History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 November 2008

A Question of Influence: Literary Women

I've been unusually sociable recently, guest blogging with both hands to promote The Edge of Impropriety. It's been fun, actually, to find out a little of what readers think it is I'm doing -- and I'm looking forward to my book party tonight for some face-to-face as well.

So if you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'd love it if you came by the Center for Sex and Culture (1519 Mission Street between 11th and S. Van Ness in San Francisco) between 6 and 8.

There will be munchies -- I've really enjoyed planning that part: dolmas and stuffed dates and other Mediterranean finger food in honor of the Parthenon Marbles; cake with strawberries and Devonshire cream, because strawberries and Devonshire cream are what my heroine Marina wants to eat on the morning when... but you'll have to read the book yourself to find out what happens that morning...

For more information about the party, please check my blog -- where you'll also find a post about one of the founders of the venue where I chose to hold my celebration: the writer, educator, sexologist, and all-around source of inspiration to the erotic component of what I do, Dr. Carol Queen.

Carol -- and other "pro-sex feminists" like Susie Bright -- got me writing erotica in the first place. And in the second place as well: Miranda/Randy, the cross-dressing heroine of Carol's The Leather Daddy and the Femme, was an early model for Phoebe/Phizz, cross-dressing heroine of Almost a Gentleman.

Because the other thing I'm enjoying in this uncontracted period is the chance to remember where I come from. Soon it'll be time to get deep and narrow into the next project, to turn solitary again. But right now (and in accordance with the season) I'm giving thanks for all sorts of stuff I was lucky enough to read or hear or learn from.

And I'm also enjoying reading about how influence and inspiration worked for the writing women of the nineteenth century, by taking the opportunity to re-read Literary Women, by Ellen Moers.

I've mentioned Moers before, because her witty and insightful first book The Dandy: From Brummell to Beerbohm, was another major inspiration for Almost a Gentleman, and one I turned back to during the writing of The Edge of Impropriety, for its take on Lady Blessington and the Comte d'Orsay (prototypes of my heroine Marina and my ingenue male lead Anthony) and because its chapter on silver fork novelists like Lady Blessington and Benjamin Disraeli seemed to me to contain as much useful information than other whole books devoted to the subject.

But at the time of Moers' death in 1979 (of cancer, sadly, at age 50), she was certainly best known for Literary Women. A book very much of the 1970s, joyously informed by the energy of second wave feminism if sometimes painted with too broad a brush, Literary Women is always original and thought-provoking. And one of its major subjects is this business of the communication and comradery between writing women of the nineteenth century.

I mean, who knew (certainly not me) that the recluse Emily Dickinson read the invalid Elizabeth Barrett Browning's verse novel Aurora Leigh with profound attention (have any of you read Elizabeth Barrett Browning? I haven't). Elizabeth Barrett found George Sand's Indiana "brilliant beyond praising."

And the tides of transcontinental influence flowed both ways: George Sand wrote fulsomely about Harriet Beecher Stowe, and George Eliot wrote to Mrs. Stowe with equal reverence, honoring her (as Moers says) as "predecessor in that great feminine enterprise of rousing the imagination 'to a vision of human claims.'"

In Moers' retelling, what drew these women together (during a period that the more aesthetically-minded Virgina Woolf called, not entirely admiringly, the "heroic age") was a sense that the conditions they encountered as women brought them closer to the exigency of the "human claims" of all those who were oppressed or excluded from the broader society -- even though the the wide variety of personal strategies with which these women struggled against their own situations, all of them animated by that inconceivable nineteenth-century energy.

Here's a letter from Harriet Beecher Stowe to her sister, from the period during which Stowe despaired of having time to write Uncle Tom's Cabin, so involved was she in trying to get the attention of her plumber:

These negotiations extended from the first of June to the first of July, and at last my sink was completed.... Also during this time good Mrs. Mitchell and myself made two sofas, or lounges, a barrel chair, divers bedspreads, pillow cases, pillows, bolsters, mattresses; we painted rooms; we revarnished furniture; we--what didn't we do?

....and then came the eight of July and my little Charley. I was really glad for an excuse to lie in bed, for I was full tired, I can assure you. Well, I was what folks call very comfortable for two weeks, when my nurse had to leave me...

During this time I have employed my leisure hours in making up my engagements with newspaper editors. I have written more than anybody, or I myself, would have thought. I have taught an hour a day in our school, and I have read two hours every evening to the children...

And on the day she wrote this, she was called away from it, "for the fish-man... a man who brought me some barrels of apples... a book-man... Mrs. Upham, to see about a drawing I promised to make for her; then to nurse the baby... into the kitchen to make a chowder for dinner..."

And yet the first installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared the next year.

While George Sand, whose marriage had gone stale, somehow managed to maneuver a situation where she could live in Paris, in male dress (which was cheaper and easier to maintain), for part of the year. Part of the deal was that she had to support herself (even though the money brought to her marriage was hers, it now belonged to her husband). So she did. As Moers reports it:

Once in Paris, she made contact with leading editors and writers....To learn her craft, she wrote alone or in collaboration numerous articles, tales, and novels.... A five-volume collaborative novel marked the end of her apprenticeship....next came Indiana....

The whole business took some fifteen months, only about half of which she was able to spend in Paris or devote to the literary life.... It took her friend Balzac, that dynamo of literary energy, about ten years to complete a similar apprenticeship in journalism and hack fiction.

After which one reads with hedonistic delight the arrangement that the invalid Elizabeth Barrett somehow wangled from her wealthy father and adoring family:

She wanted to do nothing but read and write; it has been estimated that her curiously convenient regime as an invalid gave her more time, daily, for those occupations than any other modern young person has ever enjoyed.

Somehow even in the invalid's hushed chamber, there pulses that Victorian impulse toward the superlative. And even here, much of what went on was this business of influencing and being influenced.

As we all are, I suspect, and perhaps particularly those of us who still write about the questions of love and life that continue to engage women readers.

Writers, do you weave yourself into a tapestry of mutual support and admiration?

And readers, are you interested in the lives and interrelationships of writers you enjoy reading?

And hope you can make it to my party tonight.

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Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a fabulous post, Pam! Writing is such a solitary occupations and the vicissitudes are often difficult for non-writers to understand. I would be completely lost without my writer friends--including you and several of the Hoydens!

9:17 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I know just what you mean, Tracy. We're so fortunate to have the support system we do. Which made me glad to find out that Victorian women writers had the connections they did.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What a wonderful post Pam. I agree with Tracy I would be lost without my local RWA chapter and my writer friends, including my online ones. I think part of what made the Brontes so compelling was that they had each other as children to tell stories to, and create worlds. But its nice to see that other women writers reached out to their other sisters of the Pen. Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte I knew were great friends.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Oh and have a good time at your book party. I raise a glass to you in absentia.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

As always, a terrific and provocative post, Pam! I love literary women; in fact that was one reason I was so excited to get the contract to write ALL FOR LOVE, my novel of Mary Robinson's life. But alas, my editor strongly suggested that I focus the lion's share of the narrative on Mary's experiences as a royal mistress, followed by her years as a sort of courtesan and her emotionally ruinous relationship with Ban Tarleton, followed by her illustrious acting career -- and much of the really fascinating things I discovered about her lilterary career ended up truncated because she feared that too many readers would be bored with all that scribbling and no sex. OY is all I can say to that!

Mary Robinson was the only 18th c. woman to have written novels, plays, poetry (which she also edited for various publications, "discovering" the burgeoning Coeridge in the process), opera libretti, and political treatises. Sure there were 18th c. women who excelled in one or two of those literary genres, but Mary excelled in all of them -- and all while being a single mom and a cripple. (And after achieving the heights of success as the theatrical luminary of her generation). Take that, Fanny Burney!

I've played Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street and have been a fan of her poetry ever since I was a girl, when my maternal grandmother gave me a copy of "Sonnets From the Portuguese." I was often sick as a kid and spent a lot of time on the couch, so as a romantic pre-teen I identified with Elizabeth's invalidism.

Have fun at the soiree!! I'll be thinking of you from the right coast.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the well-wishes, Amanda and Elizabeth.

And thanks for commenting on playwriting women, Amanda, which is a different kettle of fish and something I'm awfully ignorant about.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Aphra Behn was one of the first women to make her living by her pen solely when she wrote plays during the Restoration after Charles II screwed her over and didn't pay her for all the spying she did for him in Holland. I saw her play The Rover twice in London, starring the delicious Jeremy Irons.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

My husband has recently been auditing a class in the literature of Restoration England, Elizabeth, (which has hitherto been a black box for both us us), and he's been bubbling over with amazed enthusiasm for the complicated (and ultimately rather cruel) erotics of "The Rover." He's also become an awestruck fan of the poetry of the Earl of Rochester. What a fascinating period...

10:11 AM  
Blogger squiresj said...

Yes, as a reader I care about the lives and relationships of writers who's books I read. I enjoyed this post though a little long. But I love reading about history.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Pam, I come from a social work/psychology background and even in those fields there has not been the kind of support and camaraderie that I've found among romance writers.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's description of interruptions sound soooo familiar. Not much has changed....

7:27 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It was a little long, wasn't it, squiresj -- but Moers's quotes were so delicious, I couldn't trim 'em any tighter. When it comes to my novels, tho, my husband (always one of my first and best readers), wields an elegant scalpel.

And yes, Diane, it was the camaraderie (so that's how it's spelled!) among romance writers that was one of the inspirations for this post.

3:27 PM  

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