This story reminded me of A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich. In both stories a woman of culture and talent marries and moves to the Nebraska territory where her life becomes an endless drudge of mind-numbing and back-breaking housework, child rearing, and farm chores. At least that is how it looks from the outside.
Chances are you’ve probably never heard of Bess Streeter Aldrich, but she was one of the most highly paid writers of her day. A Lantern in Her Hand was based on hundreds of hours of research based on the lived experiences of pioneer women. It’s a tribute to the women who helped create the state of Nebraska. Today, if it is read, it’s often considered a YA novel or domestic fiction, which is a shame only in that such categories limit readership. It’s a fine piece of historical fiction.
In the case of Aldrich’s 1928 novel, protagonist Abbie Deal always plans to eventually get back to her artistic outlets. Aunt Georgiana, the center of the narrator’s focus in “A Wagner Matinée,” is presented to us only through her nephew’s eyes. We don’t really know what she thinks or wants. And I don’t think her nephew, Clark, the narrator “gets her” or really even “sees” her. He also doesn’t seem to have much perspective on himself at this point in his life.
While the last sentence of the first paragraph is technically about his uncle not sending the letter promptly, Clark says, “I must have missed my aunt altogether,” which is an odd way of speaking about a future possibility in the past that didn’t happen. This is the full sentence: “He had characteristically delayed writing until, had I been away from home for a day, I must have missed my aunt altogether.” It’s an odd way of putting it and upon a second reading it glared out at me like the big red flag that it is. He has missed her in a variety of ways.
And not only does Clark not really see his aunt beyond surface level indicators (which he might be misreading), when he notices that Aunt Georgie’s fingers seem to be tapping out the piano score as they sit and listen to the music, he actually physically restrains her. Here’s the scene:
“Poor hands! They had been stretched and twisted into mere tentacles to hold and lift and knead with; –on one of them a thin, worn band that had once been a wedding ring.” I was all in with Clark’s version of his aunt until that comment about her band having “once been a wedding ring.” What kind of judgement is that? Now he’s judging the state of her marriage as well? It made me question all the other things I’d accepted in the story prior to this point. I wanted to reread the story before I even finished it!
Clark goes on, “As I pressed and gently quieted one of those groping hands, I remembered with quivering eyelids their services for me in other days.” He actually silences his aunt’s expression. He physically stops her pleasure and instead focuses on what she has done for him in the past. Clark makes Georgiana sit still the way he prefers so he can continue on with the story he’s telling himself about her. Considering that just several paragraphs before he was moved by how this concert, “broke a silence of thirty years” for her, it’s rather remarkable and telling that he then quiets her.
The structure of “A Wagner Matinée,” published in 1904, also reminds me a bit of My Antonia (published in 1918). They both feature a male narrator telling the story of a woman’s life. Making judgements. Making assumptions. Making her life conform to how he wants to see her.
It’s also fascinating that the other woman in the story, Mrs. Springer, the landlady, sees beyond Georgiana’s dirty travel clothes to the deep exhaustion and overwhelm of her tenant’s guest. Clark reveres his aunt, that is abundantly clear — he equates her to heroic adventurers — and says that he “owed to this woman most of the good that ever came” his way, but it’s impossible to see the real person when they’re put on a pedestal or reduced to stereotypes. Clark is a self-centered romantic who can’t be present with his aunt in a personal way. He’s an observer watching a sublime scene unfold before his eyes, a scene that he can’t interpret beyond the storyline that’s already in his mind. What a rich short story this is.
I recently finished rereading The Professor’s House for the Willa Cather Book Club which is a story about a middle-aged man reflecting on his current life circumstances and his past, as well as the past of a young man he loves. It made me wonder how different “A Wagner Matinée” would be if Clark were telling it as a middle-aged man. How would his understanding of his aunt change? Or maybe it wouldn’t. So much fun to ponder.