Thoughts on Years of Grace

I am thoroughly enjoying reading through the Pulitzer-Prize winners. Years of Grace is a delightful novel. It is a surprisingly whimsical for a 600-page book, yet it is sorely lacking in substance. Margaret Ayer Barnes spends a great deal of time describing the world of little Jane Ward -the books she reads, her friends, family, and dreams- but to what point and purpose?


The novel takes place at the end of the 19th century. There are four parts, and each part covers a unique timeframe in the main character’s life. First as a child: Jane Ward is an innocent girl raised in a well-to-do Chicago family. As a young girl, she and a French boy, André, fall in love. He proposes marriage but the Ward family prevents their engagement, because Jane is a mere “child.” Jane is distraught so her charming father gains Jane entry into Bryn Mawr, a wonderful school for girls where she reads French and Greek, and she becomes briefly ensconced in the suffragette movement. Consider the following passage about Jane’s trip home for Christmas from college, espousing her newfangled ideas:

“At home, in the Christmas holidays, however, listening once more to her mother and Isabel, going out to parties where she tried not to be shy, missing André so dreadfully at every turn that nothing else seemed really to count at all, Jane had realized, of course, that she was all on Miss Thomas’s side. Life must be more important than this, she thought. There must be things for even a woman to o that would be interesting and significant. She had only to look at Flora and Muriel, comparing their dance programs in a dressing-room door, to feel just a little smug and condescending. But back at Bryn Mawr, among the people who had definite plans for concrete accomplishment, she felt again very trivial and purposeless. She didn’t really worry a bit as to whether or no[t] she ever voted and she didn’t want to work for her living really, she only cared about pleasing André and growing up into the kind of girl he’d like to be with and talk and love and marry. It was very confusing. At home she felt an infant Susan B. Anthony. She had aired her views on women’s rights with unaccustomed vigor, at the breakfast table, Isabel had derided her.

‘I hope you’re satisfied, John,’ her mother had said. ‘She’s a dreadful little blue-stocking already.’

But her father only laughed. 

‘The blue will come out in the wash,’ he had prophesied cheerfully. ‘I doubt if it’s a fast colour’” (99-100).

Jane’s infatuation with progressive feminism is short-lived. When she returns home from Bryn Mawr, now a slightly older woman in her 20s, Jane finds renewed love for her family’s upper-middle class standards and traditions, and she quickly loses her desire to ‘make something of herself’ in the marketplace as Bryn Mawr had instructed. Jane attends parties and cotillons (Note: a cotillon is a French word for a courtly dance. It refers to parties in which young women, in effect, present themselves to suitors for courtship and eventually marriage). Gradually, Jane is courted by a handsome but slightly aloof man named Stephen Carver. At first she claims not to love him, but as time passes with no other prospects (as well as a surprising letter from André announcing his intent remain in France after all these years) Jane, somewhat reluctantly, decides to marry Stephen.

Next, we encounter Jane many years later with children, struggling to be graceful and honorable in the eyes of her mother-in-law. Amidst this malaise, Jane reconnects with her old college friend, Agnes, who now lives in an apartment in New York with her excitable and romantic husband, Jimmy. Agnes is now a playwright and Jimmy is a musician. Agnes and Jane lead very different lives, but Agnes is happy in her lower class situation and she has one young daughter. As time goes by, Jimmy, Agnes’s husband, falls in love with Jane. He travels frequently to visit her in Chicago, and the crescendo of the novel comes when Jimmy and Jane embrace in her garden under her apple tree. Jane finally professes her love and they make plans to travel the world together, but by morning Jane realizes she cannot be indecent to her husband, Stephen, nor to her good friend, Agnes. Jimmy tries several more times to persuade Jane, but she remains obstinate, so Jimmy runs away sending scant letters here and there. Months later, Jane receives a letter from Jimmy announcing that he has joined the ‘Prussian’ forces in the war in Europe -a shock! The Prussian/German forces were the enemies of the Western alliance in World War I.  Jimmy continues to profess his love for Jane in his letters, even from the European front. Jane is dismayed and she breaks down in tears when she receives another letter shortly thereafter: Agnes writes that Jimmy has run away, joined the enemy German forces, and he has been killed in the battle of the Marne (September 1914, the battle characterized by the advancing German army into France, and left the French forces retreating back to Paris). Upon learning the news, an emotional Jane goes to comfort Agnes, who is also distraught, but she is wholly aloof to Jane’s brief affair with her late husband.

Time goes by and the war in Europe drags on. Agnes has found success with her theatrical plays in New York. Jane’s daughter announces an engagement, much like a youthful Jane years earlier with her first love, André. Jane’s family now lives in North Chicago in Lakewood, on the cusp of the Skokie Valley. Jane’s father sadly dies in his seventies, and then Stephen’s father dies leaving behind a large inheritance for everyone in the family, meanwhile Jane’s daughter becomes embroiled in a torrid affair causing scandal and divorce. She remarries in Paris where, in the end, Jane reconnects with her first love, André. He is now an artist and Jane goes to visit his studio, but he seems disillusioned to Jane. She quickly leaves and returns with Stephen to the United States. Perhaps the patrician customs of her mother’s generation are, indeed, superior after all.

While I enjoyed the simplicity and surprising pleasantness of Years of Grace, it cannot be denied that Barnes’s characters are wholly wooden and, in the end, nothing really happens in the novel. The one saving grace is Barnes’s carefully crafted prose. Years of Grace is simply a series of glimpses into the life of one woman as she follows the well-traveled path from a young romantic, to a college feminist, and finally to a married woman: settled with an acceptable husband, who dabbles in a brief but intense affair with her best friend’s husband, and who lives to watch her children experience the changing tastes of a new generation. The novel is conservative in tone, albeit envious of the nomadic and adventurous life, yet it neither advocates nor dismisses the life of Jane. She is simply presented to the reader for consideration, or perhaps posterity. Jane exists like a fading glimmer of old Chicago, a time before the war and before the city’s notorious political corruption and crime-spree throughout much of the 20th century.

To conclude on a high note, it is remarkable to see the transformative changes of Chicago during Jane’s lifetime. For example, the Ward family lives on Pine Street, a humble neighborhood, that is gradually expanded and renamed as Michigan Avenue, a mecca for skyscrapers, shopping, and fine-dining, today known as the “Magnificent Mile.” These changes remind me of Booth Tarkington’s descriptions of Indianapolis in The Magnificent Ambersons, during the late 19th century with the advent of the automobile and the decline of the Gilded Age aristocracy.

Consider Jane’s darkly amusing forecast to her sister, Isabel, about how they will die together remembering the glory days of old Chicago, and Pine Street (before it became Michigan Avenue):

“‘We’ll jump off the Michigan Boulevard bridge together.’ The thought had really caught Jane’s fancy. ‘Some early Spring afternoon, I think, Isabel, when the ice is just out of the river and the first sea-gulls have come and the water’s running very clear and green. We’ll climb upon the parapet together – which will be difficult as we’ll both be a little infirm – and take a last look down the boulevard, thinking of how it was once just Pine Street. We’ll shut our eyes and remember the old square houses and the wide green yards and the elm trees, meeting over the cedar-block pavement. We’ll remember the yellow ice wagons, Isabel, and the Furnesses’ four-in-hand, and the bicycles, and the hurdy-gurdies and our front steps on summer evenings. And then we’ll take hands and say ‘Out, brief candle!’ and jump!'” (458)

About The 1931 Pulitzer Prize Decision
1931 was apparently the first year that the Board considered revising the language of the Pulitzer Prize from the controversial “wholesome” criteria to: “for the best novel published during the year by an American author.” That year, the jury selected three novels for finalists: Margaret Ayer Barnes’s Years of Grace, Elizabeth Maddox Robert’s The Great Meadow, and Dorothy Canfield’s The Deepening Stream. The recommendation letter placed Barnes’s Years of Grace in “first place because of its vivid and interesting presentation of the change in character and mores throughout three generations of an American family.” The Pulitzer committee accepted their recommendation and awarded the prize to Years of Grace while also praising both finalists, as well.

The 1931 Novel Jury was composed of: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Chair), Robert M. Lovett, and Albert B. Paine.

Who Is Margaret Ayer Barnes?
Margaret Ayer Barnes (1886-1967) lived a life much like her main character, Jane Ward. Barnes attended Bryn Mawr College, married a prominent Chicago attorney named Cecil Barnes, and they had three sons. She worked for several years as the Director of Alumnae at Bryn Mawr, organizing a college program focused on women workers in industry. She began her writing career after a traffic accident in 1926. She was vacationing in France when her limousine was in a head-on crash, breaking her skull, ribs, and back. She became the author of two notable novels: Years of Grace, which won the Pulitzer, and also Dishonored Lady, which was turned into a successful Hollywood film, but it was then promptly sued out of existence by Barnes and her friend and co-author, Edward Sheldon. In 1936, Barnes was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA. She spent her later years in Cambridge, MA where she died in 1967.

Barnes, Margaret Ayer. Years of Grace. New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931.

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