Love Past Thirty is the type of book that I’m always convinced I’ll never find, until I do. Thank goodness for notifications from bookselling aggregate websites! Once the notification arrived, I couldn’t buy this book quickly enough, in part because it was listed by a source I know and trust, ReadInk. Finding Love Past Thirty was one of the good things to come out of 2020 and as a bonus, it’s signed by the author!
Do I really need to explain why I’m interested in a story with an “older” protagonist? Caroline Burt is thirty-four. Reading this book in the weeks leading up to a mid-thirties birthday was a bold choice.
Before I learned the premise of Love Past Thirty, I had envisioned a story of a career woman, like some of the Faith Baldwin protagonists. What I found instead at first was a story of a woman competing for her childhood sweetheart against her own eighteen year old niece, hardly an empowering feminist narrative. Upon reading it, however, I found a more complicated story about a woman who grows to assert her own boundaries and find her own happiness. Caroline Burt is a protagonist to root for. Fair warning though, Love Past Thirty definitely uses language like “Caroline’s cold little spinster heart” (113) and there is even an entire chapter titled, “Yes, Carrie’s a born old maid” (60).
Love Past Thirty by Priscilla Wayne was published as an A.L. Burt first edition in 1932. (That’s right, the publisher A.L. Burt was NOT just a reprint house – a select few first editions do exist!) A full-text scan of the book is available in HathiTrust, so feel free to read along for this one! As noted in The FictionMags Index, a much earlier draft of this story was published ten years before in the July 1922 issue of McCall’s, with a full-text scan of the magazine available via the Internet Archive. The short story version was titled “Old Maid Caroline” (cringe) and was credited to Priscilla Wayne’s real name, Besse Toulouse Sprague. Most of the initial premise of the original story is there: Charles Browne left his small Iowa hometown sweetheart behind many years ago to seek his fortune. He had tried to summon Caroline but in the meantime, Caroline’s family had needed her after her brother Lon’s wife passed away and left two motherless children. After many long years, Charles Browne returns to his hometown, and the rumor is that he’s back for his sweetheart. Embarrassing gossip stings Caroline’s pride, and her eighteen year old niece Zelda makes a play for Charles.
In “Old Maid Caroline,” Zelda’s flirtations are resolved when Zelda tries to crash Caroline and Charles’ walk to a nostalgic spot and Charles tells her, “time little girls were in bed.” Zelda pouts, and is gone. However, that hardly fills a nearly 300-page novel. In Love Past Thirty, Zelda is more manipulative, and more successful at it. For most of Love Past Thirty, Zelda wins the affections of Charles Browne as Caroline is heartbroken and humiliated.
Honestly, the first hundred pages of Love Past Thirty are a painful read. Caroline Burt dutifully keeps house for her brother’s family and works at his general store in her linen smock while her niece Zelda gallivants around town with Charles Browne. Townspeople stop by the store to simultaneously ask Caroline when she’s marrying Charles, and what she thinks about Charles playing so much tennis with Zelda. Zelda does things like intercepts orchids sent to Caroline from Charles, tells Caroline that Charles sent them for Zelda, boasts about them to Caroline, and then tells Charles that Caroline didn’t want them but that she (Zelda) likes them.
Charles is flattered by and receptive to Zelda’s overtures. It’s made explicitly clear that Zelda likes the idea of Charles’ established wealth more than the man himself. Aside from Caroline, Zelda’s boyfriend Sam Adair is also rather unhappy with the situation.
The town hosts a party for Charles at the Burt house. Caroline does most of the work to host, and Zelda drives to a neighboring town to obtain a new dress she can’t afford. Charles and Zelda sneak out of the party. The small town gossips notice their guest of honor is missing, along with Zelda. Zelda returns late and everything comes to a boil. Again, it’s painful. “Why, Aunt Carrie, you hadn’t any more chance with a man like Charlie Browne than a last year’s birds nest has with an up-to-date bird” (97).
The second act of the novel takes place in Chicago. After the Burt family fight, Caroline leaves town and stays with her fashionable cousin Beth. In the first vacation she’s had in decades, Caroline gathers the perspective that she has given too much of herself to her brother’s family, to the point where there’s nothing left of herself. Caroline decides that those times are done, and that she’s going to be her own woman and live her own life. Beth encourages this, facilitating both a physical and emotional makeover. Even before Caroline’s metamorphosis, she attracts the attentions of a kind doctor, Dr. Donald Meredith.
An unrecognizable Caroline Burt returns to Midport, Iowa. She returns not to win back her childhood sweetheart, and not to keep living as she had been, but rather to wrap up loose ends with her funds and show everyone that she’s not to be seen as a pitiable heartbroken character. She surprises the townspeople by returning unannounced, looking ten years younger, and then not returning either to her brother’s house or store.
The plot line of “old maid returns home as babe, men drool over her” would make for an obnoxious story. What makes the last act of Love Past Thirty much stronger than that is the boundaries Caroline asserts, the independence she enjoys, and the happiness she discovers. Love Past Thirty acknowledges the mental load Caroline had been carrying in both her paid and unpaid labor. Without her, the Burt family home is dirty and a cook is needed. Tasks go undone. Zelda resents having to provide a midday meal for Lon and his son Junior, and they in turn resent the subpar job she does of it. And at the store, Lon needs to hire an extra clerk while Junior takes on additional responsibilities. The window display remains unchanged and becomes unseasonal. The inventory is a mess.
By the time Caroline is settled in to Midport, she has three suitors: the kindly doctor from Chicago, a Midport man with an overbearing mother who had been trying for Caroline’s affections since before she had left, and shockingly, Sam Adair, Zelda’s spurned teenage boyfriend. It’s that final suitor that has the town gossips talking. Since she doesn’t return to work at the store, Caroline has time on her hands, and since Zelda broke up with him, so does Sam. They begin spending time together. It’s a little weird, and Caroline doesn’t really mean anything by it. However, Zelda does not like when it’s her turn to feel hurt and humiliated by seeing her boyfriend around town with her aunt. Sam Adair is no longer the doting boyfriend to Zelda, and Zelda falls for him once more.
Charles Browne slowly has the epiphany that he’s been foolish. It starts with the town gossip getting to him, that feeling of seeing a group talking and knowing he’s the subject of conversation when they abruptly go quiet upon seeing him. Then he tries to convince Caroline to take him back, and offers to break his engagement with Zelda. Charles and Caroline finally have the honest conversation about the years they waited for each other and the barriers that kept them apart. Still, Caroline says no, as breaking the engagement would hurt Zelda. Then Zelda elopes with Sam Adair.
Charles tries again. Caroline rejects him, thinking of the handsome face and admiring words from the interested kind doctor from Chicago. Then comes the most cathartic line of the book, when Lon asks Charles how it went. “I got, Lon, exactly what was coming to me” (282).
Then comes the ending. I have mixed feelings about it. Caroline deserved her happily ever after. But did Charles Browne? I mean, the book talks about the long years he’s worked hard, missing his childhood sweetheart, and why he instead went for Zelda’s easy charms but like… Let’s be honest, I was rooting for Dr. Don Meredith from Chicago. Even the slightly pompous fuddy-duddy with the overbearing mother who was all wrong for Caroline ranked higher on my list than Charles Browne did at certain points in the story. Also, what happened to Caroline’s newly found independence?
I “get” why Charles Browne was Happily Ever After endgame, even if I’m not on fully board. He was the childhood sweetheart and the love interest from the earlier drafts of the story. He’s the nostalgic choice, as he and Caroline are reunited when they meet where they first declared their love together. It’s supposed to be sweet, but it’s abrupt. They declare their love, make a joke about how their younger dates nearly killed them with strenuous dancing, and that’s it. The last line, however, is a great one. “Even when one is PAST THIRTY, everything can yet be all right with the world” (288).
One last thing to mention about Love Past Thirty is that it was adapted into a 1934 film. The film is not lost but it does appear to be rare. The only copy I’ve located is a 16 mm film reel from a televised re-issue of the movie, located at the Library of Congress. Thanks to the pandemic, I’m not able to visit the Library of Congress. However, I have reached out to the Library of Congress about it and heard back within a business day. Once our world is a little safer and the Library of Congress re-opens to in-person researchers (late 2021? sometime in 2022?), I’m planning on making a viewing appointment at the Moving Image Research Center. If the film reel is in good enough condition, I’ll be able to see how the movie stacks up to the book.
Copies of Priscilla Wayne’s works are available for purchase here.