Tag Archives: Keynotes

Did Oscar Wilde Steal the Baby from the Cradle?

I’ve been immersing myself in the work of George Egerton for weeks now. She’s one of Wilde’s Women and I’ve written about her before but this weekend I’m presenting a paper at a conference on Nietzsche, Psychoanalysis and Feminism at Kingston University (it’s a big deal, Luce Irigaray is speaking & I’m quite scared). Although Egerton was often categorized as a New Woman writer, she doesn’t fit neatly with this group for various reasons. Her stories were influenced by Nietzsche’s philosophy, which she read in the original German ten years before he was translated into English. She was also interested in Wilde’s work and his commitment to individualism.

For this reason I was not at all surprised when I read of how a book replaces a baby in her intriguing story ‘The Spell of the White Elf’, which is included in her hugely popular collection Keynotes.

and then a valuable book – indeed, it is really a case of Mss., and almost unique – I had borrowed for reference, with some trouble, could not be found, and my husband roared with laughter when it turned up in the cradle.

It struck me that she must have been influenced by Wilde’s hugely significant reversal in The Importance of being Earnest, when Miss Prism admits:

In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the bassinette, and placed the baby in the hand-bag.

And then I remembered that Keynotes was published in 1893, while Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest during the summer of 1894, and it was first performed on 14 February 1895.

Oh Oscar!



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George Egerton: Writing a ‘Topsy-Turvey’ World

I’m delighted that my feature ‘George Egerton: “Writing a Topsy-Turvey World”‘ was long-listed for the prestigious THRESHOLDS Feature Writing Competition. Egerton admired Wilde and emulated his style so I’ve decided that she qualifies as one of Wilde’s Women.


You can read my profile of the life and writing of this extraordinary woman on the Thresholds website here, or below:

George Egerton

George Egerton: Writing a ‘Topsy-Turvey’ World

by Eleanor Fitzsimons

Surely, a proto-modernist writer whose experimental approach and provocative themes were echoed, decades later, in classic works by James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence should enjoy an enduring reputation. No one would countenance the neglect of an author whose challenging first collection of short stories, Keynotes, sold more than six thousand copies in its first year, was translated into seven languages, and influenced Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Yet the name George Egerton is rarely mentioned outside academic circles.

Perhaps Egerton, a woman, ensured her own neglect by engaging in unflinching criticism of the patriarchy. In ‘Now Spring Has Come’, the second story in Keynotes, she insisted that woman should embrace her true and turbulent nature, when she wrote: ‘the untrue feminine is of man’s making.’ Egerton’s sensual exploration of such dangerous themes provoked a backlash so intense that Punch magazine reflected the unease she incited among its Victorian readers by parodying her viciously in ‘She-Notes’ by ‘Borgia Smudgiton’.

Best remembered – if remembered at all – for Keynotes, Egerton was born Mary Chavelita Dunne in Melbourne, Australia, in 1859, to Isabel George, a Welsh Protestant, and Captain John J. Dunne, an Irish Catholic. A militiaman’s daughter, Egerton’s unsettled childhood unfolded between Australia, Chile and New Zealand, where her father participated in the brutal suppression of that country’s indigenous Maori people. She was also educated for a time in a German Catholic boarding school. The early death of her mother, when Egerton was just fourteen, obliged her to abandon aspirations of becoming an artist in order to spend her formative years in and around Dublin, helping her widowed father to raise her younger siblings. As a result, she considered herself ‘intensely Irish’. Several of her stories tackle Irish themes: ‘The Marriage of Mary Ascension’ explores clerical and parental oppression in middle-class Ireland, while ‘Mammy’ includes an account of prostitution in Dublin.

Once her father could spare her, Egerton trained as a nurse and lived in New York for a time, before returning to Ireland as travelling companion to the Hon. Charlotte Whyte-Melville. When Captain Dunne discovered that Whyte-Melville’s husband, Henry Higginson, an Episcopalian priest, was having an affair with his daughter, he threatened Higginson at gunpoint, prompting Egerton to flee to Norway with her lover. Their marriage, contracted in June 1888, endured for less than a year and, shortly afterwards, Higginson, a volatile alcoholic, died of complications related to his illness. Although Egerton lived in Norway only briefly (she soon moved on to London), her time there honed her literary abilities. A talented linguist, she had learned Norwegian and immersed herself in the works of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Nobel Prize-winner Knut Hamsun, with whom she enjoyed a brief romance and whose work she translated into English. She used her relationship with Hamsun as the inspiration for ‘Now Spring Has Come’. Egerton also studied the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche a decade before they were translated into English; she references him in several of her stories and is the first person to do so in English literature.

In November 1891, Egerton married Egerton Tertius Clairmonte, a Canadian citizen and struggling novelist whose lack of success obliged her to take up her own pen in order to supplement the family income. It helped that the couple had moved to rural Ireland where Egerton encountered few distractions. Her pseudonym paid tribute to her late mother, whose maiden name she took, and also to her husband. Remarking that this was ‘the only provision that he ever made for her’, Egerton’s biographer, Terence de Vere White, noted: ‘Her elopement with Higginson gave her the material for a book; her second husband, by his dependence on her, gave her the motive to employ it.’ George, the couple’s only child, was born in 1895, the same year his parents divorced. By then, John Lane and Elkin Mathews of the Bodley Head had published Keynotes (1893), which Egerton dedicated to Knut Hamsun, her former lover.

In a series of interlinked stories, Egerton’s first collection explores the gradual acceptance by her female protagonists that the purity required of them was a patriarchal construct imposed in order to deny them sexual freedom and fulfilment. In ‘Now Spring Has Come’, she was scathing in her criticism, writing:

Men manufactured an artificial morality; made sins of things that were as clean in themselves as the pairing of birds on the wing; crushed nature, robbed it of its beauty and meaning, and established a system that means war, and always war, because it is a struggle between instinctive truths and cultivated lies.

Egerton’s women reject their proscribed roles as guardians of morality, and refuse to engage in the heteronormative courtship plots familiar to readers of the time. Instead, they cooperate with other women, often overcoming constructed ethnic and social divisions in pursuit of agency and self-determination. ‘Woman, where her own feelings are not concerned, will always make common cause with women against men’, she wrote in ‘The Spell of the White Elf’, the third story in Keynotes.

While most of Egerton’s heroines are white middle– and upper-class women, in ‘Under Northern Sky’, Marie Larsen, a maidservant, entertains her drunken master with compelling tales in a bid to ensure that her mistress enjoys an uninterrupted night. In doing so, she ‘[takes] the enemy by stratagem’. The emancipated women that populate these dangerous and destabilising stories prompted comparison to Ibsen and sparked intense speculation as to the true identity of their author. Reviewing Egerton’s collection for The Academy in 1894, literary critic William Sharp described her fictional world, where women explore their desires and pursue supportive relationships with other women, as ‘topsy-turvey’.

Although closely associated with the fin-de-siècle New Woman movement, Egerton was uncomfortable with her inclusion: ‘I am embarrassed at the outset by the term ‘New Woman’’, she admitted. In an interview with American periodical Book Buyer, she confessed to having no views on ‘emancipation’ or the ‘woman question’. Unlike true New Woman writers, Egerton adopted an essentialist approach to gender, encouraging women to abandon all ambitions of emulating men in order to focus on the realisation of their own potential. In her epistolary and largely autobiographical novel Rosa Amorosa, she wrote:

Broadly speaking, woman has given most of her energy to a development of masculine qualities, instead of a cultivation to the utmost of the best in herself – as woman – with the object of producing the finest type of womanhood.

Although her exploration of sexual emancipation and self-actualisation resonated with New Woman preoccupations, Egerton shunned notions of equality. Yet, while she envisaged an alternative calling for woman, her forthright language reflected the fury of the burgeoning women’s rights movement. In ‘Now Spring Has Come’, she wrote:

What half creatures we are, we women! – hermaphrodite by force of circumstances, deformed results of a fight of centuries between physical suppression and natural impulses to fulfil our destiny.

Egerton loathed the duplicity of Victorian society, which she summed up in a sardonic letter to her father, writing: ‘sin as you please but don’t be found out it’s all right so long as you don’t shock us by letting us know.’ Little wonder her protagonist in ‘A Cross Line’, the first story in Keynotes, dreams of escape:

A great longing fills her soul to sail off somewhere too – away from the daily need of dinner-getting and the recurring Monday with its washing, life with its tame duties and virtuous monotony.

Although Egerton intended ‘A Cross Line’ to be the last story in her collection, the Bodley Head insisted it go first since, as Professor Margaret Stetz argued:

With its plot based on casual adultery, its references to unwed mothers, and its flattering portrayal of a woman who drinks whiskey, goes fishing alone, and smokes cigarettes, ‘A Cross Line’ […] guaranteed attention for the whole book.

Fearless in her choice of theme, Egerton also subverted conventional genre boundaries that set long-form and short-form fiction apart. Norwegian academic Gerd Bjørhovde insists that readers were ‘as shocked by the way she wrote as by what she wrote’. Her stories spill into each other, chasing themes from first page to last, as she explores the innate wildness of a woman’s nature and allows her female protagonists to seize opportunities for self-knowledge and control of their destiny. In Discords, her darker and far less successful second collection of stories, Egerton documents the barriers women collide against when attempting to break free from rigid Victorian norms. Here, she explores alcoholism, marital abuse, prostitution and suicide. In ‘Virgin Soil’, the fifth story in the collection, a newly married woman is destroyed by her ignorance of the sex act.

Only in ‘The Regeneration of Two’, the last story in Discords, does Egerton sound a hopeful note, allowing her protagonist to enjoy a fulfilling, non-marital romance and a gratifying career helping other women. As American scholar Martha Vicinus suggests, this decision to lighten the tone may reflect Egerton’s ‘need to imagine a better world where women work together and men understand and keep their freedom too’. It is telling that she set this story in her beloved Norway rather than Victorian England, where she had made her home by then. While Egerton had plenty of detractors, she had supporters too. In 1895, publisher John Lane, with whom she had a romantic liaison, wrote to her from America, assuring her that her stories were ‘very much in the air’ there. Adopting the title ‘Keynotes’, he published a series of New Woman fiction under the Bodley Head imprint.

Egerton also wrote for quarterly literary periodical The Yellow Book: her story ‘The Lost Masterpiece’ was included in the very first issue in April 1894, and her connection with this publication created an association with the Decadent movement. By echoing Oscar Wilde’s style in several of her stories, and quoting him in an epigram to ‘A Little Gray Glove’, the fourth story in Keynotes, she reinforced Wilde’s association with New Women’s writing. Several passages in ‘A Cross Line’, which imagine a dance in a ‘dream of motion’, take much from Wilde’s Salome, although Egerton’s woman dances for her own pleasure and not in an attempt to satisfy the male gaze:

She can see herself with parted lips and panting, rounded breasts, and a dancing devil in each glowing eye, sway voluptuously to the wild music that rises, now slow, now fast, now deliriously wild, seductive, intoxicating, with a human note of passion in its strain.

This dancing woman is acutely aware of the undermining decorative role she is expected to fill, a common theme in New Woman writing. In a show of solidarity, she wonders if other women feel the same.

Egerton’s association with Wilde, and the consequent discontinuation of The Yellow Book, damaged her reputation. Although she wrote five short story collections, an epistolary collection, one novel, and several plays, she never replicated the success of Keynotes. Her decline coincided with her marriage in 1901 to drama critic and literary agent Reginald Golding-Bright, who was fifteen years her junior. Following his example, she became drama agent to George Bernard Shaw, who produced her first play, and also to Somerset Maugham. Egerton, known by then as Mary Chavelita Bright, passed the final four decades of her long life in relative solitude and died in 1945. As one obituary writer put it:

George Egerton’s death brings back to mind the so-called ‘new woman’ school of fiction of the nineties in which the ‘problems’ of the relations of the sexes for the first time in English literature were put before a somewhat bewildered Victorian public.

Interest in Egerton has grown in recent years but she remains neglected in comparison to contemporaries such as Olive Schreiner, Sarah Grand, and Mona Caird. Yet, her unique brand of feminist writing is worthy of our interest and her revolutionary ideas had a significant influence on several groundbreaking writers, both male and female.


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John Lane, Oscar Wilde & The Yellow Book

March 14 marks the anniversary of the birth of publisher John Lane (1854-1925), co-founder with Elkin Mathews, of The Bodley Head publishing house. In 1894, The Bodley Head began publishing The Yellow Book, a Decadent hardback quarterly literary periodical that boasted an illustrious list of contributors and promoted New Woman writers.

Not everyone was a fan. Shortly after the first issue appeared, Oscar Wilde sent a letter to Bosie: ‘The Yellow Book has appeared,’ he wrote. ‘It is dull and loathsome, a great failure. I am so glad’. Later, he expressed his displeasure to Ada Leverson: ‘Have you seen The Yellow Book?’ he inquired. ‘It is horrid and not yellow at all’. Leverson was surely more enthusiastic, since she contributed several short stories, one of which, ‘Suggestion’ is reminiscent of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Ironically, although he detested The Yellow Book and was never invited to contribute to it, a misinterpreted line from Dorian Gray led to a spurious link between Wilde and The Yellow Book. The line in question is: ‘His eyes fell on the Yellow Book that Lord Henry had sent him’. In fact, the book in Dorian Gray is fictitious and resembles Joris-Karl Huysman’s À rebours, a favourite of Wilde’s, more than any other.

When Lane arrived in New York in April 1895, he was confronted with newspaper headlines announcing: ‘Arrest of Oscar Wilde, Yellow Book under his arm’. Although the book Wilde was carrying has been identified by Margaret D. Stetz and Mark Samuels Lasner as a yellow-bound copy of Aphrodite by Pierre Louÿs, Lane realised the implications and despaired: ‘It killed The Yellow Book and it nearly killed me’, he claimed.

Without delay, Lane telegraphed his office manager and instructed him to remove Wilde’s books from sale. By then, several authors were threatening to boycott The Bodley Head, which employed Edward Shelley, a young clerk who had testified to being involved in a sexual relationship with Oscar. On 5 April 1895, The Bodley Head premises at Vigo Street were attacked by a stone-wielding mob.

When Lane removed Aubrey Beardsley, who was associated with Wilde, from his position as Art Editor of The Yellow Book, W.B. Yeats claimed this was done at the insistence of ‘a popular novelist, a woman who had great influence among the most conventional part of the British public’. This was surely Mrs. Humphry Ward, who had encouraged poet William Watson to write to Lane and threaten to change publisher unless The Yellow Book was discontinued. When poet Alice Meynell’s husband, Wilfred, applied similar pressure,Volume 5 was halted mid-production, although it did appear a fortnight later, and the publication limped along for another two years.

Lane, a pioneer of New Women’s writing, also published the contentious Keynotes, which took its name from the first in the series, a collection of short stories by Mary Chavelita Dunne, who wrote as George Egerton. Dunne, a contributor to The Yellow Book, was closely associated with the Decadent movement. Her Keynotes (1893) caused a sensation by tackling controversial themes including female sexuality, sexual freedom, alcoholism and suicide.

‘George Egerton’

The daughter of an Irish army officer, Dunne described herself as ‘intensely Irish’. By echoing Wilde’s style and quoting him in an epigram to her story ‘A Little Gray Glove’, she reinforced his association with New Women’s writing. Several passages in her story ‘A Cross Line’ imagine a dance in a ‘dream of motion’, and take much from Salomé:

She can see herself with parted lips and panting, rounded breasts, and a dancing devil in each glowing eye, sway voluptuously to the wild music that rises, now slow, now fast, now deliriously wild, seductive, intoxicating, with a human note of passion in its strain.

Dunne loathed the duplicity of Victorian society, which she summed up sardonically in a letter to her father: ‘sin as you please but don’t be found out it’s all right so long as you don’t shock us by letting us know’. Her writing was parodied in Punch as ‘She-notes’ by Borgia Smudgiton, and she was rechristened ‘Dona Quixote’, a sure indication of the anxiety she provoked with her challenging themes.

Although Dunne wrote four more short story collections: Discords (1894), Symphonies (1897), Fantasias (1898), and Flies in Amber (1905); one epistolary collection: Rosa Amorosa (1901); one novel: The Wheel of God (1898); and several plays, most notably His Wife’s Family (1907), Backsliders (1910) and Camilla States Her Case (1925); she never replicated the success of Keynotes. As a supporter of Wilde’s and a writer who emulated his style, she qualifies as one of Wilde’s Women.


My profile of her was long listed for the Thresholds International Feature Writing Competition and can be read here.


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