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The Stars of the South
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B+ : continuing the grand Southern saga in fine form -- with an odd detour or two
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
The Stars of the South picks up closely after where the first volume in the trilogy, The Distant Lands, had ended.
That novel had come to a dramatic highpoint with young Elizabeth (née Escridge) losing both her husband, Ned Jones, and the man she is passionate about, Jonathan Armstrong, as the result of a duel.
Already at the conclusion in that previous volume Green had quickly moved a few years ahead, and that is where we also now find widowed Elizabeth here, living with her young son, Charles Edward, in Savannah.
What woman had ever been able to control her heart and prevent it beating atthe mere sound of her beloved's name ? And, anyway, apart from her son, her little conspirator, who knew anything of the myth of Jonathan ?Unsurprisingly, it's not quite so easy to keep it entirely secret -- for one, because little boys can find it hard to keep any kind of secrets; the fact that his mother makes it seem so meaningful makes it all the harder.
The assertive, controlling, and very competent Miss Llewelyn -- who eventually comes to take over the housekeeper-position in Elizabeth's household -- cuts right to the quick when she sees Elizabeth's interaction with her son:
'That's not a little boy you have there,' said Miss Llewelyn under her breath. 'It's a lover.'Little Ned won't really do as a lover-substitute, given Elizabeth's strong passion and physical needs, and Miss Llewelyn cuts straight to the chase here, too, with the obvious advice: "Remarry, Mrs Jones". Elizabeth has been quite happy, in her own way, as, as father-in-law Charlie Jones describes her: "Daydreamer that you are and prisoner of your dreams", but her flesh is weak and physical desire is strong, and she is fortunate to quickly be swept off her feet by one of William Hargrove's grandsons, Billy -- an officer in the army, who keeps reässuring her that it won't come to war between North and South ..... They tie the knot exceptionally quickly -- helped, as always, by the ever-helpful Charlie Jones, who judges this to also be the best for Elizabeth (and his grandson) and approves of the match.
New husband Billy will do in satisfying Elizabeth -- when he's around, at least, though duty does frequently keep him way, for increasingly long stretches as war continues to supposedly not approach ..... There's not really all that much to Billy; he seems likeable and competent enough, and he is certainly handsome -- even Elizabeth's mother, now the unfortunately named but exceedingly wealthy Lady Fidgety, admits he's quite the physical specimen. Certainly, he serves his purpose -- as, much as also goes for Elizabeth: "What he wanted most of all was pleasure; love, to him, had no other meaning apart from that".
Typically, too, when the two are together:
For Billy, the real problem was to kill time until nightfall and the moment when he could tear off his uniform to take possession of Elizabeth. Before reaching it, he had to endure the desert of those fine afternoons in the country, in which happiness mingles with a very subtle form of boredom which could not be acknowledged.Elizabeth welcomes the attention -- just as she generally likes attention -- though it's clear she is ... easily distracted. She doesn't get herself into any real trouble in the very strict and observant Savannah society, but it's clear that it wouldn't take much. Fortunately, she generally does get enough out of Billy -- she's most pleased to let him have his way with her --, but he can only satisfy that immediate physical lust; her other passion smolders on, and on -- as she realizes:
Never would she be able to banish Jonathan from her life. The certainty struck her like the brutal revelation of a fact.Ned, of course, is not so thrilled at finding his mother's devotion suddenly also being directed elsewhere -- leading also to him ('Zonathan', as he still like to remind her ...) being more neglected. At least the pugilistic Irish gardener Pat -- almost a caricature of a character, particularly in his eagerness to put up his fists against all comers (even the entirely unwilling) -- proves to be someone Ned finds an outlet with -- albeit one that is also mostly fantastical (leading also to Ned sharing his own fantasy-world, and that of the wonderful-mysterious 'Jonathan'-figure); the boy even picks up Gaelic, giving the two a secret language to communicate in.
Miss Llewelyn eventually comes to essentially install herself in the household. She is a useful figure, looking out for Elizabeth's best interests -- "I have a mission to watch over you", she insists, even if that's not always welcome. She is also domineering -- "I'm only happy where I'm in control", she admits -- and eventually she essentially blackmails Elizabeth into keeping her on. While arguably for the best, it still makes for an often difficult relationship; Elizabeth takes it for the very mixed blessing that it is when reminded, ominously: "Maisie Llewelyn will always be there to serve you and help you, faithfully and ... loyally".
Green nicely sums up Elizabeth's ambivalent feelings in one scene where Miss Llewelyn yet again appears just at the right moment to defuse a situation that, left to her own devices, Elizabeth might not have been capable of not letting get out of hand:
In an instant, Elizabeth had forgiven her everything, her betrayals, her insolence and even -- hardest of all -- her kindnesses.Charlie Jones is also a constant dependable figure, helping steer things along -- though he travels a great deal, and is increasingly involved in the politics (and some of the business behind it) of these increasingly tumultuous times, as most of the story takes place in the second half of the 1850s. (Among Green's rare slips is having Charlie Jones and Lady Fidgety enjoy "the dessert, crêpes Suzette" in 1860 New York; even allowing for crêpes Suzette to be made without Grand Marnier (first introduced in 1880) this is surely anachronistic.) Among Charlie Jones' grand undertakings is that grand Tudor building he is having built in Savannah -- "the talk of the town". Famously being constructed with bricks that he has shipped over from England, he explains his reasoning to Lady Fidgety:
I want to build a corner of England in this distant land and under this hot climate, as a refuge in the event of war.He gifts the house, even before it is completed, to his grandson Ned (though swearing him to secrecy for the time being), and sees it as an oasis where he and his will be protected when the inevitable war comes (though when the time comes he actually goes elsewhere). Charlie Jones, who continues to travel between North and South, feels safe as the foreigner that he is -- like Elizabeth, English -- but his allegiance is also entirely to the South and its 'cause'. (He's no fan of slavery -- free them and pay them to be laborers is his solution -- but he doesn't like the northern states' interference and believes the South should be allowed to sort things out in its own good time.) It's one of the interesting aspects of the nostalgic view of mid-nineteenth century America Green offers here, with the South very much a reflection of England -- not least in the prevailing manners and ways (ridiculous, both). The characters repeatedly confirm the connection: "We're all of English stock in the South", one person points out, while Lady Fidgety tells her daughter, when things are coming to a head:
Charlie Jones and I will always back the South, which is purely English, while the North is composed of scraps of nations, more or less solidly glued together. You do not belong to that Union.Several times, Lady Fidgety proposes to Elizabeth that she return to England, at least to sit out the war, but Elizabeth ultimately can't be moved -- in some part because she doesn't believe in war until it's practically at her doorstep, in another because she can't bear the thought of being separated from Billy (or rather, one presumes, his services, as she wisely doesn't seem to trust herself an ocean away ...).
In fact, however, there are stray continental refugees scattered about down South, too -- but society is indeed pretty much all English. It's noteworthy that the most prominent -- in their servant-roles -- of those on the periphery are closely identified with their place of origin: gardener Pat is a caricature-Irishman, while Miss Llewelyn is often actually referred to as: 'the Welshwoman'.
Society, and being part of it, matters a great deal still, and much of The Stars of the South has Elizabeth trying to navigate it . She doesn't live for society, but she does enjoy aspects of it; she's fortunate, too, in being such an attractive young woman and having the right family connections so that she continues to be in demand regardless of the occasional mis- or awkward step. But it's another's return to society that is one of the novel's oddest long digressions: the beautiful Annabel, widow of none other than Jonathan Armstrong, has long been kept an outsider -- as was described at considerable length in The Distant Lands -- but now wants to take that final, seeming unsurmountable step to acceptance. She comes with a lot of baggage -- but the 'society' which she wants to enter does not know the full story of her past, beginning with the circumstances of her birth to William Hargrove's daughter Laura.
There were hints of the story in The Distant Lands, allusions to William Hargrove's time in Haiti (and horrors experienced there), which came to an end in 1824, amidst the Haitian Uprising. Now, the whole story is told -- revealed by Miss Llewelyn at a grand event at which Annabel is to be re-introduced and welcomed back into society again (literally: made salonfähig again). The Stars of the South is divided into eight parts, and one of the longest -- a full hundred pages -- is this section on: 'Laura or Paradise Lost', which takes the story back some thirty years to events in Haiti and then the escape from there. Although Miss Llewelyn is the one recounting the story at the gathering, it is here presented not as narrated but rather as an entirely separate narrative; it functions, too, essentially as novel(la)-with-the-novel -- revealing fairly little that is both new and relevant to the present-day story, beyond that William Hargrove was a considerably more unpleasant piece of work than readers had previously been led to believe. Among the few helpful take-aways is the revelation of William Hargrove's unhealthy obsession with his beautiful daughter Laura, "aged a little over fifteen years old" at the time; as usual, it is Miss Llewelyn who tells it like it is: "He wanted her all to himself, for ever". This goes some way, too, to explaining the interest he showed, decades later, in Elizabeth; so also there's that necklace that he leaves to Elizabeth when he dies -- a few years before Annabel's re-coming out -- which has a Haitian history, and plays a role in this little staged drama that unfolds.
The Haitian adventure is a fine, dramatic episode, and there are some shocking revelations there. Notably, there's William Hargrove's attitude towards the man who has his eyes on Laura -- and who, with Miss Llewelyn's assistance, had already married and impregnated the teenage girl as things come to a head -- and especially his ignoble role in the young man's demise. Still, the story doesn't have much to do with the present-day action of the rest of the novel. Annabel is please to find acceptance again, but she is then not much of a presence, which seems, if not a waste at least confusing. The whole long episode feels like a story Green had ready to tell, but which he didn't know what to do with; stuffing it in the middle of this novel serves only minor points -- such as showing just by what rules Southern society of those times lived (though at least the necklace (and another) allow for some back and forth between Elizabeth and Annabel in settling, to some extent, their rivalry; it is a very impressive necklace, too). It might have worked better as a separate novella, a related story -- and, indeed, it can easily be read entirely separately--; as is, at least through this volume of the Dixie-trilogy, it feels like little more than a distracting (because of its length) afterthought, filling in a bit more of family history. (As semi-presented, it's an implausible episode, too: Miss Llewelyn is supposed to be recounting all this and, while, sure, it's a gripping story, it's hard to believe she could have rambled on for so long, or that her audience could have sat (or stood) through this, since, as presented, the hundred or so pages of narrative would have taken hours to relate orally.)
Unsurprisingly for a novel that begins in the mid-1850s -- and with one of its (nominally) leading characters in the army --, the coming Civil War looms ever-larger as the story progresses (save for the duration of that strange Haitian interlude-section). Elizabeth long avoids politics and and following the news too closely, happy enough to have Billy promise her that it won't come to war. Others are more involved -- notably Charlie Jones --, but after a while it's hard to see even what Billy is doing as anything else but preparations for war (especially as, annoyingly for them, it keeps him away from Elizabeth more and more). (Further afield, there's also Billy's brother Fred, who has been keeping his distance -- and been keeping busy -- but he too will come back into the fold, reünited also with Elizabeth after an absence of eight years in a small step to setting the stage for the final volume in the trilogy.)
Many of the major events of the times, especially as they have to do with the national political issues of the day, are mentioned and discussed in the course of the novel. There's repeated railing against Harriet Beecher Stowe and her Uncle Tom's Cabin, whose popularity and influence greatly annoys the Southerners. There's the drawn-out Dred Scott case and its conclusion; John Brown's activity and downfall; Lincoln's political activity; and finally, of course, the dominoes of state-secession, starting in 1860. In the novel's final pages, politics and the rapidly changing -- and escalating -- situation dominate, Green still describing many events through personal experience -- such as young nine-year-old Ned on the periphery of battlefield carnage --, but mostly it's a quick roll-call of the cascade of events.
Green's nostalgic devotion to a particular slice of Southern life -- its so-called aristocracy -- and fundamental sympathy to their cause was already hard to swallow when he wrote the book, and has become no more palatable with age. There's some token acknowledgement of the poor whites -- though even less attention is paid to them here than The Distant Lands --, but little real concern about or interest in society beyond (high-)'society'. And while Charlie Jones nominally speaks up against slavery, and Elizabeth continues to find it distasteful, Green has little use for or understanding of 'the Blacks' (his terminology and capitalization). The servants are sympathetic -- but also all devoted, true, and simple. Black Mammy and Betty take care of Elizabeth's children -- she and Billy have a son, Christopher (Kit), and while she occasionally feels a rush of maternal longing most of the time she's happy enough not to have to worry about the infant. When the family has to leave the house in Savannah, Elizabeth is worried about who will ensure the safety of the building and their possessions, but Miss Llewelyn assures her it's all in good hands -- those of:
The Blacks. Count on them. They won't budge.Of course, 'the Blacks' can be left behind, and of course they can be depended on to faithfully serve their masters even in their masters' absence, protecting their property .....
Green's patronizing treatment of 'the Blacks' grates, and while he goes through some of the motions of denouncing slavery he simply can't free himself of that misty-eyed view of the greater grandeur of ye olde South that he clings to. (That the two are inextricably bound together seems obvious even to him -- probably one of the reason why he doesn't probe too hard and leaves the issue rather unsatisfactorily treated here.)
The book concludes, still in wartime, in 1861; it comes as little surprise that it concludes with Elizabeth getting some bad news -- predictable bad news ..... (The Marion Boyars edition comes with some front-matter providing the family trees, to help readers keep track of the many characters and how they are connected; aside from the very confusing misprint as to the birth of Elizabeth and Billy's son Kit (given as 1851 -- which would make him Ned's older brother ...) it also reveals when various characters marry and die, so any reader who has taken even a cursory look will know exactly what happens (and what will apparently happen next, as Elizabeth clearly does not like being an unattached widow for long ...).)
When focused on Elizabeth, The Stars of the South is largely very engaging. She can be an annoying flighty and shallow character, but her passion goes a long way. True, as Miss Llewelyn observes concerning her: "I followed your train of thought. It's not hard, you are not a complicated soul", but she is intriguing enough as a central character. To maintain that, however, Green had to make (or rather: leave) Billy a rather thin -- and often off-stage -- character, so as not to draw too much attention away from her; marriage here serves little more than an opportunity for private, physical release, and while the public scenes with the dynamic Billy are good fun, there's not much to them but a little show. Young Ned, on the other hand, is allowed to have more of a personality, and Green does depict that terrible mother-son relationship, and especially how Ned acts and reacts, very well. (Elizabeth is a loving mother, but ill-equipped to raise the boy in any healthy way; she obviously does considerable damage along the way -- recognizing at times what she is doing, but too weak to change course.)
The always confident man of the world Charlie Jones is also a good secondary figure, also allowing Green to offer some up-close scenes of the political events and debates of the days, as Charlie Jones knows Jefferson Davis, for example (boasting to him about his comfortable position: "An Englishman can go where he likes and do as he pleases. An Englishman, my dear Jeff, is un-touch-able"). Green takes a brief stab at addressing his current personal life -- happily married and with several children -- but wife, Amelia, and children are mostly left out here, and his fundamental difference with his wife -- as she explains it: "In a word, I have the faith and he doesn't" -- is thrown out there but then not mined for anywhere near its possibilities. Charlie Jones shares that:
Her inner life has become so deep that her face alone, without either moving or speaking, delivers a sermon.Meanwhile, Amelia, while certain that her husband does, indeed, truly love her, is miserable about: "the gulf that it creates in the long run". She even goes so far as to tell Elizabeth, quite early on, that, all things considered: "I wish I was dead"; one would have thought and hoped that that relationship was explored more closely as the story progresses (but it isn't).
Finally, the shadowy Miss Llewelyn is a neat and necessary corrective to, especially, Elizabeth, but also the other characters and attitudes in general. Controlling and decisive, but happy to stay (or rather: lurk) in the background unless she sees something needs to be done, she's quite a fascinating figure.
Much of The Stars of the South is very good, including -- or especially -- the descriptions of day to day life. When history begins to move very rapidly, in the wake of secession and the war, things get a bit fast and messy -- an all the more strange sensation, since those away from events, such as Elizabeth, continue in their largely languorous state. More problematic, however, is that very odd and very long detour thirty years back in time to events in Haiti -- a fine episode on its own, but a curious fit at that point in the novel.
Still, all in all, The Stars of the South is a fine and consistently engaging read, a quite grand (part-of-a-)saga, leaving readers also curious as to the ultimate resolution of the tale. (Apparently, however, it didn't make enough English-speaking readers curious, as no publisher seems to have been convinced to translate the third and final part, Dixie (yet ...?).)
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 November 2020
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French-writing American author Julien (also: Julian) Green lived 1900 to 1998.
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