I was apprehensive when I picked up a copy of Nancy Hale’s Dear Beast. Would it be appropriate spring break reading? The kind of thing one reads on the beach, or pretends one is reading on a beach if one does not actually go to the beach? Would it be a beautifully-written comedy, like her memoir A New England Girlhood? Or a melancholy, fascinating, but fatiguing novel about bad relationships and worse marriages, like her 1942 best-seller, The Prodigal Women?
Dear Beast, set in the South and New York, is a graceful, lively, realistic comedy about a woman’s creation of literature to escape from a bad marriage. Published in 1959, it is a literary Southern version of D. E. Stevenson’s light romance, Miss Buncle’s Book.
In Miss Buncle’s Book, the heroine, Barbara Buncle, a spinster with very little income, writes an anonymous novel about the people in her village. The villagers are all agog, trying to figure out who wrote it. They are furious.
In Dear Beast, the heroine, Abby Daniel, the Yankee wife of a well-educated, caustic Virginia bookseller, writes a best-selling anonymous novel about life in a small town very like Starkeyville, where they live. The difference is that he Starkeyvillians admire it, wondering who wrote it.
Dear Beast begins at a tea party at the home of Mrs. B. D. Starkey, often known as Miss Grace. All the important women of Starkeyville are present, including Abby, who is kept busy serving the guests and organizing the kitchen.
Little Abby Daniel, whom Mrs. Starkey counted on to help out at parties since, having no children, she had nothing better to do, abstracted the teacups that had been left by two departing ladies and slipped with them out into the kitchen. Her voice could be heard through the swinging door, asking Mattie, the cook, for more Sally Lunn. In a moment more she had slipped back into the dining room and into her place at the table, smiling.”
There are many women at the party who are more flamboyant than Abby and apparently have something “better to do.” Some seem more likely to be a novelist than “little Abby Daniel.” Abby is an outsider from Vermont, a mousy Cinderella. But that’s really the point. Anyone with talent can be a writer, not necessarily the prettiest or the most vivacious.
The women are all worked-up because Life is sending a photographer to shoot pictures of their typical Southern small town for a piece about the best-selling novel, The Rose That Died.
When Mrs. Starkey is called away for an emergency and cannot guide the New York photographer around Starkeyville, she asks Abby to step in. And in the course of Abby’s delightful conversation with Tommy, who is more candid than Southerners, she cannot resist admitting she is the author of The Rose That Died. Her husband, Boogher (pronounced “Booker”), didn’t want her name on the book. (Obviously, he was jealous: one in a long line of Hale’s men characters who don’t like their women to succeed.)
When the news of her authorship is published in Life, Abby waits for recognition in Starkeyville. They practically ignore her. Mrs. Starkey tells everyone in town not to embarrass Abby with the attention, since she published it anonymously originally. And Abby becomes more and more indignant, as she continues to be treated as a maid.
It is really Boogher’s fury that drives her away from Starkeyville to New York, where she stays with Tommy and his wife, and drives them slowly crazy with her need for recognition–they organize countless parties for her–and confessions of marital problems. In the South people talk about kinship and the past; in New York about art, psychology, and the Christian-Judaic tradition. Abby doesn’t quite understand the reserve under the open manners, and they dislike her personal talk about Boogher. In New York she feels most at home when she visits the self-contained camels at the zoo.
So will she stay or will she go?
This clever, witty novel is almost experimental in parts, a patchwork of lively Southern dialogue, New York party dialogue, and excerpts from letters, Abby’s diary, and The Rose That Died. But it is much more serious than Miss Buncle’s Book: parts are funny, but the parts about Abby’s marriage to Boogher are painful to read. Hale explores Abby’s observant musings about the South and Boogher’s long-winded Southern oral narratives. They mesh at several points.
Nancy Hale, the first woman reporter for The New York Times and a frequent contributor of short stories and autobiographical pieces to The New Yorker, had illustrious ancestors. She was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale, the granddaughter of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man Without a Country, the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Lucretia Peabody Hale (The Peterkin Papers), and a descendant of Nathan Hale.
She is an underrated American writer, and Dear Beast is blessedly short and a better introduction to her work than The Prodigal Women.