First published in 1915, Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity has been reintroduced to contemporary readers by the excellent Persephone Books, which produces out-of-print or forgotten works from the early twentieth century by female writers in its signature grey jacket.
Fidelity is set in the midwestern town of Freeport in Iowa in 1913 and revolves around its protagonist, Ruth Holland – who eloped with a married man from her town 11 years ago, and the emotions and reactions that are stirred up in her small hometown and within herself when she returns to visit her dying father. Contrary to what I initially thought, the story focuses on the idea of being loyal to oneself instead of the infidelity that surrounds the affair. The preface alludes to how fidelity to one’s inner life is infinitely more important than going through life without being really awake to life at all.
I enjoyed Fidelity tremendously – certain passages gave me goosebumps, others made me smile – and finished it within just two days. A thought-provoking novel, I ended up sticking paper stubs all over the book to mark noteworthy passages or observations that caught my attention. Even though it is set in a different era and society from what I’m familiar with, I find that many of the thoughts and emotions articulated in Fidelity are relevant in a timeless way.
I was looking around the apartment to see what I could photograph alongside the book. There was a bunch of calla lilies by the window and I thought that the deep purple of the flowers would complement the dove grey book jacket. Upon placing the flowers by the book, I noticed that one of them was particularly bent yet curved inward to the other stalks, reminding me of how Ruth Holland is both close to and away from her family and friends in her quest of being loyal to herself.
Without giving away how the story ended, below are some of my favourite excerpts from Fidelity.
On love and loneliness in a (conformist) society
“… how hard it was for women whose experiences had all fallen within the circle of things as they should be, to understand a thing that was disruptive. It was as if their kindly impulses, sympathy, tenderness, were circumscribed by that circle.”
“She thought of how it was love, more than any other thing, that gave these people that common life. Love was the fabric of it. Love made new combinations of people – homes, children. The very thing in her that had shut her out was the thing drawing them into that oneness… Homes were closed to her because of that very impulse out of which homes are built.”
“It seemed it was the things not real that were holding people apart. It was the artificialities people had let living build up around them made those people hard. People would be kinder, simpler, could those unreal things be swept away.”
When Ruth’s father had just passed away
“The sun was just rising, touching the dew on the grass. The birds were singing for joy in another day. The three who had just seen death stood there together in silence.”
Annie, who is Ruth’s former classmate and of a poorer family background, welcomes her with open arms and shares with her why it matters so much to be her own self
“It’s good to have someone to talk to about the things one thinks… I’m always thinking about things. We keep alive by thinking, don’t we? Perhaps it’s because I haven’t had from life much of what I’d like to have that I’ve made a world within. Can’t let life cheat us, Ruth. If we can’t have things in one way – have to get them in another… I fought for something, it’s the most precious thing in life… (I fought) to be my own! It’s what we think that counts. It’s what we feel. It’s what we are… There in that town are people who are going through life without being really awake to life at all. They move around in a closed place, doing the same silly things things – copy cats – repeaters. They’re not their own – they’re not awake.”
What loving means to Ruth and her relationship with Stuart Williams, the married man for whom she broke away from her close-knit family and Freeport society
“Only cowards and the broken in spirit surrendered the future as payment for the past. Love was the great and beautiful wonder – but surely one should not stay with it in the place where one found one. Why, loving should light the way! Far from engulfing all the rest of life it seemed now that love should open life to one. Whether one kept it or whether one lost it, it failed if it did not send one father along the way.”
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