Nearly 80 years later, the city in author Jean Stafford’s “Boston Adventure” is still familiar.
The shining and golden dome of Massachusetts State House dominates the Boston skyline, a visual reminder of John Winthrop’s vision for the city as a beacon of hope for those seeking a better and more prosperous life in a new world. . But in his first novel of 1944 “Boston Adventure“, recently republished by New York Review Books, author Jean Stafford suggested that the true spirit of the city is best embodied in the nearby Granary Burying Ground, where” the sparse and modest tombs of the rough garden testified to the conviction of the city of its accuracy and its fierce resistance to change.
A bestseller on its initial release, “Boston Adventure” marked the start of a successful but tumultuous career for Stafford, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for a collection of his short stories. It’s hard to believe this novel, with its confident prose, wonderful cast of characters, and well-tuned sense of humor, was Stafford’s first writer. But from the start, her ambitions were high – Dickensian, Proustienne – and she fulfills them well.
When little Sonie Marburg looks across the harbor towards Boston from the sleepy fishing village of Chichester on the North Coast and dreams of a better life, it’s the dome of the State House that triggers her musings. . The story begins in 1925; Sonie works as a maid at the Barlow Hotel, where an aging clique of Beacon Hill Brahmins find respite from the summer heat. It was there that she met Miss Lucy Pride, a great lady par excellence, whose refined manners contrast sharply with Sonie’s rude immigrant parents. She dreams that one day Miss Pride will save her from her pitiful existence: “I imagined the day my parents would die and Miss Pride would come and take me to live at the Hotel, if they died in the summer, or in Boston,” if in winter.
While Miss Pride is typically distant, there are hints that Sonie’s infatuation isn’t entirely one-sided. Over the years, Miss Pride has offered a little support to Sonie’s struggling family while keeping a close eye on the precocious young girl. When Sonie is 18 and a series of tragedies befall the Marburgs, she sends a desperate letter to Miss Pride offering to work as a personal servant in exchange for help. “Here is a new generation person who upholds the ideals of mine,” Miss Pride thinks of Sonie’s taut calligraphy. “I will indeed come to his aid. “
Soon, Sonie is settled in Miss Pride’s townhouse on Pinckney Street where she becomes the old woman’s companion, protege, and pet project. She is immersed in Boston’s high society, her days filled with recitals, cocktails and lounges. Although she is aware of her humble origins, the types of society welcome her warmly; Sonie is a novelty, an injection of fresh blood in a stagnant scene. It’s a selfless part too, which can serve as a receptacle for gossip and rebuke from those who otherwise must maintain a stilted and proper facade among their patrician peers – like Miss Pride’s niece, Hopestill.
As you might expect, Sonie discovers that life in Beacon Hill is not as happy as it might seem across Chichester Bay. But “Boston Adventure” is not a simplistic indictment against the well-to-do aristocracy, nor a sentimental story à la Horatio Alger of a poor child rising into the world. In fact, it’s a hilarious satire, a lively and biting comedy of manners that shows more than a little affection for the nonsense of the dying world it portrays. Miss Pride’s Boston is under siege with a new regime (“namely, the Irish politicians who had ‘taken over’ the city”) and new money. The rising generation of Brahmins, represented by Hopestill, is angry with the restrictive and old-fashioned mores they are supposed to defend. In Sonie, Miss Pride sees a vehicle for her inheritance, a carrier girl who will carry her torch into a vulgar future.
Stafford is masterful at character work, and the novel is populated with rich and detailed characters, each with their own unique voices and weaknesses, like Sonie’s handsome Chichester, Nathan Kadish, a cocky pseudo-leftist who can’t decide what genre. from a communist he is, or the Countess von Happel, whose interest in debutantes who attend his weekly recitals may be less innocent than it suggests. Miss Pride’s funny witticisms are expertly crafted and deliciously devastating, worthy of her status as Dean of Louisburg Square. But Sonie’s slow, subtle evolution from the naive outside the borough to the regular downtown is perhaps Stafford’s most impressive feat. By the end of the novel, her voice changed from that of a wide-eyed, uncertain wrestler to a cold and very attentive judge of her surroundings, proof of Miss Pride’s meticulous grooming.
As ruthless as Stafford can be about his subjects, his portrayal of the city itself is imbued with warmth. “Boston Adventure” is a romantic look at a bygone era of Schrafft’s raspberry strikes and an Atlantic Monthly with literary value. But what’s really striking is how familiar Sonie’s Boston is still to us almost 80 years later. While fashions have changed and manners have changed, we can understand what Sonie feels as she gazes at the State House dome or makes her way through the Granary Burying Ground. And this familiarity makes his adventure resonate all the more.