Sometimes a book comes into your life that is so powerfully, exactly what you needed to read at that precise moment that you cannot help but believe in a higher literary power. At almost precisely this time last year, I was feeling downtrodden and perpetually exhausted. A stressful work situation was taking up all my time and emotional energy and I was getting nothing back from it except a bad complexion from too many hours in doors. And then, and I wish I could remember how (Jo Walton, was it you?), I heard about Kathleen Thompson Norris, a popular early 20th Century American writer of sentimental novels (Teddy Roosevelt was a fan). She sounded gentle and undemanding – just right for my mood at the time. I downloaded a few of her books from Project Gutenberg and started in on one of them at random: Saturday’s Child. Within a few pages, I was hooked. A day later, I was done and had a new book to add to my list of favourite comfort reads.
Well, I’m now in much the same state as I was this time last year and so this week I turned again to Saturday’s Child and found it just as wonderful a second time around.
The story opens in San Francisco at the beginning of the 20th Century on our twenty-one year old heroine, Susan Brown. Susan is beautiful, clever, and an orphan – all excellent early 20th Century heroine material. She is also a deeply unsatisfied bookkeeper, labouring at a desk all day in a stuffy room with eleven other women. Her wages go to her aunt, a distressed gentlewoman running a highly unprofitable boarding house where Susan lives, alongside her cousins and the other boarders. Not unnaturally, Susan dreams of a better life, though it’s unclear from one moment to the next if a better life would be a promotion (and ensuing raise) or a Cinderella-like fantasy where she is swept off in feet and into a life of ease by some dashing young man.
Mostly, Susan grumbles. At twenty-one she is already tired of working and being poor but, to the frustration of her ambitious childhood friend Billy, cannot seem to bother herself to do anything about it. Part of the problem is undoubtedly her conception of what is feminine – an already outdated definition imprinted on her by her lady-like but entirely useless aunt – but she also lacks the passion and direction to steer her way towards something meaningful:
Like all except a few very fortunate girls of her age, Susan was brimming with perverted energy – she could have done a thousand things well and joyously, could have used to the utmost the exception powers of her body and soul, but, handicapped by the ideals of her sex, and lacking the rare guidance that might have saved her, she was drifting, busy with work she detested, or equally unsatisfied in idleness, sometimes lazily diverted and soothed by the passing hour, and sometimes stung to her very soul by longings and ambitions.
When a new young man, heir to one of the current partners, joins the firm, Susan is smitten. Peter Coleman is handsome, dashing, and rich. He is fun and quickly – albeit not without a little work on her part – intrigued by Susan. As Peter brings Susan into his monied world, she encounters differences she was not at all prepared for. The activity-filled lives of Peter and his friends are endlessly glamorous but their flippancy is as confusing as it is attractive. Usually so self-confident, Susan spends years of her life feeling ill-at-ease with Peter, having no idea of his intentions from one day to the next. For a girl trying to plan her future, it is both stressful and exhausting.
Eventually, Susan moves on – both from her office job and the cheerful but commitment-phobic Peter. Through Peter she had been introduced to an invalid socialite, Emily Saunders, who needed a companion. For Susan, who had of course read too many novels featuring decorous young companions who were beautiful, nobly self-effacing, and the delight of the household, the prospect of living in a mansion surrounded by beautiful things was irresistible.
This is what is commonly known as a bad career move. Finding your job mind-numbingly dull? Longing to fulfill your ambitions? Quit and go become a ski bum! Sorry, that’s the 21st Century equivalent but, basically, that’s what Susan does. After years of slogging away at her desk job feeling unfulfilled she wants a pampered, easy life and is happy enough to forget her desire for mental stimulation and meaningful work.
Obviously, it does not go well. But it does give Susan a wonderful perspective on the lives of the rich – which are far less rosy than she’d once dreamed. Instead of being a magical route to a life of ease, money brings with it its own problems. Susan sees up close the small-mindedness of women and girls whose lives revolve around card parties and dances, women who have never been challenged to achieve anything in their lives and will never know the satisfaction of accomplishment. She sees young men whose lives are ruined by drink and who are indulged by families too weak to provide the necessary boundaries. Mostly, she sees people who have forgotten that they are in a position of privilege, that they have the means and the time to help those less fortunate. For Susan, whose impoverished friends and family would never thinking of turning away a soul in need, it is a reminder that if she had their wealth she would behave better. And some families do but they certainly seem to be in the minority.
An intense and dramatic love affair leaves Susan, at twenty five, exhausted, emotionally devastated and unemployed. All her attempts to improve her lot have come to nothing and, as she confides to a motherly friend, she feels like she is doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again and never grasp at the happy and purposeful life she longs for:
“Does anybody change?” Susan asked, a little sadly. “Aren’t we all born pretty much as we’re going to be? There are so many lives -” She had tried to keep out the personal note, but suddenly it crept in, and she saw the kitchen through a blur of tears. “There are so many lives, “ she pursued, unsteadily, “that seem to miss their mark. I don’t mean poor people. I mean strong, clever young women, who could do things, and who would love to do certain work, – yet who can’t get hold of them! Some people are born to busy and happy and prosperous and others, like myself,” said Susan bitterly, “drift about, and fail at one thing after another, and never get anywhere!”
And then the best possible thing happens: multiple people die. Admittedly, this is not usually a good thing. But for Susan, wonderfully capable Susan, it is the opportunity to step in and take charge. There are houses to clean, dinners to make, and people to care for as they journey through their grief. She is calm and capable and, after all those years of feeling adrift, finally shakes off her lethargy and sees a future bright with purpose.
The nicest part of this book for me – because the eerily on-the-nose sobbing sessions about a lack purpose in one’s life can’t quite be called nice, however truthful they may be – is Susan’s deeply satisfying final romantic story line. She has a loving marriage to man she can admire but who will never be able to buy her fancy houses or cars or fur coats. The happiness Susan finds is in a life of hard, meaningful work with a husband who is a partner and a friend. The book (rather delightfully) does not end with their marriage but follows them through the first few years, as they struggle by on high ideals and low funds. It is the perfect antidote to every novel where the delightful heroine marries the wealthy (inevitably older) man and they live happily ever after without a care in the world – the end, in fact, that Susan had thought she wanted. What Susan’s actual ending shows is how fun it is to work for that happiness, scrimping and saving and, eventually, getting to look back and laugh over it all – together.
Both this year and last year, this book provided the burst of inspiration I needed to get through difficult times. It also provided me with a delightful story and some fascinating glimpses into the realities of a working girl’s life in San Francisco in the 1900s. The simple pleasures of Susan and her working friends – carefree trolley rides to the ocean, splurges on cheap tickets to the theatre or opera, and feasts of hot, fried oysters with Chinese dipping sauces – were wonderful to read about and I would imagine the book would have even more charm for those familiar with the many San Francisco neighbourhoods Susan roams through.