A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austin takes place in Illinois in the late 1800s, where 20-year-old Violet Rose Hayes, recent graduate from Madame Beauchamps’ School for Young Ladies, learns that her father plans to remarry. She is confused, because she has been told for years that her mother has been ill in a sanitarium all this time. Her father had to confess that, no, she actually left the family and divorced him a long time ago, but he thought it would be easier for Violet to think that she was sick.
Upset and angry, Violet asks if she can visit her grandmother in Chicago, with whom the family has not had much contact in years. Her father reluctantly agrees, but what he doesn’t know is that Violet is planning to secretly look for her mother at the last address she had for her.
Violet’s grandmother and aunts are a variety of sisters. Her grandmother is a vibrant, active Christian, working among the poor in inner city Chicago. Her Aunt Matt supports women’s suffrage and attends meetings and protests in that cause. Her aunt Agnes married into elite society and takes Violet calling, hoping to snag a rich husband for her. Her aunt Bertie is living in the past, believing that her husband is away fighting in the Civil War and wondering why she hasn’t heard from him in so long. But unfortunately, none of them will discuss her mother with her, feeling it is her father’s place to do so. So Violet goes sleuthing on her own.
This coming-of-age novel reflects on the pathways open to women. Violet accompanies her grandmother on several of her missions, begins to move out of her self-centered viewpoint to see the needs of others, yet is repulsed by the sights, sounds, and especially smells of poverty. She loves her aunt Agnes’s rich lifestyle, but over time begins to feel its shallowness. She can see many of the points her Aunt Matt makes about the need for women’s votes and voices, but carrying placards in public isn’t her style. Each of the women has her flaws, but also her strengths: in some ways they each are striving for the same goals, though in different ways. Violet can learn from each of them, yet she has to find her own way, though she isn’t sure what that is at first.
And on top of everything else, her father and two of her aunts have someone they want her to marry, all very different from each other and none of them just right.
It’s written from Violet’s point of view, which is sometimes immature, but other times quite funny.
If the art of conversation was like a graceful tennis match, then I had lost track of the ball, the racket, and the score. Worse, I felt as though I had become entangled in the net.
I delivered a threat without raising my voice. Madame Beauchamps would have approved.
I had never washed a dirty dish in my life, and I had no desire to disturb my record.
Mary rummaged through the picnic basket as if searching for her ticket out of this conversation.
I thought the initial premise that Violet would believe that her mother was ill and hadn’t communicated with them for eleven years was a bit weak, even for someone as naive as Violet. And I thought Violet was a bit melodramatic, but chalked that up to her age – though I would think it characteristic of a younger teenager rather than a twenty-year-old. But later in the story another explanation comes up for that. There were a couple of theological points that made me wince just a little bit, but, again, I think that’s owing to Violet’s initial ignorance of such things.
But otherwise, I enjoyed the story and Violet’s growth very much as she finds out about herself, the world in general, and God, and contemplates what He would have her do.