Of course, "Twelve Years", the true story of an Afroamerican man kidnapped and sold into slavery and turned into a multiple-award winning movie, is quite present in many a mind. But "This Freedom" is not about slavery in its commonly understood sense. It is a book that, when it was first published in 1922, was heavily criticized by defenders of women's rights. It tells the story of a woman who wants, above anything, freedom - freedom to live her life the way she sees fit, which is not quite the way women were supposed to be living around the turn of the century and the time of WWI.
Rosalie grows up as the youngest in a country reverend's family, a family that is rich only in children. From her earliest conscious memories she knows one thing for sure: The world belongs to men, and women have but one task, to be there for their men. Men and boys can go where and when they want, with whoever they please, while women and girls are expected to be always at home, ready and willing to do the men's bidding.
Like her sisters, Rosalie is largely educated at home by her mother, but a combination of unexpected occurrances (some very sad and tragic, others positive for at least two members of the family) leads to her being installed in London at a girls' boarding school. Weekends are spent with a rich aunt, who, in a generously good-hearted, boasting way never fails to make Rosalie feel the poor relation she is.
Rosalie loves to learn, and the older she gets, the more obvious her exceptionally bright, logical mind becomes. She also loves about the school that it is an almost men-free world - here, it is the women who determine what is done when, and how. When she comes across a book about economics and banking, this book ("Lombard Street") becomes her "bible"; it shows her what she wants to do in life. Marriage and raising her own family never enters her mind.
Love does not ask whether it fits into someone's plans or not, and so it happens that Rosalie falls in love with the most unlikely candidate. (I must admit it was not much of a surprise to me, as it won't be to many a reader; too often have we already seen this trick of the authors' trade: boy meets girl, girl detests boy, girl falls madly in love with boy.)
By that time, Rosalie has already carved out a niche for herself in the business world. She is successful, she earns her own money, she loves her work, and is highly esteemed by her employer and his clients. Marriage will not change that, she is sure, and neither will having children. With her husband, she has what looks like the ideal marriage: both partners have equal rights, both thrive in their work, both love each other and their children very much, and the household is well organized, running smoothly from morning to night.
Things begin to change, gradually at first, but then in leaps and bounds. Decisions have to be taken. Decisions are taken, but they do not yield the expected results. Helplessly, Rosalie and her husband watch their family, which they had always perceived to be an extraordinarily happy one, disintegrate. Blow after blow they receive, until it seems they can't take any more. The book ends on a hopeful note, but many sad and dramatic events line the last of its four parts ("House of Men", "House of Women", "House of Children" and "House of Cards").
I was happy for Rosalie when she made her dream of a self-determined life come true. Her enthusiasm is described so well, it is infectuous. The sadness that follows is infectuous, too, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for her and her family.
The criticism the book received originally is justified, if the story is taken at face value. But there is more to it than that, I think. To me, the author does not suggest Rosalie did wrong in putting her work first. He rather shows how difficult it is to balance family and work, and that is true for both women and men. It can work out, and probably does in many families (made easier nowadays in some ways, more difficult in others). But it can also go horribly wrong.
On the other hand, the family life at Rosalie's childhood home can hardly be described as happy, although her mother was always at home; Rosalie's home life with her husband and the children, while they were young, sounds happy. The things that her children do and that happen to them as they grow up could have happened just the same if Rosalie had always been a stay-at-home mum.
A book I can recommend; I'll probably go and look for more by the same author on the kindle shop.
Speaking of the author, Arthur Stuart-Menteth Hutchinson (often just given as A.S.M. Hutchinson) was yet another one of those immensely successful authors in their day whom I had never heard about before. Hutchinson lived from 1879 to 1971 and, while Wikipedia lists less than 20 novels and a few short stories as his works, some of his books were bestsellers. According to the New York Times, one of his novels ("If Winter Comes") was the best-selling book in the US in 1922. What I find quite touching is that he was so thrilled after the birth of his son that he wrote a book about it. Were he alive today, he probably would have blogged about it :-)