The Ghost of a Romance

Indian Summer
William Dean Howells

Indian_SummerI was raised on classic romantic comedies. True, you couldn’t escape the endless stream of WWII movies in constant rerun, but if there was a choice Mom always picked the chick flick. Which is why I have a weakness for the form.

William Dean Howells has convinced me that before we had chick flicks the same thing, more or less, existed in print form.

Howells is another on that long list of authors I’ve avoided for, it almost always turns out, seemingly no good reason. Although in this case there is a reason: my ex-wife complained so much of Howells that I internalized the objections. Turns out her opinion of him is yet another thing she got wrong.

Indian Summer is a late 19th century tale of Americans abroad.  I’ve always responded more to Mark Twain‘s vagabond tales,  Kerouac‘s  open road and  Melville‘s boundless sea. But even Twain got himself into the European trap and the king of the ex-pats, Henry James, was Howells’ best bud. So the inability to understand Europe as the required setting for a novel is mine and mine alone.


Florence, Italy as seen from the Boboli Gardens. I borrowed this lovely image which is credited to Mike Turner, Apologies.

In this tale the setting is Italy, specifically Florence. That alone probably suggests something. After all, Florence is one of those settings that English language writers have habitually turned to since at least the time of Shakespeare.

This time, we’re in the company of one Theodore Coville, late of of Des Vaches, Indiana.  Don’t look for it, it doesn’t exist. I suppose it’s this son-of-Ohio‘s way of distancing himself (and his readers) from both his origins and our environment. Des Vaches, after all, really means Cowtown which is stictly infra dig.

The Arno in Florence.There's no arguing it isn't a pretty place.

The Arno in Florence.
There’s no arguing it isn’t a pretty place.

Things are smarter in Firenze. Having sold his business, Coville has returned to the scene of his youth. And not just a place of fond remembrance. No, Florence was the setting of his great youthful failure. His heart was broken in Florence, his proposal rejected and his spirit so broken he fled to the prairies and abandoned his ambitions.

Those ambitions make more sense to me. Colville before he was an editor and successful publisher, however rural, was training to be an architect. This is more coding and symbolism. On the coding side architect is one of those professions a gentleman is allowed to pursue and so it explains his ease is a social set that holds regular visiting hours and leaves calling cards.

Not as casual as we are and recognizable as an earlier period, but not one we can't relate to.

Not as casual as we are and recognizable as an earlier period, but not one we can’t relate to.

Architects are also intense lookers and builders, they visualize how something can be and make it happen. Coville is a natural builder, how else to explain his business success. In fact, the leisure he’s earned seems in abeyance much of the time. His sojourn is marked by nothing so much as constant activity.

And whom should our hero meet upon his return to the scene of his ignominy? Why none other than Evalina Bowen.  And just who is she? Why the widowed, ex-best friend of the woman who spurned him, of course. You can’t tell me you haven’t seen this before. Maybe that’s why the whole book seemed so familiar that I only occasionally was caught short by some description of clothing or some other detail that reminded me it was the 1880s and not later.

That caused me particular difficulty with the other major female character, Imogene Graham. Miss Graham (I get to say that because in the 1880s no one was a Ms. yet) is a young woman getting her taste of Europe under the care of Mrs. Bowen. I probably missed how the Senator’s widow came to play chaperon to this headstrong product of Buffalo, New York. But there she is, ready to catch Coville’s attention at an age conveniently close to that at which he suffered heartbreak.

My anachronistic visualization. No young woman in the 1880s dressed like this but I couldn't shake the notion.

My anachronistic visualization. No young woman in the 1880s dressed like this but I couldn’t shake the notion.

And so we’re off on a well-worn path. The middle aged (and though only in his early 40s make no mistake, Colville is by any standard of recent times decidedly middle aged) man whose head is turned by the comely lass. Which will lead to his behaving like a, well, bit of a fool. And fool in this case means proposing marriage to a girl half his age.

The complicating factor is his contemporary, Evalina, torn between her own attraction to Colville and her duty towards her ward. This is where my temporal confusion kicked into high gear. In my mind’s eye, Imogene is almost a 1920s flapper, all done up in silk chinoiserie.  Meanwhile Evalina wears long skirts and high collars. Add Colville with his paunch in a soup-and-fish and it’s quite a trio.

As I read I kept thinkng of Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday with a few of the roles reversed. Colville would be Cary Grant‘s Walter Burns, Evalina the fabulous Hildy Johnson as brought to life by Rosalind Rusell and Imogene is the bumbling Ralph Bellamy character, Bruce Baldwin.

The stars of His Girl Friday.Could it be that William Dean Howells invented the romantic comedy based on a love triangle?

The stars of His Girl Friday .Could it be that William Dean Howells invented the romantic comedy based on a love triangle?

I know that the movie is the movie and the  novel the novel. I should keep them separate but the fact that I couldn’t should make the important point apparent: Indian Summer is, despite the horse-drawn carriages and use of candles,  a very modern novel. So much so that you could just move it wholesale a few decades to a century into the future and it would still work. Or you could just use it as a blueprint in the way that wittingly or not Hawks did.

And that’s not a bad thing. When I read Henry James I am aware that I am in the presence of great art and am missing most of it. So it’s a relief to see the art and just enjoy it. There’s no reason to believe you wouldn’t either.

Have a Happy Easter.




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