Henry Bremble has “been helplessly gardening ever since the day when, early in their marriage, he had learned to his astonishment from her lips that he adored it.” “Henry simply adores gardening,” his wife had declared to a neighbor, and that was that.
Mr. Bremble’s Buttons starts out as a fairly predictable portrait of a hen-pecked husband, complete with controlling wife and dismissive live-in mother-in-law (Mrs. Corey) and her nasty little dog (Queenie). He keeps the peace by keeping his thoughts to himself, doing crossword puzzles and word games, and occasionally admiring the collection of unusual buttons he hides in the bedroom. He lives much of his life “below the surface, whatever the surface was.” On the rare occasions when he does speak up, he usually regrets it:
Mr. Bremble, who talked as little as possible when they were present, was nevertheless impelled occasionally, sometimes by desperation, sometimes by mere civility, to say a few words on whatever subject occupied the group at the moment; and on each and every occasion, after he had done so, there was a silence during which the eyes of Queenie and Mrs. Corey dwelt upon his face, then sought each other with a dry surmise, then returned as if by clockwork to Mr. Bremble; and at the conclusion of another prolonged stare they sniffed.
But he has an even bigger secret than the button collection: God comes and talks with him, almost every night:
It was the one real mitigation of his lot that almost every night, after he had gone to bed, God came and sat with him. They did not usually talk much, but nearly every time, though the only sound in the room was Amelia’s gently whistling snore, Mr. Bremble went to sleep cradled in God’s love like a child held close in its mother’s arms.
Together, they attempt to understand the world’s problems. When Bremble reads about a child found in a closet, abused and abandoned, he asks why God allows it. “You don’t think I like this sort of thing, do you?,” God replies. God blames himself for letting Satan talk him into giving men and women free will then he created mankind: “Of course, I know now that it was just some more of his finagling. He knew that if I gave the idiots free will he’d be able to make plenty of use of it. But he sold Me on it; he sold Me. A bargain’s a bargain.” God offers no easy consolation for his companion, though. “It will be all right some day, for this child–and others?” Bremble asks. God gives him a stern look, then departs.
This story might have gone somewhere on its own, but Langley introduces several twists in an attempt to force Bremble to surface from his private fantasies. A young woman at his office, pregnant by a married man, asks for his help. A woman who matches his boyhood ideal–”a bright and different being, willowy yet heroic, flowerlike, mysterious, and indomitable”–moves into his neighborhood, and ends up providing a refuge for the wayward. He befriends a young girl who shows an appetite for reading and is enlisted into a good cause by an energetic pastor. His wife begins to wonder about his sanity and arranges for him to consult a psychiatrist.
It all becomes a bit too much like a game of last straw. When the inevitable collapse comes, Langley has only two choices: let Bremble escape all the constraints that have bound up his life, or destroy him. Having such a convenient device at hand throughout the book, should it be any surprise that she reaches for a Deus ex machina–literally?
Despite this weakness, Mr. Bremble’s Buttons is, overall, a light and entertaining read. Langley frequently highlights the limitations of the so-called ideals of his wife and her friends in the “League for Democracy” and other ladies’ clubs, as in this exchange about the purchase of score cards for an upcoming bridge game:
“And try to pick out nice ones, even if they do cost a little more. Something suggestive of democracy. Mrs. Cable had such pretty ones when the ladies met with her: children dancing around a Maypole, really charming.”
Mr. Bremble admitted that this was a charming idea. “How many of them were Negro children?” he inquired curiously after a moment.
Amelia stared at him. “What are you talking about?”
“You said something suggestive of ….”
Amelia compressed her lips. “Really, Henry, there are times when it seems to me you’re not quite bright.”
Dorothy Langley published three novels between 1944 and 1947: Wait for Mrs. Willard (1944), about a woman trying to escape from an oppressive marriage; Dark Medallion (1945), about a poor family in southern Missouri, which won a Friends of American Writers award as the best novel by a Midwestern writer; and Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. According to her biography in American Novelists of Today (1951), she was a mother of two who grew up in the Ozarks, lived in Chicago and worked on the editorial staff of several professional journals. She died in 1969 at the age of 65.
In 1982, Academy Chicago published Swamp Angel. According to the publisher’s press release, Swamp Angel was “originally accepted for publication by Simon & Schuster on condition it be heavily revised… It was so largely revised it became another book, Mr. Bramble’s Buttons [sic], with the original manuscript’s tone entirely changed and former central characters relegated to minor roles… This book is original manuscript rescued from oblivion and published for the first time … presents a fascinating picture of primitive rural Missouri society of 60 years ago in which everything (including) transcribed dialogue rings true.” I don’t have access to a copy of Swamp Angel to check its introduction by Helen Bugbee, but I suspect that the transformed book was Dark Medallion, not Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. “Swamp angels,” by the way, is Missouri slang for what most of the rest of the country calls “hillbillies.”
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