"Her only book, Black Beauty, was written in painful fragments and dictated to her mother (with whom she lived her entire life), then published six months before her death at age 58. Yet in considering her life, I think of a favorite line from another writer who lived at home with her mother, Eudora Welty: ‘A sheltered life can be a daring life as well, for all serious daring starts from within.’”
Tillie Olsen was forty-nine when Tell Me a Riddle was published. After writing the stories in it and publishing them in journals, Olsen won lucrative grants and fellowships. Publishers twice gave her contracts for novels (back in the thirties, Bennett Cerf, at Random House, worked hard to get her to write, and provided over a thousand dollars as an advance to support her meanwhile). Olsen repeatedly told her publishers she was almost done with a novel, but she never completed one, or any stories except for those four. She promised to write, accepted money to write, but didn’t write. Reid describes these periods as if Tillie Olsen was making irresponsible choices, but any reader who has tried writing a novel will guess how much pain she must have felt.
Modern readers might be somewhat amused to learn that this bodice-ripper is regarded as one of the early examples of “realistic” fiction. Is there any plot less true to life than the lord of the manor marrying his serving girl? But Pamela’s realism has little to do with the plausibility of the story. It lies, instead, in the novel’s scope and language.