My first experience with Dorothy Canfield was many years ago, when I was still a university student and had just discovered the joy of Persephone and Virago books. I was probably about 19 when, browsing in my local old lady charity shop, where nothing ever costs more than 75p, and if you spend more than £5 in one go the old ladies suck in their teeth and say ‘Oh, that’s a bit expensive isn’t it, dear? Let’s say £3.50’, I came across a battered old Virago copy of The Brimming Cup. I recognised Dorothy Canfield’s name from the Persephone website – I was yet to be in the financial position to stump up £10 a pop for one of their books, so hadn’t sampled any of them yet – read the description on the back, and was sold then and there. Small town turn of the century America! Thwarted dreams! A woman with ambitions! All siren songs to my heart. So Dorothy came home with me, I read her and loved her, and then I moved on to The Home Maker, one of my first Persephones, which I devoured in one sitting –a rare occurrence for me, as, believe it or not, I can’t read for more than half an hour at a stretch without becoming restless – and I thought it was absolutely magnificent.
Dorothy Canfield really was a visionary; perceptive, compassionate, sympathetic and open minded, she saw the need to allow people to be whoever they wanted to be, and not restricted due to their gender, social background or level of education. In her depiction of Lester and Eva, she shows a couple whose lives are miserable because their paths have been dictated to them by social convention; they are not free to pursue their passions or develop their talents because these lie in areas that are outside of society’s prescribed roles for them. Eva is a woman, and a wife and a mother; her place is in the home. Lester is a man, and a husband and father; his job is to work hard to provide for his family. By daring to challenge the traditional perception of a man and a woman’s role, and what they bring to family life, Canfield undermined the notion of woman as nurturer and man as provider, and rocked the foundations of the very 19th century assumption that all women belonged in the home.
Seasoned Timber is quite dissimilar to The Home Maker and The Brimming Cup in that the protagonist is a man; Timothy Hulme, the President of Clifford Academy, an impoverished boarding school in the mountains of rural Vermont. Timothy lives with his elderly and slightly mentally troubled aunt Lavinia, a musical genius, and is intimately involved with all of the affairs of this small town, where the school is the heart of life. Passionate about providing the best education possible to his dearly beloved pupils, Timothy loves his job, and despite the frustrations of having little money and living in a tiny town where nothing much ever happens, he enjoys his life and is highly respected in the community. All is bumbling on much the same as always for Timothy one summer, with the usual problems of finding money for staff and hiring new teachers and dealing with troubled young students, when a new teacher, Susan Barney, arrives in town. Young, idealistic, gentle and intelligent, she captures the forty something widower Timothy’s heart. For the first time he realises what love is, and its power to illuminate life.
However, love is not the only thing on Timothy’s mind; war is brewing in Europe, his wayward nephew Canby comes to stay and try and find a meaningful direction for himself after meandering his way through his twenties, and a significant legacy that would save Clifford Academy from crumbling is offered, but with a clause to exclude Jewish students. As Timothy struggles with the tumult of his heart, he must also join the fight against the immorality going on in Europe, and convince those in small town Clifford of the evil they have been asked to commit in accepting money that would ask them to effectively join the forces of Hitler that are swiftly marching across Europe in this Autumn of 1939.
Seasoned Timber is part The Rector’s Daughter in its heartbreakingly devastating depiction of unrequited love, and part socio political treatise on the importance of morality and the power of education, while exploring a range of Canfield’s views on education, politics, morality, love, small town life, modernisation, family values and friendship. It is over long and a little preachy, especially when the Jewish question is raised, but overall, I found it a brave, inspiring and truly moving novel. Timothy Hulme is a remarkable character, flawed yet magnificent, and Canfield’s insight into the human heart throughout is exquisite. She has to be one of America’s greatest female authors, and yet, her work is criminally underread and underappreciated. Do try and get hold of this if you can, and you’ll find a copy for sale in my shop if you get there quickly enough!