Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stella Dallas by Olive Higgins Prouty

This is one of my all-time favorite books and movies. It is a phoenix that rose from the ashes of great sorrow. Mrs. Prouty wrote this novel about a mother's self-sacrificing love for her daughter after her daughter died of encephalitis in 1923, the devastating loss caused Ms. Prouty to have a nervous breakdown and the book was written during her recovery. Knowing this makes reading the novel an even more poignant experience; you can tell when the author's and the character's hearts beat as one.

Now for the plot.

Stella Dallas is a poor but ambitious girl from the wrong side of the tracks, born to live, marry, and die in a crude and ignorant milltown. But Stella longs to better herself and dreams of bigger and better and brighter things, of crossing the tracks into the world of high society, of going up in the world instead of stagnating where she is and being beaten down more and more year after year.

In the wake of a family scandal, Stephen Dallas, a refined and cultured gentleman, takes work at the local mill. Feeling his family shame renders him unworthy of Helen Dane, the woman he loves, he marries Stella and, like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, tries to mold and shape her into a proper lady. But Stella has no interest in fine literature, she prefers magazines, and likes her music current and peppy instead of classical, and she has her own very definite ideas about style, especially clothes, and resents her husband's well-intentioned efforts. Mr. Dallas is actually right about this, the words "less is more" are completely lost on Stella, she layers on the makeup, costume jewelry, and her dresses are made of bold prints, like zebra, dripping with gaudy trimmings. As she ages this only gets worse, especially when she begins to dye her hair--there is nothing subtle about Stella. And her speech remains loud and slangy throughout her life, blinding people to the fact that beneath all the ruffles and paint there is a truly good heart.

The only thing the couple truly have in common is their great love for their only child, their daughter Laurel, affectionately called Lolly. When they separate and Mr. Dallas moves to New York, Stella is determined to give her daughter all the best things in life. Ironically, while Stella's sense of personal style is the fashion equivalent of the sinking of the Titanic, without the tragic loss of lives of course, where her daughter is concerned it is FLAWLESS, she creates the most exquisite handmade garments that rival anything in the fashion magazines or the fine stores where the rich and refined shop. She meticulously studies and copies the great designers and latest styles and with impeccable seamstress's skill outfits her daughter with elegance and class. The whole of Stella's heart is in every stitch Laurel wears.

In New York, Mr. Dallas meets his old love again, Helen Dane, now Mrs. Morrison, is a widow, the mother of three boys, who lost her only little girl to illness. Here we see the shadow of Mrs. Prouty's personal sorrow. When Laurel is brought to stay with Mrs. Morrison during her annual visit to her father when he has to leave town on business, an instantaneous bond develops between the two. Helen Morrison is such a gentle, soft-spoken and elegant lady without a touch of snobbishness (in the movie she is perfectly portrayed by Barbara O'Neill who played Scarlett O'Hara's mother in Gone With The Wind) that Laurel cannot help being drawn to her, and Helen's heart is instantly touched by this studious, intelligent little girl who gladdens her heart even as it aches for what might have been if her own daughter had lived.

Jealous of her daughter's affections, Stella resents Mrs. Morrison, and when Mr.Dallas asks for a divorce she refuses and threatens to make a scandal that will drag Mrs. Morrison's name through the mud (the book is set in a time when divorce was still considered a black mark on a woman's reputation).

Determined to be every bit as good, Stella takes Laurel, now seventeen, to summer at a luxurious country resort hotel frequented by the wealthy. Laurel fits in perfectly, and makes many friends, and even captures the heart of a well-to-do college boy, the scion of a fine old family, Richard Grosvenor, but Stella is a fish out of water and an object of ridicule. When her friends, without realizing that Stella is Laurel's mother, make fun of her brash and vulgar appearance and manners, Laurel becomes ashamed of her mother and insists they leave at once.On the train, in the sleeper compartment, Stella overhears some young girls talking and realizes what has happened. And she decides to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give Laurel the best chance in life.

Stella pays a heartbreaking visit to Mrs. Morrison, who receives her with great warmth and kindness. Stella agrees to the divorce on one condition--that Helen and Stephen take Laurel and introduce her into society as if she were their own natural daughter. But Laurel loves her mother dearly and when she learns of the plan refuses to leave her, so Stella drives her daughter away by marrying the one man Laurel absolutely detests, Ed Munn, a man who once moved on the periphery of polite society but has since fallen very low, and whose loud and crude, flashy and over-familiar ways Laurel cannot stand. Stella drives her daughter away in order to save her and Laurel runs straight into the loving arms of her father and Helen, the soon-to-be new Mrs. Dallas.

The book ends in a heart-wrenching scene where Stella, now the poor wife of the drug and alcohol addled Ed. Munn, watches through a window from the street outside Stephen and Helen's townhouse as Laurel, a debutante in a beautiful white gown, presides over her coming out ball (in the movie this was changed to Laurel's wedding) with the handsome Richard Grosvenor at her side.

I love this book and the movie it inspired, which adheres very closely to the novel, some may find it a tad quaint and overly sentimental or melodramatic, but I've got a marshmallow for a heart; I even cry myself blind over the death of the spider in the original animated film version of Charlotte's Web. Though Stella Dallas was written in 1924, to me at least, this novel has not lost anything through age, especially not its power to touch the heart. Perhaps that is because it was written out of the depths of a mother's sorrowing heart, as she tried to come to terms with her grief and pull herself back up after she went over the edge. It is the butterfly that came out of that cocoon of grief as a loving tribute to a lost child.