Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Pattern of Perfection by Nancy Hale

Nancy Hale
The Pattern of Perfection by Nancy Hale (1908-1988), a collection of thirteen short stories, definitely falls into that genre disdainfully labeled by some as domestic fiction. There's even a recipe tucked into the prose.

Domestic, but not sentimental. Mostly written in the 1950s, the stories hover on  love, marriage, divorce, children, grandchildren, changes in place, and the succession of the generations. Hale's language is brisk and almost airy. Reading them is like taking a walk on a breezy warm day in March. But movement is driven not by plot; a mother returns her child to boarding school, in "Slow Boat to China"; a grandmother in New England takes her grandson for a boat ride in "Flotsam"; a young widow takes her five-year-old son to the graduation at her late husband's college. On a Halloween evening in "The Haunting," a widowed grandmother watches her daughter, newly separated from her husband and now back home with her two children, go trick or treating. Contemplation, memory, self-revelation are the themes.

Some stories center on displaced northerners in the South, as Hale was herself, moving from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1936, where she lived for the rest of her life. In the story "A Pattern of Perfection," Hale touches on disparities between the northern and southern way of life and the longing for home. "A New Place" tells of the frustration and discoveries of a northern woman recently moved to Virginia  as she attempts to meet the doyen who lives next door.

I liked all these stories by Nancy Hale, whom I encountered thanks to Frisbee: A Book Journal. Hale was born in Boston and was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale. Although her parents were artists, she grew up in the environment of proper Boston society and then shifted her venue to New York City in 1928, where she worked as an editorial assistant and part-time model for Vogue and then as a reporter and fiction writer.

The Crochet Lesson by Mary Cassatt, 1913. Hale wrote a biography of Mary Cassatt in 1975.
With her work at Vogue, Hale was conversant with the world of fashion, as she displays in her story "A Curious Lapse," in which a chic New York woman comes to Virginia to visit with her old friend and former employer. Just for fun, here is a snippet of the New Yorker's thoughts as she strolls through the little Virginia town:

"Then she passed on to Miss Holly's Dress Shop, next door. There were four dresses in the shop window. One was coin-dotted pink organdy; one striped blue-and-white chambray; the third navy linen. But it was the red print, with its little jacket displayed half off the shoulder, on which Vera's gaze seemed to focus with fatal intensity. The little dress--its price was on it, $16.95--stood out from its surroundings as if speaking to her.

"She knew exactly what should be done to it. First, of course, she would rip the white flower off the lapel of the jacket. Then the bits of machine smocking below the shoulder yoke, on the dress, would have to be ripped out and replaced with hand smocking; it would take the whole evening, but the effect gained, of excellence and quality, would be worth it. The belt of the dress would be improved by changing its buckle to a better one; she would be sure to find something on an old dress. On the lapel, in place of the flower, she would wear a good pin. The pearl circlet her mother had given her on her graduation from high school leaped to mind.

"And with the costume she would wear plain white kid pumps. There were some in Howard's, for $5.50. Plain white cotton gloves. Plain white envelope purse, like the one for $3.95 in Howard's. As for a hat--far smarter than any hat she could afford to buy would be a wreath of red and white flowers from Woolworth's, set straight on top of her head like a little crown, with a bit of red veil. The flowers would, of course, be shoddy stuff; the whole style of them would lie in their being fresh. After two or three wearings she would buy new ones.

"The whole would give a smart effect. Unusual. Clever. Striking to wear to a dessert bridge, or for an evening date at Lake Pearl.

"It was all such an art: keeping canvas shoes startlingly white by using a cake of Bon Ami; and wearing white ten-cent-store jewelry chosen for its plainness when everybody else was buying the fancy pieces; and making a hat out of a a black velvet clip and two real pink carnations; and ripping the machine tucks out of the bosom of a blouse to put them all back with a fine needle and one-fifty thread; and making pale blue batiste underclothes in the evening..."


Kat said...

Linda, I am going to sign in under a google account, Mad Housewife, because Blogger won't let me sign in under my Wordpress blog, Frisbee.

I am very excited that I found your post! You're the only other person in the world who reads Nancy Hale, as far as I can see. I will look for these short stories.

I'm so happy to have learned about The Pattern of Perfection.

Linda said...

I got a good laugh out of your comment. I always enjoy your blog, and thanks for your recommendation. I read Prodigal Women but am not yet sure what to say about it. It certainly was a yarn--not at all in the style of Pattern of Perfection. I am reading "lost" books these days, as a fun and fascinating way to learn some social history.

Jenny in Idaho said...

Thank you for this post. As a teenager I was deeply moved by a story by Nancy Hale called "Midsummer," about a doomed romance between a wealthy girl and her riding instructor. I'm eager to read more of Nancy Hale's stories!

Nan said...

Thank you for this. I shall look into her work. Hadn't heard of her before.