Revisiting Past Horrors–Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter

These days it is difficult to hear any news or hold any conversation that doesn’t mention the coronavirus pandemic. Most of us are struggling to understand how this disaster moved into our lives and whether we will ever return to normal life. Americans haven’t seen anything like this for a hundred years when the country was struck by the flu epidemic of 1918-19. Now that schools and universities have shut their doors, libraries have closed, and classes have moved online, perhaps it’s time to talk about a writer who described the feeling of that early epidemic for generations of readers—Katherine Anne Porter. 

Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider captures perfectly the disoriented feeling of a woman facing the painful hazards of war-torn world being jolted by yet another attack from an unimaginable and unthinking enemy. The scene is set when Miranda, a young journalist as Porter herself was, first wakes up on an ordinary wartime morning: 

In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice, the streaks of light were dark blue and the whole house was snoring in its sleep. (Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels (p. 281). Library of America. Kindle Edition.) 

As the story moves on, Porter takes us through the vivid, chilling experience of suffering from the flu and having your life taken over by doctors and nurses. Once you’ve read this story, you won’t forget it. But who was Porter and how did she develop this gift of capturing the reality of an experience that many people live through, but few can describe? 

Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Porter in Texas in 1890. Her mother died when Callie was two years old and her father took the children to live with their grandmother, who died when Callie was eleven. After losing so much, Callie left home at sixteen to marry an abusive husband—not a very good start in life. After a divorce in her mid-twenties and a long hospitalization with tuberculosis, Porter decided to become a writer.  

Porter started as a journalist and eventually moved to New York City where she met many other writers and artists. She continued to write journalism and short stories for the rest of her life, as well as working as a journalist in Mexico, Europe and the United States. During the years between 1930 and 1960, she wrote highly praised literary stories and essays, Her only novel, Ship of Foolsthe story of a long sea voyage in 1931, was published in 1962 and became a best-seller as well as being made into a movie.  

Some writers lead fascinating lives that are reflected in their works, but Katherine Anne Porter’s biography does not cast light on her stories. The power of her descriptions and the reality of her characters seem to spring from an inner knowledge that had little to do with the actual events of her life. We can know her best by reading her stories and her novel. They continue to be as vivid and alive as they were when first published and illuminate our own experiences as good fiction ought to do. All of her works are easily available in most libraries and many bookstores.  

What’s Happening at the Grand Houses of England?

How can anyone write a blog post today without mentioning Downton Abbey the PBS show that has a vast swath of Americans waiting impatiently for its Fourth Season debut tonight? For weeks, media outlets have offered tantalizing glimpses of what is in store for Lord Grantham, Lady Cora and their family, friends and staff. Mary, the newly widowed eldest daughter, seems to be the focus of the new season, but others in the show have more unusual roles and play more historically resonant characters.

Lady Cora joins the ranks of the real-life American heiresses who married British aristocrats during the tail end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Like Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome Churchill, Lady Cora represents the marriage of American wealth with British titles. The privileged lives of the upstairs contingent of the Downton Abbey cast are puritanical compared with the scandalous behavior of the real life counterparts of Edwardian aristocrats. Jennie

Photo of Jennie Jerome
Jennie Jerome before her marriage
Churchill was reported to have had many lovers, but that didn’t prevent her from playing a central role in aristocratic society. And unlike Lady Cora, Lady Churchill did not appear to be very involved in the upbringing or lives of her children. As a child Winston Churchill seldom saw his mother who relied on nannies and servants to care for her children. Compared with the Churchills, the Grantham family seems middle-class; they are almost modern helicopter parents, concerned in the day-to-day struggles of their daughters, their servants and their relatives. And who among us can imagine Lady Cora having an affair with another man?

Perhaps this season’s series will concentrate on Lady Mary and her adjustment to widowhood. There will be suitors no doubt, but it seems like an old, old story that we’ve seen many times before. Much more interesting would be following the adventures of Lady Edith, who is tempted to move to London and take up with a man married to an insane woman. Barred from divorce by English law, Edith’s admirer will have no choice but to persuade her to accept a status as mistress. Will she be willing? I can’t help hoping that she can build herself a fine career as a journalist, move in with her lover, and have a far more exciting life than could ever be found at Downton Abbey.

And then there is Daisy. Will she take on the farm that her father-in-law is trying to give her? Instead of being a kitchen maid, or even the family cook, she could become a successful farmer and build herself a new kind of life. Her story would be far more fun to follow than poor Mary’s. After all Mary is stuck with living in the Abbey until her son can take the reins of managing the house. No matter which suitor she accepts her life is pretty well laid out.

In fact, the downstairs contingent of Downton Abbey have more to look forward to than their counterparts upstairs. The 1920s brought in sweeping changing which meant upward movement for the hordes of women and men working in domestic service. Leaving the grand mansions to become factory workers, shopkeepers, teaches, nurses and other possible new jobs gave them far more independence than they ever had before, while their “betters” struggled to keep their outdated lifestyles going. Let’s hope the producers give us a glimpse of the new world opening up for so many former servants after World War I.

In between episodes, if you want to find out more about the American heiresses who traveled to England to marry, read To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace. It paints a lively picture of transatlantic entanglements that helped draw our two countries together.