Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield

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!

11 comments

  1. I hadn’t even heard of this one, Rachel. I’ve only yesterday finished reading The Home-Maker which I loved, apart from when she gets a bit preachy.
    I was telling a friend this week about a favourite charity shop, saying that it was a good area for the right kind of dead old lady. She burst out laughing but said she knew what I meant.
    (In case you’re getting ideas … I’m feeling very well, thank you!)
    But they’re tough as old boots around here … they never suck their teeth and offer lower prices!

    1. Glad you loved The Home Maker, Mary – isn’t it fantastic?! This one is a bit more obscure and also written quite a bit later but I really enjoyed it. It does drag on a fair bit but that’s it’s only real flaw.

      You are too funny!! Despite not having pushovers for charity shop old ladies, you always seem to find the best bargains though!

  2. Wonderful review, Rachel, compelling me to read Seasoned Timber. I am sorry to say I have not read Dorothy Canfield, or been familiar with her name, though, when I clicked your link above, I see she wrote a children’s book, Understood Betsy, which I do know.

    A few years back our book group read a book about the soldiers who freed the POW’s in the Philippines. I see her son led the raid and was one of the few men killed. Just a side bar here to note that I saw when I clicked the link.

    Back to your review. It sounds like a very good book that raises questions we need to keep asking about what we choose and how we behave.

    1. I know you would love her, Penny – The Home Maker especially is a truly beautiful book.

      Oh how sad – I didn’t know that.

      It really is – certainly a very thought provoking read and I hope you manage to find a copy!

  3. This is going on my to be read list, Rachel! I loved The Home Maker, and this sounds like another great novel by Dorothy Canfield. Thanks for the review!

  4. I’ve picked this up in a local library several times…but always put it back down. The book is one of those old ones that’s been well-loved and recovered, so it lacks a blurb on the back cover, so I never knew if it would be quite me. Sounds, from this, like it is. Thanks for giving me that blurb, finally,

  5. Great review, Rachel! Thanks so much for turning the light on a book that, to be honest, I’d never heard of before! My library system doesn’t have a copy, so I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to track it down, but I’m on the trail and have you to thank.

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