From The Record July 28, 2017
Q: Say, is that a Coach handbag? A: Yep. Just got it at Guy’s Frenchys for $4.95….
No trip to the Maritimes is complete without a trip to Guy’s Frenchys, which touts itself as the best (and least expensive) family clothing store in the east. It also offers deeply discounted used books, and it was my great fortune a few weeks ago to be the recipient of a $2.00 Guy’s Frenchys copy of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding.
I must confess that I knew Welty mainly for her short stories, but I was curious to see whether her eye for detail, her use of dialogue, and her deft handling of subtle social relationships would sustain through a lengthier read. They do…and then some!
As the title suggests, the story is about a wedding—between Dabney Fairchild, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Battle and Ellen Fairchild, and Troy Flavin (a plantation overseer, employed by Battle Fairchild). The wedding is to take place at Shellmound, a plantation on the Mississippi delta on the Yazoo River. The novel famously lacks a plot—the reader simply waits to see if the wedding will actually take place as planned or if the simmering family conflicts might somehow derail the proceedings. However, within this slow unfolding of the non-plot, we see a minute examination of the characters and consciousness of the different family members. Welty seems to be consciously recreating a version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And, as in the Shakespearean version, the main event—the wedding—is overshadowed by all the conflicts, attitudes, psychological foibles of the participants.
There is certainly a dreamlike quality in the proceedings. The narrator hovers over and enters the minds of various characters, but selectively. We never get inside the heads of the male characters, but inhabit the consciousness of Laura McRaven (a nine-year-old Fairchild cousin), Robbie Reed Fairchild (the on-again-off-again wife of George Fairchild), Dabney and Shelley Fairchild (two of the older daughters) and also Ellen Fairchild (the matriarch). In fact, all of the characters emerge piecemeal from the others’ perception of them. Troy Flavin, for example, the prospective groom, is first cast as the upstart overseer, not half-good enough to be marrying into the Fairchild clan. Aunts sniff, cousins denigrate, children mock…. But then in a scene in which he commiserates with George’s wife Robbie, we see him as exceptionally compassionate and capable and authoritative. So the fictional characters emerge as they do in real life, as a function of their interactions with others.
Warning: There is an array of characters to rival the cast of Ben Hur—rough count of 46, if you include two horses. And you’d best jot them down as they appear because the ties that bind them are constantly brought into play. Throughout we are struck by the complexities of the familial bonds. The deaths of male ancestors—“[Uncle George’s] brother Battle was killed and his brother Gordon was killed, and Aunt Shannon’s husband Lucian Miles killed, and Aunt Maureen’s husband Duncan Laws…”—are juxtaposed with stories of female perseverance or out-and-out madness (or both). And all these personae take their places in the social order that seems to grow out of the plantation society. The Fairchilds—de la vraie souche—are at the centre of the universe, and the others who marry into the family are always considered outsiders. Even matriarch Ellen seems constantly to have her Virginia origins held against her. Somewhere below, around, or outside are the “negroes”—descendents of slaves who occupy their own niche in the plantation world picture.
Another daunting aspect of the novel is its sheer understated complexity. The main action, such as it is, occurs along the Yazoo River, a tributary of the Mississippi. You can leave it at that for the sake of localizing the action, but dig a little deeper and you find that “Yazoo” is a Choctaw word for “river of death”, and with all the allusions to the deaths of the males in the family, and the stifling, almost deathly aspect of the Yazoo, you sense a great body of meaning that underlies the surface narrative. (Laura McRaven narrowly escapes drowning when her cousin chucks her into the river under the mistaken assumption that girls float!!)
As in A Midsummer Night’s dream there is magic in Delta Wedding, but in this case a kind of voodoo. Partheny, an old black servant, when she hears of George’s marital troubles, provides a little “patticake” for him: “Mr. George got to eat his patticake all alone, go to bed by himse’f, and his love won’t have res’ till her come back to him”. The cake, of course, in the chaos of comings and goings is accidentally reassigned to Troy Flavin.
Reading Delta Wedding is like witnessing a Japanese Tea Ceremony or a similarly complex social artefact. The reader is exposed to off-hand descriptions, odd snippets of dialogue, curious actions, and is left in a bemused attempt to make sense of it all. Welty is very precise and lush in her descriptions, both of the environment and of the characters’ thought processes… It seems at times as if there is no distinction between the outside world and the inside world. At several points the author/narrator/character create an unholy alliance and provide such gems as the following: “Ellen at Battle’s side rode looking ahead, they were comfortable and silent, both, with their great weight, breathing a little heavily in a rhythm that brought them sometimes together. The repeating fields, the repeating cycles of season and her own life—there was something in the monotony itself that was beautiful , rewarding—perhaps to what was womanly in her. No she had never had time—much time at all to contemplate…but she knew. Well, one moment told you the great things, one moment was enough for you to know the greatest things.”
Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding , available now on Kindle but coming soon to Lennoxville Library.