A Woman of Independent Means (1978)

by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey

A Woman of Independent Means is an epistolary novel with a single letter writer, Elizabeth Alcott Steed Garner. The book spans 69 years of Bess’s life, from age 9 in 1899 to age 78 in 1968. It takes her from school through two marriages, three children, the deaths of family members and friends, and old age.

Bess is not a typical woman. As the title implies, she is privileged. The average woman will not relate to Bess’s ability to dole out money to friends and family and to take multiple trips to Europe. But Bess is also not an average society matron. Some of her opinions are unconventional and prefigure the feminism that would take root around the time of her death. She insists on a prenuptial agreement before her second marriage, she travels without her husbands, she reflects that being a mother isn’t enough for a fulfilled life.

Perhaps so that Bess’s life doesn’t seem too easy, author Hailey gives her more tragedies to bear than seem believable: her first husband and her older son die; her house burns down; her daughter is hit by a car and nearly succumbs. Bess’s character, supposedly modeled on Hailey’s grandmother, is more believable. Even though the reader gets no perspective but hers, Bess is sometimes downright unlikable. She needs to control and interferes in others’ lives. She’s snobbish and proud of “the prominent social position I have occupied.” But she is usually interesting, open, and genuine, and she still has insights to offer modern-day readers.

A Woman of Independent Means was a surprise bestseller in 1978. A television miniseries based on the book starred Sally Field.


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