Keyes, Frances Parkinson (Wheeler)

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KEYES, Frances Parkinson (Wheeler)

Born 21 July 1885, Charlottesville, Virginia; died 3 July 1970, New Orleans, Louisiana

Daughter of John H. and Louise Johnson Wheeler; married Henry W. Keyes, 1904; children: three sons

An only daughter, Frances Parkinson Keyes received but seven years of formal schooling—in Boston, Switzerland, Berlin—as was appropriate for a "gently born girl." Her husband, more than 20 years her senior, with whom she had three sons, was governor of New Hampshire and served three terms in the U.S. Senate. She describes her role as hostess in Capital Kaleidoscope (1937).

Always a rapid and omnivorous reader, Keyes wrote as a child but was not encouraged. She began publishing after her marriage because of desperate financial need. Soon a regular contributor to Good Housekeeping, she was widely known for monthly "Letters from a Senator's Wife," which ran for 14 years, and for other political analyses. A contributing editor from 1923 to 1936, Keyes wrote about her world trip in 1925-26 and another to South America in 1929-30. These formative years are described in All Flags Flying (1972), an incomplete autobiography published posthumously. Keyes contributed to other magazines, was editor of the Daughters of the American Revolution's National Historical Magazine from 1937 to 1939, and was a frequent lecturer.

Keyes' fame rests upon her extraordinary career as a bestselling novelist. Her first novel, The Old Gray Homestead, was published in 1919. Not until Honor Bright (1936) did she have a bestseller, but she was seldom without one throughout the next decades.

In spite of frequent and severe illness and a crippling back injury, Keyes was a person of great vitality and enthusiasm, many interests, extraordinary dedication to work, and an urgent need for fulfillment. She produced very long and fluent novels that reflected careful and diligent research to ensure correctness of setting and circumstance. She reveled in descriptions of rich foods, elegant clothes, gay parties, and exotic locales. Older civilizations fascinate, but also evidence decay; in her novels promise in the modern world lies in simplicity and hard work.

Keyes favored accounts of a family's fortunes through several generations. The first novels are set in New England, Washington, and Europe. Perhaps the most lavish is Crescent Carnival (1942), sumptuously detailing complex New Orleans traditions through three generations. After its enormous success, she spent her winters in Louisiana and developed a pattern in which she wrote Louisiana books alternatively with other novels. The highly successful Dinner at Antoine's (1948) added mystery to her customary romance.

The typical Keyes heroine is young, beautiful, naive, and in love with an older experienced man who is ennobled by passion for her. Temptations abound, but high principle triumphs, though the rule that a Keyes heroine is never seduced altered in the later novels. Her women are competent, loyal, and stoic in their acceptance of hardships. Some have personal careers, but usually their lives are shaped by marriage, and fulfillment comes in motherhood, woman's triumph for Keyes.

Religion was important to Keyes. Though her family was Congregational, she was attracted to formal ritual and was confirmed at fourteen in the Episcopal church. In Along a Little Way (1940), she describes her gradual growth to Catholicism and recent conversion. She wrote about a number of saints' lives and often described religious practice in her novels.

Her novels had a large audience in England and were also translated into several languages. Keyes received many awards and honorary degrees. Although resigned to not receiving critical acclaim, she made a strong case for her craft in The Cost of a Best-Seller (1950). Admittedly sentimental and often rhetorical, her high romance is strengthened by common sense and diversified incidents. Keyes' exposition of political and social circumstances and concern with international relations challenged American provincialism.

Other Works:

The Career of David Noble (1921). Queen Anne's Lace (1930). Silver Seas and Golden Cities (1931). Lady Blanche Farm: Senator Marlowe's Daughter (1933). The Safe Bridge (1934). The Happy Wanderer (1935). Written in Heaven (1937). Parts Unknown (1938). The Great Tradition (1939). Fielding's Folly (1940). The Sublime Shepherdess (1940). All That Glitters (1941). The Grace of Guadalupe (1941). Also the Hills (1943). The River Road (1945). Came a Cavalier (1947). Once on Esplanade (1947). All This is Louisiana (1950). Joy Street (1950). Therese: Saint of a Little Way (1950). Steamboat Gothic (1952). Bernadette of Lourdes (1953). The Royal Box (1954). Frances Parkinson Keyes Cook-book (1955). Mother of Our Saviour (1955). The Blue Camellia (1957). Land of Stones and Saints (1957). Victorine (1958). Frances Parkinson Keyes Christmas Gift (1959). Mother Cabrini: Missionary to the World (1959). Station Wagon in Spain (1959). The Chess Players (1960). Roses in December (1960). The Third Mystic of Avila (1960). The Rose and the Lily (1961). Madame Castel's Lodger (1962). The Restless Lady, and Other Stories (1963). Three Ways of Love (1963). A Treasury of Favorite Poems (1963). The Explorer (1964). I, the King (1966). Tongues of Fire (1966). The Heritage (1968).


Reference works:

CA (1969, 1971). Catholic Authors: Contemporary Biographical Sketches (1948). TCA, TCAS.

Other references:

Catholic World (Jan. 1943). CSM (28 Nov. 1950). NYHTB (19 Nov. 1939). NYTBR (8 Nov. 1936, 8 Nov. 1942, 9 Dec. 1945). Time (26 Dec. 1960).