Chilton, Eleanor Carroll

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CHILTON, Eleanor Carroll

Born 11 September 1898, Charleston, West Virginia; died 8 February 1949, New York, New York

Daughter of William E. and Mary Tarr Chilton; married HerbertAgar, 1933 (divorced)

Eleanor Carroll Chilton, the daughter of a U.S. senator, was educated at private schools in Charleston and New York, and graduated from Smith College in 1922. She published her first novel, Shadows Waiting in 1926, and then moved to London, where her second novel, The Burning Fountain appeared in 1929. There Chilton also published, with Herbert Agar, a volume of poetry, a book of criticism, and several plays. In 1933, Chilton married Agar, a poet, critic, newspaper columnist, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history. Chilton's last novel Follow the Furies appeared in 1935; it was later adapted into a play produced in New York in 1940. Chilton died, divorced and childless, after a long illness.

Chilton's primary literary importance is as a novelist. As a critic her work is negligible; The Garment of Praise (1929), which she coauthored, lacks theoretic originality and perception into individual poems. As a poet Chilton's output is slight and uneven, bound by conventional forms and vague imagery. Yet there is a strength of feeling, particularly in the sonnet sequence in Fire and Sleet and Candlelight (1928). These 15 love sonnets frequently describe an internal conflict between proud independence and passionate love. The poet is reluctant to surrender her secret spirit that "walks alone, inviolate and unwed." She is aware of the ultimate separateness of lovers, the failure of love's illusions, the inevitable loneliness and futility of a life that moves "toward a hungry grave and gaping night."

But when Chilton deals with this same theme of the ultimate separateness of lovers in her first novel, her talent becomes apparent. Shadows Waiting (1926) introduces a young writer who resents total involvement with his lover and retreats to his separate and inviolable art, writing a novel within the novel peopled by purely private dreams and memories. Reviewers applauded the thematic depth and technical experimentation which make this an exceptional first novel, while recognizing its often slowmoving and artificial style.

Chilton's second novel demonstrates the limitations of reason and the power of the natural and instinctive in our lives. In The Burning Fountain (1929) a young couple planned to have two children to raise in a wholly rational environment. But a third child, born during a fierce thunderstorm, disrupts their orderly lives with her wild and ungovernable ways. In spite of parental restraint she finally runs off into a storm, returning to the elements. The descriptions of nature are powerful, but the effect is weakened by contrived symbolism.

In Follow the Furies (1935) the same struggle of intellect vs. emotion is explored but here it is internalized and intensified into a private hell. Barbara Linton is the daughter of a freethinking rationalist who has raised her to have no illusions, no religion, no conscience, no belief in anything except the ultimate dignity and rationality of man. Because her father has taught her to be rational above all else, Barbara poisons her paralyzed and increasingly incompetent, fatally ill, mother. Although this mercy killing was intellectually justifiable, emotional justification is a different matter. Barbara becomes increasingly haunted by the killing, and by the fact that, in her illness, her mother had returned to the Catholic church of her childhood, rejecting her husband's rationalism. Although Barbara can intellectually explain this deathbed conversion as a psychological phenomenon, she cannot explain away the fears which follow her, her nightmares, her new, doubting, and unwilling fascination with religion. Returning to her home and forced by an overflow of guests to sleep in her dead mother's bed, Barbara imagines poisoning her father, champion of the rationality which has failed her; horrified by this thought, she kills herself.

Chilton's strength as a writer is in her willingness to confront serious philosophical issues, while refusing to accept easy answers. In her last novel the reader senses Chilton's intensely honest but futile effort to answer unanswerable ultimate questions.


WLB (May 1929).