Sunday, July 11, 2021

The White Azalea

Elizabeth Spencer (1921–2019)
From Elizabeth Spencer: Novels & Stories

Mercato dei fiori a Piazza di Spagna [Flower market at the Piazza di Spagna], showing the Spanish Steps leading from the Piazza to the church of Trinita dei Monti, undated watercolor on paper by Italian artist Filippo Anivitti (1876–1955). Image from ArtQuid.
“I started writing about Italy when I left Italy,” Elizabeth Spencer told the editor and small press publisher Irv Broughton in 1988. “The whole Italian experience meant a great deal to me, and when we left Italy and came to Canada, I had this kind of sense that I was going to lose a lot of that unless I started to write about it. I wanted to get it down.”

Spencer’s first trip to Europe was during the summer of 1949, when she took a freighter from New Orleans to France. In Paris, she met the still relatively unknown Saul Bellow, living on a Guggenheim Fellowship and working on his third novel. From Paris, she went to Germany and then on to Italy, traveling from Milan to Rome, with several stops in between. In 1953, when Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March appeared and became an award-winning best seller, it was Spencer’s turn. With her own first two novels now published, she similarly received a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on her next book, and she used the money to settle in Rome, where she would live for the next two years. During her stay she fell in with a circle of writers, including the poet Allen Tate and his wife, the fiction writer Caroline Gordon, as well as Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, with whom she went on trips through the Italian countryside.

She also met John Rusher, an Englishman who was a former teacher for the Berlitz language school in Rome and who now worked with private pupils. Two years later, after she had briefly returned to her family in Mississippi and then lived in New York for several months, she met up with Rusher and his family in Cornwall, England, and the couple were married in September 1956. The following month The Voice at the Back Door, the novel she had written in Italy, appeared to respectable sales, critical acclaim, and controversy over its unflinching depiction of racial politics in Mississippi. Although the judges for the Pulitzer Prize recommended it for the award in fiction, the Pulitzer board declined the honor to any book that year—a decision that has never been adequately explained.

The newlyweds spent the next two years living in Rome before moving in 1958 to Montreal, where Busher had relatives, and it was only after arriving in Canada that Spencer felt she could write about Italy. She went to a public library where “no one bothered a visitor who wanted to sit for hours writing on a ruled legal pad,” as she recalled in her memoir, and she wrote her first Italian story. “It began in a favorite piazza—where back in 1949 I had been struck with Italy’s glory. . . . But there had to be a who also. I felt more at home writing about Southerners, wherever they might show up. So here came the two who were central to the story, a girl named Clara Johnson and her mother, Margaret, from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.” Originally conceived as a short story, The Light in the Piazza ended up as a short novel, and she finished it in less than four weeks. First published in The New Yorker before appearing as a book in 1960, it became a blockbuster, eventually selling more than one million copies. Its success stunned her. “I never did think The Light in the Piazza would be published,” she told Broughton. “I just thought of it as a rather crazy story I was writing to get down a lot of impressions. I thought the central idea was exaggerated and that it wouldn’t find an audience.”

Although in the future she occasionally resented how her quickly written novella would overshadow her other work, she did appreciate how it expanded the horizons of what she could and should write about. “The Light in the Piazza, for better or worse, really did alter my vision of what I could do,” she told Mississippi lawyer John Griffin Jones years later. “It expanded me because it was so fantastically successful. . . . I thought, ‘Well maybe I should take a wider scope on things. Not confine myself to the Mississippi scene.’ So then I went on and wrote things that were laid in Rome.” The change to her fiction was not merely geographical. While her previous works had featured male protagonists, her new stories were (as she put it in 1975) “about women who in various ways and settings seek and find a controlling vision for their lives.”

One of those stories, “The White Azalea,” appeared a year after The Light in the Piazza was published and featured Theresa Stubblefield, a woman who had left her Southern family for a summer-long vacation in Rome. Was the character based on Spencer and her first trip to Italy, an interviewer for Southern Quarterly wondered in 1995. “Oh, heavens, no! I could never think why anybody thought that could be me, because she was about twice my age when I wrote that! And then I grew up to being that old, but I don’t think I was remotely like her.” The interviewer persisted with his thesis, “Surely the seed for that story came from something personal?” Spencer then patiently explained how, when writing fiction, she “finds the character” and tries to see if she can empathize and imagine the world through the character’s eyes. And, for this story, there were plenty of Theresa Stubblefields to be remembered from her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi:
I just thought of people being . . . well, I had an aunt who—the greatest thing that ever happened—she went abroad. I saw so many people at home—that I escaped from that trap early on—constrained to be part of the family all their lives, and if by some circumstance they didn’t marry and have a home of their own, they were considered idle—they didn’t have anything to do. . . . I wouldn’t give in to that for a minute, but I know a lot of people that got trapped.
Yet, Spencer added, even authors will never fully know or understand the characters they have created. “There’s always part of a character or a person that remains mysterious,” she concluded.

Notes: The carrozza rides in the park are horse-drawn carriages. Elsie Dinsmore is the eponymous heroine of a series of popular nineteenth-century children’s books by Martha Finley, set largely in the American South and with a marked emphasis on Christian virtues. The halting Italian phrase spoken by one of the men carrying the flowers, “Mi dispiace, signora, ma . . . insomma. . . .” translates as “I’m sorry ma’am, but . . . well. . . .”

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