Candle Power

Photo: Liz Steger

Two women writers are currently poised for major revivals; but the one you’ve never heard of is the one you should get to know. Even if you don’t remember Edna St. Vincent Millay from your high-school poetry anthology (“My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night”), she’s been hard to avoid lately, given the energetic buzz surrounding Nancy Milford’s mammoth new biography, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay – one of two lives of Millay, as it happens, being published this month, along with a new Modern Library volume of the poems. Millay was hugely famous in her time; during the depths of the Depression, the flamboyant literary siren was a big best-seller. (And remember, this was poetry.) It’s fair to say that hasn’t been the case with Paula Fox, the 78-year-old novelist and children’s author whose slender Borrowed Finery recalls, in flintily unsentimental prose, her hardscrabble early years. But don’t be fooled by the relative heft of these two books. Millay may have been more glamorous, but her life story makes for better reading than her work, much of which now seems passé; whereas Fox’s oddly compelling new memoir, along with a reissue, by Norton, of some of her novels, should win new readers for this undeservedly neglected artist.

Fox’s memoir is an intriguing piece of writing in itself, but it’s likely to be welcomed even more by her almost cultish following (which includes Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Lethem) for the insights it offers about her work. As her fans have always known, Fox likes to use her fiction – novels like the superbly terse Desperate Characters, The Widow’s Children, and Poor George (two more novels, The Western Coast and A Servant’s Tale, are just out in paperback) – to coolly deconstruct the illusions that propel family life; her children’s books, too, are remarkable for the way in which they focus on dark familial forces and crises, often the abandonment of children. Now, with Borrowed Finery, you understand why. The story Fox tells here, from her impoverished and nomadic childhood up until her “disastrous” first marriage, is positively Dickensian. Born in 1923, Fox was immediately abandoned by her hard-drinking Hollywood-wannabe father, Paul, and her beautiful but coldly narcissistic mother, Elsie, a memorable maternal monster who makes Clytemnestra look like Mary Poppins. “Either she goes or I go,” Elsie told Paul, vis-à-vis her small daughter. Over the next twenty years, this odd and repellent duo would come to claim Paula every so often, as they flitted between trips to Europe, drinking binges, and flush periods financed by the occasional sale of mediocre film scripts. (Graham Greene declared Paul’s The Last Train From Madrid “the worst movie I ever saw.”) Paula, meanwhile, shuttled between foster care and relatives, from New York to a Cuban sugar plantation to New Hampshire.

Paul and Elsie’s erratic Hollywood lifestyle allowed young Paula to rub shoulders with enough first-name-only types to fill Milford’s fat tome: In the space of five pages, Paula meets Orson Welles, John Barrymore, and the young John Wayne. But what makes Fox’s memoir, to say nothing of Fox herself, so admirable, is her complete lack of interest in glamour. (You can see why both the writer and her writing appeal to serious young writers.) Distrustful, for obvious reasons, of surface glitz, Fox was far more interested in the moral substance that lies beneath – no surprise in someone who spent her early years “in the hands of rescuers.” This, as it turned out, was the beginning of an authorial sensibility. The most memorable of the rescuers was “Uncle Elwood,” the kindly Congregational minister who raised Paula virtually single-handedly. The most affecting passages in Borrowed Finery are those in which you see how, despite hard poverty, Elwood communicated to his young charge his sense of intellectual adventure. An avid reader and amateur historian, he took the girl on hunts for Revolutionary War sites, and allowed her thoughts to make their way into his sermons, giving her the first thrill of authorship.

All this is recalled in clipped paragraphs of only a few sentences each; only occasionally do you get flights of lyricism. (Her mother’s brother “spoke English with a severe and glacial precision, seeming to bite each word like a coin to test its genuineness before letting it go.”) But if the prose sometimes seems off-puttingly ungenerous, and if Fox doesn’t make any obvious plays for your sympathy, the memoir has a cumulative power. By the time you get to the typically clipped and unsensational coda, in which Fox has a final reunion with the horrible Elsie, and is then reunited with the daughter she put up for adoption, you feel you’ve been privy to something memorable and weighty: the birth, however difficult, of an artist’s – a woman artist’s – sensibility. The squalor of Fox’s early life is symbolized throughout her memoir by the “borrowed finery” she always had to wear, from the hand-me-down bras and stockings of a cousin to the borrowed gown she wore to her first dance; but the crisp, un-self-pitying dignity you find on every page of this and all her other books is something that she clearly owns.

Milford’s heroine was hugely popular among girls of Fox’s generation; in Borrowed Finery, Fox recalls having an adolescent school friend who wrote swoony love poems that were “a fair imitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay.” The question that Milford’s book inadvertently raises is, Who would imitate her now? However strong some of the poems are, Millay hasn’t dated well. (She was writing lines like ” ‘Twix thee and the singing arrow with the darkened fang, / I stand with open breast!” four years after Eliot had published The Waste Land.)

But she certainly dated a lot. Whatever it does for Millay as an artist, Milford’s life of Millay suggests why her subject enjoyed a kind of fame in her time equal to that of Madonna in hers; Millay’s, if anything, was a life that was the stuff of pulp novels rather than high art. There was the brilliant, horrible stage mother, from whom Millay could never quite free herself (“Anybody can get married. It happens all the time. But not everybody … can bring her mother to Europe,” she wrote), the ravishing, red-haired beauty, the remarkably early literary triumphs (she won a Pulitzer at 31), Paris in the twenties, a roster of suitors that included Edmund Wilson, money, morphine addiction, and a voracious bisexual love life. (Her candle did burn at both ends.) Milford worked on this book for nearly 30 years, and it shows: Savage Beauty is amazingly rich in detail. Too much, perhaps. “I am waylaid by Beauty … ,” Millay once wrote, “suffer me to pass, / That am a timid woman, on her way / From one house to another!” You can’t blame Milford for being waylaid by her subject’s beauty; but the more significant – and, ultimately, the more beautiful – woman here may well be the truly timid one who passed so memorably from one house to another.

Borrowed Finery
By Paula Fox
Henry Holt; 210 pages; $23.
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay
By Nancy Milford
Random House; 553 pages; $29.95.

Candle Power