For the Major
by Constance Fenimore Woolson
1982-83 / 84 pages
rating – / classic American
Constance Fenimore Woolson was the great niece of James Fenimore Cooper and excellent author in her own right. Also a good friend of Henry James.
This is a very short book but full of subtlty and nuance. Sara Carroll, an intelligent and good looking young, unmarried woman, is home to Carroll Farms and finds her father in reduced mental capacities. Her stepmother, Madam Carroll does her best to keep his life smooth and easy.
Sara and her stepmother get along quite well but they are enormous sadness in seeing the Major in a reduced state. Madam Carroll holds a “reception” every two weeks and guests are received the following Thursday. That’s the family social life except for church on Sundays. Also present is a young boy named Scar – son of Madam and Major Carroll.
Sara comes to be quite useful to her father in many small ways and this makes her happy. She loves the Major devotedly.
The setting is completely post-Civil War Southern US with an emphasis on manners and morals. Folks chit-chat about ceramics and gardening and some history and so on, their various interests but they avoid talk about political events occuring less than 30 years prior.
Sara is considered cold by many folks in the little community of Far Edgerly, but she’s really just taken up by thoughts of her father. She’s quite humble and considers Madam Carroll to be almost perfect in caring for the Major. She really dislikes the receptions anyway, and then a peculiar stranger shows up at one of them.
Louis Dupont is a really odd duck. He is supposedly a genius but his dress is flashy. He seems quite bored with the people of the community and he’s really rather rude. He stays at the local hotel and attends one of the Carroll’s receptions. Sara, the preacher, Frederick Owen, and a couple other people really dislike him but Madame Carroll and most others seem to think quite highly of him.
The tension mounts. Who is this very odd person, Dupont? What does he want in Far Edgerly? Why does Sara dislike him while Madam Carroll like him especially? Why is Owen so interested? And then it all changes around.
Woolson writes with an elegance equal to any US writer of 19th century novels. She understood small Reconstruction Era Southern towns and the people who lived there, especially the women. I need to read more of her.