There are some authors, because of the influence of the online reading group I’m in, that I stockpile before I get around to reading them. Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth von Arnim were among the number for years (and I love them now, of course) – on the other hand, so were Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch, and now I’ve tried them without success, I’m left with piles of their books to keep or give away…
Anyway, long-winded introduction to: Betty MacDonald. I believe it was Barbara or Elaine who first mentioned Ms. MacDonald to me, and her books were definitely compared to E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady novels – which is, of course, a surefire way to get me to try them. It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve finally read one – The Egg and I (1945), which I bought in Edinburgh in 2009.
You might be disappointed – but you’ll probably be relieved – to learn that no supernaturally large egg features in the novel, but it does feature farming. Indeed, that is what The Egg and I is about – an account of being a farmer’s wife in 1920s America. As with the Provincial Lady books, and my other favourites by Shirley Jackson, it’s memoir thrown to the wolves of exaggeration – or fiction tempered by reality, depending on which side you see it.
And it is very amusing. MacDonald realises the comic potential in the astonishing workload of running a small holding with an ambitious husband, and there is plenty to delight the reader in accounts of a recalcitrant stove, suicidal chickens, and uncooperative bread. My chief reaction was gratitude that the shifting class system in Britain meant that my father and I could go to university and pick our careers, and that I didn’t end up in the great tradition of Thomas farmers (which stretches back as far as anyone knows, I believe.) Nothing wrong with being a farmer, of course, only I have always suspected that I would be totally hopeless at it – a suspicion confirmed by reading The Egg and I. You have to assume that Betty MacDonald deeply loved her then-husband Bob, because nothing else could possibly persuade a sane woman to embark on this venture with him. It is a mark of her exceptionally good nature that, even when she is being teasing about the chores Bob suggests, there appears to be no deep-seated malice (which would be entirely justifiable):
By the end of the summer the pullets were laying and Bob was culling the flocks. With no encouragement from me, he decided that, as chicken prices were way down, I should can the culled hens. It appeared to my warped mind that Bob went miles and miles out of his way to figure out things for me to put in jars; that he actively resented a single moment of my time which was not spent eye to pressure gauge, ear to steam cock; that he was for ever coming staggering into the kitchen under a bushel basket of something for me to can. My first reaction was homicide, then suicide, and at last tearful resignation.
Did I mention that she has a baby in the middle of the four years spent on this farm? Betty MacDonald basically IS superwoman – and with a sense of humour too.
Then there are her neighbours – on one side is a large, lazy couple with about a dozen children. Mrs Kettle seems quite good-natured (if not wised-up to the etiquette of everyday living), but Mr Kettle and his progeny seem to have no object in life but getting other people to provide food and assistance – and they do charmingly awful things like burning down their barn and starting a forest fire. On the other side is the direct opposite: a farm kept so spotless you could eat your food off the floor. All these secondary characters seem like exaggerations, but that didn’t stop the Macdonalds’ old neighbours filing lawsuits, according to the Wikipedia page.
The Egg and I doesn’t have the same laugh-every-page that I found in the Provincial Lady books, has a slightly slow start, and the workload is exhausting even to read about, but I still loved reading it. Anybody drawn to self-deprecating, cynically optimistic accounts of a person’s everyday life (albeit an everyday life few of us would recognise), then this is a great book. As so often, reading about the author’s real life changes things a bit – she was divorced from Bob, and remarried to Donald MacDonald, by the time the book was published (one wonders quite what her current husband thought about her achieving fame writing so fondly about her ex-husband) – but it’s easier simply to let The Egg and I be the simplified, all-American tale it wants to be. As I wrote before – it’s neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a delightful amalgam of the two.