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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

A Woman of Independent Means

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?  

A Woman of Independent Means
by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey

  • Publication Date: May 1, 1998
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0140274367
  • ISBN-13: 9780140274363