Mar. 10th, 2017

osprey_archer: (books)
I finished Sara Jeannette Duncan’s A Daughter of To-Day nearly a year ago, and have been meaning to write a review of it ever since, although I have been scuppered by the fact that there are too many things I like about it. It’s a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl book, and it meanders a bit at the beginning - in fact for about the first third; but when our heroine Elfrida meets another young girl artist, Janet, the book snaps into gear.

I’ve rarely seen a portrait of a friendship between two girls as well done as this one: they admire each other, they’re very fond of each other, and yet their understandings of art and human relationships are so at odds that despite their affection, their friendship is difficult and painful for them both.

At one point, for instance, Janet goes on holiday in Scotland, and they agree to exchange letters with each other. Elfrida writes marvelously artistic letters - when she feels like it; “when she was not in the mood she did not write at all. With an instinctive recognition of the demands of any relation such as she felt her friendship to Janet Cardiff to be, she simply refrained from imposing upon her anything that savored of dullness or commonplaceness.

So the fact that she sometimes writes just three lines, and sometimes doesn’t write for three weeks, is meant to be a tribute to Janet as an artist: they’re both above such conventionalities as writing regular missives.

But Janet, although she is just as talented as Elfrida (and I think one of the triumphs of the book is the recognition that the difference here is not one of talent but of temperament, or perhaps upbringing), can’t understand this: She wished, more often than she said she did, that Elfrida were a little more human, that she had a more appreciative understanding of the warm value of common every-day matters between people who were interested in one another.

In Janet’s eyes, their friendship demands a willingness to exchange exactly the sort of commonplace news - and to see it as interesting, rather than dull - that Elfrida feels they ought to be above.

Inwardly she cried out for something warm and human that was lacking to Elfrida’s feeling for her, and sometimes she asked herself with a grieved cynicism how her friend found it worth while to pretend to care so cleverly.

And Elfrida - although the book, which is almost entirely in her point of view in the first half, has moved out of it by this time - clearly feels a sort of mirror image of the same thing: Janet is too bound by the conventionalities to enter into Elfrida’s conception of art; she may be fond of Elfrida, in her way, but to Elfrida there’s always something lacking in that friendship, always something that Janet is reserving. They like each other - like may not even be a strong enough word; they are charmed by each other, enchanted by each other - but they can’t quite approve of each other.

And it is this, more than anything else, that destroys their friendship - although of course Kendal, a young male artist of their acquaintance, also plays a role. It is apparently impossible to write about girls’ friendship without having them both fall for the same boy at the same time, or at least without Elfrida falling for the idea that Kendal is bewitched by her and Janet falling for him.

But even this subplot has its compensations.

Once when Kendal seemed to Janet on the point of asking her what she thought of his chances, she went to a florist’s in the High, and sent Elfrida a pot of snowy chrysanthemums, after which she allowed herself to refrain from seeing her for a week. Her talk with her father about helping Elfrida to place her work with the magazines had been one of the constant impulses by which she tried to compensate her friend, as it were, for the amount of suffering that young woman was inflicting upon her - she would have found a difficulty in explaining it more intelligibly than that.

I have done this - not in exactly the same situation, but still, the same idea, trying to assuage my conscience by doing something nice for someone I am angry at because I know my anger is not exactly fair. I'm not sure I've ever seen this portrayed in a book before.

But getting back to things that bother me about this book, there’s the ending. Spoilers, if anyone cares about spoilers for a 123 year old book )

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