I didn’t mean to have a week of reading books about the South by women from the South, but it just so happened that I took both Kaye Gibbons and Eudora Welty novels out of the library at the same time, and once I had got the taste of bourbon in my mouth I wanted more. Reading these two women, more than a generation apart, but writing about the same region, was incredibly interesting. The close, almost stifling, family ties were the same in Sights Unseen as they are in The Optimist’s Daughter, and both novels also feature close knit communities, echoey old houses, eccentric characters and uncomfortable parental relationships. The influence of the culture, traditions and behavioural patterns of the South were unmissable in both, and reading them so close together made me realise just how marked the Southern identity is when compared to reading something set in, say, Boston, or New York. This has really interested me and I can see this leading off into a tangent of reading Southern novels. I already have Ellen Glasgow on my radar; I understand she was the doyenne of Southern fiction in her day, and I am looking forward to discovering her work.
Anyway, I digress. I have been meaning to read Eudora Welty for a long while, and I am very glad I finally did. Like Kaye Gibbons, she writes in a dreamy, haunting, beautifully descriptive prose that takes you to the balmy skys and weathered porches of Mississippi, where Laurel, ‘The Optimist’s Daughter’ of the title, returns after her father, Judge McKelva, unexpectedly dies after a routine operation. Laurel has already lost her husband and mother, and in early middle age, she lives alone in Chicago, many miles from her roots in rural Mississippi. When she comes to see her ailing father before his death in New Orleans, where he has travelled to be operated on by an old family friend, she meets her new stepmother, Fay, whose stupidity and selfishness is offensive and incomprehensible next to the intelligence, beauty and class of Becky, her deceased mother. Judge McKelva, a highly respected and formidable man, well loved by all of the townspeople, is feared to have lost his judgement in recent years, and Laurel can only agree as she watches the vain and spiteful behaviour of her stepmother worsen every day. Judge McKelva never recovers from his surgery, and the grieving Laurel and hysterical Fay, who can only whine over how Judge McKelva’s death has inconvenienced her, travel back to Laurel’s childhood home in the small town of Mount Salus to hold his funeral.
On arrival in Mount Salus, Laurel is treated like the prodigal daughter by her old friends and neighbours, including her bridesmaids and friends of her parents. Wrapped up in their comforting arms and drawn back into the small, loving community she left behind, Laurel finds solace in her grief, and the opportunity to reminisce about her parents and the life they shared together in the house that Fay has already begun to desecrate. In the meantime, the detestable Fay continues to make a show of herself, and when her loud, abrasive and idiotic Texan relatives show up for the Judge’s funeral, her destruction of the sanctity of Laurel’s memories appears complete. However, in her vapidity and mean mindedness, Fay is unable to release that she has no empathy and no ability to truly love, and Laurel’s understanding of the richness of a life filled with love and treasured memories can never be destroyed by her, no matter how hard she might try to take everything Laurel holds dear. Though Laurel chooses to leave behind Mount Salus, she carries everyone in it, and the experiences she had while there, in her heart, and it is this realisation that memories and love are held not in other people or in possessions, but in her own body and soul, that gives Laurel the freedom to move on and begin again.
The Optimist’s Daughter is the sort of novel that people who like plots complain about, because nothing of note really happens. However, in charting the journey from Laurel’s raw grief and anger to emotional freedom and forgiveness, Welty has drawn a remarkably succint and moving portrait of love, memory and grace that gave me much food for thought and truly moved me. Laurel’s exploration of her parents’ relationship, of her mother’s last days, and of the love their house contained, was so powerful, and so vivid. Welty’s haunting scenes of Laurel systematically destroying material objects that belonged to her parents and husband initially shocked me, and I failed to understand the point she was making. However, on re-reading, I came to understand that she was showing how unnecessary things are when all is said and done; for what do they mean when the person who gave them meaning has gone, never to return? Instead, they gather dust in forgotten drawers and cupboards and become nothing to those who find them again. Rather than clutter her life with the relics of a past that is done with, and that has been sullied by Fay’s influence, in destroying what was her anchor to her past, Laurel has been freed to carry her love and memories in her heart rather than in her hands. This gives her the permission she needs to leave Mount Salus behind; with nothing to tie her there anymore, now that Fay is living in her parents’ house, she can live the life of her own choosing.
This whisper-light, brief beauty of a novel is astounding when considering the true weight of the messages it carries. Eudora Welty had a formidable talent, and I was in awe at how magnificently she portrayed the warmth and conviviality of the Southern psyche when compared to the coarse and inconsiderate behaviour of Wanda ‘Fay’ and her family, who strike such a discordant note in the novel that I cringed when they appeared on the page. The world she describes comes alive off the pages, and the delicately, exquisitely drawn character of the tender yet brave Laurel, bowed down but not defeated by the slew of painful losses she experiences, was a true delight to discover. I can’t praise this gem of a novel enough, and Welty is another new discovery I will definitely be exploring more of.