We don’t have an American equivalent of Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, D. E. Stevenson’s classic humorous novel about an army wife whose diary regales us with her adventures as a versatile housewife, ebullient mother of two precocious children, and charming friend who helps other army wives adapt to their gypsy life. This novel is a darling of the D. E. Stevenson Yahoo group, an online group devoted to discussion of her novels. And because the book is so popular, I’ve been racking my brains for an American equivalent. In vain.
For some peculiar reason, however, the tone of Edna Ferber’s delightful collection of short stories, Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney (1913), puts me in mind of Mrs. Tim. It’s not that the heroine has much in common with Mrs. Tim - Emma McChesney is perhaps the only a successful traveling saleswoman in literary history, a stellar employee of T. A. Buck’s Featherloom Petticoats. Her domestic situation is utterly different from Mrs. Tim's, too, as she is the divorced mother of a 17-year-old son. But her sense of humor, friendliness, and resilience are an American rendition of Mrs. Tim.
“Roast Beef, Medium is not only a food. It is a philosophy,” Edna Ferber writes in the preface to the collection.
The title refers to the only consistently good road food, in Emma's opinion: roast beef. On the road, Emma daydreams about the Sunday dinners she could cook if she were an ordinary housewife. Roast beef becomes a metaphor for the family life she feels she is missing, though none of the women she knows lead that life. After five months on the road in small towns she wants nothing more than to eat a good dinner in Chicago and see a show. But, tired from a long day of the business she simultaneously adores and is cynical about, she watches other housewives in the small towns.
“As Emma McChesney loitered, looking in at the shop windows and watching the women hurrying by, intent on the purchase of their Sunday dinners, that vaguely restless feeling seized her again. There were rows of plump fowls in the butcher-shop windows, and juicy roasts. The cunning hand of the butcher had enhanced the redness of the meat by trimmings of curly parsley....There came over the businesslike soul of Emma McChesney a wild longing to go in and select a ten-pound roast, taking care that there should be just the right proportion of creamy fat and red meat.... She ached to turn back her sleeves and don a blue-and-white checked apron and roll out noodles.”
Emma doesn't have a boyfriend, though men try to pick her up. She has a competitive relationship with a salesman for a rival petticoat company, a fat, talented pianist who likes to play the piano in hotel lounges. Her women friends work in department stores - and she makes friends on a train with an actress. Her son takes her money for granted until she takes him on the road and he finds out how difficult the life is.
Edna Ferber is known for big old-fashioned novels like So Big (for which she won the Pulitzer) and Giant (which was made into an incredibly good movie with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean). I always thought they were supposed to be bad novels - not read anymore, anyway - but these stories are superb. There are two sequels, Personality Plus: Some Experiences of Emily McChesney and her Son, Jock (1914), and Emma McChesney & Co. (1915).