Aunt Jane of Kentucky by Eliza Calvert Hall, published in 1907, is the second book in this Not the Bestseller List series.
Aunt Jane of Kentucky is a collection of nine short stories in which a young, unnamed visitor describes her visits with Aunt Jane, an elderly widow. During each visit Aunt Jane reminisces about family, friends and times past. I would guess the visits happen about 1890, with Aunt Jane’s stories taking place in perhaps the 1840s and 1850s.
Aunt Jane isn’t anybody the world would notice – not then, not now. She is just a plain, simple woman, married to a plain simple man, living in a plain, simple tiny town in Kentucky. Her country dialect, so easy to dismiss, hides bushels of wisdom. The pace of the stories is slow. They are like hearing your grandmother tell you about when she was young, including too much detail here, not enough there and wandering down several paths in the process.
It all sounds deadly dull. Except that it’s not. There is just as much comedy and tragedy in the everyday ups and downs in Aunt Jane’s stories as there is in something from the bestseller list. The difference is that in Aunt Jane’s tales, there is also a river of kindness, wisdom, forbearance, beauty, goodness and truth running straight the middle of everything.
Eliza Calvert Hall was well known in the women’s suffrage movement, a hot topic at the time she was writing, and many of her stories illustrate a woman’s plight. And yet, I have to say, that as heart-rending or blood-boiling as some of the situations in her stories were, there is still a sense of forbearance, gentleness and humor in the way the stories are told. There is actually quite a bit of comedy, if not in the situation, then in the telling or retelling of it. She is not writing with guns drawn; yet for all that she tells a quiet story, her lessons come through loud and clear.
The first story in the book, Sally Ann’s Experience , was originally published in Cosmopolitan in 1898 and reprinted many times afterward. (It was so successful that Eliza Calvert Hall built her family a new house on the proceeds.) Sally Ann’s Experience could have been called “Everywoman’s Experience.” This becomes very clear as Sally Ann ‘gives her experience’ one Wednesday night during a prayer meeting. Her ‘experience’ started with defending a friend ‘Lizabeth who had taken the Ladies Mite Society treasury to fund a trip to Louisville. I won’t spoil the story by relating the wherefores and the whys.
Old Silas Petty was glowerin’ at her [‘Lizabeth] from under his eyebrows, and it put me in mind of the Pharisees and the woman they wanted to stone, and I ricollect thinkin’, ‘Oh, if the Lord Jesus would jest come in and taker her part!’ And while we all set there like a passel o’ mutes, Sally Ann got up and marched down the middle aisle and stood right by ‘Lizabeth. … “Well, I felt so relieved. It popped into my head all at once that we didn’t need the Lord after all, Sally Ann would do just as well.”
When the deacon tried to stop Sally Ann from speaking and she, being “terrible free spoken,” tanked right over him, he admonished her to confine her testimony to her “own” experience:
I can give my experience, can I? Well, that’s jest what I’m a-doin’,’ says she; ‘and while I’m about it,’ says she, ‘I’ll give in some experience for ‘Lizabeth and Maria and the rest of the women who, betwixt their husbands an’ the ‘Postle Paul, have about lost all the gumption and grit that the Lord started them out with.
It is still a very powerful story. I imagine at a time when women had no right to property and no vote, it was eye-opening.
Throughout the book, as she entertains with her stories, Aunt Jane teaches quite a lot about marriage. We may have running water and electric lights now, and we may not all live on small farms, and women may have the vote, but the problems, and the ups and downs in life are still the same. People haven’t changed. I would hazard that what made a good marriage back then makes a good one now. Aunt Jane gives a lot of pointers, including
But, honey, when you see married folks, quarrelin’ over their churches, it ain’t too much religion that’s the cause o’ the trouble, it’s too little love.’
Likewise, it’s still true today that that when a young mother opens her eyes in the morning, it is fortunate she has no clue what appalling surprises her children (or husband or life) have in store for her that day. Sweet Day of Rest, the 1850s version of one shock to the system after another, is probably as funny in the retelling as it was dispiriting in the living. When the shocks were all over, the Parson summed it all up nicely:
‘Did you ever think, Brother Amos, that there ain’t a pleasure men enjoy that women don’t have to suffer for it?’
Aunt Jane has a gift for cutting down big ideas into simple ones:
“Did you ever think, child,” she said, presently, “how much piecin’ a quilt’s like living’ a life? And as for sermons, why, they ain’t no better sermon to me than a patchwork quilt, and the doctrines is right there a heap plainer’n they are in the catechism. Many a time I’ve set and listened to Parson Page preachin’ ‘bout predestination and free-will, and I’ve said to myself, ‘Well, I ain’t never been through Centre College up at Danville, but if I could jest git up in the pulpit with one of my quilts, I could make it a heap plainer to folks than parson’s makin’ it with all his big words.’
You see, you start out with jest so much caliker; you don’t go to the store and pick it out and buy it, but the neighbors will give you a piece here and piece there, and you’ll have a piece
left every time you cut out a dress, and you take jest what happens to come. And that’s like predestination.
But when it comes to the cuttin’ out, why, you’re free to choose your own pattern. You can give the same kind o’ pieces to two persons, and one’ll make a ‘nine-patch’ and one’ll make a ‘wild-goose chase,’ and there’ll be two quilts made out o’ the same kind o’ pieces, and jest as different as they can be. And this is jest the way with livin’. The Lord sends us the pieces, but we can cut ‘em out and put ‘em together pretty much to suit ourselves, and there’s a heap more in the cuttin’ out and the sewin’ than there is in the caliker.
She is perceptive:
If men’s manners matched their hearts, honey, this’d be a heap easier world for women. But whenever you see a man that’s got good manners and a bad heart, you may know there’s trouble ahead for some woman.
But I’ve got to tell you all this rigmarole first, so you’ll understand what’s comin’. If I was to tell you about the dinner party first, you’d get a wrong idea about Mary. That’s how folks misjudges one another. They see people doin’ things that ain’t right, and they up and conclude they’re bad people, when if they only knew somethin’ about their lives, they’d understand how to make allowance for ‘em.”
And she had an eye for the ridiculous – what a perfect description of a modern politician:
He was one o’ those men that tries to set on both sides o’ the fence at once, and he’d set that way so long he was a mighty good hand at balancin’ himself.
A bit snappy here and there, but oh so kind and wise. Funny and tragic. Peaceful and gentle. Homey. The nine stories in Aunt Jane of Kentucky are the perfect antidote to modern jangled nerves and blistered eardrums. You probably won’t want to join Aunt Jane in the Kentucky of the 1850s, but you will ardently wish that more people had her gift of making very clear points with very soft voices.