The Brimming Cup Runneth Over

Do I still remember how to write about books? I certainly hope I’m not too rusty. Especially because the book I want to write about is so, so dear to me now that I’ve finished it. And it’s the kind of book I really started this blog to discover – a novel written by a 20th century woman that is more obscure than its contemporaries but wonderfully worthy of our time. I feel a bit like the dog that finally caught the car and isn’t entirely sure what to do with it! Will I be able to do The Brimming Cup justice? I certainly hope so.

First of all, Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s biography is insane, sick, ridiculous, and all the other “pimply hyperbole.” She was lifelong friends with Willa Cather, as well as a novelist for 30 years, the American pioneer of the Italian Montessori method of teaching, and the first woman appointed to the Vermont Board of Education.

But there’s even more too: during WWI, she and her husband moved to France, established a braille press, set up a home for refugee French children, and drove an ambulance (well, her husband did this one). She also was the only woman on the editorial board of the Book-of-the-Month Club for over 25 years. And a suffragist to boot. Dorothy, you were a force of nature and I salute you.

On its face, the summary of the plot of The Brimming Cup seems simple enough, even perhaps a bit been-there, done-that. The novel opens with a young couple, deeply in love in Italy, pledging to always be true not only to their relationship but to Truth itself, with all the earnestness and naivete of youth. Fast forward a decade and they are living in Vermont. Neale Crittenden is running a lumber mill and Marise Crittenden is running their household and raising three children: Paul, Elly, and Mark.

A retired gentleman moves next door to them to live out his golden years in the country, and his younger friend is along to assist. The two city dwellers, the elder Mr. Welles and the younger Mr. Marsh, come to call on her the day that her youngest child, Mark, goes to school for the first time, and her house is empty. The Crittenden household quickly strikes up a friendship with Mr. Welles and Mr. Marsh while Neale is away on business, with Marise taking Mr. Welles under her wing and showing him how to garden, and Mr. Welles taking Paul under his wing as a sort of surrogate grandfather to the young boy.

It becomes evident that Mr. Marsh shares Marise’s love of music (she’s the most talented player in their small town). He delays leaving Mr. Welles and returning to the city. His sophisticated interests spark Marise’s youthful passions in art, conversation, and philosophy before the drudgery of life took over.

And then Neale returns home from his business trips to meet the outsiders, around the time that Marise’s childhood friend, Eugenia, arrives to visit for the summer. It is evident, despite the clear setup about Marise being a dissatisfied housewife, that Neale is a thoughtful, understanding partner who is deeply supportive of Marise’s self-actualization, not the “enemy” husband at all. However, it also becomes clear that feelings are growing between Marise and Mr. Marsh, and Marise will eventually have to make a decision about the course of her future.

However straightforward or common this plot may be, I have rarely been so committed to the decisions of imaginary characters before. I found myself waving Brian away when he walked in the door, like I was reading a murder mystery – “I need 10 more minutes, sorry!” while barely looking at him. That’s how engrossed I became in this story and with these characters!

I was first shocked at how modern this story was – this book was published in 1919, yet some of the passages didn’t sound so very different from how we muddle along today. There’s a really pivotal chapter, What Goes On Inside: Half an Hour in the Life of a Modern Woman, that I really loved. It opens with her worrying, as she does every day, that the children will, this time, really be late for school. Nineteen nineteen! Not much changes, apparently.

She has an intense inner monologue where she curses how inane the things her children are learning are and thinks about how much better it would be if they were freed from school, but then corrects herself – they’re in school to be with their peers and learn to get socialized with others, remember? And the children “might suffer from being queer or different, might want more than anything in the world to be like others.”

Listen to Marise’s inner monologue here, about whether to cook beef that night:

‘But the Powers children. Gene and Nelly can’t afford fifty cents a pound for beefsteak. Perhaps part of their little Ralph’s queerness and abnormality comes from lack of proper food. And those white-cheeked little Putnam children in the valley. They probably don’t taste meat, except pork, more than once a week.’ She protested sharply, ‘But if their father won’t work steadily, when there is always work to be had?’ And heard the murmuring answer, ‘Why should the children suffer because of something they can’t change?’

She drew a long breath, brushed all this away with an effort, asking herself defiantly, ‘Oh, what has all this to do with us?’ And was aware of the answer, ‘It has everything to do with us, only I can’t figure it out.’

Impatiently she proposed to herself, ‘But while I’m trying to figure all this out, wouldn’t I better just go ahead and have beefsteak to-day?’ and wearily ‘Yes, of course, we’ll have beefsteak as usual. That’s the way I always decide things.’

She buttered a piece of toast and began to eat it, thinking, ‘I’m a lovely specimen, anyhow, of a clear-headed, thoughtful modern woman, muddling along as I do.’

I’m getting near the end of the bounds of a reasonable amount I can expect you all to read about this book, at least in a single blogpost, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface about all that I loved about this book! I may blather on more in my next post about other things I loved about The Brimming Cup. Forgive me! It is a book worth two blogposts at least, one hundred years in the making.

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