Unleavened Bread, by Robert Grant
It is hard to imagine that this book was a best seller in 1900. Reading this book some 120 years after it was written, it is easy enough to see that the author was trying to convey a character that many people would find unlikeable. Indeed, reading the comments about this book that I could find struck me as somewhat savage the way the main character was viewed as being “selfish” and “thoroughly detestable.” I did not find her so. Indeed, I did not find her to be too far removed from the sort of woman who I would greatly esteem, even if her political beliefs as an ambitious Progressive Democrat do not fit my own belief system. In the hands of a more sympathetic writer and certainly a more sympathetic audience, a woman like this could be seen as the sort of blaze that lights a fire under a man to succeed in life so as to allow her to bask in his reflected glory. In an age where it was difficult for women to win their own glory, this woman represents one of the more admirable types of women, and one can still and and appreciate a woman like this who wants to marry a successful man and who nurses resentment over the way that she was not respected and regarded by others.
This sprawling book of more than 400 pages is divided into three parts, one part for each of the marriages that the main character finds herself involved in. Selma White first finds herself married to a local businessman in her community, and then divorces him when he cheats on her with some floozy. He, of course, gets drunk and dispirited and soon falls from the picture. In the second part of the book, Selma marries an idealistic architect who is never able to make enough money because his artistic ambitions do not allow him to properly charm wealthy potential customers. Her frustration with his lack of material and social ambition gives him a great deal of unhappiness and he eventually dies. Finally, in the third part of the book Selma marries an ambitious lawyer and businessman and helps steer him into a successful political career as first a U.S. Representative, then as a state governor, and finally as a senator. The most baffling part of the book is its title, since nowhere in the novel is there symbolic unleavened bread, the characters are not Jewish, although it is quite possible that the ambitions of Selma to rise make the book’s title an ironic reference to her frustrated ambitions.
Perhaps this book resonated more strongly with me and the character struck me as easier to relate to than most others because I have a particular understanding of social slights that gives me some empathy with the main character. If the protagonist is not a woman I would want to marry, she is certainly not too different from people I actually know, and not the sort of person I would hold in contempt. Yet it appears that if the author is not wholly unsympathetic towards her ambitions, that the audience as a whole has tended to be hostile to a woman whose naked ambition to make it in society was expressed so honestly and bluntly. One wonders what the audience would have thought would be the proper ambitions of a woman who wanted to be respected and well-liked and saw the best way of doing that being married to a man who cut a large enough figure in the social world to command the respect of those around her, and if she is a bit too focused on that one goal to the exclusion of other concerns, it is not as if honor is something contemptible to seek.