A gothic historical novel about a Yankee governess who goes to work on a decaying plantation during the early Reconstruction period. 1947.
Hands down, what most impressed me about The Web of Days was the quality of the prose. This is no hastily-formed historical fluff. It feels authentic to the period it describes, the year immediately following the end of the American Civil War (or, as growing up in Texas taught me to accommodate, “the War of Northern Aggression”).
By being authentic to its historical period, however, as well as a true product of the mid-20th century, there are elements of this book that are unsavory to the 21st century tongue. The recently-freed slaves, or “Negroes,” are often described as “childish” and, when left to their own devices, terribly lazy. However, before we start raising the flag of racist alarm, it’s important to note: Edna Lee, through the narrator’s Yankee eyes, uses exactly the same words to describe, well, all Southerners.
Rather than a book about race, I saw this book as an illustration of a cultural clash between North and South. The story is told by Hester Snow, a New England woman who, since her childhood in an orphanage, has always had to earn her living. Recently her employer of six years ran out of need for her, so she’s advertised for a governess post in the South. From history textbooks we’re familiar with “carpetbaggers,” those enterprising Northerners who invaded the South seeking to profit from the extensive Reconstruction process. Hester arrives in the South at the same time as the carpetbaggers. It’s no surprise, then, that her new neighbors in Darien, a coastal town outside of Savannah, greet her with distrust and even flat-out disdain.
But to live Hester must work, so she does not turn back. Instead, in Darien she is met by the half-brother of her employer, Mr. Saint Clair LeGrand. The half-brother taunts her a little, but they do have chemistry. This is when we glimpse Hester’s greatest fault, especially as seen by Southern eyes: she is very proud.
Along with her pride, Hester is armed with a fierce sense of industry. Therefore, when she arrives at the plantation Seven Chimneys, she is appalled by the way the house, fields, and staff have been neglected since the day all the freed slaves took off. Quickly, she sees that no one is taking charge here; no one is giving orders. Mr. Saint Clair is saturated with this I-really-don’t-give-a-damn laziness. His wife is a drunk and possibly crazy, spending her days abed and making rare appearances at the dinner table. Saint Clair’s elderly mother, the “Old Madame,” sits in a wheelchair and eats all the time, her small, chubby fingers picking apart the delicate morsels.
The house has a few servants, former slaves who haven’t cared to assert their freedom by either leaving the family or demanding payment for their work. Hester perceives that, instead, they just don’t work much. The house is filthy, everything inside and out falling into genteel decay. But Hester, schooled in the value of hard work and perseverance, won’t let things stay this way.
Besides with giving lessons to Saint Clair’s young son, Rupert, Hester does not hesitate to give orders to start cleaning up the house. When she wants something done immediately, she’ll even tuck up her skirts and do the work herself. The locals, of course, see this as a gross defect, putting her on equal level with a “Negro” (okay, actually, they use a different word).
The story moves quickly. Hester develops a vision for restoring the land to its former plantation glory, and Saint Clair is like, fine, do whatever you want. Hester encounters the half-brother again, and the sparks continue to fly. Then Saint Clair’s wife is mysteriously drowned in a storm. Saint Clair wastes no time in making Hester an offer, one that has all the temptations of security and a place to call home—-neither of which has Hester ever known.
In this story, it’s all about the ambience. From the very beginning, with Hester’s apprehensive landing in Darien, Edna Lee’s language and characterizations infuse everything with spooky distrust. The gothic tone immediately put me in mind of Victoria Holt. I used to enjoy Holt’s novels, and in high school I read quite a few of them. But for me they had some obvious shortcomings. The setup always felt the same. The leading lady always felt the same. There was lots of spooky ambiance…but that was about it. Nothing seemed to happen for most of these books. My interest would flag, I would consider not finishing the book. And then, in the last fifteen pages, everything would happen, all at once. My immediate impression of the book then became, Oh wow! What a great book! Upon reflection, though, I suspected I’d been tricked into thinking it was a better book than it actually was. Really, it was just a good fifteen pages.
For me, The Web of Days surpasses this standard. The plot moves quickly and consistently. There is no big game-changer at the end, only a final crescendo. It is satisfying. There’s also the crazy mistress + handsome head of household + emotionally wounded governess formula, which of course calls to mind Jane Eyre. Hester falls in love with the plantation, including the dark house itself, so of course there’s the Rebecca connection. And there’s talk of ghosts!
The reason I am listing this on ALB is not for its gothic elements, which I know are not rare or exceptionally formidable. I believe this book is worthy of “another look” because it has high quality writing and it accurately captures a specific time period and culture. If Hester hadn’t found the “Negroes” simple-minded, bound by all kinds of superstitions, I frankly would have been disappointed. If she hadn’t clashed with the townspeople and they hadn’t called her names, I would have seriously doubted the authenticity of the story.
Above all, I found this a fascinating read because of Hester Snow. We get some clues as to why she is so proud and unbending, why she alienates those around her when it would be more useful to befriend them. But as a puzzle she is never really solved. She is plain rather than pretty, and she holds herself above those around her. Her only redeeming quality, really, is her dedication to the rewards of industry. Her downfall is her desire to finally possess some security. For this unexpected depth, I would almost classify the novel as a character study.
As a gothic novel, it makes The Web of Days even more masterful. I didn’t much empathize with the protagonist; I constantly questioned her motives and actions. All the same, I was very interested in her. And what’s more, I really wanted her to win!