Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley has written her 13th novel, another expansive, brilliantly imagined and impeccably structured work of fiction. Though it covers more than half a century from the American Civil War through World War II, Private Life focuses on the private and marital life of the fictional Margaret Mayfield Early. To be sure, her life is touched by the major events of American history: for example, the Great War, the San Francisco earthquake, the ravaging influenza epidemic, the stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Smiley is masterful at weaving these public tragedies into Margaret’s routine days. The novel illuminates how the pressures of the larger world impact almost all aspects of personal existence.
The beginning chapters of the book feature Margaret as a 27-year-old bookish spinster living in Darlington, Missouri. She is not a plucky or an adventurous heroine like the young women in Austen and Bronte. All her life she is a person to whom things happen. Sensitive, awkward, deferential – all are adjectives that describe her.
Undoubtedly, the baggage of a dark childhood remains with Margaret, making her in great part who she is. At age five she witnessed a public hanging, but suppressed all memories of the grim event. At intervals Smiley gives Margaret thoughts about the execution, and by the novel’s conclusion when Margaret is in her sixties, she can remember the occasion in detail. It is this transformation that signals Margaret’s hard-won – and excessively delayed – achievement of emotional maturity.
The hanging was only one trauma in Margaret’s youth. She also endured the deaths of two older brothers, and above all, the suicide of her physician father. Margaret grew up as the oldest of three girls, and at one point she comments accurately, “There’s always a beautiful sister and a smart sister, and then there’s a sister that’s not beautiful or smart.”
But Margaret’s ambitious and capable mother manages to snare for her daughter an eligible bachelor. Navy Captain Andrew Early, a man 11 years Margaret’s senior, is a scientist with some credentials. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a world traveler fluent in languages, and a former astronomer at the University of Chicago. The first time Margaret meets Andrew she finds him odd. We soon learn of his tarnished reputation in some academic circles. The phrases “arrogant scoundrel” and “monster of self-seeking impudence” stand out in references to him.
Many months pass, during which time the two see each other now and then without ever having a meaningful conversation. Andrew calls her “my dear” – as he will forever – but so effectively does Smiley use this device that it seems not an endearment but rather a blatant condescension.
In 1905, mistaking her anxiety for love and acknowledging to herself that she has no other options, Margaret marries Captain Andrew Early. Her mother’s pithy advice is, “A wife only has to do as she’s told for the first year.” The couple moves to an offshore naval observatory near San Francisco where Andrew works as an astronomer and celestial theoretician. He believes he will solve the very mysteries of the cosmos.
Before long Margaret discerns that her husband is subject to frenzied delusions about his work. It is their intensification that provides the unsettling undercurrent of the book’s plot. The marriage is further strained when the couple’s 18-day-old son dies. In the wake of this tragedy, there remains no real intimacy of any kind between the two. Each lives a “private life.” Nevertheless, Andrew is a strict task-master and fills Margaret’s days with tedious chores – cooking, typing his manuscripts, chauffeuring him because he refuses to learn to drive. When she points out that she has other activities to occupy her time, the only one Andrew acknowledges is cleaning, “which she should do quietly while he was sleeping.”
Despite her membership in a ladies knitting club, Margaret has no one in whom she can confide her unhappiness. She muses:
“That’s what knitting groups and sewing groups were for, wasn’t it?...commiserating about marriage. But through the years, no one had said what she now thought, which was that marriage was relentless and terrifying…”
Though smothered by a difficult marriage, Margaret does manage to make a life of her own filled with persons she cares for. A sunbeam in her otherwise dark existence is her friendship with Dora Bell, a character who certainly serves as her counterpoint. Sister of Margaret’s brother-in-law, Dora makes things happen. She is a successful international journalist and a people person who, throughout the novel, “seizes-the-day.” Dora genuinely enjoys Margaret’s company and frequently turns up in the San Francisco area.
It is through Dora that Margaret meets an enigmatic man who goes by the name of Peter Moran. (He is, in fact, a Russian expatriate in trouble with the Bolsheviks.) Pete, too, moves in and out of her life over a period of decades and awakens in her passionate feelings. And, important for a major plot strand, Margaret becomes friends with the Kimuras, a Japanese family living in the Bay area.
There are, indeed, moments of contentment – even happiness – for Margaret, but throughout the narrative Smiley keeps the spotlight on Margaret’s marital misalliance. Andrew’s attempts to elucidate the cosmos become more and more lunatic. He considers Einstein an enemy, and in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner he states: “The simplest thing to tell you is that what he [Einstein] says is the way the universe is, can’t be the way it is.”
Andrew’s professional life catches firmly in a downward spiral when he is accused of plagiarism, an accusation that exacerbates his already pronounced feelings of paranoia. As World War II breaks out he travels to Washington D.C. to inform the Secretary of the Navy, among others, that Margaret’s Japanese friends are spies. His story is outrageous, but it has dire consequences. One of Andrew’s delusions is that he “sees” Einstein, usually on the Golden Gate Bridge. He is convinced that Einstein is a German saboteur.
In the novel’s climax Margaret discovers a stack of hidden letters written by Andrew’s mother to him some 40 years earlier. These hint at Andrew’s difficulty in getting along with colleagues and at some kind of a nervous breakdown he experienced. Mrs. Early clearly expresses to him her belief that marriage would make him less emotionally fragile. Margaret is struck by one sentence in particular: “I do not think you could abide a young woman who considered herself your equal and spoke her own ideas back to you with any sort of self-confidence.” And she is devastated by references in another letter: “No, the girl is not educated nor evidently intelligent,” and “…she is a well-made young woman with proper instincts and reasonable connections. Her mother has trained her to take care of household matters.”
Because of her artistry Smiley’s sympathy for her heroine is evident throughout the narrative, and by the novel’s conclusion readers will know Margaret thoroughly. Her disappointment with her life is apparent. Arriving late at a gathering of the knitting club, she overhears someone say (referring to her,) “She is a saint.”
Smiley writes, “It was peculiarly painful all of a sudden to know that her friends and relatives valued her life not for anything she had done, but for what she had to put up with.”