Culture of Women in Ruth-Miriam Garnett’s novel “Laelia”

Laelia anceps

What is a Woman? Strength and Sensuality

I filled the bath and threw in a bath tea bag of lemongrass and green tea to relax and finish reading Ruth-Miriam Garnett’s novel “Laelia.”

Ruth-Miriam Garnett portrays the culture of womanhood in concentric circles from intimate homelife, to community, and hints at the broader swath of the world by bringing in Hillary Clinton as first lady attending the Cates Sisters extraordinary tea, and sending off Rebecca to Senegal and Paris.

What is Womankind and how does She navigate in the world? Garnett gives us the Three Graces in the form of The Cates Sisters, each possessed of a unique gift. Rebecca, as matriarch and visionary strategist, pilots the sister-family through tricky waters to a new land. Claudia is possessed of natural grace, charm, fashion sense, and social intelligence. Gracelyn is the artist who finds her niche in producing a children’s drama.

No matter how strong the plan, there will be surprises and “Laelia” provides these. As surely as the rare orchid blooming, the Cates Sisters emerge from their hothouse into environments that will nurture their womanhood and keep their bonds strong.

I related to “Laelia” personally as a particularly fine character study of matriarchy. Although these characters are African American, and Garnett portrays marvelous details from that world, the essence of the story scans across cultures. I could easily see my mother, who served as my strategic visionary, in the character of Rebecca. Or, my sister Julia, so focused and streamlined, but yet, filled with her own sensual power beneath the plain clothes she wore.

In some sense, “Laelia” harks back to Jane Austin’s work as a novel of manners in a cultured and cirumscribed world. Maintaining liveliness while steering through the demands of propiety is no easy task!

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