Tag Archives: Arrow Books

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published during the Second World War (1943) and was an instant success in the US. It sold many copies, especially as it was published in an edition suitable for the pockets of uniforms. A film was made of it, directed by Elia Kazan in 1944 – his first. It’s been adapted for radio (1947), as a musical (1951), and again as a film in 1974. 

But this was Betty Smith’s one-hit wonder. Although she wrote other novels and plays none of her subsequent work achieved the popularity of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Thank you to Jennifer for recommending it to me, even if it was several years ago and she may not remember.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The success of this novel is due to the main character, Francie. She is 11, going on 12, at the start of the novel in 1912, and we follow her life until 1917, when the US became involved in the First World War. The character of Francie is very well realised, and she matures gradually throughout the events of the novel. 

Her parents are the children of immigrants. Her father is from an Irish family, and her mother’s family have come from the Austro-Hungarian empire. The immigrant experience is a constant theme, with the hardship of newly arriving in New York being mitigated eventually by the second generation. But the struggles of both families in the promised land are harsh and enduring: language (Francie’s maternal grandmother never learns English); access to education (seen by the same grandmother as the key to their successful settlement, but a struggle for Francie in the local school); cultural differences in clothes, rituals, religion, employment, attitudes to foreigners, and marriage. Francie wins through, a kind of delayed success for the American Dream.

We can infer that Francie’s experiences are drawn to a greater extent from Betty Smith’s own life. She was the daughter of parents of similar origins as Francie’s, and she too struggled to find a decent education, inveigling herself into a better school at a young age. Her father also died from alcohol-related illness and left the family struggling to survive and needing the two older children to leave school early.

Francie’s mother had three sisters who lived nearby, although the one who took orders is only briefly mentioned. The other two make lives for themselves and their children, support their sisters’ families as best they can, and provide more colour in the lively but poverty-stricken immigrant life in Brooklyn. One of them is Sissy, who loves men, marries (but does not divorce) frequently, and is illiterate but manages to provide essential support for Francie more than once. They had no access to telephones, so the family depended on the insurance money collector to take messages between them.

Francie has loving parents. Her mother is harsh, and at pains to avoid showing that her son Neeley is her favourite but determined to help Francie be a strong young woman. Her relationship with her father is touching. He has a beautiful voice and a very loving nature, but he is unable to support his family in his work as a waiter, a singing waiter, because of his alcoholism. His early death affects the family in different ways. Francie’s grief is hard, but she eventually comes to see that her father is present in her siblings, and even in herself.

The novel opens in the summer of 1912 with a typical Saturday in Francie’s life. She has chores, some of which provide a meagre contribution to the Nolan family’s finances, collecting and selling scrap, for example. She must bargain and outwit the shopkeepers when running errands for her mother. In the afternoon she visits the public library, where she can borrow books and read them for no cost. Sadly the librarian is impervious to her young customer, and when Francie asks her for a recommendation a ritual is played out.

“Could you recommend a good book for a girl?”
“How old?”
“She is eleven.”
Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. […]
Francie trembled in anticipation as the woman reached under the desk. She saw the title as the book came up: If I Were King by McCarthy. Wonderful! Last week it had been Beverly of Graustark and the same the two weeks before that. She had had the McCarthy book only twice. (22)

Francie sits on the fire escape in the sun and spends the afternoon reading about the 15th century French poet, François Villon, in If I Were King. The only vegetation she can see is the umbrella tree that survives despite everything in their back yard of the house. Its persistence provides the metaphor and the title for the novel.

Much of the first half of the novel is a series of vignettes from Brooklyn in the first 15 years of the twentieth century, eg shops, customs, transport, poverty, rituals and so forth. In particular we observe Francie struggling in the overcrowded public school, where her flair for reading and writing are treated with the same indifference as the librarian treated her love of books. 

In her new school Francie, now aged 14, usually got As for her compositions, but she wrote three stories about her father, because she missed him so much, which the teacher graded as Cs. She explained that it was the subject matter that caused her to lower Francie’s grades.

“Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit that these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”
“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.
“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”
“What is beauty?” asked the child.
“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’”
Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”
“Nonsense!” exploded Mrs Garnder. Then softening her tone, she continued. “By truth we mean things like stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anticlimactically.
“I see,” said Francie. (315)

A dialogue follows between the insensitive teacher and Francie’s silent replies. One could say that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Betty Smith’s response to the original version of Mrs Garnder.

There is so much more in this detailed and endearing novel; a horse that pees on its handler; generous Sissy who frequently rescues the family; the downtrodden grandmother who encourages reading a page a day of Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible; the story of the would-be rapist; how Francie’s heart is broken; the effect of the US’s entry into the First World War on the neighbourhood and so on. There is love and persistence, heartbreak and struggle. Just what one wants from a long read.

Betty Smith

Betty Smith in 1943

Born in Brooklyn in 1896, Betty Smith lived to be 76 years old, dying in 1972. She was involved in community drama from her teenage years but later began writing fiction. She wrote four novels altogether but had success only with her first. Like her protagonist Francie, Betty Smith struggled to complete her education. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943. I used the edition from Arrow Books. 483pp

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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair, a classic mystery, was published in 1949. Its mystery is not in identifying the criminal, but in uncovering the lies and flaws in young Betty Kane’s story to exonerate the two women she has accused. The task falls to Robert Blair, an established country solicitor.

216 Fr Aff coverThis is the 18th review in the Bookword series about older women in fiction. Thank you to the reader who suggested the character of Mrs Sharpe from The Franchise Affair.

The story

Marion and her mother, Mrs Sharpe, are accused by Betty Kane of abduction and ill treatment. 15-year old Betty claims that they imprisoned her in the attic of their house, The Franchise, which stands outside the small country town of Milford.

Robert Blair is living a very comfortable bachelor life in Milford, cared for by his aunt. The narrative follows his search for the truth, but we do not find much out about his previous life: not married although he had opportunities, his wartime occupation not indicated. His comfortable life is not usually disturbed by criminal cases, but he is attracted to Marion Sharpe and her gypsy-like looks, and motivated to put right the injustice done to her and her mother. The narrative pull of the novel comes from his dogged pursuit of the truth about Betty Kane’s missing month.

Mrs Sharpe

Mrs Sharpe is introduced to the reader though Robert Blair’s eyes.

She [Marion] drove a battered old car, from which she shopped in the mornings while her white-haired old mother sat in the back, upright and delicate and incongruous and somehow silently protesting. In profile old Mrs Sharpe looked like Whistler’s mother; when she turned full-face and you got the impact of her bright, pale, cold, seagull’s eye, she looked like a sibyl. An uncomfortable old person. (6)

Marjorie Fielding played Mrs Sharpe in the 1951 film The Franchise Affair

Marjorie Fielding played Mrs Sharpe in the 1951 film The Franchise Affair

Mrs Sharpe is a gentlewoman, enduring less good times in The Franchise. She knows about good furniture and architecture, and she comes from horse-breeding stock. She inherited The Franchise from a relative, which allowed her to move out of London where she had lived in a boarding house with her daughter. Neither woman has entered the social life of Milford. They enjoy peace and isolation, although it works against them when Betty Kane’s story is published by the mud-raking, strangely-named tabloid – Ack-Emma.

Mrs Sharpe is rather a forbidding woman, and she also has an intelligence which sees to the heart of matters as we find out early on when Mrs Sharpe demands to know if Betty is a virgin. She earns respect from Blair by her refusal to be unsettled by the accusations. He observes to the reader that ‘it was no small achievement to steal the interest from an outraged heroine.’ (29)

She is from the time and class that requires older women to keep their composure in the face of life’s difficulties. We discover that her husband was always speculating and that his suicide left her with a very young child and no money. Even when the Sharpes are arrested and brought to trial Mrs Sharpe remains steady.

The relationship between mother and daughter is easy, based on observing strict boundaries. Marion explains this to Robert late in the novel.

Mother and I suit each other perfectly because we make no demands on each other. If one of us has a cold in the head she retires to her room without fuss and doses her disgusting self until she is fit for human society again. (274)

Her role in the novel is to make it clear that Betty Kane’s story is unfounded from the outset. She represents common sense. Such a strong and intimidating woman would not treat a young girl in the brutal manner of which she is accused. Mrs Sharpe’s steadfast dignity and denial provides the reader – and Robert Blair – with the certainty that Betty Kane is lying. This is older woman as moral authority.

A few other things about The Franchise Affair

An interesting feature of The Franchise Affair is the discussion reading a person’s character in their appearances. Their appearance and especially the eyes are claimed to indicate criminality. Marion tells Blair that Betty Kane’s eye colour indicates that the girl is over-sexed, a post war notion.

‘I have never known anyone – man or woman – with that colour of eye who wasn’t. That opaque dark blue, like a very faded navy – it’s infallible.’(36)

And appearance means Josephine Tey can link criminality to genetic inheritance, another background theme in the novel.

But Josephine Tey’s novel relies on this emphasis to mislead the reader. Much of the power of Betty Kane comes from her innocent appearance. The forbidding appearance, on the other hand, of Mrs Sharpe hides a sharp intelligence, a warm heart and resilience.

216 J TeyThe novel also reflects the dominant social attitudes of the time, not just towards an older woman. Although the Sharpe women are independent they are not capable of resolving their own difficulties and a succession of men have to do this for them. It is the men, the solicitor, the barrister, the garage owner (and former army sergeant), the private detective who must help the women out. And they do. Even the man in the case doesn’t lie.

It is set post-war with some references to the war (air raids, experience in the armed forces for example) and is quintessentially English in a warm beer kind of way, despite Josephine Tey being from Scotland. She used a historical event, the deceptions of Elizabeth Canning from the 18th Century, as a basis for the story.

216 Fr Aff gr coverThe Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey first published in 1949. The copy used in this post was published by Arrow Books in 2009. 278pp

Related posts and book

The previous posts in the older women in fiction series can be found by clicking on the category or by going to the page called about the older women in fiction series.

Sarah Waters says that The Franchise Affair provided some inspiration for Little Stranger, which is also set in a dilapidated large country house in the post war period.

Josephine Tey has her own website: www.josephinetey.net

Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson was published in November 2015 by Sandstone Press. Jenny Morrison writes about her reclusive life in the Daily Record in October 2015.

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews