Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle (ed.) Elaine Showalter

Rutgers University Press, 1993
326 pp


"It is just when a man begins to think he understands a woman that he may be sure he doesn't!" -- Edith Wharton, "The Muse's Tragedy"

Elaine Showalter begins this most excellent book with the observation that  when we stop to consider "the literature of the fin de siècle, the writers who come most readily to mind are men."  She has a great point -- I own quite a hefty library of fin-de-siècle literature and sure enough, all of the books I own,  without exception, are written by men, although I will say that I've started to remedy that problem as I was going through this book and looking up author biographies and bibliographies. She goes on to say that while "women were a major presence in the new literary world of the 1880s and 1890s," they had also been "overshadowed" not just by the major male novelists of the time (Conrad and Wilde are the examples she offers here), but also by those she calls "minor novelists," such as Stoker or Haggard.  The women represented here (and others writing at the time) were writing
"with unprecedented candour about female sexuality, marital discontent, and their own aesthetic theories and aspirations; and speaking to -- and about -- the New Women of the fin de siècle." 
According to Karen M. Offen in her book European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History, the term "new women" had been in existence elsewhere in Europe since the 1830s, but for our purposes, it had "reemerged in English from a published debate between the British novelists Sarah Grand" (whose work appears here) "and Ouida in 1894," and that the importance of these "New Woman literary works" lies in the fact that
"their authors addressed issues ... about the constraints of marriage, about work, about the possibilities and difficulties of self realization..." (189),
in short, about the growing dissatisfaction among women re the restrictions put upon them by Victorian society.

Daughters of Decadence contains seventeen short stories and other brief pieces by thirteen of these women, both British and American;  there is also a brief chapter containing a send-up* of George Egerton's "A Cross Line" published by Punch which, according to Showalter, "gives a good sense of the ways Egerton's view of feminine nature shocked and startled readers of the 1890s."

With one exception, the stories in this book were all completely new to me as I opened the cover, and it is truly a treasure trove of great writing. Truth be told, aside from Kate Chopin, Vernon Lee, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton, I hadn't read a single thing by any of these of authors; even the ones I just mentioned have been limited to a book or a story here and there but that's about it. I've listed the contents below without any discussion; there are three stories which were my particular favorite. First,  "A White Night," by Charlotte Mew, which takes place in an old Catholic church in Spain while a wife, her new husband, and her brother are touring the countryside while the newlyweds are on their honeymoon.  It's not so much what happens in this book that's behind why I enjoyed it so much (although I must say, it was pretty horrific and the setting heightens the reading experience)  but rather the outcome as husband and wife are later going over what had happened there. If ever this book provided an eye-opener, well, it's found in that story.  In second place on the favorites list, "The Muse's Tragedy," by Edith Wharton, which is just plain sad, but actually reveals an awful truth; and finally, "The Fifth Edition," by Mabel Wooton, which focuses on an "exploitative male novelist" who is asked to look at an autobiographical novel given to him by its female author.  Like most works of the  fin de siècle, the rather uneasy relationship between art and life is a major theme here, as it is with many of the stories in this book.   Just as an FYI,  Wooton's tale is not the only one featuring a woman writer and her relationship with a male author -- Vernon Lee picks up this idea with her splendid Lady Tal, as does Constance Fenimore Woolson in Miss Grief, both of whom had Henry James in mind while writing their stories.

 As Showalter notes,
 "a century later the utopian dreams of fin-de-siècle  feminists have yet to be fully realised, but reading their stories we can take heart from their talent and courage to look with hope to the new century, and to another beginning of a new world for women."
There is this great scene in Olive Schreiner's "Three Dreams in a Desert" which sort of speaks to the overall book as a whole in terms of what these women were trying to accomplish through their writing.  A woman coming out of the desert  is looking for "the land of Freedom," and must, as part of her journey, cross a "dark flowing river."  When she asks about a bridge, she is told there is none, that the water is deep and the floor is worn."  She might "slip at any time" and be lost.  When the woman asks for the track to show "where the best fording is," she is told that "It has to be made."  That's exactly what I felt after finishing this book -- that these women had helped create a new path, knowing all the while that the journey wasn't going to be an easy one.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in women writers of the period or in the history of women writers in general.


The table of contents:

"An Egyptian Cigarette," by Kate Chopin
"Theodora: A Fragment," by Victoria Cross
"Suggestion," by Ada Leverson
"A Cross Line," by George Egerton
*"She-Notes," by 'Borgia Smudgiton'
"By Accident," by George Fleming
"The Buddhist Priest's Wife," by Olive Schreiner
"The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"A White Night," by Charlotte Mew
"The Fifth Edition," by Mabel E. Wooton
"Miss Grief," by Constance Fenimore Woolson
"Lady Tal," by Vernon Lee
"The Undefinable: A Fantasia," by Sarah Grand
"The Muse's Tragedy," by Edith Wharton
"Emancipation: A Life Fable," by Kate Chopin
"Three Dreams in a Desert," by Olive Schreiner
"Life's Gifts," by Olive Schreiner
"The Valley of Childish Things," by Edith Wharton

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Beguiled, by Thomas Cullinan

Penguin, 2017
originally published 1966
372 pp


"Seems like none of us ever stop to think how evil can collect in us"

I actually read this book some time back but I haven't forgotten it, and neither will anyone who decides to read this novel.

As the blurb tells us, we find ourselves in Virginia,  "during the height of the Civil War."  The residents of the Miss Martha Farnworth Seminary for Young Ladies find their routine interrupted when thirteen year-old Amelia Dabney is out picking mushrooms one day and comes upon a wounded Union soldier. Surrounded by cannon fire, she helps him to his feet and takes him to the school.  Corporal John McBurney tells her he'll be there long enough to get his injuries tended to,  and then he'll leave immediately and "be no further trouble."

That's what he says, but as the story progresses, we learn that we can't always take McBurney at face value. Far from it. As each of the women and the girls at the house interact with him, his presence interrupts the regular, familiar routine of the house, and worse. He preys on each of these women/girls psychologically; his manipulative behavior makes already-existing but simmering rivalries come to the forefront and in some cases explode; it causes deep and dark secrets to be revealed, and sets off of a bizarre chain of events that no one could have predicted. Wait.  I take that back -- the one person who realized from the beginning that "You chil'ren have brought destruction in this house" is the slave Mattie, who sees McBurney for what he really is, but who cannot convince the rest of the women otherwise before it's too late.

The story is related through the alternating points of view of the small group of females at the school, which gives it a much more complete feel than it may have had from a third-person narrator alone. As perspectives shift, we start to realize just what it is about each person's psyche or past  that draws them to McBurney;  we also get different interpretations of the same events, which are often misinterpreted, bringing in a fuller picture of exactly what's going on in the house. And just as the school is isolated because of a war that has divided the country, the divisions within also serve to isolate its residents until they are forced to come to a consensus over what needs to be done to bring things back to the way they were before.  The question is, though, how can any of these lives ever be the same again?

The Beguiled is a page turner of a great book, and Cullinan is a master of ratcheting the psychological tension to the point where I couldn't put it down. Unlike a LOT of readers, I thought the alternating points-of-view approach was a great one.  And also unlike a lot of readers, I didn't judge the novel on the old Clint Eastwood film made from this book, which was nerve wracking, for sure, but very different from the original story. There's so much psychological tragedy going on in the novel, and while the film version didn't spare the horror, it's of a different variety altogether than what's in the book.

Very highly recommended -- I was just floored after finishing it.