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Reading Group Guide

Private Altars
Katherine Mosby

 

Introduction

Private Altars tells the story of Vienna Daniels, a northern bluestocking who impulsively marries a Southerner and moves to West Virginia in the late 1920s bringing with her four steamer trunks of books and a firm grasp of the classics. She discovers that she is too educated, candid and independent for the comfort of small town Winsville, the narrow- minded inhabitants of which view her eccentricities with suspicion. She is also too educated, candid and independent for her husband, who becomes increasingly irritated at her challenges to his domestic authority and leaves her to bring up their two children alone. Vienna creates a private world within the Daniels estate, known as “The Heights,” one that rarely admits outsiders, which adds to the seductive mystery of the family. As the town speculates about what happens at The Heights, a few individuals come to know the realities, which include large and small tragedies. Two men of the town give their support to Vienna who stubbornly refuses to admit she needs it, believing perhaps that in accepting their help she will have to accept their love. She loses her husband, her son and the great love of her life, but struggles to transcend her circumstances, creating both a grounded and satisfying life in a hostile, racist community and a life that soars spiritually through imagination and intellect.

Questions for Discussion

Vienna escapes the decorum of privileged New York society to find herself in the middle of a community constrained by narrow social mores. What did Vienna lose by her choice and what did she gain?

Vienna roots herself in Daniels land, in what ways is Vienna more of a Daniels than Willard?

Much of the beauty of the novel is grounded in the emotional and physical landscapes of the south. How is the novel informed by the conventions of the Southern Gothic novel?

Could this story have taken place in New England?

Winsville would appear to offer two moral choices to its citizens: Christian duty or damnation. Many of the characters consider themselves damned or, like Vienna, are considered to be full of dark or demonic magic. In what ways is Vienna damned? In what ways is she Christian?  What would you say Vienna actually worships?

Religion takes many forms in the privacy of The Heights. Can you describe some of the things that are worshipped and by whom?

Addison, Elliott and Vienna are martyrs in different ways in their suffering.  How does that affect their choices and destinies?

Vienna Daniels carries within her a deep appreciation of the beauty of the world and can exude an almost beatific serenity. At the same time she is filled with depression, anger and shame. Why do you think she suffers so intensely from these conflicting feelings?

We like to sympathize with the misunderstood outsider who is nobler and intelligent than her critics, yet the author tells us that Vienna was indifferent to the townspeople and therefore their feelings meant nothing to her. In a climactic moment Dr. Barstow accuses her of acting for herself alone in ways that are shortsighted as well as selfish. Are their limits to your sympathy for Vienna? Does she remind you of any other tragic women in literature?

Vienna at times feels that heaven isn’t something attained at the end of a life but something present every day. Vienna, Elliott, John and Addison Aimes and even Alisha are said at various times to have experienced grace, felt proof of God’s existence or found salvation.  How did these experiences differ?

Dr. Barstow corrects a townsperson by saying that Vienna isn’t crazy; she is merely educated. We admire her erudition, yet Vienna’s goal to write an epic poem that is like Virgil in structure, Dante in scope and Pope in tone is something of an impossible dream. How did her obsessive belief in the value of this work affect her life and that of her children? Do you believe that Vienna would have finished it?

Like Aristotle, Vienna believes in striving for universal truths. What does Vienna overlook in specifics? To whom does she lie and why?

Sister Daniels is originally introduced as a comic figure, the spinster aunt who arrives intermittently to disapprove of Vienna’s management of her household, especially the chaotic upbringing of Willa and Elliott. Yet over time we see more complexity in Sister’s role in the story. How does Sister Daniels fail her family and in what ways does she support them?

Vienna kept her children out of school for as long as she could and let them spend as much time outdoors as they wanted. In what ways does Willa act like an animal and in what ways does Elliot think like an animal? How does the wildness of their childhood manifest itself in their behavior and personalities?

Private Altars is saturated with beautiful allusions to the natural world.  Can you list three ways in which the author used nature as a literary device?

Old Duda says that “when trouble comes it doesn’t announce itself with a calling card.” What did she mean? How was this true for Vienna?

One of the things that fiction does well is to demonstrate how individuals experience the same reality differently when filtered through their own sensibilities. For example Alisha and Vienna experience the afternoon when they met Old Duda in completely different ways. What does it say about their personalities? Can you think of other examples in the novel where this difference in perception will have lasting impact?

Ironically Gray Saunders is killed by what he loved most, after Vienna. When does Vienna learn that “love is an idea” and what gives her back her faith in love after Gray’s death?

Dr. Barstow and John Aimes quietly compete for Vienna’s attention through their support of her in times of crisis, when they often find themselves as unlikely allies. Each privately believes that his name became her last utterance. How did their appreciation of her differ and what did each love? Do you believe that she could have loved either man?

Many of Winsville’s shortcomings are illustrated with humor, such as Mrs. Stepple’s disastrous tea party. In that scene we see clearly the pettiness of its social conventions and Vienna’s rejection of them. Yet Winsville is also a racist community with some social conventions that are far uglier. How does Vienna’s belief that all individuals should be treated with dignity and respect put her in danger? What role do race relations play in Private Altars?

Vienna is called “a nun in an order of one” after Gray Saunder’s death. What would it feel like to have Vienna as a mother under those circumstances? What do you think of her parenting instincts and how do you think they shaped Willa and Elliot?

Private Altars begins and ends with Addison Aimes; the novel is in many ways his coming of age story, highly colored by the Daniels’ attention and influence, especially that of Vienna. In what ways did Addison grow and what do you think he learned about life, love and family from his experiences at The Heights? Can you think of other novels in which a young man becomes entranced with a family very different than his own, whose admittance of him into their inner circle changes his life?

Willa feels compelled to leave Winsville in secret. Why did Willa run away? Was she right in abandoning her mother? Where do your sympathies lie at the end of the story?

Vienna realizes that her schoolgirl fascination with her beloved classics lacked the depths of recognition and identification with the characters that can only come through experiencing unbearable loss. By living through real tragedies, she comes to understand “the nature of tragedy, the way in which one’s undoing begins in some simple act or word which in itself means nothing.” Do you believe that one can be “undone” by a sequence of events that unfolds inextricably into tragedy?