Saturday, 4 October 2014

Comrades by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, 1911

Comrades, by American feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911), is a poignant short story of an ageing and ailing war veteran who agonises over the possibility that he might not be able to don his uniform and walk through the village square to decorate his son, Tommy, on Memorial Day. He has been decorating Tommy ever since the young man died in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

© www.gutenberg.org
The story is set twelve years after the war, in 1910, when veteran Reuben Oak, 81, talks about the impending day with his devoted wife, Patience, many years younger. He used to call her Impatience, sometimes just Imp, before settling for Peter, which came as a relief to her.

Reuben, a carpenter and tobacco planter, and Patience, drowning in her love for her husband, live in a village along the Connecticut valley. They have seen life in all its vicissitudes; the highs and the lows through fifty years of marriage bound by their vows, their ideals, their faith, and their love and respect for each other. Reuben and Patience are a sweet old couple.

Comrades is as much a story about Patience as it is about Reuben and the sacrifices she makes for her husband, including caring for Tommy, “the year-old baby of a year-dead first wife who had made Reuben artistically miserable.” She has a tender and maternal instinct for her husband.

Apart from Patience, the other comrades in the story are Reuben’s fellow veterans, Jabez Trent, in his sixties and the youngest; old Mr. Succor who can’t see; and David Swing on his crutches—the last survivors of the Charles Darlington Post, which, I suspect, was the company they belonged to during the war. Like most veterans, they are proud of the war they fought, and together they wait for Reuben, the oldest of them all, to lead the march on Memorial Day. Although, I'm not sure which war Phelps is referring to. I think it is the Civil War because they would have been too old to fight in the Spanish-American War. I also did not find references to the Charles Darlington Post on the internet, so I'm assuming it is a fictionalised company.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
© www.en.wikipedia.org
I liked Comrades for the overall story, the historical touch and the post-war memories, the gentle atmosphere, and Patience’s beautiful character that shines through the narrative. The writing is sublime as evident from just the author’s description of the woman who flows with the tide.

“Patience, in her blue shepherd-plaid gingham dress and white apron, was standing by the window—a handsome woman, a dozen years younger than her husband; her strong face was gentler than most strong faces are—in women; peace and pain, power and subjection, were fused upon her aspect like warring elements reconciled by a mystery. Her hair was not yet entirely white, and her lips were warm and rich. She had a round figure, not overgrown. There were times when she did not look over thirty.”

I look forward to reading Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ other stories and novels that number more than a dozen. I'm sure they are all as delightful.

Recommended

10 comments:

  1. I've never heard of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Prashant - but thanks for the introduction. That is a nice excerpt you've included. Isn't it wonderful when we sink into a book and lose ourselves in a story. I love when it happens.

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    1. Yvette, you are welcome. I was bowled over by the author's style and was tempted to reproduce more than one passage. I can lose myself in good writing even if the rest of the story isn't up to the mark. In this case Elizabeth Phelps scores on both counts. I discovered her work only recently.

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  2. Interesting story, but I will pass on this author thanks. Too much already.

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    1. Col, thank you. One of the reasons I like vintage fiction is because of the rich narrative. I almost drooled over this story. I felt like quoting several passages.

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  3. While reading early frontier fiction from the post-Civil War era, I found several feminist and freethinking women writers, but Phelps' New England setting must have kept me from discovering her until now. Thanks for the heads up.

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    1. Ron, you are welcome. I was wondering if you'd read and reviewed any of Elizabeth Phelps' work. While I'd come across her name before, the Wikipedia description of Phels as "an early feminist American author and intellectual who challenged traditional Christian beliefs of the afterlife, challenged women's traditional roles in marriage and family, and advocated clothing reform for women" prompted me to read this short story.

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  4. Neither book nor author was familiar to me, but it sounds very very interesting, and I will try to find it.

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    1. Moira, thank you. Some of her fiction is available online, free and legally. I think you'll like this story for its description of clothing. She lends depth to her main characters. I have a feeling her other stories are of a similar nature.

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  5. Very interesting. I had not heard of this author either.

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    1. Tracy, the post-Civil War period, which Ron mentioned above, gave rise to some very interesting fiction, especially frontier fiction. I discover new writers from that era every month.

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