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The Vehement Flame (1922) Margaret Deland

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SUMMARY

1870s, Pittsburg. Maurice Curtis, 19 year old golden boy, full of hope and promise, shocks the world when he marries Eleanor, a shy old maid with a gorgeous singing voice, who is 39 years old. Both Eleanor’s plain spoken aunt, and Maurice’s guardians, the folksy and practical Mr. and Mrs. Houghton, worry that he has made a horrible mistake, but their daughter Edith, 10 years Maurice’s junior, thinks that anything Maurice does is amazing. Maurice and Eleanor are so in love, they think nothing can touch them.

Gradually things start to unravel. Eleanor is jealous of everyone, and unable to have a child. Maurice is fed up with her jealousy, and one night, just to ‘show her’, he ends up sleeping with a pretty ‘common’ girl named Lillie. Lillie gets pregnant, and as a son, who Maurice has to support, keeping it a secret from Eleanor, despite several people cautioning him to tell her.
He eventually does, about 10 years later. She forgives him, tries to get his son for him, but Lillie will not give her son up. Meanwhile, Edith, now 20, has fallen in love with Maurice, and Eleanor, in a fit of jealousy, inadvertently make Maurice realize that he too loves Edith.

Eleanor then tries to kill herself so that he will be free to marry Lillie. She doesn’t succeed, but dies of a lung infection. Maurice realizes that he can do more for Jacky as a benefactor with no ‘claim’ on him. Everyone is convinced that Maurice shouldn’t marry anyone, because who would want to be deal with his baby mama and illegitimate son, but Edith furiously makes a play for Maurice’s own happiness saying that she would marry him if he only asked. He admits his love for her after she tells him she knows how he feels about her, and they agree to marry…

REVIEW

I feel like there’s a lot to unpack in this book. The plot definitely didn’t go where I thought it would. According to the author's note, she came up with the story around 8 years prior, in 1914. It was pretty hard to get through – because a lot of it was about people who started out happy and in love and innocent becoming selfish and degraded and ashamed. The ‘vehement flame’ of the title is jealousy, and it motivates a lot of the action of the book. Eleanor’s jealousy is one of the main things that motivates the disintegration of their marriage. Her jealousy is personified by her dog Bingo, jealous of anyone who comes near his mistress, and another facet of jealousy is mirrored in Lillie, whose maternal jealousy makes her terrified of anyone who might try to take Jacky away from her. Maurice begins as a proponent of Truth – his coworkers call him G. Washington, and his moral degradation comes from having to keep the secret of Jacky from Eleanor. The other main proponent of truth is Edith, and she ends up as the one who can bring him happiness, in the end. No one is completely blamed for the mistakes they make, but everyone is held accountable. Everyone is agreed (even Eleanor, in the end) that Eleanor shouldn’t have married Maurice, because he was so young. The text is not kind to either Maurice, who is often unkind, or Eleanor, with her pathetic jealousy, although both are in a way redeemed by the end. It was a lot about mistakes and how people pay for them, about how jealousy kills love, what love really means, and whether everyone has the right to be happy…

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November 2016

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