Fidelity by Susan Glaspell

I just closed the cover of Fidelity by Susan Glaspell, a novel I had expected to finish last Sunday for the Persephone Reading Weekend. But, perhaps it is fitting that I didn’t fulfill what I had hoped especially when it comes to discussing this book. Which seems to bring up a lot of questions as to what, exactly, fulfillment means.

Ruth Holland falls in love with Stuart Williams, a very married Stuart Williams, who is not able to put his marriage back together after a previous dalliance. His wife will not forgive him, will not put her arms around him in consolation after he begs for understanding. Shut out from her, he is all the more susceptible to the charm of Ruth. Who likewise is drawn to him.

The story follows several stages through which Ruth progresses: a tumultuous passion which cannot be abated; a brief longing to return to her hometown which quickly dies when she feels the scorn of society; the desire to set herself, and her lover, free when she determines their relationship can grow no farther.

And so Fidelity bears the question, “To whom are we faithful?” To our spouses? To the protocols of society? To our families? To the lover with whom we’ve aligned? Or, to our own selves?

The secular world, of course, has no clear cut answer. That is why Susan Glaspell is able to explore so many aspects of the nature of fidelity in her book. It is easy to see the blooming passion which consumes Ruth in the beginning:

The social life of the town brought her and Stuart Williams together from time to time. They always had several dances together at the parties. It was those dances that made the party for her. If he were not there, the evening was a dead thing. When he was, something came to life in her that made everything different. She would be excited; she had colour; her eyes shone. It made her gay, as an intoxicant may make one gay…After going home she would lie awake for hours, live over every slightest thing he had said, each glance and move. It was an unreal world of a new reality–quickened, heightened, delirious, promising.

But this passion does not protect her against a town whose society will not condone, will not even accept, Ruth or her choice. Listen to Ruth’s best friend’s mother speak to Deane, the only friend who stands by Ruth:

‘Ruth Holland,’ she began very quietly ‘is a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it. She was a thief, really,–stealing from the thing that was protecting her, taking all the privileges of a thing she was a traitor to. She was not only what we call a bad woman, she was a hypocrite. More than that she was outrageously unfaithful to her dearest friend – to Edith here who loved and trusted her…I don’t know, Deane, how a woman could do a worse thing than that…If you can’t see that society must close in against a woman like that then all I can say, my dear Deane, is that you don’t see very straight. You jeer about society, but society is nothing more than life as we have arranged it. It is an institution. One living within it must keep the rules of that institution. One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it. So much we are forced to do in self-defence.

And at the very end, when Stuart’s wife faces the fact that her lack of forgiveness has poisoned them all, most especially herself, we find that it is all too late; Stuart and Ruth’s relationship is beyond redemption, but perhaps it is not too late for Ruth herself:

She squeezed his arm in affectionate gratitude for the love in the growling words. ‘Don’t worry about me, Ted,” she implored, ‘be glad with me! I’m alive again! It’s so wonderful to be alive again. There’s the future – a great, beautiful unknown. It is wonderful, Ted,’ she said with insistence, as if she would banish his fears – and her own.

I am left without answers from Susan Glaspell, whom I suspect would advocate following your heart’s desire. Much as I might like to accept that philosophy, I cannot find it holds a promise of any lasting joy. I am responsible for my own happiness, certainly, but once I have made the decision to be someone’s wife, to be someone’s mother, my life is no longer about what I need to do to fulfill myself. My responsibilities have become much broader, my choices much narrower. Ultimately, what I want has very little bearing on the matter.

Interestingly enough, however, Ruth finds that love has left her richer…it was all worth the experience, and so with renewed faith and courage she moves on.

Alone.

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16 comments

  1. Those Persephone books are so pretty! :) And Fidelity sounds like a great book on a difficult topic. Though I hope the message isn't that the wife should've forgiven him and none of it would've happened!

  2. After reading your well written review, I must say, I'm not sure I would love this story for some reason??I've never seen one of the gray Persephone editions first hand. Are the inside flaps also stark gray? The look seems so cold to me compare to the lovely covers on some of the other ones.

  3. Your review is beautiful and makes me want to read the book. I do agree that we're responsible for our own happiness, but I also think you don't drop something (marriage, parenthood) the moment it doesn't make you happy, because that happiness you felt usually comes back if you stick with it.

  4. Samstillreading, I must say that enjoyment was not the first word which comes to my mind regarding this book. Flummoxed, perhaps? It's given me a great deal to think about, but at the end of the day, Glaspell arrives at relationships and living from a far different point of view than mine.Bina, good point! No, the wife's lack of forgiveness only serves to show as one of the factors which cause personal lives to sour. But, it is a major issue for her to deal with in her own life, and therefore quite interesting.Diane, perhaps the look seems cold when not only compared to the Persephone classics which are in color, but to the photograph I took against my grey blanket. The inside flaps mimic the acccompanying bookmark; they are always of a vintagae material which is quite beautiful. Many Persephone readers are able to identify the book by the bookmark alone, but not me. Yet.Bermudaonion, isn't it funny that as we get older we realize the value of permanence? Often, sticking with something has worked so well for me in my life, with my career, for example, but as to relationships? If one is not being abused in some way, sticking with one another is the answer.

  5. What a beautiful review of what sounds like a very complex story. It's not a simple thing to do, is it, reining in one's passion. It reminds me of The English Patient, the lure of infidelity, the pain of lost love… I love your concluding paragraph, eloquent and insightful. On another note, I see you have Bonhoeffer's biography on your sidebar. Have you written a review of it? I'd be most interested to know your opinion.

  6. Suko, it's a terribly difficult topic to write about or review. I struggled with this post last night hoping that I could convey what I wanted to say about it.Aarti, it's such a complex story…as any story with passion is. Could Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary have been less than 400 pages each? :) As to Bonhoeffer I have not read it yet, just bought it Friday night, but I have it on very good authority that it's an absolutely outstanding biography. Can't wait to open it up! Then, we'll talk.

  7. Yes, a very complex subject, and you have done a marvelous job reviewing this book. Very nuanced and perceptive. (When did Glaspell write–19th or early 20th century? (just curious)) Thank you.

  8. ds, Fidelity was published in 1915, but Susan Glaspell wrote throughout the 1900's. I believe her last novel was published in 1945, and she also wrote several plays. I'd only heard of her through my endeavors to read the Persephone books which have brought so many wonderful authors to my attention.

  9. This is so not related to your post other than I have this book marked in my Persephone catalog. Alas, my reading eye has returned. I'm headed on vacation with good stack to tackle. No, not tackle. To enjoy each work and each laugh and each tear. So far behind in all your recommendations. Hope all is well.

  10. I love how you amended yourself to say not tackle, enjoy. :) It's funny how easy it is to turn even our pleasures into tasks. I'd love to know which of my recommendations you have picked up? Best to you on your vacation!

  11. Another outstanding review, Bellezza. I'm very interested in this book, but as many have remarked, it can't be an easy subject to write about. And I agree with Kathleen–it would make for a wonderful book club discussion.

  12. It would be a fascinating discussion topic, wouldn't it? If people weren't at each other's throats. ;) I'm always a bit afraid to talk about sex and faith at book clubs, and I can't even bring up politics in one of my groups. I'm the only Republican in the bunch, and perceived as having been born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Nice excuse for hard work, but I digress…xoxo

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