Early a.m.: Middlemarch chapter 12.
Particularly struck by how skillfully Eliot builds tension in the first visit to Stone Court—Featherstone ordering Fred to get a letter from Bulstrode averring he doesn’t believe Fred made promises about paying debts out of his expected inheritance. How rapidly this escalates! Featherstone has already made it clear to his sister, Mrs. Waule, that he thinks the rumor is “stuff and nonsense…a got-up story” and he defends Fred against her insinuations. “Such a fine, high-spirited fellow is like enough to have [expectations].” But then after Mrs. Waule leaves, Featherstone whips out the accusations, almost teasingly, and the order to get a letter from Bulstrode has the air of a whim, at first. And suddenly there Fred is in a terribly awkward situation that is only going to get awkwarder, and eventually quite serious. It’s a gripping conflict, it puts us squarely in Fred’s corner while leaving us under no illusions that his imprudence (those fine high spirits) has helped put him in this pickle. Featherstone is utterly believable, a difficult person who enjoys being difficult, and who enjoys having scraps of power over people. All the rest of the morning my mind kept coming back to this scene, picking over how artfully Eliot created a major conflict (in plot terms) out of a fragment of gossip.
Midday: Finished Underfoot in Show Business.
Am now bereft: it was the last (well, the first for her, but the last for me) of Helene’s memoirs. I wish she’d written five more. The tales in this one: so rich! That first summer she spends at the artist’s colony—sitting down at the desk in her quiet studio and seeing Thornton Wilder’s name written on the plaque listing all the previous occupants of this cabin. He’d stayed there in 1937; she realizes he’d written Our Town in this very spot. For a moment it throws her—I completely understood that wave of comparative despair—until she registers that in the long list of writers under Wilder, there’s no one she ever heard of. This makes her feel better, and then she’s able to work.
And the early story about how she gets to NYC in the first place—winning a fellowship for promising young playwrights. Late 30s, the second year of the award. In the first year, the two winners were given $1500 apiece and sent out to make their way in the world. In Helene’s year, the TheatreGuild decides to bring the three fellowship winners (Helene is the youngest, and the only female) to New York to attend a year-long seminar along with some other hopeful playwrights. The $1500 prize pays her expenses during this year of what sounded very similar to a modern MFA program, minus the university affiliation: classes with big-name producers, directors, and playwrights. Lee Strasberg! An unprecedented opportunity for these twelve young seminar attendees. And the fruit of this careful nurturing? Helene, chronicling the story decades later, rattles off the eventual career paths of the students: there’s a doctor, a short-story writer, a TV critic, a couple of English professors, a handful of screenwriters.
“The Theatre Guild, convinced that fledgling playwrights need training as well as money, exhausted itself training twelve of us—and not one of the twelve ever became a Broadway playwright.
“The two fellowship winners who, the previous year, had been given $1500 and sent wandering off on their own were Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.”
I laughed my head off when I read that.