded great deals of overtime, a rollicking dog, not much money, dust bunnies in odd corners, and a fragile emotional state, Mom might have WANTED to be part of that long-ago card club, but maybe just didn’t have all the pieces in place to make it a go.)

In the swinging 60’s and early seventies, I took my cue from those who sneered at sororities and fraternities. The state college I attended didn’t even offer such things. Instead there were groups dedicated to the pursuits of a discipline–literary club, say–or groups aiming to accomplish in the name of good causes–one sponsored a yearly carnival that raised money for, and made connections with, disadvantaged children, for instance. And I had little time for joining anyway; I needed to work–at the college library and a supermarket during the term, at an ice cream factory and a book store during the summers.

I was, I liked to think, a serious student, then a serious young teacher, who didn’t have time for such frivolities.

Before long, I had married–and then I had married again–and I had my own off-beat, rollicking household, and I often felt lucky to escape for a half hour walk around the quiet neighborhoods of my sleepy town. Mark worked at a company we knew deeply was indestructible;but it wasn’t, and he changed jobs, I went to grad school, I graduated, we moved.

We started thinking seriously about law school for the boy. Now or never, right? Never didn’t sound like the better option. We embarked on a five year journey that involved searching for programs, a second baccalaureate, and relocation.

None of that offered opportunity for establishing long-term ties or joining clubs. It was a fun, intense interlude with the ambience of a long roller coaster ride: This is great, but hang on–we can’t get off till it’s over.

And then, the aftermath: leading us to this home, these jobs, allowing us to sink roots into this wonderful Ohio community, and opening up the possibility of joining a club.

My friend and colleague–and Dean–Susan invited me to attend a meeting of the club I’m in; I wasn’t sure about it, but I went and listened to papers prepared by two members, and I was thoroughly charmed. I am not sure what I had expected–pinkies out, maybe–but what I found was a group of educated, intelligent women who enjoy researching topics about which they are passionate and sharing their findings with others who have open, inquiring minds. The group has been meeting since the late 1800’s; it has wonderful traditions, and there’s the often the opportunity to hear the voices of women who’ve gone before.

*****

At one meeting, not so very long ago, someone mentioned a book about another Ohio women’s club, “…And Ladies of the Club.” I remembered that book; it had been a best-seller when I worked at the Book Nook in the 1970’s and 1980’s. We were encouraged, there, to take books home and read them, gently coddling the volumes, so we could return them to the shelves and then talk to customers intelligently. I read a LOT at that job, but it was the time of Marilyn French and Mary Gordon; I re-read, too, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy and all of CS Lewis, I dove into Dune, into Anne MacCaffrey, and I read Katherine Kurtz…somehow, the ladies of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s club didn’t beckon me then.

But now, I developed a real curiosity about the book; the women of MY club mentioned a former member, Marilyn, who had gone to Xenia and visited with Helen Hooven Santmyer twenty years before. Then Marilyn presented a paper on “…And Ladies of the Club,” complete with primary research. The fictional club and our actual club, Susan pointed out, had uncanny parallels. I said I’d really like to read “…And Ladies of the Club“; some of the women looked a little dubious. It was, they thought, long out of print. Someone said the library’s copy had been read and read again into oblivion.

But that very weekend we took a little road trip to Half Price Books, and there on the shelf was Santmyer’s book, obviously in my path for a very good reason. I snatched it up, paid the pittance, and brought it home to my shelf.

*****

I am 572 fascinating pages into this book, a sweeping saga at 1176 pages: a not-surprising product of the ’70’s and ’80’s (it was published in 1982). Think Thornbirds; think Roots. …And Ladies… would provide the perfect base for a mini-series.

The book begins with commencement for two young ladies from Waynesboro, Ohio’s Female College–not really a college, but more of a church-sponsored secondary school.  Anne gives the valedictory that day as Sally sets her sights for an ambitious young blond man who’s visiting. They’re excited and apprehensive about life after school, and they are a little nervous when their teacher, Mrs. Lowrey, asks them to stop in her office before leaving.

What’s that all about? they wonder uneasily, even as they realize that they no longer fall under the disciplinary realm of the school’s hierarchy.

But Mrs. Lowrey has an invitation for them: some of the intellectually minded women are planning a “…a literary club, in Waynesboro, a women’s club, not a ‘female circle,’ to meet at intervals and promote an interest in culture–in letters, in poetry–at least in a small group.” And Anne and Sally, so recently thrilled to be free from study and academic discipline, surprise themselves by accepting on the spot.

The club formed that day is the structure for Santmyer’s story. This is not, by any means, a saccharine, all-will-be-well tale. There is bigotry in Waynesboro; there is back-stabbing and connivance. The story blooms in the shadow of the Civil War: the young men who become Anne and Sally’s husbands have been scarred and shaped by their roles in it. The War’s legacy stains the characters’ lives in both healthy ways and ways that bode ill.

The club members are good, decent people, but they are not mindlessly contented women, sipping tea as they embroider cozies and discuss literature suitable for ladies. Their lives involve poverty, infidelity, hidden homosexuality, suicide, mental illness, and death. There are class differences; there is a divide between the married women and the women who stay single (by choice or by fate) and work. There are children who turn out in unexpected, and not always welcome, ways.

The women represent a variety of ages and backgrounds, but the club binds them closely together. Despite their faults, their stumbling, their timidity or their brashness, the ladies of this club are sympathetic and likable.

By page 572, Anne and Sally are settling into middle age; their oldest children are teenagers; they have established a lending library; they have come to be leaders in the club. There have been losses and new arrivals and disappointments and triumphs. The club has formed a constant in their lives, an unchanging certainty no matter what else may happen.

*****

I look forward not only to finishing this book, but to finding out more about its author. I hope to track down Marilyn to ask about her visit with Helen Hooven Santmyer, who was born in 1895, making her 87 when the book was published. There’s a story there, I bet; and I look forward to finding out more about Santmyer’s life. Was she, I wonder, a lady of the club?

I will find out, and I’ll be back.

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