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Private Life

Private Life

by Jane Smiley
Private Life

Private Life

by Jane Smiley


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NATIONAL BESTSELLER • From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres—and “one of her generation’s most eloquent chroniclers of ordinary familial love” (The New York Times)comes a “masterly…compelling depiction of a singular woman,” (The New Yorker), from her childhood in post–Civil War Missouri to California in the throes of World War II. 

Here is the powerful, deeply affecting story of one Margaret Mayfield. When Margaret marries Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early at the age of twenty-seven, she narrowly avoids condemning herself to life as an old maid. Instead, knowing little about marriage and even less about her husband, she moves with Andrew to his naval base in California. Margaret stands by Andrew during tragedies both historical and personal, but as World War II approaches and the secrets of her husband’s scientific and academic past begin to surface, she is forced to reconsider the life she had so carefully constructed. 
A riveting and nuanced novel of marriage and family, Private Life reveals the mysteries of intimacy and the anonymity that endures even in lives lived side by side.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400033195
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/14/2011
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 506,488
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 7.95(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JANE SMILEY is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and most recently, Golden Age, the concluding volume of The Last Hundred Years trilogy. She is also the author of five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.


Northern California

Date of Birth:

September 26, 1949

Place of Birth:

Los Angeles, California


B.A. in English, Vassar College, 1971; M.A., Iowa University, 1975; M.F.A, 1976; Ph.D., 1978

Read an Excerpt


For a while, they lived in town. She had a particular and vivid memory of that time: she was running, as it seemed she always did, back and forth from one end of town to the other. She was fast and gloried in it. She wasn’t racing against anyone or getting into trouble, she was just running and looking at things. She ran fast enough so that she could feel her heavy blond hair stream out behind her, subside across her back, stream out again. She passed one house after another.

At the far end of town, there was a pleasant large house where some ladies lived, though they never talked to her, nor she to them. She remembered how, one day, she came to a halt in front of this house and one of the ladies, a tall beauty, was standing on the porch, dressed in an elegant white embroidered gown with a snowy eyelet skirt. Margaret stared at her, and the lady smiled. Margaret thought that she had never seen anything as beautiful as that dress in her life, which at the time seemed rather long. When the lady wafted back into the house, Margaret turned and pelted home, where she found her mother in the back parlor, sewing. As soon as Margaret entered the room, out of breath, she saw that her mother was sewing a copy of the dress she had seen on the beautiful lady. She exclaimed, “I saw that dress! I saw that dress today!” Then she went up and touched the eyelet. Her mother, Lavinia, didn’t reprimand her, but finished the seam she was sewing, and broke the thread between her teeth. Then she said, “Perhaps you did. But don’t tell your father.” It was years before Margaret realized that the pleasant house at the far end of town was a brothel, and that, from time to time, her mother sewed dresses for the ladies to make a little extra money. In Margaret’s mind, these dresses were always white. When she was older, though, and recalled this, Lavinia said that it hadn’t happened, it couldn’t have happened; Margaret must have read it in a book.

What had happened, what Margaret should have remembered, was that her brother Lawrence, who would have been thirteen then, had left the house with her one day and taken her to a public hanging. No one had stopped him, because Lavinia was giving birth—to Elizabeth—and her father, famous all over town as Dr. Mayfield (Margaret thought of him as “Dr. Mayfield,” too, he was that imposing), was attending the birth. Lily, the housekeeper, was occupied with Beatrice, who was two. It was said that Lawrence and Margaret left the house and were gone for hours before anyone noticed. But no one suspected that Lawrence, a studious boy, would have taken her to the hanging. Ben, yes—Ben was rowdy and adventuresome, though two years younger than Lawrence. The whole episode was a family legend, and part of the legend was that Margaret didn’t remember a thing about it. “Margaret looks on the bright side,” said Lavinia. “As well she should.” From time to time, though, Margaret had a ghostly recollection of this bit or that bit—of her hand reaching up into Lawrence’s hand, or of him handing her a bit of a crab apple, or of her bonnet hanging over her eyes so that she couldn’t see anything except her feet. He might have sat her on his shoulders—he sometimes did that when she was very young. Nevertheless, it was a fugitive memory, however dramatic.

But Margaret remembered other things that she would have preferred to forget. She remembered that when Ben was thirteen he went with some cronies down to the railyards. They found a blasting cap, which one of the fellows attached to the end of a short length of iron rod that they had also found. Employing this rod, they rubbed the blasting cap against some brickwork to see what might happen. When it exploded, the rod flew out of the boy’s hand and entered Ben’s skull above the ear. He was killed instantly. None of the other boys was hurt, and they carried the body home as best they could. Dr. Mayfield met them at the door, and this was the first news they had of the death of Ben.

That winter, Lawrence contracted measles, which led to an inflammation of the brain. The source of the original infection was what Lavinia had always feared, a child who was brought to see Dr. Mayfield. Elizabeth, Beatrice, and Margaret succumbed as well. But they were fairly young, and Lawrence was almost sixteen at the time. They lived and he did not.

And then, one evening about six months after the death of Lawrence, for reasons of his own that Lavinia later said had to do with melancholic propensities, Dr. Mayfield retrieved Ben’s rifle from the storeroom behind the kitchen and shot himself in his office. Lavinia found him—she had thought he was still out with a patient, but, upon awakening very late, she heard the horse whinny out in the stable. She went to Dr. Mayfield’s office to investigate and discovered the corpse. Margaret remembered that night—the sounds of running feet and doors slamming, the whinny of a horse, and a shout either half rousing her or weaving into her slumber. What she remembered most clearly was that when she and her sisters got up in the morning, there was once again a large closed coffin in the parlor. Their father was gone, and Lavinia, who had been sickly from so many pregnancies and so much grief, was a different person, one the girls had never known before. She was entirely dressed, her bed was made, and from that day forward, she never complained again of the headache or anything else. Margaret was eight; Beatrice had just turned six; Elizabeth was not quite three. On the day after the funeral, which Margaret also remembered, Lavinia moved the girls to her father’s farm—it was the practical thing to do, and Lavinia said that they were lucky to be able to do so. She told Margaret, because she was the oldest, that death was the most essential part of life, and that they must make the best of it. Margaret always remembered that.

Gentry Farm, not far from Darlington, down toward the Missouri River, was famous in the neighborhood, a beautiful expanse of fertile prairie that John Gentry and his own father had broken in 1828. Before the War Between the States, Lavinia’s father and grandfather owned seventy-two slaves, quite a few more than was usual in Missouri—they raised hemp, tobacco, corn, and hogs. When Lavinia was twelve, John Gentry gave his oath to support the Union, unlike several of his neighbors. Two of his cousins went off to join the Confederacy. After the war, John Gentry’s loyalties were questioned all around, and so he married his daughters to suitors of unimpeachable Union sympathies. Martha married a man from Iowa who fought with the Fourth Iowa Infantry; Harriet married an Irishman from Chicago; Louisa married one of those radical Germans from the Osage River Valley, who, though her grandfather never liked him, was a rich man and an accomplished farmer. And after the war, John Gentry managed to hold off the bushwhacking Rebel sympathizers by being well armed at all times and a notoriously excellent shot. They did burn down his corncrib once, and steal two of his horses. He knew them, of course. Boone County, Callaway County, and Cole County were wild patchworks of Union and Rebel sympathizers, and though blood didn’t run as high there as it did out to the west, your neighbor could always tip his hat to you during the day and come to hang you that same night. John Gentry said that you would think that Lincoln, a man who knew both Illinois and Kentucky, would have given going to war lengthier consideration than he did, but those folks from Massachusetts and New York, who didn’t have a thing to lose, got his ear, and that was that for a place like Missouri, which remained a stew of differing loyalties and long-standing resentments for many years.

Lavinia never expressed opinions about the war—for her, the three girls were occupation enough. She was frank—their assets were few—and as they grew into young ladies, her principal task was to cultivate them. John Gentry had a piano, and so Beatrice was put to learning how to play it. Lavinia had a sewing machine, and so Elizabeth was put to learning how to use it. Dr. Mayfield had left quite a few books, and so Margaret, never adept with her hands, was put to reading them. Quite often, she would read while Beatrice practiced her fingerings and Elizabeth and her mother sewed. Margaret liked to read Dickens best—The Old Curiosity Shop was a great favorite, and A Tale of Two Cities. Her grandfather, sitting in the circle smoking his pipe, enjoyed Martin Chuzzlewit for Dickens’s faithful portayal of the sad life of those folks who lived over by Cairo, Illinois, a spot on the map as different from the Kingdom of Callaway County, Missouri, as white was from black. She also read Ragged Dick and Marie Bertrand, which were, of course, by her mother’s favorite author, Mr. Alger. They were most excited to receive a copy of Mr. Alger’s Bob Burton, or, The Young Ranchman of the Missouri, as a gift from Aunt Louisa, but though they did read it, John Gentry was dismayed to discover that the Missouri River in question was in Iowa, and was not their Missouri, the real Missouri, which was in the state of Missouri and, he always told everyone, the true main branch of the Mississippi, and therefore the longest river in the entire world. Another book that came to mean a good deal to Margaret was Two Years Before the Mast, by Mr. Dana. She read it to her sisters twice, all the while making bright pictures in her own mind of the wild and inaccessible coast of California. These pictures subsequently turned out to be entirely wrong.

Alice, her grandfather’s cook, taught them how to make biscuits, coffee, doughnuts, flapjacks, and piecrust. Of farmwork, the girls did little, but they did pick apples, pears, plums, and peaches from her grandfather’s trees, and blackberries and raspberries and gooseberries from his bushes. They were taught to make jams and cordials, and to think of Missouri as an earthly paradise.

Lavinia got pattern books and designed their dresses so as to minimize their disadvantages of appearance: With her blue eyes and fair hair, Margaret wore only shades of blue. Elizabeth, who was not fair, was allowed blue and green. Beatrice, dark like their father, wore deep reds, sometimes pink, and occasionally a faded and respectable violet. Beatrice grew tall; she had to wear wide sleeves. Elizabeth’s frocks, with their buttons and tucks and insets, always drew the (ever-foreseen male) eye to her slender waist. Margaret’s wrists were a bit thick, according to her mother, so she had to wear gloves into town. The girls trimmed hats. They knitted shawls. They crocheted collars and edgings. They bleached, trimmed, pressed, and set aside in their chests the household linens they would need one day. They embroidered.

For some months when Margaret was sixteen, there was a lengthy discussion of whether they should purchase a loom. Lavinia had heard that there was an enterprising woman in Osage County who made beautiful carpets. Lavinia wondered if this woman might take one of the girls, perhaps Elizabeth, as a student, or even adopt her outright—Lavinia felt that you never knew what an enterprising woman would do, anything was possible. But John Gentry put his foot down, and so the girls learned a humbler craft that winter, braiding rugs from rags. As the rugs grew beneath the fingers of her mother and sisters, Margaret read aloud, as a novelty, a book that had been written by a famous woman from St. Louis named Kate O’Flaherty Chopin. Her grandfather told them how he remembered the very day back in 1855, when Lavinia was still an infant, that the first train belonging to the Pacific Railroad brought down the bridge over the Gasconade River. Many were killed, including Mr. O’Flaherty, Kate Chopin’s father. John Gentry was interested in everything about the railroad, for it had been a great boon to him. Nevertheless, he and Lavinia agreed that the fact that Mrs. Chopin wrote novels for remuneration was an unfortunate outcome of her trials. Beatrice, Elizabeth, and Margaret were encouraged to pity rather than admire her. But books were books—the hoped-for suitors would require an appealing degree of cultivation. Beatrice, with her talents (and good looks), and Elizabeth, with her skills (and her thick mane of chestnut hair), might get as far as Chicago or even New York (in Mr. Alger’s books, the best place to find yourself ending up was New York), but even Margaret could get to St. Louis.

On the farm, talk of St. Louis was constant.

At first, St. Louis came to her as a fall, like a light snow, of names: Chouteau. Vandeventer. Eads. Gratiot. Laclede. St. Charles. Lafayette. Even Grand, which was a boulevard. Shenandoah, Gravois, Soulard. If there was a street name in St. Louis as dull as Oak or Fourth, Margaret never heard it. And every good thing was from there—shoes and boots, silks and nainsooks and Saxony woollens, books, pianos, books of piano music, candy, sugar, chewing tobacco, her mother’s mouton capelet, pearl buttons. There was a vast emporium in St. Louis called Carleton’s which carried goods sent specially from Paris, France, and London, England, and from Japan and China and India (if only tea—Lavinia drank tea). John Gentry seemed to take personal credit for the way St. Louis blossomed just over the eastern horizon of Gentry Farm, and the fact that they could get to St. Louis any day they wanted, on the train from McKittrick, was a source of eternal joy to him (they should have seen the roads, if that was what you wanted to call them, in the Missouri of his youth!). Even so, he went there not more than once in two years.

And then Beatrice was suddenly eighteen years old, a finished product. She could play any number of pieces on the piano, from “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Camptown Races” to “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower,” and some more complex pieces without lyrics, such as “Annie and I,” which had three sharps. She could sing if the song in question fell into her range. Her tone was rich and melodious. The time had come to put her on display. A lady Lavinia knew in town had a very nice piano, much nicer than the Gentry piano, which she herself could not play, so, on days when John Gentry had to take a wagon into town anyway for business, he would carry Beatrice along and leave her at Mrs. Larimer’s house on Pennsylvania Street, and Beatrice would play for her. Sometimes, with enough notice, Mrs. Larimer would invite a few friends in to have tea while Beatrice was playing.

The summer Beatrice was eighteen, the cousin of a friend of Mrs. Larimer, a man named Robert Bell, took over the town newspaper. He had money and credentials. What John Gentry knew about Robert Bell, within the first week, was that he was backed by some family capital, he was ambitious, and he had grown up in St. Louis in a big house on Kingshighway, a very wealthy and forward-looking neighborhood.

It was Robert Bell who decreed, young man though he was and new to town, that the Unionists would march at the front of the Fourth of July parade just behind the band; the farm-produce displays, the fire engine, the horse drill, and the mules would march in the middle; and the Rebels (numbering eight by now), dressed in their old Confederate uniforms, would march at the back, behind the Ladies’ Aid Society and the German-American Betterment Society (which dressed in traditional Bavarian costume). He wrote about his plan in the newspaper, alternating discussions of the controversy with news of the war in Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and then the Philippines, until everyone in town had had their say and gotten bored with the War Between the States, especially since the new war seemed to be going so well. According to John Gentry, this strategy of promoting patriotism over infighting was a mark of genius in such a young man, and he went by the office of the newspaper to tell Robert Bell as much. The young man thereupon invited John Gentry and his family to watch the parade from the windows of the newspaper office, which was closed for the afternoon.

To Margaret, Robert Bell was a disappointing sight. He had enormous muttonchop whiskers that only partly disguised his receding chin. His hair was thin and flyaway. His eyes were his best feature, rich blue and much more expressive than his words. He was nicely dressed. But he was considerably shorter than Beatrice—the top of his head came only to the middle of her ear. He made Margaret feel awkward just by standing next to her. He was attentive to them, though. He showed Lavinia to the best chair, which was pulled up right in front of a large open window looking out on Front Street, and then he showed Beatrice to the chair beside that one, and he brought her a cake and a cup of tea. Elizabeth and Margaret he left to fend for themselves, but he had gotten in nice cakes—light, with raspberry filling and marzipan icing, something Margaret had never seen before that day. He also had gotten in enough lemons for real lemonade, which he served with ice. He was comfortable with luxury, just what you would expect in a Bell from St. Louis—Margaret could see this thought passing from Lavinia to her grandfather when they caught each other’s eye and raised an appreciative eyebrow.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Private Life, a riveting new novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley that traverses the intimate landscape of one woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.

1. How would you describe this novel in one sentence?

2. Smiley’s epigraph for the book is a quote from Rose Wilder Lane. Why do you think she chose this particular line?

3. What is the purpose of the prologue? How did it color your interpretation of what followed?

4. Over the course of this novel—which stretches across six decades of American history—how does the role of women change? How might Margaret’s life—and marriage—have been different were she born later?

5. This is a book that begins and ends with war—starting in a Missouri that is just emerging from the destruction of the Civil War, concluding in California on the eve of World War II. Margaret’s personal life is also punctuated by historical events, the San Francisco Earthquake among them. How does this history affect the lives of the characters? How does Margaret’s story offer the reader a different perspective on the larger life of the nation?

6. On page 80, Smiley writes, “Margaret began to have a fated feeling, as if accumulating experiences were precipitating her toward an already decided future.” Do you think her fated feeling proved accurate? Was marrying Andrew a choice she made, was the decision that of both of their mothers, or was it dictated by the time and place?

7. Lavinia tells Margaret, “A wife only has to do as she’s told for the first year” (page 91). When does Margaret finally take this advice? Why? Do you think this is good advice or manipulative?

8. Compare Lavinia’s advice with the counsel in the letters Margaret finds from Mrs. Early to Andrew. Whose is more useful? More insightful? Do you find Mrs. Early’s behavior toward Margaret and her mother deceitful?

9. What does Dora represent to Margaret? If she could trade places with her, do you think Margaret would? How does Dora think of Margaret? Do Margaret and Dora have anything in common? If not, what do you think brings them together?

10. Margaret and Andrew are both devastated by their son Alexander’s death, yet they react in different ways. How does Andrew’s perspective on this tragedy—that of a scientist and a man who believes in logical explanations—differ from Margaret’s? How does Alexander’s death change their marriage? Might things have been different if he had lived? Why or why not?

11. Thinking about Alexander’s death leads Margaret to think about her brothers and father and the way they died (page 172). Why do you think Private Life opens with descriptions of their deaths? Margaret thinks that their deaths must have been worse for her mother than Alexander’s was for her; do you agree?

12. What is the nature of Dora’s relationship to Pete? What do they get from each other? Pete and Andrew are both liars, yet very different men—but they also seem to get along. What, if anything, do you think they share? And how are they different from each other?

13. Discuss Andrew’s theories of the universe, and his academic dishonesty. Can you think of a modern-day analogue? If he were exposed today, what would happen to him?

14. Andrew Early is a scientist who is described to us at first as a genius. But it turns out to be more complex than that, and for as many of his ideas that are right (the earthquake, the moon craters) others are wrong (ether, double stars). Do you think it’s at all accurate to describe him as a “genius”—or even a “mad genius?” How does “science” augment the overall story the novel is telling?

15. What role does Len Scanlan play in the novel, and in Margaret’s evolving perception of her husband and his work? Why doesn’t Margaret tell Andrew about Len’s indiscretions with Helen Branch?

16. Margaret falls in love with a family of birds—coots—that live in a nearby pond. Why do you think they grow to mean so much to her? What is the significance of the coots to this story of a marriage?

17. Japanese art plays a significant part in the novel. What does it represent to Margaret? How does it tie Margaret to the Kimura family?

18. At several points in the novel, Margaret gets a glimpse of how others see her. But how does she see herself? Is her self-image more or less accurate than Andrew’s?

19. Reread the passage on page 345, about Dora’s reflections on human beings, birds, and freedom. What is Margaret’s reaction? How has Dora changed in the course of the novel? How does this compare to the ways in which Margaret changes?

20. Is Pete the great love of Margaret’s life? What effect does he have on her and the decisions she makes? If Andrew discovered the truth of this relationship, would he feel as wronged by her as she feels by him?

21. Why does Andrew denounce the Kimuras and Pete? Does he have an ulterior motive?

22. Do you think Andrew’s reports are taken seriously—is he responsible for the Kimuras being arrested, or was their fate inevitable given the time and place? Does Andrew’s behavior add a new dimension to your understanding of the World War II internment?

23. On page 372, when Margaret tells Andrew that The Gift is a picture of Len Scanlan, what does she mean?

24. At the end of the novel, Margaret recounts to her knitting group a hanging she witnessed as a young girl and can recall in detail. “I do remember it now that I’ve dared to think about it,” she tells them. “There are so many things that I should have dared before this” (page 403). What do you think she means by this? What do you think of the last line of the book: “And her tone was so bitter that the other ladies fell silent.”  What is the significance of the hanging to Margaret’s story, to her life, and to “her” book?

25. What do you take away from the story of Margaret’s entire life? How does this novel compare to accounts in nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels that center around women’s lives?

26. Jane Smiley has revealed that the characters of Margaret and Andrew are very loosely based on “my grandfather’s much older sister [and] her husband, an eccentric family uncle . . . infamous in the physics establishment.” Yet most of the story’s details are fictional. Does knowing this change the way you see Margaret and her story?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit

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