Friday, 30 September 2011

Hazel Rowley's Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage

It was pretty much a full house when Minervans met this week to discuss Australian biographer Hazel Rowley's last book, Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage. Ten members turned up - with the only absentee being the person who first suggested it. We're not complaining though, because everyone, it appears, enjoyed the book. One, in fact, admitted secretly to preferring biography to fiction; some were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. The overall comment was that it was readable, engaging.

We started our discussion with our absent member's comment on our Facebook event page. She wrote that:
It is a beautiful piece of writing which shows just what an extraordinary period of change that first half of the 20th century proved. However, I did miss some of that Janet Malcolm style of careful consideration of where the biographer fits in with the story...

None of us had read Janet Malcolm (though we checked her on Wikipedia) and so were not quite sure exactly what Helen meant. Helen, if you read this post, please tell us in a comment!

Eleanor Roosevelt's White House Portrait
(Public Domain,  courtesy US Government via Wikipedia)
Being women, we probably focused more of our discussion on Eleanor. Reasons we liked the book included the description of the rich (not as in "wealthy" though they were that too) lives they led, and the fact the Eleanor was a multi-dimensional, sophisticated person who could interact with many peoples on many levels. We discussed how driven she was by her mission - which mostly related to social justice issues such as equality and respect for black Americans.

We of course commiserated with Eleanor over Franklin's betrayal of her with Lucy Mercer in 1918 and discussed why they stayed together. Rowley gives pragmatic reasons - his mother threatened disinheritance, his political advisers said it would be the end of his political aspirations - but also suggests that there was love and affection between them, and that Franklin "still loved Eleanor; he knew how much he needed her". In the preface Rowley describes their marriage as "a joint endeavour, a partnership". It certainly seems it must have been that, as they stayed together for 40 years, until Franklin's death in 1945. However, we also wondered whether Eleanor's insistence on retaining Mrs Nesbitt as the White House housekeeper - the White House during their unusually long occupation was renowned for its indifferent cuisine - was a passive-aggressive act on her part, though others suggested it was simply that Eleanor didn't care much about food.

One member admitted that Eleanor had the life she would like to lead. Others weren't quite so sure.

We liked the description quoted near the end of Eleanor's blend of "naiveté and cunning".

We touched on some issues relating to the writing of biography, such as the challenge Rowley had in teasing out fact from mythmaking, particularly given some of the primary sources were written with a view to future public use. We felt Rowley was not judgemental but maintained an even-handed tone throughout, despite appearing to be more interested in Eleanor. Perhaps this focus is due to the fact that there are more primary records for Eleanor's part of the marriage. She, for example, kept a diary and wrote her "My Day" column for the newspaper, while Franklin kept no journal. I felt that while it was well-researched, and well-written, there was something missing, something Rowley probably didn't (couldn't) know regarding just what was the "glue" that kept them together. How much was real affection and how much pragmatism? That's something we'll never really know though the evidence Rowley presents tends to suggest mostly the former despite the myriad other romantic friendships and relationships each had. It really was an extraordinary marriage.

Being Australians, many felt they did not fully comprehend the history of the period. We recognised though that Rowley's book was not intended to be a history but an analysis of the marriage. Having lived in the USA, I said that there is still evidence today of Franklin's New Deal, and particularly the work of the CCC and WPA programs in and around the National Parks and some of the major scenic roads. Susan said she had visited Hyde Park, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. She said it was beautiful and fascinating, though also carefully curated (if you know what she means!).

A couple of us commented on the lovely accolades given on FDR's death. We particularly liked this one:
'His face was the very image of happiness,' Albert Camus wrote in the French Resistance newspaper, Combat. 'History's powerful men are not generally men of such good humour ... There is not a single free human being who does not regret his loss and who would not have wished his destiny to have continued a little longer. World peace, that boundless good, ought to be planned by men with happy faces rather than by sad-eyed politicians.'
And that seems as good a place as any to end this report. Comments anyone?


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  2. Well summarised Sue. To elaborate on the biography part of the discussion, this book made me more aware of the difference in the way we go about critically assessing biography compared to literature. As a relative newby to the group, I was learning to look for "themes" and "voices" while reading literature. This time I was more in historian mode, assessing the relative merit and likely biases of the author and sources of information and looking out for guesswork and extrapolation. The book measured up very well on these terms, with a very detailed source listing given as an appendix so as not to distract from reading just for the story. We also noticed that the author benefited from diaries and correspondence from central characters in the story which only recently came to light.

  3. Thanks Sue ... critiquing non-fiction is an interesting challenge. I think we can combine historian mode with an element of literary mode. For example, from the latter, we can talk about such things as structure and language/style - particularly if we think the work can fit into what some call "creative nonfiction". Could we call this creative non-fiction (?). It's not innovative, really. Does it have a literary style or is it more historian? Hmm ... fine lines, I reckon.

  4. Yes! And biographical works can lean more towards literature or more towards history. Caleb's crossing was much more literature than history (could it be "creative nonfiction" do you think?), Franklin and Eleanor more history than literature. Anyway I hope we're going to do more biographies to consider these issues further.

  5. Hi Sue ... I don't think I'd call Caleb's crossing "creative non-fiction". I think creative non-fiction is first and foremost non-fiction, but it is non-fiction that has some literary merit/style. In other words I think historical fiction and creative non-fiction are mutually exclusive. At least that's how I see it. Does that make sense?

  6. Fair enough. Caleb's crossing was definitely fiction, very loosely based on fact.


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