Recently I’ve Read … Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty

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Until recently, I had no idea that Now, Voyager was a novel at all; no clue that the Bette Davis film of 1942 was based on a best seller published the previous year. Unusually, the film is remarkably faithful to the book and both share those immortal closing lines:

Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.

The novel is one of several Higgins Prouty wrote about the Vale family. The rest appear to be out of print and the author herself is somewhat neglected. Arguably, she is now best known for her association with Sylvia Plath, whom she sponsored for a time and who ridiculed her erstwhile benefactor by portraying her as the meddling Philomena Guinea in The Bell Jar. Like the work of so many women writers from the period, Now, Voyager deserves to be more widely known and read.

The novel’s intriguing title comes from a poem by Walt Whitman:

The Untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,

Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.

The Voyager of the title is Charlotte Vale, a member of a well-to-do Bostonian family. After suffering a nervous breakdown, she sets out on a voyage of self-discovery, hoping to escape the clutches of her domineering mother who treats her as an unpaid companion. Charlotte also seeks to escape the role of dowdy spinster aunt that her family – and to a larger extent society – has foisted on her. Taking the advice of Dr Jaquith, and with the support of her sister-in-law Lisa, Charlotte hopes to cement her recovery by taking a cruise around Europe. Whilst on the cruise, Charlotte falls in love with Jerry, a married man. Will this experience aid or destroy her attempts to redefine her identity?

When it was first published in 1941, Now, Voyager was categorised – rather dismissively – as ‘women’s fiction’; as a melodrama or romance. More recently, it has been published by the Feminist Press as part of their superb Women Write Pulp series.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this highly readable and engrossing novel is that it doesn’t immediately fit into either category. It all requires a bit of mulling-over, meaning that the novel has stayed with me for some time (I love it when that happens!).  It clearly has more about it than the overblown melodrama it was originally billed as. But feminist? That requires some unpicking.

Initially standing in the way of the novel’s feminist credentials are:

  • The fact that Charlotte’s ‘revinvention’ involves a physical transformation, suggesting that rehabiliatation, happiness and acceptance (both by oneself and by others) require a slim figure, tailored clothes and perfectly plucked eyebrows
  • That Charlotte feels in some way validated by being attractive to (and loved by) men
  • That happiness for Charlotte eventually stems from the opportunity to mother a child (and the child of her beloved at that)
  • Some well-worn gender stereotypes – not least the domineering mother and the doting father

But Higgins Prouty invites us to probe further, and thus to really interrogate the feminist themes. For Charlotte’s transformation isn’t just physical: she learns to be more assertive, to be self-determining. In doing so, she becomes more confident about demonstrating her wit and intelligence, about asserting her personality. The external changes   signal the internal changes to others, most notably to Charlotte’s mother. But these physical changes are not dismissed as unimportant: they do serve to give Charlotte confidence, as does her attractiveness to the opposite sex. They help Charlotte to develop a sense of self-worth. This is feminism, then, but not a simple, black and white take on it where liking glamourous clothes and desiring male attention are considered ‘anti’.

The novel also places a great emphasis on female friendship, particularly between Charlotte and Lisa. It shows women supporting, rather than competing, with each other.

And, yes, Charlotte remains a spinster aunt at the end of the novel but she has remodelled the role to suit herself. Always honest, intelligent and witty, Charlotte becomes a woman of means. And there is potential to read the novel, not as a doomed romance, but as a feminist fairytale in which Charlotte gets the house, the wealth and the child she longs for without having to submit to marriage.

Now, Voyager is a beautifully written page-turner with a wonderful, three-dimensional protagonist. It has some pleasing touches of period glamour and is pretty thought-provoking to boot.

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