Woman of Independent Means cover


A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey

reviewed by Julie A. Cowley
Associate Vice President for Academic Administration



In December of 1982, I had just finished my first semester of college. This is usually an interesting time for a young person and I was no different. I was challenged by my own independence at the same time that my parents were challenging it. My mother has a tradition of giving each of her three daughters a book as part of our Christmas stocking-stuffers. She carefully selects a book for each girl (now women – 36, 39, and 42 years of age). As is the case with our personalities, our taste and size in clothes, and our hobbies, Jill, Amy, and I each prefer a different kind of reading experience. Jill likes romance novels; Amy goes for murder mystery; and I enjoy historical fiction. Almost twenty-four years ago, my mother did not disappoint when A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey appeared in my stocking.

The novel’s central character, Elizabeth Alcott Steed (Bess), was born in 1890 in Honey Grove, a Texas town situated in Fannin County (but somewhat fictionalized in the book). The reader is introduced to Bess through her own letters, the first one written at the age of nine and the last at 78. The recipients of her honest, sometimes humorous, sometimes sad, and always engaging communications range from Rob, her husband with whom she’s been in love since the fourth grade, to her mother and father, to her college friend Totsie (one of the few people she befriends “purely on the basis of my own delight in them”), and to her son and daughter, Andrew and Eleanor. 

When I read A Woman of Independent Means for the first time during that holiday season, I remember being fascinated by the differences between my life and Bess’s. After all, Bess leaves her first year of college to marry Rob and is the mother of three by the time she’s twenty-three. At the same time, though, I felt a connection with Bess’s desire to become a woman of independent means by broadening her world and learning new life skills. I’ve read this novel several times over the last two decades. Maybe as a result of the place I’ve been in my own life at the time, each reading brings me to a new understanding of what the author means when she calls Bess a woman of independent means. I won’t reveal what these various meanings have been to me because I think it’s important for the reader to discover these meanings for themselves. 

What a waste of time spending so many hours unconscious, eyes and ears closed to the beauty of the world. If I live to be a hundred, the days will never be long enough for me.
  Elizabeth Alcott Steed (Bess)



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