Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage
reviewed by David Paul Deavel
Preaching at Oxford’s Roger Bacon memorial, Ronald Knox cited Ecclesiastes 2:16: “There shall be no remembrance of the wise, no more than of the fool, for ever; and the times to come shall cover all things together with oblivion. The learned dieth in like manner as the unlearned.” Roger Bacon the intellectual, Knox said, “is dead.” His memory is now hazy. But St. Francis “is not dead. . . . He is removed from our company because he is in heaven; but his story is of yesterday; he is like an elder brother who died, more is the pity, before we were born.”
I have no idea if Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s name will be as hazy as Bacon’s in a few hundred years. An accomplished scholar, author of myriad books and articles, recipient of the National Humanities Medal among many other awards, she was a powerful intellect. But if she is remembered, my guess is that it will be from the portrait found in her husband’s memoir: as a woman who didn’t just seek truth, but let Truth capture her heart. I did not know her, but reading Miss Betsey, I started thinking of her as an older sister.
Toiling as a Team
Eugene Genovese’s tale begins with himself, a 38-year-old lapsed-Catholic Marxist historian, having attempted two marriages, successful in academic work by day and occasional promiscuous encounters by night. Outwardly glamorous as his life seemed, he was miserable. Having been told about a brilliant and beautiful young teaching fellow at Harvard, Eugene found a reason to travel to Cambridge and meet this creature.
Eleven years younger than he, Elizabeth “Betsey” Fox first appeared to him as “Death Warmed Over.” Having suffered from anorexia and hepatitis, her “emaciation, taut skin, and unpleasant pallor” meant she was not an immediate knockout. But having traveled so far, Eugene thought he might as well be a gentleman. After hours of discussion of academic horror stories, history, and life, he left her with a kiss on the forehead, having discovered that in reality she was brilliant and “radiantly beautiful.” The attraction was mutual.
Upon marriage, the liberated, tolerant atheist Eugene was shocked to discover that “about ten” seemed the right number of children for his agnostic, scholarly wife. And concerning motherhood and career?
She was not joking when she titled a later book Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life.
Sadly, Eugene found that he was sterile. Despite his worry, “never in all the years of our marriage did she hint at resentment—neither in word nor gesture or deed.” She kept working at her career, always telling people that “her marriage—her husband—was the most important thing in her life.”
Unlike some other famous academic couples, Eugene and Betsey not only toiled in the same field, but toiled as a team, teaching classes, giving lectures, and writing articles and books together, explaining to onlookers that “spousal collaboration falls into the category the French invoke for making a soufflé: It is easy or it is impossible.”
Of Use to Many
Their collaboration included extensive study of the antebellum South’s flawed but Christian culture, and in the process they discovered how powerful Christian theology was. They began to find themselves defending Catholic orthodoxy in debate with “Christian Marxists” who knew little about Christianity or Marxism. As a pioneer in “women’s studies,” Betsey was forced to confront issues like abortion, concluding that her own toleration of such evils was inconsistent with what she knew to be the truth. By hook and by crook, first Betsey, then Gene, was drawn into the Christian worldview and finally into the Catholic Church.
By then, Betsey had few years left. Though afflicted with multiple sclerosis, she kept up her academic work, adding even more pro-life work to her plate, and spending much time in prayer. Unlike John Bayley’s memoir of Iris Murdoch, which seemed to take a great delight in revealing the indignities of his wife’s illness, Genovese’s story reveals amusing idiosyncrasies that a husband learns to love, but not indignities. Details of her illness are not lurid, but matter-of-fact, and accompanied by excerpts from her private notebook, which reveal a soul being taught by the discipline of suffering. In sorrow about her severe limitations she writes: “I found myself praying—at my little altar—Dear Lord, let my pain and suffering be of some use to some one.”
In recording how her life touched his, Eugene has helped make her strength and her suffering of use to many. His judgment occasionally tends toward theological hyperbole, but that is understandable. Of the day he met Miss Betsey, he says, “The Holy Ghost pronounced my sinful soul worth saving.” For her husband as for the reader, she is removed from our company, but she is certainly not dead.
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