Michaeline: Writing Where the Grass is Greener

Tish, Aggie and Lizzie putting out a fire while a young heroine looks on.

Letitia Carberry (known as Tish), and her henchwomen, Aggie and Lizzie, save yet another young couple in love while putting out fires and being their unabashed spinster selves. (Image via digital.library.upenn)

Two things collided and lit up my intellectual sky this morning. First was that tweet by the guy who said being childless is a privilege*. A lot of Twitter people piled on – one of his arguments basically boiled down to “you can euthanize your pets, but you can’t euthanize your children, so stop comparing pet ownership to parenthood. Pet-owning childless people, you have no idea, so your arguments along that line are invalid.”

I tweeted that not having kids is a privilege, and having kids is a privilege – just very, very different privileges that carry their own burdens and responsibilities. I added that the grass seems particularly greener on the other side when we are fed up and anxious about things.

And goodness knows, the pandemic has increased the number of bored, anxious, fed-up-to-the-gills feelings.

So this idea of childlessness being a privilege (with caveats) ran into the reading I’ve been doing recently. Problematic early 20th century writer Mary Roberts Rinehart is racist and classist – but it’s a closely observed racism and classism that make her characters live and breathe. And in addition, she’s good at plotting, and turning rather ordinary situations into screwball comedy.

Her casual sideswipes at great swathes of humanity make me deeply uncomfortable, but she’s got good ideas that would work well in this time period or even the near future.

One of the perennial calls from readers is for books that have mature heroines. Most of Roberts Rinehart’s books do feature narrators out of their first blush of youth, and in particular, her series of stories about Letitia Carberry, a “spinster” who has a taste for adventure (motorcars, boats, that sort of thing) and her two friends. Tish Carberry buys an island where her friends go to hang out in the summer, and they rescue young couples who are crossed in love. (The young men in the stories are often appalling stalker-boys, and the girls often don’t know their own minds before realizing that they luuuurve those awful wretched boys. You have been warned!)

Older woman swimming in an inner tube calling to an older woman washing a white sheet on the shore.

“Get the canoe and follow. I’m heading for Island Eleven.” Actual caption to the original, and I can’t add much more. Tish calls to the narrator, Lizzie. (Image via digital.libary.upenn)

But if you boil the muck down and distill the essence, this is a great idea! Three happy spinsters, merrily following their own interests and pursuits. They go camping! Tish enters a car race and blows away the competitors while her friends cheer her on (and fear for her life!). The women have time, they have money, and they have a certain amount of respect as “elderly” women (they are in their 50s, IIRC), and can also totally Karen their way out of a situation by pretending to be weak and fragile. (And sometimes it’s funny that their fragility is real, but they don’t want to admit it.)

I think it’s very much a “grass is greener” situation. Roberts Rinehart married a doctor after graduating from nursing school. The Tish books were written from 1911 to 1937, so she would have been about 35 when she published the first Tish book. According to Wikipedia, her sons would have been about 14, 11 and 9 in 1911. Since her first book, The Circular Staircase, was published in 1908, she would have had at least three years of writing while juggling her job as wife and mother.

I can easily imagine that the Tish books were a mental vacation from those responsibilities. Just think: what fun it would be to buy an island away from everything, provide homes for your best friends, rent a few cabins to make ends meet and then indulge in camping, fishing, crafts, motorcars and whatever else struck your fancy – without having to justify it to a husband or feel like you were stealing the college education from your children!

Her kids were a success, and her writing paid for extensive renovations to a house in town that she bought, as well as a rural retreat. Letting her imagination stray to a place where the grass was greener certainly seemed to pay off for her! A room of her own? Let’s aim for an island of our own!

*Privilege confers certain advantages, and I don’t see privilege as a zero sum game in every case. Childfull/childless is one of these cases. Renting/owning is another case where both sides have pros and cons. In race and gender discussions, privilege is more fraught and puts the burdens and deprivation people have in stark contrast. Imbalanced privilege that we can fix is definitely worth doing something about. 

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Writing Where the Grass is Greener

  1. I’m reminded of a talk I heard once by a well-known mystery author who replied, when asked why her female protagonist had such a rocky personal life, that you couldn’t write a female PI or cop who was married or had a significant other or kids, because you’d have to have them constantly calling home to say they wouldn’t be back for dinner. The “spinster” heroines of Mary Roberts Rinehart seem to fall into that category! And it’s interesting to see how she made a writing career and home life work for her.

    • A lot of lady detectives are widows or divorced or not married in other ways, now that you mention it. Jessica Fletcher (?) of Murder She Wrote. Stephanie Plum for many, many books (and possibly still) dithered between her two beaus. Never thought of that before! I can only think of one show that had a married woman, and she was married to another detective (the old 80s show Hart to Hart — which I don’t remember very well at all).

      • I read a series set in Utah, I think, where the detective was married and had a couple of kids. Trying to recall if she was Mormon. Her adopted son was, I remember. It was really good. She was very complex. Trying to remember the series name, or the character name, or the author. Nope, nothing. Grrr.

  2. One of my favorite commentators frequently bemoans the “cancel culture”–the totally unrealistic demand that things we like be without flaw or else the whole thing must be boycotted. It seems reasonable to me to enjoy the aspects of a writer that are enjoyable while recognizing the problematic elements.

    • Yeah, nothing is perfect. But we can compare Roberts Rinehart with other writers of her era who were not forgotten. Wodehouse, as far as I remember, had very little racial content (but he was British), and his women are really powerful. Aunts, fiancees . . . they strike terror in young Bertie’s heart. Dorothy Parker was pretty progressive for her time, and while she could be snobby, she didn’t strike me as offensive, exactly. (Although, I think she’d be very snobby if she’d ever met me in person.)

      Being in Japan, I don’t have a very firm grasp of what “cancel culture” is. I hear it thrown around Twitter, of course, but I haven’t done a deep dive. I probably should if I want to keep talking about how writing fits in with the popular culture . . . .

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