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Monday, September 16, 2013

Gentle Julia

Guest Blogger Dept.: An excerpt from Booth Takington’s 1922 novel Gentle Julia. The title character is 20, and is the romantic cynosure of her midwestern town. This phenomenon fascinates her 12-year-old niece, Florence, and a young cousin, Herbert.


Julia. Illustration by C. Allan Gilbert
THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF A LADY who is almost officially the prettiest person in a town persistently claiming sixty-five thousand inhabitants are often heavier than the world suspects, and there were moments when Julia found the position so trying that she would have preferred to resign. She was a warm-hearted, appreciative girl, naturally unable to close her eyes to sterling merit wherever it appeared: and it was not without warrant that she complained of her relatives. The whole family, including the children, she said, regaled themselves with her private affairs as a substitute for theatre-going. But one day ... she went so far as to admit a note of unconscious confession into her protest that she was getting pretty tired of being mistaken for a three-ring circus! Such was her despairing expression, and the confession lies in her use of the word “three.”

The misleading moderation of “three” was pointed out to her by her niece, whose mind at once violently seized upon the word and divested it of context—a process both feminine and instinctive, for this child was already beginning to be feminine. “Three!” she said. “Why, Aunt Julia, you must be crazy! There’s Newland Sanders and Noble Dill and that old widower, Ridgley, that grandpa hates so, and Mister Clairdyce and George Plum and the two new ones from out of town that Aunt Fanny Patterson said you had at church Sunday morning—Herbert said he didn’t like one of ‘em’s looks much, Aunt Julia. And there’s Parker Kent Usher and that funny-lookin’ one with the little piece of whiskers under his underlip that Noble Dill got so mad at when they were calling, and Uncle Joe laughed about, and I don’t know who all! Anyhow, there’s an awful lot more than three, Aunt Julia.”

Julia looked down with little favor upon the talkative caller. Florence was seated upon the shady steps of the veranda, and Julia, dressed for a walk, occupied a wicker chair above her. “Julia, dressed for a walk”—how scant the words! It was a summer walk that Julia had dressed for: and she was all too dashingly a picture of coolness on a hot day: a brunette in murmurous white, though her little hat was a film of blackest blue, and thus also in belt and parasol she had almost matched the colour of her eyes. Probably no human-made fabric could have come nearer to matching them, though she had once met a great traveller—at least he went far enough in his search for comparisons—who told her that the Czarina of Russia had owned a deep sapphire of precisely the colour, but the Czarina’s was the only sapphire yet discovered that had it. One of Newland Sanders’s longest Poems-to-Julia was entitled “Black Sapphires.”

Julia’s harmonies in black sapphire were uncalled for. If she really had been as kind as she was too often capable of looking, she would have fastened patches over both eyes—one patch would have been useless—and she would have worn flat shoes and patronized a dressmaker with genius enough to misrepresent her. But Julia was not great enough for such generosities: she should have been locked up till she passed sixty; her sufferings deserve no pity.

And yet an attack of the mumps during the winter had brought Julia more sympathy than the epidemic of typhoid fever in the Old Ladies’ Infirmary brought all of the nine old ladies who were under treatment there. Julia was confined to her room for almost a month, during which a florist’s wagon seemed permanent before the house: and a confectioner’s frequently stood beside the florist’s. Young Florence, an immune who had known the mumps in infancy, became an almost constant attendant upon the patient, with the result that the niece contracted an illness briefer than the aunt’s, but more than equalling it in poignancy, caused by the poor child’s economic struggle against waste. Florence’s convalescence took place in her own home without any inquiries whatever from the outer world, but Julia’s was spent in great part at the telephone. Even a poem was repeated to her by the instrument:

How the world blooms anew
To think that you
Can speak again,
Can hear
The words of men
And the dear
Own voice of you.

This was Newland Sanders. He was just out of college, a reviewer, a poet, and once, momentarily, an atheist. It was Newland who was present and said such a remarkable thing when Julia had the accident to her thumb-nail in closing the double doors between the living-room and the library, where her peculiar old father sat reading. “To see you suffer,” Newland said passionately as she nursed her injury:—“to see you in pain, that is the one thing in the universe which I feel beyond all my capacities. Do you know, when you are made to suffer pain, then I feel that there is no God!”

This strong declaration struck Herbert as one of the most impressive things he had ever heard, though he could not account for its being said to any aunt of his. Herbert had just dropped in without the formality of ringing the bell, and had paused in the hall, outside the open door of the living-room. He considered the matter, after Newland had spoken, and concluded to return to his own place of residence without disturbing anybody at his grandfather’s. At home he found his mother and father entertaining one of his uncles, one of his aunts, two of his great-uncles, one of his great-aunts, and one of his grown-up cousins, at cards: and he proved to be warranted in believing that they would all like to know what he had heard. Newland’s statement became quite celebrated throughout the family: and Julia, who had perceived almost a sacred something in his original fervour, changed her mind after hearing the words musingly repeated, over and over, by her fat old Uncle Joe.

– Booth Tarkington, Gentle Julia, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922; pp. 43-48.

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