Christopher Morley’s Kitty Foyle was popularized for its eerily accurate insight into the mind of an independent, enterprising young woman who candidly illustrates a coming-of-age story of love, independence, and sexual sensationalism. The novel achieved great success almost immediately after its publication in late October 1939, reaching the fictional bestseller list before the year’s end and remaining there for many months to follow. Kitty Foyle exhibits a number of characteristics that helped it reach the bestseller lists, including its fearless assumption of sexual exploration, comprised of a tasteful approach to scandal and an inspiring claim to feminine independence, and its relatability for the average reader, conveyed through emotional narrative candor and its placement within historical context.
As is common in many books that reach the bestseller list, Kitty Foyle invokes sexual sensationalism that, in this book, manifests in two main forms: tastefully-embedded scandal and feminine independence. Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers’ The Bestseller Code, a research-backed book dedicated to explaining computed trends among bestselling fiction, delves into the value of tastefully-communicated sexual scandal in books. It notes that sexuality in bestsellers will typically “suggest intimacy and not aggression. A sex scene will make the list if it moves the plot between characters and forward. If it is a gratuitous aside, not needed for storytelling, it likely will not chart” (47). Kitty Foyle’s narration successfully incorporates scandal and sexuality in a way that forwards the plot without surpassing the threshold of what readers may consider too graphic; this characteristic helps explain why the book became a bestseller. Kitty’s relationship with Wyn Stafford is objectively scandalous, as it occurs as an extramarital affair between two people of traditionally separate social classes, culminating in an unexpected pregnancy and secret abortion. Despite the extremely overt scandal in the plot, the way in which Morley chooses to communicate it keeps it within acceptable boundaries of bestsellers, adhering to The Bestseller Code’s predictive analysis of bestsellers. Many scenes throughout the story allude to scandal and sexual encounters without ever using graphic illustration. Instead of placing emphasis on scandalous physical attraction, Morley focuses on the emotional love between Kitty and Wyn. Kitty conveys this focus when she asserts, “I think I can say I’m affectionate but I’m not promiscuous” (44). Kitty chooses to address her aborted pregnancy, which arguably marks the most scandalous part of the story, as a quick flashback, making the scandal apparent to the reader without utilizing overwhelmingly graphic descriptions or elevated emphasis. Morley’s careful craft in this section successfully weaves an appropriate level of scandalous sensationalism into the novel, as The Bestseller Code predicts of a bestseller. Furthermore, Kitty’s relationship with Wyn transcends the sensational scandal of a physical relationship, instead portrayed as a deep emotional bond between two unlikely lovers. The Bestseller Code emphasizes that a successful novel will incorporate sexuality through “human closeness and human connection,” as well as “moments of shared intimacy, shared chemistry, and shared bonds” rather than scandalous physical encounters (67). Kitty’s narration demonstrates clear casual intimacy and romance with Wyn. She openly speaks of her love for him and reveals the intricate secrets of their relationship, such as her fascination with their “language of their own” (68). By approaching Kitty and Wyn’s relationship with an emphasis on emotional connection instead of through directly graphic depictions, Morley engages in this necessary quality of bestsellers. Not only does Kitty and Wyn’s relationship exemplify tasteful scandal and sensationalism, but Morley is able to balance scandal with the necessary intimacy that drives fiction to the bestseller lists.
In addition to an alluring and tasteful incorporation of scandal and intimacy, Kitty Foyle’s exploration of feminine independence can further explain the novel’s success. Kitty demonstrates characteristics of the typified “heroine noir” character, who historically appeals to readers and is characteristic of bestsellers. The Bestseller Code explains that for books with this character, “the protagonist is female. She has great agency and is central to a plotline...her most-used verbs are need and want” (192). The attraction that underpins Kitty’s relationship with Wyn and derives the novel’s scandalous characteristics exemplifies this “needing” and “wanting.” Kitty admits that she is “guilty of being human, of having human desires and needs and hopes” (45). Her “needs” and “wants” are also evident in the way that she takes control of her love life and career, allowing herself to take risks without worry of the social implications (as seen in situations ranging from standing up for her independence from Wyn to radically accepting a job in Chicago). Kitty Foyle also aligns with The Bestseller Code’s description of the successful morally evocative “domestic noir,” which “is all about a new kind of female heroine, the girl. This girl is significant because she...takes us into a relationship, into marriage and into family, and she turns all the stereotypes on their heads” (170). Kitty exemplifies the “domestic noir” primarily by repeatedly rejecting and challenging traditional gender conventions. At times, she does this explicitly, such as through philosophical asides: “the more [Wyn] would tell me solemnly it was Man’s job to teach Woman about Beauty, the more he was really asking me to help him learn” (50), “Men are so sentimental they’ve pretty near taught Women to be sentimental too” (237), and “Men are good about Telling the World, but pretty often some woman whispered it to him first” (200). In these quotes, she acknowledges common stereotypes of men and women, assertively pushing against them and challenging the reader to reconsider his or her perceptions of social norms. Kitty further demonstrates characteristics of The Bestseller Code’s “domestic noir” through her interactions with Wyn. When he presents her with the snake ring, she rejects conventional relationship expectations by satirically wondering about “how many Philadelphia girls ever had a proposal of marriage in a Chicago speakeasy” (206). Additionally, before deciding to abort her unplanned pregnancy, Kitty prepares to tell Wyn, “‘If it has your looks and my brains, and we keep it away from the Main Line, it’ll go places,” challenging traditional gender roles and rejecting high-class lifestyle (264). Finally, Kitty proudly rejects even the most explicitly fundamental gender roles by reflecting on her own individual actions with specific disregard for societal expectations of a woman: “Here’s K. Foyle - exactly not doing everything a woman ought to be good at. She’s not having a baby, and she’s not cooking meals, and she’s not even earning a living at a business that’s only a fairytale anyhow” (272). Her conscious flight from stereotypes is affirmed when she rejects marriage with Wyn in favor of moving to Chicago and creating a career for herself as a self-proclaimed “Career Woman” (308). She is proudly aware of her radical relationship with Wyn and strives to make this clear to the reader. In these ways, Kitty displays a moral objection to traditional gender roles, rejecting them with shrewd conviction characteristic of a bestseller’s “domestic noir” character.
Kitty Foyle’s time on the bestseller list can also be attributed to its relatability to readers, exemplified by Kitty’s honest narration, her characteristic appeal to a white-collar working-girl demographic, and the story’s accurate placement in the time period of its publication. First, readers and critics alike praised Kitty’s emotional narrative candor; she expresses vulnerability that makes her relatable to readers, accumulating praise. Kitty’s stream-of-consciousness narrative is approachable, conversational, and unguarded. She rapidly switches topics and narrative techniques by recording self-interrogation, reflecting on memories, and asserting acutely personal opinions. One reviewer affirmed that great value exists in Kitty’s honesty, commenting that “the story matters less than the charming intimacy with which it is confided” (Charques). On the most personal topics, Kitty fearlessly shares her innermost emotions, such as when she writes about her intense love for Wyn: “partly I thought he was God and partly I was just taking care of him. I know I could never be ashamed or humiliated or unhappy again. I know what life was for” (49). She reveals her true feelings on even extremely controversial topics, including her emotional response to her abortion: “I felt sorry, and selfish maybe, and like I’d lost something beautiful and real, but I couldn’t feel any kind of wrongness. I did what I had to do” (101). By maintaining a candidness with the reader, Kitty makes herself relatable, which assisted in driving the novel to the top of the bestseller lists.
Kitty’s narrative vulnerability lends itself to another characteristic of bestselling novels according to The Bestseller Code: using “realism,” and “sticking to real people” is important to a successful narrative (64, 69). In addition to previously mentioned narrative digressions about emotions and love, Kitty conveys realism in her coming-of-age story. She laughs about “the first time I suffered the big female problem Nothing to Wear” (101), illustrates her childhood summers spent at Tidewood, and describes the dramatic adventure of “Senior Prom” (114). Critics agree that Kitty’s narration provides the realistic emotional vulnerability that The Bestseller Code suggest. One critic asserts, “What she sees in her own mind...gives us a persuasive and most agreeable picture of middle-class American life” (Stephens). Kitty’s open and realistic approach to readers allow them to form a deeper connection with her story, acting as a contributing factor to its success as a bestseller.
In addition to connecting to readers through candid narration, Kitty’s persona as a white-collar worker makes her especially relatable to a similar demographic and furthered Kitty Foyle’s best-selling success. Upon publication, J.B. Lippincolt’s advertising campaign specifically aimed to “personalize the heroine and make her a talk-about woman” in order to connect with an intended audience of “intelligent women”(Publisher’s Weekly). Their successful campaign attracted the readership of a rising class group, referred to as the “modern working girl” (Hackett). These primary readers took interest in Kitty’s proud transformational journey into a self-proclaimed “White Collar Girl” and fierce defense for women of that class. Kitty assuredly validates her social position as a Chicago makeup saleswoman, claiming that she and her fellow co-workers and roommates “figured that three white collar girls living together learn as much as college” (304). She further rejects class mobilization and asserts her autonomous independence when she famously rejects Wyn’s offer to send her to college to make her suitable for marriage. Kitty famously declares, “So they tried to sell you the idea they’d trim up Kitty so she could go to the Assembly and make Old Philadelphia Family of her, hey?...They can’t do that to Kitty Foyle...By God, I’ll improve you all I want but you can’t improve me” (241). By fiercely defending the white-collar working girl lifestyle and rejecting a great opportunity for social mobility, Kitty emerges as an emblem of the white-collar working girl class. This made her an inspiring image for the specific American white-collar working girl demographic, facilitating the novel’s success among its target audience.
Kitty Foyle’s relatability to readers at the time of its publication can also be attributed to its assimilation into historical context. Kitty references events and sentiment popular in 1930s-1940s American life, allowing readers to find her perspective and customs relatable. Critics recognize elements of the novel that made it especially appealing to the 1940s interwar period crowd. One scholarly response to Kitty Foyle recognized that the “White Collar Girls” emerged in the workforce around the time that Kitty Foyle was published, and resultantly, “through Kitty, Morley connects women’s changing roles to prospective US involvement in World War II” (Rogers-Carpenter). The novel further connected to pre-World War II sentiment through its approach to relationships, especially Kitty’s marriage to Marcus Eisen. The same analysis suggested that in Kitty Foyle, “reproduction is represented as a strategic source of future leaders who will defend the home front; intermarriage between ethnic whites is advanced as a way to reinvigorate the gene pool” (Rogers-Carpenter). Thus, interwar readers could have potentially interpreted Kitty’s decision to eventually settle down in marriage with Marcus Eisen as a logical response to high international death rates. Additionally, Kitty’s close affiliation with her Irish-American identity connected to immigrant culture in America, appealing especially to descendants of Irish immigrants in the U.S. Kitty’s Irish heritage provides an especially meaningful connection with her father; Pop’s Irish tunes are constant in Kitty’s narrative, appearing in scenes from her early childhood through his death (14, 20, 135). Descendents of U.S. immigrants may have recognized themselves in her ties to cultural ancestry, which could have attributed to the novel’s favorableness. Critics also claim that Kitty’s discussion of heritage, religion, and race marks a consciousness of a global eugenic movement (Weingarten). This argument can be mainly traced to her childhood focus on Myrtle’s blackness (17-18, 191, 195), her extensive reference to Hitler (325-326) and her consciousness of her husband’s Jewish identity (325-237). Kitty’s consciousness of these events and movements during the 1930s-1940s may also have functioned as a means of similar ideological sentiment between herself and her readers, leading to increased readership and appreciation for her story.
Kitty Foyle achieved bestselling success nearly immediately following its publication. Commonalities among fictional bestsellers combined critic reviews of Kitty Foyle help provide an explanation for its bestselling status. These sources reveal that Kitty Foyle’s success can be attributed to its courageous pursuit of sexual and gender exploration, composed of tasteful sexual sensationalism and an inspiring feminine individualism, and its relatability to the average reader, seen through narrative candor, relatability to an emerging white-collar demographic, and references to historical sentiment at the time of its publishing. Kitty Foyle served as an inspiring image of feminine autonomy and success during its early years and continues to move readers today.
Charques, R. D. “Persistent Wooer.” Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, 17 Feb. 1940, p. 85.
Hackett, Alice Payne, and James Henry Burke. 80 Years of Best Sellers, 1895-1975. R. R. Bowker Co., 1976.
Morley, Christopher. Kitty Foyle. J.B. Lippincott, 1939.
Rogers-Carpenter, Katherine. “Re-Envisioning 1920s Working Women: The Case of Kitty Foyle.” Women’s Studies, vol. 37, no. 6, Sept. 2008, pp. 707–30.
Stephens, Jan. “A Choice of Ten Good Entertainments.” Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, 16 Mar. 1949, p. 140.
Thompson, Ralph. “Books of the Times.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Dec. 1939.
Weingarten, Karen. “Bad Girls and Biopolitics: Abortion, Popular Fiction, and Population Control.” Project Muse: Literature and Medicine, vol. 29, Spring 2011.
“Mr. Morley’s Sparking ‘Kitty Foyle.’” New York Times (1923-Current File), 29 Oct. 1939, p. 1. Publisher’s Weekly. Vol. 137 Part 1, Publisher’s Weekly.