‘The Old Gray Homestead’: Centenary of a Forgotten First Novel

Frances Parkinson Keyes is little remembered these days; she may have been the Joyce Carol Oates of her time.

The literary career of Frances Parkinson Keyes spanned a half-century.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of several well-remembered books. When you Google “books published in 1919,” you’ll find lists with such familiar titles as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World and Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. No great surprise: most of the selections listed were written by men — one notable exception being Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day.

But 1919 also marked the beginning of the impressive literary career of an American woman: Frances Parkinson Keyes (1885-1970), whose maiden name was Wheeler. Keyes is little remembered these days, but throughout her long writing life, she published more than 50 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including a best-selling 1948 mystery (Dinner at Antoine’s), profiles of religious figures (she made a “gradual growth” to Catholicism as an adult) and even The Frances Parkinson Keyes Cookbook. She was also an associate editor for several years at Good Housekeeping magazine. During the earlier parts of her career, she balanced literary work with her life as a Washington, DC, hostess. Her husband was Henry (“Harry”) Wilder Keyes (1863-1938), whom she married in 1904. In 1919, following two years as governor of New Hampshire, he began serving the first of three terms as a US senator.

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Keyes’ work may never join that of other American women writers of her era — Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Lillian Hellman — in the canon of “serious” literature, but her career is noteworthy for the extent of her literary output. In terms of the sheer number of volumes published, she may have been the Joyce Carol Oates of her time.

Keyes Portrait
Frances Parkinson Keyes.

Recently, I had a look at Keyes’ debut novel, The Old Gray Homestead, for which she drew upon her early experiences in New England. She was clearly still finding her way as a fiction writer, but the book — which she’d drafted “in odd moments” when one of her sons was a baby — is nonetheless an engaging look at the social and sexual mores of America a century ago. Keyes was not exactly progressive: later in her career, she edited the magazine of the Daughters of the American Revolution. (Although she attempted to depoliticize the publication and make it more appealing to non-DAR members, there is scant indication that she distanced it from the organization’s troublesome attitudes on race. But, according to her son Henry, she had been in favor of African-American singer Marian Anderson performing for integrated audiences at the D.A.R.-owned  Constitution Hall in Washington in 1939.)

In Homestead, however, she wrote sympathetically about a woman who has survived spousal abuse. The book, published by Houghton Mifflin, received encouraging reviews and sold well for a first novel. In her memoir All Flags Flying (published posthumously in 1972), Keyes wrote that when she learned Homestead had been accepted for publication, she went at sunset to a grove in view of the Vermont hills for prayerful reflection:

The silence, the peace, the beauty around me strengthened my conviction that I had received an accolade and that I must keep a vigil of consecration. It seemed to me there could no longer be any doubt what tools God meant me to use in my lifework; I was going to be a writer.

The Widow Cary

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Like Keyes herself, Sylvia Cary, the leading female character of The Old Gray Homestead, comes from a life of relative privilege. The book’s opening scene is told from the perspective of young schoolteacher Sally Gray, who will actually turn out to be only a minor character. Sylvia, a young widow, encounters Sally and her brother Austin on a muddy road near the New England town of Hamstead. Sylvia is looking for the farm owned by Sally and Austin’s parents. Hamstead had once been a sort of resort town, and Sylvia hopes to find refuge from her personal sorrows there. Sally and Austin take her to the Grays’ large, run-down farmhouse, where the widow asks whether she might become a boarder. The matriarch, Mary Gray, is reluctant, but Sylvia presses a hundred-dollar bill into her hand.

Sylvia settles into life at the homestead and soon comes to view the property, the house and its many occupants as fixer-uppers. She shares ideas about how the farm might be better managed, and she begins bestowing money and other favors on the Grays and their numerous children. She offers the girls items from her wardrobe. (“If you would take the dresses and use them, it would be such a favor to me.”) The whole family perks up and spruces up in short order — all, that is, but moody Austin, who treats Sylvia scornfully and resentfully. In fact, he’s deeply attracted to the pretty, moneyed intruder.

homesteadAustin’s bitter feelings and secret longing come to a boil when Sylvia goes out riding on a blazing-hot day and is caught in a late-afternoon lightning storm that destroys, among other things, most of the out-buildings on the Grays’ property. Austin ventures into the pelting rain and finds her thrown from her storm-frightened horse, her ankle injured. In the dark, muddy landscape, her expression appears to Austin “as pure and as sad and as gentle as that of a Mater Dolorosa he had chanced to see in a collection of prints at the Wallacetown Library.” Indeed, Austin has a full-blown Madonna-whore complex. Keyes lets us know, in as euphemistic language as one can imagine, that this young man has encountered women considerably different from the Mater Dolorosa on excursions into certain neighborhoods of Wallacetown.

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That night, Sylvia reveals to Austin what she has told none of the other Grays: that her marriage was a horror show. Coaxed by her mother to marry for money, she had wed a middle-aged millionaire who turned out to be an alcoholic, a philanderer and a physical abuser. She miscarried. Then she gave birth to a severely disfigured child, who died. Then the millionaire drank himself to death.

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Austin experiences the events of this night with Sylvia as a sweet-and-sour epiphany. He is drawn to Sylvia sexually more than ever. But he feels unworthy of her due to those wild times in Wallacetown. The rest of the novel focuses on the ups and downs of their subsequent relationship. Sylvia uses her fortune to send Austin to Europe, where he purchases and ships to the homestead robust dairy cows that put the farm’s “tubercular-grade,” pre-Sylvia cattle to shame. He enjoys playing at being a swell. The would-be lovers draw close, then pull apart — repeatedly. They become jealous and angry and decide to marry, but Sylvia, still mourning her dead child, wants a prolonged engagement.

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The novel’s viewpoint shifts repeatedly, with Keyes writing from Austin’s perspective for much of the story. In All Flags Flying, she describes Homestead as “a simple story about the kind of life and kind of people I knew best.” She may not yet have fully discovered her own rhythm as a writer, but her determination to get things right served her well.

The Accidental Fortune Hunter?

As in so many novels, money and sex are Keyes’ chief concerns in Homestead, although the former is spoken of much more directly than the latter. Sylvia associates the fortune she inherited from her dissipated husband with her and her mother’s avaricious nature in landing him. Speaking of herself in the third person, she tells Austin during the storm scene that her husband left her “with over two million dollars to spend as she chose — and the degradation of her body and ruin of her soul to think of all the rest of her life.” Perhaps she saw her monetary support of the Grays as a sort of penance. Money comes between Sylvia and Austin later in the story, too, largely because of his masculine pride. He accepts her funds to help him personally, but, as their relationship grows more intimate, he finds that he’s become a sort of accidental fortune hunter. After one severe quarrel with Sylvia, he learns that he has inherited significant funds from an aunt in Seattle. He is elated, and the quarrel with Sylvia seems forgotten. “It’s queer how much less sore I am about her money now that I’ve got a little of my own,” he marvels.

As for sex, the respective pasts of the two sweethearts are always lying in wait to trip them up. In one early scene in the book, Austin starts to embrace Sylvia, and she shrinks from him, clearly still disturbed by the brutalities of her marriage, leaving him horrified. (Had I read this scene a few years ago, it might have seemed quaint and melodramatic. Read in light of 2019 views on such matters, it resonates.) Later, Austin frets that he’ll slip back into his old Wallacetown debaucheries. He becomes beyond eager to marry Sylvia and to experience connubial bliss. It’s 1919: there’s no way anything carnal will happen before a wedding.

It’s someone else’s transgressive sexual behavior that threatens further postponement of Sylvia and Austin’s marriage. The youngest Gray daughter, free-spirited Edith, finds herself pregnant. She miscarries, but Sylvia insists on spiriting Edith away from gossipy Hamstead for a year or so. Austin is furious. He claims that Edith has forfeited her right to happiness by indulging in premarital sex.

Nothing Indelicate

The Edith episode is apparently the content in Homestead that became trouble for Keyes after the novel’s publication. She writes in All Flags Flying:

[M]y rural scene, wholesome and peaceful for the most part, had been marred by the introduction of an indiscretion committed by a minor character. This was, unfortunately, quite as typical of the scene in question as its more moral aspects, and the reference was very discreetly worded, but it had an effect on my publishers, on two reviewers and on my husband…. I was baffled and astonished, for I felt — and still feel — that I had written nothing indelicate.

The publishers, who objected to nothing in Homestead pre-publication, changed their tune when some purchasers expressed concern with the plot point in question. The reaction of her husband Harry, the senator, deeply hurt her as well. He told her that it would be more helpful if she “were strong enough to do the washing and save money that way, instead of trying to earn it by writing.”

Near the end of her life, the author wrote that Harry “never praised the book and I knew he never would.” Yet, he did call on his wife to help him with a possible speech on the League of Nations. Frances chose to take that request as a compliment rather than a slap in the face.

New Hampshire governor and senator Henry Keyes.

In Homestead, Sylvia’s abusive millionaire husband is about 20 years her senior. A similar age gap separated Frances and Harry Keyes. The author may not have been drawing a parallel with her own marriage, but the age-gap similarity is striking. (Keyes notes frankly in her memoir that at the time of the novel’s publication, her husband’s ardor had evaporated.) In any event, by the time of the controversy she had dedicated herself to writing. She was not about to give it up to become a laundress.

Around the time Homestead was accepted for publication, Keyes received her first-ever check (a small one) for an essay she’d submitted to a magazine. She left the check on her husband’s desk, along with a note saying, in part:

I cannot help taking a certain pride in the fact that, after grieving for many years because I, unlike my two sisters-in-law, brought no fortune to my husband, the first money I am giving him is not inherited or a present to me from my parents, but something I have earned myself, without the help of anyone.

Things were different when she received a $400 check for royalties from The Old Gray Homestead:

[T]his time I did not offer it all to my husband. I went out and bought new spring clothes, the lack of which had constituted [a] reason for my delay in making calls and receiving company.

If she deferred to her husband in some things, she was clearly capable of tracing her own path through life both before and after he was gone. Frances outlived Harry by more than three decades, and her spirit of self-determination kept her in the public eye even as he drifted far into historical-footnote territory.

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