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The Deepening Stream

by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Persephone book no:

140 141 142

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781910263310

"The greatest First World War novel you've never heard of" (New Yorker)

The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher is a book that is so close to our heart that we find it quite hard to write about without being ridiculously partisan and over-emotional. We had not read it until recently, when we simply turned the pages in awe and sat like a statue when it was finished (and it’s extremely long, another 600 pager like The Oppermanns). Of course we thought we had read it. Being such huge fans of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, we assumed we had read everything – obviously the inimitable and perfect The Home-Maker, but also The Brimming Cup, Her Son’s Wife, Seasoned Timber, the Montessori manuals. But The Deepening Stream has a rather slow start and, although we are ashamed to admit it, we wonder if on first reading we simply gave up.

The book begins by describing Matey Gilbert's childhood in France, growing up in a curiously dysfunctional family. In the second part, she makes a miraculously happy marriage. But it is the third part which tips this book into greatness: it is absolutely extraordinary about life on the home front in France during World War One. In 1915 Matey and her husband make the decision to go and help the French war effort. The description of their life in France is quite simply stunning and one can safely say to anyone reading this – you will never read anything like it, and never forget it. As the novelist and critic Diana Birchalls wrote to us: ‘This is the best evocation of what domestic life was like in France during WW1 I have ever read’ and it will undoubtedly prove to be the most memorable book on the subject that any Persephone reader has ever read as well.

Our proofreader (always a wise voice) wrote: ‘I loved the book! She has the best description I’ve ever seen of absolute total exhaustion in the scene where Matey is helping the doctor with the wounded soldiers returned from the Front. Also such fascinating stuff about America’s early, and later, responses to the war in Europe. It feels like lived experience of being on the Home Front in France during WW1 – not to mention her very lived experience of Quakerism. It is one of the few books where, as a Quaker, I can recognise her experience in Meeting, and on matters of ethical banking, and conscientious objection – and it’s not too over-idealised, which can be easy to do. It must have been progressive for its time in its references to the pleasures of sex for a woman. I felt it was a very new, very interesting voice for me.’

And our preface writer Sadie Stein concludes: ‘It is a mystery to me why The Deepening Stream is not listed alongside Testament of Youth, A Farewell to Arms and Parade’s End as a definitive WW1 novel… Without ever taking the reader into the trenches, DCF makes us feel how war grinds you down, until one’s receptivity to tragedy is necessarily blunted… The Deepening Stream is strikingly modern: domestic hurts are addressed with complete seriousness; the pain of the war, meanwhile, is rendered intimate. The focus remains tight, unsparing, humane. By the time I read her taut descriptions of the ravages of the Somme, I realised I had come to respect DCF as what she is – a great American writer – and The Deepening Stream as a neglected treasure of the last century.’

The endpapers are taken from a design for a 1914-23 chiffon voile by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh.

Picture Caption

Valve Testing - The Signal School, Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth, Arthur David McCormick (1860-1943)

Read What Readers Say

katieosha via Instagram

A classic…. It’s long but I flew through it as it was so beautiful. Amongst many elements it includes a happy marriage, insights into American Quaker life, the experience of living in Paris during WW1, America in the early twentieth century, and the depth of memories, including how our childhood memories continue to form our sense of identity decades later (the author brought the Montessori method to the USA, and you can see that reflected here). If you like Virginia Woolf, but prefer a little more ‘standard’ narrative, I think this book is for you.

A Persephone reader by email

What a remarkable novel-in-four-parts it is. I think the small girl’s view of her parents and siblings is unusual, developing into a suspicion of her brothers’ values and eventually meditations on Quakerism and family. It’s difficult to keep up the intensity of the first part, but sections of the First World War part are extraordinary. And then, towards the end, which is a bit sentimental, the occasional surprising sentence such as: “The earth, tumbling headlong in its daily revolution, shifted Rustdorf and their window so that the sunlight laid a friendly ray on their faces.”Anyway, for me there wasn’t a paragraph too many in its 603 pages.

Kate Macdonald in 'The Friend’

Dorothy Canfield Fisher was a serious and committed novelist, and worked assiduously in many fields to improve the lives of working people in the US. Eleanor Roosevelt named her as one of the ten most influential women in America. DCF is also an accomplished storyteller and ‘The Deepening Stream’ (her own favourite among her novels) is absorbing and compelling. It is a long read but DCF’s child-centred vision of family life is refreshing. The Quaker component of the novel is central to its theme, and will interest Quaker historians.

ILoveReading (blogger)

I loved this book. It’s the coming of age story of Matey Gilbert. We first meet Matey (her name is Penelope and the nickname is never explained) as a small child, living in France with her parents and siblings Priscilla and Francis. All three children are scarred by the experience of tiptoeing around their parents. Matey learns to cope by avoiding confrontation and through the love of her dog, Sumner. I admired the accuracy of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s psychological insights into the mind of a sensitive child like Matey even though I have never really been interested in books written from a child’s eye view: usually I skim the opening chapters of biographies too, especially when they go back several generations. However, here it was compelling. Once Matey grows up and visits Rustdorf, her future home, I couldn’t put the book down. This is where she begins to develop as a person, the deepening stream of her personality begins to emerge from her troubled childhood.

Categories: America Childhood WWI

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