Prouty, Olive Higgins

Olive HIggins ProutyOlive Higgins Prouty (January 10, 1882-March 24, 1974) was an American novelist, most active in the period between the First and Second World Wars. In this interval between women’s suffrage and women’s liberation, when few openly questioned the notion that a woman’s fulfillment is to be found in a subordinate role, Prouty insisted on the importance, for women as well as for men, of independent judgment, freedom from illusion, and full personal responsibility for one’s actions. Her stories depict the struggles of American women to achieve a life of integrity despite the stifling triviality of the social roles allotted to them. Of her ten novels, the best known are Stella Dallas (1923) and Now, Voyager (1941).

Olive Higgins was the youngest child of a well-to-do family in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her family’s social life revolved around the conservative, evangelical Congregational church, where her strong-willed mother was superintendent of the Sunday school. Although she admitted to religious doubts and answered, ” I guess so,” when the minister asked if she believed in Jesus Christ, her family insisted that she join the church at the socially sanctioned age of thirteen. She was left with a painful sense of the discrepancy between the fervent language she heard in church and the shallowness of spiritual experience deemed acceptable for membership.

From the time she was in high school, Olive dreamed of becoming a writer. After graduating from Smith College in 1904, she wished to earn her own living, but bowed to family pressure to return home. Courted by Lewis Prouty, the older brother of a college friend, she feared that marriage would mean the end of her hopes for a career of her own. Lewis, however, turned out to be supportive of Olive’s ambition; he suggested that she take writing courses at Radcliffe and introduced her to the editor who accepted her first stories. Olive and Lewis were married in 1907.

By 1920 Olive Higgins Prouty had published three novels and a book of short stories. However, she felt “constantly torn” between her writing and her family responsibilities. With Lewis’s income, Olive’s writing, and an inheritance from Olive’s father, the Proutys were quite well off. Decorating their large house, supervising the children’s education and activities, and fulfilling the social obligations that came with prosperity so filled her days that she had to practice “a certain amount of deceit,” even to Lewis, in order to have any time for her writing. Determined not to threaten her husband’s role as breadwinner, she pretended that her writing was only a “hobby.” She wrote of those years, “I managed to give the impression that I just dashed off, at spare moments, those short stories or an occasional light novel.”

When her third child died shortly after birth in 1919, Prouty resolved to devote herself to the care of her children. She was devastated when her year-old daughter Olivia died of encephalitis in 1923. Partly in response to Olivia’s death, she wrote her great tribute to maternal love, Stella Dallas. Good mothers are rare in Prouty’s work, but Stella Dallas features two of them: the working-class heroine Stella, and the wealthy widow who becomes the surrogate mother of Stella’s daughter. Stella Dallas was immediately and immensely successful. It was made into a play in 1924 and a movie in 1925. It was remade with Barbara Stanwyck in 1937, and again as Stella starring Bette Midler in 1990. A radio serial depicting “later episodes in the life of Stella Dallas” was aired every weekday for eighteen years, although Prouty had not consented to the sale of the rights. Appalled that her character, Stella Dallas, had been turned into the heroine of a sentimental melodrama, she tried unsuccessfully to stop the series from being broadcast.

In 1925 Prouty suffered a “nervous breakdown.” Her psychiatrist, Dr. Austen Fox Riggs, advised her to treat her writing professionally, to rent a room outside the home and work for a half day, five days a week. Prouty later described Dr. Riggs’ sanitarium as “an educational institution from which I ‘graduated.'” Two of her later novels, Conflict and Now, Voyager, draw upon her experience of breakdown and recovery.

The 1930s and 40s were Prouty’s peak years of professional accomplishment and recognition. To ease her feelings of guilt about her writing—”so utterly selfish an expenditure of time for which I was receiving so much in payment unnecessary to our welfare”—she donated most of the proceeds to charity. Philanthropy became almost a second career, as she gave not only money, but her time and creativity, to favorite charities such as the Children’s Hospital in Boston. When she endowed a scholarship for a promising young writer at Smith College, she entered into a complex personal relationship with the recipient, Sylvia Plath. Prouty paid for the medical expenses associated with Plath’s attempted suicide in 1953, only to be caricatured as the fatuous Philomena Guinea in Plath’s novel The Bell Jar.

Prouty’s reputation as a novelist, already in decline, was further damaged by Plath’s malicious wit. To a generation growing up in a less rigid social climate, Prouty’s work seemed to be a conservative endorsement of bourgeois conformity, not a serious and ultimately subversive exploration of the possibilities for freedom within it. By the time she wrote her memoir in 1961, she could not find a publisher. It was printed at her own expense.

Prouty wrote her last novel in 1951, the year of her husband’s death. For the rest of her life she lived quietly in the house in Brookline, Massachusetts, to which she had moved as a young mother in 1913. In old age she found comfort in her friendships, her charitable work, and the Unitarian church, First Parish in Brookline, which the Proutys had joined in the early 1920s.

In her young womanhood Prouty apparently considered church membership nothing more than one of the burdensome obligations which kept her from her writing. “Social debts must be paid,” she wrote. “One must serve on committees, take part in welfare organizations — pull one’s weight somehow. There were the children, too. If only for their sake, a church should be selected and attended.” In the Unitarian church, however, Prouty found what she had long sought, an alternative to both the intellectually unsatisfying orthodoxy represented by her mother, and the austere rationalism of her father, “a skeptic by nature.” She described her quest for religious truth as “searching with fumbling, finite mind … leaping from doubt to bright surmise.” Prouty was a member of First Parish for over 50 years and left the church $50,000 when she died.

A large collection of Prouty’s correspondence, manuscripts, and documents related to the publication of her books is in the Goddard Library, Clark University, Worcester, MA (not Smith College as listed in American National Biography). Smith holds some miscellaneous items about Prouty, including her interesting responses to the 55th reunion questionnaire. The Sylvia Plath collection at Smith contains some correspondence between Prouty and Sylvia and Aurelia Plath. Prouty’s novels are: Bobbie, General Manager (1913), The Fifth Wheel (1916), The Star in the Window (1918), Stella Dallas (1923), Conflict (1927), The White Fawn (1931), Lisa Vale (1938), Now, Voyager (1941), Home Port (1947), and Fabia (1951). The last five form an interconnected series telling the story of the Vale family of Boston. Good Sports (1919) is a collection of short stories. Prouty’s memoir, Pencil Shavings (1961) was reprinted in 1985 and is available through the Goddard Library, Clark University. The Goddard Library has also published Between the Barnacles and Bayberries (1997), a collection of poems unpublished during Prouty’s lifetime. There is no full-length biography of Olive Higgins Prouty. Articles on her appear in American National Biography and Contemporary Authors. The relationship between Prouty and Plath is discussed in Neda Rose Baric, Of Mothers and Mentors: Sylvia Plath and Olive Higgins Prouty (M.A. thesis, UCLA, 1991). The details of Prouty’s membership at First Parish in Brookline were supplied by the minister at Brookline, David Johnson.

Article by Lynn Gordon Hughes
Posted August 25, 2000