Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A woman of independent means (Hailey)

Wow! Sometimes during what at the moment feels like quite a struggle through the Virago Modern Classics list, a book pops up which I absolutely love, and want everyone else to read, and a book that I probably might not have come across were in not for that list. A woman of independent means by Elizabeth Hailey is this fantastic book.

Written in letters, it covers over 60 years of Bess's life, from early letters to her childhood sweetheart, whom she eventually marries, to the end of her life when most of her friends have died. The book is partly based on Hailey's grandmother - in fact the author says in the introduction that one of her grandmother's friends believed that it was HER letters - but also born out of 1970s feminism (the book was published in 1978). Hailey says in the introduction "I tried to imagine the letters [my grandmother] might have written from childhood to old age and in the process show how full of drama even a seemingly ordinary life could be".

Bess is quite simply an inspiring heroine. The independent means to which the title refers to is the legacy that Bess recieves which gives her considerable independence at a time in the early twentieth century when the majority of women were reliant on their husbands or their fathers for support. But Bess has plenty of independent spirit; she travels by herself, she deals with thhe death of her husband. The independence is perhaps most signified when she marries her second husband and what is effectively a pre=nuptial contract is drawn up.

The structure of the book is impressive; I can't quite conceieve how difficult it must be to come up with a plot, and then tell it not just through letters to one person but to a variety of correspondents.

Here is a quote which I love because it talks about marriage, something which is still very much on my mind at the moment:

""I am always amazed to hear people say the first weeks or months of marriage are the best and then, 'the honeymoon is over.' Of course I thought I loved you with all my heart when we were married, but it took marriage to teach me the outer limits of my anatomy, both physical and spiritual, and now I know that every moment we share further increases my capacity for love." (to her husband, Rob, in 1917)"

This book has just been published once by Virago with a modern cover.


  1. Thanks for this, I've reserved a copy from my library (I like to make them dig things out from deep in the bowels of the stack, just in case they think they can bin them all and no-one will notice). A look on Amazon shows a few other novels by her that look very promising.

  2. I've got this on my Letters project reading list for this autumn: I'm really looking forward to it! Glad to hear that you enjoyed it too.

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