Never Let Me Go: Landfall by Helen R. Hull

Dear Reader:

Continuing with our Helen R. Hull revival, I found it challenging to figure out exactly what Helen wrote. There is a Helen S. Hull and a Helen Hull Jacobs, both of whom also published books. Helen R. (Rose) Hull’s books often list her simply as “Helen Hull” making it even harder to figure out which books are hers. Happily, I ran into the Facebook page that Pat Miller created for Helen R. Hull and exchanged some emails with Pat. Pat wrote her dissertation on Hull and has written forwards for at least three of her books, two in reissues and one as (I think) a new compilation of her novella(s) and short stories (#187 Last September). In an earlier post, I said that Mayling Soong Chiang was the only nonfiction book that I knew of written by Hull. Pat generously let me know that she actually wrote a number of other nonfiction books on writing (listed below) and corrected some things and added some dates – thanks!  So, here’s the list of what I’ve been able to figure out she wrote – if any of you find any additions or corrections, please let me know and I’ll correct this:

Helen R. Hull’s Oeuvre
Novels:
1. Quest (1922)
2. Labyrinth (1923)

3. The Surrey Family (1925)
3. Islanders (1927)
4. The Asking Price (1930)
5. Heat Lightning (1932) Also, see Book Snob’s review.
6. Hardy Perennial (1933)
7. Morning Shows the Day (1934) (links to Book Snob’s review)
8. Candle Indoors (1936)
9. Frost Flower (1939)
10. Through the House Door (1940)
11. A Circle in the Water (1943)
12. Hawk’s Flight (1946)
13. Landfall (1953) Reviewed below.
14. A Tapping on the Wall (?) there is a 1970 edition.

15.

Short stories
1. Uncommon People (1936)

2. Last September (1988)

Novellas
2. Experiment (Four Novellas)  (1940)

Nonfiction
1. Art of Writing Prose (1930 & 1936), Copyright-1927
2. Creative Writing: The Story Form (1932)
3. Mayling Soong Chiang (1943)
4. The Writer’s Book (1956)
5. Writer’s Roundtable (1959)

I’ve bolded the books I either own or have gotten from the library, I have linked to the ones I’ve reviewed.

#157 Landfall by Helen R. Hull (1953)

Anice and Clif are a married couple living in New York City. She is an editor for a publishing house, he is a professor. Both are gorgeous and sophisticated. They have an Irish maid, Katherine, who is devoted to Clif. Both have adult children from former marriages.

The book starts the day after Anice has been told by a mutual friend that Clif is having an affair with one of the students in his department. Anice seizes this as an opportunity to leave him. Just as she is about to go, Clif becomes very seriously ill.

The book covers the week or two around this time as Clif and Anice figure out what to do with each other. Anice is married to her work and disconnected from her life. Clif is warmer – although we don’t learn too much about what he thinks, we read wondering: is he a stereotype or not? Can an accomplished, successful, and powerful “career woman” like Anice have a personal life and her work? Does she want to?

In the course of the book, we learn something about the publishing business where Anice manipulates her authors and co-workers (and it is interesting to read this at the same time I’m reading Reading Jackie which also talks a lot about the book publishing business through the work that Jackie Onassis did for Doubleday). It is also interesting to learn something about 50s era hospital care and household service.

Many of Hull’s books were reviewed in the New York Times when first published, including Landfall, which was reviewed by Andrea Parke March 1st, 1953 (warning, if you do read the review, it provides more plot points than I did). You have to have a New York Times subscription to read these reviews and other articles about Hull, including her obituary. Parke described Landfall as a “sharp pronged dissection of women” and her portrayal of Anice as “a shattering portrait of a woman without a single saving grace.” I think Parke got Landfall somewhat wrong – partly because Parke lived in an era when Anice would have violated nearly every rule regarding how a good woman should behave. Partly I wonder if she read the book carefully (for instance, she spells Clif’s name “Cliff” but Hull consistently spells it “Clif” – of course, this could have been an editor miscorrecting). Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that this is Hull’s best novel – Heat Lightning is much more powerful. As I was reading, from time to time, I wondered if Hull wrote Landfall to make money rather than out of some deep personal need.

It is, however, interesting to locate this book within what I have read of Hull’s other work and what I know about her personal life. She was gay, in a long-term relationship with a woman, spent most, if not all of her career as a professor, and seems (so far) to include far more sexually transgressive behavior in her books than (I think) most female novelists of the era in which she wrote (roughly 1920-1970). So, we can look at Anice as a woman who behaves like a man – and, in fact, if she had been a 1953 man, I bet Parke would have seen her as more likeable. Anice is highly manipulative and cold with most people (the exception is her son). But it is informative to contextualize the book with Parke’s absolutely scathing review saying “It is the more surprising that her prose effects are so self-conscious and labored that they rival the over embroidered passages of the pulps.” Hmmm…. Nothing in the book is at all “pulpy.” At least to me. The book doesn’t grab a reader like Heat Lightning does, but it isn’t simple or sordid. I guess what reading this review helps me see is how transgressive this book would have been in its day. Perhaps Hull was using her power as an established novelist to provide readers with a new kind of protagonist: a female professional who behaves like a self-involved male.

Pat Miller told me Labyrinth is a particularly strong novel – I’m going to keep reading, even if this particular book wasn’t my favorite, it was intriguing as an historical document and as part of Hull’s work.

Happy reading, Ruby

5 Comments

  1. Your insights into Landfall are right on the mark. Anice is not a sympathetic character, nor is Clif. Hull was frequently critical of women who decided that the way to be “strong” or feminist was to act like men at their worst. This book is a little more nuanced than that, though, and your sense of it is sound. I don’t think she wrote this book principally to make money, though. She had been going through a period of creative frustration, doing more work in organizations like the Authors Guild than writing, and was exploring shorter forms than the kinds of novels she’d written before. She’d gotten some pretty harsh reviews for Hawk’s Flight in 1946, and I think between that and the growing disdain among critics for so-called “women’s fiction,” she felt as if her audience had disappeared or at least would be expecting something more raw & more critical of women. The book has some redeeming features but is certainly not her best work–great technical skill, but as you suggest, her heart doesn’t seem in it.

    Meanwhile, here are a few additions to your list of Hull’s work:

    Labyrinth was published in 1923 (no “The”)

    The Surry Family was published in 1925 by Macmillan–and was, like Quest, a strong indictment of traditional family structure and an example of a Bildungsroman featuring a young woman as the youthful hero.

    Experiment was published in 1940 (and yes, it’s 4 novellas)

    Last September was published by Naiad Press in 1988. I didn’t mention it before because they so mangled the work I had done on it that I am frankly embarrassed by it. If you promise not to read the afterword (!) it’s got some really interesting material: a set of six stories about a young lesbian character (or characters–it’s not necessarily exactly the same “person”) named Cynthia. The Cynthia stories were published mostly in little magazines between 1917 and 1920, and they form the basis for a lot of Hull’s first novel, Quest. This is the sort of material that could be published unselfconsciously in the teens and ’20s but soon became unacceptable.

    The title story, “Last September,” is a piece written much later, following the famous (on the east coast of the US) Hurricane of 1938, in which Hull and Robinson actually got caught in Providence on their way back to New York from Maine. Originally published in Good Housekeeping (yes, really) in 1939, it was reprinted in Experiment the following year under the title “With the One Coin for Fee,” and it recounts the story of two women who had loved each other since they were young but had been separated by misunderstandings most of their lives. They meet again on the day of the hurricane just in time to die in each other’s arms. The fact that it even got published is a testimony to how much readers had become blind to lesbian attachments by then–as well as Hull’s skill in masking them, to some extent. In addition to providing some good insight into the lives of women on limited incomes before Social Security, it’s a wonderfully constructed piece, skillfully using flashbacks, and is above all, in my estimation, simply a really moving story. (I think it would make a wonderful film, given the special effects that are possible now.) We reproduced some nice photos and a cover illustration from one of the stories for the Naiad edition, mostly from the Hull collection at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

    Hope this helps. So glad to see that you are still pursuing your curiosity about Hull and getting others to read her, too.

    • Hi Pat: Thanks so much for dropping by and taking the time to write such a lengthy response. I appreciate your notes on her publications and will incorporate them.

      How heartbreaking that NAIAD messed up your afterward. Helen Hull seems like such a labor of love for you – it is sad when ones efforts make it out into the world spoiled by others. If I feel compelled to read your afterword (and let me say what a great idea writing an afterword instead of a forward – I think you have done afterwords consistently. As Susan Wise Bauer advises, it is better for the reader to approach a novel fresh and develop their own ideas before they move on to the thoughts of others) I promise NOT to comment on it in my blog!

      I very much appreciate your insights into Hull’s life and writing. I believe that she was quite ahead of her time – if she’d been writing more recently, I suspect she would have enjoyed consistent success.

      I warn you that at some point I’m likely to track down your dissertation – my own dissertation is definitely of the “done-dissertation” variety with lots of poor writing – so, if you feel yours has flaws, I promise to be wholly sympathetic. I just feel it would likely give me that much more understanding of Hull.

      She’s such an orphan writer – a real shame for a terrific artist. One of my purchased copies of her books was withdrawn from the Grand Rapids Public Library – how heartbreaking that a major public library not far from her hometown isn’t holding on to her work. Thanks again!!!! Ruby

  2. Hi Ruby. I realized last night as I was writing to you how much I appreciated being able to do so. There aren’t many people around who can “chat” about Hull, so I am grateful for your indulgence and for your thoughtful consideration of her work. Also writing to you has been good for me: so that I’m pushed to work at writing down some of this stuff (I’ve been out of the field for over 20 years–long story–so it’s a bit of a challenge getting back into the swing of it). If you really want to see my diss, it’s at the Univ of Conn. Where’s yours? Looking at it now, I see all sorts of typos and slips (including getting the title of one of her novels wrong!! at least I was consistent…), but it’s useful as a reference book. I’d wanted to do a biography, but the dept found that just too threateningly interdisciplinary, so I needed to account for everything she wrote and do the usual review of criticism. It gets tedious, but at least the initial work on her is started, waiting for others to use it. And me, too!

    In the used book stories dept, I have a few that were discarded from the local library where Hull & Robinson lived in Maine, which seemed a shame (that they were discarding her work, that is), and last month I got a book from a not-at-all-local dealer which was a discard from the library of a church in a tiny town in RI (basically a crossroads on Rt 1) which we pass by every time we go to our house there. Feel free to hum the theme song to Twilight Zone. Best wishes, Pat

Trackbacks

  1. The List « A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books
  2. Trees, Gemeinschaft, and Bildungsromans: Billy Collins’ The Art of Drowning; Richard Bessel’s Life in the Third Reich; and Helen R. Hull’s Quest | A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books

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