I mentioned a few reviews ago that a major transition is currently underway in my life. (And thus the recent dearth of reviews…Sorry about that!) This transition has meant a few weeks back with my parents, and time in a city I haven’t explored since my high school days. Somehow, even back in those book-saturated school days, I managed to never really explore my city’s largest used bookstore. (…I know, right?!) With some time on my hands these past weeks—not to mention a brand new car in my possession—I decided to go exploring.
At first glance through the shelves, I thought I would strike out. And then I struck gold. Pure, 1950s, domestic novel GOLD. At the top of the clearance section, waaaaay up high on its own, forgotten shelf, I found a whole lineup of what the store has decided to call “Nostalgia Fiction.” All hardcovers, all with dust jackets backed by acid-free paper, and then enshrouded in mylar. All incredibly obscure, and almost all dating from the 1950s.
Oh, and the best part? ALL FOR $1 EACH.
I’ll admit it…I went to town. I was particularly excited to find an Elswyth Thane novel, as I’ve wanted to read her work before, but copies are scarce and expensive. (Not here! $1!) I also found a lot of Dorothy Eden novels, for some unknown reason. And I found a whole smattering of vintage authors I’d never heard of before. Among them: Elizabeth Corbett.
On the back cover of Professor Preston at Home, “Miss Corbett” explains the inspiration behind her latest book:
We hear so much nowadays about unrest, insecurity, uncertainty, frustrations. Yet millions of Americans are right now living busy, useful, worthwhile lives. They are even happily married, and get on with their grown children and their in-laws at least a part of the time. I thought I’d give this happy news to a world which stands greatly in need of it.
This, in a nutshell, is why I love these domestic novels of the 1950s. Sometimes in life, you just need to read about normal people with happy lives and healthy relationships. Happiness can make for a good story, too—I swear!
In a New England college town one dreary winter/spring day, Professor Preston is out running errands when he accidentally plows into a woman, poking her sharply with his umbrella. He’s acutely embarrassed, and his embarrassment only grows as he stammers out an apology to this lovely creature before him. The professor pulls himself together and asks her to lunch, as retribution for his umbrella-led assault.
Mrs. Alice Ames, a widow of about fifty, is in town visiting a friend of hers who has re-married. It’s a bit uncomfortable at her friend’s house, thus Mrs. Ames’s decision to take a walk about town, in spite of the wind and rain. Her train is leaving soon (she lives on Staten Island), but she has time to share lunch with the professor.
This happenstance encounter sets off the action of the whole novel. One of the many refreshing aspects of this love story is that it’s between two individuals who are entirely appropriate for each other. They’re both a bit past middle-age, and they’re both widowed. They each have a grown child—Alice has a son in the military; the professor has a daughter who’s a schoolteacher. They both love their children, and regard them as the saving graces of otherwise dispassionate, uneventful marriages. Alice and the professor are also both in the position of not needing to earn their living any longer. Alice owns a profitable shipyard, left to her by her deceased husband. The professor is turning sixty tomorrow, and therefore is eligible to retire. Their lives are ripe for change.
After the professor sees Alice onto the train, his thoughts remain curiously stuck on the happiness they shared in their brief time together. Suddenly, the boarding house where he rents a room feels even less like home. He has his meals, but he takes no nourishment from them. There are people all around, and yet he feels a connection to none of them.
The encounter with Alice has drawn his attention to these shortcomings. He’s also been trying to write a book for years, a textbook of sorts on the Greek and Roman gods. Suddenly, he imagines a life in which he would have the freedom to work on his masterpiece.
Almost immediately, he receives a note from Alice, formally inviting him to come visit her on Staten Island. He accepts.
Alice and the professor have a short courtship before they decide to get married. The professor simultaneously retires—book-writing, here he comes!—and moves into Alice’s house. Immediately, she makes him feel at home, providing him with the effortless, attentive, and considerate love he’s always wanted, even if he wasn’t conscious of wanting it. Alice finds someone to care for again, and a worthy recipient of her very warm and natural affection.
Alone for the first time in many hours, Professor Preston went out to the front porch. He stood drinking in the summer night, and thinking. Thinking strange thoughts, trying to believe in his heart of hearts what he knew was true.
Except for brief periods—when he received his first academic promotion, when he was on his honeymoon, then for a few weeks after Dorothy was born—he had passed his life in a twilight zone, neither happy nor unhappy, gnawed at by a vague but persistent dissatisfaction.
And then—and then came spring; and an aging and discontented professor impaled happiness on his umbrella. So here he was, come to dwell in Paradise.
Would he ever get used to it? In a sense, he almost hoped not.
Professor Preston at Home contains very little tension. It’s mostly a cheerful book about these two normal, kind-hearted people reaching new levels of happiness together. The only source of intermittent angst is their children, who flit in and out of the novel, just as they flit in and out of their parents’ daily lives. Like all people in their late 20s, their children are still figuring out what to do with themselves, and whom to have by their sides while they’re doing it. Like all parents, Alice and the professor are often anxious over their children.
“I feel so sorry for young people.”
Professor Preston stared at her in bewilderment. Alice the ageless—Alice who had restored his own youth to him—had made this incredible announcement.
Then it dawned on him how right she was. The young were charming to look at, delightful to be with. But they did not understand their own possibilities or their own limitations; and in their lack of experience they made endless trouble for themselves.
But these young people are fundamentally just like their parents: good, intelligent, moral folks with a solid sense of humor. Even if you don’t know how things are going to turn out for them, you have a feeling it will all be fine, because, well, how could it not be?
I wouldn’t recommend Professor Preston at Home if you’re craving something action-packed; this story arc is more like a stable line with periodic swells. Still, it’s a lovely, quiet domestic novel that makes you feel good about humanity. Oh, and the style! The style is sophisticated, funny, and poignant. No cliches here. In fact, as a whole I would say Professor Preston is surprisingly original. On a few plot points and characterizations, it made me think of Susan Ertz’s After Noon. I also suspect Corbett’s writing would appeal to many D.E. Stevenson fans—it certainly appeals to this one!
On a final note: if Professor Preston at Home does sound like your cup of tea, I’d suggest moving quickly! There aren’t many copies hanging around online.