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Sunday, June 22, 2008

KITTY FOYLE--A TRIP BACK TO THE 1920s and 30s


Christopher Morley’s novel, Kitty Foyle, is definitely not for everyone, but this novel was a book of choice for me. Written in 1939 and covering the years between the mid 1920s and pre-Pearl Harbor days, it becomes a time travel book, filled not with my memories but with some of the things I heard from my mother—right down to a rhyme she taught me and my sister: “Bee’s you got bugs? Sure I are. Everybody do.” Never did know what that meant—until I read Kitty Foyle. “That was the signal that meant Everything was honky-dory, let’s talk.”

How did I get this book? Rob and I had dinner at Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse where there are shelves of old books. I looked up and saw Kitty Foyle on an upper shelf begging me to take her home. We asked, and Rob had to climb on a table to reach the book. Years ago I’d seen Kitty Foyle, the 1940 movie, starring Ginger Rogers who won an Oscar for her role, and that was enough of a recommendation for me! In my book, the pages are yellowed with age and the ancient bookplate says, “From the library of Percival M. Sax., Jr.” Great name out of the past. If you’re a book-lover, you probably know how connected I feel; otherwise, you probably think I’m nuts.

Kitty expresses Morley’s belief that the novel should show the “result of the workings of the heart and brain, of the body, soul, and spirits of…human beings.” Her narrative is about growing from a girl to a woman, experiencing loss, change, and love. It incorporates the joys, pains, recoveries and introspective searchings life deals out to us. It’s impossible not to be involved because it’s impossible not to relate to the truths in this fiction.

At the same time, it is dated fiction, so not for everyone. Kitty’s home is Philadelphia post war—the Great War, the War to End All Wars, World War I. It’s a Philadelphia of classes and Main Line prosperity. It is a Philadelphia where the game of Cricket is King, not football or baseball, and Kitty’s dad, a night foreman at a machine shop mixes with Main Liners because of his cricket acumen. Perfect opening for a romantic attachment….

A trip to the Poconos becomes a moment for Kitty who, being a working class Philly girl, sees mountains for the first time. She describes the Poconos as “mountain country up beyond Stroudsburg, where the absolutely right people go for their particular kind of well-bred whoopee.” Get the romantic angle? Today nothing is remote and certainly not the Poconos from Philadelphia. As a resort, its time has come and gone, and the Poconos are now full of year-round communities and hotels converted into condos and time shares.

Travel in Kitty’s day primarily was by train, and Kitty talks about struggling to get dressed in a Pullman berth. Many of today’s readers may not know what a Pullman berth is.

Kitty claims she “was one of the first generation that learned to do its homework with the radio turned on.” How’s that for pre-TV? Bet it drove parents crazy.

When she moves to NYC she says, “I’d rather have one window looking across the Hudson toward America than a whole penthouse over on the East River where people have to live to remind themselves how well bred they are.” Anyone familiar with NYC knows the difference between the Eastside and the Westside. Kitty has it straight.

From her Riverside Drive apartment she sees “the new parkway on Riverside and [the] Hudson River….” It’s tough to imagine the Henry Hudson Parkway—The West Side Highway—as new.

Kitty uses a lot of her era’s slang. I’ve heard some of the terms from my mom and from movies, and they give a sweet pang as Kitty says them. “Milkman’s Matinee” means “coffee and cigarettes at midnight and hair down all over the place.” W.C.G. means white collar girls--those career women who work for low wages until they can get married. Kitty’s slang adds flavor to the pot.

There’s another endearing quality to this novel. Christopher Morley has expectations of his readers. Kitty certainly is no scholar, but she has been to school where she was introduced to literature that has made its mark on her—literature sadly considered too “challenging” for today’s students. Kitty refers to great literature, and our author assumes we, as readers, all understand these references. Kitty casually refers to The Lady of the Lake, The Ancient Mariner, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Spoon River, Elegy in a Country Churchyard, Fanny Hill, and Archie and Mehitibal. There are references to Vachel Lindsay and Walt Whitman. We’re just supposed to know! Most young people today would scratch their heads and say, “It’s all Greek to me.” Nope—they haven’t read enough Shakespeare to say that.

No. Kitty Foyle is not for everyone. It’s certainly not for the politically correct. Kitty makes some comments and uses some names that could really blow gaskets today. They startled me, but they were never used in a hateful way. The book was written in 1939, but the novel’s setting is 1931. Historically, Hitler is already on the rise. Kitty reacts to one situation by saying, “ I felt as lonely as a Jew in Germany.” There are other times when there are real warnings about Hitler because we were aware in 1939. There are also terms used for some of the people who ran speakeasies or did housework. So if you’re totally into political correctness, some of what you read here will give you a jolt.

On the other hand, there’s a message we should listen to today. Kitty warned about Hitler, but she pointed out another clear and present danger, and it is one we face today. “Mark…wants to hear what I think about his article on Socialized Medicine. He knows damn well, what some of them don’t yet, doctors and everything else that’s important will get to be socialized sooner or later.” I sure hope this thought remains fiction.

From the length of this review, can you tell how much I enjoyed this book?

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