Set some decades before the turn of the twentieth century, this follows the lives of four children who grow up in fictional Mercer, Ohio-ish, a stand-in for the author’s own hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, then an ironworks hub.
The iron woman of the title is Sarah Maitland, mother and stepmother of two of the four children. She inherited Maitland Ironworks from her father and husband (who were partners) and runs the business with the determination and acumen of any man. These points are emphasized throughout the book. She is immensely wealthy but lives simply enough. She dominates her stepdaughter Nancy (“Nannie”), and indulges her son, Blair. Blair has never heard the word “no.” Blair finds his mother’s house “ugly” and longs to get away from Mercer, the soot from the ironwork, and everything about it
Robert Ferguson, manager at the Maitland Ironworks, lives nearby with his niece, Elizabeth. Mr. Ferguson is bitter over once having been jilted by a woman. His deceased brother’s wife was “bad,” which gives him a further dislike of the whole fairer sex. Nevertheless, he admires his boss, Mrs. Maitland, for the way she runs the ironworks. His niece’s temper tantrums—during some of which she’ll bite herself—don’t concern him. He’s worried she’ll become vain.
He rents a cottage to a newcomer, a Mrs. Helena Richie, a widow with her adopted son, David. The new landlord is friendly, helping her with some new plants for the garden and such things. He’s aware Mrs. Richie had a sad life before she came to Mercer.
The children grow up, the boys go off to school, and return. Blair doesn’t really settle on a career. David becomes a physician and eventually gets a position at a hospital in Philadelphia. Their romantic entanglements drive the plot.
This was part of a bundle of other books I downloaded and not something I would typically read. I was surprised by the odd interpretations I found online by professionals that led me to wonder if some of these folk read the same book I did. By “professionals,” I mean English professors as opposed to two- or three-line amazon and/or goodreads comments. (“Yeah, this book sux, man. I mean like REALLY SUX.”)
The book is a sequel to 1906’s The Awakening of Helena Richie, which tells the story of her marriage to a drunken, abusive husband who killed their child. Escaping him, she lived in sin (yeah, people were doing that even way back then) with a man while they posed as brother and sister. Mrs. Richie now lives a quiet life, concerned only with raising her adoptive son, David.
Most of the plot is taken up with the two boys going off to school and the romantic entanglements of the four young people. Overshadowing all of this is the character of Sarah Maitland. She influences not only her two children, effectively leaving both as eternal adolescents. She does this to Blair by never telling him no or letting him bear the consequences of his actions. She pays off the gambling debts he incurs in college and then increases his allowance, as it obviously isn’t enough.
Nannie is unequipped to deal with adulthood because her mother has brought her up to be her right-hand person. Nannie can even sign her mother’s name so like the original, no one can tell the difference. No room exists for Nannie to be a separate person.
The irony is Mrs. Maitland loves her children. She’s devastated when Blair rejects her or speaks of their house as ugly. Providing for them and indulging them is her expression of love. She also holds sway over Mr. Ferguson as his boss. One off-the-cuff remark from her changes his thinking about a particular situation entirely.
Is this a condemnation of capitalism or the Protestant work ethic? Or a comparison between the urban maternal ethos and the agrarian? Oh, please. Is someone writing a thesis paper?
I don’t see it as either of those or anything quite so profound. Many people in this book are driven and pay the price: Sarah Maitland is driven to run the ironworks like a man and loses the capacity to adequately raise her family; Robert Ferguson is lonely but nurtures resentment toward a girl who jilted him and sister-in-law who ho wronged his brother, leaving him unable to properly raise the unstable Elizabeth; Blair detests what he sees as the ugliness of Mercer yet, dependent on his mother’s money, he is unwilling and unable to take the steps he needs toward independence; on the opposite side of the spectrum, David feels the need for such complete autonomy, he will not accept any money, even when it might make all the difference. I’m ignoring a biggie as it’s a spoiler.
On the crucial question of whether I enjoyed the book, I have to say I did not, despite the wonderful character study of Sarah Maitland and the nostalgic scenes in an ice cream parlor. While this isn’t a Greek tragedy ending with a pile of corpses and a single mourner lamenting the absurdity of humanity, the reader gets to watch nearly everyone behave irrationally and against their own best interests and maybe mutter something along the lines of, “Oh don’t to that, you poor benighted numbskull.”
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first deprive of the ability to put one foot in front of the other.
The book received at least one glowing review upon its publication, so there is room for disagreement, of course.
Title: The Iron Woman
Author: Margaret Deland (1857-1945)
First published: serialized Harper’s Monthly November 1910 through October 1911