Saturday, 4 February 2017

Peacock Feathers by Temple Bailey

My parents are avid library patrons, which is why their house is not crammed top to bottom with books. Some of the books that do linger on the shelves were owned by my grandparents, and one of them is Peacock Feathers by Temple Bailey (1924). This was one of my favourite books when I was a teenager. It was good to read it again with the eyes of a forty-something.

The story is about a parson's son from western New York state who is led by his adventurous uncle to believe that he will inherit wide estates in Colorado one day. Although he adores his kindly, idealistic and self-sacrificing father, Jerry pines to be more like his uncle. As a teenager, Jerry travels with Uncle Jerry to Washington D.C., where the latter seeks to put together a lucrative deal. When they are eating in the Senators' restaurant, the boy sees a beautiful auburn-haired girl dining with her grandfather. The grandfather, says Uncle Jerry, is a famous senator and the girl is his niece, Mimi Lebrun.

Jerry has fallen instantly in love with the girl, and when his uncle sends him to Yale University, he befriends a young man there who turns out to be Mimi's cousin. Thus Jerry gets swept along into Mimi's High Society orbit, where his simple background puts him at a considerable disadvantage.

Strangely, this is the only book by Temple Bailey I have read. Why I never thought to look her up in a library card catalogue in those far-off days of my youth, I know not. She reminds me of Lucy Maud Montgomery, only there is a beautiful spareness to her writing. With LMM, I find my eye skipping over passages of descriptions; this is never true for Peacock Feathers. Although she too loves landscapes, Bailey gets the greater impact in the fewer words.

I also love the book for its scenes of pre-war America, which is also conjured up for my by E.B. White. It's a reminder that people thought they were on the cutting edge of modernity in 1912. In Peacock Feathers, Christian Jerry rarely mentions Almighty God to his glittering set because they simply wouldn't understand what he was talking about. Having grown up in Canada, I sometimes get the impression that the world before 1968, or 1939 at earliest, doesn't matter to the zeitgeist. It's gone completely down the memory hole; we have entertaining "historical novels" instead.

True, a white American novelist born in 1869 might have a blinkered, limited view of American society. In Peacock Feathers, the only African Americans are female servants and the only American Indians are farmhands and itinerant sellers of blankets. Jerry finds the Italian immigrants who come to farm New York incredibly exotic. However, if your ancestors include pre-war white Americans, stories drawn from their experiences will surely move you.

Immigrant experience is here, of course. Mimi Lebrun and her high society set are from St. Louis, and identify strongly with the French experience in the USA. Their ancestresses came from France with their ballgowns packed up in boxes, and they danced with Lafayette. Their pride, though, rests in their ancestors having been founders of the American republic, founders of cities. They are most definitely "American first" because, although they did not arrive with the Mayflower, they sprang from "first Americans [of the Republic]."

Today this is a decidedly unfashionable point of view, no doubt because the descendants of "first Americans" are vastly outnumbered by the descendants of New Americans who, unsurprisingly, feel disgruntled and marginalized by being left out. This may be why the sins of the "first Americans" are presented to our view today much more often than their virtues. Stuart Little seemed vastly untroubled by inherited guilt, and it wasn't just because he was--incredibly bizarrely--a mouse.

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