Saturday, 2 March 2019

Book review: Plum Bun, Jessie Redmon Fauset (1928)

This frightfully engrossing novel is set in apartheid America, in the period now called the “Jim Crow era” that followed the Civil War and that came before the civil rights era of the post-WWII period. Structurally it is mostly sound but the plot sometimes relies on some rather bald coincidences, which makes it seem a bit shrill and high-toned at times. There might have been a bit more preparation, as well, for the announcement of the name of betrothed of one of the main characters, named Anthony Cross.

While the book is very readable and entertaining some parts of it borrow rather heavily from the Gothic mode that had been popular in the 19th century. Some of this kind of writing is furthermore not quite clear, notably the section about Anthony’s childhood in the US south, which is rendered as reported speech. You kind of get lost in the cascade of dramatic moments in this part of the book and you just have to struggle on until it finishes. In these passages the narrative becomes a bit breathless and loses some of its definition.

Some of the writing on the other hand is a bit literary. The novel seems to owe a fair bit to an earlier generation of writers, such as Henry James, especially in the way it creates atmosphere by borrowing ideas from an intellectual tradition that Fauset clearly felt that she belonged to but that tends, in the reading, to place some of the ideas the novel retails in in a sphere that lies slightly above the realm of lived experience. In short, the style is slightly dated.

What is very real however is the feeling of shame felt by many Americans at the time that were associated with being black. The novel centres on a very fine character named Angela Murray who grows up in a middle-class family in Philadelphia. Like her mother, Angela is very fair-skinned. Her sister Virginia and her father are not so fortunate. When she reaches her majority, by which time her mother and father have died, in order to escape painful memories associated with her past Angela decides to go to New York and pass herself off as white. She changes her name to Angela Mory and starts attending art school. Filled with youthful ambition and dreams of a comfortable life she goes out with a young man named Roger Fielding who is very rich and whose father has ambitions of his own for his son.

Her life goes well until Roger asks her to be his mistress. She had been awaiting a marriage proposal. She refuses initially but he persists with his suit and eventually she accedes to his desires. Meanwhile, she disappoints Anthony who she thinks is Spanish but who actually had lived in Brazil. Anthony had almost declared his love for her but she had put him off, thinking that he would only end up being a struggling artist with nothing substantial to offer her.

The theme of marriage is explored further after Angela makes friends with a young woman named Rachel Salting who wants to marry a young man but their plans are scotched when her parents, who are orthodox Jews, and his parents, who are Catholics, declare themselves against it. Rachel is distraught but takes care of Angela when Roger drops her.

People in this book ultimately reveal their worth, however, in terms of how they see black people. There’s no other way of saying it. The writer had her eye trained fixedly on the future. The novel hurries on toward its conclusion but one by one the people Angela found to accompany her life in New York drop off as their real views emerge from behind whatever fa├žade they held up for popular consumption. Eventually Angela, who is prone to introspection, reassesses the significance of her roots, and on the eve of her departure for Europe, where she wants to continue practicing her art, she visits Philadelphia and while there she bumps into Matthew Henson, who had had a crush on her when they were younger. Matthew had since given up on any hopes that might have survived of being with Angela.

Matthew now invites Angela into his house and they have dinner together, and she discovers that he is still in love with Virginia who, in New York, has become engaged. I won’t give away any more secrets except to say that the ending is accompanied by a massive, if at heart sly, wink from the author.

One thing that is clear is that even in the 1920s there was a strong civil rights movement, in places such as Harlem, that served as a centre of gravity for sections of the community. People like Anthony turn up one night to listen to a famous black orator speak about what would later be called the African-American experience, and to be entertained by ideas that were very much outside the mainstream at the time. As an art student Angela belonged to the demimonde even though after she first arrived in New York she had aspirations to be a leading light in the haut monde. The author also belonged to the same world, a world of alternative ideas and of hope for a better future.

The meaning of the book’s title is obscure. The epigraph is a nursery rhyme that goes like this:
To market, to market
To buy a plum bun;
Home again, home again
Market is done.
The chapters in the book are, as follows: ‘Home’, ‘Market’, Plum bun’, Home again’, and ‘Market is done’. Each chapter has several sections. What a “plum bun” is exactly is also obscure, although Wikipedia says it was a kind of baked item that had plums in it. This could refer to Angela’s mixed-race heritage, with an off-colour suggestion attached to it. It could mean that Angela is attractive (which she is, but not just to look at) because of her African ancestry, or it could mean something quite different. It could perhaps contain a wry comment about Angela’s selfish wish to dissociate herself from her past. It’s too hard to work out at this remove from the time in which it was written. The novel also has a subtitle, ‘A novel without a moral’, which is deeply ironic given its contents. I think that Fauset was trying to make a point about her heroine, who tries in whatever way she can discover to live a good life. For much of the period covered by the narrative that involves not admitting to being part black.

There are some delightful anachronisms in this novel, with “bus” spelled with an apostrophe (to show that it was a short form of “omnibus”) and with “sundae”, “barbeque” and “show” (as in, a show you see when you go to a theatre) written with quotation marks to show that they were neologisms at the time. There is certainly a lot that has changed in the US since the 1920s, and for that we should all be immensely thankful. The sheer ugliness of institutionalised racism is incomprehensible for someone who has never experienced it, but this book can operate as a tonic for ignorance if people choose to give it a go. I found this book to be tremendously fun and wise. Above everything else, however, it is competent as a piece of fiction and deserves to still be read today.

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