The Happy Island
275 pages • Steerforth • 1938, 1998 [PB]
Dawn Powell is a unique voice in American literature and one of its finest satirists. Whilst her contemporaries, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis, were writing tracts about the perils of the new post-war America, in which men were men, women were women, and most of them hypocrites, Powell wrote about “the way we live now” without the need to wrap her stories in social and moral packaging. Her literary heritage is not that of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe, but Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Honore Balzac, and finally Gaius Petronius, author of the Satyricon. In The Happy Island, Powell set out to write what she called a story about “the bachelors of New York in the Satyricon style”.
Powell was born in 1896 in Mount Gilead, Ohio. She relocated to Manhattan in 1918 as a member of the Red Cross. The war saved her from the farm life of the Midwest. This escape, in fact, animates the characters of Jefferson Abbot and Prudence Bly in The Happy Island, her eighth novel. In the first of her New York novels, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936), Powell lanced the city’s literary circles. In The Happy Island she trains her sights on the café society, with Bly and Abbott as her compass. The euphemistic “bachelors” provide her access to this world. In a diary entry from 1935, she wrote of “Fairies as an oasis in the midst of country villages; alone you find them—sure of some intelligent conversation and wit. Little cosmopolitan posts on the prairie, a little lamp.” The term “fairies” was not a pejorative one for Powell, and as Tim Page notes in his introduction to the 1998 reissue, The Happy Island “is among the first written after Roman antiquity that is peopled with gay and bisexual characters but is neither a hate tract, a psychological study, a plea for tolerance, nor an under-the-counter titillation”.
Powell, who wrote almost anything in order to make a living, turned to the novel when she came to realise that she was a failed Broadway playwright; or, rather, that her work failed on Broadway, which is something else altogether. In The Happy Island this is what happens to Jefferson Abbot, who arrives in the Big Apple from Ohio when he is summoned by the producer of his Broadway play: “CASTING COMPLETE THIRD ACT NEEDS REWRITING COME IMMEDIATELY.” Abbott, who is from the same town as Prudence Bly, rooms with a family friend, Dol Lloyd, a café society socialite and most definitely one of the city’s bachelors.
It is the nightclub singer Prudence Bly who is Powell’s greatest satirical performance in The Happy Island. She should hold a high place in the literary hall of fame aside Ignatius J. Reilly and Bertie Wooster. The exchanges with her coeval and rival Jean Nelson are electric. Jean has inherited from Prudence one of her lovers, Steve, and for this she declares that she is far from jealous. “Jealous? Jealous? Good God, Jean, you must think this is the Middle Ages.” Their rivalry is a good old-fashioned case of women beware women, and it parallels Abbott’s rise and fall.
Powell is at her best when writing about Prudence.
As James Pinckney had once said to a small gathering of backbiters, Prudence Bly was not a person so much as a conspiracy. She was guarded by those who knew her as jealously as the sucker list of a benevolent organisation. In her hotel, doormen, bellboys, chambermaids–all felt part of the conspiracy of Prudence-Against-the-World; they read the papers for news of her and like her own close friends followed her progress as if she were a baseball tournament. In her they dimly felt they had a valuable machine gun, a weapon against society, their private egos were avenged by her destructive wit, they crowed over her ability to mow down large and small potatoes with a barbed word, for among the fallen was sure to be a rival or, better still, a friend.
The Happy Island is so well executed as to make Waugh’s Vile Bodies look like the work of an amateur. It is consistently sharp, and consistently funny. The comedy works because it is so often unexpected. A sentence or an exchange will follow its own pace, and then Powell will turn it on its head. The effect is cumulative, in fact, and so in the act of reading it snowballs and becomes funnier and funnier.
“Mother was a Robbins, one of the Cape Cod Robbins,” said Jean. “I don’t suppose they cared about that sort of thing in your family. Darling, what is your family anyway?”
“Just a floating father and a grandmother. A grandmother,” said Prudence, “who wears a wig and veils. For all I know she might be a man.”
The collision of the worlds of the serious playwright Jefferson Abbott and the socialite Prudence Bly underlines the satire. In the days before the play is due to open, Prudence informs Jefferson that she will help him make it by ensuring he is on the society page.
“I’ll make myself if you don’t mind,” said Jefferson. “Since when does the society page have anything to do with the drama?”
Prudence laughed nastily.
“My dear innocent, since when has the drama got anything to do with the drama?” she inquired. “A society page pet can turn out a painting or play and it’s automatically a Rembrandt or an Ibsen. The whole system is behind it. So don’t be an ass; let me put you in the proper golden frame.”
Note the use of the adverb. It is hallmark of Powell’s style and she excels at it. Even after this practical advice is offered, Jefferson ignores it, which enrages Prudence, who wonders at his arrogance, “as if he belonged to some Olympian race that was unaffected by human problems”. Quite.
There is a tendency in American literature that, like American politics, is informed by the morality of the country’s Puritan heritage, and not the 18th century Enlightenment era that brought forth the United States. It is one of the great contradictions of American life that so frustrates its observers, and so often takes form in the sanctimonious use of the word “freedom” as a justification for enforcing its exact opposite. Powell is far too sophisticated a writer to weigh her work down with such simple-minded baggage. Morality is more often than not about what people say they are rather than what they actually are. It is about the marketing, the spin, and not the complex reality. The world that Powell portrays is given shape by its characters actions and the result is a freedom of understanding.
The Happy Island is a triumph. The characters are who they are, not what the authorial voice says they are, and it is in their relationships with each other that Powell weaves her satire. That Powell is not as well known as she should be, nor indeed deserves to be, only reinforces the strength of her work.