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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.

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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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I wrote about a brilliant, exiled Irish writer whose life unravelled – not Oscar but Maeve Brennan

I took a break from writing about Wilde’s Women to write about Maeve Brennan instead:

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I love writing for THRESHOLDS: home of the international short story forum, which is based at the University of Chichester, in West Sussex, and aims to provide a creative and supportive space for anyone interested in the Short Story form. Here’s my latest post for them, an author profile of the amazing Maeve Brennan:

It sometimes takes an outsider’s gaze to capture the essence of a place with an authenticity that lies beyond the sight of the indigenous observer. For this reason, it should have come as no great surprise to readers of The New Yorker when the Long-Winded Lady, columnist and faithful, if eccentric, documenter of life in the eponymous city, was unmasked as Irishwoman Maeve Brennan, an immigrant who had arrived in her mid-twenties. John Updike, among others, realised that this watchful interloper ‘brought New York back to The New Yorker’. In her whimsical contributions to the exalted ‘Talk of the Town’ column, Brennan was rare in establishing a distinct persona, and unique in ensuring that this voice was a female one. Stylish, ambitious and armed with a waspish wit that conjured up recollections of Dorothy Parker, her personality contrasted violently with that of her passive, suburbanite alter-ego.

Between 1954 and 1968, Brennan documented a city in flux, a place where the wrecker’s ball swung in perpetual motion as residents embraced a post-war transience. She too drifted: a self-confessed ‘traveller in residence’, she hopped from short-lease apartment to anonymous hotel suite, or borrowed summer houses from glamorous friends like Gerald and Sara Murphy, Fitzgerald’s models for the Divers in Tender is the Night. In her wake she left little beyond a miasma of cigarette smoke and a trace of expensive scent. As one-time editor at The New Yorker Gardner Botsford observed, Brennan would ‘like the Big Blonde in the Dorothy Parker story … transport her entire household, all her possessions and her cats – in a taxi’. In her story ‘The Last Days of New York City’, published in The New Yorker in 1955, Brennan confessed: ‘All my life, I suppose, I’ll be running out of buildings just ahead of the wreckers’.

Although rarely absent from New York State, Brennan used fiction to return to her native Ireland, which she had left while still in her teens. In The Visitor, her posthumously published novella, she explains why: ‘Home is a place in the mind,’ she writes, ‘when it is empty it frets’. Yet, her memories were never those of a misty-eyed romantic. Born within a year of the failed Easter Rising of 1916, to a staunch Republican father who was in prison at the time but was later appointed Secretary of the Irish Legation to Washington, Brennan was tangled up in political turmoil for much of her early life. The precariousness of her existence and the ever-present threat of displacement seep into stories shot through with anxiety and unease. In ‘The Day We Got Our Own Back’, from The New Yorker in 1953, Brennan documents how she watched wide-eyed as her family home was raided:

One afternoon some unfriendly men dressed in civilian clothes and carrying revolvers came to our house, searching for my father, or for information about him.

Throughout her life, she had a horror of being pinned down and she rarely made firm arrangements.

Conventional boundaries between memoir and fiction are rarely observed in Brennan’s revealing Irish stories, many of them collected posthumously in The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, a book compared favourably to Joyce’s Dubliners. Although these tales of lower-middle class Dublin life appear superficially innocuous, they revealed an unfamiliar malevolence to second– and third-generation Irish-Americans who hankered after a mist-shrouded holy land. Her characters operate furtively, seeing out their thwarted lives in the shadow cast by a stultifying and spiritless Catholic Church.

From the safety of cosmopolitan New York, Brennan time travelled back to darkened confessionals where guilt-ridden children cowered under the gaze of a vengeful deity, and to the antechamber of an enclosed convent where a bereft mother strained to discern the voice of a lost daughter who sang in praise of her unearthly spouse. Teaching nuns, capricious in their accusations, note that the young Brennan was headstrong and wilful, traits that are inappropriate in Irish womanhood. Decades later, in ‘Lessons and Lessons and More Lessons’ from The New Yorker, Brennan described how, in a city where the ‘three-martini lunch’ is commonplace, she hid her glass instinctively when two nuns entered the Greenwich Village restaurant she frequented.

In New York, Brennan embraced her ‘otherness’; as one colleague observed, ‘She wasn’t one of us. She was one of her!’ To strangers, she could appear hard-edged and watchful, yet friends found her warm and generous, voluble and funny. Everyone agreed that she was beautiful. Barely five feet tall and beanpole slim, she looked younger than her years and compensated with vertiginous heels. She tottered along the robustly masculine corridors of The New Yorker offices at West Forty-Third Street, make-up immaculate, hair neatly coiffed and carefully chosen costume exquisitely cut, with a fresh flower in her lapel, generally a rose. She had the ceiling of her office painted Wedgwood blue and threw open her door while she tap-tapped away on her typewriter, a curlicue of smoke rising from the ever-present Camel clenched between her fingers. Her language was defiantly fruity, and the mischievous notes that she slipped under the doors of her male colleagues elicited great explosions of laughter: ‘To be around her was to see style being invented,’ recalled her friend and editor William Maxwell.

An ill-fated stint as fourth wife to fellow New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway – a hard-drinking, mentally frail man – took her to bohemian Sneden’s Landing, a community of artists and writers that nestled alongside the Hudson in upstate New York. Brennan recast it as ‘Herbert’s Retreat’, a rarefied enclave where privileged New Yorkers partied under the watchful gaze of their derisive Irish servants. With an insider’s familiarity, Brennan used her stories to juxtapose the prudent Catholicism of her countrywomen with the flagrant immorality of their employers. As the beautiful and sophisticated daughter of a diplomat, Brennan enjoyed a status that allowed her to pass in society, yet she had rubbed shoulders with girls who would enter domestic service and must have felt a sneaking solidarity with them. As a former fashion writer with Harper’s Bazaar, it apparently amused her greatly when the trappings of Irish peasantry – shawls and tweed and tea leaves – were adopted as status symbols by wealthy American women.

At times, Brennan grasped onto the trappings of Irishness with a fervour that suggested desperation and displacement. She drank tea obsessively, and although her rented homes rarely featured a kitchen, she insisted on an open fireplace, considering a fire to be a living thing, company almost. When her marriage failed in 1959, she embraced a solitary life, borrowing houses in the Hamptons and walking the Atlantic beach with her dog, Bluebell before returning to the twin comforts of a scalding hot cup of tea and a roaring fire, which she shared with several cats, ‘small heaps of warm dreaming fur all over the furniture and the floor’. In summertime, when the Hamptons filled up, she would return to New York City or travel home to Ireland.

During her chaotic, alcohol-soaked marriage, Brennan wrote little of any worth. When one devoted reader requested more Maeve Brennan stories, she had her editor write to explain that she had shot herself when she was ‘drunk and heartsick’. However, the 1960s heralded a period of intense productivity. Several of her finest stories, set in Dublin and Wexford, feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a couple who endure a dispiriting marriage: she is furtive and priest-ridden, while he ‘wore the expression of a friend, but of a friend who is making no promises’. Carefully crafted, these stories represent a stingingly accurate documenting of the disappointments that ambush even the most virtuous at every turn. Many of the stories from this period were published in In and Out of Never-Never Land. A number of stories from this collection are set in Forty-eight Cherryfield Avenue, in the well-to-do Dublin suburb of Ranelagh, the home she occupied as a child; William Maxwell described it as her ‘imagination’s home’.

Brennan’s story ‘The Eldest Child’ was selected for Best American Short Stories 1968. Yet even as her writing elicited fresh acclaim, her life began to unravel and she drifted, physically and mentally, becoming unkempt, erratic and paranoid. Homeless and debt-ridden, she took to sleeping on a couch in the ladies room at The New Yorker offices, and she grew paranoid that her toothpaste had been laced with cyanide. When she was institutionalised for a time, one friend testified that she became very Irish, as if the years had fallen away, and with them the carefully crafted veneer. She was discharged once she had established a pharmaceutically induced equilibrium, but she could not be relied on to take her medication and drifted once more, losing touch with friends and colleagues. She was nervously tolerated at the offices of The New Yorker as a legacy of affection and with respect for her talent, but her behaviour grew erratic: she once nursed a sick pigeon in her office and, in a more sinister episode, wrecked the offices of a number of colleagues. Sometimes, she stood outside, handing out cash to bewildered passers-by. Inevitably, she produced little that was worthy of publication. Yet ‘The Springs of Affection’, her longest and, arguably, most powerful story, appeared in The New Yorker in March 1972. Although it is almost entirely autobiographical, Brennan twisted the facts in such a fashion that one aunt was prompted to write the words ‘greatly changed for the worse’ on a photograph of her brilliant niece.

Although Brennan continued as an occasional contributor to ‘Talk of the Town’, her offerings arrived out of the blue with no indication of where she was when she wrote them. In her final outing as the Long-Winded Lady, in January 1981, she described how, walking along Forty-Second Street, she had sidestepped a shadow that she recognised as ‘exactly the same shadow that used to fall on the cement part of our garden in Dublin, more than fifty-five years ago’. That year, she turned up at the offices of The New Yorker, grey-haired and unkempt, and sat quietly in reception on two consecutive days, but no one appeared to recognise her. Maeve Brennan died of heart failure in a New York nursing home on 01 November 1993; she was seventy-six. By then, she had descended into an imaginary existence in which she appeared unaware of her status as a celebrated writer.

Excluded from the canon of important Irish writing for years, she has enjoyed a posthumous revival. Two collections of short fiction, The Springs of Affection and The Rose Garden, and her revealing novella, The Visitor, are still in print, as is a collected edition of Long-Winded Lady pieces. Jonathan Cape published Angela Bourke’s biography Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker in 2004. Since then, several new plays and collections have referenced the work of this significant Irish writer.

 

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