The Romance of Eleanor Gray is technically precise: a twwenty-year-old schoolteacher comes to a picturesque New England town to begin her teaching career. Set in 1910 Massachusetts, the novel's language is indicative of the moral constraints of the time, when behavior is strictly proscribed. Miss Gray takes up residence in Alice Harrison’s boarding house, peopled with other eclectic, if proper, individuals like the new teacher, and is warmly welcomed by her fellow boarders.
Eleanor accidentally overhears a heated discussion between a male and a female outside her door. Crossing to the window, she observes a young woman leaving the house and is struck by her presence and beauty, her corn-silk hair and translucent skin. The girl’s name is Evangeline Sewell, and she has been a ward of the town for many years; it is whispered that Evangeline is pregnant.
With the typical unrestrained romanticism of the era, Eleanor absorbs Evangeline into her thoughts and builds Evangeline’s plight into mythic proportions. Since the girl would have been a student in Eleanor’s class, the teacher feels that she “has a moral right to project herself into situations where other persons might be loathe to go.” By some obscure reasoning, again characteristic of the post-Victorian era, Eleanor develops an obsession with all things and people concerning Evangeline, writing to the girl to offer her friendship.
When Evangeline has her baby and returns to the town in a dramatic, if unseemly, fashion, the reasons are unclear, although Gray has quietly become an ardent supporter with few facts to support her choice. The schoolteacher has made a number of friends in the town, most of them enthusiastically supportive, particularly the men. Quite comradely with a few of the men, Eleanor exchanges confidences regarding her feelings for Evangeline. Ultimately, there is a conflict between Gray’s “love” for the sixteen-year-old Evangeline and her standing as a schoolteacher and accepted member of the community. Eleanor makes her choice based purely on an excess of emotion and romanticized notions of Evangeline’s significance. There are consequences.
The writing is as pristine as the New England countryside, sprinkled with the grandeur of nature. In the context of the era, Gray’s unfettered imagination is not unusual, nor is her extended fantasy of a “friendship” with the young woman. Gray is the ideal, a young spinster with an overactive sense of duty and a strong tendency to stick her nose in someone else’s business without being asked.
There is a suggestion of awakening sexuality in the guise of obsession or infatuation, as Eleanor Gray is confused and conflicted by her feelings for Evangeline. The author hints at lonely years ahead for the schoolteacher, but the true meaning of this issue is not discussed. Her impetuous nature and lack of self-control do not make Eleanor Gray an endearing character. The impulsive plunge into Evangeline’s affairs seems ridiculous, as does the immediate adulation of everyone in the boarding house, so impressed by the erudite discussions of a twenty-year-old. Perhaps my grandmother would have found The Romance of Eleanor Gray titillating, but the pastoral beauty of the country and the elegant construction of the novel are insufficient. I appreciate the author’s skill, but the lack of depth and passion hinders my enjoyment of the book.