William Maxwell’s 60 year old novel Time Will Darken It is a novel of place (Draperville, IL) and family. Austin King is a lawyer and partner in the practice founded by his father in this small town. He lives with his wife Martha and their young daughter Abbie in a fine home with a resident housekeeper and cook, a black woman named Rachel. All is well. Or so it seems.
The “foster” relatives from Mississippi have invited themselves for an open ended visit to the King home. Austin has, much to Martha’s chagrin, “accepted” their self-invite. Another world is thus introduced and the impact on the Kings’ and even on other membersof the Draperville community will be far-reaching. The plantation owning Potter’s (this is 1912) arrive. Mr. Potter is a bit of a con-man and ne’er do well. His son takes after him. Mrs. Potter has actually left her husband in the past, but has now returned. But it’s Nora, the young daughter, immature, passionate, a dreamer, an idealist, who is the person who will drive the changes in the tempo and equilibrium of the King home.
Nora is a woman who senses the limitations that the time and place have foisted upon her. But this sense, coupled with her personality and temperament clash and produce results that have consequences. The times cannot exactly accommodate a Nora. And the times and personality of Austin leave him ill equipped to deal with her.
The novel is divided into 6 parts, and I immediately sense a powerful whiff of Thornton Wilder: we’re looking in on something – something which we are supposed to see with wistfulness and nostalgia – yet understand the changes that inexorably push themselves onto the way of life presented my Maxwell. The prose also seems dated to me, perhaps just because it’s melded to a time gone by. But the story also has a soap-operaish aspect to it. An As The World Turns melodramatic quality. Even the section titles have a silent movie quality to them. Imagine the screen lighting upwith this title (Part Four): “The Cruel Chances Of Life Baffle Both The Sexes”. You can positively hear the piano tinkling…
All that said, there are certainly many elements to admire here. Maxwell has an eye for this place after all. This place and its social stratification. This place and its changes
After three unbroken blocks, Elm street dipped downhill in a way that was dangerous to children trying out new bicycles, and at the intersection of Dewey Avenue the pavement ended. From here on Elm Street made no pretence of living up to the dignified architectural standards of the period. Instead, it was lined on both sides with one-story houses that under the steady pressure of a first and second mortgage were beginning to settle, to soften, to crack open.
And it’s the soft places, the cracks where Maxwell likes to probe. One of those places is the marriage of Austin and Martha. There is a sense of unease, of something missing there. An incompleteness that cannot be filled in. This space, this gap has its genesis in the beginnings of the marriage – but also in the times, the relationships between the genders.
Here, Austin has been courting Martha:
Boys brought up the way Austin King was brought up are taught, along with table manners, to create a handsome high pedestal and put the woman they admire on it, for purposes of worship. What they are not taught is how to get her off the pedestal, for purposes of love.
Martha tries to flee her destiny (before she marries). But the ‘tide’ of the times is too strong to fight. She’s trapped in her role.
The free person who runs away is no better off than a fish with a hook in his mouth, given plenty of line so that he can tire himself out and be reeled in calmly and easily by his own destiny.
The difficulty of knowing and understanding one’s own mind: that fact looms in the background of this entire novel. And it’s mirrored in the knowing – the true knowing of another. It’s a journey. Like knowing one’s parents.
There is nothing so difficult to arrive at as the nature and personality of one’s parents. Death, about which so much mystery is made, is perhaps no mystery at all. But the history of one’s parents has to be pieced together from fragments, their motives and character guessed at, and the truth about them remains deeply buried, like a boulder that projects one small surface above the level of smooth lawn, and when you come to dig around it, proves to be too large ever to move, though each year’s frost forces it up a little higher.
Maxwell fills the novel with many, many characters other than the Kings and the Potters. Though the reader may judge them, Maxwell never does. Each has a story. A story which has brought them to the various points in their lives at which time we come in to contactwith them. As people evolve, change, grow, shrink, so does the story.
At the end it comes full circle. Though the point at which the circle is once again connected are two very different points indeed. Much has changed. Life goes on. Or as Maxwell titles his last section (Part Six): “There Is A Remedy Or There Is None”.