Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Flannery's Favorite? Flannery O'Connor and Elizabeth Fenwick

Sarah Weinman's path-breaking Library of America anthology Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s will be out later this year, and high time too (up until now female-authored crime fiction has been represented in the noir and hard-boiled focused LOA by, I believe, exactly one author, Patricia Highsmith).  Included in the two-volume set are novels by Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar and Dolores Hitchens.

If there is ever an additional volume in the series, another good candidate for inclusion might be Elizabeth Fenwick (1916-1996), an author who offers an interesting example of the writing path taken by a number of mid-century American women crime writers, as the puzzle-oriented detective novel lost its predominance within crime fiction.  Here is a list of the fourteen novels Fenwick published over a quarter century period:

The Inconvenient Corpse 1943
Murder in Haste 1944
Two Names for Death 1945
The Long Wing 1947
Afterwards 1950
Days of Plenty 1956
Poor Harriet 1957
A Long Way Down 1959
A Friend of Mary Rose 1961
The Make-Believe Man 1963
The Silent Cousin 1966
The Passenger 1967
Disturbance on Berry Hill 1968
Goodbye, Aunt Elva 1968

The first three of these novels, published under the androgynous name E. P. Fenwick when the author was in her late twenties, are relatively traditional detective stories, while the next three, published, like all this author's later novels, under the more revealing name Elizabeth Fenwick, are "mainstream" novels. Finally, the last eight novels are all crime thrillers, or psychological suspense tales, for which Fenwick became best known.

Presumably Fenwick deemed the first detective novels, which were well-reviewed but never well-known, as something of an apprenticeship to her main interest, "straight" novel writing (although in the late 1950s she apparently abandoned straight novel writing for tales of psychological suspense).

In 1948, shortly after the publication of her first "serious" novel, Fenwick was accepted at Yaddo, the famous upstate New York artists' and writers' colony. There she completed her second mainstream novel, Afterwards. In a 1950 Saturday Review notice of this book Kathleen Sproul advised: "Those who are bewailing the lack of successors to our aging, and in some instances, declining novelists, would do well to contemplate Elizabeth Fenwick."


Two years before Fenwick came to Yaddo Truman Capote had worked there on his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, while the same year that Fenwick was at Yaddo, Patricia Highsmith and the great American novelist and short story writer Flannery O'Connor were guests there as well (Highsmith was working on Strangers on a Train, Yaddo have decided to accept a writer working in a "lower" form of writing because she was deemed a better stylist than many "serious" writers).

Apparently Fenwick's and Highsmith's time at Yaddo did not overlap, but Fenwick's and O'Connor's did; and the two became good friends, which is more than you can say for O'Connor, who was religiously devout, and Highsmith, who was...anything but.   

"In any collection of so-called artists you will find a good percentage alcoholic in one degree or another," O'Connor wrote sardonically to a friend in a 1959 letter.  "In such a place you have to expect them all to sleep around. This is not sin but Experience, and if you do not sleep with the opposite sex, it is assumed that you sleep with your own" (see Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor).

Patricia Highsmith
For her part, Highsmith--one of those Yaddo residents drinking alcohol and sleeping around (with both sexes)--apparently did not form a great impression of O'Connor, whom she identified at the time as the "new writer Capote [a friend of Highsmith's at this time] likes very much.  Maybe another McCullers, I don't know....I expected from the name a racy colt with reddish hair, a six-gear brain [but she] personifies Iowa once removed from Georgia, which she is."

Many years later Highsmith is said to have complained that O'Connor never socialized with her boisterous crowd (O'Connor in 1959 wrote, "I went to one or two of these [Yaddo parties] but always left before they began to break things").

On coming back to Yaddo from one such party, so this story goes, Highsmith found O'Connor kneeling on a porch, raptly staring at a knot of wood and declaring that she discerned in it the face of Jesus.

"And ever since then I've not liked that woman," Highsmith is said to have told a young friend, in the story's punch line (see Joan Schenkar, The Talented Miss Highsmith). Whether or not this event actually took place, it certainly reeks of antipathy for O'Connor on Highsmith's part.

In Elizabeth Fenwick, however, O'Connor found a friend; and the two corresponded until O'Connor's tragically premature death in 1964.  Fenwick, nearly a decade older than O'Connor, was, like Highsmith, originally from Texas, but I have yet to see anything in her writing that identifies her as a southern regional writer (indeed, all the books I have read by her are set in Connecticut's New York City exurbs).

Flannery O'Connor
At the time of her stay at Yaddo, Fenwick was working for a Columbia University professor and residing at the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A male guest at Yaddo at this time recalled Fenwick as "a kind of sexy creature, very attractive physically."

Sally Fitzgerald, a friend of O'Connor's and editor of The Habit of Being, a collection of O'Connor's letters, recalled that "Flannery spoke of Elizabeth, whom she always referred to as 'Miss Fenwick,' often and fondly."

 In 1960 O'Connor wrote rather a paean to Fenwick, in correspondence with another friend:

She writes novels, writes one to suit herself and then one mystery novel to make money, then one to suit herself, etc.  She lives by a kind of rhythm, has nothing to say but is full of lovely feelings, giggles, is a big soft blond girl and real nice to be around except that she bats her eyelashes....She is kind of a complement to me, and we get on famously.

In another letter, one to Fenwick, O'Connor discussed Fenwick's first psychological suspense novel, the highly-praised Poor Harriet (1957).  I'll be having more to say about this novel, and O'Connor's discussion of it, for Friday.

And for more on Patricia Highsmith in the 1940s, see this Passing Tramp post from last year.


  1. Pablo Neruda also had at least one Fenwick title in his collection.

    1. Yes, I think Gollancz reprinted all her books in UK.