The Mayo Ladies
The Southern Woman, new in paperback from Modern Library, is a career-spanning collection of short fiction by Elizabeth Spencer. As its title suggests, the stories feature a near-encyclopedic range of Southern women, or at least white southern women, from across the 20th century—with emphasis on what once were called “gentlewomen of reduced circumstances.” My grandmother, herself a gentlewoman, once told me there were only two kinds of people in the South—those who use Hellman’s mayonnaise in their chicken salad, and those who use Miracle Whip. This was never entirely true—though as aphorisms go, it’s proved more useful than you might imagine.
While The Southern Woman includes its fair share of Miracle Whippers, it’s the Mayo ladies Spencer makes sing. This category includes the most memorable of all her characters—Margaret Johnson, a Winston-Salem, N.C., matron who, with her mentally disabled daughter, takes a fateful tour of Italy in “The Light in the Piazza.” Throughout a fruitful career—nine novels, a play, a memoir and three story collections—“The Light in the Piazza” has remained Spencer’s most celebrated work. Published in 1960, this remarkable novella has sold more than 2 million copies, inspired a movie starring Olivia de Havilland, and more recently, a much-lauded Broadway musical.
Of the 27 stories in The Southern Woman, “The Light in the Piazza” is the longest and finest. It’s a sort of Jamesian tale reset in the middle class—a distant, suburban relation of Daisy Miller—in which a conventional housewife is compelled to do “the right thing” for her daughter Clara despite circumstances that make “the right thing” a foggy notion. To broker Clara’s marriage to a tender Italian suitor, Mrs. Johnson is forced—perhaps for the first time in her life—to step beyond convention and act outside her husband’s counsel. In the end, she plays a victorious “tricky game in a foreign country,” Spencer writes, though whether that foreign land is Italy or parenthood is debatable.
Elegant and romantic, the novella seems infused with the radiance of, well, a summer in Florence. It’s a quality shared, to only a slightly lesser degree, by the other three stories in The Southern Woman set in Italy, all completed during the five years Spencer resided there during the late ’50s. “The White Azalea,” “The Visit” and “The Cousins” each center around well-born Southern ladies liberated from the constraints of their home lives by the warmth and sweep of the Mediterranean climate. “The Cousins” is especially rich and ambitious, also deserving of James or Edith Wharton, chronicling 30 tumultuous years in the lives of a Southern family after another transformative summer abroad.
These Italian stories prove the high-water mark of The Southern Woman, a collection organized not by chronology or theme, but location. Besides “Italy,” the other two categories are “The South” and “Up North.” The result is perfectly predictable. Literature can’t be confined to the logic of travel brochures, but honestly, where would you rather spend your summer vacation? Mississippi, Canada or Italy? It’s a no-brainer. Nobody ever described a trip to Natchez as a “Grand Tour,” and with good reason.
Through no fault of their own, Spencer’s Southern and Canadian sojourns pale in comparison to their lusty, sun-drenched Italian brethren. It’s a pity, really, because some of these stories—the Southern ones in particular—are marvelously alive and charming. “First Dark,” “Sharon” and “The Business Venture” are noteworthy reads. “The Business Venture” merits special mention. It’s the story of Nelle Townshend, a faded Southern aristocrat who tries to start a dry-cleaners out of her tattered family home with the help of an African-American man. Or rather, not with his help, but his partnership—a move that provokes a backlash in her small Mississippi town. It’s the kind of piece that could, in less skillful hands, devolve into melodrama, but Spencer is scrupulous in maintaining a human scale. Despite its electric context of racial and sexual politics, the subject of “The Business Venture” remains two people who’re just trying to run a dry-cleaners, for Pete’s sake—and is all the more resonant because of it.
Spencer has often drawn comparisons to Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter, though she seems vastly worldlier than the former, and a steadier hand than the latter. The comparison, I believe, mostly results from the sad fact that only a handful of Southern women were acknowledged for writing challenging, serious fiction in the mid-20th century. The Southern Woman is filled with such writing, and for that alone, it deserves hallowed shelf space. But it’s on account of those glorious, Italian summer skies that you’ll remember it fondly.