When I was a young teenager, I wanted to be Anya Seton when I grew up. I loved her novels, all of which centered on strong-minded women in various historical periods. There were always romantic threads to the stories, of course, but Seton was more interested in the longer arc of most tales. The most familiar one to most of us is probably Dragonwyck, which was made into a rather entertaining movie.
The Turquoise had escaped my voracious consumption, though, until the Chicago Review Press re-issued it, along with many of Seton’s other best-sellers. This one, published in 1946, sold around a million copies according to the cover copy. Thing is, it’s not very good. It opens in Santa Fe, which seemed promising, but our heroine Santa Fe Cameron (half Scottish, half Spanish and wholly magnetic) falls in with an Irish ne’er-do-well and the pair heads East to New York. Fey is abandoned, pregnant, and sets her sights on one of the nouveau-riche financiers of the day. It’s true that in 1946 Seton was probably one of the earlier writers to trace this “upward mobility in Gotham” narrative, but since I wrote a book about it myself 23 years ago, it’s pretty familiar territory.
What was a little bit startling was the strongly moralistic stance Seton took. Fey, you see, had The Sight. Or at least a mystical gift for healing — symbolized by the turquoise of the title. She abandoned it in her hedonistic search for security and comfort. Bad move. She got punished. (Misery, loss of child.) She redeemed herself by heeding the call to go back to Santa Fe and become a healer. I hadn’t realized Seton was quite so puritanical. There’s lots of disapproving/titillating stuff about Fey and her sex appeal. If novelistic resolution means putting your heroine back in a hut on a New Mexican hillside, barefoot and devout…. aren’t you being kind of hard on her? Even more startling: in 1946, a million people wanted to read this story?