What could be simpler than Old Maid? That’s the card game where players vie not to be the person at the end stuck with the Joker while making matches of everything else. The implications of the game and its name could hardly be clearer: to end up unmarried and childless is to lose out on all that life has to offer—to be a prim, fussy person, sexless and repressed and pitiable.
Even now, in the twenty-first century, when more adults, both men and women, are going through life unattached by matrimony than ever before, women who never marry still find themselves pegged—sometimes by peers, sometimes by family, and almost always by pop culture—as odd or eccentric at best, pathetic and rejected at worst. Decidedly not winners.
Which is why, a century after its initial publication, Edna Ferber’s deft, affectionate 1921 novel The Girls refreshes with its exuberant focus upon not one but three old maids. From the first page, Ferber breezes us into their lives:
It is a question of method. Whether to rush you up to the girls pell-mell, leaving you to become acquainted as best you can; or, with elaborate slyness, to slip you so casually into their family life that they will not even glance up when you enter the room or leave it; or to present the three of them in solemn order according to age, epoch, and story. This last would mean beginning with Great-Aunt Charlotte Thrift, spinster, aged seventy-four; thence to her niece and namesake Lottie Payson, spinster, aged thirty-two; finishing with Lottie’s niece and namesake Charley Kemp, spinster, aged eighteen and a half—you may be certain nobody ever dreamed of calling her Charlotte. If you are led by all this to exclaim, aghast, “A story about old maids!”— you are right. It is.
Ferber, who never married and had no children herself, even dedicates The Girls to her dear friend Lillian Adler, a fellow spinster, albeit one “who shies at butterflies but not at life.” That latter phrase, “but not at life,” turns out to be thematically crucial, for this is absolutely a book about old maids, but it is not the dreary narrative a reader might expect.
These three characters, though unwed and child-free, are not isolated but enmeshed in their families, friendships, and surrounding communities. Granted, to greater or lesser extents, each finds herself within a sexist and claustrophobic societal atmosphere in which any little act of self-assertion can feel like a leap from a precipice. Yet Ferber is not interested in cautionary tales of shrinking violets, favoring instead women who, out of necessity or desire or both, discover that meaningful work and recognition outside the home can unlock the door to a meaningful life.
Early on, while living in Chicago during the Civil War and in its immediate aftermath, practically under house arrest after a perceived romantic indiscretion, the eldest Charlotte—lively and passionate yet suppressed by her respectability-obsessed Victorian mother—finishes sewing a phenomenal quilt, one that “became quite famous; a renowned work of art.” Visitors, the narrator tells us, ask Charlotte about its progress, “as a novelist is sounded about an opus with which he is struggling or a painter his canvas,” prompting the quilter to explain, “This one has a purple satin center, you see. I always think purple is so rich, don’t you? Then the next row will be white uncut velvet. Doesn’t it have a sumptuous sound! Next blue velvet and the last row orange-colored silk.” This precious object and its method of composition—patches and colors that repeat and intersect to create a bigger pattern—resurface throughout the book, becoming an analog for Ferber’s nimble and elegant assembly of her own saga. Moving back and forth through time, she highlights the rhymes in the lives of the elderly Aunt Charlotte, the middle-aged Lottie, and the galoshed and rebellious young flapper, Charley. The similarities and differences among these three women and their love for one another provides the thread that binds the narrative.
Quilts, historically considered to be women’s work, have almost always been viewed as a lesser art form than the traditionally male-dominated pursuits of painting, sculpture, and even literature, as Ferber, a so-called “well-dressed lady novelist,” was well aware. In “Edna Ferber and the Problems of the Middlebrow,” Elyse Vigiletti observes that Ferber’s 1968 obituary in the New York Times
hailed her as ‘the greatest American woman novelist of her day’—no mean designation, despite the gender qualifier, considering that her ‘day’ included such figures as Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, and Willa Cather—making much of the fact that her books were ‘required reading in schools and universities.’ Yet, like much contemporaneous writing about her, it also registers a certain reservation about her long-term import, conceding that ‘her novels were not profound,’ damning them with the faint praise of ‘minor classics.’
Ferber uses Aunt Charlotte’s quilt as a recurring reminder of the perils of undervaluing not just women’s labor, but women themselves. When at last Charlotte completes her masterpiece, “lined with turkey red and bound with red ribbon,” she lets her friends persuade her to exhibit it at the fair, where it takes first prize. “A day of great triumph for Charlotte Thrift,” the narrator sums up, adding that “the prize was a basket worth fully eight dollars.”
In her review of Eliza McGraw’s 2014 book, Edna Ferber’s America, in “Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature,” Lori Harrison-Kahan observes how the author was scorned both for being a woman and for being a Jew, noting that “a chorus of critical voices, most of them male” dismissed Ferber’s “crowd-pleasing plots as well as her hyperbolic, though accessible, writing style.” F. Scott Fitzgerald refused even to “read her wildly popular stories, derisively labeling her one of the ‘Yiddish descendants of O. Henry.’” In his 1960 Partisan Review essay “Masscult and Midcult,” Dwight Macdonald offered his notorious assessment of middlebrow writers, stating that their work “really isn’t culture at all” but “a parody of High Culture;” he placed Ferber at the top of his “list of writers who should not be taken seriously.” One hopes that these men, if they were still alive, would be embarrassed at having made such fatuous statements. Regardless, they were missing out. Ferber’s prose is a delight, and now, with Belt Publishing’s reissue of The Girls, more readers will get the opportunity to see that.
This three-protagonist story relies on a masterful omniscience, which skips like a stone across Lake Michigan, hopping thrillingly from mind to mind. Set in 1916 but published in 1921, so too does the narration capitalize on the insights available to its slightly retrospective perspective. In reference to World War I, for instance, a minor character says, “We’re a peace-loving nation. . . . We simply don’t believe in war. Barbaric.” Both the narrator and reader know how tragically misguided this speaker is. Moreover, when the narrator mentions the struggle for suffrage, readers are aware, as the fictional women are not, that they will finally be granted the right to vote in 1920, after the novel ends but before it is published. Ferber delivers this deep socio-historical sweep with a deceptively light touch that enhances the novel’s underlying seriousness while also keeping the plot moving.
Near the book’s surprising and satisfying conclusion, Lottie tells her kindred Charlottes about a man she met in Paris during the Great War. Of this man’s most attractive quality, she declares, “They call it a sense of humor, I suppose, but it’s more than that. It’s the most delightful thing in the world, and if you have it you don’t need anything else.” Ferber displays this quality in abundance, as well as plenty of that “anything else.” Because here’s the thing: this book is funny, but with a genuine generosity of spirit that never reduces even its most ridiculous figures to total buffoons. The dominant outlook feels loving and compassionate. And its gentle mockery of its major and minor characters’ blind spots and foibles blends with its profound understanding.
Ferber perfectly captures the unfulfilled feeling within so many conventional people and the petty tyranny a forcefully normal family member can exert over those in her orbit, from Aunt Charlotte’s authoritarian mother to Carrie Payson, Lottie’s mother. In addition to fairly running Lottie into the ground with her domineering demands, the latter is “the sort of person who does slammy flappy things in a room where you happened to be breakfasting, or writing, or reading; things at which you could not express annoyance and yet which annoyed you to the point of frenzy.”
Through a gradual accumulation of events and encounters, Ferber shows how a bit of resistance and freethinking, especially when they are supported by other female family members, can set off a series of earthquakes that can shift a household’s—and a society’s—entire geography. This trifecta of Charlottes proves that sisterhood is indeed powerful, maybe even more so when it comes from beyond your actual siblings.
Certainly, Ferber’s approach—critical but forgiving to individual people and America at large—stems largely from who she was as a person and the way in which she moved through the world as a feme sole. A firsthand expert on the old maid lifestyle herself, Ferber was never known to have had a romantic or sexual relationship. But far from being a sad, sere figure whom life was passing by, she was vibrant, indefatigable, witty, and successful, a member of the Algonquin Round Table in New York and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1925 for So Big, another wonderful Chicago novel. She saw that book eventually adapted into one silent picture and two talkies. Her 1926 novel Show Boat was made into the famous 1927 musical, and Cimarron (1930), Giant (1952), and The Ice Palace (1958) were all adapted into films as well. When novelist Joseph Conrad encountered her on a visit to the States in 1923, he wrote that, “it was a great pleasure to meet Miss Ferber. The quality of her work is [as] undeniable as her personality.”
Born in 1885 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to a Hungarian Jewish father and a German Jewish mother, Ferber lived a peripatetic youth throughout the Midwest, including Chicago for a year when she was three, Ottumwa, Iowa, from 1890 to 1897, and Appleton, Wisconsin, where she graduated from high school and became a reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent before moving to Milwaukee to write for the Milwuakee Journal. She returned to Chicago around 1910, where, similar to the Thrift girls, she lived with her mother and sister in furnished apartments and hotels on the city’s South Side. There, as she later put it, “Chicago stories tumbled, one after another out of my typewriter. New Year’s Eve in a Chicago Loop hotel . . . a woman buyer in a Chicago department store . . . a clerk in a cut-price shoe store. They were stories of working people, of the Little People, of those who got the tough end of life.”
Although she had settled in New York by the mid-1920s, she returned to Chicago frequently and continued to draw upon its people and neighborhoods, including in The Girls, which, in its span from the Civil War to World War I, uses its three Charlottes to depict and critique the city’s conventional, status-driven social circles.
Beset by anti-Semitism, especially in her early life, Ferber depicts that prejudice and others—including classism and anti-Blackness—unsparingly in The Girls. Many characters either engage in unthinking intolerance themselves or, due to the strictures of feminine deference, fail to subvert such biases, at least at first. As Ann R. Shapiro notes in Shofar, Ferber was “a Jewish feminist, long before critics paid much attention to either gender or ethnicity.” Ferber’s frank descriptions of class stratifications, ethnic divides, and sexism illustrate how these snobberies and preconceptions shape not only individual lives but the life of a metropolis.
At one point, Lottie drives downtown in the family’s “ancient electric” to help Emma Barton, a friend in a position rare for its time of being a female judge, rehabilitate a wayward girl. She catches “her breath a little at the spaciousness and magnificence of those blocks between Twelfth and Randolph. The new Field Columbian Museum, a white wraith, rose out of the lake mist at her right.” Ferber notes that Lottie “always felt civic when driving down Michigan,” which enhances the marvel we feel a few pages later when Ferber writes just as convincingly about “all that vast stratum of submerged servers over whom the flood of humanity sweeps in a careless torrent leaving no one knows what sediment of rich knowledge.” With subtle characterization and wry sympathy of tone, Ferber shows in The Girls that the underestimated often have a richer life than anyone who fails to look closely might suspect, and that there are fates far worse than never marrying a husband and sacrificing oneself to a nuclear family.
The phrase “beloved woman” recurs in this novel, referring to the radiance that a woman exudes when a man has chosen her to treasure above others. Each time this coveted glow appears, however, Ferber presents us with an occasion to wonder: Could a woman be beloved in other ways? Not disdained or taken for granted based upon her ability to be selected by a husband, but loved more broadly, respected for everything else inherent to her being?