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The Crumbling Campions: Family, Gender, and Society in Anne Parrish's The Perennial Bachelor
It is fitting that in the obituary of Anne Parrish, Publisher's Weekly spoke of a "biting wit" as the most pervasive characteristic of her fiction. Throughout the breadth of Parrish's voluminous body of work, in no place is this "biting" sensibility more evident than 1925's The Perennial Bachelor. The story of the beleaguered Campion family, Parrish painstakingly exposes the decadence and dislocation of early twentieth century high-culture. However, Parrish is not satisfied with using her novel as simply a vehicle for cultural criticism. Instead, her writing goes right to the paradoxical essence of the 1920s Jazz Age existence. Through her narrative, Parrish aims to reflect and question the changing social milieu of America, specifically its implications with regards to gender roles and the evolving family structure of the nation.
It is not by accident that Parrish begins her novel by showing the reader a world of "looped back muslin curtains" and "potichomanie flagons" (1). Intimately concerned with old guard familial aristocracy, Parrish deliberately immerses her reader in the cultural minituae of New England high society. Aesthetically, it is impossible to come away from this text without a keen sense of the regalia that give meaning and significance to the Campion family. Throughout the breadth of the novel, the Campions are concerned and troubled by the chasm between appearance and reality. Upon the death of her husband, Margaret Campion fears that by giving up her lavish lifestyle, her family will surrender its hard-earned aura of gentility. Thus Margaret decides the matter emphatically, by exclaiming in Scarlett O'Hara fashion "I won't leave the Maples!" (36). The novel ends with Lily Campion lamenting that "there's no one in the world looks as nice in a silk hat as you" (334). The irony lies in the fact that while the Campions appear as models of gentility, the stark reality is that they are social outcasts because of their constantly dwindling wealth. This concern for aesthetics is not, as some critics have charged, a "lack of psychological depth." It instead serves effectively as the conceit from which Parrish's novel gains strength: the tension between formal appearance and underlying reality within an evolving aristocracy.
The fact that the Campion's perceived wealth belies their ever fragmenting family establishes Parrish's subject; in essence, what she plans to explore thematically. Thus it is necessary to gain an understanding not only of the characters in the Campion family, but more importantly, the rigid hierarchy that defines their familial unit. The hallmark of this hierarchy is not complex: unquestioned gender patriarchy. Specifically, the narrative unfolds around the actions of two men: Victor Campion, and his son, the second Victor Campion. First, it is relevant to assess the nature of the Victor-Margaret relationship as it establishes the essential dynamic of the Campion family. Then, it is also imperative to analyze the ways in which the second Victor assumes the role of gendered masculine patriarch upon his father's death.
Early on, Parrish establishes the superiority and dominance of Victor Campion. Victor falls in love with the young Margaret not out of romance, but of the perception of feminine weakness he desires in a potential wife. During their time of courtship, "it was the time of the bloomer agitation, and every paper you picked up was full of caricatures of ladies, with bonnets and ringlets, to be sure" (17). Victor had no need for the type of burgeoning, aggressive woman that began surfacing in the era of women's suffrage and changing gender norms. He desired Margaret "greatly because she was not strong-minded; and indeed Margaret was never what Miss Florence Nightingale called a female ink-bottle" (19). Thus the dynamic of the Campion family is fixed well before any of the children are born. Victor would provide Margaret with the "servants?carpets?..and delicious foods" she loved, but she would remain forever dependent upon his authority (23).
Victor's death is thus problematic in the context of the narrative. Without Victor's authority, Margaret's identity, and that of her family, is ambiguous. In the wake of Victor's death, his patriarchal presence is still felt. Troubled by the financial situation left bequeathed by her husband, Margaret responds to all inquiries with "Dearest Victor wouldn't do that" or "Victor wouldn't want me to give up the conservatory, or the horses and carriages" (36-37). However, the family patriarchy does find a way to perpetuate itself. Although Margaret fulfilled her gender established role well, there was a problem. There was "one thing Victor didn't have that he wanted, and that was a son" (23). Thus the birth of the second Victor Campion is a means of sustaining the gender hierarchy even in the absence of a father.
The driving force in the Campion family thus becomes not one of individual fulfillment, but instead an existence dependent upon providing for the young Victor. It is interesting to consider the religious imagery Parrish employs to describe Victor. At birth, Victor is portrayed as the "Baby who lay in the manger" and in Sunday school it is noticed that "Victor looked at the altar cross that, as he looked, blurred into a dazzle of light, came swimming out to him, then faded into darkness" (49). Again, Parrish employs the convention of establishing a phenomenon for the purposes of later exposing its emptiness. In this case, Victor early on as a blessed, spiritual baby, destined to bring Christ-like salvation to the Campion family. However by childhood, it is obvious that "darkness" is Victor's true hue, and his birth will bring about the Campions downfall.
Victor thus becomes not only the Campion family's primary concern, but its foremost terrorized, largely responsible for his family's social squalor. Unable and unwilling to control Victor, his path towards family patriarch, in place of his deceased father, is not only condoned but sanctioned by his mother. It is particularly useful to assess Victor's role within the gendered hierarchy. Victor is a typical spoiled, self-centered child characteristic of many aristocratic families. But interestingly, his pathology is not particularly maniacal or evil. Instead, Victor will solidify his pre-ordained position as household master through subtle but powerful means: rejection of all males attempting to ingratiate themselves into the Campion household.
Victor's own mother is the first victim of the family patriarchy. At the prospect of his mother's marriage to the wealthy Mr. Lacey, Victor instead opts to maintain his status at the household's de facto head. His mother "couldn't soothe him, she couldn't stop him" as he "burst out No!" when told of Margaret's impending marriage (105-106). Margaret is forced to
Put Mr. Lacey's letter and one velvety dark gloxinia bell into her Bible, and for a long time she cried whenever she looked at them. She never saw Mr. Lacey again (107).
To truly understand the thematic significance of this event, it is necessary to consider what Mr. Lacey would have returned to the family; wealth, reputation, and status. Victor thus not only prevents his mother's happiness, but his self-destructive nature prevents his family's possible return to its aristocratic roots.
Far from ending with his mother, Victor's pathology continues within the realm of his sisters. The elder sister and mother after Margaret's death, Maggie takes up her mother's charge of caring and providing opportunity for Victor. However, she is romantically involved with the wealthy socialite Edward Post, "heavy with love for him as the yellow pears in the tree were heavy with sweetness" (128). Again, Victor will not allow a man to usurp the authority which he exercises over the Campion women. Maggie informs Edward however that she cannot go away with him if "Victor cannot come with us?I can't leave Victor, Edward?Oh Edward, you know May and Lily?I couldn't leave him with them" (157). Faced with the choice of "Victor or me [Edward]," Maggie chooses her brother, unable to break the bonds of patriarchy to which she is bound. Having acquiesced to her mother's request that "if anything should happen, promise you'll always take care of Victory," the Campion women continually perpetuate their own gender-based servitude.
It is interesting to contrast the way in which Maggie sacrifices her happiness with regards to marriage with that of her sister May. Unable to live only for Victor, May Campion lashes out at her sister:
You always have been jealous of everyone who has ever been in love with me. You stole Edward from me?you did, you did! He came to see me, and you stole him, but you couldn't keep him! Well, I hope you're satisfied, you and Victor! (277).
When Maggie replies that Victor "never harmed" anyone in the family, May retorts:
Didn't he? Didn't he? He kept me from marrying Wadsworth Robinson. Oh yes, he did; if it hadn't been for Victor I'd have been happily married today?Wadsworth loved me, and I'd have been happy with him, if Victor hadn't shown me how silly he was, laughing and making fun of him. And he kept Mamma from marrying Mr. Lacey, he kept you from marrying Edward?he's done nothing but harm, all his life?Oh Maggie, I'm so unhappy?I wish I could die" (277).
Certainly the cathartic moment of the novel, May at last exposes Victor's pathological destruction of his mother and sister. However, close attention to May's language is crucial. May subtly indicts herself, noting how Victor had "shown her" the inadequacies of her potential husband. Thus may cuts right to the core of Victor's complex pathology. Undoubtedly, his effect on the Campion women is denigrating and enslaving. Yet simultaneously, the women themselves do nothing to challenge him, instead choosing to simply surrender to his patriarchal authority.
For Victor, his character ironically becomes the "perennial bachelor" through his inability to control women outside his family. Emotionally committed to Lucy Hawthorn, Victor's courtship is ultimately rejected in an epistolary series by which Lucy informs him that "I am going to marry the son?of one of Mamma's great friends, and I am very happy. You and I were only children, weren't we Victor?" (214). A woman that is happy?the only such occurrence in the novel. Siding with her brother of course, Maggie brands Lucy a "nasty little flirt" and is unable to appreciate a woman in control of her own destiny. The character of Daisy Blow further complicates the relationship amongst the Campion girls and outside women. As the object of another of Victor's relentless courtships, Daisy "dominated everything" (252). Therefore she is rejected by the Campion women, who consider her "cheap and silly" (253). As with Lucy, the girls are glad to see Daisy dismissed from Victor's attention. Yet the case of Victor's two love interests reveals more about his sisters than they do about him. The Campion women thus follow the tradition of female servitude begun by their mother. Not only do they choose to ignore the family patriarchy, they consider independent and socially mobile women a threat, especially those who threaten to become attached to Victor. The Campion women guard Victor for the purposes of protecting the patriarchy of their family; without Victor and the need to serve him, their identity becomes problematic.
It is not difficult to imagine the chord struck by the publication of this novel. Released in the summer of 1925, the social dynamic of America, like that of the campion family, was in a period of tumult. In the literary world, 1925 was the year of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, of Alaine Locke's The New Negro. In the legal world, John T. Scopes was tried in court for teaching Darwinism in a high school science class. Al Capone's organized crime rings controlled much of the illegal alcohol in America, and the Jazz Age was in full bloom. In essence, America was undergoing vast changes socially, politically, and culturally. Women were enjoying the right to vote, and minorities were beginning their march for equal rights. People were considering themselves and their peers in ways never before considered; no institution was free of questioning.
Into this shifting societal tapestry Anne Parrish published what would become her seminal work of fiction. Thematically, the issues of change, dislocation, and loss are central to The Perennial Bachelor. It is easy to envision reader using the novel as a marker of past times, as an example of where they had been and where they were going. The oppressive gender patriarchy, degeneracy, and uncontrollable transformation of the Campion family was likely a phenomenon familiar to many fiction readers of 1925. In an autobiographical sketch from the Contemporary Authors series, the writer speaks of Parrish's work as unfortunate "period pieces." In the case of this The Perennial Bachelor, this claim should not be regarded as malicious. In the novel, readers found plausible characters dealing with the incongruous and often troubling existence of a constantly shifting early twentieth century society. This is the power of Anne Parrish's prose, and the reason thousands of American readers found solace in it. Thus The Perennial Bachelor's status as a 1925 bestseller is certainly not a serendipitous occurrence.
*Contemporary Authors. Virgo Other Databases. Search thread: Anne Parrish.
*Parrish, Anne. The Perennial Bachelor . USA: Harper & Brothers, 1925.
*Publisher's Weekly. September 16, 1957.