Some time ago, browsing the used-books shelves at the Center for Fiction, I saw a squat little Modern Library edition that, for reasons unknown (I didn’t recognize the title and had never heard of the author) I simply had to possess.
The weathered red hardcover sat on my shelf for a rather long time. It’s no secret that I went on a Maud Hart Lovelace bender, and I’ve also closely followed the saga of Downton Abbey; it’s all led to an incurable curiosity about life as it was lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s – say, from the turn of the century to the end of the Great War, when the world was full of great promise and great barbarism both. I reorganized my bookshelves in early January, and when I unearthed The Deepening Stream, I did a bit of research and learned that it charts the story of a girl growing up in just that period. It went to the top of my list.
Dorothy Canfield’s novel was first published as a serial in the Woman’s Home Companion in 1930. We meet Penelope “Matey” Gilbert as a child in the States and in France, jumping from town to town as her father pursues his career in academia, and then experience with her a number of milestones: her parents die, she falls in love and marries Adrian Fort, she bears two children, and when the war breaks out, she takes her family to France to help (Adrian drives an ambulance on the front, and Matey and the children stay in Paris to help support the Vinets, a family she had lived with for a time when she was young).
The first half of the book, which centers on her youth, is not so vivid as the second half, wherein the emotional reckoning is wrought. But there is something quietly marvelous in the way that Canfield has Matey evolve.
Midway through the book, when Adrian and Matey have just decided to leave their comfortable life in Rustdorf for the uncertainty of ravaged Europe, Matey reflects that she “was discouraged by the steepness of the uphill road that led from her childish hardness toward a little understanding of the rich complexity of life. It seemed to her that she stood still, never advanced at all, unless swept forward … by a blow, by calamity.” But by the story’s end, it is abundantly clear that one need not thrive on the high dramatics of wartime living and sweeping, overnight change; rather, what truly saves us are the daily ministrations and small, unacknowledged acts that keep the car running.
Returning to Rustdorf, Adrian and Matey try to make sense of their last few years and come to some understanding of how they’ll remake their lives upon their return, disillusioned, wary. Adrian contemplatively notes:
“’I’ll manage all right. I’ve got a living to earn and an honest way to earn it, and that’s something to be everlastingly thankful for … I’ve still got my code. Apparently it isn’t based on anything solid as I used to think, but … I’m going right ahead with what I’ve been doing – trying in my small futile way to pick up a few pieces in this mess of a world. That’ll keep me busy.”
Matey, lost for words, soothes him with platitudes; she struggles to put a point to her thoughts, thinking that she might tell him “that to have missed for a time the right path and to be lost in a by-path is no ground for terror.” But ultimately she dismisses this as “preacher-like” in its audacity; “No, no, this would not do … She had quite missed the very core of what had happened to her, the knowledge that there is no small and great, that what Adrian had planned to do with his life, the obscure anonymous helpful work to which he had resigned himself, was all there was, the best there was, and gloriously enough.”
For something so simple to return to working as a bookkeeper or a teller at a bank to be “gloriously enough” – well, it made me think immediately of the closing lines of Middlemarch: “… the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
It is hard not to imagine that The Deepening Stream isn’t in part thinly veiled autobiography: Dorothy, for instance, volunteered in France between 1916 and 1919, and fragments of biographical detail available online suggest other striking corollaries. Although Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935 named Canfield as one of America’s ten most influential women, she’s far from a household name today. Serving as an education reformer and social activist – in addition to writing 22 works of fiction, 18 works of nonfiction, and 1 play – Canfield could perhaps not be described as performing “obscure anonymous” work. But the quiet wisdom and unswerving even-handedness, which may make this book “unhistoric” in the contemporary canon, indeed set it apart as a thoughtful picture of trying to get the center to hold in a time of almost unprecedented uncertainty – a valuable piece to reflect upon in today’s unwieldy, complex world.