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Dawn Powell: A Time to Be Born

This book has been called a a comedy of manners, a term which, I must confess, I have not seen used in recent times. Indeed, the link above and other links indicate that it is used more for drama than prose fiction. Nevertheless, this book clearly fits the description: a form of comedy that satirises the manners and affectations of contemporary society and questions societal standards, so comedy of manners it is.

Powell lived much of her adult life in New York and here she satirises, as others have done, both the posh people of New York and the country mice who come to New York and try to make a life for themselves in the bright lights. Sometimes they fall flat on their face – Edith Wharton‘s The House of Mirth is an obvious example, though Wharton is more a social commentator than satirist. Some of her other books take up similar themes.

Powell has different aims. She clearly intends to mock, and mock she does. Our heroine, if that is the right word, is Amanda Keeler. She is from Lakeville, Ohio, not far from Lake Erie and, presumably, based, at least in part, on Shelby, Ohio, where Powell grew up, though there is a small town in Ohio called Lakeville, not all that far from Shelby. Powell mocks Lakeville as much as she does New York (sex, money, status, eagerness to escape). Amanda had a tough childhood. Her parents divorced when she was quite young and she spent six months of the year with her mother, and six months with her father. Her father neglected her, while her mother used her as a tool to attack her father. She got out as soon as she could (as did Powell). Lakeville was not hometown to Amanda, it was childhood, and childhood was something to be forgotten.

She has done well. She has written what appears to be a not very good novel and managed to capture Julian Evans, a married publisher and newspaper proprietor by, essentially, stalking him. He has left his wife and married Amanda, so she is now rich. He and his newspapers promoted her book, which has had considerable success. She continues to write, producing political articles for various publications. Or, rather, others do under her name. She gets the information from her husband and her secretary, Miss Bemel, provides much of the background research. Indeed, it would seem that Miss Bemel actually writes some of the articles. Miss Bemel is not complaining. Miss Bemel was allowed to insult at least a dozen people a day, and to enjoy immeasurably the spectacle of her superiors fawning over her as representative of a great name.

Amanda enjoys her fame though Julian finds being married to her a bit tiresome, as she, unlike his first wife, seems to want to be more involved in his business affairs than he would like. His reward, of course, is sex, which Powell superbly mocks. They have separate bedrooms and he would come upstairs to her. He would carry around his Swedish health bread, and the sight and sound of his fine big teeth crunching constantly was more than Amanda’s nerves could stand. He had learned not to knock on the door, but he would be apt to tiptoe upstairs and listen outside her door for a possible call. It rarely came. Indeed, it eventually stops all together. Fundamentally, there was the matter of sex; the manner in which she stiffened at his touch, as if he were some monster.

Amanda has received a visit from Ethel Carey, whom she had know at Lakeville. Ethel somewhat resents Amanda and her success. It was not Amanda who was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” but Ethel. However, she has come to New York to plead for Vicky Haven, who might be described as heroine No 2. Vicky had set up a business with Eudora Brown in Lakeville and was doing fairly well. She had a long-time boyfriend whom she hoped to marry. Unfortunately, he went off with Eudora, Naturally, this made working relations somewhat tricky. Ethel hopes that Amanda can get Vicky a job in New York so she can escape Lakeville and Eudora. Amanda persuades her husband to find her a job, which he does.

Amanda has recently bumped into Ken Saunders, her ex-boyfriend, who was unceremoniously dumped when she met Julian. However, she is eager to see if her sexuality is still working and tries to seduce him. She goes one step further. She persuades Julian that she should have a studio which she can use for occasional work but where Vicky could also live. Of course, she really wants it as a trysting place for her and Ken.

The book follows the fate of these two women – Amanda and Vicky – as well of those associated with them. Amanda has had success with her novel (thanks to her husband’s promoting it) and is now writing a second novel as well as a host of articles, often on world affairs, published in Julian’s papers. We gradually learn that Amanda’s role is fairly limited. For the articles, Julian and his friends and acquaintances provide much of the information, with the details from others often filtered through Julian, while others do much of the writing. The same, more or less, happens with the novel, which is essentially ghostwritten.

The couple also use the war not as a cause but for their own glorification. To buy a newspaper here was to see that even the war belonged to Amanda and her husband. Indeed, he is accused, probably correctly, of supporting Britain only because it helped sell more papers. If supporting isolationism sold more papers, he would have taken that side. However, the war was getting too big for Amanda, it was no longer her private property, it was beyond one person’s signature. Theirs is not the only attitude towards the war that is mocked. One woman is mocked for being opposed to Hitler not for his wicked deeds but, quite simply, because he was not, like the Kaiser, a gentleman.

Everything starts being too big for Amanda – her relationship with Ken and, later, with a famous novelist-cum-reporter, Andrew Callingham, her relationship with Julian and even her relationship with Miss Bemel, her novel, her articles and the various manoeuvring she is carrying out with various people.

Meanwhile, Vicky is having her problems, with her love life, her accommodation arrangements and her relationship with Amanda and Julian. Powell definitely has a more positive take on her than she does on Amanda but but Vicky, too, can make mistakes with her life, even if she is less ambitious and ruthless than Amanda.

There is a genre of novel that might be described as New York Can Eat You Up and this is definitely one of those novels. Our two heroines have come from the sticks – Lakeville, Ohio – and each wishes, in her own way, to make New York her own and each finds the task well beyond her. Powell, however, very much enjoys mocking them for this, as well as mocking anybody and everybody who appears in this novel. No one comes out unscathed and virtually every page has someone mocked. This makes for very enjoyable reading, if you enjoy satire, particularly satire on people, who, whatever their social status, think themselves somewhat superior to others. This novel was Powell’s first commercially successful novel and you can see why, for its humour and its denigration of much of New York society. No doubt the element of roman à clef involved helped as well, with Julian and Amanda being likened to Henry Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce and Andrew Callingham to Ernest Hemingway. The novel still stands up well today.

Publishing history

First published 1942 by Charles Scribner’s Sons