Her Son's Wife

by Dorothy Canfield. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. 1926. 12mo. viii+294 pp. $2.00.
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IN the democratic idea that each person counts as one there lies a temptation to assume that the ones are interchangeable, that they can be measured by the same rules and arranged in patterns with the uniformity of bricks. By such a concept Mary Bascomb governed her New England thinking. She was orderly, intelligent, responsible, scrupulous in her dealings with others; she expected those others to be the same. During the twenty years of widowhood in which she had taught school to support herself and her little son Ralph, her world revolved about her with flattering precision.

Then when Ralph was twenty-one and about to start his law course there came a scrawled note to say that he had married an unknown Charlotte Hicks. ‘Mother, Lottie’s not your kind,’he added, ‘but she’s all right.’ And in answer to Mary’s conscientiously welcoming telegram came Ralph and Lottie herself.
At once the pretty kitchen in Mary’s hardearned little house was filled with a clutter of unwashed dishes and greasy, scorched dish towels. The immaculate bathroom reeked of cheap perfume, spilled face powder, and soiled clothing left to lie where it had been cast. A hot gust of passion swept through the quiet rooms. Plans for Ralph’s career were abandoned; he had a wife to support, and five months later there would be a child. When that unwanted baby was born there came the first real shock to the firm structure of Mary Bascomb’s soul, for the child looked out at her with the deep-set level gaze of the young husband whom she had mourned for twenty years.
By all Mary Bascomb’s reasonable standards Lottie was atrociously wrong. Lottie was slovenly, selfish, vain, vulgar. Worse still, her presence

obliterated the old dutiful Ralph: his mother could not bear the greedy sensuality which his wife awakened in his eyes. At first Mary immured herself in silent self-righteousness; then she fled her desecrated house altogether. Her larger salary in a neighboring town bought her comfort and congenial associates and trips to New York for the summer schools.
But the adored grandchild, the baby with John Bascomb’s eyes, stood behind her like a little ghost. Only Dids. Mary told herself, could be saved from the cloud of unhappy endings which had settled upon the rest of the family. So Mary Bascomb went back. Many a story would have ended at this point, settling comfortably into the generality that a personal life is won only in its losing. Dorothy Canfield is not content with such an abortive conclusion, but follows on through the torturing relationship of the two women and the Comparatively incidental Ralph as Mary Bascomb fights for Dids’s chance — and gains it.
The new Mary is no longer the hub about which the household revolves or fails to revolve. She scraps her rules of life and her standards to pour her vitality in fierce concentration through every opportune channel which promises freedom for the child. To gain this means getting Lottie out of the way. Her ingenious method amounts, by her own standards and tastes, to little short of psychic murder. The last foundations of Mary’s old self-righteousness crumble as she realizes and accepts this part.
Then gradually it dawns upon her that the impelling force behind Lottie’s behavior has been, not sensuality, not even vanity, but desperate boredom, the boredom of the stunted soul which is doomed by its own limitations to forgo the satisfactions of knowing and doing which mature the spirit. Treated like the child she is, Lottie is more at peace than ever before in her warped life, and Mary Bascomb, understanding her, comes even to love her. Slowly also she comes to see how her idealized egotism has sapped Ralph’s vitality. She learns that most difficult lesson of experience — to live and let live. Her own carefully charted future vanishes in the rush of the present, but the stagnant pool of her life has become flowing Water.
Her Son’s Wife might be called a study in the higher selfishness, the selfishness which divines what it must have to survive, then casts aside egotistic standards and ideals to feel toward that end, modulating its progress to fuse the surprising desires and capacities of others, acknowledging and meeting generously and fearlessly the strange and diverse laws of their being. Each
person is one, but how different the ones, how unpredictable the pattern of their common living! Written with Dorothy Canfield’s gift for projecting real accents and familiar scenes, the novel will carry many pilgrims past the actual to exciting understanding.