A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey

51vdt79Z0xLI first read this book back in 1980, just a couple of years after it was published.  Embroiled in graduate school demands and anxieties, I needed a reading escape, but nothing frothy or light.  My brain was working overtime, on all cylinders, and my recreational reading needed to do the same.

As it often is with books, I found A Woman of Independent Means as a beat-up paperback left behind on the student lounge bookshelf.  It turned out to be the exact right book at the exact right time.  Reading the life story of Bess, a woman who never, ever suffered from feelings of inadequacy or low self esteem, was the perfect foil to my own quivering mass of insecurities trying to survive in a often harsh and competitive environment.

In the years since, I have re-read this classic several more times and once again this past month when a new edition (above) entered my library to happily replace my original beat-up paperback, with a truly ugly cover.

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This epistolary novel is comprised of one woman’s correspondence to her family, friends, and others spanning from the turn of the last Century to 1968. Bess is based on the author’s own grandmothers letters and we see Bess live through two world wars, the great depression, the influenza epidemic and the assassination of President Kennedy. She observs horse and buggy days through automobiles and from crossing the ocean by ship to air travel. We see history unfold through her letters.

The author has created a remarkable and complex woman – both ahead of her time and an ambitious, independent thinker.  Bess is outspoken, brash, rebels against convention, and yet, is completely vulnerable.  Through her letters, the reader watches the narcissistic Bess try to manipulate and control her loved ones’ lives — truly unaware she is overstepping and usually hurt and bewildered when they rebel.

Bess suffers financial ruin after the death of her first husband, so becomes financially savvy and sets herself up to be independently wealthy through her second marriage.  As a “women of independent means” she is able to get what she wants – whenever she wants — often with grimace-worthy results:

I am very sorry to hear of my cousin’s illness.  I have not received a letter from her since last summer and I was beginning to wonder what reason I had given her for such a long silence.  When she regains consciousness, please tell her I wrote to express my concern.

If she does not regain consciousness, may I remind you that I am the legal owner of the four-poster bed she now occupies and in the event of her death, it is to be shipped C.O.D. to me here in Texas.                        Cordially,  Bess Alcott Steed.

 

Bess’s Machiavellian actions are in stark contrast to her overwhelming need be loved and admired.  She is constantly confounded by others’ actions and strives to put things right – as she sees it. 

Throughout a series of of personal tragedies, Bess remains relentlessly optimistic.  From the loss of her son, to the burning down of her beloved home,  Bess never feels sorry for herself and is somehow stronger after each (often unbelievable) set-back.

Bess and her married daughter have a predictably difficult relationship which Bess tries to solve by inviting herself to her daughter’s social events and ingratiating herself with her daughter’s best friends.  A heart wrenching letter to her daughter in 1943 is some of the best insight on aging mother/grown daughter relationships I’ve ever read. 

There are many moments when Bess has the clear-sightedness of age and experience.  I stopped to underline several passages such as this one: 

Remember the night you and I talked until dawn with Betsy trying her eight-year-old best to stay awake with us?  The others had long since fallen asleep when she suddenly saw the sun rising and burst into tears, terrified to realize morning would come whether she had slept that night or not.  But better for her to learn early that nature does not ask our consent to continue its inexorable circuit.


Ms. Hailey has brilliantly crafted a complex character who will stick with you long after you close this novel’s pages.  Bess is far from perfect -and I was often exasperated (and sometimes horrified) by her — yet I still shed a few tears with her.  Like all fascinating characters, I was always interested in Bess, never bored by her and actually loved every moment I was allowed to spend in her presence. 

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