Thursday, November 26, 2009

I flung out

Letty Fox: Her Luck:

One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarreled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad. My first thought was, at any cost, to get company for the evening.

For the first time Stead is telling her story through a first-person narrator. She'll do this again, twenty-seven years later, in The Little Hotel, but that time the perspective won't be sustained for the length of the story. Diana Brydon suggested that the author was turning romantic convention "upside down" in the last book by placing a woman in the traditional male role of the ardent pursuer while a man filled the female role of the coy flirt pursued: I'd argue that Letty Fox does a similar thing, but this time the old male role is a different one: Letty is a bawdy picaresque adventurous rogue. She's Peregrine Pickle. "Men are easily debauched," she says, "because they think of every woman they have had as a conquest, although it is clear that it is a mutual conquest and that each loses what each gains." (This is probably as close as she comes to sharing Teresa Hawkins' belief in mystic mutual union-through-sex.)

She has a rogue's energy and a rogue's cruelty. More than one critic has recoiled at the cruelty. The example Eloise Millar gave in the Guardian is a nice one so I'll quote her:

In the novel's introduction, for instance, we get to watch as Letty hoodwinks a working woman. Seeing the woman outside a flat she's just rented, Letty first squirrels the details out of her ("It's no good asking, I've arranged to take the place ... I've got three kids at home and we're living in two and a half rooms") then, as soon as she rounds the corner, promptly knocks at the door and makes a better offer.

She has a rogue's disadvantages too: insufficient finances, low position, no stability. Letty wants to get ahead in life, as any rogue does, and she wants to get married, which is part of getting ahead. Letty Fox is a quest novel: marriage is the hero's goal. In her view it's a pragmatic goal: the best way to survive and prosper is to play the games society asks for, and as marriage is one of those games, she'll willingly play it. "My supreme idea was to get married and join organized society. I had, always, a shrinking from what was beyond the pale." A moment later she is beating the working woman to her flat.

During the quest there are setbacks. The fruitless waiting for a phonecall in this first paragraph is one example. Letty reacts with action, flinging out of her room, rushing into the streets, preparing to hunt for a new man. It's spring, she's full of life. We learn more about her situation as the book goes on, but this is her in a nutshell: facing disaster and fighting it with a kind of vivid optimism, a belief in the power of perseverance. What do you do if your room isn't bringing you luck? You change it. Where's the right man? He's out there somewhere, and you'll find him one day as long as you've got the strength to turn over enough rocks.

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