Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Yankee Bodleys

The branch of the Babson clan associated with Halibut Point flickers on in The Yankee Bodleys (1936), the first published novel of Naomi Lane Babson (1895-1985). 

Naomi spent her early years surrounded by the Babson Farm which was no longer cultivated by the family. Her father Frederick was the great-grandson of David Wallis Babson and grandson of Horatio Babson. Frederick attended Colby College in Maine but was called home upon the illness of his father to help operate the family business in Pigeon Cove, the David Babson Fish Company.1 The names and occupations in this lineage, somewhat re-ordered, figure centrally in the novel. 

Miss Babson taught school locally from 1913 to 1920 before entering Radcliffe College. She left "at the end of two years in Cambridge, when my money and my simple faith in a college education gave out."2 She went to China as a teacher of the children of staff members at Lingan University, Canton, where she met her husband Paul Grieder. After the death of their first child in 1933 the Grieders returned to the United States. All these experiences gave Naomi the time, distance, and perhaps the heavy heart to compose The Yankee Bodleys. The book struck Cape Anners as a tell-all view of family secrets and dissolution.

Naomi herself grew up across the street from the Babson homestead, on one of the properties granted or sold from the original estate to launch new family households. This nuclearization of the land along the western side of Granite Street prefigured a pattern in the book. Over the later decades of the nineteenth century the aura of the 'manor house' brightened then dimmed according to the fortunes, and the cohesion, of the owners. 

The author places her story in the desiccating patrimony of Horatio Bodley during a time span equivalent to the second generation of Babsons at Halibut Point. Horatio marries Adelia in 1834. Their lives, as well as the those of their seven children and very few grandchildren, form the threads of the book. Their tensions and contradictions remind the reader of Jane Austen's characters searching for position in Pride and Prejudice. 

Jessica wore the green satin dress made the summer before by Angie Sparrow's rapid needle. A gown the color of a wave as it curls to break, with a ruffle of lace like a ruffle of foam round Jessica's white shoulders. Her hair was pinned in a high knot--a style new to her, and very becoming. She was thirty years old, and had never been more beautiful; her charm was self-assured and in some sort virginal. Jessica had not spent herself; her loveliness was cold and perfect, as if it had been preserved on ice. She sat now half turned from the stove; her hands stretched out to the warmth of glowing coals, but her eyes were on Wilfred who was at the table, drinking port. They were engaged in the unending quarrel which had lasted since the summer, the quarrel over Wilfred's future. 

Granite Street unites the geography of the Bodley world from Folly Cove to Handsome (Pigeon) Cove. Beyond these bounds it links vaguely to Crownport (Rockport) in one direction and Ancester (Gloucester) in the other. The roadway aggrandizes from dust to trolley tracks to pavement as the Bodleys, conversely, falter and disperse.

Naomi Lane Babson, 1936
Adelia and her four daughters receive the fullest attention from the author's pen, but much of it is directed to their grief and disappointments.  First-born Zillah's marital bliss is cut short by widowhood in the Civil War. Her zest withers concurrently with the vitality of the Bodleys. Her father counted himself a man of note, but she didn't know who upheld his reckoning, and he was a smaller figure, if it came to that, than his father or his grandfather before him. For her part she'd rather be at the beginning of a family than at the end of one. 

Jessica, the proudest, opens the story reminiscing over a family photograph after all the others have passed on. At the end she boards a bus to attend the reopening as a Community Center of the old Universalist Church that Horatio helped to build for her wedding. She arrives in her black silk dress with its chiffon ruching that she always wore for best, fixing side-combs set with brilliants in hair that was still abundant. Jessica looked an old woman now, but she did not look eighty-five. She stood tall and straight; she held up her chin, and her eyes could flash with anger or amusement; beauty had fled but its reflection lingered like the pale afterglow of a sunset on the bay. 

There is no one present to appreciate the stained glass windows donated by Horatio Bodley. In Jessica's mind the little girls performing in skimpy costumes on stage profane the sanctity of another era. She swings her ivory-knobbed umbrella at a window overhead to smash a little white lamb in its ruby circle.  

Jessica walks home alone, lights the stove, singing as she works and dreaming of a party. She had seen, beyond the shattered glass and the rows of startled faces turning toward her, an unforgotten splendor shining: she was Jessica Bodley, belle of the Cove, handsome, young and fearless....
1. Ann Theopold Chaplin, The Babson Genealogy: 1606-1997.
2. Letter to her mother, March 4, 1936, courtesy of the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University. 

The Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University
Naomi Lane Babson went on to publish four more novels and many shorter pieces in magazines such as Collier's, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, Redbook, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Writer. She bequeathed her literary estate to Boston University.

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