Sunday, April 13, 2008

Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty [Review]

Title: Now, Voyager

Author: Olive Higgins Prouty (Wikipedia entry) (Plus)

Copyright: 2004, The Feminist Press, New York (ISBN: 1558614761); originally published 1941

Length: 284 pages

Genre: Fiction

Summary: Charlotte Vale, a member of one of the first families of Boston and well-provided for by her mother, has suffered under the same mother's domineering control. She has never been allowed any personal autonomy. She is always dictated to by her family and, most emphatically, her mother. Suffering a nervous breakdown, she is unsympathetically bundled off to a rest home, Cascades, where the benevolent Dr. Jaquith teaches her how to begin to cope with and actually live her life. Having graduated from Cascades, she is granted a reprieve before returning home to her mother's rule through the casual kindness of a relative who yields up her reservation for a stateroom on a departing ocean liner. Charlotte can practice some of what she's learned from Jaquith in socializing with the other passengers. Now, Voyager opens with her initial introduction to JD Durrance, a business man who is also traveling to Europe. The two fall in love and the story of that love has been immortalized by Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in the leading roles. If you loved that film (Warner Brothers, 1942), you will not want to miss reading this novel. The screenplay treated the text with respect but as is so frequently true in such cases, the book adds some depth to the author's thinking that the screenwriter didn't think to include.

Extract: A blizzard was raging in New York, so she had read on the bulletin board before she left the ship. It was difficult to visualize sheets of fine snow driving obliquely against facades, while sitting on an open terrace in the sun gazing at calla lilies in bloom bordered by freesia. (Isn't that a great opening?)

Feedback: This was published as part of the Feminist Press' series, Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp. In an attempt to remain objective, I might reluctantly concede that this could be classified as melodramatic pulp but it does not (in my opinion) read like that. I read it, completely riveted. In part, because I knew the film, but also because the book has one literary allusion that never made it onto the screen, one that makes all the difference in understanding Prouty's intent.

There is a reference early in Chapter 3 to Sarah Crewe, Frances Hodgson Burnett's heroine in The Little Princess. There are subsequent references to Sarah throughout the text. As soon as my brain processed the name, the author's point was clear to me. Sarah survives the domination of Miss Minchin by holding on to her internal conviction of self-worth, carefully inculcated in her by a loving father. If a parent doesn't instill that in a child, the lack has long-term repercussions in an individual's life.

Charlotte Vale was never given that internal sense of value and the story of Now, Voyager is of her having to find her value and her gifts along the way. Ultimately, she sees that she has something to offer others, specifically JD's daughter, Tina. There is a similar moment in The Little Princess when Sarah, believing herself to be as far down in life as possible, manages to think beyond herself and, as hungry as she is, share food with a beggar girl who she recognizes as having even less than herself. None of this was included in the screenplay of Now, Voyager. (Except that every woman I know, having read The Little Princess in their girlhood, would have immediately understood the underlying parallel. The (male) screen writer, likely never having read Burnett's book, did not understand the significance of the reference and omitted it!) The difference between Sarah and Charlotte is the quality of the parenting received.

Go read this book. Olive Higgins Prouty, for many reasons, does not deserve the obscurity into which she has fallen.