Over at Epic Reads, a new book club read is chosen each month. For August, Epic Read’s pick is one of my favorite comfort books: Susan Dennard’s Something Strange & Deadly. Well, Susan decided to spice up this month’s SS&D fun by hosting her own book club, and by adding A Darkness Strange & Lovely and prizes into the mix as well. Each week is an opportunity to win other great books–including signed hardcovers!–as well as a participatory prize of A Dawn Most Wicked or a deleted scene from A Darkness Strange & Lovely. Read more about it here and sign up if you like!
I had lots of fun answering both discussion questions this week (they were both too interesting, and I had things to say!), which you can read below the cut:
Eleanor’s mother expects a lot from poor El. She wants Eleanor to marry and save the family from financial ruin (despite the fact that Eleanor is only 16), she wants Eleanor to become friends with the rich “cool” kids (like Allison or the Virtue Sisters), and she wastes money the Fitt family doesn’t have on new gowns and fancy house decor. She demands Eleanor behave according to “proper etiquette” and squeeze into a corset that deforms her ribs.
Do you think, given the time period, Mrs. Fitt is justified in her demands on Eleanor? Why or why not?
No, of course I don’t! But also: Yes, I do… Mrs. Fitt is a complicated woman, and her situation is not black and white. Her decisions and behavior, both as a parent and as a woman of the late 1800s, cannot be explained in simple, matter-of-fact terms—and it’s for this reason that I have difficulty rationalizing Mrs. Fitt’s demands and siding with a “yes” or “no” answer.
I am a (female) mind (!) of the 21st century. In comparison to Mrs. Fitt’s era, women living in today’s society have the freedom and right to a higher education, to work and make their own income, and to marry whomever they want when they want. Through the centuries, thank goodness, women have gained independence. In today’s world, a woman’s prospects don’t need to depend on a man’s social or financial status. It can, but it doesn’t need to, and that’s important. To call these rights a “luxury” feels absurd (luxury =/= right to equality), and I can’t begin to imagine how Mrs. Fitt would react (although I’m positive Eleanor and Jie would welcome the change).
The fact remains, however, that Mrs. Fitt doesn’t live in 2013. Different time periods call for different social conducts, and she was born and raised to follow certain etiquette of her class and era. I must look at the situation that Mrs. Fitt’s been dealt and consider her options. As a widow with one missing son, a dependent daughter, and dwindling money, the answer to the Fitts’ worries lies in a wealthy suitor for Eleanor. That is, of course, unless Mrs. Fitt wishes to sell the family’s home, thereby losing her social standing and any hope of a comfortable lifestyle. To accept the latter would not only condemn Mrs. Fitt to difficult life, but her daughter as well.
Don’t forget that Mrs. Fitt is a mother, and—like many parents do—wants what is best for her children. So why would she let Eleanor become involved with someone like Daniel or the Spirit-Hunters over people like Clarence and the Virtue Sisters? She wouldn’t! A well-intentioned parent does not always equate to an emotionally-considerate one. And yet… I feel that Mrs. Fitt is also a selfish lady.
I think Mrs. Fitt has grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and now that she’s in danger of losing it, she will do almost anything to keep a firm grasp. Does a destitute future frighten her because she’s worried for herself or for her daughter? Both, I imagine, but the way Mrs. Fitt spends money appalls me—splurging it on interior house décor for parties and séances, for example. My modern mind tells me that if Mrs. Fitt truly thought of her daughter, she’d spend the money wisely and not complain about “bland stew.” Eleanor’s mother likes to put on a show for reputation’s sake, thereby wasting money that can’t afford to be wasted. Then again, impressing others and mingling with the upper class is the best way to find a good suitor for Eleanor, right? “Good” meaning “wealthy,” here, hence sparing the Fitts from complete financial and social ruin.
So again: given the time period, do I think Mrs. Fitt’s demands on Eleanor are justified? How about this: I think Mrs. Fitt is doing the best she knows how in a world with limited options. If faced between letting your family fall into destitution when there’s a chance to spare financial ruin, why allow yourself to become poor? I understand Mrs. Fitt’s way of thinking, and I can justify the pressure she places on Eleanor. I can’t, however, justify her scrutinizing eye attached to a curt tongue.
Eleanor finds herself with next to nothing at the start of A Darkness Strange and Lovely. Do you think she is justified in leaving Philadelphia and leaving behind her mother? On the flip side, can you put yourself in Mrs. Fitt’s shoes and understand why she might be so cruel toward Eleanor?
Is Eleanor justified in leaving Philadelphia? For leaving her mother? Yes. Let me say that again: Yes, yes, yes! To leave Mrs. Fitt is what I wish Eleanor had done in the first book. I fancied the idea of Eleanor running around with the Spirit-Hunters on their escapades. I hated to see Eleanor return home at the end of the day, to dance between the Spirit-Hunters and her mother (and all that returning to her mother entails). My first impression of Eleanor’s back-and-forth held some dread, especially for Mrs. Fitt’s gripes and the demands she places upon her daughter. But in A Darkness Strange & Lovely, Eleanor does what I always wanted her to do: leave.
I have to put myself in Eleanor’s shoes, however—which isn’t a difficult task to accomplish. I’m also a daughter who loves her mother, and I can’t imagine abandoning my mom. I say “abandoned” not because this is what Eleanor does, but because that is what it would feel like to me. Guilt would swallow me whole, and the idea that I am a terrible daughter would weigh on my shoulders—especially if my mother were ill. I would want to be there to comfort my mother. Even if my mom were to treat me as cruelly as Mrs. Fitt treats Eleanor, to ensure my mother is properly looked after would be my obligation.
But Eleanor is a smart girl. She worked out a plan well ahead of time, so that if she ever did have to flee Philadelphia, her mother’s stay at Kirkbride’s would be covered. And in any case: What choice does Eleanor have but to leave? To stay in Philadelphia is the worst course of action, as Marcus remains a threat not only to Eleanor but to everyone she cares for. To look at the situation realistically, leaving her mother behind is the best option. How could she drag the mentally unstable, depressed Mrs. Fitt across the Atlantic Ocean and traipse around Paris for the sole purpose of seeking the Spirit-Hunters’ help? Her mother might die just by thinking about it.
In Mrs. Fitt’s eyes, it may as well be the Spirit-Hunters who brought shame and ruin upon her family. This isn’t true, of course, but the blame must go somewhere, and Joseph, Jie, and Daniel have pretty red targets painted across their backs. Mrs. Fitt would undoubtedly bite, and one can’t forget that she isn’t sound enough to face this situation in the first place.
So is Eleanor justified in catching the next ship sailing for Paris, and for leaving her mother? Yes, absolutely—regardless of how Mrs. Fitt treated her, and regardless of how horrified I was by Mrs. Fitt’s accusations. After all Eleanor has done, Mrs. Fitt couldn’t sound any less wretched and cruel. I fear I’ll spoil it, so I won’t dare say a word about the things that shoot out from Mrs. Fitt’s mouth. Her words are like hot, raging fireballs, and they hurt. In this moment of the book, I hated and felt more annoyed by her character than I ever have before.
I think of all the times my mother has accused me of actions I didn’t commit, and it feels downright insulting. Even more so, it can feel infuriating and frustrating. When people don’t believe me it means they don’t trust me, so what does that say about Mrs. Fitt’s relationship with Eleanor? How could she believe her daughter would do such an awful thing? If I were Eleanor, I’d be a hot, sticky mess of tears. At the same time, the way Mrs. Fitt treats her daughter is understandable. It was difficult enough losing her husband and far worse losing her son. Her mental state is unstable, and—without me giving away details—Mrs. Fitt sees what she wants to see. Physical proof presents itself that contradicts everything Eleanor claims, and it comforts her devastation. What’s sad about this situation, however, is that Mrs. Fitt has already lost her husband and son, and now she has cut ties with the only family she has left: Eleanor. While I do understand why Mrs. Fitt would look upon Eleanor callously, it’s painfully sad.