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June's Book
Aunt Jane of Kentucky
by Eliza Calvert Hall

Bill: Join us on the bookclub as we take a journey to the past with Aunt Jane of Kentucky, published in 1907 by Eliza Calvert Hall. Aunt Jane is the storyteller weaving just, gentle folk wisdom with savvy words for the wise, vividly describing a picturesque way of life of long ago. There are surprises, though. Stay tuned; bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Aunt Jane of Kentucky, 1907, written by Eliza Calvert Hall. Why was it important? Why do you think that this was issued, or reissued, once again, and so important that it’s on the bookclub@ket, Lynda?

Lynda:
Well, it adds a missing element, I guess, to the body of work that we have looked at so far. It takes us back further into Kentucky history, and particularly, it’s written from a woman’s perspective at a time when women’s work was not valued—or so the author tried to convey.

Bill:
Wasn’t taken seriously?

Lynda:
Well, not valued. I mean, it was taken very seriously. There were lots of instances where if a woman wasn’t doing it, something wouldn’t get done; and everybody took all this hard work for granted, or the dedication or perseverance or whatever it was, but it just wasn’t valued.

Bill:
I wonder if we know how much this is about Eliza Calvert Hall, the author, sort of using this as a vehicle to talk about some of these issues. We do know her background, and that’s on our web site—about her work as a suffragist and working in what I guess at that time was early women’s rights and sort of the feminist movement way back then. But do you think this was sort of her way of expressing some of these things or getting this word out?

Dava:
I think she really did feel deeply about women’s rights and better treatment of women, more appreciation for what they do, and I wonder if when she wrote this book she was fully aware that it would not receive much attention from the literary world, because it didn’t. I think that’s one of the reasons why it was good that it was reissued, because it probably didn’t get much attention back then.

Lynda:
It did.

Terry:
It did receive quite a bit of attention then.

Lynda:
It did.

Terry:
The first story, “Sally Ann’s Experience,” was first published in Cosmopolitan in 1898. It was then reprinted in Cosmopolitan and reprinted three more times in other magazines. And when this book was put, pulled together in 1907, it was not in the top ten best-sellers, but it did sell probably a million copies—or a million people read it. So it was a very popular work at the time. But it was popular. You are right: It didn’t receive a lot of attention from the literary critics. There was a fellow over in London who put together, in 1889, a collection of American Sonnets. It was the name of his collection. And he included one by Calvert Hall, and he referred to her as “a contributor to magazines.” That was her bio: that she contributed to magazines.

Wilma:
Well, this was a very important genre of the time, too—just what Terry is saying—because it’s the “local-color” or regional story, and at that time, at the end of the 19th century, that was a very important type of genre. I mean, we even had Bret Harte and Mark Twain and Sarah Orne Jewett writing in that genre. And so these were popular. And as you said, the stories were published in popular magazines and were widespread, and I think this is a very good example. I was glad to find a Kentucky example of that period; I didn’t know we had one.

And the local-color stories are characterized by dialect, which we have here, and eccentric characters, which we have here, and simple values that we also have here in all of these stories. Something that you were saying, Bill, wondering why this was reissued—I was thinking about that. And at the time that the local-color stories were important, we were having the Industrial Revolution at that time, and now we have the communications or electronics revolution, and again a type of impersonalization of human beings is going on the same way it did at the end of the 19th century. I think we are comforted with going back to another time where people in a community all know each other. They know their values. They are working together even though they have their differences. And I was also thinking about Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
It’s the same type of thing—and even the Midford stories now that are so popular.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
It’s a return to a community that, even though they have problems, they’re everyday problems that can be managed. And I think that’s the appeal of this type of book, don’t you?

Lynda:
I agree—and of course humor plays a big part in it all the way through. There were places where I laughed out loud. But also there is a serious note. It is the struggle for women’s rights, and especially in terms of property. With the first story it is certainly clear that women are nothing more than chattel to their husbands under Kentucky law at that time, and anything they bring into the marriage they lose as a result of marriage, and the unfairness of that and the misery that came about as a result in some of the character’s lives ... But it’s told in a way that is really quite humorous. But you get the point.

Terry:
It is, it’s told—I hate to use the word “delightfully,” but it is told very warmly, and it’s told in a way that you warm up to it, which is why I would suggest, at least to any guys out there who are going to read this book:

[Everyone laughs]

Terry:
Don’t read the foreword first ...

[Everyone laughs]

Terry:
... because it is, it is very strident in its explanation that the reason that this is important is because this is going to be a woman’s-rights book. And it is, but you can come to that conclusion without being hit over the head with it, I think.

Wilma:
Well, she had written essays concerning that same thing before this; but many authors have found out that if you cloak something in humor, then it’s much easier for general people to understand the points that she might be making but not be angered by them. Because, you know, she has some humor in it concerning the downtrodden women in the church and poor ’Lizbeth Taylor. Poor ’Lizbeth Taylor had to steal the church money in order to have enough money to go visit her dying daughter in Louisville.

Lynda:
But, to even make it more specific, it wasn’t the church’s money—it was the Ladies Mite Society money.

Wilma:
Right.

Lynda:
And so some women said this never had to get outside of our little circle—yeah, the women’s circle. But since the woman who took it did confess in front of the whole church, then the whole church got involved, with very interesting consequences.

Bill:
So in this story and the others we will talk about, do you think Eliza Calvert Hall is sort of weaving in and out ... sort of a morality play throughout the short stories? I mean, there are lessons there. One person wondered if you are bothered by the preachiness of it, the didactic way in which she tries to tell a tale. Is that something that she is using, or, again, are these much more than just whimsical tales? There is a lesson in just about every story.

Wilma:
They are didactic, but I think the way they’re told ... First of all, you have a separation. You have a narrator, Aunt Jane, telling stories of the past. So there are almost three spots removed from that, and if something is didactic, sometimes you can, again, take it through humor or being removed from the story.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And it doesn’t hit you over the head. Certainly she is making points in all of these; and sometimes she makes them almost too overtly, and I thought, “Oh please, this is just too much.” But especially in “Sally Ann’s Experience,” I didn’t think so, even though there are very specific lessons taught there—one being the idea that women shouldn’t speak in church, and also that women should serve their husbands. But the idea [was] that the preacher always forgot to talk about husbands loving their wives as much as their own bodies, and it was didactic. But did you feel, Terry, that it was overdone?

Terry:
No, and especially because at the end of most of the stories we get an insight into Aunt Jane’s feminism, which is a little different from what you might expect from the others. For instance, at the end of “Sally Ann’s Experience,” Aunt Jane’s conclusion is, on page 27: “I’ve noticed that whenever a woman’s willin’ to be imposed upon, there’s always a man standin’ ’round ready to do the imposin’.”

[Everyone agrees]

Terry:
She was pointing out that—and as you said earlier—that it was the women who brought it up before the whole church; and Sally Ann herself, I think, says, “If ’Lizabeth had as much common sense as she had conscience, she wouldn’t have brought this up in front of the men. The women can take care of this.” So I mean Aunt Jane has her own view of a lot of these issues, and she brings it back to a sense of personal responsibility that I think goes above just male-female split.

Lynda:
Well, I’d like to, just to give what happens when it does come out in front of the whole church, because she has all this on her soul and wants to unburden herself and explain why she took the money, and that was to see her daughter before she died. And it turns out that she had asked her husband for the money, and he hadn’t given it to her. So she was safe-keeping money for the new carpet. She thought, well, I will give this money back in time, before it’s needed, but it was all discovered when she confesses before the congregation at a Wednesday-night prayer meeting.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
Not a regular service, but one when everyone is supposed to come and give their experience—or testimony, I guess is the word we use now. She confessed, and then the men start to look down on her and “uh-uh.”

Terry:
Actually, they start to leave.

[Everyone laughs]

Lynda:
They start to leave after Sally Ann ...

Wilma:
... Sally Ann gets up; right.

Lynda:
When Sally Ann gets up to give a piece of her mind and to validate all that ’Lizabeth has gone through, then the men start to try to slink away, because they know she’s turning on each one of them in turn to explain, number one: Why would a woman who brought money into a marriage not have even enough money to go see her daughter before she died?

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
And then all the little things that the women do for the men with no credit or value or no appreciation. So it really is quite strident in its own way.

Wilma:
I thought one of the other stories that went along with “Sally Ann’s Experience”—had some of the same themes in it—was “Sweet Day of Rest.”

Gabrielle:
Absolutely.

Wilma:
Actually, I thought Sally Ann’s story was the best story, but I liked “Sweet Day of Rest,” too. A woman had come into church, and she refused to sing that morning, and—I think it was Millie, wasn’t it? Yeah. Yes. Millie, who usually was very bright and was singing, refused to sing; and when they asked her about it later, she told them about what a horrible morning she had had and that everything had happened wrong and she’d had so much work to do, and then her husband invited the preacher home to have lunch with her, and she said she wasn’t in the mood to sing “Sweet Day of Rest” because she said the day of rest, Sunday, is just for the men—because the women have to keep working. And so, again, it was told through a humorous way, even though it was a very specific negative. It was told in a humorous way, and I loved the way that she told her story about how many things had happened to her that morning, too.

Bill:
May I read just that passage?

Wilma:
Sure; well, that’s great.

Bill:
That was one of my favorites, other than the first one.

Wilma:
Uh huh; it’s good.

Bill:
And what she said, again, really makes the point and sort of underlines it:

“‘You know,’ says she, ‘there’s some days when everything goes wrong with a woman, and last Sunday was one o’ them days. I got up early,’ says she, ‘and dressed the children and fed my chickens and strained the milk and washed up the milk things and got breakfast and washed the dishes and cleaned up the house and gathered the vegetables for dinner and washed the children’s hands and faces and put their Sunday clothes on ’em, and jest as I was startin’ to git myself ready for church,’ says she, ‘I happened to think that I hadn’t skimmed the milk for the next day’s churnin’. So I went down to the spring-house and did the skimmin’, and jest as I picked up the cream-jar to put it up on that shelf Sam built for me, my foot slipped,’ says she, ‘and down I come and skinned my elbow on the rock step, and broke the jar all to smash and spilled the cream all over creation, and there I was—four pounds o’ butter and a fifty-cent jar gone, and my spring-house in such a mess that I ain’t through cleanin’ it yet, and my right arm as stiff as a poker ever since.’”

And you kind of set it up really well because she went through all of that.

Terry:
And that wasn’t the end!

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
And that was the great part of the story.

Bill:
The other part of that story, as you said, was that she ended up by making a decision not to fix this big, nice, hot meal for the preacher coming over—and I don’t want to go through all of that, but she does conclude, when he says something about “a woman doesn’t always have to do all the work, and I don’t mind eating a few cold cuts here and there ... Actually they weren’t called cold cuts.... So Brother Amos is the preacher, and he says:

“‘Did you ever think, Brother Amos, that there ain’t a pleasure men enjoy that women don’t have to suffer for it?’ And Millie said that made her feel meaner’n ever; and when supper-time come, she lit the fire and got the best hot supper she could—fried chicken and waffles and hot soda-biscuits and coffee and goodness knows what else. Now wasn’t that jest like a woman, to give in after she’d had her own way for a while and could’a’ kept on havin’ it?”

[Laughter]

Bill:
Now this is Sam telling this—now this is the part that probably gets under some skin around here:

“Abram used to say that women and runaway horses was jest alike; the best way to manage ’em both was to give ’em the rein and let ’em go till they got tired, and they’ll always stop before they do any mischief.”

Wilma:
Hmmm ...

Bill:
Uh huhhhh ...

[Everybody talks at once]

Wilma:
Why did you pick that particular ...

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
My book was open ...

[Everyone talks at once]

Bill:
But there really is a good story there.

Lynda:
Yeah, but the hypocrisy of it ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Bill:
Exactly.

Lynda:
.. of men standing up in church and preaching the gospel and saying that everything has to be taken so literally ...

Bill:
Quoting scripture.

Lynda:
Yes, quoting scripture—and then at the same time not realizing that all the things they have taken for granted, somebody has to do, not only Sunday or any other day.

Wilma:
Excuse me. I’m sorry ...

Lynda:
Go right ahead.

Wilma:
Not only that, but also in the story—and some of you may have marked this, too—they talked about that people were not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, and a man named Judge Morgan had had a black man cut his wood for him, so they were extremely upset with Judge Morgan.

[Everyone talks]

Lynda and Wilma:
In the basement

Dava:
All day for 12 hours.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
And then they decided that Judge Morgan shouldn’t have been ordering any work on the Sunday.

Terry:
Aunt Jane’s take on that was, “As for keeping Sunday, why, I’ve noticed all my life that the folks that’s the strictest about that ain’t always the best Christians.”

[Everyone laughs]

Terry:
And she confesses at the end, “I never did like Sunday till I begun to get old.... For there ain’t any religion in restin’ unless you’re tired.”

Lynda:
That’s true.

Terry:
She goes back to reaffirming that, from her point of view, Sunday ... She has a very different sense of religion than you find in her characters.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Terry:
All the characters who are strident and all the characters who are adamant about these various subjects are characters she’s telling about. So at the end of most of the stories, Aunt Jane then gives her version or her take on it, and she’ll say something about the way she feels about this thing, and it’s not that way.

Wilma:
She has a broader sense of Christian duty or Christianity than the strict literal sense.

Dava:
I think that she really believed that life is to be enjoyed and not endured, and she sees all these people around her who really are just enduring it day by day. But the thing about Aunt Jane is that she seems to lead a very happy and fulfilled life. She contrasts her marriage, which was fair, and in her point of view it was a very healthy marriage, to that of other people around her. Like, her husband was willing to give her his horse so she could go get some daffodils and things.

[Everyone talks]

Lynda:
Johnny jump-ups.

Dava:
Johnny jump-ups. She was a very happy lady, and I think her religion was that God was good enough to give her such a wonderful life and that she could appreciate it and not be so strict about things.

Lynda:
Well, I was going to make the same point: that her brand of feminism was not particularly strident, but just to go on at living every day, being right with your fellow man—to be fair and honest and good. And, as you say, she and her husband did have a very good relationship, because they didn’t impose on each other. They ... they were fair with each other.

Bill:
Lynda, not to really take issue with that, though, but the subtleties of the suffrage movement and of the things that Aunt Jane—or Eliza Calvert Hall—pointed out, though, are very strong, and they are brought out in just about every story. You are not lessening the degree of how women were treated in that era.

Lynda:
She made the point that she didn’t allow herself to be treated that way. Now, legally she couldn’t. Aunt Jane didn’t have control over what was legal in her time period. But she certainly knew how to make sure in her daily walk that she was not diminished by anybody.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
And the things that she took pleasure in, the things that she counted as her blessings or the things that she wanted to be known for after she was gone, were things like her quilt—the pleasure she took in making quilts, or the pleasure in her garden. All those things were very hard work, but for her they gave her life meaning, and so to me it was an interesting juxtaposition of women’s legal rights ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
... and the lack thereof and the joy of doing what was called “women’s work.” And taking pleasure in doing that. And finding that you can’t just categorize women’s work as just one thing, since it transcends everything; it’s all a part of life.

Wilma:
She also indicated, I thought, of the quilts and the flower gardens, that these are things that would go on after she was dead and after other people were dead. The idea that some of women’s work does carry on, the idea that the flowers in one of the old houses were ... They were still coming up even though people hadn’t lived there. The house was gone, I think.

Lynda:
Right.

Wilma:
And then the idea that her quilts ... Even after she was gone, people would still enjoy her quilts; and of course she had a story about each one of them, and the flowers that she had planted. So the idea that those were types of monuments ...

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
The woman’s works would stand as monuments.

Lynda:
And there are some feminists who would say, how can you, how can you value that sort of thing? That’s domestic labor.

Wilma:
Yeah.

Lynda:
But as a feminist ahead of her time, she saw value in all spheres of women’s life or women’s work. And I could appreciate that.

Bill:
She sort of carried that theme throughout—making the home as sort of the center of a woman’s life and civilization, if you will. And through the home and all of these other discoveries that she makes in the other stories, again, she goes out of her way to make those points. But what about some of the other stories? We’ve talked about a couple of them. You have turned to “Aunt Jane’s Album.”

Wilma:
I wanted to make another point here. This is the story about the quilts and her album. The narrator comes in one day and Aunt Jane is airing all of her quilts. And then, of course, she has a story about every single quilt, which we knew she was going to. I think this is a fairly effective story. It is sentimentalized. It doesn’t have as much humor. But those are two different aspects of the local-color types of stories: Sometimes they are told through humor; sometimes they are sentimentalized expression. This is very sentimentalized, but she does indicate that this is a type of symbol for life. And I like this story, “Aunt Jane’s Album.” I wasn’t as pleased with the very last story in the book, which is “Gardens of Memory,” because I thought it was too sentimentalized. She goes through personifying all of the flowers: “They stood up, and they were bright and good and honorable flowers.”

Dava:
Well ...

Wilma:
Go ahead. Did you have a thought about that?

Dava:
I can see them doing that, you know. I think ... I think the garden was ...

Bill:
Go ahead, Terry.

Terry:
Don’t want to interrupt. That’s one of the places I had marked, because in “Gardens of Memory,” Aunt Jane stops talking ...

Wilma:
Yeah, right.

Terry:
... and Eliza Calvert Hall ...

Wilma:
But see ...

Terry:
... starts talking.

Wilma:
I don’t like her as much as Aunt Jane.

Terry:
Right. She does much better when she lets ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Terry:
... Aunt Jane speak. Because otherwise you wind up with phrases like “lost stars floating in the firmament of mind” ...

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
Yes.

Terry:
... and “here and there a little of Mother Earth’s bosom, left uncovered, gave us some warrant for the misnomer.”

[Laughter]

Wilma:
Exactly; it’s so flowery.

Terry:
But I wanted to go back to the album story for just a moment.

Wilma:
Uh huh. Did you think that was better than “The Gardens of Memory,” or not?

Terry:
Yes, I did; but I also wonder if, if anyone has figured out how these nine stories fit together in a quilt.

Lynda:
Hmmm ...

Terry:
Because of the nine-patch quilt pattern, which is three across, and you have got three rows of three.

Bill:
Ask a quilter among us.

Terry:
“Milly Baker’s Boy,” which is the enormous story, is right at the center, and I wonder how all of these should be placed. I don’t know enough about quilting to know how you would place those patches on a nine-patch quilt so that they will relate. I mean, there is obviously the relation between the new organ, where at the end of the story the woman comes back from being sick because they tell her a joke, so there is laughter and medicine. And that’s also true of “How Sam Amos Rode in the Tournament,” where he gets the runaway horse and he is about to come off that horse and hurt somebody badly, according to the people who are watching, and I think it was Old Man Bob or somebody, goes down and presents him with the blue ribbon for hanging on that horse the longest. So I think the humor in those two stories—humor as medicine—relates, but I’m sure there is a pattern here. I haven’t found it.

Bill:
Terry has got a pattern. That’s out there! You’ve done a little quilting there.

[Everyone talks at once]

Terry:
“Sally Ann’s Experience” is the beginning, and “Gardens of Memory” is the end, and “Milly Baker’s Boy” is in the middle, but I don’t know how ...

Wilma:
How do you balance out “Mary Andrews’ Dinner Party”? Because that is a 60-page story there and is actually a novella. That’s hardly a short story, because it takes Mary Andrews through a long period of her life. I’m very fascinated with your idea [but] I can’t see it balancing out exactly. I do know, though, she makes a very important point in “Aunt Jane’s Album”: that we live our lives and God gives us all the pieces of the quilt and then we put them together in different ways.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Terry:
Right.

Wilma:
Which is very important.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And also, one of her grandchildren asks her to make a crazy quilt, and she wasn’t able to.

Lynda:
Huh uh.

Wilma:
She said, “I would be crazy by the time I would do that,” because Aunt Jane sees life as a pattern. You know, you set up your own life. You direct it, and you know where it’s going the same way as a pattern in a quilt would be. So I don’t think it’s too far-fetched for you to say maybe there is a pattern here. I can’t see it, necessarily.

Terry:
I haven’t found it yet either.

Bill:
Keep working on that, Terry.

[Laughter]

Bill:
You’ll figure that out. Bonnie Jean Cox, who is at the University of Kentucky Library, writes the foreword. I think she adds a lot of perspective to it. I like your warning, though: maybe for men and women to read first and then go back and look at the foreword. But I think this is one of those books, a selection of the bookclub@ket, that maybe we wouldn’t choose off the bookshelf; but now that we have, it really adds a lot of, I think, value and understanding to the turn of the century. And some of the things you said earlier ... So I think that’s why it is an important book.

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