A Woman of Independent Means

A Woman of Independent Means

by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780140274363
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/1998
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 115,590
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.55(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Inspired by her grandmother's life, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey wrote A Woman of Independent Means for her daughters, Brooke and Kendall. Since its publication, Hailey has had the pleasure of seeing Brooke make her TV acting debut in the miniseries, portraying the eldest grandchild, as well as the publication of Kendall's first book. The author of Home Free, Life Sentences, and Joanna's Husband and David's Wife, Hailey lives in Studio City, California.

Reading Group Guide

Domestic Feminism in A Woman of Independent Means

Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey wrote A Woman of Independent Means in 1978, when to most Americans feminism was beginning to become associated with angry politicos who neglected their femininity and were capable of shocking radicalism. This book, however, portrays a very different ideal for the capable, socially responsible woman of the Twentieth Century. The character Bess Steed Garner was partially inspired by the feminist movement of the 1970s, and partially based on the author's grandmother. When Hailey told her husband of her intention to write a novel called Letters from A Runaway Wife, he responded, "Runaway wives are a passing fad. Why don't you write about somebody who doesn't have to leave home to be liberated? Why don't you write about somebody like your grandmother?" Therefore, in the life of her heroine, Hailey portrays a domestic feminist, a woman who is not only confident about her gender's equality, but who proves it every day in her judicious maintenance of her home and finances, her unfailing support of her husbands, family, and friends, and her personal, independent engagement with the world around her. The letters that comprise this book&-both personal and business letters&-reveal that Bess's liberation is not only manifest in what she does, but in how she regards herself and her position in the various contexts of life.

Bess's first letter is dated 1899, and her last 1968. The tremendous social changes that occurred in this sixty-nine year span are reflected in the ever-evolving personality and character of Bess, who is gradually transformed from a sheltered, privileged child into a competent woman, encountering adversity with increasing intelligence, sensitivity, and courage. In 1913, Bess writes to her husband, "Last night the train sped through the heart of a forest fire, and I watched with fascination as the flames encircled but could not touch us. Sometimes my life seems as safe and insulated to me as the compartment in which I was riding last night. I see the flames of death and deprivation outside, but they do not touch me" (15). In 1916, however, those flames swept closer when Bess's daughter was hit by a car and forced to undergo a long, difficult period of hospitalization. Bess's relentlessly energetic care was probably instrumental in saving her daughter's life, while her creativity and devotion assured that Eleanor's psyche mended, as well as her body, during the long convalescence. This is the first tragedy that tests Bess's domestic heroism, but not the last. Over the next several years Bess endures the untimely deaths of her husband and eldest son, yanks a failing business back to its feet, and&-ironically&-loses her home and all of her possessions in a fire. Though her wealth eases Bess's burdens, it does not remain a protective shield that keeps the most painful realities of life at bay. Gradually one comes to feel that the "independent means" are not the social status and financial security Bess was born into, but the personal and spiritual strengths and resources she has acquired.


Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, born in Dallas, Texas in 1938, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and received her Bachelor's degree from Hollins College in 1960. In the same year she married Oliver Hailey, a playwright and the father of her daughters, Elizabeth Kendall and Melinda Brooke. She worked briefly in journalism and publishing before joining her husband in writing for film and television. They served as creative consultants for the enormously popular television series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

Hailey's first novel, A Woman of Independent Means, written in 1978, was an instant bestseller, and her adaptation of this work for the stage won the Los Angeles Critics Award. In 1995, NBC aired A Woman of Independent Means as a six-hour miniseries starring Sally Field, and in this medium, too, the work won critical acclaim. In addition to A Woman of Independent Means, Hailey has written three other novels: Life Sentences in 1982, Joanna's Husband and David's Wife in 1986, and Home Free in 1991. All of these novels have been praised for their commitment to searching out the subtler truths of interpersonal relationships and personal integrity.


  1. Consider the epistolary format of this book. What do Bess's letters reveal that a first person narrative would not? How do the style, tone, and subject matter of her letters change as Bess matures and grows older?

  2. Once she reaches her middle age, Bess begins to muse on the process and consequences of developing relationships through written correspondence, an example being when she writes to her son Andrew, "I have always had enormous respect for the written word and invariably find a letter more revealing than a face-to-face conversation. In a strange way I suspect I will get to know you better at a distance than I would if you had stayed at home" (169) How do you think a written correspondence can be a greater spur to intimacy than "a face-to-face conversation"?

  3. Bess seems an extraordinary woman for her time in many ways: her open-mindedness toward people of other social classes, creeds, and races; her eager acceptance of technological and social progress; her interest in and savvy regarding business affairs; and her unstinting assertion of herself as the equal of the men around her. As admirable as these qualities seem to us, is there ever any indication that Bess's acquaintances and associates are shocked or threatened by her attitudes? Who do you think tries to discourage her ideals, and to what end? Are there instances where you as a reader feel Bess has gone too far in her unconventionality?

  4. Bess's marriage to her first husband, Rob, seems to have been undeniably a union of love, whereas, in comparison, her later marriage to Sam appears to have been one more of convenience and even coercion. How do the tone, subject matter, and style of address to each of her husbands affirm or refute this analysis? How do the benefits and drawbacks of Bess's marriage to Rob compare to those of her marriage to Sam?

  5. We are witness to Bess's tragic losses of loved ones&-her parents, her elderly cousin Josie, and, as she ages, her friends, as well as the untimely deaths of her husband and eldest child. How do Bess's reflections and feelings about death change over time?

  6. When her son Andrew and her daughter Eleanor leave home and grow autonomous, we observe Bess attempting to modify her maternal relationship with her children, tempering it with a sense of friendship. To what extent is this attempt successful? In what ways does Bess retain her role of mother and in what ways does she assert herself as a friend to her children? How does the advice and encouragement she offers Andrew differ from that offered to Eleanor? Does Bess have similar expectations of each of her children?

  7. Bess's lifestyle is neither typical nor modest, and we see many examples of how Bess's wealth makes her life more comfortable and easier to manage. We can easily imagine how the outward circumstances of Bess's life would differ if she were in another social class, but how would her character and her personal philosophy be different?

  8. There are many marriages to scrutinize in this book, all rendered with varying degrees of detail and depth: Bess's parents, her father and Mavis, Totsie and Dwight, Totsie and Arthur, Lydia and Manning, Anna and Hans, Mr. Prince and his wife, not to mention Bess's two marriages and those of her children and grandchildren. Is there a single, abiding message about marriage in this book, or does each marriage contain its own message, emphasizing the varieties of romantic and marital experience? Is there one romantic relationship that seems to be particularly poignant or familiar to you? Do any seem idealized or unrealistic?

  9. Originally Hailey wanted to write a novel called Letters From a Runaway Wife. Does Bess fit your image of a "runaway wife"? Is she at any time errant in her responsibilities to her husbands and the other people in her life? What is the impulse behind her many travels?

  10. In Bess's disjunctive last letter, written to her granddaughter Betsy on June 19, 1968, Bess states, "Must call Sam so he to bed. Then I can sail. Dining with Captain tonight." Do you think this is the work of a fragmented memory, recalling its many voyages and the instance of dining with the Captain, or is this a metaphor for her final voyage? How does this last letter offer a resolution to the life of Bess Steed Garner, and how does it anticipate a forthcoming life of the spirit, as Bess's desired epitaph&-"To be continued"&-promises?

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A Woman of Independent Means 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm so happy this is again in print. I just inspired a friend to read it last night. Hailey presents a full portrait of a complicated woman, and she executes her theme beautifully. I couldn't put it down each time i read it, and I've read it at least four times. I lost my copy long ago and I plan to buy and read it again. I love novels in letter form, and in this case it makes your knowledge of the characters all the more intimate. The antagonist is complicated, which adds to the beauty of the book. Obviously, I loved this book and it has a special place in my heart.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book left me awestruck. The character is unbelieveably independent for her times and inspiring for women of the present time as well. The character survives some of life's most devastating occurences and moves on with her head held high.
LauraReviews More than 1 year ago
A Woman of Independent Means features Bess, a strong, capable, lovely, socially responsible woman. Published in 1978, during the height of radical feminism, this fictional book chronicles Bess' life through her letters to various people. Her first letter is dated 1899, the last 1968. Bess evolves with the world around her. Readers engage, through her words, as witnesses to her emotions, relationships with her husbands and children and challenges to remain true to herself. She starts off sheltered and emerges confident. All of the book's plot and character development lives in these letter portraits.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Not a very likable character but true to human feelings and actions
vasquirrel on LibraryThing 11 months ago
It is VERY hard to read this book and not think that you are reading actual letters that the author's grandmother had written. In fact, in the introduction to the edition that I have, Hailey shares an experience with an old firend of her grandmother's during which the friend was SURE that the real "Bess" had catalogued her own correspondence during her life. Exclusively in the form of written correspondence, the plot is advanced at a pace that is neither too fast or too slow. Especially enjoyable are the "clues" the author gives the reader as to future events, events which Bess is apparently unable to foresee; perhaps without the necessary distance, as she is "writing" in real time. We can glean what is around the corner and begin to try anticipate Bess' reaction. Even with this, there are some real surprises, both to the narrator and the reader.
thisismebecca on LibraryThing 11 months ago
So, I am at my friend Heather's house for a Christmas party for all of us who had been in the same Hospice Grief Group this year. It was so much fun laughing and giggling with these girls who have become like a second family to me. We all went through the same thing at the same time- losing a parent- and that brings you together like little else can.Well, while I knew Heather liked to read and she was writing a book about her mother, I had no idea just how MUCH she liked to read. She had several bookcases of books, plus she told me boxes downstairs. I instantly loved her even more. She picked up a book called A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. I had heard of the book but never read it. When Heather learned this, she put the book in my hands and said read this book. It is my favorite.So, after I finished reading Thousand Pieces of Gold, I picked up this book to read. And I LOVED it. I seriously, completely, adoringly love this book. I have to go get myself my own copy.This book, first published in 1978, is based partially off of Hailey's grandmother and partially based off of the feminist movement of the 1970s. The heroine, Elizabeth, called Bess, was born in 1890 and inherited a legacy- of both wealth and of a spirit full of determination, ambition, and a passion for life. The book is written in an epistolary format, as letters from Bess to all of the loved ones in her life. From Bess' letters the reader gathers all the information they need. Bess goes through trials in her life that could knock even a strong woman down- yet Bess is determined to prevail. The reader witnesses Bess go from a simple grade-school girl to a devoted wife and mother to a self-sufficient, courageous woman with an open mind and a willing soul.I learned so many life lessons from this book. Bess taught me so much about how to love an independent spirit and how to become more of an independent woman myself. What could be a greater gift from a book than to show you a reflection of yourself? The language was charming, classy, and enthralling. I was drawn into the story and always wanted to know what happened to Bess next and what choice she would decide to make. I wanted to see where she would go abroad next, who she would decide to write to next and why, I wanted to see what choices she made at every turn of her life, from her daughter getting hit by a car to her decisions to invest in the stock market and be in control of her finances to how she related to those around her, whether a childhood friend or her mother-in-law.Bess fascinated me and I had to close the book last night so I wouldn't finish it until today. I didn't want to leave Bess. I loved how completely capable she was, how socially adept, how open-minded she is to others different from herself (she even gets her "colored" housekeeper into her exclusive Dallas Shakespeare Club when she realizes how well-versed in Shakespeare she is and wants to support her in this.) I loved almost everything about Bess. She did have kind of a wondering eye, if nothing else, and she was more than a little stubborn, but she did own her responsibilities and she owned her mistakes.I really recommend this book to women everywhere. If you haven't read it, run over to your library or bookstore and read this book! I can hardly wait to hear what you think of it, too.A FEW OF MY FAVORITE QUOTES (although there are many more): "I am always amazed to hear people say the first weeks or months of marriage are the best and then, 'the honeymoon is over.' Of course I thought I loved you with all my heart when we were married, but it took marriage to teach me the outer limits of my anatomy, both physical and spiritual, and now I know that every moment we share further increases my capacity for love." (to her husband, Rob, in 1917) "I see now how much of what a man becomes is due to the woman at his side. A life can go in so many different directions and though a man may be the captain of his soul,
Harrod on LibraryThing 11 months ago
delightfully reflective in a wonderful format that drew me in and inspired me on several levels.
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