Was Prouty Too Bourgeois and Conventional?
Or did she blaze a fresh path?
L aboring before the modern era of women's empowerment, and even while keeping her role with the family as a wife and a mother, Prouty insisted on taking seriously her gift as a writer. She had to find time to close herself off in a room in her house with the door shut to give her writing the necessary focus. The stress of trying to do both at the same time finally caused her a nervous breakdown. Starting with the novel White Fawn, she began to do her writing away from home. She often found a rented room in a hotel or a room in a social club. This came at the advice of her psychiatrist, Dr. Austen Riggs, who encouraged her to treat her writing professionally. Starting with the first Vale novel, the change in work space liberated her writing to become more vibrant and expansive.
Olive Prouty's novels sold well from the 1920s through the 1950s. Her audience grew, thanks to a long-running radio soap opera based on Stella Dallas and to the acclaimed Hollywood version of Now, Voyager.
But in the late 1950s the car careened off the track. Prouty had endowed a scholarship at Smith College, and befriended and encouraged the young writer who received this scholarship—Sylvia Plath. Plath sketched or lampooned Olive Prouty as the fatuous Philomena Guinea in her major novel, The Bell Jar.
Houghton Mifflin stopped printing the Vale novels. A biography of Prouty on the Unitarian-Universalist website accounts for the declining popularity of the novels, "To a generation growing up in a less rigid social climate, Prouty's work seemed to be a conservative endorsement of bourgeois conformity." So the hippy 1960s found the Vale novels stodgy. But does this impression hold up?
Prouty prized the original, the creative side of people. When Charlotte in Now, Voyager told Jerry about Elliot Livingston, "He's like you in many ways. Oh, not your sense of play, your sense of humor. . ." we can tell that Prouty values these qualities. When she described Elliot Livingston's first wife as "never being guilty of saying anything original," she did not mean this as a compliment.
The Vales lived near the top of the social hierarchy. But Prouty pushed at the boundaries by exploring a woman's place in society. She endowed Lisa Vale with a moral integrity, basing her morals on the consequences of her actions, not on edicts of a higher authority: Lisa loved a man who was not her husband, but imposed limits on the affair so it would not hurt her children. It took planning and hard work for Lisa to achieve that balance.
Not content just to explore a woman's love outside of her marriage, Prouty also targeted the snobbery that infused high society. In the Vale novels, Lisa Vale's children befriend other children who are being excluded by the ruling clique. We see this in the chapter entitled "The Unknown Girl" in White Fawn. In the love affair that takes the largest place in the novels, Lisa's daughter Fabia embraces Dan Regan, son of an Irish family far removed from the upper-class circle. A poem found among the Prouty papers at Clark University echoes this theme of a love affair between two creatures from different sides of the divide.
Prouty made Lisa Vale warm and intelligent, supporting Charlotte emotionally and enabling her transformation. In so helping Charlotte and in rescuing her son Windy, Lisa Vale achieves a life of meaning, rising above the trivial life that could have befallen her as a member of a stuffy upper-class family. Did Prouty rate as too bourgeois and conventional?
Her concentration on women struggling for freedom in a male dominated culture speaks to almost every theme of women's liberation: love and marriage, career opportunities and social prejudices. With the success of these novels, Prouty shoved aside some barricades. The road now lies a bit wider and allows women a bit more leeway. Prouty's tales explore the human spirit, take a progressive stance and champion the underdog. All told, they reject a bourgeois conformity.