I admit it, I approached this one cautiously. Eleanor Roosevelt is a heroine of mine. I’ve read and re-read Blanche Weisen Cook’s two volume biography (vol. 1 and vol. 2 and have suggested that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time be required reading for everyone in the public school universe. I’m an Eleanor Fan, plain and simple.
Like everyone, I was more than a little surprised when the Lorena Hickok letters hit the E.R. scene. Lorena was as openly gay as a person could be in her day (i.e. the 1920s—1950s for the most part). Eleanor had had a horrible childhood, but was rescued by Madame Marie Souvestre, eccentric headmistress of Allenwood, a girls school in London. Souvestre originally opened a school in France with her female partner. After their relationship floundered she moved to England and ran Allenswood. By the time of this novel’s opening, Eleanor had ended conjugal relations with FDR following his love affair with Lucy Mercer, and was openly living on the family’s Springwood Estate (aka “Hyde Park”) with a lesbian couple.
Loving Eleanor was so beautifully told—holding to the manners, language and mores of the story’s own times that I laughed at my own apprehension. This is not a seedy sex book with a “romance” label slapped on it. This is a love story, pure and simple. I adored it, even though I’m not a fan of Hick herself.
Hick complained endlessly, magnified every perceived slight and was insanely jealous of nearly everyone in E.R.’s life. That said, she, along with Louis Howe, created the Eleanor Roosevelt we know today. Personally, though, I give much more credit to Louis than to Hick—of whom E.R. was clearly tired long before Hick tired of her.
The Roosevelts had such a complicated post-Lucy marriage that they epitomize the idea that no one knows a marriage but the two people in it. In Loving Eleanor we see the fictional idea of FDR’s “Left Hook” at work seemingly spitefully destroying a few of Eleanor’s happiest relationships. Yet Eleanor, like many another wronged wife even today, simply embraced her husband’s other women and welcomed them at least outwardly. As salacious as the Eleanor-Hick relationship still is, I find it more a distraction for E.R. than a great love “affair”. That she loved Hick and cared for her is without doubt, but I have always found the passion a bit one-sided. I think to her dying day that E.R.’s only great love was her father, Elliott Roosevelt, brother of Theodore.
Both Hick and Eleanor today would have been seen for what they were—abused and abandoned children of alcoholic fathers and absent mothers. I believe both most likely experienced some level of incest—Eleanor’s grandmother had to have multiple locks installed on Eleanor’s bedroom door to protect her from her alcoholic uncles who still lived at home. Hick, whose step-mother threw her out, probably suffered some degree of this from her father and perhaps more abuse from men in whose homes she toiled as the “hired girl”. Each woman had the characteristic lack of trust of such children which made their relationships so difficult and made it very hard for them to feel and express real love. In the last Hick did much better. Eleanor later regretted the way she had raised her children largely for this reason.
This is the sort of novel I want to write. Breathing life into great people in history and making them “real.” I have one such in the works and, if it can be a fraction as well done as this, I will be supremely happy.
Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert.