Genre makeover

Genre makeover

In conventional women’s fiction, writer Olive Higgins Prouty created a bold new type of heroine.

Kris Willcox


Book cover "Now, Voyager", by UU Olive Higgins Prouty

© snap

© snap

In the evolution of the Victorian “Angel of the Home” to the classic femme fatales of 1930s and ’40s fiction and film, American author and Unitarian Universalist Olive Higgins Prouty played a significant shaping role, creating female characters who looked for love, hungered for freedom, and knew the power of a really sizzling kiss.

Prouty (1882–1974), the prolific author of fiction, poetry, and memoir, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, to a prominent, well-to-do family. She recalled the evangelical Congregational church of her childhood as a stifling place, the center of many obligations that absorbed her mother’s time. In adulthood, Prouty belonged to First Parish in Brookline (UU), a congregation that better matched her questioning spirit, yet still provided the moral and social scaffolding she thought proper for a family.

Like her headstrong characters, Prouty broke free of many conventions of her time by attending college and pursuing a career, while conforming to other tight-fitting rules that governed the lives of upper-class women. Her two most popular novels, Stella Dallas (1923) and Now, Voyager (1941), as well as the films they inspired, are sentimental by today’s standards, yet their presentations of female autonomy and sexual liberation were bold for their era and left an indelible mark on American popular culture.

Eager to sharpen her writing skills and see the world beyond Worcester, Prouty attended Smith College, graduating in 1904. Lewis Prouty, son of another prominent Worcester family, began courting her, and while their affection was mutual, she feared that marriage would end her creative work. When Lewis suggested that she take writing courses at Radcliffe after their wedding, she accepted his proposal. In 1912, she gave birth to their first child and published her first short story.

Two of Prouty’s four children—Anne and Olivia—died in infancy, and these losses profoundly shaped her life and writing. In 1925, she suffered a “nervous breakdown” and was treated by renowned psychiatrist Dr. Austen Fox Riggs. The fatherly psychiatrist and restorative mental hospital found their way into Prouty’s fiction, where psychotherapy is often depicted as a path to fulfillment. Riggs urged Prouty to give her writing serious attention and find a space in which to work. Decades later, she described leaving the house at the same time as Lewis, he to his office and she to various writing studios in Boston clubs and hotels: “A small suitcase easily carried all [my] equipment, including a light lunch. . . [A]ll I needed for a day’s work was a card table, a straight chair, plenty of paper, a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and a generous supply of soft lead pencils sharpened to a point.”

The eponymous hero of Stella Dallas is a working-class girl from a factory town, who marries a wealthy man and later relinquishes the marriage—and her daughter, Laurel—in hopes that Laurel can ascend to the upper class without her. Now, Voyager tells the story of Charlotte Vale, a homely spinster living with her domineering mother. Anxious and unhappy, Charlotte is sent to “rest” at a mental hospital and emerges as a svelte and liberated woman. With a dashing new wardrobe and an assumed name, she embarks on a cruise where she meets and falls in love with Jerry Durrance, a handsome and unhappily married gentleman. The screen adaptation of Now, Voyager (1942) was the perfect star vehicle for Bette Davis, whose forthright style and smoldering gazes paired well with Paul Henreid’s seductive cigarette lighting and Continental accent.

Feminist scholars have called for a reappraisal of the popular “women’s fiction” by Prouty and her contemporaries, which is often dismissed as simple melodrama. Historian Jenny Thompson notes that “[a]s writers serious about their craft, these women brought to their work a point of view that was indeed distinctly female . . . and they subjected to scrutiny aspects of the traditionally ‘feminine realm’—domestic life, marriage, children, and romance.” Yet they also explored “the social and cultural boundaries within which women existed at the time, [including] work, sex, money, power, poverty, politics, and art.”

A dedicated philanthropist, Prouty established a memorial garden for her daughters at Children’s Hospital in Boston in 1956. (Sadly, despite public protest, the beloved garden was demolished in 2016 to make space for a new clinical building.) She was also a patron of the poet Sylvia Plath, a fellow Unitarian and Smith graduate. The character of Philomena Guinea in Plath’s novel The Bell Jar is modeled on Prouty. Plath’s unflattering depiction of the wealthy writer of melodramas cast a shadow on the real person, who was perceptive about her strengths and shortcomings as a writer. Prouty’s career spanned a period of tremendous change; her first three novels were published before American women had gained the right to vote. By her death in 1974, feminism’s second wave was under way, and Prouty’s operatic style had come to seem passé, even embarrassing. Yet despite the breathless theatrics, there is also an admirable strength in characters like Charlotte Vale, who knows she can’t have everything but refuses to settle quietly for less:

“‘Oh, Jerry,’ she said, when she could trust her voice. ‘Don’t let’s ask for the moon! We have the stars!’” 

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