Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s ‘A Woman of Independent Means’ Offers Both Financial and Life Lessons

When I read Grant Sabatier’s Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need three times in a row and decided to go after the financial independence thing, I pulled up this memory of watching this television miniseries, with my family, about a woman who had all the money she would ever need.

I know that particular detail because I had to ask my parents what the title of the movie meant. Of course, I couldn’t remember the title (was it A Financially Independent Woman?); only the moment where my parents explained that the woman in the movie would never need to earn money from a job.

So I looked it up. The 1995 six-hour (with commercials) miniseries A Woman of Independent Means, starring Sally Ford as the titular Woman, was based on the 1978 Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey novel A Woman of Independent Means, which was in turn inspired by Hailey’s grandmother’s life.

The novel is epistolary and written entirely from the perspective of Bess Steed Garner, who learns at a young age that an inheritance has made her financially independent. The book begins as a deceptively quick read — the first few pages take Bess from age 9 to age 20 — but becomes more detailed and immersive as Bess grows in both experience and writing talent.

It also packs in a wealth of advice about both investing and living — but since Bess is constantly maturing and changing, there’s a question of whether the reader should take her insights at face value.

Here’s a letter that the 29-year-old Bess writes her best friend, for example:

Dearest Totsie,

Your letter brought me the first bright day I have known since Rob died. The thought of joining you in Vermont for the summer fills me with delight! What a reprieve from the terrible reality of my life just now!

Once we decided to close the St. Louis office of the company, I knew I had no choice but to sell my house here and move back to Dallas — but to return without a husband and with less money than when we left is an unbearable admission of defeat. And I will postpone it as long as possible.

Your invitation for the summer is such a tangible offer of comfort at a time when words of sympathy ring hollow in my ears. I am so weary of people asking if there is anything they can do for me. Of course I always answer with a polite no, and they go away satisfied at having done their duty. If only one dared answer in the affirmative. But nothing frightens people more than undisguised need. I have kept all my old friends through this difficult time by never demanding the dues of friendship. Not that I doubt they would be paid — but only once. Friendship to me is like a capital reserve. It pays dividends only so long as the principal remains intact. Whatever personal sacrifice is required, I am determined to come through this experience without spending my principal — on any level.

The children are very excited at the thought of a trip east. We are all eager for the sight of a landscape without memories. How I look forward to holding the baby — and you, Please thank Dwight for his share in your kind invitation.

I love you dearly,

Bess

Is Bess “right” about the nature of friendship? Is she “wrong?” I’m not sure that’s the question we should be asking. A Woman of Independent Means invites readers to observe Bess as she observes the world, and take from it whatever lessons are most relevant to our own lives.

In my case, the biggest lesson I took from this book is that whenever Bess works to meet her own needs, her life — and her family’s life — improves. Whenever she does something that she believes is in the best interest of someone else’s needs without asking them first, especially when her actions go against her own needs and desires, her life and her family’s life and the life of the person on whom she’s acting get worse.

I suspect that if I read this book again in a few years, I might take a different lesson from it — because, like Bess, I would have the advantage of a few more years of life experience.

If you’ve read A Woman of Independent Means — or have some vague recollection of the miniseries, like I did — I’m curious which aspects of the story stood out to you. Despite the strong financial component of this book, for example, I don’t think it prompts most of its readers to get into investing.

But it might prompt us to view the world a little bit differently, after seeing it through Bess’s eyes. ❤️

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