“Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon! We have the stars!” (Hodder and Stoughton edition, 1943, p.222).
If you love classic movies, these words will resonate. Bette Davis says them to Paul Henreid at the end of Now Voyager (1942), as he puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights both and hands one to her, in one of the most romantic gestures in movies. Or rather, Charlotte Vale, spinster of Boston, Mass, says them to Jerry Durrance, the married man she loves, at the end of Olive Higgins Prouty’s almost forgotten novel, on which the movie is based. This is the story of a woman’s search for freedom and fulfilment, and rather unusually it does not revolve simply around finding the right man. And it explores maternal love – sometimes true and self-sacrificing but sometimes tyrannical and warped.
I knew the movie first, as it was a favourite of my mother. It is a classic ‘woman’s picture’ from the cinema’s heyday and it looks impossibly glamorous in sharp black and white. You can enjoy the scene quoted above here, with Max Steiner’s emotional music in the background. I have the DVD, of course, but I recently saw the film on the big screen, as it was meant to be. What’s more, the setting was pretty perfect – Stockport’s fabulous Art Deco cinema, the Plaza, with tea first in their café. I could easily imagine myself Charlotte Vale, sipping tea while waiting for her lover.
I found the book only recently. I’ve long had a copy of Prouty’s other screen success, Stella Dallas (filmed three times), but had never seen Now Voyager (although The Feminist Press publish it in their ‘Women Write Pulp’ series). Then I came across it in the basement of a cluttered bookshop in Eastbourne a few months ago and snatched it up.
The title, Now Voyager, is important, coming from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1900):
‘…untold want, by life and land ne’er granted, / Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.’
Charlotte Vale, a maiden aunt in her late 30s, has no life. She lacks confidence, experience and opportunity. She lives with her mother, who buys her unflattering clothes, controls her social life and belittles her.
‘Several times her mother had laughingly referred to her as”my ugly duckling”.’ (p.15)
‘They told me before you were born that my recompense for a late child would be to me in my old age, especially if it was a girl…Comfort? No, Charlotte. Sorrow, grief.’ (p.127)
‘Why I should think you’d be ashamed. You’ve never done anything to make your mother proud…Nor to make yourself proud either.’ (p.174).
Not surprisingly, Charlotte breaks down and is whisked off to a sanatorium. Set on the right path there (perhaps a little too easily), she is sent on a long cruise, where she meets the right, but married, man. She slowly gains confidence and experience. Back home, she negotiates an uneasy truce with her mother and soon meets Jerry’s daughter, Tina – another child unwanted and bullied by her mother – and tries to help her.
There is by the way a splendid shipboard transformation in both book and movie. To meet Jerry, Charlotte wears a beautiful evening dress and cape. Yes, it’s Cinderella and no, we shouldn’t be judged on appearance, but we still are and here at least it is an effective shorthand. It also makes you cheer, even when Charlotte has to confess that the finery is borrowed.
Now Voyager’s themes are liberation, fulfilment and motherhood. First Charlotte, then Tina, are abused by their mothers. Each must struggle free. Charlotte has the harder time, having been bullied for over 30 years. But Tina is younger and, until Charlotte appears, weaker. Charlotte finds self-esteem first through the love of a kind man, but then through her own resources and finally through her love for Tina. Tina comes to rely on Charlotte, who longs to mother Jerry’s child. The reader cheers (again) when Charlotte says as her mother threatens to throw her out: ‘I’m not afraid.’ (p. 135). Earlier she defines independence not as:
‘buy[ing] what you choose, sleep[ing] where you choose, put[ting] paint on your face if you choose’,
as her mother suggests, but as:
‘freedom from subjection, and reliance upon one’s own will and judgment’. (p. 134)
Olive Higgins Prouty does not tell us why Charlotte’s and Tina’s mothers bully. Were they too crushed by their elders? Are they frustrated? Does Charlotte’s mother resent her late child? Does Tina’s mother regret her marriage? There is no evidence that they treat their other children badly. But Charlotte and Tina, both vulnerable, bring out their cruelty. I suspect the mothers are jealous of the children, resenting their futures and (this is hinted) their relationships with their fathers. Set against their twisted love is Charlotte’s love for Tina, the child her lover might have given her. Damage does not necessarily lead to damage.
Olive Higgins Prouty (1882-1974) is forgotten now, except as a supporter of the young Sylvia Plath, who portrayed her as Philomena Guinea in The Bell Jar (1963). Prouty is said to have wanted independence after college but was persuaded to stay home. In marriage, she apparently felt torn between writing and family, and was careful to present writing as a hobby. She lost two children, and suffered from mental health problems. Is it too easy to see her favourite themes here?
Why is Prouty forgotten today? She is a good writer and has much in common with a better writer of the period, Edith Wharton. She is not afraid to tackle subjects like adultery and mental illness sympathetically. She is innovative in portraying psychoanalysis, drawing partly on experience. Her characters are convincingly alive. Her style and plotting are perhaps too leisurely and her subjects are often love and privilege, which are easily scorned. Perhaps like other writers of her generation, she has been too easily dismissed as purveying romantic melodrama, but this is to underestimate a writer exploring self-knowledge and fulfilment. Olive Higgins Prouty deserves better.