Consider that phrase, “domestic fiction.” So close to “domesticated,” it carries the connotation of a house-broken pet: eager to please, discreet, companionable, sulky but essentially submissive. It’s a usefully misleading cover for a mode that is more often fraught and claustrophobic. When Anthony Lane describes Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady as a “disturbance of the peace” and a “horror story,” he could be talking about domestic fiction generally.
Reissued this month as a NYRB Classic, Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia won the PEN/Hemingway Prize for First Fiction in 1983, two years after Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and one year after Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories. Upon publication, those three novels were individually considered as feminist reworkings of domestic fiction — as political statements — though each author had ambitions that extended into questions of the self against the demands of community.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas once answered the question “What does it mean to be Jewish?” by saying:
To be Jewish is not a particularity; it is a modality. Everyone is a little bit Jewish, and if there are men on Mars, one will find Jews among them. Moreover, Jews are people who doubt themselves, who in a certain sense, belong to a religion of unbelievers. God says to Joshua, “I will not abandon you nor will I let you escape.”
In, Housekeeping and Chase’s first novel, as well as Paula Fox’s The Widow’s Children and Hilary Mantel’s Every Day is Mother’s Day, the Family is a kind of Lévinasian paradox: its members will not abandoned nor will they be allowed to escape. These fragile communities are knitted together by doubt, intimidation, suspicion, timidity, and egotism.
To better understand why they stay in co-dependent relationships, Fox, Mantel, and Chase anatomize their protagonists’ intellectual contradictions and follies stoically, without a hint of sentimentality. If there is an arch-theme to the genre, it would be the way each of us can become ensnared by our own solipsism. In The Widow’s Children, one character stays in an impoverished, acrimonious marriage because she has convinced herself of her own superiority over her condition, “that they were only ‘broke,’ that rescue was on the way — always on the way.”
The “Queen of Persia” is a grandmother in a small Ohio farming town. She has four daughters. Her four granddaughters are all born within two years of each other to mismatched parents. The male characters — the malevolent grandfather, one hapless trumpet-playing uncle, and another enigmatic uncle who is a failed writer — are palpably uneasy around their daughters and wives. The women assume the responsibility of preparing the young girls for the austere life they will inherit.
Chase’s novel is narrated by the four young granddaughters, “we.” This unorthodox conceit works subtly, but it also leads to a telling choice. There is no reference to “Mom” or “Dad,” only to Aunt Libby and Uncle Dan, insisting on a tone of estrangement between the children and their parents. When their individual anonymity is disrupted, one of the girls is lifted out of the group and treated like an outsider. Occasionally, the narrators skip over subjects that perhaps are not comprehensible for pre-teen girls. (They have a sexual encounter with a cousin that is obliquely depicted.)
The tone is cautiously wistful, as if this past still has a grip on its survivors. A signal choice in this novel is the manipulation of time. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and Toni Morrison’s Sula (1977) cover the same territory, well, literally. Sula opens with a landscape of rural Ohio:
In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples, and chestnuts, connected it to the valley.
This is the beginning of Chase’s novel:
In northern Ohio there is a county of some hundred thousand arable acres which breaks with the lake region flatland and begins to roll and climb, and to change into rural settings: roadside clusters of houses, small settlements that repose on the edge of nowhere […] These traces of human habitation recede, balanced by the luxuriant curving hills, cliffs like lounging flanks, water shoots that rapidly lose themselves in gladed ravines.
As opposed to Morrison’s description, the present doesn’t dominate the memory of 1950s Ohio; the past has been carefully circumscribed. Morrison’s historical landscape is besieged by real-estate developers and social forces of change. Chase’s landscape doesn’t register the present. It appears elemental, hardly concerned with human beings at all.
The first chapter of During the Reign is set in motion when the oldest granddaughter, Celia, experiences puberty, “a miracle and a calamity.” Sexuality shuffles the motives of everyone around the young girls, who only dimly seem to understand why. Her mother, Aunt Libby, becomes fiercely devoted to making sure she doesn’t ruin her chances for marriage. A half dozen men woo her. Her fiancé later betrays her. In what feels like 10 pages, Celia’s adolescent beauty and verve quietly shrink: “[Her mother] still fretted over Celia, a set habit, focusing now on her health, for rather quickly the bloom of Celia’s face and figure was gone. She looked wilted by misfortune.” Celia marries the quietly pining boy she wasn’t interested in and moves to Texas.
When the father of two of the girls visits the farm, a large “country-style” breakfast sparks memories of his own childhood. After breakfast, the girls wait for him in the barn. Their private ritual the narrators describe is a re-enactment of his childhood. He performs the role of a Mr. Higgenbottom, a teacher “as mean as Silas Marner, as severe as God, and as relentless as the devil.” He gives each girl a word to spell. Eventually, the girls misspell “symbol” and “conscience” and he whips them with a stick. They rationalize that he hits them less hard than he hits his own hand.
The father, Neil, eventually let them go:
We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and it runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies.
Neil, though, follows them to the stream, where they tackle him and pile onto him. Restless and mysterious, he seems to vanish into the air, and the girls call his name. The narrators then say, “Then we forget again, dreaming.”
This odd father-daughter set piece is echoed in a later Chase novel, The Evening Wolves (1990). The father in that novel imitates the big bad wolf. Drawn to the dangerous wolf, the daughters are unable to resist approaching and being mauled by the wolf. Both scenes, with the apologetic victim and the physically violent adult, are unsettling.
The father-uncle and the girls are caught in a pantomime of private history that they can’t seem to extricate themselves from. Like the abusive grandfather lurking in the background, Neil allows the grief of his own past to impinge on his own daughters’ youth. Their childhood isn’t innocent and it isn’t painless, Chase suggests, but he shouldn’t add to their suffering.
The novel then spools backward, to the marriage of the grandmother and grandfather, a man hardened by his Depression-era struggles. He is an abusive drunk who slowly recedes to a bench in the barn, among the cows that he is dedicated to. He sells off the cows silently and dies, un-mourned.
For the first three-fourths of the novel, the girls have only touched on the trauma that has shaped their young lives, as if their consciousness has ricocheted off it. The reader learns that Grace, mother to two of the girls, has already died from cancer by the time Celia is married in the first chapter.
The novel tests an old cliché — that the dying can teach us how better to live — before the narrators discard it. They also reject the faith-based consolations of their Aunt, a Christian Scientist.
None of us sang, our sorrow accomplished. We heard the footsteps of the men who carried the coffin and the closing of the car doors. We went outside with the others, blinking our eyes as if we’d walked into first light. Without a comprehensible past or imaginable expectations, we had entered into another lifetime. We held hands.
That fragile and incomprehensible past looms in this story, a centripetal force in the narrative of their lives. The painful recollection of her slow death resonates throughout the house. The gurgling sound that Grace makes during one of her last nights, as she tries to breathe, is the same sound the sink drain makes.
Amy Hungerford has argued that Robinson’s Housekeeping is preoccupied with how grief paradoxically enlarges the memory of the dead and starves the self’s presence. Alternately, the group chorus of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia seem untethered by time, reordering events and maintaining the inscrutability of their own motives. Unbound from a linear construction of time, this group of agnostics are connected by the tenuous thread of Lévinasian doubt and by grief.
One reason that Chase has slipped into obscurity, while her rough contemporaries Robinson, Mason, and Mantel have ascended, is the relative infrequency with which she publishes. Seven years elapsed between During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and The Evening Wolves. It has been 23 years since her short-story collection Bonneville Blue.
“The success of Persia was part of what made it difficult for me to begin a second novel,” she told Contemporary Authors Online. “But I think just being published was equally constraining. For the first time I was aware of an audience as an integral part of the process which makes a book a book. After that it was harder for me to focus on my material and fictional intentions without hearing other voices and responses.”
I also suspect that her lack of productivity owes something to her lapidary style and unhurried structure. Near the end of the novel, the Queen makes arrangements concerning the house, which she keeps secret from the entire family: “We were as separated from her,” the narrators say, “as always, living on there, awaiting her decisions, with everything that happened heightened with the poignancy and solemnity of an old tale.” That poignancy and solemnity is the effect of deliberate, patient craftsmanship. Moreover, the craftsmanship here is consummate.