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Caroline Gordon: The Women on the Porch

This book is Gordon’s finest achievement. If the story has any form it is that of a myth, Eurydice and Orpheus Gordon wrote to a friend. Eurydice is Catherine Chapman, a married woman, living in New York who, one day, finds that her husband is having an affair. She immediately packs her bags and sets off, with her dog, down to the Underworld, the family home in rural Kentucky, leaving a note for her husband telling him only that she has gone but not where. Orestes – her husband, Jim – is, of course, lost without her and dithers around New York, unsure of what to do. Eventually, he finds out where she is and follows her. In the meantime, she has found another life and another man.

The story is simple enough but the story is almost irrelevant. Gordon makes two main comparisons. The first comparison is the one between the rural world of Kentucky and New York. In New York, time is linear. It’s always today, it’s always now. Down in Kentucky, time moves in a completely different way, the past and the present mingling easily and naturally together. Southern time, where the past is just as important now as the present, has never been so expertly portrayed as in this book. It’s not only the concept of past and present time that is different between the two. We might be tempted to think that, in New York, people are always busy while down in rural Kentucky they are not. The contrast that Gordon so expertly makes is that, while New Yorkers may seem to be busy, all too often time hangs heavy on their hands. There is no such concern down in Kentucky, where even sitting on the porch – a sort of stoa to Hades – is a fruitful occupation.

This brings up the other major distinction – the distinction between the man’s New York and the woman’s Kentucky. In New York, it is men that predominate. Women have the subordinate role. They are servants or wives or mistresses of somebody. Catherine, as the wife of a history professor, often feels out of depth when her husband has her friends over and keeps quiet in their company. She has no place, except as his wife. But, down in Kentucky, it is the men that are marginal. The family home she returns to is occupied by two women – her widowed grandmother, who, particularly after suffering a stroke, is unable to distinguish between past and present and her Aunt Willy, unmarried but who receives a proposal during the course of the book, with a servant, Maria, who comes to help. They are joined by Catherine and Cousin Daphne, who was dumped on her wedding night when her husband found out she had no money.

This is not one of those books where the women flee their men and create a happy, manless world. Gordon fully sees the dangers of women being trapped in this world. Catherine starts her relationship with neighbour and distant cousin, Tom Manigault. Willy has her horse that she trains and which wins a prize at a fair. Poor Cousin Daphne, however, only has her mushrooms, all too often the symbol of death, as Daphne herself reminds us when she finds an Amanita. But at least she has her mushrooms. Jim drifts aimlessly around and only when he comes down to Kentucky to fetch his Eurydice back does he come alive.

What makes this novel so great – and it has been criticised for its unsatisfactory ending and for treating Catherine and Jim as two separate characters and virtually ignoring their life together – is how the complicated feelings both of the characters alive in the book as well as many characters dead well before the book starts are seamlessly integrated into the vision of Gordon. It is called a Southern classic. It should be called a world classic.

Publishing history

First published 1944 by Charles Scribner’s Sons