Anne Goodwin Winslow’s subtle and fine novel, It Was Like This (1949), offers a remarkable contrast with another book I discussed recently, John T. McIntyre’s 1937 union novel, Ferment. At the core, both books share the same dilemma: two brothers both in love with the same woman. And, ironically, both Winslow’s and McIntyre’s woman is an orphan who was raised in the same household as the brothers.
That’s where the similarity ends, however. Where McIntyre slugs his way through his story with page after page of talk, one gets the sense that Winslow spent most of her time paring away her prose, taking away inessential details, replacing the direct with the indirect, until what was left was timeless in its simplicity and perfection. Where McIntyre pushes his trio into an inevitable confrontation, in which one brother wins over the other and gets the girl, Winslow respects the intelligence of her readers and her characters enough to realize that confrontation would only insult all.
The story is set in the late 1800s along the Mississippi coast. The Martins survived Reconstruction better than most, having lucked into a profitable business of growing pecans. Quiet, serious Lawrence Martin has taken charge of the plantation while his brother Hugh–shorter, softer, more of a reader–has moved to Richmond, where he writes editorials and essays for a newspaper. Lawrence has married Anna, left with Mrs. Martin as an orphan, and now renown for her beauty, if not her personality. “A lot of things must have been left out of Anna to start with–to make room for her looks,” a neighbor speculates.
When Hugh returns for a visit, a series of minor events–the worst of them the brief appearance of a threatening vagrant–puts him in the implausible role of Anna’s protector. And closer contact and memories of his own past interest in Anna leads … well, nowhere. These are all people of moderation, even Hugh, though he aspires to be a novelist, and people of moderation often benefit or suffer–or both–from the capacity to see things from several perspectives.
“It’s an old question–does love want to give everything, or take everything? … Arguments like that are never settled because as a rule nobody is talking about the same thing,” Hugh observes at one point. Though the two realize they have a connection that may be stronger than anything Anna will ever feel with Lawrence, Hugh understands that feeling could be just as destructive as it could be fulfilling. And so he leaves. Not suddenly, not dramatically. “Decently and in order; there was no danger of everything not being kept in its place, as usual.”
Hugh leaves as quietly, as familiarly as he arrived at the start of the book, and we know he will return again and that nothing more will happen between him and Anna.
Having put such an emphasis on the subtlety of Winslow’s touch, it’s difficult to reach for hyperbole to praise It Was Like This. If this book were a painting hanging in a gallery, it’s the one you wouldn’t notice until you’d visited a few times and grown tired of the big, bold works. But when you finally did, you’d think: “Yes, this is a fine and lovely piece.” I look forward to discovering and savoring more of Anne Goodwin Winslow’s fiction.
Incidentally, It Was Like This features a binding design by the pioneering book designer, William Addison Dwiggins. Similar bright two-color designs can be found on a few other Knopf books from around the same time. I know I’ve seen them on several novels by Angela Thirkell and perhaps one of P. H. Newby’s first novels as well, but not many more. It’s a shame the practice was discontinued so soon after it started.