Imagine this: A woman is forced into celibacy by the pact between two men who believe they are acting in her best interest. The time: 1849 to 1859. The setting: rural Tennessee. The men: her lover and her husband-to-be.
In her well-researched first novel, Betty Palmer Nelson provides her readers with fresh insights into the dynamics within an arranged marriage, even if this marriage was arranged by the bride's lover. She takes a close look at the nature of love--its promises and compromises, its deceptions and surprises. Love is bartered, misunderstood and redefined, but ultimately it endures only where it is nurtured without expectations.
Molly Hampton, the heroine in "Private Knowledge," is the daughter of a bitter woman and a lazy man, who relies on luck and manipulates the generosity of others. In church, Molly is told that a woman's role is to serve her family, and she learns early to assume most of the household responsibilities. Her one escape is into a fantasy world where she is loved and wealthy.
One of the most fascinating characters in this first novel is Molly's mother. Frail and resentful, she blames her children for her poor health and believes that the one-room cabin is below her station as a Virginia lady. "They had gone from one poor place to another, taking more children with them each time." Pretty things have become memories whose ghosts destroy the quality of her life because nothing else can possibly measure up.
It's essential for Molly to free herself from her parents, and her independence begins when she asserts herself against her father--a step that marks her an outcast within her family. Despite the plans that others make for her, and despite her frequent concessions to their wishes, she emerges stronger and more aware of her choices.
When she falls in love with a married man, Benjamin, she feels guilty at her passionate response: "Only bad women felt that way." Though Benjamin is in love with her, he feels confined to his loveless marriage with Etta Sue, a shallow society woman who keeps comparing herself to others. Etta Sue comes across as a stereotype until Nelson taps into deeper layers of her character with lyrical prose that surpasses the language of her narrative and shows the roots of Etta Sue's insecurities. She dreams of being a girl again, excluded from the play of other children, and when they finally let her participate, they trick and abandon her.
After Molly becomes pregnant with Benjamin's child, she reluctantly agrees to marry his friend, Simon, who has been celibate for nearly a quarter of a century. He proposes the union with Molly for the sake of companionship: "She would be like a daughter to me. Or a sister." He has a noble history of rescuing women while keeping his distance. Once, he loved a married woman but left his home in order to preserve her honor. He takes responsibility for Molly and her unborn child while defending his role as husband against Benjamin's old claims.
Although an affection develops between Molly and Simon, she feels like a stranger in his house and longs for Benjamin. Simon is unsettled by his feelings for his young wife, whose pregnancy causes her to move with an unfamiliar dignity. "Her wrists and the bones of her face seemed more delicate, as though her substance were being drawn off into the child she was carrying."
Nelson develops Simon's story in parallels that illuminate his past and present with two women who don't entirely belong to him. She draws a convincing picture of his marriage to a much younger woman who matures in the supportive environment he provides for her. As their age difference ceases to matter, Simon grows more attractive to Molly, while she moves with him on the same level of decision-making.
Though the prologue and epilogue are stiff and forced, "Private Knowledge" reveals the contrasts between the different levels of a highly class-conscious society. Nelson juxtaposes gala balls and hunts with authentic details of homesteading.
Inevitably, Molly is given her choice between the two men. Although the outcome is predictable, the path toward that resolution is original, since Nelson takes her characters through believable struggles as they come up against their own human flaws and against circumstances they would not have chosen.
"Private Knowledge" explores different kinds of losses, coming to terms with those losses, and the discovery of strength that comes with Molly's transcendence over the moral judgment of her time that "she had sinned as he (Benjamin) had sinned, perhaps worse since she was a woman." Shedding her innocence and guilt, she grows toward the moment where she determines her destiny instead of settling for a narrow concept of punishment.
Richard Eder is on vacation.
Next: Elaine Kendall reviews "Buster Midnight's Cafe" by Sandra Dallas (Random House).