Book Review: The Dowry by Margaret Culkin Banning

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Author: Margaret Culkin Banning
Published: 1954
Genre: Romance, Drama, Fiction, Social Commentary

At first glance, Margaret Culkin Banning’s 1954 novel, The Dowry, reads like a brilliantly written but simple exploration of how ambition, insecurity, and betrayal, can wreck a wonderful marriage. Our lead characters include Katherine “Kay” Ryland, a 37-year-old interior decorator with her own design firm, and her husband, Stephen “Steve” Ryland, a 38-year-old lawyer and Speaker of the House who’s on the fast track for Radisson’s governorship.

Although the two are very much in love and committed to their marriage, cracks in their 17-year union surface within the first few pages of the book. Despite Stephen’s success in his political career, Kay is their family’s main breadwinner. She earns a lot more than her husband. And while he had initially been thankful for her contributions to the family, constant reminders of this fact was wreaking havoc with his pride.

When he finds out that Radisson’s current governor is keen on passing the baton to him, Stephen realizes that taking on the 2-year governorship means that Kay would have to give up her company. As Governor Elston points out, being a governor’s wife is a full-time job. Things are further complicated when Stephen meets Lisa Bowes—a rich and beautiful widower and the niece of Governor Elston’s wife.

Stephen falls for the beautiful and manipulative Lisa. He wants Kay to divorce him, but his wife is keen on saving their marriage. Kay and Stephen’s heartbreaking story unfolds alongside the stories of a medley of well-written secondary characters.

Now, for this particular reader, The Dowry isn’t a story to be chewed lightly. A novel of this magnitude deserves a more thorough digestion. So, indulge me as I attempt to go through the most significant themes in this densely packed narrative.

T is for Technique: The Merits of Telling a Story through Multiple Perspectives

Unlike many of today’s novels, The Dowry is told through multiple perspectives, and oftentimes in the same chapter. Now, the beauty of Margaret Culkin Banning’s writing is that she employs this technique so fluidly that the shifts in perspective are perceptible but also so seamless that they seem almost natural.

Normally, when other writers shift from one character to another, they do so per chapter. This is done to avoid confusing the readers on who’s thinking what at which moment. But what Banning does is she plunges head-on into the story and just goes with the flow, shifting from ‘thought Kay,’ to ‘thought Stephen,’ with just a paragraph break. Banning’s technique allows the reader to connect with each moment in each character’s life.

For example, there is one instance in the novel where Kay goes home to find a second notice/bill for their children’s tuition. Like many of today’s couples, Stephen and Kay divide their expenses—not down to the penny per se, but equally in terms of capacity. That particular bill was supposed to be Stephen’s responsibility. Kay decides to pay for the bill, thinking Stephen would be thankful for the way she took care of the situation.

But when Stephen gets home, an argument erupts. He thinks that Kay is simply rubbing in the fact that she’s earning more than him.

Stephen goes on to say, “What if it was the second? Or the ninth? But of course you couldn’t stand it. You had to show who wears the pants in the family… You’ve got a little piece of money and you want to show off, wave it around, tell people it’s yours—look what I earned, all by myself! I run the show—“

To which, Kay thinks: ‘Why does he think I keep on working? Doesn’t he know that I’d rather be home taking it easy, doing the things that need to be done around here? I never had a minute to plant those crocuses. Doesn’t he think I’d like to run all over the world like Lisa Bowes? No wonder she doesn’t look her age, she’s always been taken care of and waited on and kept in cotton wool…’

Through this exchange, the reader is treated to a glimpse of both characters’ underlying insecurities.

Of Recurring Symbols: Planting Crocuses and Proverbs 31 (SPOILER ALERT)

Another interesting aspect of The Dowry is its references to two particular symbols—crocuses and Proverbs 31.

Planting Crocuses

Now, planting crocuses may seem like a strange thing to latch onto, but what this flowering winter plant seems to represent is the state of Kay’s marriage. According to Almanac.com, “the dainty goblet-shaped crocus pushes through the snow to put on a show of colorful revival.” Once crocuses grow in winter, they spread and come back year after year with little maintenance required.

The way I read it, winter symbolizes a period of trials. Kay’s desire to plant crocuses reflect her desire to rekindle the romance between her and her husband. But for years, she just couldn’t find the time to plant the crocuses. This busyness ultimately becomes one of the factors that lead to the deterioration of her marriage.

The first time Kay thinks about crocuses, the thought comes with tinges of guilt and regret.

‘I should have planted those crocuses, she thought. I meant to but I never had the time. I will this year, she promised herself.’

The next time she thinks about the plant, it is during her fight with Stephen. This time, the thought is laced with bitterness and resentment.

‘I never had a minute to plant those crocuses.’

At the end of the novel, her thoughts drift to the flowering plant once more. She had just reconciled with Stephen. Kay looks out into the landscape and she is hopeful.

‘Tomorrow, she thought. I’ll plant the crocuses.’

This time, Kay is no longer trying to find time to plant crocuses, she’s making time. It symbolizes her firm resolution to ‘rebuild’ her marriage with Stephen and make it stronger.

Proverbs 31: A Valiant Woman

Apart from planting crocuses, the other driving force behind The Dowry’s plotline is the biblical passage Proverbs 31. This passage talks about the “valiant/capable woman,” which Kay embodies. Kay first learns about the passage during a visit to Judge Amsley Hunt—the judge that handled her case after Kay ran away from her aunt’s home when she was in her teens.

Kay had been visiting the judge to report the lack of progress in her court-appointed ward, Daphne. The judge had entrusted the orphaned young woman to Kay as a way of keeping Daphne off the streets. Kay, being the independent and hardworking woman that she is, had tried desperately to instill the value of hard work in her ward. Except, Daphne is resolute in being a pretty girl with zero ambitions other than to snag a man who would dote on her. In Kay’s words:

“Daphne was always pretty. That was her trouble. No example and no exhortation could make anything but her prettiness come first in her own reckoning of life.”

When Kay broaches the topic with the judge, the conversation inevitably veers to the rising incidences of child delinquency alongside the increase in working mothers. Kay is offended by the statement and attempts to defend working women. But the judge reminds her that not all working women are like her, a ‘valiant woman.’ He urges her to read the passage and tells her that the valiant woman has always had a lot on her plate. She spends her life juggling being a mother, a wife, and a businesswoman.

Later in the novel, the judge encourages Stephen to read Proverbs 31. He also advises the latter to go back to his wife. Stephen reads the passage and comes to the conclusion that Kay is indeed the embodiment of a valiant woman and that he had failed to be the husband a woman like her deserved.

A Woman’s Dowry: Earning Power vs. Privilege

Kay

“Listen, Ralph. I went on working after I was married because I had to… It’s the only thing most girls have for a dowry these days, a little earning power. They haven’t any fortunes or fine full hope chests. But a girl can say to a man, I will bring you forty dollars a week after we are married.” – Kay to Ralph Lamson

The book’s title, the dowry, alludes to the changing marriage structure in the 1950s. Traditionally, (and in some countries, presently), a woman’s family was expected to provide a dowry to her future husband. The ancient custom was practiced to provide lifetime financial help to both the bride and the groom.

But some women, like Kay, had no dowries to bring to the table. In Kay’s case, she was orphaned early and had nothing but her earning power to offer her husband. This was her brand of ‘dowry,’ and it was one that had benefited Stephen and their kids for a long time. Despite Stephen being grateful to Kay for her hard work and support, there was a ‘primitive’ part of him that felt shame over having to rely on his wife’s earnings to tide their family over.

In one scene in the novel, Stephen runs into Peter “Phil” Philemon, the businessman who had given Kay her first big break. Phil was headed to Kay’s office to offer her another job. Stephen’s thoughts immediately revealed his conflicting feelings over Kay’s job. In his words,

“He liked Peter Philemon and occasionally they all dined or had a drink together. But he always felt that Philemon must have a queer slant on him as Kay’s husband. You could hardly blame him, thought Stephen. An obscure sense of humiliation persisted, because he had stood by while Philemon was employing his wife.”

Despite trying to staunch his insecurities, Stephen’s resentment is something that Kay senses—but she doesn’t quite know how to address it. Kay loves her job, but the main reason she’s working is because she needs to. Kay is also well aware of how other people are judging her, particularly the ‘primitive-minded men’ and the ‘idle women.’ These people believe that Kay’s work is leading her to neglect her wifely duties. It is a judgment that Kay resents but one that she can’t refute without damaging Stephen’s image and ego.

Lisa

“She wants a husband and probably wants to be the wife of the next Governor. She may be an unscrupulous woman, but she isn’t trivial. Her whole history seems to show that she knows what she wants and take it against protest. She’s an unsatisfied woman seeking completion and permanent status. She wants the man you married, and I would be a poor friend if I minimized her ability to get him.” – Ralph Lamson describes Lisa to Kay

Now, Kay’s situation is in stark contrast with that of Stephen’s mistress, Lisa Bowes. Lisa comes from an affluent background. She is sophisticated, enchanting, and extremely ‘feminine.’

To Stephen, Lisa is, in many ways, the antithesis of Kay. Both women are beautiful, true. But Lisa is a golden girl while Kay is a ‘gypsy waif.’ Kay is an independent woman, whereas Lisa, for all her financial independence, seems to want and require a man. And it is exactly this last trait that pushes Stephen into falling for Lisa’s charms.

“Being with Lisa always made him feel more of a person. He was conscious of greater scope of a man, of capacities that could be realized, of usefulness to a woman.”

Of course, like all good novels, The Dowry offers a twist. Stephen discovers that Lisa isn’t as wonderful as she had initially appeared. Her privileged background comes with an entitled and elitist mindset. Underneath the veneer of polished grace, she is a cold, bitter, manipulative, and materialistic woman.

Take, for example, Lisa’s reaction to her grandfather’s death.

“The death of her grandfather at seventy-six seemed so natural and orderly compared to what she had witnessed that she was hardly saddened by it… To be rich again would make her life more normal, as she understood normality, less complicated.”

Also, when her grandfather’s servants, Signe and Berne asked for an advance of the money left to them by her grandfather, Lisa refuses. She reasons with Stephen:

“As long as I don’t let them have the money, I have them right under my thumb and the estate doesn’t have to be settled for a long time.”

Suffice it to say that the novel portrays Lisa Bowes in an unflattering light. She’s the type of woman you wouldn’t want hanging around your husband. However, despite her many flaws, there’s something pitiful about Lisa. She is spoiled, manipulative, and bitter, true. But she is also lonely and lost, empty and dissatisfied. The way her story is written, you end up feeling a touch of pity for Lisa, vile as she is. And that’s the mark of terrific writing.

Verdict: A++

Now, Kay and Stephen’s story alone is enough to make The Dowry a beautiful read. Margaret Culkin Banning is a masterful storyteller and has a way of drawing her readers in. Her characters just feel so real. Kay and Stephen are both brilliant and brilliantly flawed. You read the book and you feel Kay’s pain so acutely, and yet, you also somehow identify with Stephen and his insecurities.

But what truly makes The Dowry such a compelling piece of literature is its enormity of scope and complexity. Beyond being a ‘story,’ it is a social commentary that digs deep into the collective psyche of the novel’s generation. It tells the reader about the struggles faced by the working woman during that period, her displacement in that society.

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