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Confined by race, class and gender in 1920s America

PassingNella Larsen’s Passing was originally published in 1929, and is a chilling, chilly account of the politics of race, class and gender. Larsen was an African American, seeing with a rather steely eye into some of the uncomfortable accommodations which might be made in order to best gain the riches and rewards which America offered the educated and wealthy – at least, those who were white – or could ‘pass’ as such

Irene Redfield, involved in charitable foundation work to advance her race, married to a doctor, could indeed ‘pass’ for white, but would regard this as a betrayal of her race. She only uses ‘passing’ in order to gain anonymous access to comfortable places such as tea-rooms in elegant hotels, where, if she didn’t ‘pass’ she would be unable to enter.

A chance encounter brings her in contact with another ‘passing’ woman whom she has not seen since their girlhood. Clare Kendry however, made different choices through her ability to ‘pass’ Clare has been living as white for some years, married to a white man who is casually racist, she is a part of that wealthy white urban middle class.

Irene and Clare have taken very different approaches. Irene has lived more comfortably, protected from harsh economic realities through her husband’s position. She is upright, disciplined, correct, gracious and inflexible. She is also, it seems, a person of principle but her principles are arrived at through rationality. She is actually, a little chilly, and very controlling.

Clare, by contrast, whose early life was less privileged, lives as an accomplished survivor, exploiting her extraordinary beauty and grace, and the fact that no one in her present milieu dreams she is anything other than one of them. The challenge for Clare though, is that this has led to her losing all contact with ‘her’ people.

It’s funny about ‘passing’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.

This is a short, most interesting book, rescued from being purely sociological observation by a believable, developing story. The challenge I found was that the writer’s style is a little too structured and measured – whether this is because this fits the rather chilly controlled manner of her central character, Irene, I’m not sure, but this is told in the third person, so I suspect it is the author’s voice. I do have a preference for more lyrical writing – Larsen is an Enlightenment voice, rather than a Romantic one

There are several versions of this book – some of the ‘wooden book’ versions come with quite a lot of analytical material, contextual essays and the like, but my Kindle download was without any of these, to my disappointment

Finally, a couple of pingy thingies. Thank you to the ever redoubtable FictionFan, NellaLarsen1928championer of other bloggers, who faithfully skips around the blogworld bringing back delectable delights from other bloggers to tease our TBRs with. I had never heard of Nella Larson, and FictionFan featured this, in a cache of 5 wonderful litfic finds

The original review which caught her attention came from My Book Strings

Passing Amazon UK
Passing Amazon USA