My rating: 8/10
This turn-of-the-century American novel is an ambitious three-stage portrayal of a woman’s rise from rural schoolteacher to Congressional Senator’s wife. While first and foremost an even-handed but deeply damning portrait of the protagonist, the ambitious and utterly humourless Selma White, the novel also acts as an intriguing picture of several decades of American social change.
Selma White was born with a high regard for herself and her abilities, and her position in the world has by and large supported that self-conception.
To be an American meant to be more keenly alive to the responsibility of life than any other citizen of civilization, and to be an American woman meant to be something finer, cleverer, stronger, and purer than any other daughter of Eve. Under the agreeable but sobering influence of this faith she had grown to womanhood, and the heroic deeds of the civil war had served to intensify a belief, the truth of which she had never heard questioned. Her mission in life had promptly been recognized by her as the development of her soul along individual lines, but until the necessity for a choice had arisen she had been content to contemplate a little longer. Now the world was before her…
Disillusioned by the less pleasant aspects of school teaching after only a short time presiding over a classroom of rural children, Selma has accepted the marriage proposal of an up and coming young man from the fictional small city of Benham, located somewhere along the Eastern seaboard, inland and presumably equidistant from Boston and New York. Lewis Babcock is a jolly, rather common sort of fellow, who is flourishing in the paint and varnish business during the post civil war building boom.
Without a backward glance Selma moves up a notch in the social scale, but is taken aback to find that she is a very small frog indeed in the larger pond of the city. A lightning fast learner, Selma ingratiates herself to all the right people and finds a measure of social success. She has a child, but though she does feel a certain fondness for her infant, she is relieved rather than heartbroken at the little girl’s death from croup. Having taken pains to prevent any more children – Selma has learned all about the current birth control methods through her friendship with a socially active suffragette – she eventually ditches the hapless Lewis (by divorce after his adultery) and attempts to support herself by writing for a newspaper.
Working for a living soon pales, and Selma is fortunate in that her ethereal appearance – she takes great pains to cultivate her thinness, scorning those who are “fleshy” as unintellectual and coarse – attracts the attentions of a young architect who soon becomes her second husband. (Lewis meanwhile is shattered by the death of his child and the dissolution of his marriage and turns to drink; the adultery was a minor glitch which foreshadowed his future decline.) This new marriage runs its predictable course until an early death releases Selma’s second unfortunate spouse. A third matrimonial experiment sees Selma united at last to a man of similar ambitions, and her rise to the top of her particular pile continues apace, built as it is on the happiness of those she has relentlessly crushed beneath her neatly shod feet.
This novel was a strong bestseller at the time of its publication, and I found that it held up well to a modern day reading. Selma is a fascinating character, being manipulative, selfish, humourless and an utter snob. An increasingly accomplished sociopath, one might say, to use modern day jargon. Robert Grant moves his mesmerizingly unsympathetic character through a variety of social settings, and provides not only an imaginative portrait of Selma but a keen and rather damning look at the “American way” which allows her to flourish at the expense of those more scrupulous in their moral states.
Not a particularly happy read, but deeply interesting, wryly well-written, and a worthy way to begin this year’s Century of Books Project.
Unleavened Bread felt rather reminiscent of the works of Sinclair Lewis, Main Street and Babbitt in particular, though a check of dates shows that Lewis was a mere teenager when Selma’s saga was having its popular success. Perhaps the seeds of inspiration were planted in the younger man by Grant’s work? In any event, I liked this novel well enough to order another by Robert Grant, The Orchid, which I intend to report on in due time.
Here is the only current review I could find of Unleavened Bread, at the Great Penformances blog.
The novel is also available through Project Gutenberg, along with several more of Robert Grant’s works.