Odd Women in the City

Bus Stop No. 98 by Mark Garbowski
Bus Stop No. 98 by Mark Garbowski

In her recent book, The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick aligns herself with what she calls the Odd Women, taking the phrase from George Gissing’s novel, which, in turn, took it from the perception that there was an excess of single women in England at the time, and that so many women were destined to find themselves the odd woman out, unable to find a man to marry them. Gornick, as usual, weaves a moving and thought-provoking series of reflections on love and loneliness around this theme of people who find themselves the odd person out, living alone in a world that tends to equate life in a relationship with success and happiness.

Gornick cites the example of Mary Britten Miller, who, as Isabel Bolton, published three critically celebrated novels in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when she was well into her sixties. As described in her 1966 book, Under Gemini, discussed here back in 2011, Miller’s great tragedy was the loss of her identical twin sister, Grace, in a swimming accident in their early teens. When she reached adulthood, Miller settled in Greenwich Village, where she lived alone until her death at 92: “She was never married, and she seems not to have had a lover anyone ever knew. What she did have was friends, some of whom described her as witty and mean, entertainingly haughty, and impressively self-educated.”

In her novel, Do I Wake or Sleep?, Bolton wrote: “Christ, how we loved our own aloneness… We were incapable of giving because there was so much within our reach to grab and snatch and gather for our own, our solitary souls.” As Gornick writes, “She sees what Freud saw–that our loneliness is anguishing and yet, inexplicably, we are loath to give it up. At no period in psychological time are we free of the contradiction: it is the conflict of conflicts.”

It struck me in reading The Odd Woman and the City that a fair amount of my two years of focusing exclusively on the work of women writers has been devoted to what Gornick would call odd women: Alice Koller, whose book An Unknown Woman: a Journey to Self-Discovery could be considered the Bible of odd womanhood; Eve Langley, who was packed off to a mental asylum when her oddness grew too much for her husband to bear; Abbie Huston Evans, whose geologic sense of time could make her 101 years seem like a jog through a very small park; Ouida, who, having wasted a fortune on a wastrel lover and other lost causes, died in neglect, surrounded only by her many dogs; Stella Bowen, who learned her lesson in love at the hands of Ford Madox Ford and, thus the wiser, devoted her remaining years to surviving and to putting her own art first. Even Dorothy Richardson, though she spent over thirty years in a rather odd sort of marriage to Alan Odle, wrote, in Pilgrimage, the magnum opus on the challenge of living one’s own life–alone more often than not.

In discussing another odd woman, the novelist Evelyn Scott, Gornick quotes a letter from Louise Bogan that I will take the liberty to reproduce in full:

Dear May:

I had a sad and rather eerie meeting, early this week, with poor old Evelyn Scott. I sad old advisedly, since she really has fallen into the dark and dank time–the time that I used to fear so much when I was in my thirties. She is old because she has failed to grow–up, in, on … So that at 62, she is not only frayed and dingy (she must have been a beauty in youth) but silly and more than a little mad. She met me only casually, years ago, with Charlotte Wilder [sister of Thornton Wilder], but now, of course, she thinks I can do something for her–so transparent, poor thing. She is not only in the physical state I once feared, but she is living in the blighted area of the West 70’s, near Broadway: that area which absorbs the queer, the old, the failures, into furnished or hotel rooms, and adds gloom to their decay. It was all there! She took me out to a grubby little tea-room around the corner, insisted on paying for the tea, and brought out, from time to time, from folds in her apparel, manuscripts that will never see print. I never was able to read her, even in her hey-day, and her poetry now is perfectly terrible. Added to all this, she is in an active state of paranoia–things and people are her enemies; she has been plotted against in Canada, Hampstead, New York and California; her manuscripts have been stolen, time and time again, etc., etc. –We should thank God, that we remain in our senses! As you know, I really fear mad people; I have some attraction for them, perhaps because talent is a kind of obverse of the medal. I must, therefore, detach myself from E. S.. I told her to send the MS to Grove Press, and that is all I can do. “But I must know the editor’s name!” she cried. “I can’t chance having my poems fall into the hands of some secretary….” O dear, O dear….

Love from your hasty

Yet Bogan herself spent her share of decades as an odd woman, in what she called the faubourg of Morningside Heights. And she could write, in a notebook quoted in her posthumous autobiography, Journey Around My Room,

When we have not come into ourselves we say, in solitude: “No one loves me; I am alone.” When we had chosen solitude, we say, “Thank God, I am alone!”

For Bogan, however, the struggle with loneliness never ended. She wondered as the spirit she saw in others her age and older:

But people keep hopeful and warm and loving right to the end–with much more to endure than I endure. –I see the old constantly, on these uptown streets–and they are not “depressed.” Their eyes are bright; they have bought themselves groceries; they gossip and laugh–with, often, crippling handicaps evident among them.

Where has this power gone, in my case?

I weep–but there’s little relief there.

How can I break these mornings?

And she found herself rising too early, as she wrote her friend Ruth Limmer less than a year before her death in 1970:

I waken at v. odd hours, having gone to sleep so early. –Remedy I: Put on light and try to read. II: Get up, and do not light a cigarette, but pour yourself a nice slug of Gordon’s Gin. This usually works ….

For Gornick, it’s living in a city that provides the only effective remedy:

It’s the voices I can’t do without. In most cities of the world the populace is planted in centuries of cobble-stoned alleys, ruined churches, architectural relics, none of which are ever dug up, only piled one on top of another. If you’ve grown up in New York, your life is an archaeology not of structures but of voices, also piled one on top of another, also not really replacing one another.

I think one reason the works of these odd women have so interested me is that they all, in one way or other, get to the heart of the fundamental question of what it means to be an individual. Defining oneself inherently involves separating from the things and people you are not, and there is no way to do this without risking some amount of loneliness. Which requires a certain share of courage and rarely comes without a fair share of second-guessing as well. I’m still figuring much of this out for myself, but I know that I draw more than ever on the words and experiences of women like Gornick, Koller, Bolton, and Bogan.

Christmas Trees New and Old, from The Christmas Tree, by Isabel Bolton (1949)

Cover of first US edition of 'The Christmas Tree'

The New

Though there was all manner of evidence of the season – New York producing it, as it produced everything else, on its own colossal, mass-production scale, all outdoors and public and promiscuous, with a tree in almost every park and square, all the churches turning them out properly lighted and arrayed, the great central civic spectacle there in Rockefeller Center, the tallest Christmas tree erected on this earth, standing up in all the majesty of its broad green boughs, with those beautiful balloons floating like celestial bodies of blue and gold and silver all around it, while from below, in the skating rink, with crowds and crowds of people listening, one heard, right through the night, those deep strong voices singing the familiar hymns.

The Old

There stood the tree – the great, the green, the fabulous hemlock – with all its layered boughs reaching out into the room, filling it with greenness, tapering upward, till its tip almost, but not quite, touched the ceiling, and distributing a Christmas incense which the warmth of the room, the heat of burning candles drew out to such a fine intensity of Christmas sentiment. There it stood before her, garlanded, looped round with ropes of snow-white popcorn, with rainbow-colored chains of paper bracelets, with silver tinsel and with gold, hung with blue and red and gold and with silver balls and bells and silver stars so cunningly faceted as to receive and flash back, from bell and ball, from star and candle flame, from the upper and the nether ornaments and trinkets so many tiny sparks and scintillations, so many beams and filaments of light, as to create in all the boughs and branches a mesh and maze of brightness, the candles with the blue candle-centers all together flickering, traveling upward to a point of highest ecstasy.

There it stood, fixing her in a trance, rendering her incapable of detaching this little picture from that, or one moment from the next – kneeling or sitting down, smiling, getting up, walking round, around, the blessed instants blending, melting one into another, becoming, and even as she gazed, memory, message, meaning.

For here, under the white sheet spread out to save the carpet from candle grease and hemlock needles, were all the Christmas gifts, of every shape and size, wrapped with white or silver paper, tied with white or red or silver ribbons, embellished with holly and mistletoe and inscribed with loving dedications – ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Hilly, Merry Christmas from Uncle Theodore’; ‘John from Aunt Sally’; ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Adelaide from her father’ – and all and everybody searching to find their own particular presents – package heaped on package, and each one for somebody, with love from someone else, and all presumably from Santa Claus.

Though proclaimed by Edmund Wilson as “a poet of the noblest kind who uses the compression and the polish of her fiction to focus human insight and to concentrate moral passion” and by Diana Trilling as “the best woman writer of fiction in this country today” when The Christmas Tree was first published and by Gore Vidal as “a magically alive writer” and by Doris Grumbach as “a writer of originality and great power” when it was reissued in 1997 as one of the three novels in New York Mosaic, Isabel Bolton remains a neglected writer, none of whose books have seen print this century. I featured her striking memoir of her childhood as an identical twin, Under Gemini (1966) here back in 2011, and Vivian Gornick recently recalled her as one of her prototypical New York City “odd women” in her memoir, The Odd Woman and the City.

Few facts have emerged about Mary Britton Miller, the woman who transformed herself into Isabel Bolton the novelist in her early sixties. Her parents both died within hours of each other when Mary and her sister Grace were both four, leaving them and three other siblings orphans. They were all raised by a spinster hired by their aunt, the wife of a railroad executive who prided herself on knowing best how to run other people’s lives. Ten years later, when Mary and Grace were rowing near the shore in Long Island Sound, their boat overturned and, in panic, Grace became exhausted and drowned as Mary watched, unable to help.

Mary attended the Cambridge School for Girls and then lived in Italy for a few years, probably in the company of her cousin, Marguerite Chapin, who later married Prince Roffredo Caetani and founded the influential literary magazine, Botteghe Oscure. In a letter to Diana Athill, Edward Field suggested she had a child out of wedlock in Italy, but, lacking any other evidence, we can only take this as hearsay.

Then she settled in New York City, eventually buying a pre-Civil War era brownstone at 81 Barrow Street in the West Village (a property that fetched a cool $15 million when sold in 2011). As Mary Britton Miller, she published a number of books of poems for children, starting with Songs of Infancy and Menagerie (1928), and continuing on with Intrepid Bird (1934). In 1943, she told the story of her life between the death of her parents and the loss of Grace in fictional form in In the Days of Thy Youth. It was not a timely subject, however, and the book went virtually unreviewed.

By then, she had turned sixty and begun to suffer from a loss of vision that led her to dictate all her writing and to hire readers (Grumbach recalls a story that Miller fired one for hesitating when encountering the word “fuck”). For reasons that no one has yet managed to unearth, she decided to use a pseudonym for her next novel, Do I Wake or Sleep? (1946), even though the book was published by Scribners, which had published In the Days of Thy Youth. All she offered in the way of a biographical sketch for the dust jacket was, “Here it is, the book over which I have thought deeply and worked hard. What more is there to say, except perhaps to add that I have lived some time in Europe, that I was brought up in America, and that New York has been my home for many years?”

What a difference three years made. Diana Trilling opened her review in The Nation with the announcement that, “Isabel Bolton’s Do I Wake or Sleep? (Scribner’s, $2.50) is quite the best novel that has come my way in the four years I have been reviewing new fiction for this magazine.” In a feature review in The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson compared Bolton to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Elizabeth Bowen. They and other reviewers were equally effusive when The Christmas Tree was published three years later. But by the time her third book, Many Mansions, was published in 1952, the glow had faded. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a rather mannered, meditative backward look” and wrote that “Miss Bolton, whom one often feels is under the influence of Edith Wharton, never gets beyond a certain drawing room elegance and withered gentility.”

And so Miller returned to children’s poetry, with burst of publications in the late 1950s: Give a Guess (1957); All Aboard (1958); Jungle Journey (1959), written with her friend, Tobias Schneebaum (to whom she later dedicated Under Gemini); A Handful of Flowers (1959); and Listen–the Birds (1961). Though simple and straightforward, these poems reveal the same intimate awareness of childhood that seems never to have left Miller, even if she could write fiction that was compared with that of Henry James:

Where Are You Now?

Someone has just
Put out the light;
Someone has just
Told you good night

People are talking
Not far away;
You wish you could hear
Just what they say.

The window is open—
People are walking,
Voices are calling
Out in the street.

Now you are falling
And falling and falling
Into a silence
Soft as your pillow,
White as your sheet.

Yet she was fully aware that she was no longer living in the same world. In the The Christmas Tree, the lead character’s grandson is obsessed with warplanes and informs her that it was the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And so she felt there was good reason to ask, in a poem titled, “This Wonderful World,” “It’s a world full of growing/And changing and flowing./Who’d want to blow it/To smithereens?”

In 1966, Miller once again took up the pseudonym for a nonfictional account of her life with her sister Grace, Under Gemini–this time roughly one-fourth the length of In the Days of Thy Youth. The book received respectful reviews but was not reprinted again until 1999. And when she published her last book, The Whirligig of Time, in 1971, Kirkus Reviews felt free to remark deridingly, “… one questions whether any contemporary will wish to join Blanche Willoughby in her return through the years ‘to the heartland of her soul” and called the book’s “perfumed sensibility … just about unbearable.”

In its obituary when Miller died at the age of 91 in 1975, The New York Times recalled Miller’s statement that after Grace’s death, her own life had been “blotted out——everything became dim, unreal, artificial.” And noted that “Miss Miller never married.”